In medieval times, there were three primary version of the same legend that the Giza pyramid were built before the Flood to preserve scientific knowledge. Al-Maqrizi helpfully summarizes all three in a passage from his Khitat:
Some believe that the first Hermes, whom they call the Thrice Great because of the three gifts he possessed: prophecy, kingship and wisdom, is the same as him the Hebrews call Enoch ben Jared ben Mahalalel ben Fatian (Kenan) ben Enos ben Seth ben Adam, who is also the same as Idris. He foresaw, from the position of the planets, the arrival of a Flood that would submerge the whole earth; therefore he built a large number of pyramids in which were deposited treasures, science books, and everything he feared would be destroyed and disappear from view. He wanted to ensure their safety from destruction. It is also said that the builder was a king named Surid bin Shaluq bin Siriaq. According to others, the character who raised the pyramids located facing Fustat was Shaddad bin ’Ad who built them following a dream. The Copts, who contest the invasion of Egypt by the Amalekites, attribute the construction of these monuments to Surid, also following a dream telling him that a calamity would descend from heaven. This was the Flood. Surid, say the Copts, raised the two pyramids in the space of six months, covered them with multicolored silk and engraved upon them this inscription: “I have built these in six months: tell those who come after me to try to destroy them in 600 years, for it is easier to destroy than to build. I covered them in colored silk. Let my successors try to cover them with mats, for braids are more common than brocade.”
Sibt ibn al-Jawzi adds that the pyramids were a site of pilgrimage where the Sabaeans “sacrifice at them a cock, and a black calf, and offer up incense.”
While some elements of the story can be traced back to Antiquity, particularly the claim that the stone-carved records of antediluvian knowledge survived the Flood and the prophecy of the two destructions, the specific claim that Surid covered the pyramids in colored silk is one of the weird aspects that seems to have no precedent in pyramid lore. That is why I read with interest a 1988 article by Alexander Fodor called “The Pyramids in Arab Folklore,” which appeared in Occident and Orient, and which seems to provide the answer for why we do not see this pyramid legend with its silken trappings before the reign of Al-Mamun in the ninth century, and the beginnings of the Arab effort to lay cultural claim to Egypt.
Fodor suggests that the incident is presented as an antediluvian parallel to the Kaaba in Mecca, itself covered in silk and said in folklore to have survived from before the Flood (Islamic history attributes it instead to Abraham). Fodor quotes Nashwan ibn Sa‘id al-Himyari (before 1177 CE), who tells the story of the covering of the Kaaba in remarkably similar terms:
As‘ad was the first to cover the House. It happened that when he was returning from these of his campaigns, he passed by the House and covered it with gilded Yemeni leather mats. Then he saw somebody in a dream telling him: Add to the covering of the House! So he covered it with ma‘afiri. Then he saw someone in a dream telling him: Add to the covering of the House! So he covered it with washy. He immolated in Mecca seventy thousand sacrificial animals, performed the circumambulation and the running, and made a door and key for it (i.e. the House) which were not there before and he said about it this (in verse): “We covered the House which Allah declared sacred with a cover embroidered in gold and silver and with burds.”
Fodor also compares the immolation of animals to the sacrifices offered to the pyramids in the account—which I have not read due to a lack of translations—in Al-Idrisi’s volume on pyramids. Fodor also notes that the pyramids share characteristics with the Kaaba, including a square base oriented to the cardinal directions, and both buildings were the subject of pilgrimages and, in Islamic times, had festivals of light celebrated in and around them.
It’s an interesting claim, and I think it provides a pretty good explanation for an otherwise inexplicable part of the Surid legend—one that clearly places the story’s origin in the Middle Ages, and among the South Arabian diaspora, rather than in high antiquity.
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