Yesterday I mentioned that a leading expert on Islamic cultural history is helping me with questions about the myth of Surid as the antediluvian builder of the pyramids. You will forgive me if I omit the expert’s name so he doesn’t end up associated with aliens and Atlantis in Google searches. This has produced some interesting, if negative, results.
The big question is when the story of Surid was first told, and one piece of evidence doesn’t fit. That’s the claim made by John Greaves in the Pyramidographia in 1646 that the ninth century writer Ibn Abd al-Hakam told Surid’s story. I have learned that the text Greaves gives in translation does not appear in the genuine works of Ibn Abd al-Hakam, so we can strike that claim from the chronology. This helps quite a bit but raises the question of where Greaves got his text from. The expert doesn’t know, but offers three possibilities: (a) Greaves misidentified the author of a different and unknown text, (b) Greaves was using a lost late copy of the text in which another writer had updated it with more recent legends, or (c) Greaves had access to a work by this author or by another of the same family name that does not survive. The internal evidence from the translation—citing “chronologers” and referring to events from the reign of al-Ma’mun secondhand—suggest that the text is much later than the famous al-Hakam.
Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any way to know what exactly Greaves translated, since he provided no details. We know only that whatever text he read was from a book he consulted in Cairo or Alexandria in the early 1600s. It could almost have been anything. Best guess? Probably a late author with the same family name.
On a somewhat related note, I wanted to talk a bit about the impact of these pyramid stories. I’m sure you recall that fringe historians have made use of them. Erich von Däniken, for example, cited the version given in the Akhbar al-zaman (though he didn’t know that was the source) in Chariots of the Gods to make the case that the pyramids were older than Egyptologists allow. Today, though, I’d like to share a more unexpected influence.
You will remember that I’m currently putting together a paperback of Murtada ibn al-‘Afif’s Egyptian History, an obscure work of Egyptian history by a minor writer in Arabic. A copy of the book made in 1584 ended up in Cardinal Mazarin’s library, where in 1665 Pierre Vattier found and translated it, publishing it the next year. The original Arabic was lost.
For more than a century after its publication in English in 1672 it was the only English language edition of Arab pyramid myths in circulation, aside from the short translation provided by Greaves. When John Davies translated the text from French, he did so as part of a series of translations of heretical and Hermetic works that fit in with the anti-establishment ideology of the ex-Republican. As such, Murtada’s work was widely read among reformers and early English Enlightenment figures, who sought alternative perspectives beyond those of Christian tradition.
Its greatest influence, though, came at the end of the 1700s, when the Gothic novelist Clara Reeve read Murtada’s work, likely in Vattier’s French edition, and was inspired by an unusual story, which I believe is unique to Murtada. It tells the story of Charoba, a queen of Egypt in the time of Abraham, who gave Hagar to Abraham after befriending Sarah. Charoba comes to power by poisoning her father, and she is blackmailed into contracting a marriage with Gebir of the tribe of Gad, here identified as one of the remnant Giants who survived after the Flood. (Despite early scholarly efforts to tie Gebir’s name to the Biblical toponyms Ben-Gebir and Eziongaber, the name is probably from the Arabic j-b-r, meaning “to force,” reflecting his role as potential rapist of Charoba and Egypt in the narrative.) Charoba vows to defeat him by deception. After various adventures, Charoba’s nurse poisons Gebir, who prophesies Charoba’s own death, which eventually comes. Reeve took the outline of this story and turned it into the novella The History of the Charoba (1785), appended to her Progress of Romance.
Reeves’s novella, in turn, sparked the fancy of the adolescent W. S. Landor, who reworked the story into the epic Romantic poem Gebir (1798). In and of itself the poem is no great shakes and would likely have been forgotten except for its influence on the Romantics. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Sir Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, and other stars of the Romantic firmament were overly taken with Landor’s poem, and produced their own works inspired by and in imitation of it. Southey took Gebir with him as one of the few volumes he carried on his travels. Of all the Romantics, Shelley was the most taken by Gebir, and according to his friends he would spend whole days reading and re-reading the poem, to the point that one friend grabbed the book from him and threw it out the window to stop his ceaseless reading of it. Shelley, for his part, went outside and retrieved it.
The poem helped develop within Shelley a fascination with Arabic lore and Egypt. (It helped that this occurred while Napoleon was sparking Egyptomania in Europe.) This would eventually manifest, in faint echo, in Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias” (1817) which places in verse a passage on Egypt from Diodorus Siculus.
It fascinates me that the whims of fate chanced it so that a single copy of one medieval text survived to influence the direction of the Romantics.