In working on Arab pyramid myths for my book of ancient texts used by fringe theorists, I have developed a better understanding of Islamic historians of the Middle Ages. In so doing, I’ve revised my translation of al-Maqrizi’s passages on the pyramids of Egypt to better transliterate a bunch of names I didn’t recognize when I translated the material back in 2012. I’m still not sure who some of the people are, but I think I’ve gotten most of them right.
One I have no idea about is a fellow called al-Kodai or al-Qodai, evidently a historian who died around 1062 CE. He was famous enough that the leading lights of the Enlightenment cited him, but I’ll be darned if I can figure out what spelling he goes by today. [Update: Thanks to Michael C. Dunn for identifying this fellow as al-Quda'i!]
Another is a legendary hero by the name of Qarias or some variation thereon. Al-Maqrizi gives a picturesque legend of how he was a famous horseman buried at Saqqara, near the step pyramid of Djoser:
The pyramid of the monastery of Abu Hermes is the tomb of Qarias, an Egyptian rider who alone was worth a thousand horsemen. If he met this same number of horsemen, they could not resist him and would take flight. Upon his death, the king led the mourning and all the people were plunged into despair; they buried him in the monastery of Abu Hermes and above his tomb built the pyramid. […] The tomb of the king under whom lived Qarias is the great pyramid north of Dayr Abu Hermes. It has at its entrance a stele of kaddan stone bearing an inscription in blue letters; the stele is two cubits high and a cubit wide and is entirely covered with writing like on the temples. One may access the pyramid’s door through stages, some of which are still completely intact. In this pyramid are accumulated the valuables of its master, gold and emeralds, but the door is obstructed by stones that have fallen from above, and if you climb on these stones, you can see on the other side a sort of chamber. (my trans.)
I have found absolutely nothing about the legend of this horseman. Who was he?
In the interest of fairness, I should also state that while the sources I consulted last week said that Abu Hermes was known as Aba Jeremias after the Coptic St. Jeremiah (otherwise the prophet of that name), I discovered that the Encyclopedia of Islam gives the ruined monastery as that of St. Jerome rather than Jeremiah. I don’t suppose it makes a great deal of difference; either one is close enough to yield “Hermes” by corruption, but I felt it was important to share.
Some other minor issues also befuddled me for a while, due in large measure to the lack of English language material on medieval Arabic legendry. As far as I know, the two most useful books on the subject are Kevin Van Bladel’s The Arabic Hermes (2009) and Okasha El-Daly’s Egyptology: The Missing Millennium (2005). But even these are rather sparing in some of the details. There was a total of one reference to the brothers Atrib and Ashmun, which is why I wasn’t able to recognize at first that the “Achmoun” referenced in the French text of al-Maqrizi was meant to be the person Ashmun and not the Suez town of that name, or one of the many contractions of Agathodaemon. (Atrib and Ashmun were the legendary patrons of the cities of Athribis and Ashmun/Achmoun, apparently.)
Similarly, there is very scant reference anywhere in English to the apparently important Arab legend of Amsus, the antediluvian capital of Egypt, which was apparently a fictive projection of Alexandria deep into the mythic past. Amsus, like Alexandria, was a center of learning and power located on the Mediterranean coast, and like Alexandria there stood in Amsus a great tower, something like the Pharos lighthouse built by the Greeks in the third century BCE. It was in this great tower that the king Surid supposedly planned the pyramids to safeguard knowledge from the coming Flood.
In a passage of al-Maqrizi that I did not translate (because it wasn’t directly concerned with the pyramids), there is an interesting discussion of Amsus and its wonders. Ancient astronaut theorists might have done well to pay attention to Surid’s magic video screen and/or prehistoric iPad, given that they ascribed to the Aztecs and to Dr. John Dee the same technology. (It is, in all likelihood, a mythic expansion of the idea that a mirror shows another or a different world.) I give here an anonymous 1859 translation published in the London Quarterly:
After him [Shaluq] reigned his son Surid. He was an excellently wise man; and he was the first who levied taxes in Egypt, and the first who ordered on expenditure from his treasuries for the sick and the palsied, and the first who instituted the observation (?) of daybreak, he made wonderful things; among which was a mirror of mixed metal, in which he would observe the countries, and know in it the occurrences that happened, and what was abundant in them, and what was scarce. He placed this mirror in the midst of the city of Amsus [the antediluvian capital of Egypt], and it was of copper. He made also in Amsus the image of a sitting female nursing a child in her lap. … That image remained until the Flood destroyed it; but in the books of the Copts [it is said] that it was found after the Flood, and that the greater part of the people worshipped it. … This Surid was he who built the two greatest Pyramids in Egypt, which are ascribed [also] to Shaddad, the son of ’Ad; but the Copts deny that the ’Adites entered their country by reason of the power of their magic. When Surid died he was buried in the Pyramid, and with him his treasures. It is said that he was 300 years before the Flood, and that he reigned 190 years. After him reigned his son Harjib; he was excellently wise, like his father, in the knowledge of magic and talismans. He made wonderful things, and extracted many metals, and promulgated the science of alchemy. He built the Pyramids of Dashur, conveyed to them great wealth, and choice jewels, and spices, and perfumes, and placed on them magicians to guard them. When he died he was buried in the Pyramid, and with him all his wealth and rarities.
You’ll notice, of course, that images of Isis nursing Horus from Alexandria are given an ancient origin before the Flood, albeit without understanding the story behind it. Here it is provided as an example of how the post-Flood people, presumably monotheists all, fell into error.
I find these kinds of legends very interesting, both for the intrinsic interest in exploring an entire cycle of legendry that is largely unfamiliar in Western culture, and for another reason: We know the actual archaeology and history of Egypt, and we can compare this to the stories that the medieval Arabs told of ancient Egypt. By comparing these, we can see that the Arab stories are not literally true. In so doing, we can see the process of myth-making at work, and also can see how alternative history follows the same patterns—and even, in many cases, accepts the false medieval legends as true. If these legends are demonstrably wrong, then what are the grounds fringe historians propose for accepting any other myth or legend as literally true?
Michael C. Dunn
3/18/2014 07:08:48 am
3/18/2014 07:15:27 am
The second letter was a "U" the whole time?! No wonder I couldn't find him. I wouldn't have guessed that.
3/18/2014 08:49:27 am
There is no "O" sound in Arabic. The long vowel waaw and the short vowelling dumma (both more accurately transliterated as "u") are often transliterated into English as "o". There is no standard Arabic-English transliteration system; you may see "o", "oo", "ou", "u", and even "w" used interchangeably, depending on the whims of the transliterator.
Thanks for the that information about Arabic vowels. That's one reason I find it so frustrating to figure out who's who. No one can be an expert in every language, and with no standard transliteration system the same guy can have a dozen different English spellings. It doesn't help that most writers before the late 20th c. simply expected readers to be familiar with al-Quda'i without bothering to say what it was he wrote or what the rest of his names were.
3/18/2014 08:58:59 am
That was interesting. The comments system ate half of my name. Stupid auto-complete.
3/18/2014 07:25:44 am
Here's a question, Jason. Could Surid's mirror, in the excerpt, be a metaphor for a primitive telescope? It's description, location in the city and powers of observation seem to line up.
3/18/2014 07:36:33 am
Interesting question. Since the telescope was officially invented in 1608, I'd guess not. What it might be, though, is a mirror and/or lens used to flip a camera obscura image.
3/19/2014 05:15:57 am
It’s interesting to see Al-Quda'i's hand in chronicling the Hadith. I wonder how accurate his contributions were, or if they contained a lot of embellishment. The Hadith, of course, is considered a pivotal accompaniment to Qur'an, with different Hadith describing altering depictions of Sunnah, or the way of Islamic practice as demonstrated by Muhammad.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.