The other day, when I reviewed Forbidden History’s episode on Noah’s Ark, I found something really interesting by accident while researching the show’s stupid claims. I ended up discovering a medieval legend of the Giza pyramids I had never seen before! So, something good came out of this bad show, albeit in a roundabout way.
In the episode, Lynn Picknett alleged that Marco Polo had seen Noah’s Ark on Ararat, which wasn’t true, but when I researched the passage of the Travels relevant to the claim, I found that one of the editors had made a note about the similarity of Polo’s passage to one in a medieval Islamic geography from the year 978, Ibn Ḥawqal’s The Face of the Earth. However, the editor quoted only part of the sentence. So that I could add the whole quotation to my page on Noah’s Ark, I looked up the original, and it wasn’t terribly relevant because both Polo and Ibn Ḥawqal were referencing a tradition reported by Faustus of Byzantium in his History of the Armenians 3.10 in the fifth century. Faustus’s account formed the basis for most others down to Sir John Mandeville’s confused summary of it.
That’s neither here nor there, but not being familiar with Ibn Ḥawqal’s book, I became curious about its geographical description of the tenth century world. I checked to see if he had anything interesting to say about the Egyptian pyramids, which is when I found this:
Of the buildings at Fustat, on the bank of the Nile, all that are above the city are called Said, and all that are below the city are called Zeif. At the distance of two farsang from Fustat, there are some ancient structures, called al-Ahram (pyramids); of which two are very lofty piles, and called al-Haramin: these are each, in height, four hundred arms: And on the walls thereof are inscriptions written in the Greek language; and this writing is said to signify, “the building of al-Haramin and al-Nasir tair (the Swooping Vulture) in the sign Cancer.” These edifices are quadrangular, and gradually diminish towards the summits, which are about large enough for a camel to stand on; within them there are passages in which a man cannot go without some difficulty. And in al-Haramin is a cleft, or excavation, under the ground, supposed to have been, with some appearance of probability, the burial-place of the ancient sovereigns of this country. (trans. William Ouseley, adapted)
The text cited was translated as the work of Ibn Ḥawqal, though modern scholars believe that the manuscript in question was actually the work of al-Istakhri, a less well known author whom Ibn Ḥawqal had met and whose work Ibn Ḥawqal revised and expanded on about twenty years after its first publication. For our purposes, it does not really matter too much which author it was. Al-Istakhri died around 957 CE and Ibn Ḥawqal wrote in 978 CE.
I was surprised to find that al-Istakhri had recorded something I hadn’t seen before. He describes the Giza pyramids as being near Cairo (the city which later absorbed old Fustat), but he differs from earlier authors in claiming that the pyramids were inscribed with Greek writing. The preexisting tradition, as his contemporary al-Mas’udi recorded, was that “the inscriptions that cover the pyramids and temples are indecipherable”—a reference to hieroglyphics. A century before, Ibn Khuradadhbeh had similarly recorded that the pyramids were covered in texts, but he didn’t provide a description of them, only to claim that they described the boast of the builder that no one could match his power. Al-Istakhri also describes the Great Pyramid’s subterranean chamber, which he takes for the burial chamber.
It’s fairly clear that the supposed inscription in Greek on the pyramid isn’t really what it claims to be. Whatever survives in this text is apparently incomplete, but I have a really good guess what it represents. Explaining it is more work that it’s really worth, but the short form is this: The Persian astrologer Abu Ma’shar was the first write to leave a definitive account alleging that Hermes Trismegistus built structures in Egypt to preserve knowledge from the Flood. He said they were the temples, specifically the great temple at Akhmim, but later writers applied his claims to the pyramids, with the oldest surviving version of this tradition being the Akhbar al-zaman from around 1000 CE. This latter version became dominant in the Islamic world from around 1000 onward.
Abu Ma’shar’s account, given in The Thousands around 850 CE, does not survive except in fragments. However, by using overlapping fragmentary accounts of Abu Ma’shar’s system from works like al-Biruni’s Remaining Signs of Centuries Past, the Akhbar al-zaman, and Murtaḍā ibn al-ʻAfīf’s History of Egypt--the detail of which are pointlessly complex to list here—we can piece together that Abu Ma’shar placed the Flood when “the heart of the Lion would be in the first minute of the head of Cancer,” when all of the planets had gathered at the junction point of Pisces and Aries. Regulus, or the heart of Leo, was the most important star in his apocalyptic system, and its gradual cycle through the zodiac determined the time of the Flood, the Conflagration, and the complete destruction of the cosmos on the Day of Judgment.
Abu Ma’shar gave his analysis of the stars in transliterated Greek, which suggests that he was using a Greek source, now lost, most likely the cosmic system of the Alexandrian chronographer Annianus, whom we know from other overlapping Arabic and Christian texts, was most likely the originator of the claim that Hermes or Enoch built the Akhmim temple to preserve knowledge from the Flood. However, because almost nothing of Annianus’s work survives, this remains speculative.
The text we have refers to the Swooping Vulture, possibly Altair, rather than Regulus, so it is not a direct copying from The Thousands. However, it does seem to reflect a similar effort to situate the pyramids in the same type of astrological framework. Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, writing in the Mir’at al-zaman in the thirteenth century, attempted to date the period when the Vulture was in Cancer and placed it 36,000 years before Muhammad.
However, it looks quite a bit like al-Istakhri, in a somewhat distorted way, preserves an intermediate step between Abu Ma’shar’s claim that Hermes built the temple of Akhmim three centuries before the Flood and the widespread belief fifty years after al-Istakhri, as found in the Akhbar al-zaman and later texts, that Hermes or Surid built the Great Pyramid three hundred years before the Flood for the same purpose. The later texts apply Abu Ma’shar’s conclusions verbatim to calculations allegedly made at the time the pyramid was built, and what we see here may be a somewhat confused step in trying to move Abu Ma’shar’s ideas from the Akhmim temple to the Great Pyramid.
It is not, however, clear that we can attribute the addition of Abu Ma’shar’s views to al-Istakhri. The manuscript that William Ouseley translated does not match exactly other copies of the same book and appears to be an imperfect copy. In the parallel passage from the later German translation of al-Istakhri we can see some differences. You’ll forgive the translation. German isn’t my best language:
In the area of Fustat, there are large buildings located to the right of the Nile, of which none are larger across the entirety of Upper Egypt. These large buildings lie opposite Fustat at a distance of two parasangs; the largest are the two pyramids. From the base they gradually decrease to the summit, where a camel can kneel; they are furnished with Greek inscriptions. Inside there are passageways where you can climb up to the summit; there is also a passage dug inside the earth in both pyramids. I have learned that the pyramids are probably the graves of the ancient kings of this country.
Since one version of al-Istakhri includes Abu Ma’shar’s astrology and the other does not, it is difficult to say what was going on. However, there is a little bit of help from another source. Writing around 1400 CE, the historian al-Maqrizi provides some confirmation when he cites Ibn Ḥawqal, who revised and expanded on al-Istakhri in 978. Citing a different book called the Description of Egypt (more likely simply the chapter on Egypt in the Face of the Earth), al-Maqrizi quotes the same text, where you can see Ibn Ḥawqal copying and then expanding on al-Istakhri:
At the limits of the territory of Fustat, west of the Nile, we encounter colossal structures, in considerable numbers, and which spread into the Saïd. They are called pyramids, but they cannot be compared to the two pyramids located in front of Fustat two parasangs (leagues) from this locality. The height of each of these two pyramids is 400 cubits; their width is equal to their height, and they are made of stone from Al-Kaddan; each stone has a length and a thickness of 10 to 8 cubits depending on its location and based on the technical requirements. These two pyramids become narrower as they rise, so as to leave the top platform equal to the size necessary for a camel to kneel. The faces of these pyramids are covered with Greek writing. It was argued that these monuments were tombs, but this is not true; their builder erected them because he foresaw the Flood and he knew that this cataclysm would destroy everything on the surface of the earth, except what could be stored in buildings such as these two pyramids. (my trans.)
It would take someone with much more Arabic scholarship than I to examine all of the different manuscripts and determine what was added in what order. Whatever happened, there is at least some evidence of Abu Ma’shar’s ideas about astrology and the Egyptian temples being applied to the Giza pyramids at least twenty and perhaps as much as fifty years before it is otherwise first seen in the Akhbar al-zaman.
The bottom line is that this text seems to represent an intermediate step en route to the full medieval pyramid legend given in the Akhbar al-zaman.
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.
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