As most readers know, I have collected what is probably the most voluminous compendium of medieval myths about the pyramids of Egypt available in English. There are a few texts, however, that even I had not yet read and translated. One of them belonged to the Syrian cosmographer al-Dimashqui, who died in 1327. His Cosmography is quite similar to the Akhbar al-zaman, though tending toward the geographical rather than the historical, and with much less interest in Egypt. Nevertheless, it contains an interesting section on the pyramids of Giza that is clearly a derivative of the earlier pyramid stories known from the Akhbar on down.
I hadn’t looked into this before because al-Suyuti, the Ottoman-era historian, included large chunks of al-Dimashqi’s text verbatim in his own treatise on the pyramids, albeit without identifying the source, and I assumed from the translator’s notes to al-Suyuti that there was little reason to read the original. The two versions are manifestly derived from the same source, but al-Suyuti was apparently only an indifferent copyist of this passage, interpolating material not found in the original and omitting points he considered irrelevant. Comparing the two versions, however, offers us an object lesson in the dangers of trusting that material has been faithfully preserved unchanged across the centuries.
My translation of al-Dimashqi (from the French edition) is at left (or first, if you are reading this on a mobile device), with al-Suyuti as translated by Leon Nemoy at right (or below). I have broken up the text a bit to make it easier to read.
Nemoy noted that al-Suyuti’s description of the surface of the pyramid was corrupt, and you can see that the original preserves a clearer meaning, but also one that shows how the corruption completely changes the sense of the text. In the original, the meaning is that the pyramids’ smooth stones are held together without mortar and appeared like a seamless cloth. In the latter, the cement is not only present but said to be spread as thinly as a tablecloth! There’s also more than a little difference between Khufu’s sarcophagus being filled with rope or bones.
It’s another good reason not to trust secondary sources.
But more interesting to me is something that al-Dimashqui doesn’t say in a part that al-Suyuti does not quote. Only a few paragraphs later, he describes the fabulous temple of Akhmim (Panopolis), which Islamic tradition—following that of the Christian Hermetic philosophers—claimed had been built by Hermes Trismegistus before the Flood to preserve all knowledge. Listen to this:
Among the most famous of all these temples is that of Akhmim, built of white stone and marble, each block measuring five cubits high and two cubits wide; it comprises seven rooms each dedicated to one of the seven planets, and covered with inscribed stones, painted with azure, of a color so fresh that one would say that the workmen had just finished it. The walls of these rooms are covered with all kinds of figures representing the mysteries of Coptic science: magic, medicine, chemistry, all the branches of astronomy and the cult of the stars.
Did you catch the important part? He claims that the temple of Akhmim is built of the same stones as the Great Pyramid, and that the temple contains the same layout as the underground chambers beneath the pyramid. Given the essential conservatism of Islamic historiography, this can’t be a coincidence. Instead, it appears to be another piece of evidence that the myth of the pyramid as a repository of ancient wisdom—still believed by modern fringe history writers—originated in the transfer of an earlier legend associated with the temples of Egypt, particularly the Hermetic story of the temple at Akhmim, a key center of Hermetic and alchemical mysticism in Late Antiquity. That would be why al-Mas’udi, writing in the 900s, attributed the story of the prophecy before the Flood and the preservation of knowledge to the temples rather than the pyramids, and why Abu Ma’shar, writing in the 800s, told the story of Hermes at the temple in Akhmim. Here, at a surprisingly late date, we see al-Dimashqi preserving part of a conflated story, probably without realizing it.
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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