I’ve been reading an old article by Hayrettin Yücesoy with the lengthy title of “Translation as Self-Consciousness: Ancient Sciences, Antediluvian Wisdom, and the ‘Abbāsid Translation Movement,” published in the Journal of World History back in 2009. I had originally downloaded the article in the hope of finding some specific information about Arabic translations from Greek in order to investigate questions I had about the Greek material underlying some of the Arabic stories of the pyramids and Hermes Trismegistus, but in reading the article, the “antediluvian” section ended up offering an interesting perspective that is worth sharing.
One of the interesting differences between the medieval Christian and Muslim worlds revolves around their attitudes toward ancient history, particularly the imagined history of the world before the Flood. Both cultures drew on the same source material—Jewish legends, Classical literature, and Late Antique chronicles—but they diverged in unusual ways. Christians, by and large, followed the influential bishop Eusebius in denying that there was any lengthy history of kingdoms and empires before the Flood, at least none that can be known, marking the start of history proper (as opposed to the family line of Adam) from the period when Noah’s family repopulated the world. For Eusebius, it was illogical to assume that there could be a history of antediluvian times, for the records were destroyed in the Flood along with everyone who knew the history, save Noah’s family, whose entire memory of history was already given in the Mosaic texts. He considered pagan records to be “apocryphal” and “unreliable.”
There were exceptions—but they were rare. The Alexandrian chronographers Panodorus and Annianus both wrote extensively of antediluvian times, and from them the Syriac writers like Michael the Syrian and Bar Hebraeus included such references, though often in abbreviated form. Some Byzantine historians drew on these same works, notably George Syncellus and George Cedrenus, but they were more the exception than the rule, and they disapproved of this unsavory material. Further to the West, the Latin writers tended to ignore antediluvian culture except to condemn the savagery and sinful knowledge of the people before the Flood. Tubal-Cain, for example, was often credited in the West with inventing various arts and sciences and then using them to promote idolatry and fornication, marking those skills as the fruit of sin.
On the other hand, the Muslim world seemed much more interested in primeval history, particularly as a source of wisdom. In medieval works like the Akhbar al-zaman, we see alleged antediluvian wisdom and histories of the times before the Flood celebrated as a source of revelation, containing wisdom derived from the “pages of wisdom” that the angels bestowed successively on Adam and his descendants. To that end, exploring the history of the times before the Flood wasn’t wallowing in idolatrous sin but recovering the lost revelations of God to earlier generations.
There was a warrant for this in the Qur’an, which tells that God ensured that all of history was recorded in written records (54:54), that sheets of wisdom were carried to earth by messenger-angels (80:16), and that there had been earlier scriptures with prior revelations (20:133), notably texts given to Moses and Abraham (87:18-19). The books of Moses are obviously the Torah, but those of Abraham offered more room for interpretation. According to Ibn Sa‘d in the early ninth century, there were at least ninety-two books brought to earth from Heaven, twenty of which were secret or hidden. He attributed this claim to Wahb ibn Munabbih, who lived around 700 CE, and who was alleged to also be the first to have identified Enoch with the Islamic prophet Idris and to have alleged that Idris possessed thirty of these secret pages (sheets of paper) from Heaven.
Yücesoy argues that this was not a coincidence, nor can it be entirely attributed to Islam’s position building atop Jewish and Christian traditions. After all, Christianity also claimed to accept earlier prophetic revelations, and there had been (at one time) an active Judeo-Christian tradition that books of secret wisdom had been smuggled onto the Ark or buried for recovery after the Flood. It wasn’t so different, at least not at first.
Yücesoy concludes that the difference was political, that the ‘Abbāsid caliphs justified their assumption of power by positioning themselves as the heirs of Antiquity, of both Classical and Persian learning. The caliph al-Ma’mūn—who opened the Great Pyramid in search of Egyptian secrets and commissioned a translation of the inscriptions on its casing stones—was said to have asked the Byzantine Emperor for copies of ancient texts to translate into Arabic. Khuzayma ibn al-Hasan even praised al-Ma’mūn around the time of his accession in 813 as “the inheritor of the ancients’ knowledge and understanding.” Most interesting for me was the fact that a scholar named Miskawayh, writing at about the same time that the Akhbar al-zaman claimed to speak of antediluvian Egyptian knowledge (c. 1000 CE), recorded that al-Ma’mūn discovered an antediluvian manuscript buried in Ctesiphon (near Baghdad) containing the Book of Eternal Knowledge of King Hoshank who reigned before the Flood. (I assume Yücesoy refers to the mythical Persian shah Hushang.) The story is indistinguishable from the legends of buried antediluvian scrolls and tablets in the Akhbar al-zaman.
But pre-Islamic texts were tainted with the stain of paganism, predating Islam and even Christianity. Therefore, by reimagining antiquarianism and literary scholarship as a search for the antediluvian revelations given to the prophets and sages of old, their assumption of the mantle of successors to the ancients could be justified as Islamic. Beyond just texts, the ‘Abbāsid caliphs also sought to make real the myths and legends that they believed to be genuine history. The caliph al-Wāthiq dispatched scholars to the ends of the earth to find the remains of what the learned of his day believed to be genuine ancient relics: He sent the linguist Sallām to China to find the great wall Alexander the Great supposedly built to contain Gog and Magog, a story originating in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews but fully developed in the Alexander Romance. He also sent the Persian polymath al-Khwārizmī to Anatolia in search of the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, a story originating in Late Antiquity among the Christians.
According to Yücesoy, this effort—real or imagined—to discover ancient relics was closely connected to the movement to translate ancient texts into Arabic, part of a political program that operated on the cultural level:
In the early ‘Abbāsid period, the belief concerning the of the monotheistic older scriptures and relics to find a permanent solution to historical disagreements among monotheistic faiths uncover hidden knowledge and the mysteries of existence functioned as a channel to justify the translations. Whether or not these ideas expectations were intended to bear on the translation movement, inquiring about and granting legitimacy to older traditions, they the intellectual landscape of the late antique world as a field to cultivate knowledge.
Interestingly, when the texts were translated, they were “corrected” against prevailing beliefs that they must point back to a monotheistic original, thus rewriting and reinterpreting pagan materials as reflections or corruptions of the Abrahamic faiths.
All of that was very interesting, but near the end of the article, Yücesoy examines why al-Ma’mūn wanted to open the pyramids in 823 CE and suggests that the reason is that he had hoped to find the secret wisdom of Seth, transmitted to Enoch, who was Hermes, and who was buried in the pyramids. This might have even been the Emerald Tablet. It’s an interesting argument, apparently made in 1994 by J. M. F. Van Reeth in an article I have yet to read, but it strikes me as unproved since we can’t say that Hermes was identified with Enoch prior to Abū Ma‘shār doing so in The Thousands around 850, and the Emerald Tablet doesn’t show up in literature until this time either. Hermes as the builder of the pyramids as scientific repositories is a still later version of the myth, for Abū Ma‘shār had him build the Temple of Akhmim for that reason. (A later legend, unsurprisingly, has al-Ma’mūn find the Emerald Tablet at Akhmim.) Most bizarrely, Yücesoy actually quotes the passage from Abū Ma‘shār and completely misses the fact that it relates to the Temple at Akhmim and not the Great Pyramid, wrongly claiming that he “considered the pyramids to be structures built to house and preserve the antediluvian sacred knowledge attributed to Hermes.” Al-Ma‘sūdi, writing a century later, knew only the Akhmim version of the story, not one associated with the pyramids. This is good evidence that while al-Ma’mūn may have been looking for ancient secrets, it wasn’t because of the story that the pyramid was an antediluvian science museum protecting knowledge from the Flood. More likely, it was a more generalized understanding of Egypt as the home of ancient wisdom and magic, as contemporary accounts suggest.
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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