Egyptologist Gaston Maspero Wrote a Largely Overlooked 13,000-Word Treatise on Medieval Arabic Pyramid Lore. I Translated It.
As most of you know, I became very interested in the medieval Arab-Egyptian pyramid myth several years ago after Giorgio Tsoukalos cited the work of the Arabian historians of the Middle Ages as evidence for space aliens in Old Kingdom Egypt, 3,900 years earlier. This culminated in my translation of the Akhbar al-zaman, the oldest surviving version of the fully developed myth of the fantastical history of Egypt, as it was known in medieval times. This account included the founding of Egypt by the Nephilim-Giants, the building of the pyramids by the giants, particularly King Surid, to preserve the wisdom of the Watchers from Noah’s Flood, and the magical spells and talismans by which the Egyptians after the Flood mastered the dark arts of sorcery. Historically, most scholars have dismissed the book as a medieval flight of fantasy, though a growing contingent recognize in it shadows of early Hermetic literature and some borrowings from Byzantine Greek literature.
After reading so much of this secondary literature, I confess that I fell into the trap of thinking that modern scholars knew what they were talking about when they dismissed the analysis of the French archaeologist Gaston Maspero, who argued that the book was in fact not what it at first seemed. Michael Cook, for example, wrote in a 1983 journal article that “most of what he had to say, and particularly his attempt to make sense of the names of the king-list of the Hermetic history, is best forgotten.” Cook, whom I know slightly from our correspondence about Surid and his pyramids, believed that the so-called Hermetic history—that which treats the magic of Hermes and his antediluvian role in history—is an invention of the eleventh century.
For such reasons, I never read more than the first page or two of Maspero’s two 1899 French-language articles explicating the deeper background of the Akhbar al-zaman, and which were published in the Journal des Savants in February and March of that year. It turns out that this is a mistake, and scholars’ (correct) dismissal of Maspero’s overreaching conclusions prevented me from discovering some undeniably correct analysis that helps to put the Akhbar al-zaman in a fascinating new perspective.
I have finished translating the two articles—totaling more than 13,000 words!—and placed the two articles in my library. Because this work took a long time, you will forgive me if I keep my commentary relatively brief.
First, let us stipulate that which Maspero undoubtedly got wrong. He is clearly wrong that the Akhbar al-zaman preserves any actual memory of Old Kingdom Egypt from any sort of living tradition. His arguments for this are a stretch, as is his argument that Egyptologists could use the book to better understand the ruins of pharaonic Egypt. Beyond this, he has a very low opinion of Muslims and therefore cannot bring himself to concede that the Islamic writer of the book did anything more than copy a Coptic or Byzantine Greek account. The book itself argues against this. While Maspero treated only the second half, about Egypt, the first half is undeniably Islamic, and the second half has editing choices that show that the writer was not merely a passive copyist. He has broken up traditional stories and reedited them into a new order, splitting tales into non-adjacent chapters; and he has included multiple variants of the same story (such as the three different versions of how the statues that regulate the source of the Nile came to be) that show that no one single source stands behind the book. Maspero also almost certainly overreached in trying to find real Egyptian names under the Greco-Arabic ones, and many of his etymologies require a leap of faith.
But these overreaching conclusions have blinded scholars to all that Maspero got right. He correctly found the Greek layer that hides underneath the stories in the book, pointing to Greek terminology and Byzantine myths that show up in somewhat distorted form, but which can be traced in parallels in Byzantine literature. Most importantly, Maspero is one of the only writers beside myself who correctly notices that the author has, against Islamic tradition, incorporated the Judeo-Christian myth of the Watchers into the pharaonic history of Egypt, almost certainly from the Alexandrian Greek Christian chronographic writers Panodorus and Annianus, whose works are now lost:
Until the Deluge the sovereigns reign successively, each over the whole of the country, but they are not yet ordinary beings. The author of the Akhbār expressly says of several that they were giants, and the overall context allows us to think that even those who did not qualify as such were nevertheless also of colossal size, including the kings and their subjects, at least those who had been the fathers of the people, the seventy and some-odd number of the race of ‘Arbāq. We immediately think of those giants who were born of the union of angels with the daughters of men [Genesis 6:1-4], and which the Book of Enoch had made popular throughout the Judeo-Christian world. Thus, Panodorus had abused these Egregores [i.e., the Watchers] to reconcile the limited chronology of the Bible with the almost unlimited chronology of the pagan Annalists of Egypt. Their semi-celestial nature had induced him to compare them to the dynasties of demi-gods or manes which joined the era of creation to that of Menes-Mizraim; he gave them the merit of having taught astronomy as well as science to humans, and his idea was found in our fabulous chronicle, for it is to the giant kings that the Akhbār al-zamān attributes the invention of magic, astrology and talismans.
Maspero is also quite likely correct (at least in broadly general terms) in proposing how the king list inherited by the Middle Ages from Manetho became corrupted into the fantastical history we have before us through efforts to reconcile it with the chronology and personages attested in the Bible and the Qur’an. (For example, the Late Antique forgery The Book of Sothis had already equated Manetho’s first dynasty founder Menes with the patriarch Mizraim.) While I can’t necessarily agree with him that the Muslim writers offered no improvements on the Byzantine sources he proposes that they drew from, the evidence we have from Greek and Latin writers such as Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman History 22.15.30) and Zosimus of Panoplis (Imouth 9 in Syncellus, Chronicle 14), combined with the Arab writers’ and Byzantine writers’ testimonies on the contents Panodorus’ and Annianus’ Alexandrian chronicles (e.g. Syncellus, Chronicle 42, Abu Maʿshar in Ibn Juljul, Tabaqat al-atibbaʾ 5-10; Ibn Wahshiyya, Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham 4.12; Al-Juzjani, Tabaqat-i-Nasiri 1; etc.), strongly suggests that much of the Hermetic material found in the Akhbar is indeed of Late Antique origin. What I think reconciles Maspero and Cook is the recognition that the Islamic writers added the innovation, unattested before c. 1000 CE, that the pyramids, and not the temples and underground tombs, were the focus of antediluvian activity. To that end, many of the stories in the Akhbar must be medieval Islamic expansions on more limited Byzantine originals.
The bottom line is that the Akhnar al-zaman isn’t an ancient Egyptian text by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to preserve quite a bit of what the Late Antique Greeks and early medieval Byzantines thought about ancient Egypt in the years before the Islamic conquest.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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