For much of the past decade—has it really been that long?—I have explored the many vicissitudes of the medieval Islamic legend that the Giza Pyramids were the work of an antediluvian leader, either Surid or Hermes. I’ve traced the story from its origins in the Thousands of Abu Ma‘shar through its classic form in the Akhbar al-zaman and its copyists to its introduction into modern pyramid mythology thanks, in no small measure, to contemporary writers’ uncritical reliance on old books like those of John Greaves and Col. William Howard Vyse, who brought the story to the West. In fact, I wrote a whole book about it that is currently sitting with the publisher. Now I have to see if I can reedit it to add in a new incident that took place at the end of last month when Egypt’s former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa resurrected the medieval story for a national Egyptian TV audience.
According to the Egypt Independent Gomaa rehearsed a rather large number of ideas popular at the end of the Middle Ages as part televised documentary linking Egypt to the prophetic history of Islam and during an interview to promote the series. Gomaa claimed that the prophet Idris taught the Egyptians to build pyramids. He alleged that Idris invented mummification, and he said that the Sphinx was a statue of Idris. He added that Idris was the same as the god Osiris. “There are presumptions that support this perception,” Gomaa told an Egyptian TV journalist, “including the fact that the construction of the Sphinx preceded the building of the pyramids.”
Since the Middle Ages, Islam has identified the Quranic prophet Idris with the Jewish patriarch Enoch, and both with the pagan sage Hermes Trismegistus. The first recorded identifications of these figures occur around the same time in Al-Jāḥiẓ’s Book of the Squaring and Rounding (c. 842-845 CE) and Abu Ma‘shar’s The Thousands (c. 850 CE), though the latter is known only from later quotations.
Abu Ma‘shar credited Hermes/Idris with building the pyramids of Upper Egypt before the Flood, but later writers applied his ideas to Upper Egypt, particularly the Giza Pyramids when this claim became conflated with a parallel story about the Nephilim giant Surid building the Great Pyramid before the Flood, a story dating back to sometime before 1000 CE. Due to whatever fluke gave us our random set of surviving texts, to the best of my knowledge, the first surviving records to attribute pyramid building (or knowledge) at Giza to Hermes/Idris only come from after 1200 CE, including Abd Al-Latif al-Baghdadi’s Account of Egypt and Sibt ibn al-Jawzi’s Mir’at al-zaman, both of which cite the Hermetic pagan Sabians of Harran as their source.
There is certainly irony that Gomaa claimed Idris as the origin of mummification. Hermes Trismegistus had been associated with mummification since Late Antiquity. In the first century BCE or CE, the Kore Kosmou, for example, already reimagined mummification as a gift from Osiris and Isis conveyed as part of the secret teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, and in the Greco-Egyptian culture of Late Antiquity, the god of mummification was Hermes-Thoth, one of the figures folded into Hermes Trismegistus. Gomaa is giving paganism an Islamic gloss, but certainly one already familiar to medieval people.
Idris had been identified with Osiris by medieval Persians. I am not terribly familiar with the reasoning for this, but it appears in the West in Athanasius Kircher’s works, such as his volume on obelisks. The identification has a wide, if not deep, currency in modern Islamic pseudo-history, often with fanciful connections through Hebrew and Aramaic.
The question of the Sphinx is certainly an odd one. Gomaa’s claim isn’t exactly medieval, though it draws on outdated ideas. Islam traditionally viewed the Sphinx and as male, while the West typically saw it as female down to modern times. Surprisingly, very few accounts of who the Sphinx was supposed to represent survive from early Islamic Egypt, but we can make a guess about what people thought. The only one I know that survives in full is given by al-Maqrizi around 1400 CE. He writes that the Sphinx was built to honor Ashmun, a fictitious Egyptian king killed when the Devil reanimated his brother’s corpse. (Don’t ask.) His statue became known as Abu al-Hul, the Father of Terror. However, al-Maqrizi adds that “the Sabians have never ceased to venerate Abu al-Hul and to sacrifice white roosters to him and to burn sandarac for him.” This is the same ritual that a century earlier Al-Dimashqi, in his Cosmography (1.9) says the Sabians conducted at the Great Pyramid in honor of Hermes-Idris: “They make pilgrimages (here) and immolate a rooster, by whose convulsions at the moment of immolation they claim to know that which is hidden about the future.” Whichever way the influence went, the conflation of the pyramid of “Hermes” with the statue near to it makes the connection explainable.
Gomaa, however, reaches into the well of modern pseudo-history to defend his point of view. He speaks of the Sphinx being older than the pyramids, an idea best known from the Robert Schoch / Graham Hancock school of pseudo-history, but one that traces its origins back to twentieth century occultism and the nineteenth century archaeological errors that underpin it. Auguste Mariette mistook the Inventory Stela for an Old Kingdom document and thus falsely concluded that the Sphinx was pre-dynastic, a claim that refuses to die no matter how many times the original error is exposed.
I went through all of this at great length because Gomaa’s claims came under fire from no less an authority that Zahi Hawass, the former minister in charge of Egyptian antiquities and one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists. Speaking on Egyptian television, Hawass claimed Gomaa was, basically, talking out his ass: “Sheikh Ali Gomaa is a great man and I love him dearly. But it’s not appropriate for him to say that. […] The revered Mufti speaks without evidence, while I used linguistic and archaeological evidence. Forgive my fierce response to the revered Mufti despite my great respect for him.”
Hawass is right on the facts, but wrong that Gomaa was speaking without evidence. He has plenty of medieval myths, legends, and Islamic histories to draw from. It’s bad evidence, but it is a genuine tradition deeply embedded in the Islamic understanding of Egypt, and I don’t think Hawass can effectively counter such ideas without acknowledging that the tradition is more than just random history-themed Mad Libs but certainly less than science. Belief is powerful, even in the face of evidence, so an effective counterargument needs to start by disentangling myth from faith.
Special thanks to Thorwald Franke for calling this story to my attention.
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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