After completing my translation of Al-Maqrizi’s Al-Khitat chapter on the pyramids of Egypt (the one on the Sphinx is next!), I made a connection that finally answers a question that has been vexing me since last year. Regular readers will remember that I have previously written about the repeated alternative claim that Proclus, the Neoplatonist philosopher, supposedly wrote that the Great Pyramid was flat on top so it could be used as an observatory to watch the transit of Sirius. Well, I now know where that came from, and the answer is as fascinating as it is complex.
As you will recall, I could find no evidence Proclus said any such thing, but Al-Maqrizi provided the accidental evidence that finally let me come up with a reasonable explanation for what happened—and which demonstrates a rather striking continuity of tradition across a thousand years or more.
Al-Maqrizi, writing c. 1400 CE, claimed to have found a manuscript in which an earlier writer wrote down some verses recited by the Qadi Fakhr Al-Din Abd al-Wahab Al-Masrime centuries earlier. These verses lay out all the then-common pyramid theories, many identical to those proposed by Piazzi Smyth hundreds of years later, including the claim that the pyramid represents the planets, or the cosmos, or something similar. In the poem, the poet asks who built the pyramid and why:
And there we have it: proof that there was an ancient, or at least medieval, tradition that the pyramids had been celestial observatories. And here is how it connects back to Proclus. Proclus wrote in his commentary on Plato’s Timaeus that the Egyptians “survey without impediment the celestial bodies, through the purity of the air, and preserve ancient memorials, in consequence of not being destroyed either by water or fire.” He also claims—and this is crucial—that the Egyptian history could be found on “pillars, in which things paradoxical and worthy of admiration, whether in actions or inventions, are inscribed.”
Now, combine this with the Jewish myth recorded by Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 1.2.3, speaking of the children of Seth, the descendants of Adam before the Flood:
Some believe that Josephus mistakenly conflated Seth the son of Adam with Sesotris, the Egyptian pharaoh, while others think it was Set, the Egyptian god-hero. Siriad refers to Egypt in its guise as the “Land of Sirius,” the star venerated most in Egypt.
Can you see the connection? The tradition of destruction by both fire and water persists from at least Josephus to Proclus, from the first century CE to the fifth, with the idea that the great pillar of stone was inscribed with scientific knowledge and had some relationship to Sirius and the stars. The original Greek manuscript of Josephus is long gone (though an eleventh century edition remains), so some have speculated that the Latin word “columna” (pillar) in the oldest text might have been translating the Greek word for pyramid rather than specifically a standing column. This is, of course, speculation.
At any rate, Josephus’ work was translated into Arabic and was well known to the Arabs before and after the coming of Islam. From these sources, we can then very clearly see the origin of the famous Arab story of how the pyramids were built. Note in this version of the Arab story that both the Flood and the rather unusual (and non-canonical) scourge of fire are found, just as in Josephus:
Several versions of this story exist, differing in the details. Several versions suggest that the scientific inscriptions were written in or on the pyramids themselves. The version given above is the only one attributed to a non-Arab or non-Coptic source. It is claimed this text derives from an Egyptian manuscript translated into either Greek or Latin in the time of the Roman emperor Philip the Arab (244-249 CE)—a suspiciously convenient Arab emperor.
We know from Pliny (Natural History 36.16) that “most” Romans believed the pyramids to simply be the make-work project of megalomaniacs, so the observatory-Flood tradition must derive from a non-Western source, probably originating in a Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 19:19 in which there will be a monument (a “pillar,” or a matstseba) on the border of Egypt as a reference to the Great Pyramid of Egypt. What better way to turn the tables on one’s oppressors than to claim their greatest work as the Lord’s own? And if it was a work of God, it must therefore predate the Flood, from a time before Egypt had fallen into idolatry.
Neither Herodotus nor Diodorus Siculus mentions scientific knowledge being written on the pyramid’s surface. Both claim only that a few inscriptions mark the cost of the foodstuffs used to feed the builders (1600 talents for radishes, onions, and garlic), and no inscriptions have been found on the remaining casing stones of the Giza pyramids. Thus the “scientific” inscriptions (allegedly carved and inlayed in blue stone no less!) must derive from the Jewish myth, probably when the oldest form of the legend, as given above, became confused and the inscriptions observed on the temples of Egypt (which were often painted blue) were mistakenly attributed to the pyramids as well. Arranging the legends from simplest (and most likely earliest) to most elaborate finds that the writing was attributed to the temples in the simplest legends, but in the most complex and elaborate was added to the pyramids too, like in this one where the priests wrote “on every surface of the pyramids, the ceilings, foundations, and walls, all the sciences familiar to the Egyptians.” (It should also be noted that sixth dynasty pyramids had interior hieroglyphic inscriptions, but not the Giza pyramids.) It is probably telling that the stories told of the blue inscriptions of scientific knowledge on the Great Pyramid’s casing seem to all date from after the removal of the casing stones to build the mosques and walls of Cairo.
Even the name of the king most frequently associated with the pyramids, Surid (or Sourid or Saurid), may be a corruption of Sesostris, the (apocryphally) legendary pharaoh, or Suphis, a Greek transliteration of Khufu as given in Manetho, otherwise called Cheops by Herodotus. (Possibly Suphis > Suphid > Surid.) This would be particularly interesting since a legend in Manetho recorded by Julius Africanus and preserved in Syncellus and Eusebius in slightly different versions told that Suphis raised the Great Pyramid, held the pagan gods in contempt, and wrote a sacred book, thus making him a good candidate for monotheistic veneration. In Africanus' version:
Later Christian and Islamic writers took this to mean that Suphis suppressed idolatry or otherwise promoted monotheism, though this is not the apparently meaning of the text. (Note, too, that the 1876 edition of Cory's Ancient Fragments mis-translates this passages as saying Suphis was "translated to the gods," accidentally making him into Enoch.)
This must be the origin of the idea that the pyramid builder had secret knowledge. Now, for the Jews the prophet Enoch lived before the Flood and was believed to have also, like Surid, received a dream vision from God that included the coming Flood and the final punishment of nonbelievers “full of fire and flaming, and full of pillars of fire” (1 Enoch 90:20-27). Given that he also wrote his book (the Book of Enoch, which was not actually ancient but believed to be) to preserve knowledge of astrology, the Jewish tradition thus seems to have influenced the fictive history of Egypt under another name, especially since the Arabs connected the dots and identified Surid with Edris (Idris), who was also identified with Enoch.
Clearly, the tradition of Enoch’s vision of Flood and fire, of astronomy and secret knowledge, wed to Manetho’s observations on Khufu's sacred book and contempt for the pagan gods, read in light of the Jewish tradition of the pre-Flood pillars, gave rise to Arab pyramid myths.
This is a remarkable—and to my knowledge unexplored—continuity of tradition from Antiquity to the late Middle Ages.
When Robert Greaves wrote his Pyramidographia in the sixteenth century, he must have had the Arab texts in mind when he was discussing Proclus, giving accidental rise to the story that the pyramids were observation platforms for Sirius. But that is the least interesting thing about the whole scenario. Once again, though, we find that alternative authors, in dealing only with the surface of stories at their most literal level, have missed the most interesting and informative connections among ancient and medieval peoples.
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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