As I have been writing my book about the myths and legends associated with the Giza pyramids, I have run across a few facts I wasn’t previously aware of, or which were right in front of my face but which I didn’t fully understand. One of the more interesting I just discovered by accident this past week. It concerns a passage found in the historian al-Maqrizi’s Al-Khitat, which al-Maqrizi composed around 1400 CE. In the passage he relates what at first seems like a rather standard summary of another writer’s views about the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre:
Ibn Khuradadhbeh said in The Marvels of Construction: Both Egyptian pyramids each have a width of 400 cubits, and the more they rise, the more their width shrinks. Both are made of alabaster and marble, and their height is 400 cubits by 400 cubits wide. On their faces texts about the art of magic and all the wonderful secrets of medicine were etched by hand. There is also this entry: “I am the one who built these. Let him who proclaims himself a powerful king destroy them, for to destroy is easier than to build!” An estimate of the expenditure required for this work has been established, and it has been recognized that the income of the whole world would not be enough. (my trans.)
I admit to thinking very little about this particular passage because it is a rather brief summary of stories given in fuller form in other works. For example, the claim about the secrets of magic and medicine being carved on the surface of the pyramids appears in several other writers, and the quoted boast on its surface is better known from any number of later texts. The historian al-Mas‘udi, writing between 947 and 956, offers this version: “We are the ones who built the pyramids. Let him who wishes to equal our authority, to obtain our power, and to overthrow our throne, knock down these edifices, and efface all traces of them, though it is easier to break down than to build, and to disperse materials than to unite them” (my trans.). The Akhbar al-zaman of c. 950-1000 CE gives the same passage this way: “I, Sūrīd, the king, built these pyramids at such and such a time. I completed the building in six years. Let anyone who would come after me and believe himself a king as great as I destroy them in six years, for all know that it is easier to destroy than to build. I also covered the pyramids in silk: Let those who come after me cover them in turn” (my trans.). This last version is given as part of the famous story of how Sūrīd had a vision of the coming Flood and built the Great Pyramid to protect science from its waters.
Given the more elaborate and colorful forms of the story, I didn’t give much mind to the brief form. Nor was I able to identify Ibn Khuradadhbeh when I translated al-Maqrizi five years ago. It can be very difficult to locate information about Islamic writers due to the wide variation in transliteration. Of course, he now has a Wikipedia article, but I didn’t know about that then. His name is also transliterated as Ebn Kordadbeh and Ibn Khurradādhbih. You can see why I had trouble guessing who he was from the French transliteration that I was working with.
That’s why I was surprised to run across Ibn Khuradadhbeh’s name when reading a decade-old article about the incorporation of the pyramids into medieval Arabic geographic treatises as part of my research. I hadn’t thought about Ibn Khuradadhbeh much at all, but I recognized the name. When I read that he flourished a century before the Akhbar al-zaman was written, that caught my attention. He lived from c. 820 to 912 CE.
This means that the alleged inscription (almost certainly a fake) attributed to the pyramid-builders predates the story of Sūrīd by nearly a century, since the story of Sūrīd building the pyramids first appears in print with the Akhbar al-zaman, and the oldest mention of Sūrīd, by Ibn Wahshiyya around 900 CE, knows him only as a philosopher.
It’s not the most mind-blowing discovery, but it suggests that there was some preexisting pyramid lore, probably of Late Antique origin, that was incorporated into the Sūrīd story as it took shape in the 900s. This gives more support to the notion that the various parts of the story derive from Late Antique and early medieval antecedents of various origins.
The only hitch in this is that al-Maqrizi attributes the quotation to a book called The Marvels of Construction (i.e., Amazing Buildings) that doesn’t appear in standard accounts of Ibn Khuradadhbeh’s many works. It is unclear, therefore, if this is a genuine work of his or a spurious later work attributed to him. That’s why I went the extra mile and checked Ibn Khuradadhbeh’s extant works to find out if the passage appears in them. And it does! It’s in his On Geography (Kitāb al-masālik wa’l-mamālik), where the passage reads:
The pyramids of Egypt are constructed of granite and marble; their height is 400 cubits; it is also the measure of their length and width. All kinds of medical formulae and wonderful talismans are engraved on them. On one we also read: “Let the king who claims to be powerful try to destroy them, although it is easier to destroy than to build. And, indeed, the income of the whole world would not be enough for this work of destruction…..” (my trans. from the French edition of Charles Barbier de Meynard)
Give or take a few words and the placement of the quotation marks, al-Maqrizi and Ibn Khuradadhbeh have the same text. There are three possible reasons for the discrepancy, aside from translator error. First, al-Maqrizi might have altered the text for explanatory reasons. Second, he might have made a mistake. Third, the difference might be due to the fact that he was working from the original, while we possess a later abridgement, in which there may have been differences in the text. For what it is worth, the French translator of Ibn Khuradadhbeh said in his notes on this chapter that al-Maqrizi likely had a longer and more accurate text than the one in the abridgment. It turns out that “Amazing Buildings” is the title of the chapter on the pyramids in Ibn Khuradadhbeh’s book.
The passage was written perhaps as early as the first edition of 846-847, which would place it earlier than Abu Ma’shar’s discussion of Hermes Trismegistus building the temples and pyramids of upper Egypt to preserve science from the Flood, or it could have been added for the 885-886 second edition. It’s fascinating to see the way different bits and pieces of myth and legend slowly converged into a single new story, which in time became the template for all manner of pyramidiocy and the claim that Atlantis or space aliens built the pyramids.
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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