Today’s story is one of those confusing textual problems that most of you probably won’t care much about but which drive me up the wall as I’m trying to trace back fringe history claims to their source. As most of you know, I’m working on a book of ancient texts used by fringe historians, and many, including Erich von Däniken, have cited al-Mas‘udi, the Islamic historian of the tenth century CE, as supporting their claim that the pyramids of Giza were built before the Great Flood and contained fabulous treasure. Here’s how von Däniken put it in Chariots of the Gods:
In the Bodleian Library at Oxford there is a manuscript in which the Coptic author Mas-Udi asserts that the Egyptian King Surid had the Great Pyramid built. Oddly enough, this Surid ruled in Egypt before the Flood. And this wise King Surid ordered his priests to write down the sum total of their wisdom and conceal the writings inside the pyramid. So, according to Coptic tradition, the pyramid was built before the Flood.
Most of you probably also know that a version of the story under consideration was included in al-Maqrizi’s Al Khitat, which I translated some time ago. The story begins with the mythical king Surid (also: Sourid or Saurid) dreaming of disaster:
Here is what was the cause of the erection of the two pyramids: Three hundred years before the flood, Surid had a dream in which it seemed that the earth overturned, and the men fled straight ahead, and the stars fell and collided the against each other with a terrible crash; Surid, scared, never spoke to anyone about this dream, but he was convinced that a major event would occur in the world.
His priests then told him that the world would end also in a fire and flood, so Surid had the Pyramids erected and covered in hieroglyphs to preserve all scientific knowledge. This story, as I have pointed out in the past, is derived from or parallel to a Judeo-Christian myth that Adam had predicted that the world would end in fire and flood, so his grandsons, Seth’s children, built a pillar of brick and a pillar of stone in Egypt to preserve all knowledge (Josephus, Antiquities 1.2.3). Surid, in turn, is most likely Khufu, likely derived from an Arabic transliteration of the Greek name Suphis given to Khufu in the surviving fragments of Manetho, possibly via a Syriac version of Manetho used by the early Arabic historians. The association with sacred wisdom comes from Manetho, who wrote that Suphis had built the Great Pyramid and had composed “the Sacred Book” (as preserved in both Eusebius and Syncellus).
This, in turn, fed into a Greco-Roman myth given in Ammianus Marcellinus’ Roman History 25.15.30, where the author writes that in Egypt there are “subterranean passages, and winding retreats, which, it is said, men skilful, in the ancient mysteries, by means of which they divined the coming of a flood, constructed in different places lest the memory of all their sacred ceremonies should be lost” (trans. C. D. Yonge).
Combine Manetho and Marcellinus with Josephus and you have all the ingredients for the Surid myth. (There’s an additional minor contribution from the story of Shaddad bin ’Ad, but that’s too much to get into.) Interesting, though, this doesn’t all come together at once. That’s where the trouble comes in. In putting together my book, however, I wanted to try to trace the Arabic story back to its textual roots. That’s where things got dicey—not to mention confusing. There’s no really clear way to explain this, so I’ll do my best.
Al-Maqrizi cites the story to Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, a historian who apparently lived sometime after 950 CE and before 1300 CE. He wrote a book called the History of Egypt and Its Wonders which may or may not survive depending on whom you believe. This is as far back as this line of inquiry can take us, especially since ibn Wasif Shah does not exist outside of later historians’ citation of him. Therefore, I turned to von Däniken’s alleged source, al-Mas‘udi (also transliterated as El Masoudi), which turned out to be no source at all.
Of course Erich von Däniken did not known al-Mas‘udi in the original. Only one of al-Mas‘udi’s works, the Meadows of Gold, survives in full, and I have read the book in its standard French translation. Nowhere therein does it describe a pre-Flood origin for the pyramids; indeed, al-Mas’udi describes how the pyramids were built as a giant staircase and polished from the top down in the time of the Pharaohs, given to him on the authority of the Copts. So where did von Däniken get his story?
It came from Col. Richard William Howard Vyse in his Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837 (1840), vol. 2, where the story is given in partial translation from the Arabic and attributed to a translation by a “Dr. Sprenger,” who must have been Aloys Sprenger, later the translator of the first volume of al-Mas‘udi’s Meadows of Gold into English. In Vyse, Sprenger describes the story as having come from Bodleian Library MS. 9973, which as I understand it is today MS. Bruce 28. This manuscript he gave as Akbar Ezzeman, but today it is transliterated as the Akhbar al-zaman. Sprenger explained that in consulting the manuscript, he discovered that it was damaged quite heavily, so he restored the story from the parallel text in al-Maqrizi, having determined that much of the material was nearly word-for-word identical. The Akhbar al-zaman is today known from several additional manuscripts, which provide the original wording. The oldest dated manuscript is from the 1200s, but a damaged manuscript is believed to have been copied in the late 1100s.
So far, so good. Sprenger knew that in the Meadows of Gold al-Mas‘udi had made reference to another work of his, a universal history of time called the Akhbār al-zamān, a work of thirty volumes, and Sprenger assumed that the short manuscript he consulted was either a part of the same or an abridgement of it by another hand. Therefore, he attributed the “restored” texts to al-Mas‘udi. This is how it shows up in the partial English translation in Operations (he translates most of the text but summarizes connecting thoughts), and it is from this edition that nearly all fringe historians take their information, unenlightened by modern scholarship. And it isn’t just fringe historians—most Victorian pyramid theorists relied on the same, attributing the story of Surid and the pyramids to Mas‘udi.
This is not the end of the story, though. In 1898 B. Carra de Vaux published a French translation of the whole of the extant Akhbar al-zaman, from a more complete manuscript (though not perfectly; scholars complained of errors and omissions), but was unable to determine the authorship. Because many of the passages in the Akhbar al-zaman paralleled those in al-Maqrizi attributed to Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, Carra de Vaux said that there was a reasonable case to be made that the Akhbar al-zaman was in fact the work of ibn Wasif Shah, though he personally favored al-Mas‘udi. J. F. P. Hopkins and N. Levtzion in the Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West Africa History (1981) argue for ibn Wasif Shah on the grounds that the text matches that quoted by al-Maqrizi. So far as I can tell, among scholars with an opinion, the attribution to ibn Wasif Shah is preferred. To make things worse: The earliest references suggest ibn Wasif Shah was a fictional or mythic creation, expanded from an earlier figure called Wasifi, who is cited as the source in Idrisi’s account in his Anwar of the same legend.
Here’s the ridiculous part: The Akhbar al-zaman has been published as the work of ibn Wasif Shah and as the work of al-Mas‘udi and has been dated anywhere from the tenth century to the twelfth, and various authors have used it as evidence for either (a) the source of al-Maqrizi’s version or (b) independent proof that al-Maqrizi’s version was widespread in the Arab world, and not a local Coptic legend. But no one knows for sure. The best evidence is that the legend of Surid emerged in the early eleventh century, derived from the earlier tale that Hermes Trismegistus built the pyramids in anticipation of the Flood. This brings us back around to the Late Antique form of the story described above, where Suphis wrote a sacred book, underground passages were filled with science writing, and Seth’s children built pillars to protect knowledge from the Flood. The early Arabs subsumed all of this under the category of Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian Thoth, who was also the author of sacred books. This they compared to the sacred books composed by Enoch, who gave them to Methuselah to prophesy the Flood and record the wisdom of the stars (1 Enoch 82:1 etc.). Therefore, Enoch was Hermes and both were Idris, the prophet alluded to in the Qur’an, since folklore (recorded in early commentaries on the Qur’an from the ninth century) said that Idris, like the other two, wrote sacred books about the stars. Enoch, of course, was a descendant of Seth and therefore qualified to be identified with the children of Seth who built the two pillars.
The earliest version of the full Hermetic history of the pyramids, later ascribed to Surid, occurs in the astrologer Abu Maʿsar’s Book of Thousands, written before 886 CE, which of course is lost. What we have instead is an account of what it said in Ibn Juljul’s Tabaqat al-atibbaʾ (5-10) from the tenth century, but this work has not been translated as best I can tell into any language know. The relevant passage was translated by Kevin van Bladel in The Arabic Hermes (2009), but he combined several documents to produce his composite translation of what he believes Abu Maʿsar said. Not reading Arabic, I’m not sure which parts are from which authors.
The same text appears in almost the same words in Saʿid al-Andalusi’s Al‐tarif bi-tabaqat al-umm (39.7-16) of 1068 CE, which is quoted by al-Maqrizi in his Al-Khitat in addition to existing in full on its own. Here is what he said (in my translation), with corrections to al-Maqrizi from von Bladel’s translation of Saʿid’s original:
A group of scholars have reported that all the sciences known before the Flood were first taught by Hermes, who lived in Upper Egypt. This Hermes was the first to ponder celestial substances [misreading for “events”] and the movement of the stars. This Hermes is the one the Hebrews named Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalalel, son of Kenan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, peace be upon him. He is the same as the prophet Idris, peace be upon him. He was the first to build temples to worship God the Exalted. He occupied himself with science and medicine, and he wrote well-measured poems for his contemporaries about things terrestrial and celestial. It is also said that he was the first to predict the Flood and anticipate that a celestial cataclysm would befall the earth in the form of fire or water, so, fearing the destruction of knowledge and the disappearance of the arts, he built the pyramids and temples of Upper Egypt. Within these, he included representations of the arts and instruments, including engraved explanations of science, in order to pass them on to those who come after him, lest he see them disappear from the world.
From the parallel passages of Ibn Juljul we know Ṣāʿid has misread Abu Maʿsar’s “events” as “substances” in the above text (which should refer to astrology), and he omitted a reference to building clay cities found in Ibn Juljul, paralleling the pillar of (mud) brick from Josephus. The scholars that Saʿid refers to are those who have also copied their material from the Thousands of Abu Maʿsar.
The final act of these millennia of interpretation occurred recently, when fringe historians ascribed to Surid and/or Hermes a connection first to Atlantis and then to extraterrestrials. These interpretations were simply the latest update in a story that emerged from an attempt to impose Judeo-Christian mythology on Egypt and then took on a life of its own.
It took me this long to provide a commentary on a single reference in Chariots of the Gods. Can you think of a single fringe theorist who has ever done this much work to actually understand the history of the texts they plunder for “proof”?
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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