I received an odd email last night from the publicist for Permuted Press, a small horror publisher you might remember from May when I discovered they had branched out into crackpot fringe history. Well, the publicist wanted to know if I’d be up for interviewing Patrick Duffy—yes, the former star of Dallas and Step by Step—about his new book on the lost continent of Atlantis. Years before I was born, Duffy was the star of the 1977-1978 NBC TV series The Man from Atlantis. His new book is a novel in which he says that he explores the hidden backstory of the TV series’ main character, Mark Harris, and draws on fringe history speculation about Atlantis to develop his novel’s backstory. “And we set the stage of the mythology of planet Earth, basically, of which Mark Harris is a small, but integral part of a much larger picture,” Duffy says. I can’t fathom what I’d ask him since I’ve never seen the series.
Today, however, I am pleased to add Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti’s “Treatise on the Pyramids” to my Library. This treatise was composed around 1500 and reproduces many of the same early medieval sources used by al-Maqrizi in his chapter of the pyramids, along with some that don’t appear in al-Maqrizi. The treatise was translated in 1939 in the journal Isis. According to my research, the copyright was not renewed, but it is extremely difficult to prove that. Fortunately, the current publisher of the journal, the University of Chicago Press, has given me permission to reproduce the translation. With that addition, I believe my Library now houses the largest collection of Arabic texts on pyramid lore available in English.
Al-Suyuti was, like many of his fellow historians, a plagiarist, and his treatise is essentially a stitched together list of passages from earlier authors, only some of whom he bothered to acknowledge. One particular passage is most interesting because it comes close to closing that gap between what we know about late Antique Christian pyramid legends and medieval Arabic ones. The trouble is that medieval authors made things up promiscuously, and there isn’t a way to know how true it is.
According to al-Suyuti, when Ahmad ibn Tulun (835-884) became sultan of Egypt in 868, he conducted excavations on the Giza plateau. There, his workmen were alleged to have uncovered a chunk of coral in which several lines of Greek verse appeared. When translated, these were said to read:
I am he who built the Pyramids all over Egypt,
It would be fantastic if this were true because it would provide an intermediate link between the Late Antique claims that the temples of the Egypt were filled with secret knowledge as a safeguard against the coming of the Great Flood (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History 22.15.30; cf. Abu Ma‘shar in Ibn Juljul, Tabaqat al-atibbaʾ 5-10) and the later Coptic-Arabic legend that the pyramids performed that function. Were this to be a genuine Greek text of the late period, it might help to explain when the material once attributed to the temples came to be attributed to the pyramids.
However, al-Suyuti gives no indication of his source, and since the poem seems suspiciously similar to other Arabic language poetry about the pyramids, it is more likely to be a medieval Arabic work spuriously given an Antique backstory to make it seem older and more important than it was. We have many other examples of such retroactive attribution, including spurious works attributed to Alexander or Aristotle, and the allegedly Greek manuscript that gives the story of Surid and the pyramids in the version of Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah found in al-Maqrizi.
The other interesting thing in the account of al-Suyuti that I had not seen elsewhere is the assertion that “AL-QĀḌĪ AL-FĀḌIL says: The two Pyramids mark the apex of the earth.” This seems rather similar to the much later claim that the Pyramids are the Earth’s center of gravity. Apparently superlatives about the pyramids are as old as the pyramids. Also as old as the pyramids: Poetry comparing the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre to two breasts. The metaphor shows up in at least one poem quoted in al-Maqrizi, but al-Suyuti seems to have collected every poem he knew that described them as giant boobs.
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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