I’ve been working on writing my book about legends associated with the Giza pyramids, and in so doing, I have, of course, been reviewing material related to the story of the Pillars of Wisdom of the Abrahamic tradition, since the stories about their antediluvian knowledge were later applied to the Great Pyramid. In so doing, I came across a very strange fact that I am not entirely sure what to do with. It seems like it might be possible that these pillars were conceived as being the pyramids of Egypt all along, or at least since Late Antiquity.
The story of the Pillars of Wisdom is first recorded by Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews, where the descendants of Adam’s righteous son Seth construct two pillars to preserve the knowledge of astrology that they had invented:
70 And that their inventions might not be lost before they were sufficiently known, upon Adam’s prediction that the world was to be destroyed at one time by the force of fire, and at another time by the violence and quantity of water, they made two pillars, the one of brick, the other of stone: they inscribed their discoveries on them both, 71 that in case the pillar of brick should be destroyed by the flood, the pillar of stone might remain, and exhibit those discoveries to mankind; and also inform them that there was another pillar of brick erected by them. Now this remains in the land of Siriad to this day. (1.70-71, trans. William Whiston)
While some medieval writers mistakenly identified “Siriad” with Syria, it has long been understood that Josephus referred to the land of the Dog-Star Sirius, meaning the country of Egypt. But as for the pillar itself, most scholars have taken Josephus’s use of the Greek word stela, or pillar, at face value, meaning a column or pillar of stone.
But I was doing some research in the medieval Byzantine chronology of George Syncellus, looking to see if that writer had discussed the Egyptian pyramids anywhere but in his quotations from Manetho when I discovered that Josephus had made use of the word stela in a rather unusual context. In 20.101, he speaks of monuments erected by the Jewish convert Helena of Adiabene, under which she was eventually buried: “But Monobazus sent her bones, as well as those of Izates, his brother, to Jerusalem, and gave order that they should be buried at the pyramids which their mother had erected…” (trans. Whiston).
In the Greek text published by B. Niese, these monuments are clearly called πυραμίσιν, or pyramids. But in their notes, the editors of Syncellus’s text state that the monuments were called στήλαι, or pillars. As best I can tell, it was Eusebius who called the monuments “famous stelae” in his Church History 2.12 and the discrepancy between him and Josephus puzzled writers from the Middle Ages to modern times because the actual structures had been destroyed in Antiquity, as Pausanias reported. With the discovery of some of the actual stones in modern times, their pyramid shape was confirmed.
So this leaves a few odd possibilities. One is that Eusebius was just wrong and wrote the wrong thing. Another is that columns were erected above the tomb after its Roman-era destruction. A third is that the distinction between pyramids and pillars wasn’t as clear-cut as we modern people would like to think. In favor of that last possibility is the fact that medieval writers routinely described the Egyptian pyramids in weird ways that don’t seem logical to modern eyes. Some called them cones, which is not right. Abu Al-Makarim, a medieval Coptic Christian who actually lived in Egypt, referred to them as “high towers.” Abenephius, a medieval Jewish writer who may or may not have actually existed, conflated stories about the pyramids with obelisks. More than a few medieval and early modern depictions of the Giza pyramids by artists who never actually visited Egypt depict the pyramids as large stelae.
Josephus probably didn’t envision the Pillars of Wisdom as pyramids, but the confusion between pyramids and stelae in Eusebius and medieval writers offers a plausible reason why the story of the Pillars of Wisdom in Egypt could become so easily attached to the Great Pyramid, the greatest pillar of all.
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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