As regular readers know, I have a special interest in the medieval pyramid myths that arose in Arab-Islamic Egypt because these stories are foundational for all later pyramid mysticism, from the occult mysteries of Giza to the claim that a lost civilization was responsible for their construction. The stories, told in three major variants, attribute the construction of the monuments of Giza variously to Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary king Surid (possibly a fictionalized version of Khufu), or the fictitious giant Shaddad ibn ‘Ad, the builder of Iram of the Pillars. In most versions, one of these men erected the pyramids to preserve scientific knowledge from the coming of Noah’s Flood, having seen the Flood coming thanks to prophetic dreams and astrological signs.
For several years now I’ve been working on gaining a better understanding of how this story developed, and I recently came across a surprising reference that helped fill in a few of the gaps. I would love to someday turn this material into a history of pyramid mythology, but as of yet I do not feel entirely comfortable writing a book about a subject I have not mastered. The trouble is that so much of the primary material is in Arabic, which I do not speak, and much of it is spread across a wide range of disciplines, including history, folklore, religious studies, Egyptology, occult studies, etc. To top it off, there are perhaps a half dozen people in the world who have ever written in any depth on the subject, most are dead or retired, and they disagree wildly with one another, even on very basic matters. It’s really enough to make one’s head spin.
In one interesting sidelight, I read an article from 2007 by Martyn Smith which mentioned in a footnote that Surid might not be Khufu after all, but rather an inversion of the consonants of Idris’ name. Thus Surid = Idris, who in Islamic lore is also Enoch and Hermes. This seems to be perhaps too cute by half, but I have no way to know.
What I do know is that scholars have sort of missed the point a bit. There are some scholars from a long time ago, like Maspero and A. Fodor, who though that the myth had ancient Egyptian origins. But most modern scholars, like Michael Cook (whom I know slightly), Patricia Crone, Martyn Smith, etc. believe that the story was invented by the Arabs, either with or without some local Coptic input. This is largely because the pyramid story does not appear in extant Arabic accounts from the first Islamic centuries, especially al-Hakam’s monumental history of Egypt, or in Christian sources of Late Antiquity. But Late Antique literature demonstrates that key parts of the story already existed before the coming of Islam and thus cannot be Arab inventions. Indeed, Ulrich Haarmann notes that al-Idrisi quotes al-Hakam’s brother Muhammad (d. 875) as saying that the Prophet Muhammad himself had rejected the idea of an antediluvian history of Egypt, suggesting that the Christians and/or Jews of the time did indeed have such a popular, if not scholarly, story alongside their other Nephilim myths.
Most scholars who have studied the issue have attributed the story to Abu Maʿshar al-Balkhi, the Persian astrologer who wrote The Thousands (c. 840-860 CE) and gave the classic account, though with an important variant. In his version, Hermes Trismegistus did build pyramids, but it was the great temples of Egypt, the berba (or barba, pl. barabi) that he built to protect scientific wisdom from the Flood. “Fearing the destruction of knowledge and the disappearance of the arts in the Flood, he built the great temples; one is a veritable mountain called the Temple in Akhmim, in which he carved representations of the arts and instruments, including engraved explanations of science, in order to pass them on to those who would come after him, lest he see them disappear from the world” (my trans.). This much was not entirely surprising; a similar account had been known among Christians and Jews regarding Egyptian tombs, as Ammianus Marcellinus reported around 391 CE: “There are also [in Egypt] 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” (Roman History 22.15.30, trans. C. D. Yonge). Ammianus was likely a pagan, and so there is some ambiguity over whether this flood is Noah’s Flood, but in Christian lore it clearly became that Flood.
Since we can see that the story was already in circulation before 391 and Islam wasn’t founded until the seventh century, obviously the Muslim writers were adapting a story first told of the underground tombs to the temples. The reason for that was simple: By the early Middle Ages, the Egyptian temples had fallen into terminal decay, and they had been colonized by Hermetic alchemists, who used their reputation for magical power; the first major alchemist, Zosimus of Panoplis, for example, had lived in the shadow of the most important temple in the alchemical tradition, Akhmim, and his successors associated the temples with the occult science. By the Islamic period, men like Ibn Umail were visiting the temples in the hopes of finding alchemical secrets, and some alchemists were living in the ruins of the temples.
So much for the transmission of a Late Antique legend about tombs to the temples. But how did the story get translated to the pyramids? That is where the new information I came across comes into play. Abu Maʿshar wrote around 850 CE, and we know that the pyramid legend was fully developed by around 950-1000 CE, when the Akhbar al-zaman, the earliest surviving form of the pyramid version of story, was written. The Akhbar is not the origin of the story since it is reporting material from still other lost sources, which the author has edited and excerpted.
Anyway, in a roundabout way I came to a 2004 dissertation by Mark Fraser Pettigrew on medieval Arab-Islamic representations of ancient Egypt. I was shocked that there was an entire dissertation, largely on the Akhbar al-zaman, that I had never come across! This is because Pettigrew chose to use an alternate title for the Akhbar, the Book of Wonders, which meant that it didn’t show up in keyword searches. In the dissertation, he claims that a geographer named Ibn al-Nadim alleged that Hermes had built the pyramids. At first, I thought that this would be a major piece of information since there was a chance it would contain the pyramid/flood story before the Akhbar al-zaman. Sadly, though, it turns out that (a) Pettigrew overstated slightly, and (b) an article by El Daly discussing the same text misidentified Ibn Nadim as dying in 920 CE, when in fact his book was written in 998, just about contemporary with the Akhbar al-zaman. After reading all the references to Hermes and the pyramids in the book, I found that it does not say he built the pyramids, at least not explicitly. It merely says, in a very brief aside, that he was buried in one.
However, this side venture brought me to a reference in Okasha El Daly’s work on medieval Arab responses to Egypt, and El Daly might have provided a missing link. The trouble is that El Daly has a rather expansive view of Islam, and in reading his 2005 book Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, I often came across sections that offered exaggerated interpretations beyond what the data would support. Anyway, El Daly says that the berba name was conflated with the Coptic word brbr, which refers to a pyramidion, derived from the Egyptian ben ben. Fortunately, this identification comes out of the 1976 Coptic Etymological Dictionary, so it isn’t a completely out-there suggestion. If that’s the case, did the pyramids get roped into an alchemical myth about temples through a translation error?
If this were not enough, I also learned from Pettigrew’s generally excellent dissertation that I missed a very important passage in al-Masudi’s Meadows of Gold that links all of the above back to the Enochian literature on which it was based. Al-Masudi, as you probably recall, was a historian who wrote the Meadows around 947 CE and was later misidentified as the author of the Akhbar al-zaman because he had written a book with the same title. Well, it turns out that when I read the section on the pyramids in Meadows I missed the fact that 30 pages later, he has a section on the temples of Egypt that gives the legend on the order of Abu Ma‘shar, but preserves key details that make plain its derivation from Enoch’s pillars of brick and stone to guard against fire and flood, a key element of the Enochian wisdom literature of Late Antiquity:
They had learned from the study of the stars that a catastrophe threatened the land; but they were uncertain whether the world was to perish by fire, by a deluge, or if the sword were to exterminate its inhabitants. In fear lest the sciences should be annihilated with the people, they constructed these berabi (singular, berba) and disgorged their knowledge into the figures, the images, and the inscriptions which adorned them. They built them either of stone or of earth, separating these two kinds of constructions. If the foretold catastrophe, they said, is of fire, the edifices built of earth and clay will harden like stone, and our sciences will be preserved. If, on the contrary, it is a deluge, the water will carry away that which is built out of earth, but the stone will subsist. In the case of destruction by the saber, these two kinds of buildings will remain standing. (ch. 31, my trans.)
It didn’t occur to me when reading about the pyramids to research literature on temples, too. This passage is astonishing, both because it is a very close analogue to the Enochian Pillars as given in Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews--where the pillars are also located in Egypt—and because this connection to the Enochian literature contradicts Pettigrew’s suggestion (following earlier authorities) that the Islamic legend is a direct product of the Hermetic dialogue known as the Asclepius, written around the third century CE or later. Because Al-Masudi’s version of the legend contains more explicitly Enochian elements, which were in circulation before the Asclepius was ever written (not to mention the Babylonian prophecies that they cribbed from in the first place!), it seems more likely that the pyramid myth is an outgrowth of a Judeo-Christian legend, not a pagan Egyptian apocalyptic tradition. This seems confirmed by connections I have discussed previously between Abu Ma‘shar’s use of Ammianus and Panodorus, two Christian Enochian authors, and the surviving fragments of their work in George Syncellus, which refer to the Watchers and the Pillars.
The bottom line is that all the different lines of evidence point to the idea that there was a Christian myth about the origin of the Egyptian temples and/or pyramids circulating in Egypt in Late Antiquity, one that owed a great debt to Enochian literature and which formed the basis for the various medieval Muslim accounts.
Pettigrew brought to my attention something else I didn’t know, which is interesting but not directly relevant. I already knew that based on parallel passages between the Akhbar al-zaman and sections that al-Maqrizi attributed to Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah (a.k.a. al-Wasifi), many now believe that the Akhbar is Ibn Wasif’s work, or a close copy of it. What I didn’t know is that there was a sequel, the second volume of the Akhbar, so to speak, and that something of it survives. The original text is lost, but of all people Alfonso X of Spain had a copy of this second volume and used it in his absurdly long General Estoria, attributing the records of the history of Egypt from the time of Moses down to Alexander’s conquest to an “Alguaziph,” who seems to be al-Wasifi. It would be fascinating to pull out his references to al-Wasifi’s work and create a set of fragments of the lost book, which Alfonso called the Histories of Egypt. However, medieval Spanish is not my strongest language, and since (a) Alfonso derived more than a hundred pages of material from the book and (b) it treats material not directly relevant to my interests, it’s not a project I really want to take on. It’s a shame that no one has ever translated the General Estoria into English.
5/30/2017 11:39:45 am
All I can say is: amazing. Even while looking into the latest kooky claims, you somehow still manage to find more info on the pyramid myths.
5/30/2017 01:28:49 pm
I second that sentiment, a fascinating subject!
5/30/2017 12:59:43 pm
Rather than the pyramids being built in response to prophecy forecasting a flood, maybe they were made in response to a previous flood...or a previous calamity from the sky, as if the sky could forecast another upcoming doom.
5/30/2017 01:22:14 pm
To quote David Brinkley, "more goddamn nonsense".
5/31/2017 09:39:18 am
Hi AN -
5/30/2017 01:35:33 pm
No pyramid symbol ever had anything to do with the Knights Templar. You've bought into the false notion pushed by fringe historians that Freemasonry is the unbroken continuation of the original Templar order.
5/30/2017 07:53:12 pm
"At Risk" The answer is no. What's the question?
5/30/2017 08:00:56 pm
what is it with you and sweaty keyboards? is that your side of an "intelligent conversation"?
5/30/2017 09:34:20 pm
He sounds like a pasty-faced ennervated chronic masturbator extrapolating from his own experience to me. For a long time I thought Steve Saint Clair and Gunn/At Risk/Bob Voyles/whoever were the same person. They do both seem concerned with the sweaty keyboard and both talk mostly nonsense with a side of OCD and bipolar.
5/30/2017 10:36:06 pm
5/30/2017 01:37:11 pm
Great post, Jason. This is fascinating stuff.
5/30/2017 02:05:42 pm
"of all people Alfonso X of Spain had a copy" is unfair on him. He specifically took advantage of the strong Muslim and Jewish presence in Iberia to work towards an international synthesis of scholarship.
5/30/2017 02:59:24 pm
Oh, no, I'm not criticizing Alfonso! It's just bizarre that no copy survives in the Muslim world, but we find it in Spain! If any European would have had one, it would have been him. It's just amazing that it's in Europe at all and not in the Middle East, given how popular the first volume was there.
5/30/2017 09:37:16 pm
This was quite a meaty article Jason. I've spent some time today researching the people you mention in it so that's fun. Anyway, thanks!
5/31/2017 12:11:09 pm
Jason... I've been collecting and reading Maspero's works. In and of themselves they make for fascinating reading and the first edition works themselves are gorgeous. I recognize that there may be much that is now outdated. In your estimation, how much of the information is out of date now?
5/31/2017 01:16:58 pm
In case you hadn't seen it- there's an interesting little section on the Arabic source materials of the General Estoria starting at page 173 of:
5/30/2017 11:54:43 pm
wow... you have surely added a new note to the myths...
5/31/2017 09:36:19 am
Hi Jason -
5/31/2017 12:33:55 pm
5/31/2017 03:38:20 pm
You've made this allegation before, and I'm genuinely curious if you have evidence.
An Over-Educated Grunt
5/31/2017 07:23:24 pm
Seconded. The "fist" of the various people Gunn claims are big old meanie-heads just don't line up. That's like claiming I'm Abraham Lincoln because there's an L in my name.
5/31/2017 09:39:59 pm
Agreed. I've read through Dr. Lister's comments on Amazon numerous times. I don't buy these allegations.
6/1/2017 02:28:30 pm
ONLY ME, I personally think you may be "only me, Jason." A good code-breaker like me easily notices how ONLY ME is often the "first-to-the-plate" commenter, perhaps to help get the conversations flowing.
6/1/2017 02:46:26 pm
So, I ask a serious question concerning a serious allegation you've made and this is your answer? Another allegation based on personal belief?
6/1/2017 03:22:44 pm
I have a serious question for you Only Me. Well, questions, that is. Why are you engaging this lunatic in discussion? You've been here quite a while and you don't know better by now? Do you really expect evidence of some sort from this miscreant? This is the guy that was given a platform for his looney-tunes on Andy's site, and how did he pay Andy back? By threatening to call his dean. And these fringe imbeciles wonder why their critics would rather remain anonymous. I mean... who needs a whole dose of crazy injected into their professional lives simply because they attempt to reason with lunatics. It's not worth it. You cannot win. You cannot beat crazy.
6/1/2017 03:53:30 pm
Believe me, Joe, my normal routine is to ignore him. However, he has been repeating a serious allegation for the purpose of casting doubt on your character, which is unacceptable.
6/1/2017 09:32:54 pm
I appreciate that Only Me, and I do realize you had my back in this regard. As a point of interest, should anyone actually care, this person's unhealthy fixation on me began when I publicly agreed with another contributor on Andy's site that allowing the offender in question to host a discussion would be an unmitigated disaster due to his inability to reason and his penchant for ad hominem when faced with opposing discourse. Because of this, he chose to blame me for the inevitable outcome which was wholly dictated by his own compulsions; even though at that point I had ceased engaging him directly and didn't contribute a lick to his disastrous attempt at legitimacy. Now I am every enemy he's ever imagined.
6/1/2017 09:35:20 pm
"ONLY ME, I personally think you may be "only me, Jason." "
6/2/2017 03:35:29 pm
So I finally look into who this Mr. Lister actually is. He reviewed Wolter's books on Amazon and engaged in lengthy criticism and debate with Wolter and his minions when they piled on. He used his real name there, as he has even done here on at least one occasion when brought into a discussion on this blog. He is a real person, and no, I am not him though we certainly share a common perspective in regard to those who profit from promoting false historical claims.
6/2/2017 11:51:53 pm
Just so we're clear, is it Mr. Risk's position that people who ride motorcycles are bad? That is in fact crazy talk. Mr. Risk admits to mental disorders yet takes offense when others point out their manifestations.
6/7/2017 07:08:18 am
@ Joe Scales,
5/31/2017 05:13:39 pm
How many different pseudonyms do you have 'At Risk'? You've used several on this site alone. Glass houses and such.
6/1/2017 02:49:23 pm
Couldn't resist heaping on, huh MANDALORE? Always the same short attack comments...never adding anything. You've got your own little personal pattern going here....
6/2/2017 06:47:26 pm
As I've said before, engaging you in conversation is pointless as you quickly revert to personal attacks when challenged in any fashion. I've tried to talk to you in the past and got insulted as a result.
6/2/2017 11:48:03 pm
The problem here, Mandalore, is that you have no Dean that Bob "Gunn" "At Risk" "whatever else" Voyles can threaten to "report" you to. He's got nothing but invites mockery. I say it would only be polite to accept the invitation.
5/31/2017 08:40:42 pm
" in spite of the abuses the Kensington Runestone and its collateral evidences constantly must need to endure."
John (the other one)
5/31/2017 10:43:53 pm
I'm still just the same John thanks. I'm not anyone else. I've never been anyone else.
6/1/2017 09:22:23 am
Joe Scales and I were down at the Knights of Columbus hall discussing the next steps in our Plan and had great fun speculating about exactly how you would "run someone out of Iceland".
6/1/2017 10:50:51 am
@Americanegro: "Joe Scales and I were down at the Knights of Columbus hall discussing the next steps in our Plan and had great fun speculating about exactly how you would "run someone out of Iceland". "
6/1/2017 03:47:38 pm
Ah shoot! So sorry we missed the meeting, sounds like it was a fun time. Mister Lister, EP, the various renditions of John, and I all misread our invitations. We ended up driving around looking for the local Knights Templar lodge.
6/1/2017 09:08:23 pm
"We ended up driving around looking for the local Knights Templar lodge. "
6/2/2017 10:59:28 am
This is getting better and better...we have the aliases all lining up in a row like stoneholes on a code-stone! Pretty soon, we may have enough for a baseball team. I'll call the team:
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/2/2017 01:58:15 pm
Gunn, shut up. You're making yourself look bad, and you weren't exactly well-regarded before. If your goal is to persuade us there's a medieval Swedish colony in Minnesota, this is hands down the wrong way to do it.
6/2/2017 02:41:19 pm
The poster child for button-fly trousers.
6/7/2017 10:59:19 am
See how this looks, OE Grunt, though I'm not as gruff as you:
6/8/2017 12:30:27 pm
Sick burn bro! You OWN this blog!
An Over-Educated Grunt
6/9/2017 03:21:19 pm
You know, for Mr. Manly Man Tough Guy Prison Guard, you sure are thin-skinned. If someone calls you names, you beat your chest about how tough you are, then you accuse them of cyber-bullying, because boy aren't you tough, Gunn? So tough that being ridiculed online makes you bitch and moan about how mean everyone is.
6/7/2017 07:12:07 am
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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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