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.
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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