From time to time, I like to talk about obscure things that interest me but probably aren’t going to be viral sensations. Sandwiched between two holidays, this week’s generally low readership seems like a good time to devote a few minutes to an interesting topic I’ve returned to a few times but which I hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss before.
In my review of Robert Schoch’s and Robert Bauval’s The Origin of the Sphinx, I made mention of the fact that a few historians among the medieval Arabs preserved a list of pharaohs that seems to be derived, in a corrupt way, from that of the Ptolemaic Egyptian priest Manetho. A large part of the information I have about this comes from a 1924 article on medieval historian al-Maqrizi’s list of the Pharaohs in his Khitat, his masterwork on Egyptian history composed sometime around 1400 CE. The first half of Al-Maqrizi’s list of pharaohs is more or less the same one that earlier Arabic-language historians, such as Murtada ibn al-‘Afif (c. 1200 CE) and the anonymous author of the Akhbar al-zaman (c. 1000 CE) also used in creating their histories, but the second half of the list is shared only by al-Maqrizi and the Persian polymath al-Biruni, writing around 1030 CE.
The kings listed in the Akhbar seem to bear the least resemblance to the actual Egyptian kings, particularly in terms of their fantastical reigns. Here are the first five who reigned after the Flood, according to that book, compared with where Christian writers started the post-Flood list in adapting Manetho.
This isn’t a very helpful starting point. As we move through the list, Manetho doesn’t match at all, but the Akhbar list is in pretty good agreement with the list given by al-Maqrizi. Compare the dynasty of Ashmun in both Arabic writers:
The reigns in the Akhbar are still ridiculous: Ashmun is given as reigning 830 years! But it’s pretty clear that both authors are drawing on the same source. The next dynasty, that of Atrib, is even closer:
When we recall that for bizarre linguistic reasons a name probably derived from the Greek Philemon was rendered in Arabic as Filimun, Felimun, Iklimon, and Qlimun, the similarity becomes more striking.
By the time we get down to quasi-historical times, the era of Joseph, the books are in pretty good agreement:
It is my understanding that these names first appeared in two now-lost traditionalist sources from whom Ibn ’Abd al-Hakam derived his list before 871, and from whom al-Maqrizi copied his list. I don’t have al-Hakam’s text to see what he said. This traditionalist history is pretty much fictional down to the dynasty of al-Walid. Some scholars think it is originally a separate tradition from the “hermetic” history, the antediluvian history of the Egypt from the time of Adam down to the Flood, the part that includes Surid and the other giant/Nephilim pharaohs. Ulrich Haarmann, the German scholar of Arabic and Arab interest in Egypt, for example, took the Akhbar al-zaman to be the original compilation of this fictitious history, from which all other writers copied. I am fairly confident that this is wrong because the Akhbar divides up stories that were clearly once part of the same composition into different sections of the book based on an organizational scheme that the author imposed on it. For example, sections on al-Budashir and Surid are divided among different chapters, even though the narrative for both kings is clearly a coherent whole when the chapter sections are read in sequence. Out of context, the breaks just seem weird. The author also gives multiple versions of the same story, sometimes at odds, suggesting that there is older material behind the discrepancies. I am inclined to think that the Akhbar is the oldest surviving rewrite of a lost original, probably in narrative rather than schematic form, whatever that might have been.
We are getting a bit outside my point, which is to introduce M. A. Murray’s 1924 article on al-Maqrizi’s names of the pharaohs. Margaret Murray’s name should be familiar to many readers of this blog. She is the author of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, the now-discredited by highly influential book on the survival of paganism among European women, a book that influenced H. P. Lovecraft, who wrote of it by name. Murray, prior to the First World War, had been a pioneering Egyptologists, working alongside Flinders Petrie, for whose journal, Ancient Egypt, she continued to contribute articles on Egypt. Her piece on the Arabic names of the pharaohs complicates the assumption that the medieval traditional and hermetic histories were complete fictions.
The oldest kings of Egypt are uncertain, some seeming to reflect real pharaohs (Surid, for example, most likely derives from the Greek Suphis, a form of Khufu, as both were credited with building the Great Pyramid), and others having no connection to facts whatsoever. Murray suggests that some of the stories of these pharaohs were based on tales from Manetho, and a few names seemed to her as though they might plausibly derive from corrupt versions of authentic originals. But as we come closer to historical times, something changes. Murray notes that beginning in the twenty-first dynasty, suddenly the Arabic list preserved in al-Maqrizi (but beyond the scope of the Akhbar) matches quite closely the king list of Manetho, as we have it from Christian sources. “The names of these kings are said to be Greek (Rumi), and it is fairly certain that they are copied from Manetho, though the variants show that it was not from a known list. The Arabic writing has so distorted the spelling that many names are almost unrecognisable, and it is only by carefully observing the possible mistakes which can be made by misreading certain letters that many names, which at first sight appear a mere jumble, are found to be fairly accurate transcriptions of the Greek.” Interested readers can refer to Murray’s chart for a complete list. The most interesting thing to note, though, is that the Arabic list isn’t just full of transliteration errors; it is also full of mistakes. Manetho’s third book contained the (now-lost) list of twentieth dynasty Diospolite pharaohs, but Maqrizi’s source misunderstood this and turned the dynasty into one pharaoh named Diusqulita, leading into the more or less correct list of pharaohs from the twenty-first dynasty onward.
The obvious question is why al-Maqrizi started using Manetho after the twenty-first dynasty, but not before. The earlier kings are a complete jumble of Greek historiography, Judeo-Christian mythology, and probably a good chunk of medieval fantasy. The most parsimonious answer is that the hermetic history before the Flood, the traditionalist history from the Flood to the dynasty of al-Walid, and Manetho’s dynasties from the twentieth to the Ptolemaic period were assembled separately to flesh out the history of Egypt, so Manetho sort of “filled in” gaps in the mythic history that emerged around first Christianity and then Islam. Evidence of this can be found in the Chronology of Ancient Nations (a.k.a. Vestiges of the Past) of al-Biruni, writing around 1030 CE—the era of the Akhbar—who, in what is certainly no coincidence, reports the names and reigns of the Egyptian kings from Manetho, but only from the twentieth dynasty onward. Al-Maqrizi (and only him among Arabic historians) copied from al-Biruni, and he in turn said that he derived his claims from “a certain book” and the “people of the West.” According to scholars, it’s fairly clear from the context that he was using a Syriac translation of the Christian chronologist Eusebius. However, so far as I know, no one knows why al-Biruni chose to start his chronology with the twentieth dynasty, or how he seems to have introduced the error of misreading the twelve Diospolite pharaohs as the king he called Diospalta.
The only answer that makes any sense is that he was using a copy of a Christian source – Eusebius neglects to list the Twentieth Dynasty pharaohs and give them only collectively as “the Diospolites” – and that he was working only with Manetho’s Book Three, which starts with the Twentieth Dynasty, either because his copy was defective or because he or his Syriac predecessor wrongly assumed that those before then were fictional—or because he didn’t want to contradict the traditional and hermetic histories, which he elsewhere implies that he believes. His list doesn’t match the timeframe he himself gives for the period from the Flood to Alexander, so perhaps the right answer is that he only had a summary of Manetho’s Book Three. But the most intriguing possibility is that al-Biruni, who was known to have used the hermetic astrologer Abu Ma‘shar as a source, favored Abu Ma‘shar and his source, the Christian chronologist Ammianus, who was pretty much obsessed with the fall of the Watchers and the rest of the familiar antediluvian history of the Nephilim and one of the key touchstones of history. Our surviving version of al-Biruni’s second book of chronology, the Qanun, is perhaps incomplete, since al-Guzgani’s summary of this section refers to otherwise missing material on the Watchers that he claims al-Biruni copied from Abu Ma‘shar. In other words, the best answer might well be that al-Biruni used only a partial list of kings because Abu Ma‘shar had provided a more convincing description of earlier times from Ammianus, whose Christian chronology was based on the Nephilim-Watchers myth and ascribed to the earlier Egyptian rulers a non-human origin as Nephilim. The Akhbar al-zaman suggests as much, identifying the pre-Flood kings, and many of them down to the time when God punished the pharaoh of Moses, as “giants,” the evil offspring of the Fallen Angels. According to the Akhbar, following Quran 5:22, the giants and the Amalekites were all one people, and the Pharaoh of Moses was the last Amalekite pharaoh. (The claim stems from a pun—the sources I read say that al-Amālīq means “giants” in Arabic.) Maybe al-Biruni counted only “human” kings.
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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