On Friday I received the page proofs for my newest book, Foundations of Atlantis, Ancient Astronauts and Other Alternative Pasts, my collection of primary source texts used by fringe historians to support everything from the ancient astronaut theory to hyperdiffusionism. Each entry in the book contains a header with data about the text—its source citation, its original language, etc. Each concludes with the translation’s original publication information and my commentary on the text. To be entirely honest, I’m not sure what I think of the page proofs. I had hoped that the publisher would have used typography to clearly distinguish between the body text and the header and commentary. Instead, it’s all the same typeface and the same size, and they cut out even the skipped space between sections that I had in my manuscript. While the result isn’t exactly unclear, it’s not as visually clear as I would have liked. It’s the fault of eBooks. Because eBooks can’t do complex formatting, publishers are increasingly unwilling to have two separate formats for the print and electronic edition. As a result, the printed book is more or less the eBook on paper, and I think something is lost when the art of information design has to submit imperatives of eBooks.
Speaking of ancient texts, here is a weird bit of copying and pasting that has occurred over the past few decades. In 1971 ex-spy, journalist, and pseudo-history author Peter Tompkins wrote the following line in his book Secrets of the Great Pyramid:
The famous traveler ibn-Batuta, writing 730 years after the Hegira, says that Hermes Trismegistos (the Hebrew Enoch), “having ascertained from the appearance of the stars that the deluge would take place, built the pyramids to contain books of science and knowledge and other matters worth preserving from oblivion and ruin.”
Ibn Battuta was a fourteenth century traveler, and his reference to the pyramids was neither the oldest nor the most developed in Arabic literature. The oldest version is probably that of Abu Maʿshar al-Balkhi in The Thousands in the ninth century, though it does not survive except in later quotation.
Apparently this brief mention captured the imagination of a generation of readers because it appears time and again in later works. In 1980 Bettina Liebowitz Knapp quoted it in Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic’s Dilemma. In 1992’s The Creators Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel J. Boorstin recycled the quote in dismissing medieval pyramid lore, and it ended up in the Modern Library’s 1995 omnibus of his works. In 2001, Eliane Strosberg reprinted the same quotation, though revising Hermes to Thoth, in her book on the relationship between Art and Science. In 2010 fringe writer Alan Alford reprinted the quote in his Pyramid of Secrets, and in 2011 it appeared in John Bliss’s Armageddon Again, with Hermes changed to Enoch, as well as in J. Marc Merrill’s Books Written in Stone: Enoch the Seer, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Last Days, where he at least states in the body of the text that he knows the story only secondhand from Tompkins.
It’s rather amazing that such a motley crew—ranging from fringe theorists to Biblical literalists to Pulitzer Prize winning journalists—all copied Tompkins verbatim and never went back to the original. This shows that all these writers opted for a quote of convenience. This is bad because Tompkins was wrong and his translation is deeply flawed. I translated the full passage, which is available on my pyramid page, but here are the lines that parallel those in the quote Tompkins gives:
They claim that all the sciences that existed before the Flood were written down by Hermes the Elder, who lived in Upper Egypt and was called Khonodkh (this is the same figure as Idris, or Enoch). In their view, he was the first who discoursed on celestial movements and the higher substances, the first who built temples and there glorified the divine. He predicted the Flood to men, and fearing the loss of science and the destruction of the arts, he built the pyramids and temples on which he represented all the industrial arts and their equipment, and recorded the sciences so that they might be preserved forever. (my trans.)
As you can see, there are two key differences: In the original, Hermes does not specifically use the stars to predict the Flood, and the sciences are preserved in carvings on the stone temples and pyramids, not in books. Tompkins’ version is less a direct quotation than a summary-paraphrase. But that’s to be expected, because Tompkins was lying about the quotation. The lines he attributed to Ibn Battuta were not from that author, nor did Tompkins translate them.
Instead, the lines are stolen (with some light editing) from a paraphrase of a different author cited by Al-Maqrizi and appearing in Col. William Howard Vyse’s Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh back in 1840. Those lines were attributed to “Abou Szalt” (Abu al-Salt al-Andalusi), and Vyse’s paraphrase reads as follows:
The author then observes, that it has been mentioned, that Hermes, called Trismegistus, and, in Hebrew, Enoch, having ascertained, from the appearances of the stars, that the deluge would take place, built the Pyramids to contain his treasures, and books of science and knowledge, and other matters, worth preserving from oblivion and ruin.
The full text of the actual passage from Al-Maqrizi is a little different:
Some believe that the first Hermes, whom they call the Thrice Great because of the three gifts he possessed: prophecy, kingship and wisdom, is the same as him the Hebrews call Enoch ben Jared ben Mahalalel ben Fatian (Kenan) ben Seth ben Enos ben Adam, who is also the same as Idris. He foresaw, from the position of the planets, the arrival of a Flood that would submerge the whole earth; therefore, he built a large number of pyramids in which were deposited treasures, science books, and everything he feared would be destroyed and disappear from view. He wanted to ensure their safety from destruction. (my trans.)
Now how exactly Tompkins mixed up Abu al-Salt and Ibn Battuta I cannot imagine, but since his “translation” is nearly verbatim from Vyse’s summary, there is no doubt that the words were purposely recycled.
Tompkins, in case you’re interested, also attributed to the redundantly mis-transliterated Ibrahim ben Ebn Wasuff Shah (Ibrahim Ibn Wasif Shah) the claim that “Giza pyramids were built by an antediluvian king called Surid or Saurid, who saw in a dream a huge planet falling to Earth at the time” and he placed great weight on Al-Maqrizi’s report that Al-Balkhi had reported that an inscription on the pyramids said that the pyramids were built “at a time when the Lyre was in the Constellation of Cancer, which has been interpreted as meaning ‘twice 36 thousand solar years before the Hegira,’ or about 73,000 years ago.” These two assertions are strange since they don’t match my own translation from the French edition of Al-Maqrizi. I gave Al-Balkhi’s description of the inscription this way: “These two pyramids were raised when the Eagle was in conjunction with Gemini. Calculation of the time that had elapsed from that time until the Hegira of the Prophet found it to be twice 36,000 solar years, that is to say 72,000 solar years.” I don’t know why the constellations don’t match. According to Ibn Wasif Shah, as I translate Maqrizi’s version of him, Surid dreamed that “the earth overturned, and the men fled straight ahead, and the stars fell and collided against each other with a terrible crash.” The change from stars to a planet seems to be a Velikovsky-influenced revision from Tompkins, particularly when we see that almost every version of the story specifies that these were the fixed stars, not the wandering stars, or planets.
Does it surprise you that Tompkins got some of this out of Vyse, too? Vyse mis-transliterated Ibn Wasif Shah’s name as “Ibrahim Ben Ebn Wasyff Shah.” (The change from “y” to “u” I cannot explain.) Oddly, though, Vyse gives Al-Balkhi’s astrology as holding that the Eagle was in Gemini, as I do, so why Tompkins changed it to Lyra in Cancer I cannot quite figure. The only other people who follow that translation are those copying from Tompkins. And we see what happens when you copy uncritically from a fringe writer. You cannot trust them in even the smallest details.
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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