When I discussed Ibn Wahshiyya’s book on hieroglyphics yesterday, I briefly mentioned that there is some evidence that the text might be a forgery, and that evidence came from Athanasius Kircher, the eccentric Renaissance polymath whom you will remember as the man who investigated reports of giant human skeletons, among other oddities. Kircher wrote several books on Egyptology, and in researching his failed attempt to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics I encountered the fascinating but bizarre question of Abenephius, an Arabic-language writer whom Kircher relies upon for information about ancient Egypt but whose very existence is in doubt. What’s infuriating is that his reality would help solve a vexing problem in pyramid mythology related to the question of the origins of Surid, the alleged builder of the Great Pyramid before the Flood in Islamic lore.
No writer before Kircher makes reference to Abenephius, and no one after him has ever found the book in question. Worse, Abenephius’ identity isn’t even consistent in Kircher’s own work. Originally, he referred to the writer as Rabbi Barachias Nephi of Babylon, and in time he became Abenephius the Arab, a scholar of presumably Egyptian extraction. “Babylon” was the old name for Cairo, suggesting the origin of the connection—an attempt to make the text more Egyptian—and Rabbi Nephi could easily slide into Abba Nephi and Abenephius. Why the change occurred, though, is unclear. What did not change is the allegation that this slippery character wrote a treatise on the hieroglyphs of Egypt explaining what they mean and how to interpret them. The interpretations were, in the fragments Kircher preserved, little more than Neo-Platonic philosophizing with very little connection to anything real, but they are surprisingly similar to those in Ibn Wahshiyya’s book without actually duplicating them. If Ibn Wahshiyya’s book is a forgery based on Kircher, this would be the inspiration. If it is not a fake, then the similarity would suggest Kircher’s source was real.
The facts don’t give us much confidence in Kircher. When he announced that he had in possession the manuscript of Barachias on the hieroglyphs, he refused to allow anyone to read it in its entirety, and those who saw the one page he made available noted that it seemed to be a pretty straightforward plagiarism of Horapollon and some Renaissance works on Egypt, such as the Thesaurus Hieroglyphicum. Yet the fragments Kircher quotes are close enough to known Arabic texts that Daniel Stolzenberg has recently argued that Kircher must have had access to a genuine compendium of Arabic lore on the hieroglyphs, albeit one that might have been incomplete, corrupt, or secondhand. Personally, I did not see much in the excerpts I read that could not be derived from medieval and Renaissance texts circulating in Europe at the time.
We are left with a few possibilities, none satisfactory:
In the past, Abenephius was considered a reliable and genuine authority, but more recently he has been consigned to the realm of probable fiction, at least among the couple of scholars (Stolzenberg excepted) who have even deigned to mention him since 1900. The annoying part is that the story told in the fragments of Abenephius does have a vague connection, at least indirectly, to genuine Arabic sources. He identifies, for example, Hermes with Idris, Enoch, and Osiris and ascribes to him the carving of sacred wisdom on obelisks. Swap out pyramids or temples for obelisks, and you have claims that are found in Arabic sources—but aside from the mention of Idris, also claims found in medieval Western sources such as George Syncellus. Yet at the same time Abenephius also identifies Zoroaster with Ham and ascribes the pillars of wisdom to him, a claim found in medieval European scholarship and going back at least to Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 4.27, where the claim appears nearly verbatim. Kircher was familiar with the Recognitions and cited the text alongside Abenephius.
The mixture of the possibly genuine and the possibly forged is very difficult to untangle. That leads us to a quotation from this author that might or might not shed light on the question of where the name of the antediluvian king Surid, the supposed builder of the pyramids in Arab-Islamic lore, came from. One hypothesis is that it was derived from Manetho’s rendering of Khufu as “Suphis,” and Abenephius might support that. You will recall that Manetho, quoted from Julius Africanus by Syncellus, described Suphis this way: “Suphis (reigned) for 63 years. He built the Great Pyramid, which Herodotus says was constructed by Cheops. He became contemptuous toward the gods and also wrote the Sacred Book, which I acquired on my trip to Egypt because of its great renown” (my trans.). A second version, from Eusebius, but also quoted by Syncellus, alters the second sentence to say that Suphis “became contemptuous of the gods and, repenting his impiety, wrote the Sacred Book, which the Egyptians hold in high esteem.” This version is the one Kircher knew.
Now here is Abenephius, quoted in Kircher, Historia Obelisci Pamphilii, 1: “Sauthis was the king of Egypt in those days, and he raised many needles of the Pharaohs, that is obelisks. He was a religious king, having been initiated into the divine mysteries. He commanded the priests to write down whatever they found in sacred books, and he was said to be a friend of God” (my trans.). This is more or less a paraphrase of Eusebius.
The question is whether Abenephius represents a genuine medieval account of the gradual transformation of Suphis to Sauthis to S(a)urid, or whether the text is a forgery based on Eusebius (whom Kircher quotes before this Abenephius fragment). In favor of the latter hypothesis is the fact that Kircher himself claims that Suphis was really “Sothis,” or the star Sirius, and then proceeds to find proof in the Arabic version of his name. On the other hand, some of the details might vaguely reflect the myth of Surid, particularly having the priests record divine knowledge in sacred books, and the weird phrase “needles of the Pharaohs” is a genuine Arabic expression for obelisks.
It’s an interesting possibility that there was an intermediary phase between the Late Antique legends of temples and books of antediluvian wisdom and medieval antediluvian pyramid fantasies that passed through a stage when obelisks stood in for the Pillars of Wisdom. Unfortunately, there is not enough proof for us to claim Abenephius as a genuine author, and it must remain interesting speculation. As much as I’d like to believe Sauthis to be an intermediary form between Suphis and Surid, my impression is that Abenephius contains very little that couldn’t be derived from other sources, and the name “Sauthis” is probably just “Sothis” misspelled by Kircher to forge a mystical connection to the stars.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.