On Sunday, CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a piece on Easter Island reported by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. To promote the piece, CBS tweeted questions about whether aliens built the statues. In the filmed piece, Cooper asked whether space aliens put the statues in place. It was a depressing confirmation that the media has a low opinion of its audience and that the ancient astronaut theory is now so mainstream that it even shows up in news reports on the highest-rated news broadcast in America.
As most of you know, I am currently writing a book about legends of the pyramids for Indiana University Press’s trade division. I am currently writing the chapter in which I discuss the importation of the Arabic legend that Surid built the pyramids before the Flood into seventeenth century Europe. I had long known that this happened almost simultaneously in three different parts of Europe: by Oxford astronomer John Greaves in England in 1646, by German polymath Athanasius Kircher in Italy in the mid-1600s, and by French scholar Pierre Vattier in France in 1666. Taken together, these three men introduced the story to Europe and were responsible for its incursion into European occult history, mysticism, and what would become modern “alternative” archaeology.
What I didn’t know until I started writing the chapter was that this was no coincidence. It turns out that the three different men actually were working together, after a fashion.
In 1637, John Greaves set off on a trip to the East to collect Greek, Persian, and Arabic manuscripts for a clergyman patron, and the trip would afford him the opportunity to try to study the development of Ptolemy’s Almagest by visiting the exact locations where Ptolemy observed the stars. He made his way to Alexandria and to Cairo, where he collected a number of Arabic manuscripts and took measurements of the pyramids for his book Pyramidographia (1646). One of those manuscripts contained a version of the Surid story, which he judged to be a colorful but completely fictitious fantasy. He published the story in his 1646 book in English translation.
On route, according to some scholars, or on the way back, according to others, Greaves stopped at Rome and met Athanasius Kircher, with whom he had long and fruitful discussions about Egyptology. He probably viewed the Egyptian antiquities on display at Rome, which were the source of Kircher’s Egyptological interests and his writings. Greaves and Kircher apparently kept in contact, and Greaves wrote a dedication for his book to Kircher, though he did not publish it. The two men shared similar ideas about the obelisks of Egypt as miniature pyramids inscribed with scientific secrets. Greaves discussed this in his Pyramidographia and two decades later Kircher wrote an entire book on the subject. Shortly after meeting with Greaves, Kircher began investigating Egypt and pursuing the same Arabic manuscripts that Greaves had gone to find. Kircher obtained a number of such texts, including versions of the Surid story. He included it in his books attempting to decipher the hieroglyphs.
In France, Greaves’s Pyramidographia caught the attention of Melchisedech Thévenot, a French scientist and diplomat best known for inventing the bubble level and also for popularizing swimming at the end of his life in a book that Benjamin Franklin read and took inspiration from. Much earlier in life, however, Thévenot developed an interest in the Middle East and collected a series of travel narratives about voyages to the Middle East, translating those from other lands beyond France. He took Greaves’s book as one of his subjects on account of his discussion of his trip to Egypt. Having translated it into French, he passed on a copy to his friend and colleague Pierre Vattier, a doctor and orientalist. Vattier was taken by Greaves’s account and was inspired to make a study of an obscure manuscript in the library of the Cardinal Mazarin that had been brought to France in the mid-1500s. This was the Egyptian History of Murtada ibn al-‘Afif, whom Vattier knew as Murtadi, son of Gaphiphus. This thirteenth century manuscript told the story of Surid at great length, copied from a worm-eaten manuscript of a book quite similar to the Akhbar al-zaman of c. 1000 CE and perhaps a copy of their lost common source. Vattier’s translation was then itself translated into English in 1672 and went on to inspire artists and novelists and poets, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose friends threw the book out the window because he wouldn’t put it down, and Maria Corelli, who used the book to help invent the curse of King Tut in the 1920s. Greaves’s version, being more scientifically respectable, got the story included in a number of eighteenth century universal histories, through which it entered in early occult histories.
The interest in the Surid story generated by these texts—and particularly Greaves—helped to convince Col. William Howard Vyse to commission fresh translations and summaries of Arabic texts for his Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837, which cited Greaves frequently on scientific matters, though the translator, Aloys Sprenger, relegated Greaves’s text to a glorified footnote, mentioning only that it gives the same account as the Akhbar al-zaman.
The bottom line is that there really is a secret stream of Egyptian history operating under the surface, but it isn’t an occult legacy. It’s the weird effects of a small group of scholars all knowing one another and one another’s work.
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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