This weekend I watched X-Men: Apocalypse, which I found to be less awful than critics claimed, though not terribly enjoyable. I mention it though because I was struck by the opening sequence, which seemed to draw so much from the medieval Arab-Egyptian pyramid myth of Surid. In the scene, the evil godlike mutant Apocalypse uses high technology on sarcophagus-like beds within a secret chamber under a giant pyramid to engage in mind transfer into a new body, powered by solar panels atop his pyramid that are kept covered in silk drapery until the time is right. Such elements—the silken covering, the labyrinth of hidden chambers, the technological sarcophagi to preserve bodies—can all be found in the versions of the medieval story of Surid given in part in the Akhbar al-zaman and more fully in al-Maqrizi. I am not terribly familiar with the comics’ version of Apocalypse, created in the 1990s, but it is my understanding the film version is a bit different from the comics’ origin story for him and uses material from comic stories set in the distant future.
I don’t know whether the filmmakers intentionally drew on the medieval material for their imagery, or whether it’s simply a coincidence, but it was odd to see such similarities.
Similarly, I saw that there is a bit of a discussion over on Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog of whether a tenth-century text from the Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan “proves” the existence of Bigfoot in medieval Russia. The passage in question (which I have posted here for the year 922) involves Ibn Fadlan recording a story told to him by a king along the Volga River about a giant, one of the people of the giant tribes of Gog and Magog, who lived in the vicinity. He was allegedly eighteen feet tall. The king said that he had the giant captured and brought to him, but that the monster caused people to drop dead from looking at him. The king then offered to show Ibn Fadlan the bones of the now-dead giant. “I saw his head. It was like a great beehive. His ribs were like the stalks of a date cluster and his leg bones and arm bones also were enormous. I was astounded at the sight,” Ibn Fadlan wrote, in the 2011 translation of Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone.
The king’s story would seem to be a tall tale told to a credulous traveler, and the bones, from the description, sound very much like those of a mammoth. It’s also a bit odd that Gog and Magog are described here as giants, since in the Islamic tradition, as given by al-Qazwini, they are bestial monsters only half as high as a man.
But the Arabic writers of the Middle Ages aren’t done with us today. They underlie a new article on Ancient Origins in which Clyde Winters argues that Native Americans did not build the Cliff Dwellings of the American Southwest but instead received them from Africans who came there from across the ocean in the 1300s.
Clyde Winters is the Afrocentrist diffusionist (and believer that the Atlanteans were Africans) who “translated” the so-called Fuenta Magne bowl, an allegedly Bolivian artifact that he believes is inscribed with “proto-Sumerian.” (Other fringe writers identify the geometric patterns in the bowl as Sumerian or Phoenician, and it clearly can’t be all three!)
Winters’ claims rest on the work of Leo Weiner, who tried to argue in the 1920s that Central American cultures were heavily influenced by medieval Africa. The specific claim of a transatlantic voyage stems from Al-Umari’s Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, which reported that the Mansa Musa of Mali had said that his predecessor, Abu Bakr II, had sailed out into the Atlantic in 1311 to find the limits of the ocean and never returned. The passage (which I have posted here for the year 1349) was translated by historian Basil Davidson and printed in Afrocentrist John G. Jackson’s Man, God and Civilization (1972). Davidson’s translation first appeared in a June 7, 1969 article for West Africa magazine called “Africans Before Columbus?”
The problem is that citing this source undermines Winters’s thesis. Abu Bakr II set sail sometime around 1311, but the cliff dwellings of the American southwest are several centuries older, as confirmed by dendrochronology studies.
The Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings date to the late 1100s, and the African cliff dwellings of the Bandiagara Escarpment were constructed by the Tellem people between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. The two sets of constructions are superficially similar, but this is due to the fact that there are only so many ways to pack a full village of mud brick buildings into a cliff face. That said, beyond the superficial aspects, they don’t really look that much alike architecturally.
But if the argument is that Abu Bakr II brought the style to the southwest, he was 150 years too late. And as Abu Bakr’s expedition is the cornerstone of the Afrocentrist argument—the text clearly implying that the Malians had no prior knowledge of the opposite continent—the argument fails on the logic before even considering the facts.
Winters’s other evidence is almost laughably bad, from taking Spanish accounts of darker skinned Native people to refer to Africans, to assuming that stick figures must be Malian in origin since Native peoples could not have come up with that artistic achievement on their own!
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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