Islamic State militants in charge of the ancient site of Palmyra in Syria beheaded antiquities expert Kaled al-Assad, 81, after he refused to disclose the location of ancient treasures from the city. ISIS militants are said to have wanted the treasures to sell or destroy. ISIS’s ongoing destruction of ancient artifacts in the name of battling “idolatry” seems to be gradually seeping into the popular construction of historiography. In his new book Magicians of the Gods (forthcoming), Graham Hancock speaks of the “Islamic hatred of history” that he blames for the destruction of Egyptian heritage from the Arab conquest on.
I can’t help but think that this view of Islam reflects ISIS more than anything else, since previous generations attributed the destruction of Egyptian temples not to the religion of Islam but to medieval barbarism, found worldwide. Christians, after all, are not immune to such destruction; in the Dark Ages they ransacked Roman ruins, the iconoclasts destroyed statues and paintings, and in the Reformation they smashed Gothic stained glass and statuary with zeal. Yet we wouldn’t say Christians had a “hatred of history.” Puritanical Islam, including the Wahhabi strain in Saudi Arabia (also followed by ISIS and the Buddha-destroying Taliban) that happily bulldozes medieval ruins to build hotels in Mecca, may be anti-history, but Muslims have also been the caretakers of ancient ruins for centuries, and Egypt remains an overwhelmingly Muslim country that is nevertheless proud of its ancient heritage. In short: modern Wahhabism, not Islam in general, is most closely associated with the destruction of ancient sites in the name ending idolatry. Earlier eras featured religious extremists to be sure, such as Sheikh Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, who in 1379 broke the nose off the Sphinx in the name of combatting idolatry (Maqrizi, Al-Khitat 1.41), but they received criticism from their more cosmopolitan contemporaries, who wrote poems rhapsodizing over the glories of ancient monuments.
As I have documented repeatedly over the past few years, Islamic authors, writing in both Arabic and Persian, took a great interest in the primordial past and did their very best to try to discover (or invent) historical information to discover that past. What’s infuriating is that Hancock himself knows this—and he quotes some of it in his book! As I said yesterday, I won’t review the book’s specific claims yet, but in my reading last night I found Hancock quoting the Sūrid pyramid legend. Once again he managed to bungle his sources. Hancock knows the story only from its quotation in John Greaves’s 1646 book Pyramidographia, where that author had attributed it to Ibn ’Abd al-Hakam. Hancock identifies that author as the ninth century historian of the same name through the rigorous method of Googling his name and assuming they were the same. As I discovered earlier this summer by actually reaching out to experts in medieval Arabic historiography, this text does not appear in any known work of al-Hakam, and cannot be genuinely his since it records fictitious accounts of events that were happening while al-Hakam was active and had therefore not yet developed into legends. Greaves’s true source is unknown, but probably a later pseudonymous compilation of legends similar to the Akhbār al-zamān, the oldest surviving version of the Sūrid legend, and itself falsely attributed to al-Mas‘udi.
In fact, the Arabic authors loved Egyptian history so much that they had three different versions of the pyramid legend, attributing their construction to Sūrid, to Hermes Trismegistus, and to a third figure: Shaddād bin ’Ād, the mythical king of Iram of the Pillars in the Thousand and One Nights (nights 277-279). He was the son of ’Ād, and as I learned in my readings yesterday, he was one of the Nephilim-Giants! This information comes from a Persian-language Islamic author named al-Tabari, who wrote a massive history of the world around 915 CE (the English version, unread by me, is forty volumes long), which was abridged by another fellow named al-Ghazali, who recorded the following in his History of the Prophets, chapter 19, around 1100 CE:
The ’Ādites were stronger in body and more powerful than the Thamudites. There was no nation on earth equal to the ’Ādites in tallness or strength. Every man was twelve spans high and some of them were so strong that if they struck the foot on the dry ground they would sink into it to the knee. They built houses in their country which were in keeping with their strength and of almost everlasting construction up to this day: if you see a strange building it is called ’Ādian: “Irani dzāt imad, &c.” It is said in the Koran, “Do you not know how God has acted with the ’Ādites, who were the Lords of ’imād?” ’Imād is a pillar and the meaning of the passage is that they were in stature like pillars; every one of them was like several pillars in height and strength. In another passage they are compared with palm roots: “they are like palm roots strewed about on the ground.” (trans. Aloys Sprenger, adapted)
(Take the attribution to al-Ghazali with a grain of salt; it’s the name on the document, but I have no information on whether he actually wrote it.)
The details don’t interest me too much, but what does is the fact that in the medieval Islamic world, ancient ruins were attributed to the work of giants, just as they were at the same time in medieval Europe, and had been in ancient Greece before them. This was one reason that the “gigantic” constructions of Egypt were attributed to the ’Ādites.
I want to finish with two quick notes that I have rather little to say about. First, a new analysis published in Antiquity (with photo section) found that a piece of rock art in Utah that creationists claim depicts a pterosaur is actually five different images of a human and various animals. Apparently, a man named John Simonson drew a chalk outline around the shapes and declared the whole thing a weird looking bird, later suggested to be a pterosaur. The drawing at top shows his outline, and the photo at bottom has been processed using DStretch to reveal the underlying original art. Beneath the chalked outline, there was no flying monster, just regular old rock art.
Additionally, the Epoch Times published yet another piece about fantasist Enrico Mattievich, the Brazilian physicist who believes that the ancient Greeks visited Brazil (naturally) and Peru. This time he claims that Ovid’s description of Cadmus slaying a serpent with three-forked tongue (which he mistakes for three tongues) represents the serpentine Amazon River and its three main branches, while its venom and triple row of teeth represents Amazonian volcanoes! This claim is so silly, it’s hard to know where to start: Ovid is a very late Roman version of a Greek story, earlier forms of which did not specify three tongues. All forms of the myth specify that the dragon lived at the Spring of Ares (a real site) at Thebes, which in case you didn’t know, is not located in the Amazon. Sources that agree on this are: Apollodorus (Library 3.22), Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautica 3.1179f.), Hyginus (Fabulae 6 and 148). In short, the three-forked tongue and triple row of teeth were apparently Ovid’s addition to make the snake seem more fearsome. They don’t appear in any other Classical version before or after him.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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