I managed to injure my wrist shoveling heavy, wet snow yesterday, so it is a little difficult for me to type today. As a result, I am going to (try to) be brief. In Ancient Origins this week, eco-apocalyptic thinker Lucy Wyatt tries to make an argument about why the Knights Templar were interested in the ancient city of Harran, the longtime seat of the Sabians, until rural Muslim militias destroyed their community in the 1030s. Wyatt argues that St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Knights Templar participated in the Second Crusade in 1145 in order to have a pretext for invading Harran to steal the Sabians’ Hermetic and alchemical secrets, since the Sabians were well-known Hermetic philosophers.
It is important to reflect at this point on what might have been the genuine mission of the Knights Templar. There is no doubt that St Bernard played a key role in creating the cover story that this select group of religiously inspired crusaders existed to protect the routes to Jerusalem. But given the low numbers of Templars, at least to begin with, this explanation does not make sense.
We can dispense with this with a few facts. First, the Sabians were gone in 1145, having been driven out a century earlier and their lunar temple and its sacred relics destroyed. (Later, the traveler Jordanus had only this to say about Harran: “Concerning Aran I say nothing at all, seeing that there is nothing worth noting” [Mirabilis 10, trans. Yule]). Second, there was no secret about Harran to uncover. The Sabians were famous in their day, known across the eastern world as keepers of Hermetic secrets. For centuries, Islamic writers had described them and their secrets, and their “Egyptian” wisdom was so proverbial that their version of astrological paganism became a watchword for any pre-Islamic pagan faith. Their practices, similarly, were not unknown. Here is Al-Dimashqi describing their “secret” rites performed at the Giza pyramids in his Cosmography before 1327:
According to the opinion of the Sabians, one of these pyramids is the tomb of Agathodaemon, identical with the prophet Seth, and the other is that of Hermes or Idris the prophet, whom we have previously mentioned; the colored pyramid belongs to Sāb b. Hermes who gave the name to the Sabians. They make pilgrimages (here) and immolate a rooster, by whose convulsions at the moment of immolation they claim to know that which is hidden about the future. (my trans.)
Al-Maqrizi, however, said that the holocaust of roosters occurred in honor of the Sphinx, not the pyramids. Either way, it doesn’t really matter for our purposes. The point is that this stuff wasn’t a secret and was widely discussed across the Eastern world. The Templars need not have invaded in search of it, since the caliphs made off with whatever secrets there were in their many encounters with the Sabians over the years.
That leads me to Wyatt’s other misrepresentation. Consider this passage discussing how the Sabians maintained their independence after the coming of Islam:
What kept the Sabians safe and allowed them to continue with their practices was a reference to them in the Koran. The Koran acknowledged that the Sabians were of the religion of Noah and therefore accorded them respect. The precariousness of their existence is, however, recorded in the story of the Caliph of Baghdad who passed through Harran in 830 AD.
This is not exactly how the story goes. The Qur’an mentions “Sabians,” but the people of Harran only adopted the name when the caliph told them that they would be destroyed unless they accepted Islam or were “peoples of the book” protected by Allah’s command. So they hired a lawyer who discovered that “Sabians” weren’t defined in the Qur’an. Therefore, they promoted Hermes to the status of their prophet—not because they were, as Wyatt alleges, refugee Egyptian priests preserving Hermetic lore—but because Islam itself recognized Hermes Trismegistus as the Islamic prophet Idris and the Jewish patriarch Enoch. (“The Hebrews say that he is the same as Enoch, which is to say in Arabic, Idris,” as the Persian astrologer Abu Ma’shar wrote around 850 CE.) By having a suitably Islamic prophet and a Qur’anic (if fictitious) name, they out-lawyered the caliph, who had to leave them alone.
Needless to say, Wyatt’s sources are all fringe books, like those of Adrian Gilbert, rather than actual historians, much less primary sources.
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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