Intermission – a reprint from the vaults: things Egyptian

from ‘Findings’ (one of the research-blogs) originally published Monday, October 17, 2011

The other Al-Idrisi – medieval Egypt and Hieroglyphics

 Again, thanks to Nick Pelling’s having pointed it out –  in this post –  now I’ve managed to get hold of  Okasha El-Daly’s book: Egyptology: the missing millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, (UCL Press, 2005).

– It wasn’t easy to find locally, and I have it on a shortish loan, so this post will be mostly notes and quotes, focused especially on those where Al-Daly refers to Jamal al-Din al-Idrisi and the Anwar. Relevance of Al-Daly’s book to Vms research is simply explained. As Nick’s post pointed out, one of the illustrations which Al-Daly includes shows a script not unlike the Vms’ (see El-Daly’s Figure 24 in the 2005 edition).By the way, this “al-Idrisi” is not the geographer. Of Jamal al-Din al-Idrisi (d. 1251 AD)  little personal is known, except that he died about a century after the al-Idrisi. The other al-Idrisi, far better known today, is Abu Abd Allah Muhammad alIdrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani al-Sabti (1099 – 1165/6 AD). Note that al-Sabti means(?) the Sabaean.

The other al-Idrisi’s book, Anwar is about Egypt’s pyramids, and was earlier considered  by Gawad (1947), and Sezgin (1988) as Al-Daly points out.

But there’s far more intriguing material in Al-Daly’s book.  For example, this manuscript the Kitab Hall Al-Rumuz, of which only the one apparently incomplete copy remains.

The book Kitab Hall Al-Rumuz, attributed to Dhu Al-Nun al-Misri, is known only from a unique manuscript in Istanbul. In fol. 96a it is stated that ‘this book is called Hall Al-Rumuz of Dhu Al-Nun Al-Misri (Deciphering Symbols/Signs) … The book contains at least 112 folios, but unfortunately the copy I [] obtained from the library in Istanbul seems to lack some folios as the last one, fol. 112, does not seem to have a normal ending. It is possible that the manuscript was much longer.

Between folios 3a and 9b there are 14 pages, each containing two tables, each headed by a letter of the Arabic alphabet with its phonetic value. Below the Arabic letter are 28 squares containing the form of the letter in 28 different scripts. All the tables include signs which bear close resemblance to the equivalent Egyptian scripts. There are in addition to Egyptian scripts, South Arabian Himyarite, Persian, Old Greek and Old Latin to name but a few.; to try and identify the languages and all the symbols would be a major research project as the book contains more than 300 scripts. (Okasha El-Daly op.cit. p. 68)

Most of the book is about the transmission, interpretation, translation and misinterpretation of hieroglyphics in Egypt before and during the Islamic era. It’s fascinating reading. These notes are ones that I think might be worth referring to when I review my posts here, preparatory to publishing a summary. But I rather think the contents of Al-Daly’s work likely to strike all sorts of chords with other researchers into the Vms, so I’ll put in anything I think might set another worker on a useful trail. (Should be a fairly long post, then.)

Note: all op.cit. and loc.cit. refer to Al-Daly’s book.

[In the course of distinguishing between secular histories, and role proper to the book of revealed religion], Jamal al-Din refers to the contemporary site of ‘Ain Shams, classical Heliopolis, saying that the Pharaoh had evacuated to there from Memphis. “[Heliopolis] was at that time the Shrine of the Sun where the Egyptian Sabaeans perform [sic] their religious duties and traditions. It is one of the Seven Holy Temples of the world..”
(Al-Daly, op.cit. p.13 – citing Jamal al-Din Al-Idrisi, Anwar:79-80. (hereinafter, unless otherwise stated, Jamal al-Din is meant by al-Idrisi)

A received tradition (hadith) about the sayings of the Prophet of Islam included praise of Egypt, and an injunction that Muslims should be good to the Copts of Egypt. (op.cit., p.18)

– from which we may suppose an early accord with them, and a willingness to study both the Coptic language, and preserved texts.

al-Idrisi’s study of the pyramids includes quotations from a number of works, many by native Egyptians. Some are listed by Al-Daly  on p.28;  the full list is given in his appendix (II).

Egypt’s Islamic treasure-hunters were certainly seeking gold, but in addition less tangible riches:

Throughout their manuals, references are made to looking out for medicines such a kohl, which heals blindness, and medicine for leprosy.. In addition, some were seeing ancient Egyptian books of wisdom and sciences, especially magic” (op.cit. p.37, citing al-Idrisi Anwar:100)

There is no doubt many in twelfth and thirteenth-century Egypt knew where to find the Pharaonic tombs and how to enter them, and could describe what would be found there, including books. Moreover, the habit of founding monasteries and mosques on older centres of worship increases the likelihood not only that such structures were likely to be demolished in search of treasure, but that books of ‘ancient know-how’ might have been found at the time of their first construction  (even in the pre-Islamic period) and in some cases preserved in monasteries – on which see further, below.

By the thirteenth century, the practice of treasure-hunting (and demolishing buildings in the belief they covered treasure) had escalated into what one Muslim juror described as a sickness, unbecoming to members of his faith. (op.cit., p.38)

Treasure hunting manuals were being produced inconsiderable numbers, some more genuine than others, and al-Daly comments on three now held in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. He notes that one is dated to about the seventeenth century while another is entitled “The grand original book on discovering the minerals of Egypt, of Babylon, from the inception of its kingship”.

“Throughout these manuscripts are pseudo-ancient Egyptian scripts, and some in Coptic, inserted here and there, probably to reassure the reader of the authenticity and credibility of the book.” (p.39).

…which appears to suggest that the treasure-hunting had – or was thought to have – been well established even before the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century AD.

[In MS Arabe 2764]  fols 66a, 66b and 70b, we read the claim that its author deciphers several scripts, including Egyptian, Greek and Pahlavi, though Al-Daly comments that none seems to have been correctly written or deciphered.(op.cit. pp39-40)

Note …In connection with what looks like an adobe, or mud-brick version of a pyramid (Vms fol.86v, the mini-map inserted in the northern quadrant),  this is interesting:

fol. 85a [MS Arabe 2764] describes Dashur and its seven tombs of mud brick, belonging to the Royal Harem. The pyramid of of Amenemhat II, where de Morgan in the years 1894-95 found on its western side the tombs of a queen and four princesses. (op.cit. p.40)

The temples of Dendera, and of Coptos (now gone) are described. The ‘star-ceiling’ of the latter had an image of Mut/Nut across its length, though the figure was by Copts evidently equated with Miriam, as Mary ‘mother of stars’ or queen of heaven.(see..loc.cit.)

The author Al-Maqizi  speaks of how the Romans (i.e. the Byzantines) had hidden much treasure in Egypt before their departure in the seventh century, “making detailed notes of the locations, and depositing these notes in the Grand cathedral of Constantinople” Al-Daly mentions here the treasure found at the temple of Philae after it fell to the Christians, being taken then to Constantinople.(loc.cit.)

Alternatively, he said that the Romans did not write these notes but collected books already written by the earlier Greeks, Chaldeans and Egyptians (loc. cit.)

Al-Baghdadi (Al-Ifadah: 102) saw in Alexandria more than 400 pillars similar to ‘Pompey’s Pillar’ which came from the area around it and which were broken up and piled on the beach to protect the coastline against the waves and to prevent enemy ships from landing. The destruction is said by Al-Baghdadi to have been committed by the Governor of Alexandria during the time of Saladin 1169-93. (op.cit. p.42)

al-Idrisi laments the demolition of several small pyramids in Giza (op.cit. p.42 citing Anwar:39).

al-Idrisi also mentions that in the ninth century, during the rule of Khumarayah in Egypt (884-96AD), there was found an [hieroglyphic] inscription behind a false door in a pyramid which was read, translated and turned into Arabic.(op.cit. p.43). Presumably translated into Coptic, or Egyptian, and then rendered into Arabic.

al-Idirisi also quotes Jabir Ibn Hayan’s book Al-Naqd when he says that.. one pyramid held 30 Pharaonic glass jars full of red elixir, each one containing a pound in weight. The other contained fine gems of different colours, so old that they were not recognisable..” (op.cit. p.44)

An ‘unrecognisable’ script is mentioned by al-Idrisi (Anwar: 72-3) who opened a hole in the northern facade of the pyramid of Menkaure, and found nothing but ‘a dead man with inscribed gold leaf in an unknown script. An eyewitness who took part… relayed this account to Al-Idrisi in the thirteenth century” (loc.cit)

Al-Idrisi relates the story of some treasure hunters who sought out a monk from an Egyptian monastery to interpret Egypt’s ancient kalam kahini (priestly speech), “a further piece of evidence that Moslems/Arabs believed that the could have ancient Egyptian deciphered by monks in monasteries.” (op.cit.)

al-Idrisi not only described routes to the pyramids, but their inscriptions, and the chemical analysis of clay in building material, by studying its mineral content in order to check place of origin, and notes on stones re-used at Jeremias Monastery, Saqqara. (op.cit. p.46)

To this can be added the widespread practice of giving the exact pronunciation of places, people and things, particularly according to local tradition. Of especial interest here is the geography by Obn Sa’id al-Maghribi (d.1286) who mentions that the country of “Punta” lies between al-Kanim in the south and Nubia in the North. (op.cit. 46-7, citing Ibn Sa’id Al-Maghrabi Kitab al-Jughrafiyah: 96).

Al-Daly comments on the early importance of regional maps in such studies, referring to those of Al-Istakhari, Ibn Hawqal and Al-Muqadasi..

“In the case of al-Istakhai, the map of the country actually forms the basis of his study. These maps are often in different colours that distinguish different features of the landscape. Al-Muqadas coloured his maps according to a standard colour code in which he used red for the main roads, yellow for sand, green for seas, blue for rivers, and dust-colour for famous mountains.” op. cit. p.47

“Arab sources widely reported a connection between ancient monuments such as the pyramids and the Sphinx, and the stars. Al-Idrisi (Anwar:151) reported alignments between the sun as it rises and a special spot between the eyes of the sphinx, because the statue was considered to be a major manifestation or idol of the sun” (op.cit. 50)

The traditions concerning temples in Egypt saw them as a combination of workshop and alchemy centre (something which many were – see op.cit., pp.51-2) Al-Daly notes that ” a typical description of the birbar is that of the 10thC writer, Al-Nadim:

In Egypt there are buildings called barabi made of immensely great stones. The birba are [sic] temples of different designs, and have places for grinding, pounding, dissolving, assembling and distilling, showing that they are built for the craft of alchemy. In these buildings are reliefs and inscriptions in Chaldean and Coptic; their meanings are not known.. the known barabi are the temples of Wisdom. (op.cit. p. 50 citing Al-Fihrist: 418, 425)

According to al-Qazwini (d.1283) a birba is:

a temple in which a tree or talisman was established. The birba of Akhmim is a temple which has images depicted in the stones, high reliefs, still visible until now” (loc cit., citing Athar: 139)

Ibn Jubayr describes the important temple [birba] at Abu Sir (Akhmim) in upper Egypt, where a statue of Min remained until c.1183. (op.cit. 51)

A drawing of the lighthouse of Alexandria was made early in the 12thC by Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati, an Andalusian who visited Alexandria first in 1110 and again in 1117. Al-Daly cites his description (op. cit. 53)

Of interest is al-Garnati’s writing that:

 “on the top was a mirror of Chinese iron, seven cubits wide (364cm), used to watch the movement of ships on the other side of the Mediterranean. If the ships were those of enemies, then watchmen in the Lighthouse waited until they came close to Alexandria, and when the sun started to set, they moved the mirror to face the sun, and directed to on to the enemy ships to burn them in the sea.” (op.cit. p.53, citing Al-Gharnati, Tuhfat: 99-100 where the lighthouse is shown in diagram. Al-Daly reproduces the diagram as figure 6)

I found the next most interesting, for we know ancient Egyptians did recognise some ‘national’ constellations, most notably their own,  Orion, in which form the Pharaoh was typically depicted as preserver of the boundaries, shown always in the act of striking a kneeling opponent. Such a tableaux occurs from the earliest dynastic period, when it was used as the central image on the ‘Palette’ [-stele/boundary stone] of Narmer.

It appears that somewhere along the line, the notion of the wandering, or invading ‘easterner’ – each region having its assigned constellation – became confused with the notion of the planets as messengers for their constellations, and thus ‘wandering’ stars.  (On the idea of the planets as wanderers, and as messengers of their native constellations see e.g. Jim Tester, History of western Astrology)

This would seem to me to explain the following passage cited in Al-Daly:

Ibn Umail presented in one of his works (Kitab al-Ashkal wa Al-Tasawir, MS Arabe 2609 Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, fol.32bff) an account of meetings held with colleagues to discuss ancient Egyptian objects obtained from a temple and presumed to hold the secrets of alchemy. In this work … he also described reliefs and paintings from the temples, which he associated with alchemical symbols…
Ibn Umail expained that.. colleagues…informed him that a group of astronomers, with knowledge of the functions of the stars, had previously suggested that the stela depicted images of planets. Ibn Umail’s colleagues complained that they could not comprehend the mysterious language used by those astronomers. Ibn Umail [noted]…a picture on the stela of a person holding a sword and about to strike the neck of another person whose head he is holding. ..These are images traditionally associated with astrological (sic) symbols. When Ubn Umail gave an alchemical explanation they asked for evidence to support his claim. Ibn Umail then said:
Our friend Ab Al-Hassan al-Siqili (of Sicily) brought that book which has the paintings and statues from Upper Egypt, where he found it in the possession of a Byzantine monk (rahib min al-rom) – and he took it from him.” – op.cit. p.55

Of course, the Egyptians themselves may have associated goods, including metals and stones, with the regions (and thus the ‘nations’) from which they came, which would allow a further association with any ‘wandering messengers’ from those regions.

Ibn Washiyya (author of the Nabataean Agriculture) also published a work on the subject of translating ancient scripts (ca. 900AD) of which we have part, op.cit. p.57

In relation to the Manichaean/Gnostic element in Egypt:

from 1909 Blochet published a series of studies on Moslem Gnosticism in which he too maintained that certain medieval Arabic writers had succeeded in identifying some hieroglyphic letters. (loc.cit)

Al-Daly writes:

My brief survey of the available materials reveals wide use of Egyptian hieroglyphs by medieval Arab scholars and artists .. [shows that] several scholars succeeded in deciphering at least half of the Egyptian alphabetical signs. Demotic must have been much easier… as materials in more than one script and language – Coptic/Greek/demotic – were still available and readable. It is interesting to note that nearly all the sources I refer to were alchemists, many also called Sufis or Mystics (e.g. Jabir, Dhu Al-Nun and Ibn Washiyya). This may be due to the fame of Egypt as the land of science, wisdom and mysticism, which drew people with such interests.” (loc.cit.)

Note:  apparently, though, efforts to learn about older Egyptian medicine were largely ineffective, since in the same century as Ibn Washiyya, we have the complaint of one Egyptian Muslim scholar that there was no one able to teach the science of medicine. teachers simply sat while one read a text, explaining and commenting on nothing.

Greco-Roman writers… [evidently] believed that hieroglyphic signs were symbols, each representing a single concept. (loc.cit.)

Arabic manuscripts from the 12thC, and perhaps earlier, containing Coptic grammars and vocabularies (e.g. Scala Magna by Au Al-Barakat, also known as Ibn Kepir (Ibn Kabr) MS Orient 1350 British Library; cf Budge 1928; 79-81; MS Add 24, 050 British Library) were also brought to the west by Pietro della Valle and fist studied by Thomas Obicini (Thomaso di Nova) in the early 17th century (op.cit. p.58)

In Lingua Aegyptica restituta (Rome 1643), the Egyptian Language Restored, [Kircher] included a complete Coptic grammar and lexicon translated from the Arabic manuscripts (sic) brought to him by Pietro della Valle. (loc.cit.)

Kircher quotes more than 40 different Arabic sources… it is clear that the medieval writings of Gelaledden, Aben Regal and Aben Vahschia (Ibn Washhiya) formed the basis for his studies on hieroglyphics. (loc.cit.)

Al-Daly believes that the “Barachias Albebenephi” quoted extensively by Kircher in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus.. may be the well-known Egyptian/Coptic scholar Abu Al-Barakat Ibn Kepir (Ibn Kabr) …who wrote several treatises on the Coptic language including the Coptic (Arabic) Scalae – ‘dictionary/name-lists’. Al-Daly here refers to his own Fig. 7 (loc.cit)

Relevant to certain comments recently made on the Vms board: here are the critera for calligraphy that were laid out in Sufi circles (according to Al-Daly), and which led to their keen appreciation of Hieroglyphic style:

*Proportion in lettering, which should have balance, symmetry and similarity.
*Parallelism, where the forms of letters face in the same direction and are the same distance apart, like Arabic Kufic.
*Straightness of arrangement… and the creation of lines of texts facing each other, also a common feature of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
*Graceful regularity, by keeping the order and form of the letter throughout the text.
*Aesthetics of ‘Enigma’ which is the challenge posted by the unknown script. It also invites the viewer to think, and inspires his sense of curiosity (I’ll say!!)
*Surpassing the ‘Horror of the Voc’ where every available space is filled.

In textiles from the Fatimid period (909-1171), there are many examples of Arabic script clearly emulating hieroglyphics. op.cit. p59 and se Al-Daly’s Figure 8.

The Egyptian resistance to Greek may lie behind attempts to reconcile the two languages by producing Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, phonetically transcribed into Greek characters. op.cit. p.61

In the fifteenth century, bilingualism, and even trilingualism was observed among the Copts, by Al-Maqrizi who notes in the early fifteenth century that:

Upper Egyptian Copts conversed in Sa’idic Coptic [while also having] a perfect knowledge of Greek, but they preferred Sai’dic which was the ‘original Coptic dialect’/ Al-Maqrizi [said] about the people of Daranka, also in Asyut province, that ‘they all, young and old, speak Coptic, and explain it in Arabic’ (loc.cit., citing Al-Maqrizi Khitat 4:2:1045; 4:2:1083)

It has been suggested that knowledge of hieroglyphic writing survived among the Copts until at least the seventh century. This interest must have continued, and perhaps even expanded, so much so that it was at times a concern for some of the church hierarchy. (loc.cit)

Note: it may be in response to sentiments such as that which were expressed in a work attributed to the Coptic monk Shenoute (d. mid-fifth century) that the Scala Paradisi by a Syrian monk speaks well of imagery of sun and moon.

In the first half of the 13thC, a Syrian named Al-Jobry, who wrote on astrology and often visited Egypt wrote of a Coptic monk named Ashmonit that:

This elder monk is a brilliant philosopher who knows the secrets of the ancient priests and uncovered their symbols and understood their sciences (op.cit. p.62 citing Al-Jobry Al-Mukhtar: 144)

The role of the Coptic monk/priest as keeper of knowledge, of libraries and even of Nilometers is similar to that of the Egyptian priest in pre-Christian Egypt, as evidenced by the content of the vast hoards of papyri found in temples and the associated priests’ houses in various parts of the country, for example the Fayum. Temple libraries contained books covering the various branches of religious and secular knowledge (loc.cit.)

Even outside Egypt, in Iraq for example, there is evidence for the magical use of Egyptian symbols as displayed in some of the Sabaean(?) magic talismans which seem to show Egyptian hieroglyphic signs (loc. cit, citing McCullough 1967:43).

Arabic translations of… Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch, Chaeremon, Plotinus, Porthpyry and Iamblichus. (loc. cit).. widely quoted by some Islamic authors.

… the now lost work by the Egyptian priest Chaeremon (1stC ce) on hieroglyphics..widely quoted by later …writers such as Clement of Alexandria (fl.191-220ce) and Porphyry (d.305ce), both of whom were well known to medieval scholars. (loc.cit.)

There are a few texts which combine more than three languages, in which we have Demotic, Greek and Latin in addition to an as-yet-unidentified language (op.cit. p.63, citing Coles 1981).
Another good example of multilingual material, including Egyptian hieroglyphs, is a statue of Darius I from Susa, Iran (loc. cit. Illustrated by al-Daly as Figs 9-11) which has a text in four languages: Akkadian, Elamite, Old Persian and Egyptian hieroglyphs. (loc. cit.)

There are other texts with multi-language scripts from the period of Persian domination of Egypt: these include cuneiform vocabulary of Egyptian words (loc. cit., citing Smith and Gadd 1925).

Texts showing a mixture of two languages or scripts are also known, for example Phoenician and Hieratic (loc.cit citing Shisha-Halevy 1979); Hebrew and Hieratic (citing Aharoni 1966; Kaufman 1967; Yeiven 1969); Old Coptic and Greek (Satzinger 1994) and Aramaic texts in demotic script (Bowman 1944).

That Ancient Egyptian and Arabic are related should not be more surprising than that Egyptian and Hittite are related. As John Ray has suggested: It is becoming more and more likely that the Semitic, Hamitic and Indo-European languages were originally one, a view supported by earlier extensive research… (op.cit. p.64)

Egyptian scripts are distinguished in the Arabic sources as the Qalat or al-Qalat..”Pen of….”

*the temples (Barbawi); …
*the birds (Tayer);
*priestly (Kajini);
*of south Arabia.Yemen (musnad);
*Coptic (Qibti);
*of Hermes (hermes),
*North/Natural Magic (Simiya),
*Incantations (Nimjat);
*talismans (talismat)
*magical spells? (Qalfaitriat)
*al-Misri: of Egyptian
and one unknown: *Al-Laqmi.

The medieval Arab use of the south Arabian scripts Musnad and Himiyarite is not appropriate, as we now appreciate the close relationship not only between the languages of South Arabia and Egypt, but also their scripts (Quack, J.,”Agyptisches und Sudarabisches Alphabet”, Revue d’Egyptologie 44 (1993) pp. 141-55). In addition, medieval Arabs would have observed the finds of objects inscribed in South Arabian scripts and found in an Egyptian context, such as those discovered by Petrie (op. cit. 64-5, citing Petrie 1914; plate 22, no.136e and p.32)

In his book Al-Hasil, Jabir ibn Hayan (mid 7th- mid 8th C ce) cites several languages while discussing alchemical terminology: Arabic, Greek, Alexandrian, Persian and Himyarite. (op.cit. p.67) The ‘Alexandrian script’ here is certainly not Greek, since the latter is listed as such beside it. (loc.cit).

Note… by ‘Himyarite’ the authors may mean to include Sabaean script, which they seem never to distinguish. By that time the old land of Saba had – first – fallen under Himyarite rule, and subsequently distintegrated.

Note to self: what script was used in Gerrha in its heyday?

17/07/2015 ~ Next post returns to f.73v …

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