Pharaohs in folk memory of the Orient

Egyptology, The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings

August 19, 2005

For Western scholars, the science of Egyptology was born either in 1798, when Napoleon invaded Egypt, or in 1822, when Jean-Francois Champollion announced his decipherment of hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone stands as a reminder of these events, and also of the fact that the British had succeeded in pulling the plug on the French expedition to Egypt. Convention says that between the fall of the Roman Empire, when knowledge of hieroglyphs was lost, and the rise of the Corsican First Consul, nothing survived of pharaonic history except mystical fantasising and garbled folk memories. The discoveries of the French savants rendered all this obsolete, and Egyptology entered the modern age.

The material preserved in Arabic sources has been neglected by Western Egyptologists. This book is an effort to change that. Okasha El-Daly is an Egyptian scholar based in London who has made a lifetime's study of the Arabic contribution to our knowledge of ancient Egypt. He reads the language far better than most European Egyptologists, and he is not hampered by the assumption that Arab writers can have nothing of value to say about the subject. He has also read widely within Western publications on Egypt and, to a lesser extent, on comparative anthropology. The bibliography is formidable proof of his powers of research.

El-Daly is strongly influenced by the work of Edward Said on Orientalism. His book is dedicated to Said's memory, and the acknowledgments end with the wish: "May his luminous soul be pleased with this work." As such, his book is an attempt to reassess the contribution that "Orientals" made to the study of their ancestors. It is therefore something of a work of piety.

El-Daly is a masterly guide to Arabic source material. There are accounts of ancient temples, human and animal mummies, gilded idols and copies of ancient texts written in hieroglyphic, demotic or Coptic, with attempts at translation. There is much on ancient astrology, although this practice does not seem to have been known in Egypt before the Achaemenid conquest. A king named Tosidon or Tomidon (one of the Ptolemies?) is said to have had a glass planetarium. An anonymous queen had a temple on whose walls were portrayed armies. When a particular type invaded, she simply went to the temple and obliterated the relevant pictures, thus putting a stop to the invasion. King Ashmun built a tunnel under the Nile, its walls covered with coloured glass, so the royal ladies could cross to the sun temple without getting wet.

In these accounts, there recur the two obsessions of the medieval Near East: magic and buried treasure. Sometimes these could be combined. For example, the distinctly unorthodox 11th-century ruler Al-Hakim is said to have employed an ancient idol that housed a familiar spirit. This spirit from the past could reveal the whereabouts of stolen objects, a technique that enabled the Fatimid sovereign to put a swift end to thieving in Cairo - at least by anyone except himself.

Other sources deal with medicine, astronomy and the wisdom of the sage Hermes, sometimes described as Hermes the Copt. It is clear that the Greek and Roman admiration of the Egyptians as herbalists, alchemists (the term derives from the Coptic word for Egypt) and philosophers continued into post-classical times.

Much of this Arabic literature comes from Coptic sources, written or verbal, because the medieval Egyptians were aware that Coptic was the direct descendant of the ancient language. There is an ambivalence about ancient Egypt in Coptic thought. The spread of Christianity, followed by Islam, produced a rift with the old religion and, in a sense, with the whole pharaonic tradition. No modern Egyptian, for example, would claim to be descended from Rameses II, even though some may be, and Egyptians are proud of their past. The link has gone. On the other hand, there is a fascination with the ancient culture, which grows the more that that culture is thought to be misguided and in the grip of demons.

It is not difficult to believe that Coptic sources preserve some accurate memories. The detailed account of pharaonic taxation that is preserved in the probably 15th-century work of Ibn Zahira may turn out to rest on secure foundations, and the same is likely to be true of the sources describing Alexandria and its marvels.

The material contained in this book is an important source for the anthropology and folklore of medieval Egypt, and this is enough to justify this study. It is intriguing to read that even in the time of Al-Idrisi, who died in 1251, there was a particular day in the year when people who hoped for preferment from the sultan would offer incense to the Sphinx.

For El-Daly, this elaborate material about the ancient past amounts to Egyptology in something like the modern sense. If Egyptology is defined as a fascination with all things pharaonic and a curiosity about what this civilisation achieved, then this is what he presents. But if Egyptology is to be seen as a historical science, it has to be concluded that most of the Arabic sources fall short of this. The attempts to read individual hieroglyphs and to give them phonetic values are wide of the mark, although the recognition that there was a phonetic side to hieroglyphs is an improvement on the ideas that circulated in Renaissance Europe. Similarly, the names of kings and many of the gods are unrecognisable to a modern eye, and it is clear that we are dealing with indirect memories at best. It is the broken link with the ancient past that is responsible for this, and that leaves us, for the most part, with hints and romantic impressions. The man who repaired that link is still Champollion, and his toolkit was the Rosetta Stone.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, Cambridge University.

Egyptology, The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings

Author - Okasha El-Daly
Publisher - UCL Press
Pages - 230
Price - £61.25 and £35.00
ISBN - 1 84472 063 2 and 062 4

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