Any continuity from ancient to Islamic Egypt was irretrievably and doubly cut off, first by the adoption of Christianity in Egypt in the fourth century and then, three centuries later, by the Islamic conquest. Memories of the world of the pharaohs had long since been forgotten by Egyptians who had been incorporated into the Greek, the Roman, the Byzantine, and, by the seventh century CE, the expanding Islamic world. Medieval Muslims were aware of this finality, and Islam as a belief and as a legal system enhanced Egypt's rupture with the past. The world of Ancient Egypt was presented in unadulterated Islamic terms, featuring the few righteous Egyptian believers who took the admonitions of the prophets Joseph and Moses to heart, to profess monotheism. Pharaoh, from the time of Moses, was presented as the epitome of unbridled worldly power, of haughtiness, and of zulm (“tyranny”).
Since the original function of the ancient Egyptian monuments, their cultural and ritual context, and the meaning of the ubiquitous other pharaonic symbols had been forgotten, they all became open to new attributions and interpretations. Thus the pyramids of Giza were turned into Joseph's granary, and the most striking buildings in the Faiyum and in Saqqara were rediscovered as the mansion of Potiphar's wife and Joseph's prison. The incomprehensible hieroglyphs, called “bird's script,” “temple script,” or even “hieratic” script (al-qalam alkāhinī, “script of the priests”), were imbued with enigmatic meanings. In early Muslim texts on ancient Egypt, an age-old Upper Egyptian or preferably an Ethiopian monk were mentioned, who still understood the mysterious hieroglyphic script. In medieval Islamic sources, exoticism and weirdness were the dominant attributes associated with Egyptian antiquity. Ancient Egypt was turned into a repository of miracles, magic, and treasures, yet also into a land of technical ingenuity and scientific wisdom—a double image that is familiar to us from Hellenistic hermeticism, the Renaissance, as well as Enlightenment Europe. In stark contrast to the new Muslim morality, ancient Egypt—the “Babel of the sorcerers”— epitomized idolatry and paganism; its gigantic monuments; its many gods (some even in animal shape), its mummified bodies of humans, animals, and birds, its uninhibited pictorial splendor, and many more characteristics that went against Islamic tenets provided the Muslims of Egypt and of other countries the strong negative foil that served to make them aware of their own proper religious and legal prescriptions. Egypt's historical discontinuity did not preclude its Muslim historians from trying to integrate the pagan prehistory of their country into the overall salvation patterns of Islam and to discover tokens of divine guidance in an otherwise profoundly heathen world. Conversely, pharaonic symbols and relics might also be significant for latter-day events. Even though the pagan structures of pharaonic Egypt would defy Islam during all the rest of human history, they would finally have to succumb, too: in a seventeenth-century source, we are presented with very modern demolition techniques when King Nebuchadrezzar would blow up the pyramids with black powder at the end of history, thus opening the Egyptian lands to demise in the floods of the Nile.
Water was important for the Muslim view of pharaonic history; only the Flood divided the period of paganism into two distinct halves. Abū Jaʿfar al-Idrīsī (died 1251), the most important medieval Muslim author to inform us about the pharaonic past and its vestiges, devoted a quarter of his extensive treatise on the pyramids to the question of whether the pyramids were built before or after the Flood. The vast majority of the authorities consulted by him on this question favored a pre-Flood date. According to them, the pyramids survived the Flood—although not unscathed—because, according to a fourteenth-century source, the Deluge precipitated the Sphinx, formerly a red idol of the sun, from the top of the pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) and broke it into pieces. The question of who commissioned the erection of the pyramids was hotly debated and, in the long list of potential builders, Aristotle was listed; he was said to have erected the pyramids of Khufu and Khefre as mausoleums for himself and his disciple, Alexander the Great.
The topography of ancient Egypt was eerie, wondrous, and outlandish for the medieval Muslim observer. Awesome spirits—some male and aggressive, some female and seductive—guarded the treasures and secrets of the old magi. The sciences of both alchemy (Ar., kīmiyāʾ) and treasure-hunting (Ar., maṭālib) were closely associated, in early Islamic times, with the pharaonic heritage, notably the Sphinx, a proverbial warden of treasures. Among the thirty miracles of the world that were listed in pertinent medieval Islamic texts, as many as twenty belonged to the land of Egypt, with the pyramids being the first and foremost. Attempts were made to integrate travel to those monuments into the general precepts of Islam. Visiting the miracles of Egypt was declared not only permissible, but was even recommended.
Besides the pyramids of Giza, a few other relics and sites of Old Egypt were consistently granted attention in medieval Islamic writing. These include the ruined site of Heliopolis, with its famous two obelisks; also Memphis, with the so-called arch of lapis lazuli and the monolithic green chapel that was hauled away to downtown Cairo in 1350; Saqqara, with the Step Pyramid and the mummies of the ibises; and, foremost, the Sphinx of Giza. South of Giza, the majestic temple of Akhmim was the key attraction for medieval Muslim geographers, travelers, and encyclopedists; the reason may have been the location of the town and the temple of Akhmim, directly on the caravan route from Cairo on the Nile to the Red Sea ports, from which one could reach Mecca, as well as the emporiums of the Indian trade. There were also the Faiyum, the two mastabas in the Dakhla Oasis, Philae (with Pharaoh's bath), the unfinished obelisk in the quarry south of Aswan, Dendera and Antinoë, and some monuments in the Luxor region, such as the huge temple of Karnak. The image of Luxor was characterized by double sanctity—the ubiquity of the pharaonic monuments and the continuing presence of the local Muslim saint, Sīdī Abū ʿI'-Ḥajjāj al-Uqṣurī (died 1244), whose tomb was built into the ruins of the Luxor temple.
It is difficult and sometimes challenging to try to determine the exact dividing line between the miraculous and the scientific geography presented in medieval Islamic texts. Yet geography did exist, as did precise measurement, sophisticated trigonometrical technique, and records of the physical qualities of the building dimensions and materials. Attention was paid to the many inscriptions (in various writing systems) on the pyramids of Giza. Numerous questions were addressed by Muslim authors of the Middle Ages: What is the meaning and the origin of the hieroglyphs? Is there any connection with the Greek alphabet? Then, too, the mysterious interior of the old Egyptian temples, mastabas, and pyramids captivated their curiosity. The pyramid of Khufu became accessible by force as early as the ninth century CE. The story of that event, the expedition of the caliph al-Maʾmūn into the great pyramid, found its way even into the collection called the Arabian Nights.
Certain recurrent iconographic features of pharaonic architecture were recorded and interpreted by medieval Muslim authors. The Egyptian sun disk was used in a clever attempt to establish an absolute chronology for the pharaonic remains—seen as a symbolic representation of both the zodiac sign cancer and the eagle; when the star of Altair entered the zodiac of cancer (so one Upper Egyptian scholar of the twelfth century reckoned), those monuments were erected. Using a complicated astronomical argument, he arrived at an age of twenty thousand years for the ancient Egyptian ruins (early by some sixteen thousand years).
The expertise with which the ancient Egyptians worked with difficult materials, such as granite, and their craftsmanship in erecting huge structures, such as pyramids, temples, and obelisks, evoked profound awe among medieval Muslim authors. Did pharaonic architects use ramps to move the stones gradually to their final high position, one asked, with a shrewd sense of reality. Also, that rows of slabs were found, with hieroglyphic inscriptions not only on the visible front but also on the nonvisible inside, was proof to a keen medieval Arab observer that some development occurred in pharaonic history, because the stones must have been used in different epochs yet both times in the hieroglyphic age.
The difficulty for a medieval Muslim author to differentiate precisely and convincingly between reality and fantasy in the description of the pharaonic monuments and of their surroundings, is similar to modern scholarly work. The need is to identify elements of history in the enormous, heterogeneous body of work left to us in Arabic (as well as in Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and other languages) on the history of Egypt before Islam, with a heritage shaped by omnipresent magic, sorcery, pagan lore, and a traditionally based collective imagination. Nevertheless, faint vestiges of Egypt's historical truth exist in medieval Arabic writing. The polymath al-Maqrīzī (died 1442) quoted the now-famous Egyptian king list recorded by the Greco-Egyptian priest Manetho. Apart from that, there are two other intrinsically Islamic renderings of Old Egyptian history in Muslim sources—the traditionist version and the hermetic version. The traditionist version can be traced back to early Muslim scholars and begins with the Flood and the founding of the Egyptian kingdom by Noah's great-grandson Misr, the eponym of the country. The hermetic, genuinely Islamic redaction of the history of pagan Egypt is associated with the author al-Wāṣifī/Ibn Waṣīf Shāh of the tenth to eleventh century; it contains a wondrous description of pharaonic events from before the Flood and onward.
Ancient Egypt is volatile, vague, and only faintly recognizable in the pertinent medieval Muslim literature; tangible relics of pharaonic days are rare in the Arabic texts. Tokens of continuity from ancient to Islamic Egypt were limited mainly to the spheres of popular beliefs and practices. The Sphinx is mentioned, unmistakable by virtue of its features and its conspicuous location, an apotropaic idol against the sands of the Western Desert. The continuing awareness that “The West,” the western bank of the Nile River, was originally the abode of the dead is clearly traceable in medieval Arabic sources. For average Muslims, from the Middle Ages onward, pharaonic sites otherwise served four main functions that cannot always be easily separated: (1) they were the target of pious iconoclasts who abominated the pictorial pagan heritage (pictures being tabu in Islam); (2) they attracted treasure hunters; (3) they provided cheap, yet excellent building materials; and (4) they have always been favorite areas of tourism. In the Fatimid times of the tenth to twelfth centuries CE, to give one example, bonfires were lit atop the pyramid of Khufu for the “nights of fire,” holidays that enjoyed particular support under Egypt's ruling Ismaili-Shiite regime.
In medieval Islamic writings, attempts were made to harmonize the rejection of ancient Egyptian paganism (as embodied in the relics of the Pharaohs) and the urge to preserve the majesty of the architectural patrimony. Those monuments were, it was said, petrified tokens of God's admonition not to forget the futility of human glory and might; in a very sagacious argument, a scholar of the thirteenth century even employed the Companions of the Prophet, epitomes of righteous Islamic behavior, as crown-witnesses against the wanton destruction of any pharaonic monuments. Those men enjoyed resting and praying in the shadow of the pyramids, and they did not mind being interred in their vicinity. Only in the modern age (which can be dated by the decipherment of the hieroglyphs by Champollion) did the tensions inherent in traditional Muslim attitudes vis-à-vis Egypt's pagan heritage become crucial again. The discoveries of the new field of Egyptology and the spectacular excavations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provoked new models of thought. Then, knowledge of, and pride in, the pharaonic past had to be harmonized with an Islamic view of history. At first, around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Egyptological (i.e., alien and European) image of ancient Egypt was tenuously juxtaposed with the Islamic. Gradually, efforts at a more effective synthesis were undertaken. Yet before an indigenous and harmonious Egyptian Geschichtsbild, founded both on the new scientific knowledge and on the tenets of Islam, could tentatively take root, a wave of secularization conquered the Egyptian institutions of higher learning. The Egyptological model, in the interpretation of Egypt's history before the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305 CE)—supported by an overriding pharaonicist ideology that derived national pride from the glory and treasures of earliest Egyptian history as well as a large literary corpus and a rich pharaonicizing architecture—seemed invincible for decades. Only since the 1980s, did the incompatibility of certain Egyptological and certain rival Islamic “truths” about pharaonic Egypt reemerge as an increasingly serious problem in Islamic fundamentalist quarters. The golden splendor of the ancient Egyptian kings and the abject reprehensibility of the pharaoh who defined Moses and his prophetic message may not always be easily separable for the pious believer—even in the closing days of the twentieth century.
See also BIBLICAL TRADITION.
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Ulrich W. Haarmann