Kitab Shauq Al-Mustaham fi Ma‘irfat Rumuz Al-Aqlam (The Long-Desired Fulfilled Knowledge of Occult Alphabets)
Kitab Shauq Al-Mustaham fi Ma‘irfat Rumuz Al-Aqlam (The Long-Desired Fulfilled Knowledge of Occult Alphabets)
Egyptomania in Medieval Arab Culture: The Case of Ibn Wahshiyya
„The Egyptians were the masters of a great kingdom and their glorious past dates back many centuries to the distant past. This can be observed in the ruins of their ancient cities, old temples and establishments, most of which are still in existence in present times.”
Ibn Saʿīd al-Andalusī, Book of the Categories of Nations, 11th century
For obvious reasons, the native Egyptians and the many Arab pilgrims and traders, which travelled throughout Egypt in the pre-Modern period were much more familiar with the formidable visible material remains of Ancient Egyptian culture than Europeans before Napoleon’s (in) famous expedition in the year 1798. The non-ignorable presence of pyramids, temples, caves, marvelous treasures and mysterious hieroglyphs fired the imagination of Arab scholars alike and fostered the creation of all sorts of more or less fanciful interpretations. Therefore, in Medieval Arab culture, Egypt became the epitome of miracles, superstition and mirabilia par excellence. It is, however, rather surprising to find evidence for a genuine Arab-Islamic Egyptomania that produced a large number of texts dealing with aegyptiaca.
Although some preliminary work has been conducted, the major number of Arabic manuscripts regarding aegyptiaca remain unpublished and unstudied, so that, lamentably, there is no critical evaluation of the copious material available until now. One of the questions, which have been discussed in recent scholarship, is the crucial question of the degree to which there existed some sort of cultural continuity between Islamic Egypt and Pharaonic Egypt. Secondly, the question was raised to what extent the Medieval Arab knowledge about Ancient Egypt was ‘correct’ and as such the result of serious scientific effort unearthing the (Egyptian) Pharaonic past. While several Western scholars deny any cultural continuity and emphasize that Medieval Arabs merely told fantastic legends, witnessing themselves a complete break in the tradition, Okasha El-Daly insists that the Arabs made a serious contribution to the field of aegyptiaca and that their achievements are unjustly neglected by current – mainly European – scholarship. The most famous statement in this context, which found a large echo in the media, is El-Daly’s claim that a few Arab scholars were even able to interpret hieroglyphs correctly some 800 years before Champollion. In his anti-Orientalist approach, he is converting a certain alchemist called Ibn Waḥshiyya (tenth century CE) into a true hero of decipherment.
In what follows, I will present Ibn Wahshiyya’s work in greater detail.
Indeed, the question is a thorny matter, since it touches several cultural sensibilities at once: On the one hand, the traditional Western – and if one wishes Orientalist – narrative of the ‘discovery’ of Ancient Egypt by the Europeans in the nineteenth century, with all its implications, degrades the native Egyptians for beeing merely amazed and ignorant spectators, who had to recover the ‘gift’ of their own glorious, but lost, past from the Europeans. On the other hand, the charge of Eurocentrism raised by Okasha el Daly is a recurring challenge to all open-minded Western scholars. It is true that the Arab sources are only scarcely known by Egyptologists; but the reasons for this sort of ignorance are probably less ethnocentric blindness than practical impediments (inaccessibility of the sources etc.) and a general unease with pre-Modern, ‘pseudo-scientific’ approaches to knowledge. In the following, I will skip this ongoing debate as far as possible, since it is my aim to concentrate on the representational aspect of this topic.
Medieval Arabic texts on Pharaonic Egypt
Roughly, we may group the Medieval Arabic texts regarding Ancient Egyptian material according to the following categories:
1.) Texts pertaining to Historiography and Geography. They start their narrative with the Flood and concentrate soon on the well-known Biblical episodes about prophets who share some connection with Egypt (e.g. Abraham, Joseph, Moses). They are mostly drawn from the scriptural traditions circulating in the region since Antiquity, including the large exegetical elaborations by Islamic scholars on that matter.
2.) Numerous practical manuals of treasure hunting (a genre mostly unedited and completely unstudied), which aimed at providing the necessary skills and information for people interested in finding ‘hidden treasures’ – a rather common practice among local Egyptian rulers in order to increase their income. Besides some rather fantastic instructions, we will probably find therein interesting evidence for a long-lasting local tradition, i.e. for some kind of pre-archaeological practice of treasure hunting.
3.) All sorts of more or less imaginative texts dedicated to natural and occult Sciences (Astrology, Alchemy, Hermetica, Magic), including manuals on magical alphabets and talismans. Most of them are apocryphal and of uncertain origin. It is in this group where we find the most tantalizing examples of Egyptomania. Many of these texts contain a information on the earliest Egyptian history, which supposedly took place before of the Flood. The main protagonist of this narrative is Hermes the ‘first;’ a legendary figure who was considered to be the first astrologer, the first physician, and the builder of the pyramids, of the first cities and of the large temples. As a true cultural hero, he is also credited being the inventor of the hieroglyphs: “portraying in it [the temples] in carvings all the arts and their uses, and pictures of all the instruments of the artisans, indicating the features of the sciences by illustrations, out of the desire to preserve the sciences forever for those after him, fearing that all trace of it would perish from the world.” The second, post-Diluvium Hermes, was located in Babylonia and was the builder of Babel and a philosopher, astrologer and physician. The third Hermes lived in Egypt, like the first did, and was considered to be the author of many alchemical, magical and astrological texts. All three Hermes-figures constitute the complex, threefold figure of the Arabic Hermes Trismegistos.
This narrative of the Pre-Islamic Egyptian history and the Three Hermes-figures is an Arabic legend, but it has Ancient antecedents, which are originally rooted in Late Antique, and Pagan Egypt. This is true for many other elements of Arabic Hermetism as well that cannot be discussed here. But it is important to emphasize that this basic ‘common link’ to Late Antiquity is the reason why the image of Ancient Egypt in Islam resembles to a large extant the image, we find Medieval and Renaissance culture in Europe: In both traditions Egypt was the epicenter of Ancient Wisdom, Magic, Alchemy, mysterious scripts and Astrology. I do not have to emphasize the importance of Hermetism in the context of European Egyptomania; however, it is less known that Arab Hermetism was likewise significant with respect to Occult Sciences.
Whoever was interested in Magic, Astrology, mysterious alphabets etc. in Medieval Islam came automatically in contact with aegyptiaca or pseudo-aegyptiaca; this connection harmonized with the popular perception of Egypt as the epitome of miracles and mirabilia, inspired the every-day experience of inhabitants and visitors of Egypt. One cannot emphasize enough, that parallel to Renaissance and Baroque Europe, the interest for esoterica in Islam was a widespread phenomenon among cultivated people and not a matter of popular ignorance and superstition. Frequently it came along with a Neo-Platonist worldview and a fascination for magic scripts, allegories and symbols, common among Sufis, Shīʿīs and especially Ismāʿilīs.
The treatise of the 93 Alphabets or The long-desired fulfilled Knowledge of Occult Alphabets by Ibn Wahshiyya
The author of this work, Ibn Waḥshiyya al-Nabaṭī, was a curious personality of the early tenth century Baghdad who claimed to be of Chaldean (‘Nabatean’ ) origin. He became famous as translator of several books from ‘Old Babylonian’ into Arabic. All of them deal more or less with topics of Occult Sciences; his most famous and successful book, the “Nabatean Agriculture,” though being an agricultural manual, is also imbued with magical ideas and practices. As far as his works have been investigated, they were regarded to be fantastic and mostly fictitious nature grounded in Hellenistic, Late Antique, Pseudo-Pagan and Islamic materials. This fact degraded him in the eyes of scholars, describing his as forger of pseudo-translations, resembling the notorious Annius of Viterbo, manufacturer of false antiquities in the 15th century. However, both are highly interesting phenomena of successful ‘science-fiction’ that can be interpreted as evidence for the deep fascination for ancient cultures and exotic wisdom.
The treatise of the 93 alphabets is ascribed to Ibn Wahshiyya, and although the attribution is doubtful, we know that it circulated under his name as early as the tenth century. The topic of the booklet is a long list of magical alphabets, their interpretation and their equivalence in Arabic letters. Most of these ‘alphabets’ are just fantastic inventions and look very similar to the ‘magical letters’ we find in other Arabic magical treatises – these pseudo-letters are shaped like Greek or Aramaic letters with small circles at the ends. Only a smaller number of them can be identified in existing alphabets: e.g. the Kufic and Maghreb Arabic script, the Greek, the Syriac, Hebraic and South Arabian alphabet and the Indian ciphers, interpreted as a magical alphabet. However, the most famous passages in this treatise are dealing with hieroglyphics and with the Ancient Egyptian priesthood, and its customs.
Before we start to analyze these passages, it is important to delineate the remarkable history of this treatise in the context of European Egyptology and Egyptomania. The translator, Joseph Hammer (more known under his later name Joseph Hammer-Purgstall), who soon became a famous Orientalist, was a young Austrian aristocrat in the service of the British Empire during the struggle against Napoleon in Egypt. He found the manuscript in Cairo after the leave of the French invaders during his short visit to Egypt (1800-1801). Joseph Hammer edited and translated the work into English some years later, probably while he was in London and Oxford (published London 1806). The choice is rather intriguing, since this obscure booklet was one of the earliest Arabic texts translated into any modern European language ever. The reason for this amazing interest is directly related to our topic: It was inspired by the hieroglyphic ‘fever’ which marked the decades between the discovery of the (not yet deciphered) Rosetta stone (1799) and its final decipherment by Champollion (1821). It was a period, in which any text on the hieroglyphs attracted almost ecstaticly the attention of especially French and English scholars, competing eagerly to be the first to ‘crack’ the code. Hammer refers to this French-British rivalry in his introduction by remarking with slight contempt to the “French Savans, who, though successful in collecting many valuable Oriental books and manuscripts, failed in their endeavours to procure a satisfactory explanation of the Hieroglyphics.” He proudly presents his translation that “gives beside a key to the hieroglyphics, and in the same chapter a curious account of the different classes of the Egyptian priests, their initiation and sacrifices.“ It is clear that Joseph Hammer saw his translation as a valuable ‘British’ contribution to the debate, and as such it was celebrated in British scholarship.
Joseph Hammer was not the first European who pointed to Ibn Waḥshiyya’s mysterious text. Athanasius Kirchner had already known another manuscript from Malta: “Nam Aben Wahshia – primus Aegiptios libros in linguam arabicam transtulit, quem nos in Melitae inter spolia Turcorum repostum singulari Dei providentia in arabicum reperimus.”
However, let us now return to the treatise by Ibn Wahshiyya itself. The two most important passages of the book in the context of Egyptomania are the following:
1.) The eighth chapter on the so-called “Hermetic” alphabets, containing several lists of Egyptian hieroglyphs and pseudo-hieroglyphs together with their eventual meaning. It also includes a remarkable excursus on the classes of Egyptian priests and their practice (14-40 / 78-113). This amalgam of fantastic legends and half-truths has never been investigated in greater detail.
These “Hermetic” alphabets are presented as a group of “innumerable” particular alphabets, invented by the Egyptian kings. Ibn Wahshiyya mentions only the most “celebrate[d] of these alphabets.” He interprets them clearly as symbols, following the traditional view since Late Antiquity (16 / 81):
“This is the alphabet used in the temples (barābī), the pyramids, the inscription tables and stones; [the temples] and in other old buildings, from the time of the first Pharaohs. You should know that it is not arranged by letters like other secret alphabets, but in symbols (rumūz) and signs (ishārāt) composed according to the opinion that pleased Hermes the Great. They consist in innumerable figures and forms. They established them as a basis which leads to the object directly. “
The chapter concludes with a classical topos of Hermetic literature - he asks the reader to keep the knowledge of this work secretly (30, 31/ 100, 101):
“Learn [o reader!] that what has been transmitted from the secrets and the ancient hermetic treasures, never heard and never revealed to anyone before. I could only acquire [this knowledge] with pain, enormous expense, spending a lot of time and travelling a lot. And you, who learned it, must keep it secret with the utmost care… “
2.) The second important passage is to be found at the end, as an appendix. It is dedicated to the shīshīm alphabet, which he treats as a distinct alphabetic system. It contains a very interesting list of 34 hieroglyphs and their correspondence in Arabic letters (43-46/119-121). This passage conferred Ibn Waḥshiyya the fame of having “reached the correct understanding that hieroglyphs are not really pictures or symbols, but they have phonetic value.” Indeed, from a European perspective, the idea to establish equivalence between hieroglyphs and letters, i.e. signs with a phonetic value, is quite revolutionary. It is well-known that the long-lasting misunderstanding of the hieroglyphs as symbols dates back to Antiquity and had been the main impediment for a decipherment of the hieroglyphs before Champollion. But does Ibn Wahshiyya’s list of correspondences render sufficient evidence to suppose that he did really understand the hieroglyphic system? In fact, two basic ideas were necessary in order to interpret hieroglyphs correctly: First, the understanding that the Coptic language is closely related to the Ancient Egyptian language as it is attested by the script; and second, the understanding of the subjacent rebus principle, i.e., the representation of a word or syllable by a picture of an object, the name, which resembles in sound quality the represented word or syllable. Therefore, it was not only necessary to perceive the phonetic dimension of the hieroglyphs, but also to understand how the principle worked in this case and on which particular language it was build. Unfortunately, Ibn Wahshiyya does not make any statement about the language represented by the hieroglyphs, although Coptic was a well-known language in the Middle East, even outside Egypt. The author is mainly interested in the iconic and esoteric aspect of the writing systems and their characters, and not in the languages associated with them. Concerning the phonetic dimension of the shīshīm alphabet, we can state that even though the signs of the list are actual hieroglyphs, the values of the Arabic letters bear no relationship to the actual phonetic values of the hieroglyphs depicted.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the following interpretations of hieroglyphic groups are erroneous.
In fact, this list is not exceptional in this treatise; lists like the one described here are rather the fundamental organizing principle of the whole work: The main goal was to lay out the correspondence between Arabic letters and every one of the secret alphabets, whether the correspondences are real of fantastic by nature should be left aside in our observation. Furthermore, the idea is not as innovative as it might seem in this cultural context, especially since we have to consider that for most inhabitants of the Middle East, the existence of diverse alphabetical systems was a familiar phenomenon (e.g. the Aramaic writing systems; Pahlavi; Greek; Coptic; Aethiopic; South Arabian). Thus, it is not surprising that the fascination for scripts and scriptuality became a pervasive theme in Arabic culture.
However, although Ibn Waḥshiyya’s alleged correct interpretation of the hieroglyphs appears to be doubtful, his ‘treatise of the 93 alphabets’ should be regarded as a fascinating and telling example of the Medieval Arabic Egyptomania. It continues traditional visions of Egypt firmly rooted in the region – including mistakes, misunderstandings and re-interpretations of well-known Egyptian motifs like hieroglyphs – and should be seen as a legitimate part of the legacy of Egyptian Culture. Thus, if we leave beside the question of ‘authentic’ vs. ‘erroneous’ interpretations of Egyptian culture, we might conclude that the Medieval Arabic perception of Ancient Egypt belongs to a much wider context of a long-lasting cultural tradition of ‘Egyptianising’ in the sense of doing Egyptian.
H. 95cm, W. 160 cm
Artist or Author
MS Arabe 6805
Book of the Categories of Nation, translated and edited by Sema’an I. Salem and Alok Kumar, Austin/Texas 1996, 35.
Although Egypt did not disappear from the European mental map after Antiquity (cf. The Wisdom of Egypt: Changing visions through the ages, ed. Peter Ucko and Timothy Champion, London UCL 2003, especially Charles Burnett “Images of Egypt in the Latin Middle Ages”, 65-99 and Brian Curran, “The Renaissance Afterlife of Ancient Egypt 1400-1650“, 101-131), European visitors to Egypt were rare (and even then mostly pilgrims) until Napoleon’s expedition in 1798, a date which is commonly regarded as the beginning of European colonialism in the Middle East. The Renaissance and Baroque Egyptomania was mostly focused on Rome’s Egyptian monuments, much more at hand.
For a first, very impressive collection of (mostly unpublished) material, cf. Okasha El-Daly, Egyptology: The Lost Millenium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, London UCL 2005. However, his far-reaching, rather enthusiastic evaluation of the material has been contested in several reviews: Elliott Colla, Review of “Egyptology: The Missing Millenium Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings”, in: International Journal of Middle East Studies (49/1), 2008, 135–137 and A. K. Eyma,, in: Egyptologist Electronic Forum http://www.egyptologyforum.org/reviews/Missing1000.html.
Michael Cook, “Pharaonic History in Medieval Egypt,” in: Studia Islamica (57), 1983, 67-103; 100: “Unlike Iran, Egypt had lost its ancient polity and culture long before the Muslim conquest, and its Christianization had broken any lingering sense of identification with that past.” Cf. also Ulrich Haarmann, “Islam and Ancient Egypt, ” in: D. Redford (ed.) Oxford Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt. 3 vols, Oxford: OUP 2001, Vol. 2, 191-194, 191: “Any continuity from ancient to Islamic Egypt was irretrievably and doubly cut off.”
El-Daly, Millenium, 57-73; 71-73 he lists “Egyptian scripts correctly deciphered,” mentioning first Ibn Waḥshiyya. In general, he emphasizes that the Medieval approach to Egypt is in many ways “as clear and scientific as those of present day archeologists” (el-Daly, Millenium, IX). The media echo of this work has been quite sensationalistic, cf. e.g. the announcement in the “Guardian” of October 3rd, 2004: “Arab scholar 'cracked Rosetta code' 800 years before the West”.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/oct/03/highereducation.arts or, e.g., the enthusiastic review in amazon
A.K. Eyma, ‘Review’: “There is indeed a bias at work here – but it is an antimedieval one rather than an Anti-Arabic one.” In fact, Medieval and Renaissance visions of Egypt are equally neglected by scholarship because of being ‘wrong.’
Christopher Braun is preparing a PhD thesis on the topic (Warburg Institute, supervisor Charles Burnett): “Treasure Hunting and Grave Robbery in Islamic Egypt – An Analysis of Arabic Manuals for Treasure Hunters (kutub al-muṭālibīn).” Another young scholar, Annette Sundermeyer (Berlin) is preparing a PhD thesis on the Hieroglyphs in Arab Culture (Humboldt Universität, supervisor Frank Kammerzell) „Hieroglyphen und andere altägyptische Schriftzeichen in mittelalterlichen arabischen Werken.“
M. Plessner, “Hermes Trismegistus and Arab Science”, in Studia Islamica (2), 1954, 49-59; Kevin van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes, Oxford 2009, especially 121-163.
H. Fleisch, " Ḥarf." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012
Joseph Dan, "The Language of Creation and its Grammar," in: Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, vol. I, Northvale 1998, pp. 129-154.