Review of Okasha El Daly's "Egyptology: The Missing Millennium"

Submitted to the Egyptologists' Electronic Forum (EEF).

Dr. Okasha El Daly - Egyptology: The Missing Millennium.
Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. UCL Press, 2005.
xx + 230 pp. [not 280 pp. as listed elsewhere]
ISBN 1-84472-062-4, Paperback, EUR 52, GBP 35.

The stated objectives of the book, which straddles the disciplines of Egyptology and medieval Arabic studies, are threefold (p. vii):
(1) “to demonstrate that medieval Arabs were interested in, had knowledge of and attempted to interpret the culture of Ancient Egypt” [thus countering the prevailing notion that it was Islam that cut off the Egyptians from their pharaonic heritage],
(2) “to show the relevance of these materials to the study of Ancient Egypt by bridging the gap between the works of the Classical writers and those of later Europeans [of the Renaissance]” [this is the “missing millennium”, covering the period from the Moslem annexation of Egypt in the 7th century CE until the Ottoman conquest in the 16th century],
(3) “to encourage further study of the medieval Arabic material available, some of which could help archaeologists with descriptions and with the excavation and interpretation of sites, and perhaps even to reconstruct monuments which have long since disappeared.”

The following is a brief outline of the book's chapters, showing the broad and interesting variety of topics covered, most of them being enriched, in Chapters 3-9, with Arabic source material.

Ch. 1 Introduction
Shows how Western scholars past and present have mostly systematically neglected or undervalued the medieval native Egyptian interest in pharaonic Egypt. Egyptian Egyptologists have paid little attention to their medieval heritage, partly because Western scholars and institutes have dominated Egyptian Egyptology since Napoleonic times. The chapter ends with an overview of earlier scholarly works that, in contrast to this general trend, have dealt (be it in an unsystematical way) with medieval Arabic sources relevant to Egyptology.

Ch. 2 The Making of an Interpretatio Arabica of Ancient Egypt
The Arabic interest in ancient Egypt was not only fed by the mention of Pharaoh in the Qur'an, but also by a general interest in the universal history of mankind for its own sake. Sources available to them were the observations by early Arabic travellers, the Copts, and also Classical and Jewish sources. A survey of pre-Islamic contacts between Arabia and Egypt is given, as well as the history of the Moslem annexation of Egypt.

Ch. 3 Treasure Hunting
Stories about the wealth of the Pharaohs led to the establishment of a medieval Arabic industry of treasure hunting -- sometimes state controlled. Manuals for treasure hunting appeared, of which examples are given. Some monuments were destroyed by this industry, and others by their use as stone quarries, to the great sorrow and disappointment of medieval Arabic scholars.

Ch. 4 Medieval Arab Archaeological Methods and Descriptions
Also Arabic scholars and rulers executed excavations, sometimes using surprisingly modern methodology. Travellers gave detailed descriptions of monuments visited, with special attention for the pyramids, the Sphinx and ancient Egyptian temples.

Ch. 5 Medieval Arab Attempts to Decipher Ancient Egyptian Scripts
Medieval Arabs, notably those from alchemistic and Moslem Sufi circles, showed a great interest in ancient Egyptian scripts. Decipherments were attempted, often invoking the help of local Copts.

Ch. 6 Medieval Arabic Concepts of Ancient Egyptian Religion
Arabic scholars also showed a vivid interest in those contemporary Egyptian religious and magical practices that were rooted in older customs. The Sabaeans of Haran made pilgrimages to ancient Egyptian sites, notably to the Sphinx (the story of its disfigurement is recounted in this chapter).

Ch. 7 Egyptian Mummia, Mummification and Burial Practices in Medieval Arabic Sources
Arabic writers differentiated between several forms of mummia, namely natural products versus the product harvested from Egyptian bodies. The latter became the subject of an extensive international trade. Arabic descriptions of uncovered mummies are provided.

Ch. 8 Egyptian Science in Medieval Arabic Sources
Medieval Arabic scholars saw Egypt as the source of all sciences, notably of the alchemistic crafts, a view that was stimulated by the impressive monuments and the fame of the earlier Alexandrian scholars on the one side, and the tales of Hermes Trismegistus on the other.

Ch. 9 Egyptian Kingship and State Administration
The image of the Pharaoh in the Qur'an is discussed, as well as medieval Arabic theories on pharaonic state administration. The Arabic writers showed a special interest in Queen Cleopatra.

Ch. 10 Conclusions
Summarizes the findings of the previous chapters and suggests directions for further research.

There are fifteen pages of good quality Figures and Plates, but unfortunately they are numbered in a somewhat impractical manner.

Appendix 1: Biographies of Arab Writers
Appendix 2: Books on Ancient Egypt Used by Al-Idrisi
Appendix 3: Primary Arabic Sources
The appendices provide an overview of the lives and backgrounds of medieval Arabic scholars (20 pages) and of editions of their works (10 pages), forming a very worthwhile reference tool for those unfamiliar with this aspect.

The main strength of the book lies in its making available a wealth of medieval Arabic extracts from manuscripts, many of which have never been published before. Hopefully this book will act as an incentive for the publication of more medieval Arabic source material! The inclusion of this material, otherwise difficult or impossible to access, makes reading this book an experience that many readers will definitely enjoy, even if they may not always agree with the interpretations and suggestions offered by the author. And I disagree (often rather strongly) with many of the author's ideas -- notably with the linguistic and etymological theories proffered throughout the book, and also with some of the historical interpretations (for example those on p. 14-17 and p. 168). However, these are mainly side issues or the result of unfortunate phraseology.

I will shortly be focussing on two of the topics in the book which have received a lot of press coverage -- Cleopatra as scholar and Arab decipherment of hieroglyphs -- both of which have been represented by the media in the usual sensational way, but before I do so I would like to comment on Chapter 1. The suggestion that Egyptian Egyptology was cut off from its medieval predecessors because it imported European scholarship (scientific mindset, use of sources) could well be valid. However, I am uncomfortable with the fact that the term 'Eurocentrism' is invoked a lot in this chapter, a loaded term that nowadays has all kind of negative associations attached (creating an divisive atmosphere with overtones of racial or cultural bias). Whereas it seems to me that the 'missing millennium' is not so much (or not solely) the result of an European blindness, let alone a wilful anti-Arab/anti-Islam bias, but of the more 'neutral' phenomena described below. My discomfort is only confirmed by the two examples of suppposed 'bad' Eurocentric interpretation of ancient Egyptian history given in this chapter -- Persians in Egypt and Pre-Classical contacts between Egypt and India (p. 5-6) -- which strike me as very unfortunately chosen, being based on too few, and not always up-to-date (Petrie) or reliable (Stricker), opinions.
The 'neutral' phenomena to be considered are the following. Firstly, the lack of accessible sources played (and still plays) an important role. Arabic medieval sources are scattered, untranslated, unedited and unpublished, in short, a lot less available than, for example, the Classical sources. So it is hardly surprising that Egyptians, let alone Europeans, of the distant past have made little use of these medieval sources -- an outstandingly practical reason, rather than a case of biased choice. Secondly, the Enlightenment saw itself as heir of the Classical Age, and everything in between as a Dark Age dominated by religion and superstition. Thus information from, and scholarship in, this intermediate period were undervaluated if not neglected. If medieval Christian Europe itself received such an unfair treatment, then it should not surprise us that medieval Islamic Arabia would be dealt with in like manner. There is indeed a bias at work here -- but it is an anti-medieval one rather than an anti-Arabic one. (Question: how much Byzantine or medieval European material dealing with ancient Egypt do you know?) Thirdly, it cannot be denied that much of the Arabic material about ancient Egypt has a very 'Arabian Nights' flavour. In my opinion, the present book, unwittingly, confirms rather than disproofs this in many of the cited examples. In these circumstances it is not surprising, though no less regrettable, that the baby was thrown out with the bath water. That is, the rational reaction of modern Arabic scholars was to reject all the material as being of doubtful quality -- just as their European counterparts would have done.

All this said, the author is of course quite right in pointing out that it is a great pity that Egyptophiles and Egyptologists usually completely ignore Egypt's Islamic period -- even though such a strict and artificial separation into 'Classical' and 'post-Classical' disciplines for a country is not exactly exceptional, and hardly can be avoided for practical reasons (contrary to being a matter of "prejudice", p. 12). Overcoming this separation makes for a great topic, and the present book deserves all praise for being an "Opener of the Ways"! However, I think that a work that aims at fulfilling such a bridging function has a lot to benefit from being very critical and from avoiding the danger of 'overshooting' by going from one extreme into the other. I would have preferred a less speculative and possibly a less over enthousiastic approach to that taken by the present author. However, this does not in any way diminish the fact that the book is a treasure trove of possibilities for further, and deeper, research, since the present work, by its very nature of being a pioneer, can provide only the initial impulse to the development of these fresh ideas. To give only two examples that especially appealed to me: in Chapter 2, the account of the strong contacts between South Arabia and Egypt during the Greco-Roman period is intriguing (p. 14-16), and one hopes that this topic will get a more systematic and more critical monograph in the future; the same can be said of the intriguing suggestion by the author in Chapter 9 that the ancient Egyptian institution of the _Xrdw n k3p_ may have survived in a medieval Arabic Egyptian institute called "Children of the Room" (p. 128-129).

It is also in Chapter 9 that we find the case study of how the Arabic sources dealt with Queen Cleopatra, a topic that has received a lot of attention in the press, see for example "The Virtuous Scholar" (URL); "Cleopatra: Scientist, Not Seductress?" (URL); "Cleopatra seduced the Romans with her irresistible . . . mind" (URL).
The first problem with such reports is that what the press calls "the modern Western perception" of the Queen is of course coloured by the cinema, rather than by the Classical Western sources, and even the author lumps together all Western images too succinctly (p. 131). I could well be wrong but I think that the contrast between the Arabic image of the Queen and the Greco-Roman image of her is not really that strong (possibly only a matter of different accentuations). Western sources do have an eye for her intellectual qualities (they are just less expounded upon). For example, Plutarch in his 'Life of Anthony' (section 27) says that her irresistible charm had not much to do with physical beauty but more with her character and "the persuasiveness of her discourse", so with her intelligence, which is demonstrated by her multi-lingual abilities (see the full section online at URL). In Renaissance Europe, she did apparently have a scientific reputation even if only because of a misunderstanding of Galen's 'Cleopatra' (cp. URL).
The second problem with most of these press reports is that they suggest that the Arabic image of the Queen is better than (this is 'corrects') the Western image of her. They confuse the Arabic 'romance' about Cleopatra with how the Queen really was. This is not the fault of the author, as the book does signal some causes of that 'romance'. For example, the stories about Cleopatra writing books for a large part seem to stem from the existence of books written by others but dedicated to the Queen (p. 134) and by confusing her with famous female scholars (p. 135-136). It is also noted that Cleopatra was conflated with strong female rulers from Arabia (p. 133, 136). That the Roman and Arabic images emphasised and exaggerated different aspects should not surprise us. It is not unusual for people faced with cultures which they experience as 'exotic', to stereotype these other cultures as either 'dark' (with barbaric bloodthirsty males and loose ensnaring women) or as 'paradisiacal' (with noble warriors and all-knowing priestesses) -- perhaps one could even call these the "Colonial model" versus the "New Age model". Such models say much of the ones who adopt them and hardly anything of the cultures that they are concerned with. That the Romans, for political reasons, picked a model of the first type (Cleopatra as a shrewd seductress) should not surprise us, nor that the Arabs, for esoteric reasons (alchemists wanting to see Egypt as the land of secret science and hidden wisdom), preferred a model of the second type (Cleopatra as virtuous scholar). Neither representation says much about the real Cleopatra. I see no reason to think that the Arabic vision of the Queen is less biased, and more factual, than the Greco-Roman vision; it seems not based on original Ptolemaic facts but on medieval 'fancies'.

Chapter 5 deals with the interest in Egyptian scripts shown by the medieval Arabic scholars. This is a topic which has also generated many press reports, from relatively reasonable ones like "Scholar says: Muslims had insights into hieroglyphs" (URL) to sensationalistic ones such as "Arab scholar 'cracked Rosetta code' 800 years before the West" (URL). The book is not to be blamed for headlines such as the last one. On the other hand, possibly the author could have phrased things more carefully in order to avoid such misconceptions. Terms like "the Egyptian alphabet" and "decipherment" are constantly used as if either of these two things had a basis in reality, instead of merely existing in the Arabic mind. (The term "Egyptian alphabet" does not here refer to the consonant order used in Egypt during the Greco-Roman Period, nor to the Egyptological transcription 'alphabet' -- although unsuspecting readers may easily think the latter is meant. What happened is that Arabic writers paired hieroglyphs with their own alphabet.)
The author clearly believes that the Arabic writers knew the meanings of some hieroglyphs, due either through transmitted knowledge or via bilingual texts, though this is not shown convincingly. Because the book gives the medieval manuscript pages (script tables) without detailed analysis, many readers will have a hard time judging the author's deductions. And the few cases which are examined fail to impress. (Example: a clear O9 (Nephthys sign) is identified by Ibn Wahshiyah as _al-'adl_ "justice" (p. 72), which the modern author counts as correct because "temples (were places) where justice was dispensed" [sic!].) Further, most 'hieroglyphs' given in the Arabic charts are not recognizable as such. This leaves one rather sceptical about the press report statement that "three Arab scholars between them correctly identified about 10 of the several dozen hieroglyphs that they thought made up a phonetic alphabet" (the book itself says: "several scholars succeeded in deciphering at least half of the Egyptian alphabetic signs"; p. 57). But even if the number of 10 had been correct, then it still would leave the reader wondering about the statistical chance of there being a few possible hits among many misses. Add to this that one Arabic writer seems to employ more than one alphabet (Abu al-Qasim, Fig. 23 vs. Fig 21 and Fig. 22), a problem which is not addressed and which only strengthens the impression that those alphabets are just alchemistical Spielerei.
The claim (p. 72, 140), that Ibn Wahshiyah "correctly identified determinatives, which he distinguishes from alphabetical letters" left me puzzled, as what seems rather to be the case is that Ibn Wahshiyah suggested that hieroglyphs might represent sounds as well as ideas, a notion which does not have much to do with an accurate knowledge of ideograms versus phonograms, let alone determinatives.
All things considered lead me to the conclusion that there was no such thing as an Arabic decipherment of hieroglyphs. And thus there was no knowledge of the script that could be used by medieval Arabic writers to gain knowledge of ancient Egyptian concepts, as the author seems to suggest throughout the work. Nor is there sufficent evidence to convince one in even the small matters of designing blazons (p. 66; those in Fig. 14 are not really recognizable hieroglyphs) or the knowledge of titles (p. 134). It is thus difficult to accept that the medieval Arab work on hieroglyphs has Egyptological value, in the sense that it would not have advanced (genuine) decipherment had it developed further in Egypt or had it been known in Europe, nor can it help us in any way today. It does, however, deserves credit for breaking away from the notion that hieroglyphs were just symbolic, and for suggesting that they had phonetic values. In that way, the work of some medieval Arabic scholars may well have inspired, via Kircher (p. 58), the work of Champollion.

Of course even without decipherment, there is the possibility of oral transmission. But unlike the author, I did not become convinced that the medieval Arabic writers had "knowledge of ancient Egypt" in the form of genuine, independent knowledge that was preserved and transmitted to them ('independent' in the sense of knowledge other than that based on the observation of still-standing monuments and sites or derived from Greco-Roman and Coptic written sources). Future research may well prove that such a continuity of knowledge existed, but the present book does not really succeed in doing this, in my opinion. Of course, there's the -- already known -- exception in the form of material surviving in folk religion, and what medieval writers have to say on that topic may provide an important extra source. And perhaps the author is correct by stating that oral transmission of some lost Demotic stories not otherwise preserved may have occurred (p. 25), but these are not yet attested, and it seems to me that the genuine would be difficult to distinguish from the fictional fantasy tales. For example, most unknown kings with tales attached to them do not bear recognisably Egyptian names (Zalma, Shadat, Qumis, etc) and seem inventions. (The case of Aq, p. 53, is not a valid counterexample, for the Dodson article (ZAeS 108 p. 171) deals with King *BikkA, not really a "similar name"). The cases in which the names are recognizable do not form independent knowledge since they are based on Manetho and known Demotic tales. The material on technologies (Ch. 8) has the same fantastic nature, fitting the exaggerated alchemistic notion of the "wisdom of Egypt", and although also here one could leave room for the hope that one day some of these "mirabilia" will prove to have a grounding in reality (for example in an Alexandrian milieu), until then a firm scepsis is demanded.

To the question whether the author has fulfilled his three stated objectives, I would have to answer "Yes, with flying colours", despite all my criticisms. The book has convinced me that the Arabic writers had a serious historical interest in ancient Egypt, an interest which has been undervalued considerably. It also convinced me that Arabic travel reports, geographical surveys, and perhaps even treasure manuals deserve closer attention in the future, for such medieval material may hold information about monuments and sites that cannot otherwise be gained. And I do not think that anyone who has read this book, would still speak about the 'missing millennium' as if it was a complete void, like an Egyptian professor from Alexandria still did, when telling his audience in June 2005 that "the arrival of Islam in Egypt virtually obliterated all previous pasts, [until] the rediscovery of Egypt in the 19th century by European scholarship changed all that" (URL).

A. K. Eyma
June 28, 2005

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