Arabic Study of Ancient Egypt
The common impression of most people today is that Ancient Egypt was only studied by the Europeans, and that Jean François Champollion (1790-1832) made groundbreaking discoveries setting the foundations of this study. The implication of this is that the Arabs and Muslims in Egypt had all but ignored all the evidence surrounding them or were incapable of understanding what it all meant. The investigations of Dr Okasha El Daly have shed new light on this obscured part of history and reveal some of the vital studies done by Arab scholars over the centuries. His book, "Egyptology - The Missing Millennium - Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings" is to be published by UCL Press in early 2005.
Dr Okasha El Daly was born in Egypt in the Memphis area (the first capital city of Egypt ) and in his youth was intrigued by the monuments he saw in his home town. He went on to study for a BA in Egyptology at Cairo University before becoming an inspector of antiquities and a guide for guests to ancient Egyptian monuments. He married a Scottish lady and moved to England where he completed a PhD in UCL, London. Lecturing since 1992 at UCL, Dr Okasha has been focussing on bridging the gap between Egyptologists and Arabists. His work has taken him in search of manuscripts to many places including Ireland, Turkey, France and India as well as colleagues who have helped him in other countries.
|Arabic - Coptic Word List from Ibn Kabr's list of Vegetables|
One of his early inspirations was a book by Abdul Latif Al Baghdadi who wrote in the 13th Century CE a beautiful description of ancient Egyptian monuments. Abdul Latif showed that he was concerned at the destruction that happened to the ancient monuments during his lifetime. Abdul Latif was a serious and respected scholar being a medic and a teacher at the renowned Al Azhar University. So, Dr Okasha noted, the study of Ancient Egypt was not - as is sometimes taught - a neglected area of Arab scholarship.
Through his studies, Dr Okasha found numerous descriptions of Ancient Egyptian monuments by Arab scholars, but has since turned his focus to what the Arab scholars thought about Ancient Egypt more generally. In particular, there was great interest in the role of religion and in particular the role of magic and magicians.
|Dhu Al-Nun Al Misri - Correct order and sounds of Coptic|
Arab scholars had great interest in the knowledge of the Ancient Egyptians and preserved this knowledge in two ways: directly through their historical studies and also indirectly through knowledge that came from Ancient Egypt into Greek and Coptic knowledge and from there back into Arabic sciences.
Early Arab Alchemists studied Ancient Egyptian materials in search of knowledge they could use in their exploration of chemical properties. Some of these Arabic scholars were fluent in Coptic and there is clear evidence that they could read and understand the Egyptian Hieroglyphs they found.
Coptic is a language used in Egypt for thousands of years. It is actually, basically the same language as the Ancient Egyptians albeit the script has changed.
The Coptic alphabet became used replacing the Ancient Egyptian letters. This used Greek letters except for seven letters for which equivalent Greek letters didn't exist. This discovery of the relation between hieroglyphs and Coptic, thought to be by Kircher and Champollion, was well known by Arab scholars. There are a number of manuscripts showing the correlations between Coptic and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Champollion benefited greatly in his study of Coptic from the use of Kircher's book on Coptic grammar and this in turn is based on several Arabic manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts for example are word lists with Arabic on one side and Coptic on the other. Champollion undoubtedly would have been keen to have access to the original Arabic material in this area.
|Dhu Al-Nun Al Misri - Form of Coptic Letters|
|ibn Wahshiya - a later copy of a 9th Centruy Manuscript Identifying Hieroglyphic Letters|
Indeed, Champollion was no stranger to Arabic and went to great lengths to study it, so much so that he complained about how it strained his voice to produce the unusual sounds. It is reasonable to see this knowledge as giving him access to many significant manuscripts and perhaps it was the key advantage he had over his less famous English colleague Thomas Young.
The recognition that hieroglyphs were primarily important as sounds that when put together made words like any other alphabet was a key recognition attributed again to Champollion. However, this was well recognised again by Arab scholars. For example, Dhu Al-Nun Al Misri (d 861CE) a renowned sufi and alchemist, has had attributed to him a manual for deciphering over 300 scripts including Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, a copy of which was obtained by Dr Okasha from Turkey. The manuscript in Turkey is an early 18th century copy, which indicates the interest of the Turks in such material was part of a general healthy Turkish interest in many diverse areas of knowledge contrary to the misrepresentations often given by many Western historians. Figure 1 is a page from this manuscript and shows the correct order and sounds of Coptic and figure 2 shows the form of its letters.
|ibn Wahshiya - from 1806 full publication and translation into English|
A better known Arabic manuscript on deciphering ancient scripts is one from ibn Wahshiya (9 th/10th century CE) called ShawqAl-Mustaham. Figure 3 shows his rendering of hieroglyphic letters, correctly copied with some sounds correctly identified. The full manuscript is available in Paris and is beautifully coloured unlike our copy. Figure 4 shows a page from the translation of this manuscript by Hammer von Purgstall which was published in London in 1806 fourteen years before Champollion's famous letter. It is hard to imagine that Champollion was not familiar with this work.
The story of Egyptology is a complex one not the simple one handed down in most text books. The famous Rosetta stone was actually one piece of evidence that could have been used to work out what hieroglyphs were. There are however 100s of objects containing tw or three languages translating the same hieroglyphic text which could have been used for this. It became famous mainly because it was a key piece of British booty confiscated from the French when the British defeated them in Alexandria. The French themselves had looted 100s of medieval Arabic manuscripts when they invaded Egypt some years earlier, which in turn ended up in the British Museum in London .
The standard introduction to Egyptology has been part of a wider effort at cultural and scientific appropriation which has coloured the facts with political machinations. Part of this process has been the suppression of the historic achievements of colonised people. In time though, we hope that the full story will be known.
by: FSTC Ltd, Sat 05 February, 2005