Egypt in the modern world

Medieval Arabic Egyptology

Okasha El Daly’s book Egyptology: The Missing Millennium Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings reveals a whole millennium of Egyptian studies.

There is an old story in Egyptology: that it started with Napoleon. The story continues that medieval Egyptians were not interested or knowledgeable about their own past. In fact, nothing could be less true.

In the medieval world, Arabic scholarship was at the cutting edge of knowledge. The leading scholars of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were brilliant and creative thinkers. They drew from a wide range of rich traditions including Indian, Chinese, Classical and ancient Egyptian.

Who were the Egyptians?

Even the language we use about the Egyptians is contested. It is the norm to refer to medieval Egyptians as Arabs, contrasting them to Coptic Egyptians as if this denotes an ethnic difference. This can lead to the idea, amongst some, that modern day Egyptians are disconnected from inhabitants of pharonic Egypt. Ethnic ties are complex, but this picture is wrong. Even around 200 years after the invasion of Egypt, tax rebellions saw individuals with Muslim and Christian names combine in uprising.

The connections between the two peoples is of great age: ancient Arabs and Egyptians were in contact from an early age. The first evidence for this connection dates from the 12th Dynasty (c. 1991 – 1802 BCE).

The Egyptian scholar Okasha El Daly compares the first (modern) European interest in Egypt with its overriding interest in Biblical archaeology with that of a modern Egyptian interest to prove pan-Arabist identity.  Ahmad Kamal studied the links between Arabs and Egyptians. He examined connections between words.

Egypt is of religious importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world. Egypt is mentioned ten times in Hadiths attributed to the prophet Mohammed and is referred to 30 times in the Qu’ran. It is mentioned 680 times in the Bible. In Judaism it is the place from whence the Israelites came and in Christianity it is the place where the Holy Family fled during the massacre of the innocents.

Medieval Egyptian study of Pharonic Egypt

Medieval Egyptians were immensely interested in the heritage that surrounded them. The temples, pyramids and sculpture were enthused with great myth.

A first impulse to the study of the past may have been an interest in treasure. Medieval Egyptians were aware of the great danger of curses. They knew that the tombs were guarded by knife wielding demons, who would cut off the head of anyone entering their precincts.

Ibn Tulun, a ruler of Egypt between 868 and 884 CE, was so interested in the lucrative opportunities, he made tomb raiding a state monopoly.

To protect against this danger manuals were written which included Coptic and Hieroglyphs, claiming to provide guides and protections to enter these worlds.

Coptic Christian monks and Jewish teachers were often asked for their knowledge of Egypt. Jewish sources, and Jewish lore, were very important to a rediscovery of ancient history. Even at this stage, Medieval Egyptians instinctively knew that Coptic was the same language as the language written in Demotic and Hieroglyphs. It is questionable, whether some monks could also read Demotic texts during the medieval period, or whether there was a continuum of knowledge from ancient period.

The Egyptians were also great devourers of mummia. A medical substance used in the embaliming process of mummies. The search for this substance was another impulse which lead medieval Egyptians to the tombs and pyramids.

This tomb raiding meant that some Egyptians knew bits about the archaeology of ancient Egypt. Texts might refer to Canopic jars, the sacred way in Memphis and the Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Sometimes the history was way out; for example a story about a Tunnel under the Nile may refer to the remains of Akhenaten’s complex at Amarna.

Medieval Egyptians were interested in Egyptian history. They wrote histories mentioning several kings

Cleopatra, was their favourite subject. She became the subject of a romance in which she figured as a scholar of great repute. Her court was a centre of academic dispute and philosophy. She was the philosopher queen par excellence, which tells us sometime about medieval Egyptians conceptions of power, gender and education. Notably she was not associated with sexual lure and intrigue, unlike in the later European imagination.


Ancient Egyptian religion

The temples (al-Baribi) continued to be sites of pilgrimage in this period. Some became shared holy sites of the new religions. One site was called the Prison of Joseph and pilgrims would go there to receive dreams from Joseph. This follows the biblical tale in which Joseph interpreted the dreams of his fellow prisoners and of pharaoh. However, this site was previously a temple to Imhotep, where people could sleep and wait to receive dreams.

Another important figure in medieval Egypt was Hermes. He became a prophet, associated with Idris and also Imhotep. One tale links him with a man called Agathodaimon, also the name of a tutelary deity, depicted in the shape of a snake, often with the head of Serapis.

Medieval Egyptians were interested in the esoteric lore associated with Hermes Trismegistus, a figure at once Hermes and Thoth, the traditional Egyptian god of scribes and learning. Hermetica was also popular in Europe. Much of its power was derived from its associations with Egypt. It is important to note then that this association of great knowledge developed within Egypt.

The Akhmin temple was a pilgrimage site for people seeking knowledge of astronomy.


It is clear that medieval Egyptians had a fairly profound knowledge about pharaonic Egypt. It it also true that they lacked the scientific rigour of modern archaeology and the (relative) clarity gained through decipherment of the hieroglyphs.

Egyptology is only just escaping the colonial frameworks which brought light to the complex history of ancient Egypt, but also obscured much. The study of medieval Egyptology does not just put modern scholarship into a broader context. It can provide clues and evidence for contemporary researchers.

A short perusal of the scholarship makes it more of an imperative that Arabic is added to the list of necessary modern scholarly languages.

Olfert Dapper Egyptian pyramids 1670

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics