AN ARAB CHAMPOLLION?

Okasha El Daly, a London-based Egyptologist who teaches at Birkbeck College, claims (according to a Guardian story by Robin McKie) that “hieroglyphs had been decoded hundreds of years earlier [before Jean-François Champollion] – by an Arabic alchemist, Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah:

But now it is claimed that Champollion had been beaten by Arabian scholars who, eight centuries earlier, had twigged that sounds were crucial to their decoding. ‘For two and half centuries, the study of ancient Egypt has been dominated by a Euro-centric view that virtually ignored Arabic scholarship,’ said El Daly. ‘I felt that was quite unjustified.’
An expert in both ancient Egypt and ancient Arabic scripts, El Daly spent seven years chasing down Arabic manuscripts in private collections around the world in a bid to find evidence that Arab scholars had unlocked the secrets of the hieroglyph. He eventually found it in the work of the ninth-century alchemist, Ibn Wahshiyah. ‘I compared his studies with those of modern scholars and realised that he understood completely what hieroglyphs were saying.’

(There is also a Reuters story [link to the Daily News of Pakistan].) Now, I’m sure El Daly is a fine Egyptologist, but it seems clear to me that he allowed his animus against Eurocentrism to overwhelm his critical faculties; he was determined to find evidence, so of course he did. Everything I have read about the medieval Islamic world and its attitude towards the pre-Islamic past suggests to me the extreme unlikelihood of the kind of patient and open-minded approach necessary to this kind of decipherment; at most, Ibn Wahshiyya(h) and his fellow scholars proposed that the hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols like the alphabets they knew, but this is meaningless without actually decoding the system and learning which were phonetic and which ideographic and what the meanings were—such proposals were made before Champollion by Europeans, and they are quite rightly forgotten.


Besides, the guy doesn’t seem to have been the most scrupulous of scholars. The History of Islamic Science website has the following entry:

IBN WAHSHIYA
Abu Bakr Ahmed (or Mohammed) ibn Ali ibn al-Wahshiya al-Kaldani or al-Nabati. Born in Iraq of a Nabataean family, flourished about the end of the third century H., i. e., before 912. Alchemist. Author of alchemistic and occult writings (quoted in the Fihrist). He wrote c. 904 the so-called “Nabataean agriculture” (Kitab al-falaha al-nabatiya), an alleged translation from ancient Babylonian sources, the purpose of which was to extol the Babylonian-Aramean-Syrian civilization (or more simply the “old” civilization before the hegira) against that of the conquering Arabs. It contains valuable information on agriculture and superstitions.
This forgery became famous because the great Russian orientalist Khvolson was entirely deceived by it. Of course, Ibn Wahshiya was as unable to read the cuneiform texts as the Egyptian Arabs the hieroglyphic.
Fihrist (311-312, 358).

(Emphasis added.) Via Mirabilis.ca.

Comments

  1. So, Steve, are you saying the alchemist was unreliable because of alchemy or because of his mistake about Babylonian?
    Surely it should be clear from El Daly’s paper – either Ibn Wahshiya deciphered the heiroglyphs or he didn’t. El Daly isn’t claiming that Wahshiya deciphered them without showing the man’s translation, is he?
    .

  2. Here’s another article.

  3. I’m not sure what he’s claiming. The Reuters story says “Three Arab scholars between them correctly identified about 10 of the several dozen hieroglyphs, which they thought made up a phonetic alphabet, he told Reuters”; but McKie quotes him thus: “I compared his studies with those of modern scholars and realised that he understood completely what hieroglyphs were saying.” I’m making the charitable assumption that the first more accurately represents his claim; if he can produce an accurate ninth-century translation from hieroglyphs, I’ll eat all my hats.

  4. If that Steve guy is going to eat all his hats if he loses, I am going to bet his way.
    I think he’s a bit too dopey to be true, (commiserations!), and it’s a good opportunity to profit on the insanely profitable half-digested hat market, but TYG.
    If f…in’ Mofi weren’t down, none of you privileged persons would have been blessed by this mad comment. Excuse waste of pixels.

  5. Oh no, is MoFi down now? I’ll bet it’s that damned JRun again. Curse you, JRun!

  6. Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained: with an account of the Egyptian priests, their classes, initiation and sacrifices by Ahmad bin Abubekr bin Wahshih. Translated, edited and introduced by Joseph Hammer, 1806.

  7. Well done!

  8. What I don’t understand, why the innocent (and beautiful) hats have to suffer?
    They have souls, you brute!

  9. *weeps for the hats*

  10. In the Ancient Alphabets text, the hieroglyphs start on page 82 of the Arabic. There’s about eight pages of them, and he’s translating them by words, not letters, and the few Arabic words I can make out don’t seem very relevant to the hieroglyphs I can identify.

  11. 9/1/2005
    Can anybody tell me where can I get the book of Ibn Wahshiya – in English or in French?
    I need this book for a research over the Nabataeans
    Thnks in advance
    Yigal Granot

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