Egypt: A Brief History of Early Travelers to Egypt Part Two

A Brief History of Early Travelers to Egypt
Part Two

By Marie Parsons

Part Two: Secrets and Treasures

In the early days of Christian and Islamic beliefs, temples were torn down and stelae and statues were destroyed. Shenute of Atripe, said to have lived for 118 years at about ACE 348-466, as the abbot of White Monastery of Sohag was one of the most ardent attackers of heathen monuments.

However, not all non-Egyptians were interested in destruction. Some were interested in recovering what they decided were secrets the ancient Egyptians knew that needed to be brought into the light of knowledge. These secrets centered mainly on the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza. Bishop Cosmas of Jerusalem in the mid-eighth century ACE announced that the pyramids were the granary of Joseph. Dionysius of Tell Mahre in the ninth century, the Patriarch of Antioch, rejected the granary theory and stated they were undoubtedly the tombs of kings, for he himself had gone deep inside a pyramid and seen for himself.

The attraction and fascination of those pyramids standing tall in the desert of Egypt, and what they might represent and contain, remained through the centuries. In the early 12th century, Abdul Latif, an Arab physician, visited the major sites of Egypt and wrote "Time fears the pyramidsone is forced to comprehendthat the most learned axioms of geometryshow in these wonders the vast extent of human ability. In the early 13th century an envoy of King Friedrich II of Hohenstaufen visited the pyramids with the Arab scholar al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi later wrote about this in his "Book of the lights of the pyramids" and claimed that Latin inscriptions had been discovered in the pyramids, which he had translated into Arabic. Other Islamic scholars such as al-Makrizi, who lived 1364-1442, wondered whether the pyramids had been built before, or after, the Great Flood.

The purpose of the pyramids was also heatedly debated from astronomical standpoints, as best illustrated by a book titled Pyramidographia, published by John Greaves, Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, in 1646.

The subject of mummies was also written about in Thomas Browns Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, in 1658, which gave precise instructions on the use of mummiya as a universal remedy. This led to a great destruction of mummies, one Englishman bringing away 600 lbs of "assorted mummy," just for the London market, as the remains were ground into powder.

Stories of treasures hidden in these tombs, waiting to be found, also motivated the explorers. One esteemed Arab geographer named el-Masud wrote that the heart of the Great Pyramid contained a great emerald. In the year 813 ACE, Caliph al-Mamun attempted to break into the Pyramid of Khufu to search for that emerald. The original entrance to this Pyramid, and all memory of its location had been lost for centuries. The caliph solved the problem by choosing a spot on the northern side and ordered workmen to start hacking at the stone blocks. But when the workers dug a tunnel that eventually got them into the Kings Chamber, there was no treasure, just an empty sarcophagus.


Eventually, people came to Egypt to acquire manuscripts, coins, and artifacts, which could become the centerpieces of curio cabinets in the finest houses of Europe. Pietro della Valle traveled from 1614 to 1626 bringing back mummies and Coptic manuscripts back to Italy. The manuscripts proved useful for more than just a hunt for artifacts. They began to represent a search for understanding the original hieroglyphics written by the most ancient Egyptians.

These first manuscripts had been written in the latest forms of the Egyptian language but in Greek letters, which were learned by priests in the Coptic Church in Egypt. Since primers of Coptic were written in Arabic, the manuscripts could be studied by those who knew Arabic.

In 1643, the first treatise on hieroglyphs was published by Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit scholar and Professor of Oriental languages. However, he believed the glyph signs were merely symbolic, and true decipherment would have to wait a while longer.

But often in their journeys they not only acquired objects, they left records of what they observed. A Jesuit priest named Claude Sicard at the beginning of the 18th century reached Aswan and Philae, and included descriptions of no fewer than twenty pyramids, twenty-four temple complexes and more than fifty tombs. An unidentified Venetian traveled through Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia and left records of Luxor and Karnak. Two Capuchin friars left a narrative of Luxor and Esna in 1668.

Related Articles:

Part I

Part III

Egypt the World of the Pharaohs edited by Schulz and Seidel
Secrets of the Pharaohs by Ian MacMahan
The Search for Ancient Egypt by Jean Vercoutter
The World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson