Book Review of ‘Egyptology: The Missing Millennium’ by Okasha El-Daly

by Ruveyda Ozturk Published on: 23rd April 2009

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Egyptology: The Missing Millennium published by Okasha El Daly is an invaluable resource showing the extent of efforts by Muslims to study and develop knowledge inherited from prior generations. In this book, El-Daly explores the varying areas of Egyptology in which Arab and Muslim scholars made profound discoveries while attempting to understand and conceptualise Egyptian culture and science. He analyses a number of works created by Arabic writers on Egyptian practices, providing proof of the unending interest in Egyptology by Muslims, invalidating the wide-spread idea that Muslims did not value pre-Islamic cultures and traditions.

Ruveyda Ozturk*

Review of Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, by Okasha El Daly. London: UCL Press, 2005. Paperback: 230 pages; ISBN-10: 1844720624 – ISBN-13: 978-1844720620. Dimensions: 9.1 × 6.1 × 0.7 inches.


1. Presentation of the book
2. About the Author
3. Contents of the book
4. Further resources


1. Presentation of the book

The contributions of the Islamic World to modern science have been a matter of discussion for a while now as different aspects of the studies and developments carried out by Muslims of the past have been covered and analysed in a number of texts. Through wide ranging publications and exhibitions carried out by various organisations including the FSTC, it is now commonly accepted that as Europe was living through its dark ages with little scientific development and social improvement, the Muslim world was using knowledge inherited from the past civilisations to prepare a more advanced future and find answers to questions that have existed in the minds of great scientists for centuries. A quantity of evidence showing the adaptation, improvement and effective implementation of Greek knowledge by Muslims from the late 8th Century onwards has come to light during the last few decades. These have been shown to have had a great impact on the continuance of science and the birth of the Renaissance and as a result have provided an alternative view to the general Eurocentric approach to the history of science. However, there are still certain aspects of the Muslim contributions that still need to be brought to clarity and researched further. One of these areas that has lacked in depth analysis was the contributions of Muslims in the field of Egyptology as the Muslim efforts to recover and utilise Egyptian knowledge and practice have been discounted by many who argue that with the spread of Islam and the resulting neglect by Muslims, Egyptian science and culture has been lost and left to die over time.

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Figure 1: Front cover of Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings by Okasha El Daly (London: UCL Press, 2005).

In his book Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Okasha El Daly essentially shows that this thesis is totally false and arrogant in its understanding of actual history. Through extensive research and the analysis of a number of texts and resources on the matter, the author provides evidence of the countless attempts by Muslim scholars to understand Egyptian language, culture and practices. He cites examples of the enormous range of studies carried out by Muslim Arabic writers in the Medieval Ages to truly understand the Egyptian heritage, especially their efforts to decipher the hieroglyph scripts and the nature of Egyptian state administration. Contrary to the common view that Muslims were against studying other traditions which fell against the principles of Islam, El Daly demonstrates that Muslims took great interest in this culture after the conquest of Egypt and showed their fascination by expending great effort to uncover the realities behind the myths and customs within the lands. The book covers the most significant features of this tradition of Muslim Egyptology, which are still part of today’s Egyptology, recounting in detail the interpretations of findings on aspects of Egyptian traditions such as treasure hunting, the process of mummification and state administration. El-Daly states that:

“… the sources show not only a keen interest, but also serious scholarship that seeks to understand and benefit from the study of Ancient Egypt.” (p. 4)

The author systematically considers the historical approach taken to the study of Egyptology, discussing the currently held view held as well as the previous relevant works with the most recent being carried out in 2001, coming to the conclusion that no substantial work has been put forward analysing Ancient Egypt in the Arabic sources. He discusses in length the approach taken by Arabic writers to the study of Egyptology and how it differed from that of the Western approach. It can be seen that the Muslim observations from the time of first contact with Egypt through trading to the actual association were based on a sincere desire to get to know the culture and customs with major influences from the Qur’an and hadith which exhort appreciation of other nations and advice to establish relationships. The book also describes how Medieval Arab writers produced their works on Egypt through direct observation, discourses with Egyptian savants, classical sources, Jewish sources and other Arabic sources as well as giving background information on the topics discussed.

The study clearly shows that the documents produced by the Islamic scholars of the time on Egyptology are still widely referred to today and help to gain a better understanding of the time with many still seeking manuals on treasure hunting in order to realise private gains. The importance of hidden treasures and their hunters to the Islamic state can best be seen in the example of the 9th century ruler of Egypt, Ibn Tulun:

“… Ibn Tulun made the exploitations of these gold resources a state monopoly (Rabie 1972: 169) and decreed that nobody was to be allowed to dig anywhere without first seeking permission from the authorities and then being accompanied by a state official (Al-Balawi Sirat:195). This is perhaps the oldest official attempt to organise the profession of ‘Treasure Hunters’…” (p. 34)

Figure 3: Egyptian alphabet deciphered in Abu ‘l-Qasim al-‘Iraqi’s book Kitab al-Aqalim al-Sab’a. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, MS arabe 2676, folio 18a; reproduced in O. El-Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, figure 23.

Figure 4: Hieroghlyphic signs with their phonetic values below in a different colour in Abu al-Qasim al-‘Iraqi Kitab al-Aqalim. Source: The British Library, MS Add 25724, folio 21b; reproduced in O. El-Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, figure 21.

The text reflects how accurate the Arabic studies were in their analysis and credits their contributions to today’s studies through effective descriptions of monuments and successful archaeological explorations employing efficient methods developed by geographers such as Al-Hamadani. The Arabic scholars also shine in their great interest and sound efforts to decipher the Egyptian scripts, with the author criticising the lack of recognition and appreciation of these works:

“Nowhere in recently published Egyptological literature do we see any recognition or investigation of the contributions made by medieval Arabic scholars to the decipherment of Egyptian scripts.” (p. 57)

He also states the artistic and religious reasons for Arab interest in ancient scripts arguing that Muslim artists were greatly inspired by Egyptian art as well as by the monuments of ancient Egypt. Another significant topic covered by El Daly includes the Islamic attitude to ancient Egyptian religion with the temple domain, role of magic, superstitious beliefs, deities and prophets and a number of important pilgrimage sites like Heliopolis discussed at length and the suggestion that the Egyptian religion influenced the development of Sufism in Islam is put forward. Mummification and burial practices were also of great interest to Arabic scholars with accurate descriptions produced of the process and details of the potential medical uses of natural mummia identified.

This study also brings to light the admiration and honouring of scientists of past civilisations by medieval Arab scholars with the Egyptian Thoth/Hermes given the credit as the originator of many of the sciences as argued by Ibn al-Nadim. El Daly states that the findings of Muslims on Egyptian scientific progress centuries ago are only now being considered by Egyptologists. He wrote:

“The pioneering work of Ursula Sezgin (1994-) has shown that most of the Arab knowledge of ancient Egyptian scientific inventions is in fact based on actual sources from pre-Islamic Egypt, sometimes Hellenistic but some also pharaonic.” (p. 119)

The final element of Egyptology discussed by El Daly is the Egyptian kingship and administration resulting in the general view that the Muslim understanding varied considerably with that of the Western one as established in an analysis of Cleopatra who was regarded as ‘The Virtuous Scholar’ by Muslims in comparison to the over-ambitious image portrayed in the Greco-Roman sources. He concludes his study by summarising his main arguments which allow him to deduce:

“It is clear from the Arabic sources that the study of ancient cultures was genuinely valued for knowledge and guidance, believing that all human history was one, albeit of different peoples living in different places…” (p. 139)

El Daly based his study on a large number of sources ranging from the accounts of travellers and geographers to accounts of treasure hunters and books of alchemy, most of which are of Arabic origin and some have been carefully translated into English. The figures provided in the final section of the book enable the reader to fully comprehend the extent of effort exerted by Muslim scholars to grasp the Egyptian language, culture and way of life with maps, drawings of observations, use of Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet and descriptions of findings. Further, the finely organised appendices with summaries of the biographies of Arab writers, books used by Al-Idrisi and the primary Arabic sources used by Dr El Daly himself are nearly as interesting as the main text and leave no question in the minds of the readers so as to the authenticity of El Daly’s arguments.

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Figure 5: A stela of King Amenemhat II (ca 1928-1895 BCE) of the Twelfth Dynasty, as copied in Alu ‘l-Qasim al-Iraqi’s Al-Aqalim. Source: The British Library, MS Add 25724, folio 50a; reproduced in El-Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, figure 24.

Although the book covers a very specific discipline and is generally addressed to those closely interested in Egyptology and Arabic Studies, it nevertheless provides an excellent resource showing the unceasing attempts by Muslims to make use of the knowledge inherited from the pre-Islamic cultures. It is a worthy read and a positive contribution to the understanding of the Islamic approach to science and knowledge.

2. About the Author

Okasha El Daly graduated in Egyptology from Cairo University. He gained his PhD in the same field with a groundbreaking study which showed the contributions made by medieval Muslim Arabic scholars in the proper study of Ancient Egyptian civilisation.

He has been a museum worker and university teacher for more than three decades and is based in the UK. After several years in University College in London, he is presently the Director of Projects at the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) in Manchester.

3. Table of Contents

Preface vii
Acknowledgements xi
List of Figures xv
Abbreviations and Notes xvii
Conventions of Transliteration xix

1 Introduction 1
2 The making of an Interpretation Arabica of Ancient Egypt 9
3 Treasure Hunting 31
4 Medieval Arab Archaeological Methods and Descriptions 45
5 Medieval Arab Attempts to Decipher Ancient Egyptian Scripts 57
6 Medieval Arabic Concepts of Ancient Egyptian Religion 75
7 Egyptian Mummia, Mummification and Burial Practices in Medieval Arabic Sources 95
8 Egyptian Science in Medieval Arabic Sources 109
9 Egyptian Kingship and State Administration 121
10 Conclusions 139
Figures 145
Appendix 1: Biographies of Arab Writers 161
Appendix 2: Books on Ancient Egypt Used by Al-Idrisi 183
Appendix 3: Primary Arabic Sources 185
Bibliography 195
Index 227

4. Further resources

The article surveys some results of Dr. Okasha El Daly’s exciting discoveries about the precedence of Muslim scholars of the golden age of Islamic culture in deciphering the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. This ground breaking achievement was attributed until recently exclusively to Europeans scholars, and especially to Champollion.

In this article, Dr Okasha El-Daly presents a glimpse into the richness of Arabic sources and the breadth and depth of Muslim scholars’ interest in Ancient Egypt contrary to the widely held perceptions about Muslim lack of interest in the subject.

The Leeds University Islamic Awareness Week organised by students invited Dr. Okasha El Daly to deliver the opening lecture on Monday 16th February 2009. Dr El-Daly, the Director of Projects of FSTC, lectured on “Muslim Heritage in Our World”. He covered the sources of Islamic sciences and the interest Muslim scholars had in the ancient civilisations.

*Reviewer, FSTC, Sydney, Australia.

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