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A medieval alchemical book reveals new secrets | British Museum blog

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library

Marcel Mare, Assistant Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

A page from the 18th-century copy of al-Irqs Book of the Seven Climes (British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 50v)

Among the many intriguing objects on display in the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition is an 18th-century copy of the Book of the Seven Climes (Kitb al-aqlm al-abah), on loan from the British Library. The books 13th-century author, Ab al-Qsim al-Irq, believed it held ancient secrets coded in hieroglyphic texts. He was right, but not exactly as he imagined!

Ab al-Qsim Muammad ibn Amad al-Irq, known as al-Smw (the practitioner of natural or white magic), was an author of books on alchemy and magic. He lived in Egypt during the reign of the Mamluk sultan Baybars I al-Bunduqdr (r. 12601277). His books were popular and survive in many copies, but almost nothing is known about al-Irq himself.

The Book of the Seven Climes is the earliest known study focused wholly on alchemical illustrations. The climes (from which our word climate is derived) are the seven latitudinal zones into which the astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy divided the inhabited world in the 2nd century AD. Their mention in al-Irqs title expressed an intention for his book to be all-encompassing.

Al-Irq reproduced illustrations from earlier Arabic alchemical texts and tried to decode their mysterious symbols and allegories, annotating the illustrations with his own interpretations. But how faithful was he in copying the illustrations for his book, and what changes were made as they were copied and re-copied during the five centuries of transmission linking al-Irqs lost original to the 18th-century copy held at the British Library?

Luckily, while al-Irqs 13th-century autograph manuscript is lost, one source of his illustrations is known to us: the Book of Images (Muaf al-uwar). It is attributed to the 4th-century Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis and preserved in a copy made in Egypt in 1270, during al-Irqs lifetime. The manuscript, now in Istanbul, could even be the one that al-Irq consulted.

Matching illustrations in the 13th-century Book of Images (left) and the 18th-century copy of al-Irqs Book of the Seven Climes (right). The later image is much reduced and reinterpreted, and pseudo-hieroglyphs were added. (left: stanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Ktphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 196r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18r)

Another pair of matching illustrations in the same manuscripts, again showing numerous changes. (left: stanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Ktphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 205r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18v)

Al-Irq was usually careful to cite his sources by title and author, but the images in his work, at least in their 18th-century versions, show many changes and omissions. In addition, some of the pages were embellished with pseudo-hieroglyphs, perhaps a code for the Arabic alphabet, not present in the original.

What did al-Irq make of the hieroglyphs in the illustrations? Were they all completely invented? To begin to understand this, it is worth examining a group of images in the Book of the Seven Climes now on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. Below we illustrate a key explaining the various elements. These have been numbered for ease of reference in the rest of our discussion.

Al-Irq states that the material on this page comes from a Hidden Book attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (1), a legendary sage-king of ancient Egypt who was believed to have mastered the secrets of occult sciences such as alchemy and to have recorded them in hieroglyphs on the walls of temples and tombs. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, last written nine centuries before al-Irqs lifetime, were undecipherable to him and his contemporaries. Undeterred, and guided by the legend of Hermes Trismegistus, he gave the illustrated elements an alchemical interpretation. He refers to apparatus such as the distillation furnace (7) and the bain-marie (12), and to processes such as roasting (11) and blackening (2). Alchemical substances are referred to symbolically: the eagle (3, 4, 10) and the intensely black raven (9) were widely employed as codes for sal ammoniac and for iron and/or lead, respectively.

But this page does not only contain alchemical secrets. The hieroglyphic composition in the lower panel is coherent enough to show that it was ultimately copied from an actual ancient monument. While distortions have crept in, the shapes of the hieroglyphs are not complete fantasy, unlike those of the interpolated pseudo-hieroglyphs mentioned further above. The Egyptologist Okasha El Daly first noted that the inspiration for the present image came from a stela carved in the name of King Amenemhat II, who ruled Egypt around 19221878 BC. Two of Amenemhats official names can still be recognised (9 and 12).

The Horus name identified a pharaoh as an incarnation of Horus, the god of kingship. It was written inside a serekh (9): a frame representing a palace, complete with a panelled faade and with Horus, shown as a falcon, perched on top. In al-Irqs illustration, these elements have undergone an alchemical transmutation: at some point the panels of Amenemhats serekh were changed into curious implements, and the falcon into a raven! Despite further distortions, we can just discern the Horus name of Amenemhat II: Heken-em-maat, literally He who rejoices in justice. On the original monument the preposition in was undoubtedly written with an owl. To suit the alchemists agenda, it has here become a red eagle (10).

A pharaohs throne and birth names were traditionally written inside oval cartouches, to make them stand out from surrounding text. Unaware of this fact, al-Irq identifies just such a cartouche as Marias bath, the bain-marie (12) or hot-water bath, which is named after the alchemist Maria the Jewess, and is still used today by the catering industry. The hieroglyphs enclosed by the present cartouche spelled out the throne name of Amenemhat II: Nub-kau-Ra, or The life-forces of Ra (the sun god) are of gold. In our manuscript a sun-disc (Ra) and a necklace (gold) have been transformed into a human face with neck and arms. Hieroglyphs above the cartouche still recognisably give two well-known royal epithets: the great god, lord of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt) (11). Al-Irq interpreted the whole group as pertaining to roasting: apparently a hieroglyph representing a basket became a roasting dish, and two stretches of land below it became a grill! The hieroglyphs below the cartouche, in their ancient meaning, claim that the pharaoh is given life forever (13).

Monuments of Amenemhat II are rare and his stela is lost, so the exploits of our medieval alchemist hold value to modern Egyptology. Comparing al-Irqs drawing with extant stelae of similar date, we can determine more precisely how the stela of Amenemhat would have looked. The stela shown below, displayed in Room 65 of the British Museum, dates from the reign of his grandson, Senwosret III (around 18741855 BC). That kings Horus and throne names again take up two-thirds of the top. The remaining third mentions a deity (Horus-son-of-Isis), of whom the king is said to be beloved. The texts naming king and god were given opposed orientations, so that the actors involved look at each other. The image in the Book of the Seven Climes reveals that Amenemhat, too, was described as beloved of a deity (14), whose name must be sought in the hieroglyphs grouped on the left, likewise facing those naming the king. In our 18th-century copy most of these signs have been shuffled about and reshaped beyond recognition, but two of them read probably Wepwa(wet), the name of a jackal god (16). Three hieroglyphs crammed in between the gods and the kings names, assuming the formers orientation, cite blessings bestowed on the latter: life, stability, dominion (17).

Stela from the reign of Senwosret III, whose ornamental inscription at the top is laid out very similarly to that on the lost stela of Amenemhat II, as illustrated by al-Irq. (British Museum, EA 852)

Amenemhats ornamental inscription would have been bordered at the bottom by a stroke representing land and at the top by a band representing heaven, supported at the ends by divine sceptres symbolising the full extent of the kings god-given dominion. Only the top of the left-hand sceptre (18) has made it into our 18th-century manuscript, but its identity is unmistakable.

The very fact that a hieroglyphic inscription from around 1900 BC can still, in part, be read in an 18th-century copy of a 13th-century Arabic text testifies to the care Arabic scribes took in copying and recopying earlier manuscripts through the centuries. The inclusion of an authentic hieroglyphic text in the Book of the Seven Climes also demonstrates the interest in Egyptian antiquities taken by some medieval Arabic scholars. Al-Irqs alchemical understanding of that text highlights the differences between medieval interpretative frameworks and those employed by the modern science of Egyptology.

More accurate copies of the Amenemhat inscription may still await discovery in unpublished earlier copies of al-Irqs Seven Climes in Dublin, Cairo or elsewhere. Furthermore, the identification of more works from which al-Irq took his illustrations could bring us closer to the ancient monuments from which some of the illustrations were ultimately copied. We plan to study the other manuscripts of the Book of the Seven Climes and search for the sources of its illustrations. This will throw more light on how al-Irq adapted his material and may enable a fuller reading of the original inscription of Amenemhat II. It might even reveal further authentic hieroglyphic texts.

The 18th-century copy of al-Irqs Book of the Seven Climes is on display in the British Museums exhibitionEgypt: faith after the pharaohsand is on loan from the British Library.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohsis at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.


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Cook, Michael, Pharaonic History in Medieval Egypt, Studia Islamica 57, 1983, pp. 67103

El Daly, Okasha, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic writings, in The Wisdom of Egypt: Changing Visions through the Ages (London: UCL Press, 2003), pp. 4849, Fig. 3:2

El Daly, Okasha, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic writings, ed. Peter Ucko and Timothy Champion (London: UCL Press, 2005), p. 72, Fig. 24

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Saif, Liana, The cows and the bees: The Arabic tradition of magical artificial generation from pseudo-Platos Liber vaccae (Kitb al-Nawms) to al-Irqs Uyn al-aqiq, FORTHCOMING

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Ullmann, Manfred, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1972), pp. 23537 and 268

Wells, John W., Sesostris IIIs first Nubian campaign, in Essays in Egyptology in Honor of Hans Goedicke, ed. Betsy M. Bryan and David Lorton (San Antonio, TX, 1994), pp. 33947

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