Until the first quarter of the seventh century Classical Civilization was alive and well in the Middle East and North Africa — even more so than in Europe. City life flourished, as did the economy and the arts. Literacy was widespread, and the works of the Classical historians, as well as the philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians, were readily available and discussed in the academies and libraries located throughout the Near East, North Africa, and Europe. In Egypt, during the sixth century, renowned philosophers such as Olympiodorus (died 570) presided over the Alexandrian academy which possessed a well-stocked and funded library packed with probably thousands of volumes. The Alexandrian academy of this time was the most illustrious institute of learning in the known world; and it is beyond doubt that its library matched, if indeed it did not surpass, the original Library founded by Ptolemy II. The writings of Olympiodorus and his contemporaries demonstrate intimate familiarity with the great works of classical antiquity — very often quoting obscure philosophers and historians whose works have long since disappeared. Among the general population of the time literacy was the norm, and the appetite for reading was fed by a large class of professional writers who composed plays, poems and short stories — the latter taking the form of mini-novels. In Egypt, the works of Greek writers such as Herodotus and Diodorus were familiar and widely quoted. Both the latter, as well as native Egyptian writers such as Manetho, had composed extensive histories of Egypt of the time of the pharaohs. These works provided, for the citizens of Egypt and other parts of the Empire, a direct link with the pharaohnic past. Here the educated citizen encountered the name of the pharaoh (Kheops) who built the Great Pyramid, as well as that of his son (Khephren), who built the second pyramid at Giza, and that of his grandson Mykerinos, who raised the third and smallest structure. These Hellenized versions of the names were extremely accurate transcriptions of the actual Egyptian names (Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure). In the history of the country written by Manetho, the educated citizen of the Empire would have had a detailed description of Egypt’s past, complete with an in-depth account of the deeds of the pharaohs as well as descriptions of the various monuments and the kings who built them.
The change that came over Egypt and the other regions of the Middle East following the Arab Conquest can only be described as catastrophic. Almost all knowledge of these countries’ histories disappears, and does so almost overnight. Consider the account of the Giza Pyramids and their construction written by the Arab historian Al Masudi (regarded as the “Arab Herodotus”), apparently in the tenth century:
“Surid, Ben Shaluk, Ben Sermuni, Ben Termidun, Ben Tedresan, Ben Sal, one of the kings of Egypt before the flood, built two great pyramids; and, notwithstanding, they were subsequently named after a person called Shaddad Ben Ad … they were not built by the Adites, who could not conquer Egypt, on account of their powers, which the Egyptians possessed by means of enchantment … the reason for the building of the pyramids was the following dream, which happened to Surid three hundred years previous to the flood. It appeared to him that the earth was overthrown, and that the inhabitants were laid prostrate upon it, that the stars wandered confusedly from their courses, and clashed together with tremendous noise. The king though greatly affected by this vision, did not disclose it to any person, but was conscious that some great event was about to take place.” (From L. Cottrell, The Mountains of Pharaoh (London, 1956)).
This was what passed for “history” in Egypt after the Arab conquest — little more than a collection of Arab fables. Egypt, effectively, had lost her history. Other Arab writers display the same ignorance. Take for example the comments of Ibn Jubayr, who worked as a secretary to the Moorish governor of Granada, and who visited Cairo in 1182. He commented on “the ancient pyramids, of miraculous construction and wonderful to look upon, [which looked] like huge pavilions rearing to the skies; two in particular shock the firmament …” He wondered whether they might be the tombs of early prophets mention in the Koran, or whether they were granaries of the biblical patriarch Joseph, but in the end came to the conclusion, “To be short, none but the Great and Glorious God can know their story.” (Andrew Beattie, Cairo: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 50)
… but are there no writers who get it right? I’m sure every period has their share of shoddy historians (by whatever definition you want to apply to ‘historian’). Whatever the case, it appears that Mr O’Neill has missed Warwick’s Podcast on Graeco-Arabic Studies (and probably much else). Perhaps it’s not surprising that this book appears to be self-published?