The Sufi Dhul Nun al-Misri is a very interesting figure. His full name was Abu’l Faiz Thauban ibn Ibrahim al-Misri (c.791/796-c.860 CE). He was born at Akhmim (Ikhmim) in Upper Egypt. He was also described as an Alchemist and a Hermetist. Akhmim came later to be known as Panopolis. The same city another famous hermetist and alchemist, Zosimos of Panopolis (c.350 – c.420) came from. In this article we will try to find a hermetic link between Zosimos and Dhul Nun al-Misri, a link that crosses 400 years of ancient history.
Akhmim and Dhul Nun al-Misri
A story goes that Dhu’l Nun acquired alchemical knowledge, as a young man, while serving a priest who officiated at the temple of Akhmim. This priest taught him to read the writing found on the temple walls, evidently a reference to hieroglyphs.
The historian Masudi writes in his extensive Muruj al-Dhahab the first extant semi-historical (or pseudo-historical) account of Dhu’l Nun. Masudi derived his information from talking to the inhabitants of Akhmim. Masudi wrote:
“Dhu’l Nun al-Misri al-Akhmimi, the ascetic, was a philosopher who pursued a course of his own in religion. He was one of those who elucidated the history of these temple-ruins. He roamed among them and examined a great quantity of figures and inscriptions.“
So, there is a gap of around 400 years between Zosimos serving the temples of Akhmim and Dhul Nun, studying the temples of Akhmim. The first question we need to answer is if it is possible that Egyptian religion or spiritual knowledge survived for so long.
In his book “Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance” (1998) David Frankfurter presents arguments that Ancient Egyptian religion survived in the fourth century and later and that not all belief was lost. Frankfurter reinterprets the scarce sources in an attempt to go beyond the static concept of religious transformation, in which the new religion replaced the old religion. Frankfurter studied the history of Egyptian religion within a large chronological framework from the rise of Christianity until AD 600.
His book deals with the survival of Egyptian religious traditions, first among pagans, and later among Christians. Frankfurter looked at the interaction of local religion with Christianity and found evidence for a continuation of religious associations, and continued patronage in some temples as late as the sixth century.
Frankfurter concludes that native religious traditions had not died, but, though certainly transformed under Hellenistic, Roman, and Christian influences, survived through oracle cults and priests, whose functions from the fourth century onwards were performed by clerics and monks. These “holy men” functioned as a mediation of supernatural power for everyday needs and crises and were far more important than the new ideology of Christianity.
If Frankfurter is right then up until the 6th century there were still some traces of the Ancient Egyptian religion or way of life still found in the region. That means maybe only 200 years remain between the last vestiges of Ancient Egypt and the appearance of Dhul Nun al-Misri. 200 years that might be bridged by the great interest of the Muslims in ancient civilizations and especially alchemy.
Akhmīm, with almost 150,000 inhabitants one of the most populous cities in Upper Egypt, on the east bank of the Nile, was an important religious, economic, and administrative center from antiquity to the medieval period.
In ancient times, this was the town of Panopolis. The Arabic name is based on the Coptic Shmim, or Shmin, and the name also referred to an administrative district. Akhmīm’s pre-Islamic status as provincial capital continued into the Islamic period, when the pagarchy, or administrative unit (kūra), was sometimes combined with neighboring districts.
Akhmim had two temples of Min as well as temples of other deities, who were Persephone, Amun, Agathos-Daimon, Araus, Hermes, and Chnoubis (Van Rengen, 2013). Akhmim is also mentioned in the Demotic Book of Thoth:
“A great master and his group are located in Akhmim.“The Secret Wisdom of Thoth
The Egyptian God Thoth was assimilated with Hermes. In the third century AD, Hermes became Trismegistos. The oldest attestation of this epithet is a dedication from Panopolis by G. Julius Severus, a soldier of the legio II Traiana fortis Gordiana (AD 238-244). Agathos Daimon was identical to the Egyptian Shai, god of the good fate. Agathos Daimon was very popular in Panopolis and is still attested in the fourth and fifth centuries.
In the nome, outside the metropolis, cultures also intermingled. A complex halfway up the cliff in the middle of the necropolis of Athribis, has been identified as an Asklepieion and Anubieion. As suggested by demotic graffiti, the temple of Asklepios served as a place of incubation for the sick who spent the night looking for a cure from the god.
Asklepios was often assimilated with Imouthes (Imhotep), who appears a few times among the Egyptian nomenclature of Bompae. In Akhmim we find thus the worship of Hermes, Ammon, Thoth, Agathos Daimon, and Asclepius in one place.
There was still a quite large number of pagan priests in the early fourth century, but virtually nothing is known of cultic activities. The few references to pagan cults contrast with the increasing evidence of Greek culture in Panopolis, also among traditional priestly families. This mixture of traditional religion and cultivated Hellenism is a striking feature of Late Antique paganism, in Egypt and beyond.
Perhaps the decline of temples along with their traditional scripts, influence, festivals, and wealth, which “stripped away the literate and respected leadership class the priesthood had long provided”, made the traditional priesthoods shift their attention toward Greek culture in order to survive among the ever-increasing dominance of Christianity? Hellenistic tendencies are found among the pagan family of Ammon, and later, in the fifth century, with Horapollon and his family.
Akhmim and Zosimos
As for Panopolis one can think of few places more likely to have harbored Hermetic adepts. It was a city renowned in late antiquity for its fierce allegiance to the old gods as well as its flourishing Greek literary culture.
A recently discovered papyrus archive from Panopolis has revealed what must surely have been fertile soil for the growth of Hermetic preoccupations in the priest Aurelius Petearbeschinis (clearly a native Egyptian) and his family, which embraced a suggestive combination of priests of the local god Pan-Min and thoroughly Hellenized men of letters.
Zosimos of Panopolis probably lived between the late third century and early fourth century A.D. He is supposed to have spent some time in the cultural metropolis of Alexandria and is considered by scholars to have been one of the first alchemists. Probably he was acquainted with Poimandres and the hermetic The Crater (CH IV), and his texts are part of a Byzantine collection of Greek alchemists.
Another link between Zosimos and Hermeticism is when he exhorts his pupil Theosebia,
“When you realize that you have been perfected, and have found the natural [tinctures], spit on matter and, hastening towards Poimenandres [sic] and receiving baptism in the mixing-bowl, hasten up towards your own race.”
If the Poimandres and CH IV were already associated in late antiquity, can the same be said of any of the other texts – a total of seventeen – that appear in the fullest manuscripts of the Corpus?
Akhmim and the Nag Hammadi Library
There are three hermetic texts in the largely gnostic Nag Hammadi findings, amongst them the important hermetic foundational text CH I (Poimandres). This text is also cited by Zosimos. Especially interesting is therefore the distinct possibility that the Nag Hammadi library preserves traces of Hermetism.
Janet H. Johnson studied the phonetic relationship between the Old-Coptic renderings of the voces magicae and their transcription in alphabetic Demotic script and concluded that the vocalized glosses show signs of a Theban dialect. According to Helmut Satzinger, the language of the manuscript is rather an archaic Achmimic, a Coptic dialect spoken between Aswan and Akhmim.
The very important hermetic text the Discourse on the Eight and Ninth (Tractate 6 of the Nag Hammadi library) was probably made by a scribe native to the area of Akhmim. (Keizer, The Eight Reveals the Ninth).
Akhmim and Islamic Alchemy
A legend transmitted in the Kitāb al-fihrist of Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq al-Nadīm tells the story of the first translation of alchemical writings into Arabic, focusing on the figure of the Umayyad prince Khālid ibn Yazīd ibn Muʿāwiya, who used to be called the ḥakīm of the Marwān family.
Being noble-minded and deeply enamored of the sciences, particularly the alchemical arts, he ordered a number of Greek philosophers living in the town of Miṣr, who understood Arabic perfectly, to come to him and translate their books on the art of alchemy from the Greek and Egyptian languages into Arabic. This was the first translation from one language into another under Islam.
An ‘Alchemy Valley’ around Panopolis/Akhmīm?
The famous d’ Anastasi collection purchased in 1828 originally formed part of the huge papyrus assemblage discovered at Thebes (some 120 km away from Akhmīm) that has yielded the vast majority of all extant Greek, Demotic, and Old-Coptic magical manuscripts.
Zosimos lived at the time these manuscripts were composed. Zosimos is usually referred to as ὁ Πανοπολίτης in the alchemical tradition. The continuation, perhaps even concentration, of this hub of alchemical activity in and around the Upper Egyptian urban center of Akhmīm into early Islamic times is indicated by the number of Arabic alchemists whose lives were somehow related to it in the literary biographical tradition.
These include Dhū l-Nūn, who spent his entire life in Akhmīm (796–861) but also ʿUthmān ibn Suwayd Ḥarī al-Ikhmīmī (al-Nadīm, Fihrist 358; around 900); a nameless disciple of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān called al-Ikhmīmī (al-Nadīm, Fihrist 355.23, probably not identical with the preceding person); Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Umayl (ca. 900–960); and Buṭrus al-Ḥakīm al-Ikhmīmī (living in the ninth century or later).
Indeed, there might be a relationship between the broad stream of evidence for alchemical thought and practice in Panopolis/Akhmīm on the one hand, and the town’s importance as a center of textile production and, accordingly, of dyeing.
If ‘honest’ alchemy was essentially a way of purifying and improving one’s soul, it was hardly capable of making one a living. Alchemical efforts, therefore, are usually found in symbiotic connection with professions more appropriate for gaining a livelihood, be it the occupation of a physician as in the – perhaps typical – case of the famous Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyya al-Rāzī (d. 925 CE), or in a trade such as dyeing, in some respects a close neighbor of the alchemical arts.
The Islamic environment created an atmosphere in which not only the Muslim scholar, but also the Muslim mystic, could freely seek knowledge wherever it came from, and in whatever ancient language/culture it may originate, thus giving the incentive to various scholars and mystics to dedicate their lives completely to the discovery and the reading of ancient scripts, such as Egyptian.
Many Egyptologists worldwide are unfortunately not aware of the relevance of Arabic sources to their discipline. One of their assumptions is that Arabic authors knew nothing of Ancient Egypt, before Muslims conquered Egypt in 641 CE.
Sadly there is a very common misconception even among many Muslims, that Islam doesn’t encourage interest in pre-Islamic cultures because it is Jahiliya (the pre-Islamic Arabian age, thought to be marked by barbarism and unbelief) and therefore good Muslims should not take interest in Ancient cultures because they represent Jahiliya.
This is a misunderstanding of the term Jahiliya as it doesn’t denote a historical period but it means a set of manners and customs that are abhorrent in Islam and therefore could be used to describe any period where such abhorrent behavior prevails.
It is clear that Arabic groups were already well-known in Ancient Egypt. In Memphis, one of the most ancient capitals of Egypt, Egyptologists discovered what is called the Foreign Quarter, in which we have a number of people of Arabic origin who immigrated from as far as Yemen, Arabia, and various other parts of the Arab World, into Ancient Egypt.
More interesting is that we find them serving in the ancient Egyptian priesthood and Egyptian civil service with common Arabic names –such as Khalid and Abdul. It is fascinating to see this in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts. So, it is important to point out that Arabs existed already, and they were known, and they transferred some of what they have known from Ancient Egyptian culture to fellow Arabs elsewhere outside Egypt.
When Muslims annexed Egypt in the 7th century they were encouraged by various Quranic verses to study the ancient civilizations and ponder their fate, as well as the many Hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad in praise of Egypt and its people. The Muslims went everywhere visiting monuments, tombs, and chapels, gathering all sorts of knowledge and materials.
When ancient buildings fell out of use, they sometimes built on top of them or inside them. The Mosque of Abu Al-Hajjaj in Luxor, Upper Egypt, is a very good example of how they created for themselves a sacred place of worship on top of an ancient Egyptian temple.
There is a good reason why Arabic and Muslim scholars took such an interest in Hieroglyphics. It is because Egypt was already known since antiquity as the land of Science and in particular the Science of Alchemy. In fact, the word Alchemy is believed by many to be derived from the word Kemit, which is the ancient Egyptian name of Egypt.
It is interesting that various Arabic scholars thought that by unlocking the secrets of Egyptian scripts, including Egyptian hieroglyphs, they were unlocking the gates to a great deal of scientific knowledge in Alchemy as well as in other fields. They would have visited the temples themselves.
The picture depicted right, extracted from an Arabic manuscript on astrology, probably shows a Muslim mystic inside the Temple of Akhmim, one of the most important cities in Ancient Egypt that continued to serve as a great center of learning well into the medieval period.
This brings us finally to the famous Sufi mystic Dhul Nun Al-Misri, who lived inside the temple where he was brought up and it is said that he was fluent in the language of the walls of the temple i.e. hieroglyphs.
Dhul Nun and other Muslim mystics took a great interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptian sites, such as temples, tombs, etc, because there they found very good sources for their Alchemical knowledge as we see not only from the work of Dhu Al-Nun Al-Misri, but also Ibn Wahishiya and Abu Al-Qasem Al-‘Iraqi.
Uthman ibn Suwaid of Akhmim, an alchemist from Dhul-Nun’s hometown and his contemporary, wrote in defense of the wise mystic. Ibn Suwaid’s The Book of the Assembly was a compilation of writings attributed to ancient Greek philosophers, some of which were written by pseudonymous alchemists. It became well known during the European Renaissance as the core and inspiration for the first alchemical work in Latin, the late thirteenth-century anthology Turba Philosophorum, or “Assembly of Philosophers.”
The latter is a 14th-century scholar/alchemist, who came from Iraq and lived in Egypt. The important thing about his books is that they are full of ancient Egyptian signs and hieroglyphs like those which were perhaps used for their alchemical connection. It also contains another very important ancient Egyptian symbol called Ouroboros, or the snake that eats its tail as a sign of eternity and regeneration, a very important ancient Egyptian symbol that is associated with Agathos Daimon, the teacher of Hermes Trismegistus.
Does this article prove that there is a straight line from the hermetist and alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis to the hermetist, alchemist, and sufi Dhul Nun a-Misri? Unfortunately, the answer is “no”, but this line is probably impossible to prove over a time span of 400 years of ancient and turbulent history.
Hopefully, this article presents enough evidence that Egyptian religion and especially Hermetic spirituality could have passed on from the time of Zosimos in the 5th century all the way to the Muslim alchemists at the time when Dhul Nun lived in the 9th century.
Maybe this great mystical master did not have to rediscover hermetic wisdom as a lost tradition but could have learned it from studying with holy men who still worshipped Thoth-Hermes in the temples and who continued studying the ancient wisdom written on the walls and pillars.
Sources: Becoming Gold: Zosimos of Panopolis and the Alchemical Arts in Roman Egypt by Shannon Grimes The Eight Reveals the Ninth: The newly Discovered Initiation Discourse of Hermes Trismegistus (Tractate 6, Nag Hammadi Codex VI) by Dr. Lewis Keizer Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance” (1998) David Frankfurter Perspectives on Panopolis: An Egyptian town from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest by Egberts, Brian Muhs, and van der Vliet The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind by Garth Fowden https://muslimheritage.com/ The Master Spoke: “Take One of ‘the Sun’ and One Unit of Almulgam.” Hitherto Unnoticed Coptic Papyrological Evidence for Early Arabic Alchemy, In: Documents and the History of the Early Islamic World Author by Tonio Sebastian Richter Panopolis, a Nome Capital in Egypt in the Roman and Byzantine Period (ca. AD 200-600) By Karolien GEENS, Dept. of Ancient History, KU Leuve
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