There's a Saqqara Born Every Minute

In his new book, "Confessions of an Egyptologist," Erich von Däniken recycles medieval pyramids legends and claims a murdered tour guide proved them all true.

Confessions of an Egyptologist: Lost Libraries, Vanished Labyrinths and the Astonishing Truth Under the Saqqara Pyramids

Erich von Däniken | trans. Bernard Sulzer | September 2021 | New Page Books | ISBN: 978-1-63265-191-4

Confessions of an Egyptologist is at least somewhat unusual by ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken’s standards. It is framed not as his usual grab-bag of medieval, Victorian, and midcentury pseudoscience but as a discussion of an Egyptian tour guide he calls Adel H., who died in the 1997 Luxor terrorist attack near the temple of Hatshepsut. His full name, in standard English transliteration (rather than the German used in this book) was ‘Adil Hummam, and the pair had been friends since 1984. I will refer to the man in the book as Adel, however, because it is never clear how much the literary version resembles the actual man. This conceit lasts barely a page before von Däniken (henceforth EVD) winds off on a tangent, asking if Hatshepsut was the “world’s first transgender person.” He can’t write a sustained discussion of anything, even the death of his friend.

The book is composed of five chapters, and as usual with EVD’s books, the translation from the German is rather literal, and sometimes reveals the translator’s lack of familiarity with the material being translated. Some Arabic names are given in Germanic transliterated form rather than the spelling conventions used in most modern English transliteration. Agatha Christie is called a “crime writer,” for example, in a literal translation, where the more idiomatic “mystery writer” would have been the better choice. There is no Egyptologist giving a confession in the book (Adel studied Egyptology in Vienna but was not a practicing Egyptologist), and the title is a bit of misdirection in a book presenting a fantasy story that a tour guide tells.

The first chapter is barely a chapter, but rather a brief overview of Adel’s death and a rant about Islamic extremism. The second chapter begins to get into the meat of the issue but starts badly with the claim that the Caliph al-Ma’mun opened the Great Pyramid only to find the “body of a human-like being wearing armor made of an unknown metal, along with strange stones and unidentifiable objects.” I won’t quote the entire description that the medieval historian al-Maqrizi gives of the various accounts of the laundry list of authors who offered different versions of what al-Ma’mun found, but it wasn’t that. The actual medieval histories (there are many, contradicting each other) claim variously that he found several human mummies perfectly preserved in a vast chamber, or one rotten mummy in the King’s Chamber sarcophagus, a bunch of statues, copies of what is obviously the Book of the Dead, jewels, weapons, and scientific instruments. The strange stone was a large ruby.

The chapter is framed as a description of EVD’s decade-long friendship with Adel, who met EVD when he personally requested to be EVD’s tour guide in Egypt because of his longstanding interest in EVD’s work. But Adel exists in this chapter primarily as a rhetorical device, giving EVD a scaffolding to talk about various claims about a lost prehistoric civilization he started making more than half a century ago. He discusses the origins of writing and literature, alleges that there were fish-people who were really aliens who gave us civilization (yes, Oannes from Berossus, again) and claims that most ancient records were created and preserved in order to save information from the Great Flood. The claim goes back to the Jewish legend of Enoch’s pillars of wisdom, built to save science from the Flood, which became attached to first the temples and then pyramids of Egypt in Late Antiquity. “And, in fact,” EVD writes, “I contend that the Great Pyramid at Giza is nothing more than a huge library, erected before the flood to preserve the knowledge of the time. I base this on my knowledge of the ancient texts.” No, he’s copying from medieval texts, specifically al-Maqrizi and the Akhbar al-zaman, the two he knows (the latter secondhand). These texts, in turn, repeat claims first made by the astrologer Abu Ma‘shar around 850 CE, with variations.

For the remainder of the chapter, EVD presents himself in discussion with Adel about the preservation of knowledge in ancient times and the destruction of ancient texts at various points in history, whether by accident, intolerance, or warfare. This discussion entails a recitation of various ancient stories about preserved knowledge, including the Talmud’s claim of sacred texts inscribed on sapphire. EVD claims that the discussions, no matter how writerly or filled with unnecessarily explanatory detail, are verbatim from recordings EVD apparently makes of all of his private conversations. At times, though, it’s hard not to feel as though EVD is exploiting a dead man as a sock puppet to agree with his perceptions of his own genius.

The third chapter is about labyrinths. The first half covers Greek mythology and drops all pretense of being about Adel. Most of the material is copied, often point-for-point, from EVD’s Odyssey of the Gods, published two decades ago. He describes Talos as a robot and the Minotaur and Chiron as potential genetic hybrids. The second half, by EVD’s own admission, mostly repurposes material from his still-older book Eyes of the Sphinx about the Egyptian labyrinth described in Herodotus in Histories 2.148. EVD, after a brief (probably imaginary) discussion with Adel, claims that the traditional location for Herodotus’ labyrinth, the Hawara pyramid, is not correct. He denies that the shrunken Lake Qarun was once the ancient Lake Moeris of Greek accounts, and denies that there is any evidence for ancient canals and reservoirs around the Qarun site. He also, citing Adel, denies that the remains of the huge mortuary complex that surrounded the Hawara pyramid were the labyrinth described by Herodotus, attempting to overturn 150 years of science, and it is all very tedious buildup to his next claim, that Adel knew of the “true” labyrinth.

This brings us to the meat of the book, in which the reconstructed version of Adel—conveniently Adel allegedly “asked” that EVD shut off his recording device—recounts visiting the “real” labyrinth in 1944 as a teenager near Djoser’s step pyramid at Saqqara, where, miraculously, he sees all of the same wonders that al-Maqrizi ascribed to the pyramids in his Al-Khitat in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Adel literally tells EVD that everything he saw was just as al-Maqrizi described it in the Khitat, citing author and book by name—and we’re supposed to accept this as miraculous because EVD, writing in 2021, claims Adel told him the 1980s that he had seen these wonders decades before either man had read al-Maqrizi. Pull the other one; it has bells on it. (There are real tunnels under Saqqara, but they are not known to contain the wonders of medieval or sci-fi fantasy.)

Some of the claims are directly copied from al-Maqrizi, with an assist from other works like the Arabian Nights (cited explicitly) and ibn Umayl’s Silvery Water and Starry Earth. Others are attributed to him but not familiar to me. I wasn’t able to find any reference to Maqrizi claiming that ancient stones glowed, but Adel recounts entering a glowing chamber. (Al-Maqrizi refers to three glowing stone beds, which I assume is the origin of EVD’s expanded version.) Underground, in the glowing chamber, he claims that a supernatural, nearly naked teenage girl named “Mahlinja” visited him while he napped on a bed covered in red brocade and proceeded to perform oral sex on the virgin boy before they engaged in penetrative sex. EVD describes this in detail.

Afterward, a magic falcon showed him which hieroglyphs to press on the wall to open a secret door—a cute Hollywood mummy-movie detail not found in medieval Arabic literature, written before hieroglyphs were deciphered—and eventually travels down a small tunnel to a room holding a golden throne covered in carvings of eagles and lions, a throne EVD says is discussed in the Book of Esther. He’s wrong, of course. It’s discussed in 1 Kings 10. In the throne room, supposedly several kilometers distant from the entrance to the tunnels, Adel claims to find a prehistoric relief map of the entire world, though confusingly he both says he could not understand what the image portrayed and that it was “undoubtedly” a map of all seven continents, presumably in Mercator projection. He says he wiggled out of the tunnel up a shaft only to pop up in Memphis, five kilometers from where he started.

Adel and EVD discuss the medieval Arabic pyramid myth as given in al-Maqrizi (though a version of it goes back to Abu Ma‘shar, probably from a Late Antique Greek source, and was originally attached to the Egyptian temples) and try to find answers to the question of why the Egyptians would build underground tombs and above-ground temples if they knew, as medieval Arab lore held, that Noah’s Flood would wash it all away. It occurs to no one that medieval legends are not accurate reports of prehistoric happenings.

EVD presents this fairy tale without any particular sense of interest in whether it is fact or fiction, nor has he made any effort in thirty some-odd years to try to prove the story true. Instead, after finishing the tale, the final chapter whipsaws to the New York Times UFO stories of recent years and a litany of highlights from Ancient Aliens’ frequent UFO features, including Rendlesham Forest and Linda Moulton Howe’s allegations that humans and ETs operate a joint military base in Antarctica. This tacked-on chapter has only the faintest connection to the rest of the book: EVD says Antarctica appears on the fifteenth century Piri Reis map (it does not, but never mind) and the map proves that the ancients had mapped the world (again, they didn’t, but whatever), so this is somehow connected to the “relief map” Adel thinks he saw at Saqqara.

The book ends with no conclusion, only EVD claiming that we need to institute a new calendar designating 2020 the Year 1 because, he says, the aliens have returned and 2020 was the year humanity finally started to believe. It wasn’t, but who’s keeping score?