Hearts, Genies and Gnosticism at Nag Hammadi October 14, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary , trackback
Howard Carter whispering ‘wonderful things’, Leslie Alcock finding Dark Age timber at Cadbury (‘that was Camelot’), Bedouin shepherds investigating a complex of caves at the Dead Sea… All wonderful, of course. But for Beachcombing none of these quite match the thrill of the discovery at Nag Hammadi in 1945.
In that year, possibly in December, a group of Egyptian farmers led by one Mohammed Ali Samman were out digging for fertiliser near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi when they hit the mother-lode: a mummy and a one metre long red earthenware jar. The farmers, after some argument, decided to break open the jar, for one had pointed out that there might be gold inside. And, overcoming their fear of genies, the earthenware container was smashed and Ali and his friends took out twelve leather books. Disappointed at not discovering coins or nuggets Ali gathered up the books to take them home: his companions refused them, neither he nor they realising that what they had stumbled upon was in every sense more valuable than gold.
The books were not treated as they should have been. It seems that Ali initially tore the volumes up to share them out only throwing them back together when the rest of the party expressed their disinterest. He then took them home where his mother used pages from these sixteen hundred year old books to light her stove: [expletives deleted]. And there they would have remained had it not been for, of all things, a blood feud.
Ali and his brothers were intent on revenging themselves on a man, Ahmed Ismail, who had allegedly killed their father. In fact, this being rural Egypt in another age, he and his brothers hacked Ismail to bits with sharpened mattocks – Ismail had foolishly fallen asleep by the side of the road – and ate his still warm heart.
In the subsequent police investigation Ali feared detection – he was eventually arrested for the crime – and gave the books to the village priest so they would not be discovered by the police, thus saving them from his mother’s kindle pile. The priest showed them to his brother-in-law who stayed at his house once a week to teach English and history. And from there they slowly made their way to Cairo, one – the so-called Jung Codex – getting lost in Switzerland on the way.
These twelve volumes were the most substantial Gnostic collection the world had ever seen and make a mockery of papyrologists pouring over itty-bitty fragments from the Egyptian sand dunes. Beachcombing has one English translation, which runs to 550 pages – on the table before him and the names, many unknown to theologians prior to the discovery, are redolent enough: The Thunder – Perfect Mind, The Gospel of the Egyptians, The Concept of Out Great Power… Reading even a few pages is like taking a walk in a very strange but beautiful city around twilight.
Ali, who sounds like the nicest sort of scoundrel, was never able to bring archaeologists back to the exact spot of the discovery. Or rather he brought them to three separate spots claiming that each was the site of the discovery! We cannot even be sure of the details of his account, details that were remembered decades after and that had important variants depending on when he told the story. Was there really a mummy, for example? Its inclusion sounds like something out of genie mythology.
Beachcombing would certainly have given six months of his life to have been there that day when the spade went ‘clink’. He would also, it goes without saying, have given six months of his life, not to have been there when Ali’s mother was making her cous-cous by lighting the Gospel according to the Crucifix or other such treasures from the burning libraries of the past.
We at strangehistory.net are putting together a list of extraordinary archaeological discoveries and the events around them. Any offers? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com