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Early Arabic Literature in Context: the Hellenistic Continuum

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Perceptions of ancient heroes in early medieval societies

European research has delved into the role of Egypt in inter-cultural exchanges in the 11th century. The study outlines and compares the different contexts in which various communities regarded Egyptian, Greek and Semitic heroes, philosophers and scholars.

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The ‘Early Arabic literature in context: the Hellenistic continuum’ (ALCH) project studied a little-known text written in an Islamic Shi’i context to reappraise Greek and Hellenistic roots of both Judaeo-Christian and Islamic civilisations. Written by al-Mubashshir Ibn Fatik, ‘Choicest Maxims and Best Sayings’ was circulated on both Western and Eastern sides of the Mediterranean during medieval times and reflects the complexity of the late antique/early medieval societies. The text was translated into the main European languages after the middle of the 13th century. Addressing inter-cultural exchanges in Egypt during the 11th century in this way, the Arabic compilation of ancient sources on Egyptian, Greek and Semitic sages receiving the rank of Hellenistic semi-gods aimed to better understand Ibn Fatik’s conception of antiquity. The EU-funded project focused on the text’s historical context and linguistic aspects. The text is a representative example of one genre of Arabic literature. Using both Greek and Syriac translated materials, studying the network behind the text led to a new perspective on the translation movement in Baghdad and surrounding area during the 9th and 10th centuries. This line of enquiry was to be expanded on the basis of knowledge pertaining to the role of Christian monasteries in Egypt and Palestine in activities related to scientific translations. Bringing together Arabic literature, Greek philosophy and history, and religious studies, ALCH concentrated on better-known figures, such as the prophets Adam and Seth, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristoteles, to reach a larger audience. The chapters were organised into thematic groupings and also divided according to chronological and historical factors. ibn Fatik's book includes chapters on certain Cappadocian Christian saints as well as Hermes Trismegistus and Asclepius. As such, the study deemed it necessary to also underline an appreciation of the Hellenistic background in early Egyptian literature, both Christian and Muslim. this was achieved by examining the different case studies – the place of Adam and Seth in Hellenistic biblical literature compared to the role given them in later Gnostic and Muslim writings, and accounts of Hippocrates in Graeco-Egyptian Roman literature, as transmitted in Arabic. Furthermore, Hermes Trismegistus and Alexander the Great were considered as pivotal pagan figures adopted by Christians as early as the first century AD in comparison to other trends, followed by exaltation in Islam as pre-Christian and monotheists. ALCH thus contributed to a better understanding of Egypt’s role as a centre of intellectual exchanges among diverse communities in the pre-Crusades period.

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