Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 January 2004
Issue No. 672
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Ahmed Osman:

Akhenaten as Moses, and Jesus, Tutankhamun. A case of double identities

Beyond belief

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Ahmed Osman
photo: Ayman Ibrahim

Click to view caption
Osman presenting Coptic Pope Shenouda III with a copy of his Out of Egypt
Try as they might most people -- be they laymen and professional Egyptologists -- do not share Ahmed Osman's view that the biblical Joseph was a high-ranking ancient Egyptian official known as Yuya. Nor that the mercurial and mysterious Akhenaten was really Moses.

Osman vehemently defends his claims, explaining the logic of what appear to be preposterous notions -- including the suggestion that the boy-king Tutankhamun was in fact Jesus Christ.

Osman stresses that he does not contest the core historicity of biblical and Qur'anic descriptions and teachings. "I confirm, not deny, the historicity of the Bible and Qur'an," Osman says. His theories, however, call for a complete revision of many modern assumptions about the composition of the Bible -- both Old and New Testaments.

"The origins of the biblical word Messiah or Saviour is the Hebrew Meshih," Osman concedes. But the original root of the term can be traced back even further, to ancient Egypt. "The English name Christ derives from Christos, meaning the Anointed One, or King, used in the Greek translation of the Bible in the third century AD." Osman explains that the tradition of anointing kings was an ancient Egyptian custom. "The king was anointed not with oil but with the fat of the holy crocodile. Here we find the original source of the word Messiah."

Osman is getting into his stride. "You see, MeSeH was the word for crocodile in ancient Egypt, and the image of two crocodiles was used in the title of the sovereign, bestowed on the king at the time of his coronation."

Osman insists that until today some families in Nubia anoint the male reproductive organ with crocodile fat in the belief that it will ensure strong progeny. It is, he says, an ancient practice that harks back to the days of the Pharaohs.

Though Osman denies he is dabbling in theology there is widespread discomfort with the notion that biblical characters are in reality based on ancient Egyptian originals. His ideas are thought by many to be absurd. Most Egyptologists do not believe Osman's theories are even worth refuting, though he says that many open-minded biblical scholars have welcomed his interpretations or at least accepted some part of his argument without reservation.

"I am talking about history, and not religion."

Osman's intriguing suppositions are founded on a simple and fairly straightforward proposition -- that the roots of monotheism, indeed of Judeo- Christianity and of the entire Western religious belief system, lie in Egypt rather than Israel. Biblical personalities, he posits, are fictitious variations of historical Egyptian monarchs. A revision of early Christian history, he suggests, is long-overdue.

"Jesus was an Egyptian, and not a Jew," Osman insists. "Out of Egypt I called my son," said the Old Testament prophet Hosea. According to Jewish tradition the Saviour, Messiah or Jesus, was to come out of Egypt, not Israel.

"Until the end of the fourth century AD Christian pilgrims came to Egypt and the Christian cross was the Key of Life, the ankh. Christianity was the last phase of the Osirian Cult. Resurrection is originally an Egyptian concept. Indeed, resurrection was the central focus of Egyptian religion."

The springs and levers of this complicated plot have ensured that Ahmed Osman is not a celebrity in the land of his birth. He has, though, lectured extensively in the US, Britain and France and his books have long been a fixture of North American bestseller lists.

That mainstream Egyptologists, both Egyptian and Western, decline to lend his ideas much credence is simply, he argues, because "they have established their careers on their interpretations."

Religious authorities, both Coptic Christian and Muslim, have shied away from giving his theories official sanction, though neither have they been entirely ruled out. A former sheikh of Al-Azhar, Egypt's most venerable and authoritative Muslim institution, Sheikh Abdallah Shehata, told Osman that Muslim scholars had no objection from a religious perspective. "If it can be shown beyond doubt that Yuya was the historical Youssef [Joseph], then we cannot leave his mummy in the Egyptian Museum. We'll have a special mausoleum built in which to house his mortal remains," the late Azharite sheikh had assured Osman.

Another notable Muslim scholar and cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Hassan El-Baquoury, welcomed Osman's findings, again stressing that there is no fundamental contradiction between the Qur'anic depiction of Youssef and the claim that Yuya and Youssef were one and the same person.

Egypt's Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III has also expressed interest in his theories, though "the Roman Catholic Church," Osman says, "holds grave reservations".

Osman is an unassuming, down-to-earth man. He is not a dreamer, he insists. Nor is he a mischief maker. But just as Martin Bernal's Black Athena generated controversy, Osman's writings have elicited heated debate.

Osman's task could well be more ambitious than Bernal's since he aims to revise current understandings of the Bible by suggesting its origins lie in Egypt and not the "Holy Land". According to Osman's scheme of things Egypt was the Holy Land -- there was no other, certainly not Egypt's historically insignificant immediate northeastern neighbour, a mere passageway to the bastions of ancient Near Eastern civilisations in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.

So how did Osman's original ideas develop?

"One cold winter's evening," Osman recounts, "I couldn't go to sleep. My wife and daughter were fast asleep," he remembers. "I went to the kitchen and made myself a pot of tea, sat by the fireplace and opened the Bible, and read from the Book of Genesis as I often did."

He re-read the story of Joseph. "The claim by Joseph the Patriarch in the Book of Genesis that he had been made a father to pharaoh stood out. The words seemed to leap off the page."

The penny dropped. After studying the Bible and Egyptian history for a quarter of a century it dawned on him that he had established a plausible link between a major biblical personality and a historically verifiable Egyptian figure. Yuya was Iyt (Father) Neter (God, or Holy) n (of) Neb (Lord) Tawi (Two Lands). Yuya is the only person we know of in Egyptian history to claim the title, it ntr n nb tawi, the Holy Father of the Lord of the Two Lands. "I realised that it was a very rare Egyptian title. And it is a claim nobody else in the Bible makes."

Osman notes that this unique appellation occurs once on one of Yuya's ushabti (royal funerary statuette) and more than 20 times on his funerary papyrus.

There were other striking similarities between the two figures. Yuya had two sons, as did Joseph. Both Yuya and Joseph were foreigners who attained high office in Egypt. Both were close to the royal family, their fortune intricately intertwined with that of the royals. Osman came to the conclusion that Joseph the Patriarch and Yuya were one and the same.

Yuya cannot have been an Egyptian because his name was written differently by different scribes.

"Eleven different versions of Yuya's name are to be found on his sarcophagus, the three coffins and other funerary furniture -- Ya-a, Ya, Yi-Ya, Yu-Ya, Ya-Yi, Yu, Yu-Yu, Ya-Ya, Yi-Ay, Yi-a, Yu-y."

Yu is the shortened form of the Hebrew Yahweh, or Yhwh, God of the Israelites.

"Egyptian names usually indicate the name of the god under whose protection the person was placed. Joseph remained aloof from Egyptian religious practice. It seems a reasonable assumption that by the time Joseph died Egyptians had realised that he would not accept the protection of any of the Egyptian gods, only that of his own God. What they were trying to write, following Egyptian tradition, was the name of his God."

Osman adds that Youssef is a compound name. The Bible records that Joseph was given an Egyptian title, Sef, from which came the Biblical and Qur'anic name Youssef. Manetho, the Egyptian historian who chronicled the country's annals at the time of the Ptolemies states that Pharaoh Amenhotep III had a minister called Sef.

Equally intriguing is Yuya's insignia of office, which again closely matches the description of Joseph's ceremonial appurtenances in the Bible.

"And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck."

Osman's discoveries emboldened him in his search for the historical originals of Old Testament prophets. Solomon, David, Moses and Joshua or Jesus were all, he now argues, based on characters represented in the annals of ancient Egyptian history. Joseph led to Moses, and Moses to Jesus and the two Marys. Osman believes that the fact that the Coptic Monastery of St Macarius at Wadi Al- Natron in Egypt's Western Desert houses a depiction of Jesus being embalmed according to ancient Egyptian custom -- a practice verified in the gospels which stress that Jesus's body was anointed with spices and ointments -- further underlines his thesis. The apostle John says that Nicodemus "brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes" and describes Jesus's body as being bound in "linen clothes with the spices".

The manner in which Osman pronounces ancient Egyptian names and expressions is fascinating. His rendition of ancient Egyptian words flows smoothly and the seeming naturalness of the sounds is astonishing. He speaks precisely, sharply enunciating each consonant and vowel.

Osman emphasises the semantic correlations between Arabic, biblical Hebrew and ancient Egyptian. He noted how abrek, kneel, is the same in modern colloquial Egyptian, ancient Egyptian and the Hebrew of the Book of Genesis. Samir, friend in both ancient Egyptian and Arabic, was rendered Shamir in Hebrew.

Whatever the exact sound of the ancient Egyptian language, what is certain, according to Osman, is that it profoundly influenced the Semitic languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. But Osman is not a philologist and the main theme of his work is that the Qur'anic and Biblical stories of Joseph, Moses and Jesus have deep Egyptian roots.

To this end he has published three books: Stranger in the Valley of the Kings (1987), Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt (1990) and The House of the Messiah (1992) -- published in the US as Jesus in the House of the Pharaohs.

Osman's unorthodox views are not without precedent. Sigmund Freud argued in Moses and Monotheism that the Hebrew law-giver was an Egyptian.

Born in 1934 in the Cairene district of Abdin, Osman was educated at Al-Khedewiya School and the University of Ain Shams, where he read law. After graduation he worked as a journalist, first with Akhbar Al-Yom, which he joined as a young trainee. Yet, even though journalism offered a secure career, Osman preferred the far less certain vocation of playwrighting.

His first play, The Sin of a God, was inspired by Greek mythology. A Zeus-like god falls in love with a human who bears him a son who is an amalgam of god and man. His second play, Rebel in the Harem, resembles the tales of One Thousand and One Nights . His Sheherezade incites a rebellion in the harem resulting in the mass release of the concubines.

His third play, Where is Paradise?, borrowed liberally from Exodus. The moral of the story? Had the Israelites accepted Egypt as their homeland they would have lived happily ever after.

Osman's four plays have never been staged in Egypt. A fifth, Hollow in the Sky, was performed at London's Little Theatre Club in 1967. His controversial books, though, have been far more enthusiastically received.

In December 1964 Osman left Egypt for good. He first moved to Paris where, six months later and with a smattering of French, his wife and pitifully few worldly possessions, he took the boat train to London on 8 July, his birthday. London was cold and grey, even in mid-summer. The youthful couple stayed in a tiny bed and breakfast hotel near London's Victoria Station.

His wife Naglaa, a daughter of the Egyptian composer Medhat Asem, was interested in art, but they both decided to study Egyptology and enrolled at University College, London.

"Initially my wife was better than I was," Osman muses. "But eventually her interest waned, especially after the birth of our daughter."

The study of ancient Egypt transformed his life. His quest for knowledge led him to the Bible and the Qur'an. He taught himself classical biblical and Mesoretic Hebrew. "But not modern Hebrew," he notes. "I wanted only a correct textual reading of the Hebrew Scriptures -- a Semitic language the syntax and grammar of which closely resemble Arabic."

Even more startling, Osman says that "the Hebrew of the books of Genesis and Exodus have many terms that are similar to Egyptian colloquial Arabic."

The word Mesoretic is derived from mazora, the Egyptian measuring tape, Osman says. "Only these two books have so many Egyptian terms. The Hebrew of the other books is different."

Osman maintains that Moses and Akhenaten were one and the same man. Akhenaten was forced to abdicate the throne and escape to Sinai with a handful of followers -- both Egyptian and Syro-Canaanite.

Osman makes ample use of recent archaeological discoveries and historical documents to advance his unconventional theories. He contends that the Ten Commandments bear an uncanny resemblance to Spell 125 in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

"Akhenaten was able to abolish the complex pantheon of the ancient Egyptian religion and replace it with a single god, the Aten, who had no image or form," Osman explains.

But the Aten was depicted as a sun disc, I ventured. He replied with an emphatic "no, Aten had no physical image."

Osman continues elucidating his startling discoveries by stressing that "all those who spoke of Jesus in the early history of the Church recognised in this name only one person." That person, according to Osman, bore the name "of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write" -- a quotation from the Gospel according to John.

"Tut (image), ankh (the Egyptian cross, the symbol of life) and Aten (the Egyptian equivalent of Adonai, the Lord in Hebrew) mean that it is to be translated as 'the living image of the Lord'. Thus he was looked upon as the Son of God from the time of his birth."

But Tutankhamun ruled Egypt between 1361 and 1352 BC? "The Book of Joshua is pure fiction, a work of propaganda," Osman insists. "Joshua, or Jesus, was the historical successor of Moses," he adds. Caught in the crossfire of religious rivalry he tried to mediate between the old religion and the new monotheistic creed of his father.

"Two women named Mary are placed in close relationship with Jesus in the New Testament -- his mother and Mary Magdalene. The Greek version of the name is Maria, the Hebrew Miriam, but its origins lie in ancient Egypt where the word mery means 'the beloved'."

The Talmud, Osman believes, offers more clues about the real identity of Jesus than the New Testament.

"Only two of the four gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, refer to the birth of Jesus, but their accounts do not agree," he points out. Matthew's account of the conventional Christmas story in Bethlehem places it "in the days of Herod the king", as the King James version puts it.

"This means that Jesus was born before 4 BC, the date of Herod's death," Osman stresses. Luke's version contradicts both Matthew's and Luke's own earlier account of Jesus' birth because it states a census for taxation purposes. "The purpose of the census in 6AD, attested from other non-biblical sources, was to assess the amount of tribute which the new province of Judaea would have to pay."

Here Osman relies on Roman records. "We know from Roman sources that this event could not have taken place before 6AD, the year in which Quirinius, the biblical Cyrenius, was appointed governor of Syria and Judaea became a Roman province."

In 1996 Osman visited Professor John Strugnell, the former editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project who was delighted with Osman's deductions. Emanuel Tov replaced Strugnell in 1990 and soon after the Israeli Department of Antiquities announced that it would only grant access to official photos of the scrolls to scholars who would agree not to publish their findings.

"On the basis of known historical fact all we can be certain about concerning the figure presented to us in the gospels as Jesus is that he lived and died between 27AD, when the Roman Senate appointed Octavian as Emperor Augustus, and 37AD, the year of the death of Augustus's successor, Tiberius." Osman wonders, then, why the name of Jesus does not appear in the writings of three distinguished contemporary Roman authors -- Philo Judaeus, Justus of Tiberias and Flavius Josephus.

To cut a long story short, Osman does not entirely dismiss the biblical story of Jesus. Rather he reconciles the Biblical and Qur'anic versions of Jesus with his theory that the historical Messiah was Tutankhamun by differentiating between what he describes as the "Glory of Christ" and the ancient Egyptian king.

"Although the Glory of Christ appeared to his disciples in the early part of the first century AD, the historical Jesus had lived and died 14 centuries earlier," he explains.

He also points out that there was a historical confusion with regards to the names Joshua and Jesus.

"Up to the 16th century, when the Old Testament books were translated from the Mesoretic Hebrew text into modern European languages, Jesus was the name of the prophet who succeeded Moses as leader of the Israelites in Egypt. Since the 16th century we started to have two names, Jesus and Joshua, which confused people into the belief that they were two different characters."

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