Four years after Wilhelm von Boldensele, in 1336, another German traveller visited the pyramids of Giza. His name was Ludolf von Sudheim, the chaplain of another German nobleman on pilgrimage. He also left an account of his travels, and a transcription of the Latin inscription on the pyramid at Giza. His statement was as follows:
To one side of New Babylonia (Cairo) across the Nile in the direction of the Egyptian desert stand several monuments of amazing size, which were formerly very beautiful; they are built of great blocks of tooled stone. Of these monuments there are two that are very large, and that were formerly very beautiful; they are square tombs. On one wall of one of these monuments there are letters chiselled out in Latin, on the second wall in Greek, on the third in Hebrew; on the fourth wall, however, there are many characters which are unknown. But on the first wall, where the Latin is, is carved- insofar as can still be made out, because of its age – the following:
Vidi pyramides sine te, dulcissime frater,
Et tibi quod potui lacrimas hic moesta profudi
Et nostri memorem luctus hanc sculpo querelam.
Sit nomen Decimi Anni pyramidis alta
Pontificis comitisque tuis, Trajane, triumphis,
Lustra sex intra censoris consulis esse.
I leave the explanation of these verses to the judgement of the reader. These monuments were called by the native population the granaries of Pharaoh.
The inscription (in six hexameters, the last plainly corrupt) is the same, except that the name of the companion of Trajan is given as D. Annius, rather than D. Cetiannus. It is likely that the text was worn and hard to read by this date. The presence of lettering in other languages, all unreadable to the parish priest of Westphalia, may or may not be related to the inscription.
The pyramids of Giza still retained their outer casing into the middle ages, and only lost it when the Arabs started to use it as a source of stone. But in 1332 a German noble, Wilhelm von Boldensele, while on pilgrimage in the orient, visited the site. In his Itinerarius Guelielmi de Boldensele in terram sanctam he writes:
Beyond Babylonia (Cairo) and the river of paradise, in the direction of the desert that lies between Egypt and Africa, there are several monuments of the ancients, shaped like pyramids; two of them are amazingly large and high, with very large, polished stones, and on these I found characters inscribed in different languages. In one monument I came across the following Latin verses, chiselled in stone:
Vidi pyramidas sine te, dulcissime frater,
Et tibi, quod potui, lacrimas hie moesta profudi,
Et nostri memorem luctus hanc sculpo querelam.
Sit nomen Decimi Cetianni pyramide alta
Pontificis comitisque tuis, Trajane, triumphis
Lustra sex intra censoris consulis esse.
I have seen the pyramids in stone without you, beloved brother,
and for you I have grieved here as much as I could, and shed my tears;
And mindful of our grief I chisel this lament:
May the high pyramid know the name of Decimus Cetiannus,
The pontifex and companion of your triumphs, O Trajan,
(Who within six lustra was both censor and consul??).
The inscription and the stone on which it was inscribed have long since vanished from the world. But the name of D. Cetiannus, priest and companion of the emperor Trajan is preserved; because a German traveller twelve centuries later happened to write down the graffito.
I wonder what remains of antiquity might be mouldering in Arabic texts, unknown because Arabic literature is pretty much unknown and inaccessible, untranslated because unknown?
UPDATE: 16 September 2019. A twitter thread by the excellent Dr Kate Wiles here drew my attention to further information. I don’t see any sign that this will be written up, and it would be a shame to lose what she and others uncovered. She writes:
Some time around AD 120, a Roman woman, Terentia, visited the pyramids and, in the smooth limestone facing of the Great Pyramid, she carved a poem in memory of her brother.
‘I saw the pyramids without you, my dearest brother, and here I sadly shed tears for you, which is all I could do. And I inscribe this lament in memory of our grief. May thus be clearly visible on the high pyramid the name of Decimus Gentianus…’
… Emily Hemelrijk in her book Matrona Docta says: ‘The poem is no literary masterpiece’ but also admires Terentia’s ‘pretension in inscribing a poem on one of the great pyramids of Egypt’. ‘Her poem was meant for eternity’.
There is more in I.M. Plant, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, 2004, 155-6, which tells us:
Terentia was a Roman visitor to Egypt whose only known work is a poem which she composed as an epitaph for her brother, Decimus Terentius Gentianus, and had inscribed on the pyramid of Cheops. The poem was discovered and recorded in 1335 by a German pilgrim, Wilhelm von Boldensele. Since then all the limestone facing on the pyramid has been removed and the inscription itself has been lost. Terentia’s poem, as we have it, consists of six hexameters, but may originally have been longer.
We do know a little about her brother. Decimus Terentius Gentianus was consul suffectus under the Emperor Trajan in AD 116, and governor of Macedonia under Hadrian as a censitor in AD 120.2 This helps us to date Terentia’s visit to Egypt and her poem. Still in mourning for her brother, she chose the pyramid for her epitaph to provide a suitably grand and everlasting site for her tribute to him.^ She was proud of her brother’s political achievements at such a young age (under thirty), and the status and position in the imperial court that this reflected. Traditionally a man could not attain the rank of consul before he turned forty, though this Republican practice, codified in the Lex Vibia Annalis in 180 BC, was disregarded by the emperors who promoted themselves, family members and favourites without regard to the age limit. There is no other record of Terentius reaching the rank of censor, Terentia may have elevated her brother’s appointment as censitor in her poem to exaggerate his achievements.
It has been suggested that Terentia visited Egypt as a member of Hadrian’s touring party in AD 130. This may be so but there is no evidence for it, and Terentia’s epitaph must have been written after AD 130 as the Historia Augusta (23) records that Terentius did not die until after Hadrian’s tour.
Terentius had been popular in the senate and at one time considered a possible successor by Hadrian. Terentia’s poem is all the more remarkable for her boldness in lauding a politician who had fallen out of favour with the reigning emperor. Terentia looks back to the success of her brother under Trajan, whom she addresses, but does not mention Hadrian at all. Perhaps Egypt was far enough away from Rome for such political graffiti to pass unnoticed. Terentia did not need to travel to Egypt with the Emperor: evidence from the graffiti on the statue of Memnon shows that there was considerable Roman tourism in Egypt by both men and women.
Terentia’s poem can be compared with the epigrams by Caecilia Trebulla and Julia Balbilla, inscribed in the time of Hadrian on the Colossus of Memnon, as examples of occasional poetry. They show that at this time women of the Roman elite were literate—Terentia adapts a verse of Horace in line three—and could express themselves well in verse.
The text itself is better known as the Liber de quibusdam ultramarinis partibus et praecipue de Terra Sancta. A critical edition was printed by Deluz in 1972: “O. Deluz, Liber de quibusdam ultramarinis partibus et praecipue de terra sancta de Guillaume de Boldenses (1336), suivi de la traduction de Frère Jean de Long (1351), Paris (Diss. masch.) 1972 aus einer Baseler Hs.”
Written when it was, it circulated in manuscript copies, as did a French translation. R. Rohricht, Bibliotheca Geographica Palestinae (1890; online here) lists 25 mss. for Boldensele (p.73), 4 in Munich alone:
Thomas Schmid located one of the Vienna mss, number 523, online here. The catalogue suggests that the manuscript is 14th century, but I’m not entirely certain of the full shelfmark. The text is on image 30 – this seems to be folio 10v – where it fills the first column (click for a larger size):
A more modern but partial list of manuscripts is accessible at Cendari here. Finally an excellent list of manuscripts and bibliography is at Arlima here. This gives the following mss:
No modern edition seems to exist: my source is a translation of extracts in J.P.A. Van der Vin, Travellers to Greece and Constantinople. Ancient Monuments and Old Traditions in Medieval Travellers’ Tales (PIHANS 49), 1980. [27 cm, softcover; X, 751 (2 vols.)]. ISBN: 90-6258-049-1. p.574 f, esp. p.577-8. Downloadable here.↩