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The Egyptian prototype of " King John and the Abbot." — 
By Charles C. Tobbey, Professor in Andover Theologi- 
cal Seminary, Andover, Mass. 

One of the oldest Arahic historical works is Ibn 'Abd el- 
Hakem's j^je —-*£»» or Conquest of Egypt, composed near the 

middle of the ninth century A. D. Its author, 'Abd er-Rahman 
ibn 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd el-Hakem, a native of Egypt and the son 
of a man of high rank, died in the year 257 A. H. (871 A. D.). 
He was thus a contemporary of Ibn Sa'd (d. 230), Beladhori (d. 
279), and Tabari (d. 310). His book, which is of about the same 
extent as Beladhori's Futuh el-Buldan, is a collection of the 
traditions relating to the Mohammedan conquest of Egypt, Africa, 
and Spain. It thus furnishes a welcome supplement to the other 
early Muslim histories and tradition collections, which give com- 
paratively little space to these countries. Though containing a 
great deal that is worthless, and written by one who possessed 
few of the qualities of a good historian, it is, nevertheless, a work 
of great importance. I hope soon to publish an edition of it 
based on the three manuscripts in London and Paris, which I 
have already copied and collated. 

Although this Conquest of Egypt has been extensively used by 
the later Mohammedan historians, yet it contains some very 
interesting material which has apparently not been used by other 
writers. An example of the kind is the accompanying anecdote, 
which has never been published, and, if I am not mistaken, has 
never been brought to the attention of occidental scholars. 

In one of the introductory chapters of his book, Ibn 'Abd el- 
Hakem gives a list of the Egyptian kings who reigned in Mem- 

vol. xx. 14 

210 C. C. Torrey, [1899. 

phis, beginning with the grandson of Noah, and extending down 
to the time when the country came under foreign rule. Most of 
these kings are mentioned only by name ; a few, however, are the 
subjects of more or less extended tradition or anecdote. One of 
these latter is the king whom the historian identifies with Pha- 
raoh Necho, of Old Testament fame (2 Kings xxiii. 29-35). The 
spelling of the name of this king, in its Arabic form, varies con- 
siderably ; the variation being plainly due to the fact that in the 
oldest sources the diacritical points were usually omitted. In the 
manuscripts of the Futuh Misr the name is generally unpointed. 

Where points are given, the form is Baulah, & L j (attested 

by all three manuscripts). Mas'udi (ed. Meynard, ii. 410) has 
&jJL> > Abu 'I-Mahasin (ed. Juynboll, i. 67) has xjJLj, jJ*j, an( i 
other (unpointed) forms ; Maqrizi (Bulaq, 1854, i. 143) and 
Ya'qtibi (ed. Houtsma, i. 211) read jj«i > Naulah ; and so on. 
The tradition relating to this king which is given by all these 
historians — who derive it, apparently, from Ibn 'Abd el-Hakem — 

is the following (quoted from the Futuh Misr) : I v . •< 

*J L*-LjO mXij S&jJ\ £ l J-^* i ' &* *^fi (J^J r^* S ^ l* 4 ^ 
sJJtya x-U! nXxJLi liJbj ^h^j-* &*•! *«^» ^_jK ^j+* tXo.\ &*X*i 

That is, though 'Baulah' was the most powerful ruler since 
Rameses II., yet he was so wicked that God at length put a sud- 
den end to his life ; or, more exactly, his horse threw him, and 
the fall broke his neck. This is given by Ibn 'Abd el-Hakem as 
the ' standard ' tradition as to the end of his reign. But he adds 
another tradition, "derived, it is said, from a native sheikh 
learned in such matters," according to which the king was 
deposed by his own people. The story which then follows is a 
most interesting one. Besides being an excellent example of that 

1 Thus vocalized in the old and carefully written manuscript of the 
British Museum. 

Vol. xx.] Prototype of "King John and the Abbot." 2 1 1 

class of popular tales in which the interest centers in the shrewd 
answers given to a series of hard questions, it is plainly a genuine 
bit of Coptic folk-lore, which had been current in the land long 
before the Arab invasion. It has, moreover, as we shall see, some 
striking parallels in the European folk-lore of the middle ages. 
The Arabic text here given, which is now published for the first 
time, is based on the excellent London manuscript of the Fkituh 
Misr (MS. Brit. Mus. Stowe Or. 6; No. 520 in Rieu's Supplement). 

,jT |^*JI Jjel ^ _^o Jjof ^_xi v>jU0 ^j-k-s^) JLS 

Lfc£ Xj! dJi> } *Syl y2> Li! -»OJ0 Jjt>\ &*La. ^jJI PyJlisJ! 
«j&i jAyM) olspll |*-^a-Lc- i^tt^ *^*» ^^-UJI oJ^ ,jjO} "'jW' 

o^-CO ** U.LX jJ IjJliLi .vCsLifc! (fol- Ua) oo^ws LgJ ^^jjji' 
jvS^ |»^s jy^ JL*Jj J^lo «JJf Jjub Lo ^)y+=>\ |V^J JUi 

j«a i*^j Ji'j, (j^+jwLf! lJL^Lwo Lo >ljjw *5^ »L>**J! |<>kai oaa 

ki>l<3 |V*Li*Ls iv^aJI y-^*J \j*y*j*&\ ^*^Lo^ ^•jl&.-j *j «jw *# 
U-w-J JLiii luJdsy xjoI dLl+j i*LuiJt «JLwJ (jjuyo jUt sUli ajdLc*. 

212 C. C. Torrey, [1899. 

,j! Sv*i»-l» xJjJ J*£- Jj*-4> ^^Ajk ^yo JiJI JuJtt *j itLo xJ ua.^ 

>L***J! j.^si i^iXfc ^.* ^^jj*.! xJ JUu jut JL*. Lo jjlc sjoic 

JLij XJtXj ,j.AJ S^Ai X*/o jjb' Juoj ( j^o LjLa. (j^yojUt _ yikLi 
pXs JLs' SiX*J ,j»* wo JLs' viL^Jo Lo^ JLs' ! jj> OjkA Jul* ij 
,j!}f UoIjaj' JLs *tM ^j\ ^s- *j.j J^^j^^&J! JliUJ Lo JtXJLo 

Jjiaj Ui JLs xjj&.t (j >i!J<j> j*=»-Lo JyJJ! J! joojj J-»*j JuoL«Jt 

J<£ XAiij! t _*a». «jl* „-jis-i Ij^ft dUi iiL>J xJ JU' -ws J.S'xJUl 
Ji' sJJI JjtftJ aJ JLiii sjKjo ^wo JUI sjuts'l ^ jJ! x5t;Sj tX*-' 
_s\j ltX» ^j| viU(> ^xij Loy»* o».£*^j L*jj' y«Jj Louis' J jo ,jT |»^j 

J^a o^yr* v*"^-" ^) u*t*t s J** tU*j <Xfcl» ^LSKs^ ^ 
*J JLs L5"y |V^*«LJ ^jjo ^LJ ^a^ c)»«LJI v^ u^ *^ 

I^Lyo /^*-j-» oLuo JLotXjc ^^La-Lc (J^Lct <X» (jiki ( ^o (jiLi ,j(« 
^ JLi^i 1 JLs Jo>.j il Lo p#doJ pXt fit Ja^JLtl J^i' >4JLJ jo 

. *1&\ xJJI. jUu*r~w.J >iLLJI ^iU<\> &Zy£ *-'}•? 


One day the king, who, it seems, grudged his vezlrs their pay, 
summoned them before him, and said to them : " I will ask of 
you certain questions. If you can answer them for me, I will add 
to your pay and increase your power; but if you fail to answer 
them, I will cut off your heads." They replied, " Ask of us what- 
ever you will." So he said : " Tell me these three things : First, 

1 Thus pointed in the London MS. 

Vol. xx.] Prototype of "King John and the Abbot." 213 

What is the number of the stars in the heavens ? Second, What 
sum of money does the sun earn daily, by his labor for each 
human being ? Third, What does God almighty do, every day ? " 
Not knowing what to answer, the vezlrs besought the king to give 
them a little time, and he granted them a month's respite. 

They used therefore to go every day outside the city of Mem- 
phis, and stand in the shade of a potter's kiln ; ' where they would 
consult together in hope of finding a solution of the difficulty they 
were in. The potter, noticing this, came to them one day and 
asked them what they were doing. They told him their story. 
He replied: "Zcan answer the king's questions; but I have a 
kiln here, and cannot afford to leave it idle. Let one of you sit 
down and work in my place; and do you give me one of your 
beasts to ride, and furnish me with clothing like your own." 
They did as he asked. 

Now there was in the city a certain prince, the son of a former 
king, whom ill fortune had overtaken. To him the potter betook 
himself, and proposed to him that he should try to regain his 
father's throne. But he replied, "There is no way of getting 
this fellow (meaning the king) outside of the city." " I will get 
him out for you," answered the potter. So the prince collected 
all his resources, and made ready. 

Then the potter, in the guise of a vezir, went and stood before 
King Baulah, and announced himself ready to answer the three 
questions. " Tell me, then," said the king, " the number of the 
stars in the sky." The potter produced a bag of sand which he had 
brought, and poured it out before him, saying, " Here is just the 
number. "How do you know?" demanded the king. "Order 
some one to count it, and you will see that I have it right." The 
king proceeded: "How much does the sun earn each day by his 
work for each son of Adam?" He replied, "One qirat; for 
the day-laborer who works from sunrise to sunset receives that 

1 The word ^yoji , which is not found in any Arabic Lexicon, and 
is all but unknown in Arabic literature, is apparently derived from 
itepauevc, through the Coptic. The only other place where it occurs, a 
passage in Ya'qubi's History (ed. Houtsma, ii. 489), to which attention 
was first called by von Kremer, Lexicogr. Notizen, 1886, p. 21 (I am 
indebted to Professor Macdonald for this reference), is in a narrative of 
Upper Egypt ; and the word is there explained as meaning "a potter's 
oven." In our story it is used both for the kiln and for the potter him- 
self. I hope to discuss the word at length elsewhere. 

214 C. C. Torrey, [1899. 

amount." He then asked, " What does God almighty do every 
day?" "That," answered the potter, "I will show you tomor- 

So on the morrow he went forth with the king from the city, 
until they came to that one of the king's vezirs whom he had 
made to sit down in his place. Then he said : " What God 
almighty does every day is this; he humbles men, and exalts 
men, and ends the life of men. To illustrate this : here is one of 
your own vezirs sitting down to work in a potter's kiln ; while I, 
a poor potter, am mounted on one of the royal beasts, and wear 
the garments of the court. And further, such a one (naming the 
rival prince) has just barred the gates of Memphis against you ! " 

The king turned back in hot haste ; but lo ! the gates of the 
city were already barred. Then the people, led by the young 
prince, seized King Baulah, and deposed him. He went crazy ; 
and used to sit by the gate of the city of Memphis, raving and 

And that, adds the narrator, is the reason why a Copt, when 
you say to him that which displeases him, replies, "You are 
descended from Baulah on both sides of your family ! " meaning 
the crazy king. 

It remains to notice the European parallel already referred to. 
No student of English literature who reads the foregoing story 
can fail to observe the close resemblance which it bears to the 
well-known Old English tale of King John and the Abbot of 
Canterbury; a tale which appears in one form or another in 
many parts of Europe. 

In the English ballad, which Prof. Child has edited and anno- 
tated, King John is introduced as a powerful but unjust ruler, who 

" . . . . ruled England with maine and with might, 
"For he did great wrong, and maintein'd little right." 

He decides that his Abbot of Canterbury is much too rich and 
prosperous, and announces his purpose to cut off his head; but 
finally agrees to spare his life on condition of his answering three 
questions which the king propounds. The questions are : 1. How 
much am I, the king, worth ? 2. How long would it take me to 
ride around the earth? 3. What am I thinking? The abbot 
regards himself as a dead man ; but is finally rescued by a shep- 
herd, who goes to the king disguised as the abbot, and answers 

Vol. xx.] Prototype of "King John and the Abbot.''' 1 2J5 

the three questions without difficulty. The king is worth twenty- 
nine pence ; since Jesus Christ was valued at thirty. The ride 
around the earth can be accomplished in just one day, by keeping 
directly under the sun for that length of time. The answer to 
the third question turns on the fact of the shepherd's disguise; 
what the king 'thinks' is this, that the man speaking to him 
is the Abbot of Canterbury, but he is in reality only a poor 

For some account of the occurrence of this story, in the same 
form or slightly varied, in the literature of many of the nations 
of Europe, see the Introduction to the ballad of King John and 
the Abbot of Canterbury, in Child's English and Scottish Ballads. 
The most natural explanation of the appearance of such a tale 
as this in the literature of these neighboring nations, English, 
French, Spanish, Italian, German, Danish, is that it made its way 
from one people to another by oral and literary transmission. 
Examples of the kind have always been abundant. 

But if I am not mistaken, the European forms of the story are 
not only all derived from a common source, but their ultimate 
source is the Egyptian tale. It is true that riddles and hard 
questions have always played a prominent part in legend and 
story ; that men in all parts .of the world think alike ; and that 
tales of this general nature might easily appear quite independ- 
ently of one another in widely remote places. But in the case 
before us, the resemblances are too many and too close to be 
merely accidental. The story of King John and the Abbot is 
practically identical with that of King Baulah. It is not neces- 
sary to argue this point, for the correspondence of the two ver- 
sions, part by part, is sufficiently striking. The divergences, on the 
other hand, are only such as we should expect to see. There is, 
moreover, a fact bearing on the question of the literary transmis- 
sion which is to be taken into account. This Futuh Misr of Ibn 
'Abd el-Hakem contains one of the oldest and most interesting 
narratives of the Mohammedan conquest of Spain, 1 as well as of 
Egypt and Africa. It may therefore be taken as certain that it 
was well known, and probably extensively circulated, among the 
Spanish Arabs from the ninth century on. There would seem, 
therefore, to be sufficient reason for concluding that the Egyptian 

1 Published, with an English translation, by John Harris Jones, 
Gottingen, 1858. 

216 C. C. Torrey, "King John and the Abbot." 1899. 

story of the King and the Potter was brought to Spain in Ibn 
'Abd el-Hakem's history; that it became widely popular, and 
ultimately made its way into all parts of Europe. 

In conclusion, it may be interesting to notice a passage in the 
Jewish Midrasb, recently brought to my attention by Professor 
Siegmund Fraenkel, of Breslau, which closely resembles the third 
question and answer of our story. In Bereshith Rabba § 68, 4 
(ed. Wilna, fol. 133 d ), Rabbi Yose ben Khalaphta, being asked 
what God has been doing since the time when he created the 
world, replies, "He sits and makes ladders, for the purpose of 
humbling this one and exalting that one, bringing down one and 
raising up another (DHOl Hf 1 ? 'MJB'O HIO'TID TWXfr 3B>V 
nf? VfrfflS) Pit"? ma Tt»- n This suggests that a popular 
proverb was the basis of the two replies ; but it is possible that 
the coincidence may be merely accidental. Professor Fraenkel, 
in his mention of the Jewish parallel, refers to the periodical 
"Germania (Pfeiffer), xxv. neue Reihe, 288, No. iv." This I 
have not seen.