Al-Kimia: The Mystical Islamic Essence of the Sacred Art of Alchemy, by John Eberly (another problem with etymology)

This is a preliminary assessment derived solely from the preview available on Amazon and should not be construed as conclusive in any fashion.

What is it with Arabic, etymology and esoteric works? In the introduction this book claims that the original Arabic name for Egypt is ‘Kam’ and that this is the root of the word alchemy.

Where to start? Arabic is, relatively speaking, a recent language. Those with only the most basic knowledge of Arabs or Egypt may be confused and not understand that ancient Egyptians did not use Arabic because it did not even exist then.

Moreover it really makes no sense to even talk about the “original” Arabic name for Egypt when it is the same now as it has ever been. The actual Arabic word for Egypt is ‘مصر’ or ‘misr’. That isn’t what the ancient Egyptians called their land, but it is the Arab word for Egypt.

So what about the second part of the claim, that alchemy originates from Kam?

While ‘alchemy’ does come through Arabic (‘الخيمية’ which may be transliterated as ’al-kimiya’) it is from the Greek ‘khēmia’ meaning ‘art of transmuting metals’. It is not rooted in ‘Kam’

  • alchemy late Middle English: via Old French and medieval Latin from Arabic al-kīmiyā’, from al ‘the’ + kīmiyā’ (from Greek khēmiakhēmeia ‘art of transmuting metals’).

So where did ‘Kam’ come from in this claim? The ancient Egyptians referred to their land as “Two Lands”, perhaps for Upper and Lower Egypt, or perhaps for the two banks. By the Eleventh Dynasty another term had appeared, ‘Kemet’, as did ‘ta-mery’. Kemet means ‘Black Land’ while ta-mery means ‘Beloved Land’. By the end of the Middle Kingdom ‘Kemet’ seems to have become the official name of Egypt. ‘Kemet’ was written in hieroglyphics as ‘km.t’

So it is only a guess, but it seems that the claim would be better stated as:

the Ancient Egyptian name for Egypt is ‘Kemet’ and this is the root of the word alchemy.

This would make the first part of the statement true at least, though taken as a whole it is false. There is no reason to suppose that Kemet (Black Land) evolved into khēmeia (art of transmuting metals).

So if the Ancient Egyptians called their land Kemet or Ta-mery and the Arabs call it Misr, why do we call it Egypt? Blame the Greeks: they used one of the names for Memphis and applied it to the whole land.

Old English Egipte “the Egyptians,” from French Egypte, from Greek Aigyptos “the river Nile, Egypt,” from Amarna Hikuptah, corresponding to Egyptian Ha(t)-ka-ptah “temple of the soul of Ptah,” the creative god associated with Memphis, the ancient city of Egypt.

This is another case where it is hard to credit other claims made by the author out of concern that such statements may be just as spurious and fanciful as this one, just less easily demonstrated.

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