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The Tabula Rashida (Latin, "Tablet of Rashida ") was a semi-legendary stela originating from the Ptolemaic Era of Ancient Egypt. It was recovered by Roman forces during the Fifth Crusade in 1220, but lost shortly thereafter. It is most significant to the history of Aegyptography by helping to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics for the first time since antiquity, although a full translation wasn't complete until at least 1265.
Origin and Content
Its name derives from having been discovered in the city of Rashida (Arabic رشيدة), now known as the modern city of Rosetta, Egypt. The physical description of Albert Magnus, translated from medieval measuring systems, approximates to four feet (120 cm) tall, two and a half feet (75 cm) wide, and one foot (30 cm) thick. It was probably carved from either granite or basalt judging from similar stelae. Its contents were arranged in at least two languages (Greek and Egyptian), but theories of other languages being present are also supported.
According to the Chronicle of Matthew Paris, compared to the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Albert Magnus, the stone was originally made during the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, probably under the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (204-181 BC). As this Pharaoh was most noted for capturing Jerusalem from the Seleucids in 201 BC, there is always the possibility of Jewish influence on the text.
The exact contents and purpose of the tablet is yet unknown. Assuming it functioned to convey the Pharaoh's decree as most other stelae do, the majority of scholars believe it to be merely a legal or logistical proclamation. This is deduced from the vocabulary primarily touched on by Sts. Thomas and Albert, which is almost exclusively judicial and economic terminology.
However, this has not deterred other fringe theories from developing over the years as well, even after early translation manuscripts were recovered from Bologne in the 1980s. The Coptic scholar Tekle Haymanot was one of the first to attribute mystic origins in the 1270s, saying that Ptolemy "transmitted the sacred mysteries of the Jews". According to the Chronicle of Matthew Paris, even Pelagius himself insisted that "among these ancient scriptures hold many secrets of the generations in antiquity, to whom God himself was revealed". During the 15th century , many occultist followers believed the tablet to be the key to understanding the Enochian language, or even the Adamic language. A similar tradition is held by the Mormon Church, who believe the stone or or stone text was originally made by Adam, supposedly supported by a passage from Josephus. Starting in the 18th century, the Illuminati hold the belief that the text was first composed by Imhotep or Ahmes, containing some of the foundational tenets of their doctrine.
The Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) was originally called by Pope Innocent III, but seen through by his immediate successor Honorius III. Honorius sent the Cardinal and papal legate Pelagius Galvini to command the Crusader armies in Egypt. As Thomas Aquinas mentions that it was found in the city of Rashida (modern day Rosetta), then the tablet was most likely recovered in June of 1220 when Pelagius was encamped there. Matthew Paris recalled that the Crusading army "collected together many valuable treasures and reliquary from these cities, such that remained hidden since the days of Caesar, Alexander and other ancient kings". He later made reference to "ancient writings" being taken as well.
Pelagius returned to Rome in 1221 and presented his findings to the Pope. Aquinas states that Honorius "was pleased at the novel discovery of this bishop, and entrusted the stone to his care". However, contemporary historians reveal that Pelagius was very defaced politically for his failure to take the Holy Land, and desperately claimed that the relics he took from Alexandria were of great historical merit. The tablet itself was kept at the Church of Saint Sabina under Pelagius's care, where it remained until his death in January of 1230. At that point, the stone along with its manuscript copies were under the care and direction of the Dominican Order of monks.
Transcription and Translation
Pelagius made sure to have the Greek portion of the tablet transcribed in Rome fairly quickly, from which copies were distributed to the rest of Europe. Most notably, copies of the text appeared in the University of Bologne, the University to Naples, and the College of Paris. The manuscripts in Paris, however, were apparently destroyed after the condemnation of books in 1277. Mangled manuscript copies from Bologne were recovered between 1982 and 1985.
To the best of scholarly knowledge, the hieroglyphic text was sent only to Naples, probably using a method of rubbing. It was there that the otherwise ignominious scholar Polydore Beneventus was the first commissioned to translate the language. Although apparently utilizing both the texts of Horapollo and Ibn Wahshiyya, Polydore spent a considerable amount of time attempting to decipher the script. At some unknown point, the famous translator of Greek and Latin texts William Moerbeke also helped to shed light in the effort. It is not known if Polydore and William actually failed to complete the translation or merely neglected to publish their findings.
In any case, the hieroglyphics remained dormant for almost thirty years until it was looked into by the scholastic Albert Magnus ("Albert the Great"), who may have first heard of it when he visited San Sabina in 1259. In the early 1260s, he called in his college Thomas Aquinas to finish Polydore's work. Albert's work, Lingua Aegyptiorum and Thomas's Novo Hieroglyphica are the first significant contributions to the field of Aegyptography. Although neither of these works can be considered a complete or even consistent understanding of hieroglyphics, it was nonetheless a monumental leap forward for their time. The association with Aquinas's name helped to spread the notoriety of the hieroglyphics throughout much of Europe, and protect them from inquisition.
The demotic script, which is believed to be the third language of the stone, was also translated sometime in the late thirteenth century.
A minority of occultists have conjectured a fourth language on the tablet derived from a pre-flood dialect of Enochian or Adamic. Some who hold to this believe that the Voynich Manuscript from the 15th century is the only "true" transcription of the original tablet.
The tablet itself, unfortunately, did not survive as long as its transcriptions did. During the medieval inquisition under Pope Gregory IX in the 1230s, all the Egyptian relics from Alexandria were confiscated by the Papacy, presumably including the Tabula Rashida. It is at this point that the stone disappears from the historical record. Most scholars assume it was held in the Lateran Palace in Rome, in which case it was lost when the palace burned down in 1307.
Some occultist writers in the late middle ages believed that it found its way to England under the care of Roger Bacon. The Mormon church also holds to this view, and adds that later English immigrants brought the tablet to America where it helped Joseph Smith to understand the language of the Lamanites. The Illuminati and similar groups believe that the stone was sold to the Knights of Malta, where it was hidden in Cyprus some time before the invasion of Sulayman in 1522. Some branches of the Coptic Church believe the Knights actually hid the tablet near Alexandria, right where it was originally found.