fol 86v The inset ‘minimap’ Pt2: the Egyptian shore

Added note – Note – I have concluded that the ‘castle’ is certainly meant for Constantinople/Galata, the swallowtails an ornamental detail, indicating the period when Constantinople was ruled by an Emperor of Latin birth.   I believe that some earlier researcher may also have identified the ‘castle’ as Constantinople and if any reader is able to name that researcher or point me to their post/comment, I should be very grateful. (10/04/2017)

This post continues from the previous one, which traced the mini-map’s route from a position around Tebizond or Sinop. The post is long enough, and would have been considerably longer if I’d dealt with each detail and cited all my sources.  Sorry if it sounds a little ‘hasty’ here.

Switching to a new ‘theme’ in Feb.2016 meant having to re-format some posts, including this one. I took the opportunity to include the Begram glass, to enlarge some of the other pictures, and to shift one section to a postscript.


Having flipped the map (fol.86v) so that we feel comfortable with the placement of its east and the west emblems,  and then turned it to show the view appearing to someone travelling from the north, the circuit has come first through Asia minor, then southward ~ by land through the Syrian coast, or else by sea ~ passing  en route a ‘fortress’ which I was finally (2017) able to recognise as an allusion to Constantinople/Galata. 

And so  now reach the southern limit of the minimap i.e. the south-east corner of that spiral of stars that I take to be the Mediterranean.

Starry spiral

fol.86v – inset map – detail (south)

Use of the spiral motif to depict bays is not unprecedented; I have seen it on the maritime charts (portolans) made by a Turkish admiral, Piri Re’is, who lived in the sixteenth century (example below). The spiral is not made of stars on his maps, but of dots – these being a general convention in the ‘portolan’ charts of the western Mediterranean too, used to indicate depth, current and sand-bars etc.

Portolans, as such, are known from the thirteenth century, but most surviving examples of the ‘portolan chart’ or carte marine were made not for the captain’s cabin but for a gentleman’s library, or for travellers or merchants;those made for use at sea tended to wear out rapidly, and were often replaced. Many may have been made on leather, or hempen paper or even papyrus, all of which survive better in maritime conditions. Differences exist, but are not great, between such charts made in Mallorca, in Venice or in Turkish territories: maritime culture is largely independent of nationality; its language in medieval times was a polyglot – a patois; the ship’s complement could come from anywhere, and except in time of war the maritime bond was often stronger than any other allegiance, except to one’s own town. So even if our minimap were from the ‘portolan’ tradition, it may reveal little about the  maker/s’  nationality or personality.

The sea in this southern section ends as a vertical surface marked with short single lines on the left, and short, double bars to the right. These lines are not decorative but informative, a shorthand or encoding of information about the shoreline. {Note that adjustment to place South above and west to the viewer’s right requires the map to be ‘flipped’ and the script therefore appears reversed.}

Alexandria detail

Beyond is a distinctive land-form. It will help locate the region in the southern side. Given the time which has elapsed, the topographic information will be of more use than any buildings shown here, though shorelines themselves are in a state of constant flux.

The “snail shell” feature.

This feature shaped like a snail-shell, with an eastern side that is steep, an inner curve where strata alternate between a deep blue (water) and those made with dots.  Since dots generally signify sand in maritime charts (both then as now), this combination of sand- and of water- layers suggests an unnavigable marsh, or even quicksand – but  on the western side, it  rises and tapers into waves of  sand, or sandstone, or something of that sort. Eutrophication is the obvious answer.

There are, certainly,  sections of the Egyptian delta formed so – and some would have looked even more like our manuscript’s drawing during the fifteenth century.   Taking the deep cleft to the left of the building and  ‘snailshell’ as intentional, and thus as a reference to one of the major estuaries, I believe that this is most likely to refer to the Bolbotine (Poulbotine) mouth, to the right of which lay Rosetta (Ar: Rashid) and then beyond it a small lagoon which is already shown ‘barred’ in the sixteenth century chart of Piri Rei’s.

In Rosetta we also have a possible link with thirteenth-century France, Louis IX having invested the town in 1249.

This part of the coastline is (or was) difficult to navigate and the bar at the Bolbotine (east of Rosetta) is famous. But the minimap shows the deep cleft east of the town, so Rosetta as the site marked by the structure, and Edku slightly west seem most probable.  (This work from which the illustration comes is attributed to Piri Re’is. It is dated to a century later than the Beinecke manuscript’s parchment).little Bolbotine tower

Rashid (Rosetta) to right of the main estuary (Bolbotine mouth), with Bolbotine lake to the east (left) and the Edku lagoon to the far right (west0.

As to the building set to the fore of the ‘snailshell’ – one hardly likes to suggest any. Even comparison to Piri Re’is map offers several comparable structures between the estuary mouth and Edku, but one assumes it wold be a navigator’s marker which was obvious in the fifteenth century. If it was still there in the sixteenth, it might even be the Abu Madour Tower shown on the map above. That tower’s  history is outlined on the linked site – the name being applied to a  tower that does not greatly resemble either this  structure in the mini map, or the crowned tower on Piri Re’is chart.

3 checks – the ‘snailshell’:

first,  four centuries after Piri Re’is a contemporary map shows that Edku’s eutrophication – suggested by the minimap, and by Reis’ chart –  continued, and that by the eighteenth century the former lagoon was dry.

secondly, a recent soil survey [inset] shows that in this section of the delta there is a distinctly different (and ‘snailshell’) formation, formed of material distinct from what is found elsewhere along that coast.

And thirdly, the great mound which is placed behind the eastern side of this section in the minimap is, I believe, a representation of a pyramid – according to its fol 86 mummia smallcultural associations rather than its physical form.  A few reasons for that approach to its drawings can be suggested (see below) but hatred of the Pharaohs was very general in the older world, which leaves its traces even today.

By default we might take the greatest – that of Khufu – as our marker, or (given the surface provided the structure, that of Sakkara. One gives the longitude and the other the rhumb-line, near enough, to the position where Edku would later form. on this schematic map, Edku is  marked by four small sandbars (in the form of a four-dot cross), due north of Khufu’s pyramid.

This schematic map represents very well the appearance of the coast in the pre-Roman period, and the relative positions of its sites are correct. Edku’s entrance was still open then, but the barrier was already beginning to develop.  Here the Tabula Peutingeriana is not much help: the Roman maps are firmly focussed on the highways of the empire.

 This  next map shows the delta as it had evolved to the eighteenth century, except that the cartographer did not know how large the Canopic harbour [Aboukir] had once been.

Recent archaeological investigations have shown us it was much larger.

If the minimap could be relied on absolutely, its southern shore might determine more nearly when  the image was first formulated, or last updated. That degree of precision is,  however, too much to hope for at this stage.

‘Pyramid’ as ‘Fire mound’. 

This way of representing a pyramid relies on three aspects of the maker/s culture: first an aversion to closed, angular forms – general in the manuscript’s imagery; secondly, a likely influence from Greek, to which we owe the linguistic link between pyramids and fire (at least in the minds of many in medieval Europe) and finally (I believe) to the very general feeling among peoples of the near east that the ancient Pharaohs had been evil people.

To explain these elements in detail would require far more commentary and historical background than I’m sure you want, so this is more or less a list of short notes on those points.

* Before the arrival of modern etymological dictionaries, words had traditional or ‘popular’ etymologies and in this case the word ‘pyramid’ – which our dictionaries say comes from the Greek word for a pyramidal-shaped cake [pyramis] was believed in earlier times to come from the Greek word for fire ‘pyr’ (the etymologies may not be mutually exclusive, but I won’t pursue the point here).

In Europe, where the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville served as the equivalent of an encyclopaedia for many centuries, and  – along with the Peutinger table  influenced (for example) the Beatus group of maps –  this idea was firmly associated with the pyramids.

At the same time, the pyramids were also described as granaries, and specifically as  ‘Joseph’s granaries’ from a story in the Jewish religious law. Those books  were also taken up by early  Christianity, from whose religious thought and texts all mainstream medieval European culture derived: its imagery, literature, popular saws, songs – even inn-signs referred as a matter of common culture to biblical allusions.

To attempt to understand medieval Europe without an understanding of the Christian church and its texts is exactly equivalent to trying to describe modern New York while ignoring the role of electricity.

Isidore’s text says that the pyramid is so called because it “rises to a point as flames” and this seems to have been taken literally, or included as a metaphor and mnemonic by the maker of our diagram.

*Isidore also says its base is rectangular, but again, as throughout the manuscript the culture of the maker/s* apparently abhorred angular forms and especially closed ones. (even the mark for south is given an enclosing ring). Exceptions to this aspect of the manuscript’s imagery are rare, and when they do occur, are conspicuous and jarring intrusions on the style of the whole. So too are is the style for most buildings on fol.86v when compared with the style in which the remainder is drawn.

*maker/s‘ – that is, the original makers. As I’ll explain in relation to the larger map, there are at least two, and possibly three layers of additions here, just as in the botanical section. I believe most of the man-made architectural structures were added during one of the later redactions.

Even if we suppose that the person who first drew this detail in fol. 86v made a similar association between ”pyr’ (fire) and the word pyramid, it wouldn’t be proof that he was a Latin-educated European.

Isidore had relied on classical sources as a rule, and mainly Roman poets, so one could argue, just as easily, that the original maker simply had access to similar sources, or had lived when the same, older, belief was more general.

Since this folio already contains one emblem uniting older Egyptian ideas with a Hellenistic form for the sun, so here again we may have a similar fusion of the Egyptian idea of the pyramid-as-mound with the Greek idea of the ‘pyramid’s derivation.

Oddly enough, there is a similar suggestion in a fourth-century mosaic from Cyrenaica, where behind an image of a lighthouse (called ‘Pharos) is shown a black mound or mountains topped with what may be an allusion to the Pharohs: in a culture where their memory was still execrated. The image is shown later in this post.
To understand the maker/s frame of mind is simply guesswork, of course but that’s where the explanation lies. So one more possibility should be considered.

This way of alluding to the pyramids may  be another mnemonic referring to trade, as are regularly seen in the botanical section.

Tomb raiding is an old occupation, and among the exports from Egypt in medieval times were the gold, and glass, and so on, but also  ‘mumia’ –  material obtained from mummified bodies.

Mumia served as a fuel, as well as a medicine, sharing a dark colour, and hardness, and combustibility with bitumen, another fuel included in the pharmacopoeia. In fact, the two were not clearly distinguished in western writings until after the time our manuscript was made.

And again, in common Arabic usage, the term ‘blackened’ or ‘burned’ (as of the sun) is used to mean damned, while the word Pharoah was still (as late as Burton’s time) used in situations where English might use ‘devil’: sulphur springs were called ‘Pharaoh’s baths’.


Lighthouse Alexandria

Pharos Begram white glass
The Alexandrian ‘Pharos’ on a glass found at Begram dated to the 1stC AD. After this time, representations of the lighthouse only show the two creatures to either side. It is thought that the central statue (Hercules-Serapis) many have been destroyed at the same time as the deity’s temple in Alexandria. Note the rugged ascent to the right-hand side, which agrees with our numismatic and other evidence. It is also indicated by the drawing on f.86v

Although we have enough descriptions and images from the Hellenistic period to the first centuries AD to show us what the original Pharos looked like, the form seen in the ‘minimap’ represents its usual appearance in Christian sources after the 4thC AD – the central statue is now gone but the same lumpy ascent is shown.

In European medieval maps, such literalism is rare.  Egypt is habitually represented by only two sites – neither being Rosetta.

Babylon of old Cairo (Fustat), and Alexandria are the only two shown.

Two examples of the custom are shown below;  one from a world-map that  included in the Latin version of the Chronicle of StDenys  and the other a fifteenth-century portolan-style chart which was made in Italy, but plainly derives from the same practice as that informing Cresques’ Atlas (also known as the Atlas Catala, though made in the Balerics and probably commissioned by Charles V of its maker, Abraham Cresques, in the time when Majorca and Mallorca remained French possessions.

.The way that buildings are drawn on maps hardly changed from the time of the Romans till the later sixteenth century: as cylindrical or square structures topped often by conical roof or a tower’s crown or both, and the roof terminating in a small dot or ball.

Here (left) is the type in a twelfth century copy of a Roman itinerary-map ~   known today as the Tabula Peutingeriana. Babylon of Egypt is shown there on the right hand edge of the detail (below left). The ordinary sort of building is drawn already in that standard way. So again on a fifteenth-century Genoese portolan, which (like the Chronicle) provides Egypt with two sites: Babylon and Alexandria. (at right).

So the inclusion of Rosetta, and not Babylon, in the minimap ~ if I’m correct in the identification ~ would suggest that while much about the style for the minimap suggest a very similar milieu as that which created the portolans, fol.86v doesn’t have the standard forms of European charts: at least not those made for tourists and libraries at the time.

At the same time, it means that the other building, on the western side of that shore, is almost inevitably either the older, or the later harbour of Egypt: Canopus (Aboukir/Abukir) or Alexandria. But identifying the building itself (which I believe is meant for the ancient Pharos) is more difficult than it seems.

Babylon, Alexandria and Canopus:

vignettte o a pharos – not Alexandria’s – from the ‘Beatus’

What happened to the Pharos of Alexandria between its construction and about the tenth century AD is not known, and it is not even certain imagery in the Beatus maps, or early references to the Pharos’ being affected by earthquakes in the tenth century and in the fourteenth, necessarily refer to the same structure as the Hellenistic lighthouse. It was begun first Macedonian ruler of Egypt (Ptolemy I, Soter), and completed by his son (Ptolemy II,  ).

Imagery in the Beatus group are thought to derive from literary sources, including a map of 776AD, and vignettes such as those of the Peutinger Tables which have survived in versions of 1203 (Osma), 1150 and 1250 (Paris) which include images for the beacons or lighthouses of Brigantia and Alexandria.

Their dependence on older literary sources makes them less reliable, and it has been posited that the original had been damaged as early as the fourth century. Speculation apart, later maps do not represent Alexandria by its lighthouse but by its town.  In some cases, references seem to be to that of Canopus in the adjacent bay, and even to the towers of  ‘Babylon’ which often appear, and which stood upriver, near the apex of the delta, at the site of old Cairo (Fustat).

One of the pair at Babylon of Egypt still stood in the sixteenth century, shown complete with aqueduct, on Piri Re’is  picture of the city.

The stories that circulated about ‘Alexander’s Pharos’ were plainly confused even among Arabs of the medieval world, and in that way passed as far as China, where they were further conflated with the stories about the Mesopotamian ‘Tower of Babel’ – after which the one in Alexandria is said to have been modelled and with which, as I’ll explain later, that in Alexandria was still identified as late as the fourteenth century: perhaps with good reason, since Alexander destroyed the original while he was in Mesopotamia, and allegedly Ptolemy Soter modelled the Pharos upon its form.

But all that this tells us is that a smooth modern history of the structure is not exactly true to the medieval world, and may explain why Alexandria is so often represented on medieval maps by its town, and not its lighthouse.

Additional note:

Emily Albu has argued that there no Roman original ever existed for the Tabula Peutingeriana, but that it is rather the reproduction of a display map developed in Carolingian scriptoria as a way for  Carolingian rulers “to display their territorial ambitions”.

While her arguments are interesting, I feel their view of Carolingian ambition fails to account for the clear deference shown Byzantium – among other issues.  For Albu’s assessment however, see e.g.  Emily Albu, ‘Imperial Geography and the Medieval Peutinger Map’, Imago Mundi, Vol. 57, No. 2 (2005) (pp. 136-148)

fol 86v minimap PharosThe form of the Pharos is perhaps to be seen on the Tabula Peutingeriana. Note these  ‘two horns’ common to both.

(Today we know that ‘two horns’ on an ancient Egyptian temple do occur, and that most had a pair of banners, or of stele, rising above the facade, but ‘of the two horns‘ (Dhul Qarnayan) was also a standard epithet for Alexander ~ and to add to the sources of likely confusion, Alexandria’s harbour also  has ‘two horns.’

If the structure on the western side in this section of the minimap is meant for a ‘tower of the two horns’ then it may well be drawn so as conscious allusion to Alexandria’s Pharos, on which so many others were modelled.Of itself, however the ‘two horned’ roof is not uncommon.

since the last of the Alexandrian lighthouse was cleared in 1480, it offers a probable terminus ad quem to any interval between the making of the Voynich manuscript’s parchment, and its inscription.

Piri Re’is maps come too late to show the Pharos – unless it be the smaller one at the ancient port, Canopus which is said to be made very like that which stood in Alexandria.

Silence over the Pharos between the early centuries AD, and the tenth are curious. In the tenth we hear it was damaged by earthquake  in 956 AD and then again by the massive quakes of 1303 and 1323. These latter devastated much of Asia minor, and reduced many of its ancient and classical structures – including Antioch – reducing some to rubble and leading to their abandonment. One of the 14thC events may even have triggered the flood that destroyed  Muziris, in southern India.

By 1323, certainly, the structure had disintegrated to an extent that Ibn Battuta found access impossible, though he had entered it in the earlier part of his life.

Alexandria detailWhat persuades me that this building to the west in the minimap represents the old Pharos is less its having those twinned points, so much as the rather lumpy addition to its western side, the lower part of the foundations here being obscured by the curve of an intervening hill.

One might take that diagonal line for a ladder, or for a single buttress, were it not the draughtsman’s space is so limited in this inset map that we may expect to see only details directly useful as signposts for the traveller and/or mariner.

A ladder might be seen anywhere; but the irregular, lumpy-looking climb distinguished Alexandria’s Pharos from any lesser versions of it – and versions are eventually to be found  from the adjacent bay in Egypt to as far as the west coast of the Iberian peninsula and possibly as far as Dover, with an important one at Ostia. Some did include buttresses.

A few pictures of the old Pharos, showing its ‘twins’ and a larger figure, and confirming that the view ~ on entry to Alexandria’s harbour ~ saw its entrance  to the west also suggest that its  approach (like that to Canopus) was originally lumpy, without a  smooth high causeway, until perhaps the time of Hadrian.

In the Hellenistic imagery, the entry is high, near the level of the upper platform, with all below the level of the high door omitted.



Pharos. mosaic. Cyrenaica 4thC AD. Libya faces the western side, and thus the ramp – as in the minimap. Note inclusion of the platform and suggestion that the section which held the light was north of centre.

Apart from a suggestion in the Roman period of a road which was supported in some way or other there is nothing  similar to the arches depicted in a manuscript recovered in Cyrenaica, west of Egypt, which shows the following image and labels it Pharos:

If this is Alexandria’s Pharos and not that of Tunis or Babylon in Egypt, then this is our only image of it without a platform, and showing a causeway which goes no higher than the lowest door, unlike the implications of the Hellenistic imagery and our figure, both of which imply that the entry door was much higher  – on or near the upper platform. And, indeed, those older images omit the lower part of the building (as the image does in the minimap and in some cases even the final stage of the climb . If association with Gemini were being made, even then, it would mean that nothing was shown in the imagery below the (notional) line of the sun.

In sum: this section of the inset minimap represents the Egyptian shore, from Rosetta to about Alexandria, and includes both stylistic features and particular references that are also found in the portolans.




Postscript: imagery painted on card before the final loss of Alexandria’s lighthouse shows the way in which it was perceived not only as a mythic but as a symbolic object, its tower being imagined in parallel with the ‘tower’ which is Gemini.

a card depicting Canopus as ‘hermit star’ and indecisive military man, awaiting his time to [re-]emerge. This chracter for Canopus is still proverbial among the Bedu. The tower here is that of Aboukir/Canopus, the old port of Egypt. Europeans inherited this astronomical-geographical imagery, but the meaning was soon lost there.

Another indication comes from a pair of images, painted on card about fifty years after the second fourteenth-century quake had occurred, but twenty years before the last of the Pharos was gone. Both are painted on card and associated with the same king who commissioned the Atlas Catala – and evidently come from that same maritime tradition, although revisionist histories have tried to suggest they derive from the later, and far less accurate imagery on Italian cards dated to some seventy years’ after Gringonneur delivered his three sets of cards ‘ornamented with gold, and with devices’ to the French court.

card depicting the then-recent destruction of the tower of Alexandria. Not the ascending pile of ‘rubble’ to the right, or western side, just as we see it on the coins and in the Begram glass.

These cards (but no others of the genre) perfectly represent places on the earth by reference to a parallel and moralised astronomy, embodying in them the relevant allusions to classical and biblical works, to associated historical events, to the ‘Arabic’ star names and even to popular legends or proverbs current within Islam. They may have been repainted after 70 years or so, and in Italy, but they are undoubtedly of an entirely different intellectual type and quality, and I believe they are the original form for such cards.

The originals are held in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, which is reluctant to make images publicly available. The ones included here are deliberately altered from the originals (the flower at Canopus’ foot is quite different here from the original). However, they will do. The long ascent which we saw towards the lighthouse at Canopus is shown, and with a glass formed at once to suggest a light, and the meticulous timing which was essential in navigation within shallow waters. The ‘hermit’ like nature of Canopus’ star is proverbial to this day in Bedouin proverb, and of course the mixed garb of monk and military knight referred both to the older monastery of Canopus, and to Cyprus [Aboukir means ‘father of Cyprus’] as home of crusaders who were nominally monks.. and so forth. The background is that of the ‘vine-road’ again.

constellation of Gemini

The tower is surely meant for the Pharos: its form agrees with imagery in  classical works, and ones later created in north Africa, some of which I’ll show below. Like that in the minimap, this picture places the rocky and broken ascent to the western side of the structure – another indication that the minimap shows the Pharos. Association with the  ‘horns’ is relevant to Alexandria, the Pharos, classical imagery, and in astronomy the twin stars known as the Dioscuri (twins’) which mark the top of the constellation Gemini and were among the most pre-eminent in the navigator’s  heavens.So to link the great beacon of the ‘two horns’ with the astronomical tower and its two lights was natural enough.

The navigator and chartmaker shared with astrologers a need for high level of skill in geometry, but otherwise astrology was an arcane skill, practiced by a small number of generally urban scholars and  the preserve of academics, doctors and so on. Equivalent to the study of ancient history today, perhaps.



  1. According to Strutt, card-play had been banned in 1387 by the Spanish king, and in reporting that fact, he says it had been known there since 1332. Joseph Strutt, Glig Gamena Angel Deod, Or, the Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, London:  J. White ( 1801)  p.241n.  The ‘hermit’ image is attributed by some to a ‘Gringonneur’ who supplied the French court with sets of cards, ‘gilded and with devices’ in c.1392.
  2. note added Dec 31st., 2012If you find the topic of cards interesting: I see that late in August another Voynich blogger mentions them: not the set I refer to but one of the Italian kind.

    From about half-way through the post, there is an interesting discussion, about the month-roundels’ inscriptions.


    Perhaps I should add that my research into the antecedents for such cards was begun in the mid 1980s and concluded by the end of the 1990s!


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