fol 86v Ways to the east: the desert road

blog desert roads header[1700 words]

PLEASE NOTE: The folio is referred to in this article by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  The Beinecke Library site now gives the same diagram the foliation  “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016


I must apologise if the following post reads like a cross between a wiki article and ‘how to learn brain surgery in five minutes’. The main aim of these posts is to assist people working on the script and language, for which geography and chronology are probably more useful than details of the research behind these comments on the imagery. I have included  some online links just to give an idea of the range involved.


Like the western river-road, this eastern one bypasses the minimap and thus the Mediterranean. Unlike the western, it shows over the full length those regular dots which I believe represent the way of the traveller/s.

The eastern end(s) of that river lie below an ascent which takes the viewer to the next prominent feature ~ a line of  crescentic sand-dunes, aligned north-east and shown in the form characteristic of dunes in the Taklamakan, a ‘sand sea’ of inner Asia.

The illustration below can be compared to the form of the Taklamakan dunes, in  this photograph  by Brian McDiarmant. The more distant view shows the rare, and characteristic form for those dunes, while the windside’s parallel marks are clear in the photograph’s foreground.

I can only suppose that whoever first drew or described them for the making of fol.86v had seen that part of the world  in person. Dunes of just that form are extremely uncommon, and require a single constant wind to form the sort of marks seen on the windside. In the drawing, as in the Taklamakan, that constant wind is from the north.

Carpini, Rubruck and de’ Conti

It is believed from the written accounts that Carpini and Rubruck reached Karakorum by skirting the Tarim basin, but that Marco Polo had travelled through it, so one western European (at least) had seen some of its notable features before ms Beinecke 408 was made. Both were headed for Karakorum, then the Mongol’s capital. De’ Conti was also to spend much of his life in service to a ruler described as the Northern ‘Prester Jehan (John) who is usually equated with the current Mongol Khan.

Note: it is said that de’ Conti travelled ‘as a Muslim merchant’ for most of his life; this is unlikely to be so. De’ Conti married into a Christian Armenian family and in his account to a Spanish nobleman explained that it was only on the last leg of his journey, which took him through Mecca, that he with his wife and children had been obliged to convert or die. The likelihood is greater that  he had lived as a Nestorian Christian for the greater time of his life in the east, that being the only form of Christianity in those regions, and one with which the Mongols and Chinese were both familiar and well-disposed towards. Poggio Bracciolini’s account is a romance aimed at the literati of his own circle, and intended for his own popularity. Nestorian Christians were regarded in the west with greater hostility than ‘Saracens’ by the mid-fifteenth century.

That said, it has to be kept in mind that the vast majority of people passing through these areas were not Europeans: in purely statistical terms the likelihood that the matter in the Voynich was first made by a western Christian is almost negligible.

Routes through inner Asia are relatively few, the scarcity of water and changing demographics (due to changes of climate as much as changes of rule)  these reducing the number of avenues and also leaving us little today (indeed little even in the nineteenth century) which can be compared with structures drawn upon fol.86v.

Wall and guardtowers

Below the dunes, a boundary of roughly parallel lines is marked again with dots, perhaps again signifying the route to be taken. These lines open to show a semi-circular area (embrasure?) on one side and on the other a  square tower topped with crenellations of a type common  in Greek as in Parthian works of inner Asia. One might describe them more generally as of Greco-Parthian type.

Semi-circular embrasures are not characteristic of the  ‘great wall’ of China, even if a section of wall, and some circular fire-towers at Lop Nur  have recently been credited to Chinese workmanship and dated to the early centuries AD.

The dunes might not lie so close to the end or source of this ‘river-road’ in fact, but  their proximity here does require considering if it [the watercourse] is not the Oxus or Syr Darya.

The Oxus and Syr Darya are normally associated with the  Aral Sea in early modern times. If the map suggests a longer route, it may simply be an indication that all rivers were thought to owe their origins to the Paradise.. or it may be a more valuable indication of the date to which we should assign the origins of this map. The matter of the Oxus I’ll leave to the end, since the route from the north to the Taklamakan passed by the Syr Darya (formerly: Jaxartes)

The following map shows both rivers, as well as the high north route which  passed close to the Aral sea’.  All those shown below were operating by the fourth century BC.

Alexander himself took Marakanda and we know of at least two other Hellenistic cities near there: at Alexandria Eschate (= Cynopolis; mod.Khujand) and at Ai Khanoum. “Markanda” is near Samarkand, which became Timurlane’s capital in 1370AD.

Of inner Asia’s ancient or medieval structures  so very little remains that to identify those on fol.86v is  scarcely worth attempting. Certainly their architectural styles  are in keeping with others on the inner Asian silk roads.  Similar crenellations occur, for example, in the stone city of  Kashgar in the western entrance of the Tarim basin.

The same is true for other structures in this section of fol.86v, such as those shown opposite, across the wide space. I have rotated the detail below, but this may represent locations  on the other side of the Tarim basin.

Similar structures occur over much of inner Asia. Bimakali contains a number of variations of the Himalyan style that appear to me to be relevant to this part of fol.86v. As you see the small detail from the map shows the roof appears to lift at each side and have an ornament on the rooftop. A full view of  the Bhimakali complex here.

archit bhimikali Hindu temple buildings

(Bhimakali’s date is difficult to determine.  For more on architecture of the Hills, the first stop is e.g. Omacanda Hāṇḍā, Temple Architecture of the Western Himalaya: Wooden Temples.  It can be seen through G/books at present.

I’ll illustrate compatibility between the details of folio 86v and regional structures here by two more major centres: the relics of Khara Koto (below, upper) and of Bamiyan.


ruins of Bamiyans walls and fortress (credits shown)


Conditions in and around parts of the Tarim basin are ideal for the formation of atacamite. Its distinctive colour is often seen in murals  created here by Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Nestorian Christians, most established around the slopes inside the Tarim basin, and between the 3rd-10thC AD.

McCrone’s report on the Beinecke manuscript’s inks and pigments noticed traces of atacamite, but this can also occur when copper-based pigments and inks survive for a considerable time in conditions of extreme aridity. it can also occur, for example, if a manuscript is written in a place where old murals or frescos have desiccated; the atacamite formed by that desiccation enters the air as dust.

(Chinese descriptions of the Tarim basin murals today insist that there is a pronounced Chinese influence in them, although Manichaeism, Christianity and Buddhism are none of them Chinese in origin).

Which are the exact sites for the structures in this section of the map on fol.86v I couldn’t say, though the Tarim basin a whole is quite possibly the focus of the easternmost quadrant.  (i.e. the easternmost ‘rosette’) and it includes  Kashgar and the Taklamakan.

I’ll describe the basin in more detail when discussing that quadrant.

The water systems below the Tien shan mountains which provide a boundary for the Tarim basin are shown below. The Syr Darya appears  in the upper left corner. (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

One western European certainly passed near the Syr Darya during in the thirteenth century, on the high northern route.  John of Plano Carpiniwas another of those early Franciscan ambassadors. His itinerary is shown below, courtesy of the Silk Road Seattle project.

approx route taken by Carpini

Also on the Silk Road Seattle site:

William of Rubruck’s account ~ from the Volga to Karakorum (1253-1255).

Pegolotti’s route to China (c.1340). A merchant’s route.

The Oxus as the  eastern ‘river road

Both Strabo and Polybius speak of the Oxus’ having a noisy waterfall, linked to a riverbed (the Uzboi) which later dried up. During the fourteenth century (1304-16) the Islamic author, Hamdallah al-Mustaufi says that there was a great waterfall on the Uzboi, and that the Turks gave it an epithet ‘gurledi’ or roaring.  He says further that a side-branch of the Oxus fell into the Caspian, the discharge having raised the level of that sea so greatly that the site which had been known to Pliny as Socanda (Abaksun peninsula) was now submerged.

The same is said, following this, by Marino Sanudo (1325) and in the early 15thC by ‘Abd ar-Rashid al-Bakuwi, (Кitab talkhis al-asar wa adja’ib al-malik al-qahharal-Bakuwi)   ~ so it is not inconceivable that our river-road was meant for the Oxus, though whether the Arabic accounts of the medieval period were derived from purely literary sources of much earlier date is uncertain. We can say that at some stage it appears that this ‘river road’ had provided the journey-stages from as far as the western side of the Caspian eastwards as far as the range which surrounds the Tarim basin.

A plan to connect the Caspian to the Black sea by a canal is reported in the archives of Babylon, and no later than 272BC, credited to Seleucis, who sent a representative to Babylon to investigate the question. It is said plainly by Strabo, quoting Aristobulus, that the aim had been to facilitate trade in Indian merchandise along what was then a ‘well-navigable river’ though the Oxus today is shrunken and the Aral sea is no more. On  earlier ideas of the Oxus’ range see this linked site:

The Oxus treasure is our most valuable collection of Achaemenid works in gold. The British museum website contains pictures and a short description of the find.

By the tenth century AD the region we are considering had passed under Muslim rule and was held by the Samanids.


2 Replies to “fol 86v Ways to the east: the desert road”

  1. And there is the road to Compostela, and just a little farther to Finisterre (the ” end of the world”). So, if the “Voynich Manuscript” can be viewed as Fray Sahagun’s personal diary and notes for future publication (of which quite a bit DID get published) maybe we can get past Mr. Voynich’s wishful identification of the manuscript’s origin and its contents. Much of Fray Sahagun’s written works fell into the obscurity of the Spanish Inquisition.
    So, do we still have to look for an explanation of how Mr. Voynich was able to purchase several manuscripts from a derelict ‘storeroom/archive’ of Papal correspondence? Do we still have to ignore the ‘rest’ of Fr. Sahagun’s magnificent “Florentine Codex” which is now in a library in France?


    1. I cannot believe that Beinecke MS 408 is Frey Sahagun’s diary. It would be horrible to think of poor Georg Barsch sweating over the thing for all those years, if it had nothing in it of medicine or of Egypt.

      Besides, I believe that he had reason for believing so, rightly or not, and the reason was that something of the sort had been said to him when the MS was left with him.

      And there had to be a reason for Jakub to have it in his personal library, too. I rather think that if Rudolf had wanted anything on the subject of the New World, he’s have bought the printed version. Very keen on printed books, or so I’m told.


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