fol.86v Roads east: Beacons

blog beacons header

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


Following the previous section, which I took as reference to the western end of the Tarim basin, including the Taklamakan, there is a ‘rosette’ and then this last stage, still further east,  approaching the true East quadrant.

This section has for its centrepiece a structure I’ll call the great beacon, since there is a line of smaller beacon-towers inset into wall on one side.

* Comments made by Richard Santacoloma and Elmar Vogt made clear to everyone that this post is a difficult one for people who have not read the background provided in earlier posts, who have little time and history. They say that for everyone who comments, ten more will agree, so here is a summary of the material which I presented earlier in detail, before reaching this section of the map.

From the time of Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote a book called the Geography knowledge of the Stone Tower [that marked the boundary of China] had reached the Mediterranean and been more-or-less regularly maintained by some groups of people.

Ptolemy had his information from Maes Titianus, a Tyrian merchant (from Tyre).

The silk roads passed through the Tarim basin [towards the Stone Tower].

The Stone Tower was said mark the border of Europe and Asia.  It is mentioned in histories of Rome as the place where trade stopped.  All sources agree that in was somewhere  near a pass to the Tarim basin.The Tarim basin is where Aurel Stein took the photograph shown below, and mapped the rubble where fortifications and towers had once been (see map below).

Borders change over time, and buildings are destroyed by successive dynasties so that now, two thousand years since the time of Claudius Ptolemy, and therefore later still from when the Stone Tower began serving its purpose, little remains of that time.

Therefore, the location for the tower is disputed. At present, since China has taken control of the Tarim basin (held by other peoples in earlier time), the Chinese identify the site with their  Tashkurgan (map) which agrees with the comment made by al-Biruni in the tenth century, but not necessarily with Ptolemy’s. Other sites (such as that I’ve shown below) appear from the historical record to have a greater claim.

Richard Santacoloma seemed to read the steep drop as a ‘mountain’ – which it would not have been.

Walls in this area are made from pise, or baked mud as a rule though occasionally an important structure may have had bricks. The same is true for Afghanistan. Large structures such as Bamiyan *see below) were also made of those materials.

I hope that’s a help in clarifying where, and what this section is about. The ‘East roundel’ (see INDEX TO POSTS) describes most of the lead-up.

This post is about identifying the period to which architecture of this form might belong. The architectural details are unusual, but recognisable and for that reason reasonably identifiable in style. The time which has elapsed means that comparative examples must be used.


The Great Beacon

Its being topped by a form given twisting lines and tip like a candle-flame, as well as that detail’s rising from within the tower’s rim, inform us altogether that this is a fire-tower, and no roofed structure.

As far as I am aware, no beacon tower of this form was ever erected in a land of western Christendom, nor indeed in any touching the Mediterranean.

Its form is  unique today, although we have some comparative examples for its details which together point to it as a work having Indo-Persian roots, and in my opinion most likely an origin in the Sassanid period.

Some have argued that the first example  illustrated below uses a synthetic style, derived ultimately from an interaction of  Greek and Indian culture between the 2ndC BC-2ndC AD, but that argument is not one I’d care to engage here.

As the Qut b Minar, with its marvellous fluted tiers, it stands in Delhi and is dated to the 12thC  AD (the time to which I date the addition of almost all the architectural details to the basic map in fol.86v, regardless of their construction date).

The next comparative example ~ also used as a mosque ~ is again a fluted tower, this time dated to the ninth or tenth century, and credited to Samanid construction. The only other relic of that dynasty is a single mausoleum in Bukhara.

Of the two towers, I think the one in Delhi comes closest to the style of the beacon on fol.86v… except that neither it, or the Samanid tower is provided with an external spiral as that in fol.86v is.

To understand that detail in the drawing we must not only consider the region about Lop Nur, where only the solid stone base and the lowest tier of the spiral remain today, but consider it in the context of other towers in this region (such as Bamiyan) where the towers are not of that type even though there too, supporting walls and platforms did once exist but now are almost entirely eroded.

the stone part of the ‘stone tower’ – Lop Nur, the ancient border of China. The tower is mentioned as early as Ptolemy’s Geography.

Other beacons and types of tower did exist here ( others are also shown in fol.86). Here is one of the few remnants. Only the stone tower (above) has an unsupported outer spiral. Note here the erosion of the walls and base.

None of pre-Islamic Sassanids’ fire-towers remains intact today, so to properly understand the tower at Lop Nur, we have to look further afield.

Outer spiral

On the ‘great beacon’ the outer spiral might, at first, give an impression of tiers, but closer inspection shows this is not what is drawn.

As examples of towers with an external, solid, unsupported spiral ramp we have only two mosques in  Samarra in Iraq. The first is known as the Great Mosque (commissioned in 848 and completed in 851AD) and the smaller but better  preserved tower at Abu DulafSassanid Persian fire-towers are generally believed the antecedents for this type of tower.  I think therefore that the great beacon is best described as an Indo-Persian structure.

The tower at Samarra does have a reflection in Egypt. None of these  structures, however, has a fluted column and neither they nor the beacon on fol.86v resemble a much later mosque that was erected in Istanbul, despite its nickname as the  ‘spiral minaret’. Its body, again, is not fluted and is made of brickwork.

Walls, inset crenellations, and fire-towers.

… are shown in the same detail from fol.86v. They show a clear division from the one side to the other, the one to the left having semi-circular embrasures and the other a line of smaller beacons inset into the fabric of the walls.

Since the ‘stone tower’ was built upon a solid stone base, and the ramp begun from that section, the base and first turn of the spiral is all that remains today. By comparison, while the all the ramps, walls and parapets have eroded to dust about this particular tower at Bamiyan – of quite different form than Lop Nur’s – has managed to survive nonethless.

For the type on the left of the great beacon in fol.86v, we have some near-equivalents in medieval Europe, but for the arrangement on the right, none whatsoever.

The same structures in Samarra which explained the spiral detail on the tower also provide us with this pattern for the wall having semicircular embrasures as open-backed ‘towers’ inset at regular intervals.

However, what this expresses is very likely, again, a custom traditional in that region until the advent of Muslim rule and which some say was derived in the early centuries AD by imitation of Roman structures in Arabia – but the question remains open.

In the left of the detail from fol.86v (above) the similar section displays rather the  ‘nicked’ crenellations that are found as early as the Kushan period  (early centuries AD).

And simply because the style is native to the wider region, and not to any one of the pre-Islamic dynasties in particular, so the  same features may be found described as  Parthian (e.g at Bam ~ 3rdC AD) or as Sassanid ( e.g.Dej-e Shaapour-khaast in Khorramabad, at Darband [Derbent] and the Samarra mosques ~ 3rd-7thC AD).

I think it best to begin with the earliest connection for this style of crenellated wall, the Kushan period, because unlike a number of succeeding dynasties the Kushans did hold much of the Tarim basin, their boundary  believed to have been at or near Dunhuang.

Aurel Stein

In what follows, I have to refer to maps that were made to record the explorations and findings of Aurel Stein, a nineteenth-century traveller born in Hungary and who (like Wilfrid Voynich) became a naturalised citizen of England – and at much the same time.

Only after reading correspondence discovered by Voynich researchers and the translation of some by Philip Neal was I able to resolve some initial speculations of mine that Wilfrid Voynich might have acquired the manuscript as one brought to England by Stein after his travels in inner Asia. However, that correspondence together with the C-14 dating, and other expert opinions puts the manuscript certainly in Europe long before Stein’s travels.

Stein’s service was greater than to mapping or archaeology in the field. As his wiki biography says:

The British Library’s Stein collection of Chinese, Tibetan and Tangut manuscripts, Prakrit wooden tablets, and documents in Khotanese, Uyghur, Sogdian and Eastern Turkic is the result of his travels through central Asia … Stein discovered manuscripts in the previously lost Tocharian languages of the Tarim Basin at Marin and other oasis towns.

inscription on a monument in Karakorum, to which Carpini and Rubruck went as early ambassadors to the Mongols

Stein’s expeditions were in 1900, 1906–1908, 1913–1916 and 1930. During the first (1900–1901) he learned first of the existence of the oasis in the  Taklamakan known as Dandan Oilik. Maps made from the basis of his observations do show relics of towers and wall on the northern side of Dunhuang. Their age and original form is unknown. Even then they were scarcely more than rubble. The name Dun-huang means ‘Blazing Beacon’.. in the singular.

Logically, however, if our drawing on fol.86v shows a consistency in the form given the great beacon, and that for the ‘Kushan’-style fortifications (one one side, at least) and both follow a section in which the type of dunes found in the Taklamakan (within the Tarim basin) occur, then it is reasonable to suppose the traveller has left the southern and western end of the basin and is now in the basin’s northern end, heading east, and presently in the region of Dunhuang.

Logically, too, the complementary line of fire-towers and fortifications should occupy an area again in the eastern side of the Tarim basin, marking that line which, during the  Kushan period, stood against the territories of the  Xiongnu.

In this case we have not the semi-circular embrasures,  but walls provided with regularly spaced, circular fire-towers. Such a construction is unknown in Europe, but was not uncommon  in inner and further Asia and indeed, near the former Lop Nur, there have been discovered by Chinese investigators an entire line of walls and circular fire-towers, but none with that outer spiral seen in Lop Nur’s ‘stone tower’.

When  Stein passed Lop Nur it was already dessicated. Since that time it has been one of the territories  of inner Asia and the Himalayas invaded and appropriated by China without demur from Europe.

Many of the ancient  caravan cities have since been demolished to create cities more ‘sanitary’ and thus more attractive to tourists (chiefly Chinese); reports suggest that mass re-settlement has become the norm.

Although Lop Nur was one of the oldest centres of occupation in that region, China now uses it as a nuclear-testing ground.

So what may still be there at the present time, I couldn’t say; I doubt if there will ever be complete certainty that the walls on the eastern extremity of the  Tarim basin looked like those in fol.86v, but what remains of the stone tower, conforming both with ancient descriptions and the position indicated for a great beacon about which and extending from are defensive walls, is about as good as it gets in this part of the world, after more than two thousand years.

What one can say is that the sequence and the architectural forms  which are documented from that region are compatible with what is shown in the manuscript ~ compatible with the history of that region, with the archaeological relics and the cultural context. The basin was a place where Chinese, Persian and Himalayan/North Indian cultures interacted, and often fused as the documents recovered from its 10thC caves demonstrate.

That this way of depicting flames as twisting lines is also appropriate to this region can be demonstrated easily enough. This example, chosen more or less at random, comes from an early Buddhist work in Nepal.

As for their being any European equivalent – for the great beacon with fluted column and spiral outer stair or decoration, or for the fire-tower walls – I can discover none, and nothing remotely similar, not in the records nor in the literary or the artistic allusions to the use of beacons. Even if the reader would prefer to read these flames as roofs, those spiral lines must be justified by examples.

At the same time, the cave  paintings of the Tarim basin evince no aversion to representation of living creatures, so I must suppose it unlikely that the Beinecke manuscript or its predecessor/s travelled from this point in the map directly to mainland Europe.  At the very least one would have to posit intermediary influence from an anti-iconic religion or from a community whose habitual tabu it was, regardless of formal religious culture.

In short, the Great Beacon as it appears in this folio is most likely to reflect the Indo-Persian period, as are the non-beacon walls, whereas the perforated type of beacon-and-walls are claimed by present-day Chinese archaeologist to demonstrate a variant of the Chinese forms.


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