Who knew?

[2500 words]

While my research finally led to certain conclusions, it was never begun, nor driven, by a desire to prove one or another point of view. That statement will scarcely surprise those who patiently followed the winding ways of the research.

Finding the antecedents for the more complex figures in the manuscript was not easy and to be perfectly honest, if I’d known how much new research would be involved, I doubt if I’d have undertaken the project.

Nor at the outset was I expecting  to look much beyond Europe and the Mediterranean – ancient or medieval – and certainly I never expected to find the Tarim basin in fol.86v.

Nothing in the previous literature or the standard online sources about the manuscript had prepared me for that.

The first images chosen from the botanical folios soon took me to the eastern seas, its trade and goods, but for some time I assumed this an import trade, as viewed from a western perspective – including here such groups as the Karimi of Egypt, or the Jewish traders based near Constantinople. It was the imagery in the larger part of fol.86v which first told me that the work would probably require a broader scope and perhaps a view from the other side of the Caspian Sea.

What is offered here, then, in this post and in the blog more generally,  is effectively no more than a ‘crib’ to that research –  shorn of academic references, detailed explanations, and most of the comparative imagery.

I admit that I’m privately inclined to believe that if any Europeans were involved in the manuscript’s earlier history, and then its fifteenth-century production, they are most likely to have been connected with Aachen and the Carolingian ‘renaissance’; or else with the Norman courts; or for the later  period the Armenians, Rus or Genoese, and then the later map makers of Venice, and perhaps especially Fra Mauro. But I should never call that a conclusion. The great proportion of the material  simply and plainly points to the east.

European influence, as such, is evidenced chiefly in circumstantial ways, such as the inset ‘minimap’ with its apparent focus on Trebizond, or certain correspondence to details found in monastic works, where some comparable stylistic habits occur as early as the ninth or tenth centuries. But they are not pronounced over the manuscript’s imagery as a whole, and may speak to the time of the fifteenth-century copying, or to the lines of communication earlier maintained with regions eastward, more than  local scribal or academic culture.

Who knew?

So when one asks ‘who knew?’ about the Tarim basin ~or more exactly about the exact appearance of its topography and architecture  ~ the true answer is … almost everyone except most western Europeans … even after the translation of Ptolemy’s Geography in 1406.

A ‘stone tower’ is mentioned by Ptolemy, citing Marinus of Tyre,  who placed it as marking the border to the ‘seres’ land, and who says the distances to reach it were  measured by:

a certain Macedonian named Maes, who was also called Titian, son of a merchant father, and a merchant himself …although he did not come to Sera in person but sent other there. (Geog 1.11.7)

Ptolemy adds that “the stone tower is on the Latitude of Byzantium, while Seres is further south than Hellespont”, he gives no description of its appearance and the term he uses means (as it is pictured on Idrisi’s map) an open tower, not a roofed one. Moreover, Ptolemy ‘adjusted’ the measurements given him, to suit his own paradigm for the shape and dimensions of the earth.

Interestingly, however, on an early reconstruction of what was presumed the maps originally accompanying Ptolemy’s Geography, there is the faint image of a stone tower which shows it a natural formation, topped by a man-made tower, just as many scholars today believe it was. I’ve ringed the tower; the red dots mark Ptolemy’s latitude of Alexandria.

British Library Harley MS 7182 ff 58v-59

Whether or not it is a co-incidence, a tower of roughly this form was to be seen at Lop Nur, the ancient boundary-mark of Chinese territory. Apart from what might be meant as a flame above the tower in the Harley manuscript, this structure has little in common with the Persian-looking tower in fol. 86v, and even with the tower at Lop Nur …  at least  not now.

If any member of western Christendom who was in a position to influence the ideas of western cartographers had seen the Chinese border tower before the translation of Ptolemy’s works into Latin in 1406, the chances are very high that unless he was one of the Polos, he was from Genoa. I’ll explain the situation in regard to accessing these routes in a separate post at the end of this series on fol.86v.

The character of the tower as it is shown on fol.86v is appropriate for the pre-Islamic era (to judge by what remains of Sassanid and earlier works), but it was not knowledge easily available, especially to the text-bound map-makers of Latin Europe.

(Even when Yule wrote, knowledge of this area was hard to come by, and interpreting Ptolemy’s re-worked measurements harder still.)

Idrisi’s ‘stone tower, placed at the border of Seres’ lands, is given almost a generic form, but the little spikes or hooks are probably meant for flames.

Despite this, in fol.86v we have such details as the flame and the ramp, and the beacon-tower shown sunken – not details found in Ptolemy- though one can say it has been placed beside an ‘East’ roundel designed in a way that is (at least) compatible with the form of the Tarim basin, where another relic stands which is also associated with the boundary’s Stone Tower.. by  local tradition even if disputed by some scholars.

Routes to, and around, the Tarim basin had been used from before the beginning of the Christian era, but became increasingly used as a Buddhist pilgrimage route. (Modern Chinese sources suggest this occupation occurred when Chinese Buddhists were persecuted in China, but it is clear that already, by the seventh century AD, Buddhist occupation of the region was well advanced.

A road linked its western end to the Mediterranean shores near Antioch from the time of the earliest Hellenistic kingdoms, and this is also the route which is believed to have been taken by the Chinese ambassadors who later reached Imperial Rome. During Europe’s medieval centuries, it became for a time less used, partly due to the desiccation of the region, until by the time that Aurel Stein began his explorations, it had been quite forgotten.

Reviewing the maps, I see that the beacon mentioned in the past two posts may have been identified by map-makers with one or other of those which appear in roughly the right position in them. But of course the majority of those who travelled these roads made no maps and recorded their route in the brief ‘itinerary’ style most easily memorised and which later informs works such as Pegolotti’s, matter which might then have been dictated by the very, very few whose history was of interest to western scholars~ they constantly preferring the writings of older Greek or Roman writers. One sign of this failure to consult ‘real people’ is seen in the total ignorance of southern India’s form. The Genoese map made at the end of the fifteenth century is no better on that point than Idrisi’s in the twelfth.

Refugees, prisoners and slaves formed a fair proportion of the travellers overland, and military expeditions too. Trade in silk and other commodities was one of the more peaceable reasons for such travel.

Others, sometimes moving in company with trading caravans, included couriers, diplomats, pilgrims of various religious beliefs and religious ‘visitors’ appointed to maintain contact between their dispersed communities scattered by the affects of time and conquest ~ the process of diaspora.

What is often forgotten, in modern accounts, is the sheer terror of the journey. Even in Islam, where care of the guest was a cultural and religious duty, and ensured a relatively easy way for such as Ibn Battuta, the proverb that “one in a thousand reaches China, and from them one in a thousand returns” reflected the facts. Theft, murder, loneliness, hunger and disease were constant, as was shipwreck at sea. Even de’ Conti who had family ties and who survived for decades as a trader warned the Spanish noble he met not to venture further. A formal ambassador between Rome and the Mongol court complains of being robbed, and (as he thought) poisoned for his goods. Poor Nitikin nearly died of sheer loneliness and a sense of being an alien, and did die before reaching home again. So if European map-makers knew little except the content of their classical texts, the works of Idrisi and Battuta, and the story of Marco Polo before de’ Conti’s return, perhaps it is little wonder.

At the time, and on the surface of it, there had been plenty of opportunity to learn more.

Tatars and Mongols had been rulers within mainland Europe during the thirteenth century. (A nice interactive map  here).  Late in the 13thC, Chinese Uyghurs (members of the Church of the East) had come as ambassadors for both their Patriarch in Persia and the Mongols. (The wiki article says the chief of the group was a monk ‘turned’ ambassador, but the two were commonly the same at that time).

The reciprocal journey had by then been made by Montecorvino,  also a friar and  one assumes that he had some an idea of his route to China before he set out. His visits first to Armenia and to Ethiopia, as well as his close connection to the Sicilian court, presumably gave him that information.

Pegolotti’s account in the fourteenth century shows familiarity with the way – but that familiarity is not matched by better detail  in contemporary European maps of inner Asia ~ at least not in any we still possess. It appears that most of the worldmaps which we have, even some of the ‘portolan’ style, were still primarily made as teaching aids, a basis from which to explaining the arrangement of a god-given world, rather than a guide to its traverse.

The Fonthill vase is said to have been brought by another(?) Uyghur Chinese embassy, now during the early fourteenth century. The question of its transmission is disputed, but it is undoubtedly northern Chinese.

The great Council of Constance offered a perfect opportunity for information exchange: a great proportion of the members were administrators and academics – again in a position to acquire and share information about their wider world.

And then, still in the first part of the fifteenth century, at the same time that de’ Conti was delivering his narrative to Poggio Bracciolini as required, there is mention that Poggio was also interviewing a ‘Nestorian from northern India’.

Being ‘interviewed’ in western Christendom at that time could be risky for members of eastern Christian communities.

But the point is that (excepting Scandinavian maps), the absence of accurate information in European maps persisted.

There must surely have been, closer to home, some contact with the Armenian traders of the east, so often mentioned by the early missionary-ambassadors, but if so it finds little trace in the contemporary maps, hardly more than some similarities between charts in Cresques’ compendium and those in certain Armenian texts. In the linked illustration, the recto contains a diagram which I believe is related to that on fol.57v in ms Beinecke 408, but whether related directly or by reference to a remote common ancestor will be for the linguists to discover.


Here are just a few western maps, chosen to illustrate the way content in fol.86v might have come into the region of Prague no later than the seventeenth century – our first mention of such a manuscript occurs there at that time, and an inscription on the manuscript’s first folio places that part (at least) in Prague in about 1622.

The Tarim basin is the centre of the areas circled in the following maps.

Roman era:

The Tabula Peutingeriana, a 12thC copy of a Roman route-map, knows this route to the far east, but shows no details save the route.

early Christian era

Between the 3rdC AD and the 17th,  Manichaean communities were driven ever-further eastward. However in the later centuries, in the west, various groups are classified there as Manichaean. The wiki article is a fair first outline of their history and beliefs, and includes imagery from the Tarim basin sites.

A list of references for that last point is also available.

I do not think it impossible, considering the range in time as well as geography that is suggested by the manuscript’s imagery that some (perhaps even all) the matter in Beinecke 408 may reflect this community’s changing fortunes.

Norman period

An interesting point about the 12thC Psalter map is that its ‘East’ shows the line marked by two confronting faces divided by what one might read as Michael’s brand (flaming sword) preventing a return to the Paradise, or simply as a torch. This is not the first time we see such a motif, but I won’t trace its history here.

In medieval maps, one, and usually two great towers and/or beacons are included as marking the point of entry to the ‘East’ or Orient as the lands of silk.

These towers and the Tarim basin were certainly known to Idrisi who in Sicily gathered information for an updated version of Ptolemy’s works under the active sponsorship of Roger II. A version of the story is given in the linked article from Aramco World.

I have reversed the version of Idrisi’s map shown below (the majority of copies are simpler and circular), the original for this also being south-facing. The red oval is the region of the Tarim; the green shows the detail illustrated following. His tower at the entry to China is the header picture to this post and is reproduced below. The detail (right) shows the other one, more southerly, omitted from the enlarged section following.

I am sorry that the only digitised image available to me provides no better view of the inscriptions.

Tarim and the Chinese border in Idrisi’s world
Entry to the east


Medieval Europe

I omit most maps made in Islam, since the present question is when Europe imagined a great beacon or tower at the eastern border, and in works nearer the early fifteenth century.

Cresques’ map

Cresques’ compendium (the ‘Catalan Atlas’) is not particularly helpful about the route from the Caspian. An enlarged view of the eastern wall is available here (click on the image).

(see also the legend of Gog and Magog)

In reference to the mention of  “cosmographers’ maps” in an earlier post here, and their typical  fusion of geography and cartography with astronomy (which is not the same as chorographic astrology), I note  Cresques here represents the three easterners in a way which calls upon, and reflects the associations for astronomical figures, including confusion over the two ‘jauza’, one being Orion, and the other (the twisted/turned around) being properly a manzil in Gemini.

N.B..  [Links given in these posts aren’t to the sources I used, myself; they are here to help readers who have had no reason to encounter a given object, or period of history, before].

The confusion about the correct identification for the ‘jauza’was constant and widespread, so it is interesting to see it reflected again here.

I expect that the reference is gained by the fact that ‘East’ is oriens in the Latin; so these are simply ‘easterners’ in the cosmographers’ habit. Later western astronomical charts use versions of both for Orion. The third (to the left) is more ambiguous; it may be another ‘orion’ or a version of a Chinese figure. I won’t digress into that question  – the relevant detail is enlarged below. Also in the same detail –  the city directly above the bird’s tail on the left is Karakorum (as ‘Carachora’). Like Samarkand/Markanda,  Karaorum is a useful mark when trying to correlate different medieval maps and charts.

While considering  fol.86v and its great beacon, I had wondered for a time if the tip might not be meant for one of the banner-poles that are so common on the rhumb-gridded chart’ – or again if it weren’t a reference to the way eastern domes are drawn there  –  but on balance I concluded that the maker’s intention was that which I explained in the previous posts.

Pirrus de Noha (1414)

Pirrus de Noha’s map is  included here to show how late the style of Roman itinerary maps was maintained in Europe. Indeed, it continued thereafter and in a sense, still does. At the end of the sixteenth century, Munster’s map of Asia not only uses the old Roman format, but still includes Sogdiana and Bactria.

Turkish maps often show this same restraint in regard to showing chiefly features of physical geography with a minimal number of mythical figures or architectural structures. Piri Re’is superbly detailed cities appear amid near-empty landscapes, unlike the style of Fra Mauro’s great world-map.

Fra Mauro (1448)

Fra Mauro’s worldmap is described as being an improved version of one which Marco Polo brought back from China.  It may be so, but by 1448 he had also had the benefit of de’ Conti’s information, and de’ Conti in turn had access to that maintained by the Armenian fraternity into which he had married. There are  many novel features on Mauro’s map, some having their counterpart in the usual form for Asian maps, and those made in China. His world map contains a plethora of free-standing columns, pillars and towers, two placed in Asia circled in the detail below. Which might correspond to the beacon in fol.86v I should not care to guess. He too appears to indicate the itinerary’s route by the use of dots, but I doubt such custom was his personal invention.

More than one on Fra Mauro’s map includes a spiral element and some also also look like eastern beacons. How much of what we see here was imagined, or misplaced I cannot determine. O’Doherty’s  essay  is online (pdf) and has a good bibliography if anyone finds this subject interesting.

For the form of the beacon towers along the Great Wall of China, see description and diagram here.

Genoese map of 1475

This map is relatively less informed, but presumably knowledge of inner Asia was not required for the persons for whom it was made. At about the entry to the Tarim basin stands a large, bannered tower (left in the circled area) and to the right, in the same detail, what may be meant for a beacon.

Apart from Fra Mauro’s map, the general impression one has is that until de’ Conti’s return,  cartographers working in western Christendom simply did not have enough access to information about the regions of the east to have made all the drawings on fol.86v. At the same time, its precision would suggest that the architectural structures are there from the hand of a highly trained professional. I should not have been surprised had I heard the architectural features – most of them – were by Fra Mauro’s hand, but at present his work must be considered too late, since the manuscript’s parchment has been dated to between 1404-1438.

I do not believe, in any case, that the map on folio 86v owes its fundamental form and style to western Christendom.


… and so now back to the road, where it appears that the traveller is close to the borders of China ..

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