fol 86v: South toward West: stage 1 The Sahel

Please note that 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 a folation as “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016.


This section is affected by the fold.  A new scan of fol.86v is promised by the Beinecke Library (…’soon’ ) and when it goes up I may have to revise. Until then …

[2200 words]

Once more, the terrain is drawn using an apparently regular, and standardised set of patterns. The Great Sea is on the left, now, and we are moving away from it towards the western limit..

fol 86v SouthEast to West stage1 marked

To the open (northerly) side of the crenellated wall, the ground is defined by  horizontal strata having blank layers alternate with dotted ones, rather like a pattern noted earlier in the inset minimap, but from which in this case the blue signifying water is largely absent.

I read this pattern then as meaning the land to that side is waterless,  formed chiefly of sand and of (?sandstone) layers.

Considering the direction in which the map now takes the traveller: that is, away from the eastern seas towards the map’s western limit, and without sign of any intermediate water-crossing, so it would appear that this is the first stage of a route across the African continent, but one which had waterless sand and rock across the northern side of this first stage.

The old limit of Egypt was the Thebaid, the border of the Hellenistic and roman empires, and given the angle for that boundary wall in the Laurentian-Medici map mentioned below, I think it possible that the route left the sea near that point and passed from there, as through a corridor to the  Sahel (= ‘shore’), by which the remainder of the continent could be crossed below the level of the Sahara. Of the following maps, the first shows the relationship of the Thebaid (lower end of the dark blue-green area) to the various routes which connected to the Sahel; the second map the Sahel itself.


The Sahel was also the line at which the classical Mediterranean peoples believed the world ended, the ‘shore’ of an encompassing sea.

On the Tabula Peutingeriana the limit of the world is placed somewhat more northerly, but is indicated by a line which manages to convey an impression at once of a crenellated wall, and waves of the all-encompassing ocean.

What we call the Tabula Peutingeriana comes from a 13th C copy of a Roman itinerary carved in stone c.5thC AD, and which had once stood in Rome. This ‘limit line’ will become an important motif, one I’ll return to later in the post, because not only its form but its philosophical significance affected European perceptions. The 13th C version was found again, preserved in its monastery library in what had once been the heart of the Carolingian empire. The motif  for the terminal line here is found in numerous other medieval western works, sometimes purely as ornament.

Still by the mid-fourteenth century, the  limiting line remains a  ‘wall’ and corridor for the designer of the  Medici-Laurentian map although now it is no longer the limit of the earth, but one separating what was believed to be the limit of the  ‘inhabitable’ climes from those supposed unendurable for human beings.

This wall is slightly angled, which may again indicate the old imperial boundary along the Thebaid, but still it follows a parallel of latitude roughly 10-15 degrees Nth.

And while the maker clearly still considers the rippled line a critical boundary, and his corridor is at approximately that of the Sahel, he may have believed he was representing some other famous wall, such as that supposed closed by Alexander. (The wall of  Harar is credited to a sixteenth-century ruler).

The Sahel was territory which no Roman emperor, whether described as ‘divine’ or merely ‘ holy’ had ever owned, though increasingly in fifteenth-century Europe there was a tendency locate on the shores of East Africa the kingdom of Prester John, and to identify that kingdom with Ethiopia.

It is possible that the wall-and-corridor in fol.86v has its ‘swallow-tail’ crenellation for that reason, though its significance was rather of imperium, and there is also a possibility that it is used as no more than token ornament. Its significance would depend entirely on the maker’s origins, culture and attitudes.

In fact, similar forms were  conventional from Arabia to Egypt, upon objects made to contain fire, or to burn incense and this wall also serves as shield against the fires of a region that was identified with an actual or metaphorical hell.

As late as the fifteenth century, and despite the ready evidence of travellers and traders, such reverence was granted the dicta of classical authors that nothing lived below the line of the equator that even the deeply learned  Ibn Khaldun, himself a North African, still maintained that view in his encyclopaedia, the Muqaddimah, saying:

 the philosophers concluded …that the region at the equator and beyond was empty… …This is so.. [because] the power of generation must to a large degree be destroyed because of excessive heat .. the element of water covers the face of the earth in the south, where the corresponding area in the North admits of generation.

So one can hardly blame the scholars in Europe, whose respect for classical writings approached the level of adoration, if they held precisely the same opinions, in preference to the ‘tales’ of merchants or mariners.

Like the other literal representations of architectural objects, and the inset minimap, the crenellated wall in this part of fol. 86v appears to belong to that redaction which I date to about the 12th C AD.

‘Ghibelline’ crenellation

At that time within mainland Europe, and more particularly within Italy, crenellations of this type were being adopted by those who believed that the prerogatives of an emperor took precedence over those of Europe’s  religious leader.

The practice of signalling adherence to that political philosophy began from the time of the emperor Frederick, called  Barbarossa. His supporters being termed Ghibellines,  so crenellation of this type also became known as   ‘Ghibelline’,  though its reference is actually to imperium and its limits (or lack thereof), rather than to any partisan group.

In this way the swallow-tails might be used to denote an  ‘imperial’ line of any kind, whether ancient Rome’s,Barbarossa’s or  China’s, but certainly no-one with access to the Mediterranean could have been unaware of its appearance, and its apparently non-partisan use in the construction of crusader forts.

In fol.86v then, its intent may be to convey an idea of history, a political persuasion, a notion of safety, or the precise opposite: ‘danger/enemies beyond’

As I mentioned in an   earlier post (from about half-way down the page) crenellation of this type predates its western adoption and is probably of Persian origins.

Such  swallowtail forms can be employed as ‘Ghibelline’, or purely pragmatically as in Crusader architecture, or as little more than ornament, as it appears to be used in the  Zibaldone da Canal, where a Venetian merchant has them adorn the towers of a mathematical diagram. In this case, too, of course, he may have been a dedicated Ghibelline who placed the swallow-tails on any tower he drew, simply on principle. The same may be so for the wall in this section of 86v, but one cannot assume so.

The use of crenellation, in one form or another, is both a common and a longstanding custom in Arabia and North Africa, but even so we should not expect that the wall on fol.86v is a literal image. Its real significance is as another version of that ‘limiting line’.

‘Welkin band’

Between the time that the Roman itinerary was carved and the thirteenth century when it was copied in less permanent media, the ‘terminal line’ evolved into more ornate forms, while constantly maintaining the ancient sense of marking the limit of the human domain, even when definition of that domain was applied to the heavens.

In a work made in fifteenth-century France, the Rohan Hours, we see this line in a more ornate form, but  still clearly akin to that older one seen in the Tabula Peutingeriana.

I have chosen this example not only for its version of the terminal line, but because in it an eastern origin and character is so clear.

I doubt if the painter himself had been a traveller; more probable  that he, or his patron had access to Armenian works, and they in turn had been influenced by the many foundations through the eastern world of the Church of the east, whose original centre was also in Armenia.

We know that the Church of the East (the ‘Nestorian’ church) had maintained a habit common in the earlier period of Christianity, whereby from about the 3rd C AD it adopted and then re-defined figures which had been deities in the pre-Christian cultures. In that way, for example, ‘Saint’ Christopher entered the western calendar of saints, as did ‘Saint’ Barbara and many others.

In the case of the image in the Rohan Hours, his model could have been a figure painted on the wall of the Armenian church of Jerusalem, in which there is again a ring of close-set radii, overseen by a ring of blue-faced angels.

But in that blue skin, in the faces shown as mature but still ‘childishly’ plump, and such details as the rolls of fat at the neck, the eastern origins of the figure remain perfectly clear. To the similar appearance, we must add some degree of more informed understanding, for the painter uses precisely the appropriate colour: a blue-black or indigo.

In the east, in their original setting, these figures were the Vasudevas, and they were particularly honoured in Mathura, during the early centuries AD.  And of depicting the Vasudevas within the original Hindu tradition, it is an axiom that:

The Vasudevas are …described as nila [lit.= indigo] being blue-black in complexion..

see parallel comment included in section ‘Related historical records‘ in wiki article ‘Svayam Bhagavan’

What we are seeing therefore in the Rohan Hours is a European adoption of motifs which are most reasonably supposed to have been gained via contact with Armenians and more particularly the Church of the East, ultimately being gained from as far to the east as central northern India, and thus maintaining styles, meaning and customs first current in the early centuries AD.

In regard to Mathura, I might mention a Kushan king who ruled 191 AD to c.225 AD, the last to rule before the opening of the Sassanid period in Persia, and who was named Vasudeva I. On his coins are already elements of older Persian practice mingled with those of   the Greco-Indian world. A similar combination infuses the older strand of imagery in ms Beinecke 408,  as these posts endeavour to describe and set in context.

What I have called the higher ‘terminal line’ was represented in ancient Mesopotamian and Persian art by the cloud; that of rain or of the scented smoke sent aloft to avert the wrath of the heavens.

Unlike Egypt or Greece, for whom the stars were generally benevolent deities, Mesopotamia saw them as dangerous and ominous – developing their omen-based astrology as a result of that fear-filled attitude. For the same reason, the scented cloud served as a shield, as well as a limit for the human realm. The fact is also relevant to the form given the central section of fol.86v and to some of the ‘umbrellar’ imagery in the manuscript. Through many desert and tropical cultures, the idea was well understood, and in Arabic too the word used to refer to divine protection and benevolence is ‘covering’ by analogy with a relief from the sun’s killing heat.

In medieval imagery, the wavy limiting line is often described by the German term ‘wolkenband’, but I prefer to ”welkin band’ since the word ‘welkin’ derives from a root meaning cloud and appears in English during the 12th C.

A version nicely intermediate between the simplest type and the highly complex forms which later developed can be seen in  certain ‘Thracian’ works – these also neatly conveying the idea that the limit against the heavens, as against the earth, was watery.

.. which brings us back to the ‘shore’ of the Sahel…

Trade along the corridor

During the medieval centuries, the Sahel’s sub-Saharan route was travelled regularly towards the Niger and Mali, where seemingly inexhaustible veins of gold had been mined since before the classical era.

In exchange, Arab traders were bringing eastern fabrics and ceramics, both Indian and Chinese (or replicas: a goodly proportion of Islam’s ‘Chinese ceramics’ were made in south-east Asia, and earlier in Siraf, the Yemen, Fustat and then Aydhab).

Chinese style ceramic found in 10thC Fustat midden. Thai.

Some of those eastern goods were obtained relatively close at hand, in Egypt’s Red Sea, but others came from east Africa ports having direct contact with Chinese and southeast Asian trading vessels.

On leaving the Niger, or Mali, the same traders might move north towards the Mediterranean, emerging within it at sites having connection with east Africa from long before the rise of Macedonia or Rome. The two shown below as within the Mediterranean are now called Ceuta (whose Phoenician name is forgotten) and Tunis (ancient Carthage).

These centres, and indeed the whole length of the Sahel was noted for its human trafficking.


Within Africa, medieval slavers were, almost without exception, Muslim Arabs whose slave trade rose to extraordinary levels during the 13th C, after the opening of shorter and more direct link from Cairo.

Nonetheless, still older slave markets of southern Arabia and Socotra remained active and, as the map below shows, their limit along the east African shore only stopped  at Madagascar.

If the person who added the ‘limiting wall’ to fol.86v were European, it may signify no more than the limit of what he believed was the inhabitable world. If he were both a European and a  Ghibelline, he might have included that detail as a matter of habit, or principle, simply because it was a defensive wall.

If he were not European (and very few Europeans knew of the Sahel, except what they might have found in older source-texts), then the significance of the crenellations might still as easily be positive as not.

Syrian merchants, for example, noted with approval that in the areas they held, the occupying forces of the Crusaders protected and refrained from extorting high taxes from the merchant caravans. And of course some of the Crusading orders, such as the Knights of St. John were noted slavers themselves, especially in Crete and Cyprus. The medieval records are clear on the point, even if recent efforts by revisionist historians have attempted to soften its implications. And whereas the Muslim slavers honoured the religious prohibition against enslaving fellow believers (a considerable incentive to African conversions, one expects), Christians showed no such respect for similar religious injunctions. Christian Slavs formed the greater number of those enslaved in Christendom.

...And thus having entered the traders’ routes of northern Africa, we move forward towards that source of gold..


*Ghibelline battlements – and the unbroken interaction in some regions between classical and medieval arts and architecture see for example  ‘100 Croatian Archaeological Sites‘. One can easily imagine why in such areas, a great deal has been recovered from the ancient and classical eras.


3 thoughts on “fol 86v: South toward West: stage 1 The Sahel

  1. Modern Tunis was Phoenician (Canaanitic) OEA, which meant “Tanit-Land.” The O was a Classical Age pictogram for the goddess Tanit. It was a seperate city from ancient Carthage. Also, Phoenician sailors were supposed to have circumnavigated the entire African continent for the Nubian-Egyptian Pharaoh Necho. Also, the Magonid sailor-kings of Carthage (reputedly) circumnavigated the African continent again. Some classical Greek scholars called the modern Senegal River the Chretes. So it seems likely that at least some Classical scholars were aware that Africa extended further south than their parchments and papyrus scrolls allowed them to draw


    • I haven’t seen another reference to the letter O as a classical pictogram for any deity, but of course it’s possible. There’s a widely-held opinion that the classical sources are right who say that the alphabet we use began from a mercantile shorthand developed by the Phoenicians from hieroglyphic.
      A sphinx recovered in Egypt not so long ago adds to that probability; it is inscribed with what is recognisably a transitional script. I have read in old conversations on the first Voynich mailing list that a number of ancient scripts were considered, including the Cretan and Phoenician. In those days, the tone was one of exploration and research, and a person wasn’t lambasted for not having a ‘theory’ or for looking beyond the limits of fifteenth century central Europe. No-one could explore such possibilities today without suffering for it. The point, anyway, is that they didn’t find any close connection, and while I find correspondences between imagery produced in the southern and eastern Mediterranean at that time, and some of what we see in MS Beinecke 408, it’s chief use is to explain why the imagery employs forms which make no sense in terms of medieval Latin custom, and to help explain the underlying meaning – which remains constant, pretty well. I certainly don’t expect the text likely to be written in that language.For one thing, the information is too practical and useful; as an old language died out, the text would be re-written in the current one – assuming that the whole thing hadn’t bee dug up, or found in an old mausoleum or something. It was the custom, by the way, to bury a person’s professional tools with them. And during the middle ages, when saints’ bones were being re-buried, or re-housed, a number of the stone sarophagi were found to contain a book as old as the original burial, often as a ‘pillow’ for the head. But all this is just speculation. I’m more inclined to think the traces of antiquity in the imagery are there because, just as Baresch said, someone went looking for it and copied it from various sources. It makes sense.


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