Chronological strata revisited #2a

Roads East.

Eastern Mediterranean to Caucausus, 12th-14th centuries.

I’ll be referring chiefly to Trapezus (Trapezos/Trabzon);    Edessa (Urfa);     Martyropolis (Maipherqat/Mayperqiṭ /Mīyafariqīn; Turk: Silvan);    Amid[a] (Diyarbakir),    Harran (Carrhae),    Nisibis (Netzivin, Nusaybin);  and Nimrud – marked on  as ‘Nieueh’/Nineveh. These on the map below.  Plus, Mardin (on the map following). This post is a short guide to the area.


The ancient routes from the eastern Mediterranean to inner Asia hold the key to understanding the manuscript’s astronomical imagery.  Although I’ve seen no reference to this section of the routes within folio 86v (except, perhaps Laiazzo), the cities I’d like to treat are among some of the most ancient centres for the meeting and melding of Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Jewish, Arab, Greek, Phoenician and others.  Here, if anywhere, we should find that common environment which permitted a standing archer to be included in a calendar, and a sun to be drawn with a false beard and deliberately unfocused or crossed eyes.  This is also the region in which ivory work developed to a high degree as early as the eighth century AD, its quality reduced, if anything, in the Crusader states almost two thousand years later. The lion on the left is Phoenician work; that on the right from the ‘Melisende’ Psalter (B.L., MS Egerton 1139).

Nimrud Bearded Lioness Phoenician ivory8thC BCdavid and lion Melisende Psalter cover

Nimrud is among the sites to be seen on the map above, although this lower route does not appear to be referenced (apart from an entrance to it from  Laiazzo?) on folio 86v. (For this identification for the ‘castle’ on f.86v, see my additional note (November 23rd., 2014) in my earlier post (here).

It is, nonetheless, a region where the constant ebb and flow of peoples, religions, armies and social attitudes from Persia and from Babylon, from Egypt and Macedonia, from hither and inner Asia, from Scythian, Roman and European combine. It is not only the region most likely to have produced  the Voynich manuscript’s syncretistic astronomical  imagery – it is difficult to imagine any other which could have created them – except perhaps Transoxiana.

map Trapezos Mardin Amid-Diyarbakir



Trapezos (Trapezus/Trabzon/Trabzunt) – seat of the Byzantine Emperors (1204 – 1453/1461). An ancient Greek colony.

From here Gregory Chionades went to Bokhara and Tabriz c.1300 AD to study astronomy in the old Greco-Persian regions of inner Asia. He learned Persian and must have been accepted by the Khan, because he was permitted to meet and study under the astronomers of Maragah. (Maragah lies almost due east of Edessa, just before one reaches the Caspian Sea. This is the old country of the Medes). Chionades was later made Bishop of Tabriz, though the appointment may have been purely diplomatic. Later, the ambitious George Chrysokokkus went to Trapezos and re-worked Chionades’ translation of the Zij ilKhani, finally obtaining the popular renown he craved.

for more: Efthymios Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of  Globalization (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context), John Hopkins University Press, 2011.

 and see also my ‘Temple of the Angels’ posts at


Edessa (Urfa), became very early a Christian city; famed for its schools of higher learning and theology.

In the mid-fifth century AD its objections to the idea of a human giving birth to the deity saw protests and arguments against declaring Mary ‘mother of God’. The result of the controversy was that the Persian school had to return to its original location in Nisibis, the theologians of the Persian School now anathematised as ‘Jews’ or as ‘Nestorians’.  There was a hospice attached to the theological school of  Edessa, and Nisibis is still credited with providing the ‘cradle’ of Islamic medicine, but some doubt that medicine was taught (as distinct from practiced) there.  On its reputation for intellectual achievement,  Smith expresses the unanimous view in saying:  “it is manifest that  Edessa was for many years the principal seat of Oriental (i.e. near eastern) learning.” [1]

[1] ‘Edessa’ in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.

Edessa became known to Europe considerably later, and as the capital of a Crusader state. The Mandylion is agreed by all sources to have been first held in Edessa.  It is a portrait on cloth and shows an unshaven male; it was widely believed a true likeness of Christ, and being on cloth became known as the ‘kerchief’ (‘Mandylion’).

A portrait of that sort was certainly in Edessa during in the mid-sixth century, and most sources agree that during the tenth century it was taken from the city. However by the end of the thirteenth century there were three ‘Mandylions’ in Europe: one each in Genoa, Rome and Paris. That in Paris was certainly gained by purchase from Constantinople, to which the (or ‘a’) religious relic had been taken amid great pomp and ceremony in 944-5 AD.

In Constantinople that relic was kept in the Pharos Chapel of the Boukoleon Palace.  Nicolas Mesarites reports it there c.1200, his statement repeated, or confirmed, by Robert de Clari the next year.

Baldwin II, ruler in Constantinople and related to the Courtenays who were one of the oldest noble families of both France and England, and to the counts of Edessa, sold numerous religious items to King Louis of France. The list included  ‘a face upon a linen background’. That relic was installed in St.Chapelle in Paris in 1275, but in the eighteenth century destroyed by fanatical secularists.

Another copy of the Edessa Image is held in Rome’s San Silvestro in capita. This has always been described as a copy of that which was in Byzantium, and as being brought to Rome in 1207 by some Venetians.

Finally, there is a ‘Mandylion’ which came to Genoa, as some say, from the Royal Library of Edessa in the tenth century, but which others say was given by the Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologos in 1362 to the Doge of Genoa, doubtless as part of  Byzantium’s desperate efforts, in those years, to gain western aid against the Turkish invasion. When the Doge  died in 1386, the Image was bequeathed to the Church of St. Bartholomew of the Armenians to which it came two years afterwards.

Edessa’s Turkish name is Şanlıurfa.

Martyropolis (Maipherqat/Mayperqiṭ /Mīyafariqīn; Turk: Silvan). A centre of Hellenistic culture, the city was ceded to the Roman (Byzantine) empire in about 400 AD.

We are told that the city’s bishop went to Persia at about that time and returned with relics of many Christian martyrs: hence ‘Martyropolis’.  According to some versions of the story, the bones of St.Thomas were among these relics, they having been earlier taken to Persia from southern India.  Other versions insist that Thomas’ bones went to Edessa, and thence to Mosul (Syriac Orthodox Church website) while others more recent are as emphatic that Thomas’ relics never left Persia.  Whatever the case, by early in the twelfth century, the region about Martyropolis was beset by waves of invasion fromTartars, Turks and Mongols. In 1258, Leone Acciaiuoli brought by sea from Chios a chalcedony tombstone (described in some sources as Armenian-Mesopotamian) which Acciaiuoli understood to contain the bones of St.Thomas.  The papal decision left them Ortona on the ‘strangers coast’  of the Adriatic, deposited in a church then known as   Santa Maria degli Angeli, but subsequently re-named for the Missionary to India. The tomb was desecrated by the Turks in 1566,the remaining relics now kept in a gilt copper urn of local make.  For more on Martryopolis:  M. Th. Houtsma (ed.),  E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, Volume 5,  pp.157-161.

Amid[a] (Diyarbakir),  The city has a long history predating the Roman period, summarised by the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

It changed hands frequently in the later wars between the Romans and the Persians and was in Byzantine hands when the Arabs took it (c. 639). With the weakening of ʿAbbāsid control over the region and the emergence of the Ḥamdānid dynasty of Mosul (in Iraq) in the 10th century, Amida was ruled by various Arab, Turkish, Mongol, and Persian dynasties until its capture by the Ottoman sultan in 1516.

At that time, there was a major split between the Chaldean, Nestorian and Assyrian branches of the eastern Church. One outline of the events and aftermath is here.It says in part:fol. 116v detail sheep and wig sml

The city … was predominantly an Armenian and Syriac Orthodox centre; there is little evidence for a presence of the Church of the East in the earlier period. Amid was part of the Church of the East Diocese of Maiperqat in 1257 … Some years later the bishop …  “of Maiperqat, Amid and Mardin‘ was present at the consecrations of the patriarchs Denha I in 1265 and Yahballaha III in 1281.

In fact, the bishop consecrated as Yahballaha III was a Chinese Nestorian named Rabban Marcos, companion of the Uighur  Rabban Bar Sawma. The two had set out from their own monastery in the hope of visiting the Holy land, but were instead co-opted: Rabban Marcos to serve as head of the Mesopotamian region’s Nestorian community, and Bar Sawma to undertake a delicate embassy to the western Pope and kings.  Both appear to have performed well in their unexpected tasks, as we know from the record of Bar Sawma’s journey in 1287 which has been translated by Wallis Budge (pdf is online). Bar Sawma visited the courts of Europe during Bacon’s lifetime, and spent the full winter in Genoa waiting for the re-opening of the sailing season.

The account of his journey informs us that in Mardin were relics of  ” Mâr Awgîn, the second Christ”.( Budge, op.cit., p.12)

In 1402, Timur granted Amid/Diyabakir and surrounding land to the Ak Koyunlu (‘white sheep’) Turkomans. It is possible that the rising star of the ‘white sheep’ over that of the eastern church informs a small sketch on f.116v.

Here A family from Amid/Diyabakir, remember the Armenian genocide.

Harran (Carrhae), City of the Moon.

Dimshaqi writes that of the Sabians’ ruins in Harran, “there remains the round building, and this is the castle, and it was a temple of the moon and the Sabians continued in it until the year 414” (= 1092 AD,  when the city was taken by the Fatamid ruler of Egypt).  It is highly probable that some Neoplatonists [also] sought refuge there, among them Simplicius of Cilicia (d.560 AD) who wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s De Caelo.  Lloyd and Brice believe that, after the sack of Harran in 1259,  its sister city and bitter rival Edessa directed away the city’s water-supply, and so brought about the city’s desolation.   Seton Lloyd and William Brice, ‘Harran’, Anatolian Studies, Vol. 1 (1951), pp. 77-111. (p.84)

detail Hittite monument re Harran

Nisibis: “the pride of Byzantium until it was annexed by the Persians in 361 [AD]”

A city so ancient that its original name is unknown. By the early Christian centuries, the fame of its theological seminary was so great that Pope Agapetus I and Cassiodorus (c. 490 – c.583 AD) wished to found one in Italy of a similar kind. Cassiodorus’s monastery at Vivarium was inspired by Nisibis’ example,  but Cassiodorus’ original and grander plan for the Vivarum was never achieved.  Its library was dispersed soon after his death in c.583 – perhaps from fear of affect from ‘Nestorian’ thought. The medical texts in its library included Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Celsus and Coelius Aurelianus. The majority remained standard sources  for western medicine. However, the texts cannot have been gained from the Syrians since the first translation of these works from Greek into Syriac and into Arabic was made by  Hunain ben Ishaq (809–873).

The Catholic church asserts that the Nisibis ‘ seminary’   taught no secular subjects (save perhaps as they provided glosses or scholia for the sacred texts)  and Frothingham believed that the Nestorians’ medical learning was gained in Gundeshapur, a centre which Frothingham believed a Nestorian foundation, and thus dated to the fifth century AD (p.214).

[1] A. L. Frothingham, Jr., ‘Historical Sketch of Syriac Literature and Culture’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1884), pp. 200-220

It is possible that, in this early period, it was the Jews of Alexandria and of Nisibis who chiefly taught and practiced textual medicine. This would certainly be the case in later centuries – in Islam as in Europe.  However, on use of the word ‘Jewish’ to describe fellow Christians see:  Gianfranco Fiaccadori, ‘Cassiodorus and the School of Nisibis’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 39 (1985), pp. 135-137.

 Mardin saffron monastery pillar capital

Mardin A city so ancient that its original name is unknown. There is scarcely an ancient people of whom we know whose presence is not detectable in Mardin. It was very early a centre of eastern Christianity, a building often thought to have been a temple to the sun, five miles from Mardin, being converted to a monastery known as the ‘Saffron monastery’. It is said to have been a centre for the Church of the East, but from 1160 until 1932 it was the official seat of the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and modern accounts date its association with the Chaldean (Syrian Orthodox) church only to the seventeenth century. Both are directly linked to the Christianity of southern India.  An old pillar in the Saffron monastery is shown at right.


Nimrud – marked on the first map as ‘Nieueh’/Nineveh.



Note also on the first map above:

1.  Mtsketa (Mtskheta) which I have suggested (here) may be that ‘ pairi-daêza‘ (walled enclosure) we see as the northernmost point in folio 86v.

f 86v north Parai deza

f 86v north Parai deza to North

If that detail had been, or been meant to echo, a European ‘T-O’ diagram, the larger central division (which would represent Asia) should lie to the top in the usual T-O style, or to the right when orienting to the North, but in this case when the page is turned to lie along a north-south axis, that larger section lies to the left (see detail, right). Such anomalies should make us wary of assuming that this folio is wholly informed by western, and Latin, custom.




Below is a map of southern Italy, the ‘strangers coast’ where foreign refugees, remnants of the older populations and others were settled.

2. Ortona (Abruzzo region) In 1258, Leone Acciaiuoli brought from Kios (chios) certain relics, and a chalcedony tombstone or coffin cover. All were believed relics of St. Thomas, the Apostle to India. The relics were initially deposited in the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Ortona, and the church was subsequently renamed the ‘basilica’ of St. Thomas. A coin made  at the Ortona mint, one of several established in Abruzzo during the time of Joanna II of Naples, bears the saint’s likeness. (here.) Venetian ships destroyed Ortona’s port on June 30, 1447.  The sixteenth century saw Margaret of Parma acquire land by the coast, acquiring it partly from local land-owners and partly by co-opting a garden owned by Conventual Franciscans, who are said to have then departed the town. (1582 AD). Margaret spent the next two years planning her own ‘Palazzo Farnese’ but died before the work could be completed. 

Philip Grierson, Mark A. S. Blackburn, Lucia TravainiMedieval European Coinage: Volume 14, South Italy, Sicily, Sardinia: With a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, C.U.P. (1998) p.248.


map Italy Abruzzo Ortona

map courtesy A. M. Fandiño Zuluaga


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