Reprint: Ceuta

Reprint from a blog which I ran for overseas students a few years ago. I think it is important in Voynich studies for each researcher to show clearly not only which ideas he has taken from other sources, and which are his own efforts to contribute, but also the process of reasoning which led him to certain conclusions.  In the general rag-bag-grab atmosphere of life online, it becomes all the more important – because more difficult – to maintain a certain integrity.  For the same reason, I have decided to omit the illustrations  and a majority of the links which I provided for my students in the original post.


Monday, October 3, 2011

The map on fol. 86v West Quadrant: tower, forge and repository. Ceuta?

(Western quadrant)

To follow this post, I suggest you first open a secondary tab, showing fol.86v from the Beinecke Library website.
Choose the “See all images” option,
Click on “show all images
Then ask for Page 8 (n.b. click ‘Go‘)
Fol.86v is in the bottom row. Use 8x magnification.

Last edited 18th November 2011. (refs added at end)
Postcript– credit Sherwood – 26 November 2011
The amount of emphasis and detail which has been devoted to this western quadrant suggests that it is a region with which the map-maker, and subsequent users, had some a long, or long-traditional link- to the point where structures could be retained whether or not the site still contained them in the early fifteenth century.

The features I want to discuss here are:

  1. The great mountain/tower which rises due east of the city.
  2. a detail showing what appears to be a forge (needs ‘zoom’ magnification).
  3. The “X” motif – its meaning, purpose and cultural context.
  4. The possible identity of this site.

Two tower-like structures appear on the map, but they are not to be confused for one another. That in the western quadrant is formed with a crown-tower, while the pile-like tower in the ‘summary map’  is formed a a great mound, surmounted by a spike.

I’ll discuss that second tower (scarcely visible here) in more detail and with a better close-up in the next post, but while I’m on the subject of the summary map, I’ll explain a reference which I think informs the emblem – next along from Hierapolis – in which this other tower appears. It is set behind a curious snail-like landform, in front of which again is a very smale tower.

Taking the distance between the previous two (Cappadocia and Hierapolis) as a rough estimate of how far apart these regional emblems are, so for the snailshell we should look about 3,000 kilometers on from Heirapolis, – towards the south.

South and three thousand kilometers  from Hierapolis, takes us more or less to the shores of North Africa. One is tempted to identify the smaller structure in front with the Pharos of Alexandria, but it could as easily represent some other tower or castle by the shore. The ‘snailshell’ is easier to identify.
The ‘snailshell’ feature:
As it happens, and fortunately for us,  Section 7 of the Tabula Peutingeriana – which covers this whole distance from Phrygia and extends even to include the Niger River –  includes such a “snailshell” detail in its depiction of that part of the North African coast which is adjacent to Alexandria.

The “snailshell”there represents the route once taken past five towns collectively known as the “Pentapolis” in Libyan North Africa. In those times, water flowed into the region in just that way, and although during the centuries which intervene the water ceased to make a bay of it, the valley is still plainly shaped so.

Of those five cities forming the Pentapolis, the chief  was Cyrene, birthplace of the remarkable geographer-astronomer and musician Eratosthenes.    Under Roman rule the district was called Cyrenaica.

The ‘Pentapolis’ comprised:

*Cyrene and its port,  Apollonia (Marsa Susa),

*Arsinoe or Taucheira (Tocra),

*Euesperides or Berenice (near modern Benghazi),

*Balagrae (Bayda) and

Barce (Marj)
– of which the chief was the eponymous Cyrene.

The whole region about the pentapolis was famous. Alexander himself went there to consult the oracle of  the Egyptian god ‘Amun’, at what is now the Siwa oasis.

From that area was obtained the ‘salts of Amun’ (Sal ammoniac) formerly much used in dyeing and metallurgy. It is also found in traditional receipes, once trade secrets, for colouring ivory and alabaster.

However eventually the Pentapolis “including the Pharaonic oracle of Ammonium” …faded into the Saharan tribal areas. …Only one wall of the temple remains.
see e.g. A. M. Woodward, “Athens and the Oracle of Ammon”, The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 57, (1962), pp. 5-13 (JSTOR)


So now, turning from the small summary map to the western quadrant:

The most notable feature in this quadrant is the way the building in it is marked by a distinctive “X”.
I presume that we are still in northern Africa, but west of the Pentapolis with that associated spike-topped ‘pile’.

The Structure marked “X”
(i) The “X” mark.

In parts of western Africa, still such a mark remains familiar. Something similar appears for a couple of generations on coins made in Ionia, for Miletos (c.375-300bc)

coin Miletos Ionia
350-300bc (obverse)

To this day though it is used by numerous peoples in upper western Africa, at what used to be called the other end of the Nile.

In both cases the symbol evidently carried the same sense – of a repository or depository. Around the region of Mali, famed for its gold-mines, a symbol even more like that on our map is by convention set on a granary’s door. It is plainly a sign of defense and protection, quite often accompanied by images of the creatures (men and/or beasts) who are to rejected in their efforts to enter.

Three contemporary examples are all that I can show. All come from adjacent regions, where the practice and the motif are traditional: the the Dogon, the people of Benin, the Ivory Coast, though the custom is still more widespread. (It will be remembered that the Niger is depicted on the Tabula Peutingeriana, as the southern limit of Section 7. The region was certainly not discovered by the English, nor the French.
Our earliest record of it is in accounts of Hanno’s journey, recorded on stone in Carthage, and one of the few traces of that city extant (due to a Roman translation of the inscription.

granary door,  Dogon
west Africa


All these African peoples, and African languages, are today represented within Mali, whose gold mines are believed to have provided the Pharaohs and Punico-Phoenicians with great quantities of that metal.

The time of Mali’s conversion to Islam is not precisely known, but certainly by early in the fourteenth century, its king, Mansa Musa made an extraordinary procession, across north Africa, through Egypt, to Mecca.  His fame resounded through both Islam and western Christendom, and we find him used as the ‘character’ for the South on the Atlas Catala, on astronomical instruments made in Europe, and even on playing cards, which became increasingly popular within Europe from the end of the fourteenth century.

granary door
Dakar (Ifan Museum)



granary door
west Africa

Records of Ifa among the Yoruba allude to Egyptian and Punic customs, and by the Niger river in what is now Nigeria there are earthwork defenses known as the Eredo, formed as a series of what some have described as pyramids, though they look remarkably like the Buddhist stupa or dagoba.
These structures known as the Eredo are dated between the 9th and 11thC of the present era. One archaeologist commented that “in terms of sheer size [the Eredo] is the largest single monument in Africa – larger than any of the Egyptian pyramids.”

While I do not see the Eredo as particularly Egyptian-looking, the ways of Egypt are certainly suggested by other various motifs in our map, such as the representation of the westering sun and its rebirth from the ‘lotus’. Other eastern elements in the manuscript will be discussed within their own sections; some appear to reflect Buddhist philosophy.


fol.86v detailenlargement courtesy Jason Davies


enlargement courtesy Jason Davies

Surprisingly little has been done to investigate the range over which dynastic Egypt (or Buddhism) exerted a wider cultural influence towards the west, although any kingdom lasting several millennia, (four times as long as the Roman empire) and famed, as Egypt, was for its medical, astronomical, mathematical and religious learning – in addition to being the centre of wealth and attributed spiritual power, must surely have had pronounced effects beyond the Nile.

Cancho Ranero, Tartessian work
The fusion of Egyptian and  Mesopotamian
motifs is typically Phoenician.


(ii). A forge(?) and chimney

In the western quadrant we see placed between the main gate and the principal structure, an object issuing flame or smoke. It could be intended for a beacon light, or a place for visitors to burn incense;it might even be a metal-smelter, although I’m more inclined to see it as a forge.

Association between the forge and the granary is an ancient traditiion in much of older Africa, the god resident below the ground being considered responsible equally for the provision of gold in the earth as for those who had died and entered it.

In any case, in front of the chimney one sees a deep, circular or oval addition which is both open and accessible, both characteristics being typical of the forge.

An other reason for supposing the object’s purpose is pragmatic is the fact of its inclusion. Given that the summary map inset into the northern quadrant is so condensed that it ignores distances of almost three thousand kilometers, so the inclusion of this object suggests some usefulness to the traveller.

In any case, the incense burner, like the beacon are self-explanatory, but if this is a forge it may tell us something about the city, or about the traveller.

To position a forge between a city’s eastern gate and its chief building – in what is evidently a harbour town – would be sensible. Chandlers need equipment made or mended for their ships, and surely prefer not to haul them too far. Metal tools and utensils must also got for outward journeys by land or by sea; damaged ones must be mended. Small items such as horse-brasses or buckles might be ready-made in bulk, or designed to order: for traders, pilgrims and travellers, whether for keepsakes, gifts, temple offerings, or the items later to be given in trade.

Robertson Smith first suggested that the fire-pillars set before some temples in islands of the Mediterranean and Syria during the ancient, classical and Hellenistic periods were “in the form of immense candlesticks ….”

Ref: Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites p. 487f. Cited also by R. B. Y. Scott. see his article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Jun., 1939), p. 144. (JSTOR

(iii) . The principal building:the ‘repository’
In Shilha (a Berber dialect of North Africa), the word used for a “fortified granary” is agadir, derived from the Punico-Phoenician “gades”.  In Tamazight agadir simply means “wall”.  So while usage varied, the root significance apparently remained constant. Like the “X” symbol in north and west Africa, this term signifies the protection of walls used to secure the safety of the city’s ‘seed’. As a place-name in North Africa, Agadir is not uncommon, and several cities are also known as Gades,including one that was founded by the Carthaginians on an island off the southern coast of the Iberian peninsula. With time it has become joined to the mainland, evolving into modern Cadiz.

It is said that during the century following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (70AD), North Africa’s coastal cities saw a great increase in their Jewish population, something we also noted in regard to Hierapolis and Anatolia. In this regard are mentioned especially Alexandria of Egypt; Cyrene – chief city of the Libyan Decapolis; Berenice of Libya, Carthage and a Numidian town which was known under the Romans as Caesarea Mauretania.

Since there are more details in the map echoed in the Tabula Peutingeriana than that ‘snail-shaped’ feature we noted above, and it is believed that the world depicted by the Tabula Peutingeriana ended round about Gibraltar, and the western extremity of the Mediterranean, though it could well have included Britain and Ireland.Our map however would seem to end near the Straits, which as far as I can see are scarcely represented.

The site bearing that “X” might be meant for Carthage as it was during the Hellenistic, or perhaps even the Roman era.

But so effective were the Romans in obliterating old Carthage that even today archaeologists are barely able to discern its outline, and little trace has been recovered of the people who had inhabited the site for almost two thousand years before Rome destroyed it in 146bc. This is the first genocide recorded of a western nation which is not later recorded as a cause for shame.

And since we see nothing more westerly on our map, so perhaps the city is not Carthage, but one closer to the western limit of the Mediterranean, and the mountainous, but crowned tower does offers us two plausible options: Gades or Ceuta. It was long said that at each of these, Hercules had set his pillars; both were islands, too, or nearly so and both were originally Phoenician settlements.

Until recently Ceuta (known in the Roman period as Septem Frates ‘Seven Brothers’) was not recognised as a former Punico-Phoenician colony, but:

Carbon 14 dating techniques recently carried out in the United States have confirmed that the site found in Ceuta corresponds to the Phoenician era, dating from the 7th century B.C. These pieces were found next to the cathedral façade and are considered the most important in Spain (sic), as there is still very little information on this culture in the country An excellent map of the site as it appeared in the late nineteenth century is available here. As it shows, the ancient town was on the lower level, the mount being separated from it by a narrow stretch of water.

Gold notes that by the twelfth century, when al-Idrisi was in his prime,  the place of his birth Ceuta (as Sebta) had become one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, while the nearby Mellila (or Melilia) attracted interest because of its salt deposits.

Ref: Peter Gold, Europe Or Africa?: A Contemporary Study Of The Spanish North African Enclaves Of Ceuta (2000) see p.xi
The western quadrant shows about the outskirts the starry symbol which earlier indicated a region most noted for supplying materials which superior for the work of the dyer. The mountainous region between Cappadocia and Hierapolis was the centre of kermes production, while the waters of Hierapolis are noted by our classical sources as having some quality which created a superior quality in dyed fabrics. Perhaps the waters in the adjacent bay, or other mineral deposits there had a similar virtue.

Located further to the west than Carthage, and truly marking the world’s western limit, Ceuta’s position is certainly one of a secure and fortified place, the sort of place that the local inhabitants of Idrisi’s time and later (among whom were Berbers) might well consider an agadir.

To identify the site as ancient Ceuta allows us to explain one otherwise curious feature of the western quadrant: that the sea-access appears on two sides of the city where the land-route (though drawn to indicate roads converging from all parts of the world) appears to have only one gate as entrance.

The map linked above, even though made in the nineteenth century suggests that Ceuta offers a close comparison, not least by reason of its height, and its having been associated with the Herakles, whom the Phoenicians called Melkart.

A fair potted history of Ceuta is here.
The history of Ceuta permits us to suppose that Berber customs and languages were formerly in common use, and likely to effect the terms, as well as local imagery.
One might also suggest that some originally-ancient map might survive here until the twelfth century. North Africa had early been, and had long remained, one of the most scholarly environments of the early medieval world. Both Augustine and Maimonides were educated there, and the world of Christendom and Jewry, respectively, hung upon their words.
[Goitein’s volumes translating the records of the Cairo geniza should also be consulted].

The map’s being later updated, and thereafter kept safe and copied (perhaps many times) until one copy became this map in MS Beinecke 408 is also explicable  – most obviously by the mass emigrations of  Ceuta’s Jewish population at that time, as by the fact that al-Idrisi was born in Ceuta.

Among the trades mentioned of the Jewish population in the Cairo Geniza are silversmithing and silk-weaving.
After leaving to study abroad, Idrisi stopped in Sicily on his return, only to stay for fifteen years and, with the active patronage of the Norman king, Roger II of Sicily, to create from older sources, and current oral testimonies, his new geography of the world.

Thereafter, having returned to North Africa, he made his geography, together with astronomy and mathematics, the basis of a radical new curriculum of education.

As we have noted, Hierapolis in Phygia was occupied for so limited a period from the 7th-20th centuries, that our map must have its basis in classical sources, while various details suggest that the first updating occurred during the Norman period, at least.

That it might thereafter have been cherished is partly explained by the history of Sicily, and partly by the adoration for Frederick II that we find from the Alans in the court of the Mongol emperors to the salons of the culturally-nostalgic literati of the “Renaissance” so-called.  Indeed, the Catholic church itself made the motto of its Vatican college in Rome “The past has been attained here”. The college is named in Barsch’s letter about the Vms, written to Kircher in 1639. It is called ‘La Sapienza’ and its emblem looks remarkably like one of the images in the Vms.

As for the manuscript that we have: it has no provenance before the inscription of his signature by Jakub of Tepenecz, raised and educated by the order, than that letter by Barsch to the Jesuit Kircher and other than the rumour that Rudolf II owned it, it seems never to moved or been discussed outside the wider circle about the Jesuit order, until Wilfred Voynich purchased it from a training school of the Jesuits, early in the twentieth century.

Yet it cannot be a work first composed by a Jesuit, since the order was not founded until the sixteenth century (1534), and our manuscript is dated to about a century before.

As the site of the ‘agadir’ making the western limit of our map’s itinerary, of course other cities are possible.

One obvious possibility is the western Gades (Cadiz), which I had considered along with numerous others as possible. At some later stage, I hope to post about those alternatives and show why I settled on Ceuta.
Refs and notes
*Chukwuma Azuonye, Dogon (small booklet of about 70 pages). Part is online through g/lebooks.

*In Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography,

Ceuta is mentioned under:

ABYLA (Mons) p.9

GADITANUM FRETUM (Straits of Gibraltar) p.925

*Peter Laven lists the ports, and the goods traded, relevant to the cloth trade in his long but excellent article on sources for alum – an essential mordant for many vegetable dyes. He makes the important point that Genoa managed to obtain monopolies over sources of alum.

Laven, Peter, Renaissance Italy, 1464-1534 pp.80ff


Orientation marks: North and North-West                        September 29th., 2011
Afterthought: Granaries and granary marks                        October 3rd., 2011
Eastern Quadrant: Taklamakan(?)                                     October 9th., 2011
South (and far East) Quadrant                                           October 23rd., 2011
The Summary Map: some additional notes                         October 22nd., 2011


POSTSCRIPT: 26th November 2011I thank those who readers who have kindly drawn my attention to this  web page, dated 2009, where Edith Sherwood mentions both East Africa and mining in relation to the Voynich ms.

This credit for precedence should not be taken to imply endorsement for the content of that page, viz. methods for deciphering the written text.

For discussions of Sherwood’s method see standard online sources  (e.g.) or

Posted by Diane at 12:11 AM


2 thoughts on “Reprint: Ceuta

  1. I decided to republish this post to show that Marco Ponzi’s suggestion (that there is some connection between images in a certain Spanish manuscript, and those in [parts of] the Voynich manuscript) does have its independent support. Working only from the internal evidence of folio 86v – and long before anyone remotely agreed that it was a map of the world – I had myself identified the western-most centre as Ceuta.

    I hope that this independent, and earlier evidence will draw still more attention to sources of that Spanish imagery, and the context it which it was produced.

    See Tratado de astrología. Enrique de Aragón, Marqués de Villena.
    and the comment by Marco Ponzi made on Stephen Bax’s site on December 23, 2014. In one way my earlier analysis confirms Marco’s suggestion, but in another the evidence of the Spanish manuscript confirms my analysis too – and only two years and two months later.
    We advance.


  2. This post was written in 2011, after which I refined my definitions of items in the small summary map that forms the north roundel in folio 86v. The later comments include an identification of the “castle” in that small map with Laiazzo, where formerly I had considered Hierapolis in Asia minor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s