a little reluctantly.. fol 75r

My prospective publisher wants some of the more dramatic discoveries kept aside from publication in this blog – no point in having everything seem old hat when it comes out in print. This folio has been one I had kept aside, but a current discussion and some pretty heavy hints and … well, goads … from friends and others means that I will reprint it now.. reluctantly.

First published July 10th, 2010 in the exploratory blogger blog, ‘Findings’ (now closed to the public). I notice that a number of the original illustrations are no longer there, including a set of three or four showing the “pink pillar”. One I’m sure was the Piri Re’is map of Alexandria. Another, as I recall, was a painting of the seventeenth? century.  I have added again the Piri Reis map, but a different picture of Pompey’s Pillar – just to show that it really is pink!

On the ‘Voynich Gallery’ site this folio is labelled 72v. From here to the end, any corrections, updates or additions made today are in green.


[Updated] Pegs, poles and parasols I – (fol.75r)

parasols 1[Updated to include section of the Peutinger Table: 3 July 2010]
[Updated 21st September to include ref. to article by J.J. van Rensburg.]

Concerning fol. 75r. Upper section

In Arabic, the verb ‘to cover’ expresses ideas of protection, and includes that sheltering implied by the deity’s waiving punishment for transgression.
A similar idea was conveyed in Greek by the term aegis, which originally meant a cover of sheepskin borne by emissaries of a deity, particularly when going forth to bargain or to parlay. Its later development saw the Greeks’ aegis amalgamated with the type of collars traditionally used in Egypt as a sign of honour.
For the later developments among the Greeks see:


Herodotus rightly noted in the fifth century bce, that the Greeks’ term was related to the word Aegyptus, ‘Egypt’  although properly the word referred only to the delta region, cloaked each year with a new coat of  life-giving, arable soil by the innundation of the Nile.

Note:parasols 2

The wiki article ‘Aegis’ suggests a late application of the Greek word to the form for the Egyptian delta, but the habit of denoting emissaries by a shoulder-cover, or of providing a collar to those ennobled, is attested in Pharaonic Egypt millennia before the appearance of the Greeks. It is an indigenous custom. (see earlier post “Faces” (II) – fol.67 r(i) – The Palm Wheel – April 26th 2010) Another typical example can be seen  in this Phoenician or Nubian ivory dated to the 7thC bce. The Phoenicians and Nubians initially travelled under the aegis of Egypt.

It appears to me that, in folio 75r, what we are seeing is this conception of Egypt’s lower land, during the period of the innundation, and depicted partly as a map, but partly as a means to exegesis.

The flat-topped stud marks a conceptual point of origin and return, I think. (There is also a connection to fire here, but it will be better discussed in another context, when we may also consider the role of maritime Alexandria).
In this case (fol.75r) the stud might refer to the port of Canopus, or to the place in the high lands of Egypt’s south from which the waters of the Nile were believed to originate – the fons et origo.

As we have seen, one patron of Heracleion and of Canopus was Hapi god of the Nile. But whether this stud is intended to mean ‘up/south’ in any absolute sense, or is more nearly equivalent here to the mariner’s “port-“side, I am not sure, though I am inclined to the latter view.

One sees such a stud as early as the fourth century bce on some Phoenician coins.

parsols 3

However: from about that conceptual point, this blessed cover spreads, its depiction in the manuscript evoking those qualities of ‘cover’ and of benefaction. Throughout Asia, and much of Africa (including Ethiopia), the ‘umbrella’, as canopy or Canopus was used exclusively for highest nobility of religion and community.  It was even adopted by Agrippa in Palestine, during the 1stC ce.

The manuscript illustration shows this cover with that ripple-line edge which, as everywhere throughout this manuscript, is to be read as “watery limit’, so we may assume the umbrella-form is an evocative rather than a purely pragmatic form.
The lower edge of the radiating ‘aegis’ is unusual; it is here shown cut, or washed away and from that part of the perimeter the widening of the waters begins.
Our topical map shows how well these features agree with the topography of Egypt, as it was in the classical period.parasols 4

parasols 1The main body of water (in our detail of fol.75r) can be equated with the northern reaches of the Red Sea, where the old canal met it. Thus the curved section – which is plainly an artificial cutting – may stand for that canal connecting at the time of the inundation to the Nile flooodwaters, and a narrower drain or channel by which that overflow might make its way to the Red Sea.
Our map (inset) shows the region today. In the nineteenth century, the canal passing near Oxyrhinchos was known as Joseph’s canal.

detail of map by Tom Elliott for the World Mapping centre, Uni of Nth Carolina. Note – this map is no longer online [19/02/2015]

I have suggested a likely terminus a quo within the period 2ndC bce – 2ndC ce for the gathering of the content in beinecke 408.  A check against the Peutinger Table is seemed like a good (if late-come) idea. Hence the update.

Here is part of Section 8, showing Egypt:

parasols 5

To the lower right is the red sea; the Nile’s branches are carefully represented, but the width of the Mediterranean is reduced – probably because its distance was irrelevant to the military.

Closest to where the Red Sea approaches the Nile, you can see a semi-circular shape. (detail 1)

parasols 6
There are a number of digitised version of the Peutinger on the net. Most don’t give their source, and in most of them the detail ringed here is not present. Whether it should be there or not, I don’t know, but if it should, it looks not unlike the ‘peg’ motif itself.
The point is near Menouthis, a site at which there was a centre of medicine which survived through the Greek, and the Roman period, and well into the Christian era.
Steles erected in this area, too, had inscriptions in several languages and assisted nineteenth-century scholars from Europe to understand the Egyptian hierogylphic script. Several of the steles were made of pink stone.

parasols 7

This version of the chart is from:

A good terrain map is at

The history, provenance and antecedents of the Peutinger Table are well explained on the wiki page:

* Moeris: see

and Hazlitt’s Classical Gazeteer, available online through Google.

A pink granite obelisque stands in Alexandria. Medieval travellers believed (probably through legends transmitted from Coptic Christianity) that the capital contained the head of Pompey. The Arabs called it “Amoud el-Sawari”, Column/Pillar of the Horsemen.

Alexandria and pillar

alexandria3 Pompeys pillar pinkModern scholarship sees it as follows:

Taken from the temple of the Serapis, the column was raised in its present position in honor of Diocletian at the very end of the 4th century. It is approximately 25m high, of red Aswan granite with a circumference of 9m. It stands near subterranean galleries where sacred Apis bulls were buried, and three sphinxes and is the tallest ancient relic in Alexandria.

Pompey fled to Egypt after his defeat by Julius Caesar in the civil war, and was murdered in Alexandria in 48 BC.


Nile Canals:
We are told that an earlier Persian canal (or attempted canal) was completed by Ptolemy, who made it workable by having the one he built or maintained providing with locks.

During the Roman period there were renewed efforts to make and/or maintain one or more such canals. Their final number and attribution are still a subject of scholarly debate in 2010.

A superb treatment of the historical sources is at:
PART 2 – Ships, shipping and  ‘bathing women’

I think, therefore, that the female figures are not meant to be interpreted literally, but to be seen as the personalities, or personifications or ‘spirits’ of the things with which they are associated.

In this case, I think they represent the vessels [of the type known as hori, hawri, or hawari] whose passage might be observed in the season of inundation.

folio 72v smaller

Note the narrowing and subsequent widening of the passage. The lowest bay is read as being that southwards from Bab el Mandeb

parasols 9

Over the centuries during when the Nile’s canal (or canals) were kept up, and before the building of the Aswan dam put an end to the innundation, the Nile’s flood- waters began descending from the Ethiopian highlands in June, to reach their peak in Cairo by September.

Thus, a ship setting out from the opening of the canal with first sign of the flood, “could expect to be at Berenike by August, and thus to reach the ‘Spice Port’ near Cape Gardafui by September/November, when the autumn change of monsoon was imminent, and access to Zanzibar and Africa’s east coast was possible”.

(Ref: Seán McGrail, Boats of the World: From the Stone Age to Medieval Times pp. 52-4).

Additional note: (added 21st September 2010).  I had omitted to mention that there is an homophony implied in various languages used in Arabia and India, between the ‘houra (hour/time/hour-star) and the type of log-boat known as the huri (pl.hawārī) normally made of teak. Both, of course, invite comparison with the type of the charming ‘houri’.


Such a reading for this drawing in fol.75r – that is, as a maritime map whose female figures represent ships and/or available navigation stars, offers an explantion that accords not only with what has been seen so far of the manuscript’s content, but also with the known history of this trade. Indian goods continued to be aquired in Zanzibar as late as the middle of the twentieth century.

The hori (hari, or hawari) and its presence in Socotra, Southern Arabia, and India is very thoroughly discussed by van Rensburg in a recent article:
Julian Jansen van Rensburg, “The Hawārī of Socotra, Yemen”,  The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (2010) 39.1:99-109.

I am not completely convinced that the teak for the Socotran type necessarily came from India as van ZRensenberg argues, though I do not doubt that this type of boat is known in Hindi as hōrī. (op.cit.p.100).

As van Renburg notes “the hawārī belongng to the African fishermen [on Socotra]were brought with them from Somalia and Kenya, while the Arabian fishermen bought their hawārī (!) either from vessels visiting the island or directly through India via a nominated broker. In some cases, especially along the north-western coast, fishermen had obtained their hawārī directly from either Yemen or Oman.” ibid.

To me this suggests the relic of an older maritime culture in the region, since the wood from Tectona grandis which is reported to be used for all the present-day hawārī of Socotra is, equally, native to Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, which earlier had direct trade through the archipelagoes,with east Africa. The region from Hadramaut to east Africa has long been associated with the migration of the Arabian tribe of the Azd, renowned for their navigational skills. But for the contrary view see van Rensburg op.cit. p.101.
Our present theme being,however, the motif of the cover, and not the patterns of the spice routes nor (as yet) the Indians in Egypt (nor these female figures), so I’ll now leave any discussion of the remaining part of this folio and move on to consider the way the ‘umbrella’* motif has been employed in other folios of the manuscript.

.i.e. “aegis”


Egyptian calendar in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods


parasols 10

The time of the Nile’s inundation – detail from the mosaic at Palestrina.


Ports of Egypt (Alexandria, Canopus, Naucratis and Herakleion)
Manfred Clauss, “Claustra Aegypti – Alexandria und seine Häfen” Millennium – Jahrbuch (2005)
Berlin, New York (Walter de Gruyter) 2005. Pages 297–328

– sorry, I couldn’t find a good source in English online –

Oxyrhynchus: see
A K Bowman, R A Coles, N Gonis, D Obbink, and P J Parsons, Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts
summary of contents from website of Oxbow books:

“The volume offers an account of Oxyrhynchus as an ancient city and archaeological site by surveying its material culture and art objects, including sculpture and draftsmanship, against the backdrop of the papyrus texts. It includes treatments of the site itself (city plan, topography, monuments, art and architecture), the history of the excavations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as a synthesis of the study of social, cultural and intellectual life under Greek, Roman and Byzantine rule. Original contributions by E. G. Turner and W. M. F. Petrie are reprinted; the original archaeological reports are edited with notes. 288p, 16 col pls (Graeco-Roman Memoirs 93, Egypt Exploration Society 2007)


Postscript added 19/02/2015.

The reason that I turned to the seas, rather than to rivers was that depiction of the salt water as green is an eastern custom, finding no echo in Latin or Greek idiom.  When I made this point originally, I cited a poem by a fifteenth century Persian poet, Hafiz and much later again referred to it in a post to this blog written 25/08/2013

The green sea of heaven, the hull of the new moon,

are both swamped by the generosity of our Hájí Qavám

Hafiz’ poems were a popular subject for Persian florilegia, what were termed by the Persians “ark books”. My source for the poem, and for the way personal notebooks were described came from Elizabeth Gray jnr., The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz. 

I regret that I do not having my copy with me; I’ll have to check the reference when I can, and add a comment here.

2 thoughts on “a little reluctantly.. fol 75r

    • Koen,

      This is not exactly my interpretation, which began by removing the figures from the page to examine the landscape in which they are set. Replacing them in their relative positions, with regard to that landscape, allowed an equation between places along the route and their ‘tyches’ on the one hand and the star making that latitude on the other – the second aided by investigating the purpose of their emblems. This done, then the descending line made sense in terms of the sailings towards the south, from that which marked Alexandria and the time of the inundation, to that at the bottom of the page. It is certainly a guide to navigation, but also to geography, and the homophony between the timing (‘hour’) stars and a type of boat only helped point to some part of the Yemen as a likely source for the material in our fifteenth century copy. It is hard to summarise all that research and background into a sentence, but the ‘interpretation’ isn’t something sprung from my imagination – not a ‘theory’ but the conclusions drawn after the research was done. The research included, for example, consideration of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, as well as the content in Pliny; consideration of the Persian Gulf as well as the Red Sea.. and so on.


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