Comparing… the issue of translating imagery. Pt 1

Visual language, visual vocabulary and visual ‘characters’.
 Even the more arcane forms of pre-modern European imagery, such as that used in alchemical texts, render individual items in forms immediately legible to Europeans and indeed to most inheritors of Mediterranean culture.  Though the maker’s meaning might be obscure to the viewer, most readers here could be confident of adding a descriptive label to each item in the following picture, and of doing so accurately. That this is possible is because though the pictorial elements speak in code, they take the form, as it were, of  European ‘characters’. The sun is a sun in European style, the stars and the human form (two-headed or not) are easily described. The sphere will be read as referring to a planet, though some will probably mistake the intention of its wings; the dragon is immediately seen as a dragon … and so forth.alchemical imageBy contrast, the Voynich manuscript’s imagery uses a visual vocabulary and grammar which barely intersect with the Latins’,  and any reader knowing no other conventions will be puzzled not only by  what these pictures mean, but what the reader is supposed to be seeing
There is no immediate sense of certainty about any element in it, so that the ‘labels’ initially attached to sections or to details were no more than generalities of the vaguest type:  ‘tube-like things’, or were formed by analogy and imagination:  ‘biological forms’ ‘bathing women’ and so on. (One of the tragi-comic elements in Voynich studies is that such initial admissions of ignorance would come, over the decades, and merely by their repetition, to be mistaken for expressions of certainty).
In the composite below, the image on the lower right has been interpreted as being anything from the Andromeda nebula to the sort of thing one sees in pondwater under a microscope. (The present writer’s opinion is that that diagram represents the rhumbs).
huh
 I’ll turn again to the botanical folios in the next post, but since they show no sign of attempted ‘translation’, I’ll first consider folios from another section, which do. These folios include anthropoform figures (called ‘nymphs’ or ‘ladies’ by Voynich writers) and, in the  present writer’s opinion, this imagery entered medieval Latin Europe from the northern, overland routes from the east rather than through Mesopotamia or direct from Egypt as I hold the botanical and ‘leaves and roots’ sections did. (The body of evidence which led to those conclusions has been presented in earlier posts, accumulating over the past eight years).
In these folios which show affect from efforts at ‘translation’, the changes made did not create any exact counterpart for the original, so does not constitute so much a  genuine ‘translation’ of the original imagery  a loose  ‘rendering‘ or re-definition, enabling it to make a little more ‘sense’ to a Latin European viewer.
In the calendar section, the ‘ladies’ originally had only one breast, and it is telling of the degree to which research has been focussed on arguing a theory rather than studying the object that it took a century and more for this to be noticed.  It was only last year (here) that Nick Pelling made that observation and commented on it.  Those accustomed to the knee-jerk hostility which often greets any reference to potentially non-Latin elements in the manuscript will not be surprised to learn that this observation was met only by comments which attempted to rationalise it into insignificance.  The “all Latin European creation” idea has been floated for so long that there are some who find any contrary evidence or discussion intolerable, unless restricted to an acceptable ‘Arabic’ or ‘Byzantine Greek’ topic.
Pelling also observed, rightly, that there was evidently some lapse in time between the first setting down and those subsequent additions or ‘corrections’. Since Pelling himself accepts the theory of an all-Latin medieval or renaissance authorship, he described these changes as a “later phase or composition[al] pass” ~ where I hold that they mark the point of transition between the sources which held the original imagery, and re-use of it within Latin Europe.
Pelling wrote: Not only were they originally all drawn with a single breast … but many specific details – most notably things such as these three crowns and the tressed head-dresses [better: tressed hair – D]  – were apparently added to the original drawing in a later ‘phase’ or composition pass… What was so wrong with the original unadorned … layer that the author felt compelled to dress it up with additional breasts, as well as crowns and tressed hairstyles?  
voynich-crown-in-cancer-268x300
one of the crowned figures – one of  the illustrations from Pelling’s original post.
While leaving open the matter of these hairstyles, and what meaning should be attributed to the term “tressed” (why not curling hair, or braided hair?),  I would submit that what was “wrong” with the imagery was that it was unreadable in terms of Latin conventions, its forms not those of the ‘Latin characters’ and conveying no clearly intelligible sense within the environment of Latin Europe.   When that happens, most readers will either fail to “see” telling details in the imagery, or will look blankly at it and say, in effect, “Huh?!” That didn’t happen, if you recall, when the image came from the alchemical corpus.  Mysterious it might have been, and its message obscure, but the forms used for the imagery were intelligible and relatively familiar: dragon, planet, human shape, star-shape, moon, sun… and so forth.
So – once the  ‘Voynich’ copyists had set down the original imagery ,[1] another hand came and began to ‘correct’ it, to re-interpret the older forms for an environment where a very different set of expectations and a different way of seeing were in operation.  Even if the additions had not included a typically European crown among the  three crowns, we might guess from the emphasis placed on these crowns that the person serving as ‘correcter and translator’ had a habit of mind very similar to the Latin European – which is characterised by a compulsion to mark persons, objects and even animals or material things, in such a way that each is assigned a specific position/status with the notional hierarchy of all creation.
In some cases, what Pelling calls the ‘compositional pass’ relied more on the brush than the pen.  Religious or ideological factors are also operating upon the ‘translator’ who seems to serve as both monitor and censor. Below, the detail from folio 79v shows that the draughtsman/copyist had rendered clearly a cruciform object which has an additional peg or similar extension rising from the right-hand crossbar.   That short piece seems to have been removable, for we see a curved socket extending opposite its base, from the underside of that crossbar.
f67v cross high res blog adj What might that object be?  It has no counterpart in any Latin work that I’ve seen, and no comparable object has been produced so far as I know from the Latin, Byzantine or even the Arabic corpus to the time of writing.  After it was drawn, the hand which then set about ‘correcting’ and ‘translating’ the object  added paint to so strongly emphasise the crossbar that one could predict any casual glance  (and much of the glancing done in Voynich studies is fairly casual),  would reflexively ‘read’ the object as the familiar, Latin-style, Christian cross.  To this day many Voynich writers still insist it depicts nothing but a Latin cross, and I have been accused of ‘hallucinating’ those finer details. That is only to be expected: the ‘all-Latin author’ idea has been the dominant one now for a century and in any case without care, natural facility or training the eye naturally slides over – fails to see – details for which there is no counterpart in the viewer’s experience.  Only the Latin cross, by the way, has a single crossbar and a length roughly twice that length.
The process of ‘correcting’ the fishes folio (originally folio 70r, but by the Beinecke library described as folio 70v) proved even more troublesome. I  treated its several stages of revision and correction in 2012 (here).
Again in the calendar section, after using the pen to ensure the females appeared two-breasted in the “proper way”, a decision seems to have been made that this was still insufficient; pigment was then applied in a tertiary stage, so finally ‘translating’ each naked star-soul with an ‘Amazon’ torso into a contemporary European  “lady.”
Fortunately, the work of ‘correction’ was never finished. We can still compare the forms on f.73v, which show the secondary additions made in pen, with those on f.71, where they are now ‘decently dressed’.
details from (top) fols 71v and (lower) 73v
details from Beinecke MS 408 showing stages of attempted ‘translation’. Upper register: corrections in ink on f.71v.
That clothing gave the figures a position in the world-view of contemporary Latins; it denoted status, permitted their being read as ‘normal’ Christian figures, and removed the signs of cultural difference which had informed the original and made them indefinable. Different techniques were employed in other cases to achieve intelligibility for a Latin reader.[6] But while the older imagery now “made sense” for a European Christian audience, the changes would have made the images “mysterious” for the original enunciators. (Ellie Velinska has offered many comparisons for the hats and dresses, examples taken chiefly from German sources).
The Voynich botanical imagery shows no sign of similar effort made; the forms and system of their construction are equally alien to the Latin tradition, and while Touwaide has recently noted some not-dissimilar forms in fifteenth century works, overall I’d say that Tiltman’s comment stands true to this day:
“to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [Latin Christian] mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even the 17th centuries is very limited indeed…”
~ More about the nature of the botanical imagery, and Tiltman, in Part 2 ~

____________

Postscript: since the subject of the female figures remains uncertain, I describe them as ‘anthropoform’ – formed in the shape of a human being.  This is distinct from ‘anthropomorphic’ which refers to beings that are essentially non-human being represented as if they were.  If it should turn out that the star-holding figures these are not (for example) famous characters associated with a star, but are simply personifications for the star, then ‘anthropomorphic’ would apply.

NOTES

  1.  “faithfully”.. The suggestion that some, at least, of the Voynich folios had been traced was raised more than thirteen years ago in a thread to the first mailing list discussing whether the vellum was translucent.
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11 Replies to “Comparing… the issue of translating imagery. Pt 1”

  1. A pleasure to read, Diane. Very to the point 🙂

    This should be part of a Voynich master class.

    On the subject of the nymphs’ original appearance – I’ve been thinking about that as well. In a way they look rather Egyptian, with the one breast, limited set of gestures etc. Then I picture them like the female figures on the Dendera ceiling. Especially the nymphs in the circles.

    But then there are others that show emotions and positions one wouldn’t expect in a standard Egyptian work, though perhaps on a late papyrus… still I find it hard to imagine them as the work of an Egyptian, even in the Ptolemaic period… what do you think about their original appearance?

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    1. Koen,

      Thank you for the kind comment.

      I see no reason to suppose that the female forms don’t have a consistent association throughout – I mean there’s nothing in the imagery to suggest otherwise – so by default I must take it each is associated with a star or day, wherever we see them though their connotations need not be limited to that.
      The tyche-like head-dresses (as I said when treating them in 2011-12) would suggest a second association – i.e. a tie to a specific location, probably a city. ‘Tyche’ or patron for star-and-place is a system we find in Egypt before and after the time of Alexander, but headdresses of that battlement type for a variety of city patrons does indicate the Hellenistic period as most likely. The Roman period saw the ‘city patron’ sort of tyche pretty much replaced (when it was replaced rather than removed) by the ‘Nike’- mainly found in centres influenced earlier by Phoenicia and Persia. The Roman period sees the Tuches amalgamated and abstracted by an underlying equation made by the Romans between the tuche and their own “Fortuna”. So there tended to be only a “tyche” for persons such as the Roman emperor. Ordinary people weren’t blessed by destiny in the Roman way, I guess. It is true, that in representing divine (i.e. ‘Roman’ protection and defenses for a city) Roman coins often showed the city’s personification with a crown of that sort… so while I read the the multiplicity of those battlement-sort of headdresses in the Voynich imagery as pre-Roman, an alternative argument might be offered in all fairness. Again, the landscape is depicted in f.72v in a way that led me to conclude it had probably first been drawn under the first few Lagid (Ptolemaic) rulers, and certainly no later than Trajan’s time… I won’t go into that, but it did add another item inclining me to the Hellenistic, even if an alternative argument might be made for a time as late as the 2ndC AD.

      The vertical (‘top down’) marginal narratives conform to a genre known as the ‘river road’ style; it occurs in the Hellenistic period and earlier, though most of the remaining examples are Roman era. (e.g. Praeneste’s ‘Nile Mosaic’). As it happens, there is also a reverse-direction narrative which is called the ‘Triumph’ narrative form – e.g. Trajan’s column and many of the early medieval Latin texts depicting the celestial road to the north of the sky. I suppose, in theory, we might be reading a ‘triumph’ narrative as a ‘river road’ one, but having spent some time on these folios I think we’re ok to read ‘top-down’. You know my reading differs from yours, so no need to go into details.

      Altogether, I’d say the originals were Hellenistic (i.e non/pre-Roman) in form, though I wouldn’t discount without investigation a possibility that they had, themselves, derived from older Egyptian or Phoenician schemes of position-and-time.

      btw, I’ve just this morning added some additional references to my post ‘Baresch, Nymphs, Egyptian style… and months’ voynichimagery.wordpress.com December 9, 2012.

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      1. Thanks for the references – reading the Chatley article ‘as we speak’ 🙂

        I’m not sure whether you think I insist on a Roman period origin. I’m still open to a completely Hellenistic origin as well. It’s hard to point to one or the other. My main textual sources all originated in or before the Hellenistic period, but remained popular and were preserved or even adapted by Roman authors. Hyginus and Ovid were Romans but they present Hellenistic material.

        All linguistic puns I observe are in Greek rather than Latin (Hera instead of Juno etc.) but that does not allow me to totally exclude the Roman period either…

        About the Tyche crowns: the images contain several layers of meaning, so you may be right that the nymphs with such headgear are linked to a location. The matter of these “crowns” is something I have no explanation for myself.

        But what do you make of the fact that these crowns are usually drawn in darker, thicker ink and at times look as if they have been added somewhat awkwardly? Take the two nymphs bottom right on f80v. They look almost the same, only the running one on the right has had the crown added, while the “confusedly standing” one in the middle is crownless. Comparing these nymphs makes the crown look like a somewhat crude addition.

        I’m also a bit confused about how you see the connection between the early Hellenistic origin of these nymphs and their post-Hellenistic ethno-astronomical meaning. I can follow you about the Egyptian aegis, the Egyptian way of drawing water etc… But those are relatively mainstream concepts. People in Hellenistic Egypt knew the meaning of the Aegis, whether in association with the Nile or not, they knew Tyches and artistic conventions and so on. Why do we get mixed in with that the relatively “exclusive” knowledge of navigators who may not even have understood anymore what Tyches are?

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      2. Koen,
        You raise some good points. I admit I’ve also wavered between Hellenistic influence in Roman-era works to the 1st or 2ndC AD. For example, the small, high, pointed breasts ( e.g. folio 80v) aren’t the style of Hellenistic Greek art; the Greeks preferred full-bodied women and I when I looked for examples from Roman art, i did find a couple in the art from Pompeii (c.70 AD). On the other hand, the form for the Scales is one which does not appear so late, and never in the medieval period, whether we’re talking Latin art or that from any region about the Mediterranean. (The most rabid determined among the “all European invention” hypothesists tend to try and rationalise/neutralise this and other items of internal evidence by saying they don’t exist or the less childish version of “well my people could do that too if they wanted”… except they didn’t. 🙂
        As to the ‘navigators’ – the profession of the naked eye navigator and astronomer is probably the oldest science known to humankind – really. But the point isn’t that a continuous descent for a text could have occurred over a millennium or more – of course it could in the older way before the industrial-colonial period. The point about relevance to navigation is about the reason why these disparate sources were all chosen to be included in our present manuscript. After studying the various sections, and their contents, the reason for including a world-map which hardly refers to mainland Europe (only one site), but which extends across north Africa, and at least as far as the shores of the “Great [Eastern] Sea”, together with botanical imagery that refers to plants which aren’t native to the greater Mediterranean region (as Georg Baresch knew, and I have demonstrated), plus a calendar whose length is only ten months (the same months being those of the traders’ sailing season), and various specific elements which occur again in cartes marine… altogether it seems to me that our present compilation served the needs of mariners in service to the east-west trade. But that’s about the 15thC compilation.

        Sorry – I have to pause. Other obligations press. But thanks for the interesting questions. I’ll try later to address any points I didn’t get to.

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      3. reply (cont.)
        so.. where was I? The crowns being drawn in darker, thicker ink. I don’t know. It looks like the ‘corrector’ at work again. The layers of this inking immediately evoke the image of the classroom or scriptorium or something of that sort, with the ‘big guy’ checking and modifying whatever didn’t agree with what he thought should be there, or done as he thought it should be done. But that’s imagination and association: the imagery itself doesn’t explain it. It could just be the draughtsman going over his own drawing. No way to know in this case.

        Since not every location was a city, and the battlement crown usually described a city or walled town, I take the distinction to refer to relative size for location in the geographic reading. I’d have to spend a couple of months on the research to have any firmer opinion. Not into kite-flying as you’ve probably guessed.
        About folio 80v: it’s interesting that your first association for the figure on the right should be ‘running’ – I know, it’s just a convenient metaphor; I’m not criticising you for it. But my first impression (‘impression’ i.e. subjective not analytical response; not to be mistaken for the original maker’s intention) was its similarity to the mourning figure in Giotto’s “Mourning of Christ”. It seems such an extraordinary gesture for mourning in modern thought, but history froze another moment when a mourning woman made exactly the same expression of utter, incomprehending grief. Students were protesting the armed involvement of America in a country which had not declared war on America, and the forcible conscription of young men to feed that way war.. One University campus called in the national guard, and they stood and shot down a number of unarmed students. Discovering the body of her late friend, another was photographed lamenting and it was Giotto’s ‘Mourning of Christ’ all over again. So this made me think that one day it might be worth my time to revisit the figures on folio 80v, because (since we are talking Egypt) the Pyramid texts constantly refer to the certain among the stars as “the mourning women..” The gesture used by Giotto’s being so like that depicted in folio 80v may be no more than co-incidence – both having captured the natural gesture sometimes seen in those circumstances. In the same way that on f.80v might not derive from Egyptian ideas about the stars, but I always check any correspondences with Egyptian traditions because Baresch did say he believed it about Egyptian medicine (I think he was wrong about the second bit) and of all our early witnesses, only Baresch was in a position to learn the back-story rightly – whether or not he did. As you say, the Dendera ceiling shows the ancient Egyptian figures and they were on public view throughout the medieval period. I guess I’d want to go through all the secondary sources, and the primary medieval sources of travellers’ accounts to see if there’s any record of people of the later time being instructed by guides about the meaning of Egyptian images – must again get a copy of Okasha El-Daly’s book. Egyptomania was a real phenomenon in imperial Rome, too, so the present-day idea that Egypt occupies some misty realm which vanished when Caesar first arrived are clearly mistaken. The tabulae from Grand show they were known so late, and in the High Vosges. So continuity from the time of the Pyramid texts to the early centuries AD is entirely feasible – but that’s not enough. One has to prove that is a demonstrable truth.
        My aim has always been to provide those attempting to read the written part of the text with something solid to go on with regard to the imagery, and for me that means it is irresponsible to indulge in the earlier sort of “my theory is… therefore the image is about..” approach which was once (and sadly sometimes still is) the norm in Voynich studies. IMO if one is going to inform the cryptographers and linguists that a given series represents this or that, one has a responsiblity to demonstrate that the imagery has meaning, and map the process and evidence which led one to any conclusions about that meaning. There is for me an unacceptable egotism, and I suppose a dishonesty in leading anyone up the garden path of personal imagination in this case.

        That’s a general statement of my philosophy, not a ‘dig’ at you, or Nick, or even at Rene for his latest effort to stitch together an explanation of the map which will enable him to argue that all the exotic plants in the botanical section are just a version of Ibn Botlan’s scheme of medicine, about which I spoke (and illustrated) quite some time ago. The map is, demonstrably, not a version of that diagram which I published in connection with that discussion, and the image of the banana in copies of the Tacuinum sanitatis doesn’t in the least resemble that in Beinecke 408. But that’s all bye the bye. Similarly, while it might be argued that there’s a link between the ‘mourning’ or ‘running’ figure on folio 80v, and Giotto’s, there’s no point to the argument. It is unlikely to help elucidate the drawings on that folio,. Probably.

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  2. (1) I believe that the innate mono-breastedness of the zodiac nymphs was first pointed out by Jorge Stolfi more than a decade before my post you referred to here. The observation is certainly not original to me, but is an accurate description of what is on the zodiac pages.
    (2) My description of the addition of the second breast as a codicological “phase” does not imply any particular time scale (a day? a decade? I don’t know) between phases.
    (3) Until such time as you can point to some mono-breasted image tradition (whether European or not) that your putative later scribe somehow Europeanized by adding a second breast, this whole post isn’t really very helpful. Yes, Amazon women were occasionally *described* as having a single breast (via bad etymological arguments), but Greek artists (and all artists since?) never *depicted* them with a single breast. Unless you know better?
    (4) You assert that the Pisces nymphs were somehow bowdlerized or made decent: but I would point out that my own close examination of this page revealed no trace of any previous indecent layer. So I really don’t buy into that aspect of this page even slightly, sorry. 😦

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    1. Nick, thank for correcting the credits. If you happen to have a reference for Stolfi’s original comment that would be gratefully received.
      I haven’t specified any particular gap in time for the ‘correction’ of the breasts, or indeed for the subsequent modifications, although I should think that Panofsky’s recognition of the fifteenth-century pigment is appropriate. It’s no seventeenth century addition.
      To what were you hoping an explanation of these evidences of translation might be helpful? I don’t quite see your point. Obviously a naked female, dressed becomes more ‘decent’ according the traditions in Latin Europe. In general, until the fad for reproducing works in Greek or Roman classical style, a female whose breasts were showing was either a corpse, or a mother feeding an infant, or a whore (current or former). Things start to change about 1440 – and pretty quickly witness the astro-medical and even ‘City of God’ imagery which Ellie Velinska and I have cited in this context.
      Nick, you seem to think that when I pass on information, or explain the sense of the imagery, that my chief aim is argument – as if I were trying to convince readers to “buy into” (i.s. subscribe to) some personal theory. I realise that the great mass of contemporary Voynich writing works that way, but frankly I present the information for people who are probably already in a position to understand it, not to convince people who are ‘waiting to be convinced’. We had this discussion before, I think when I tried to explain to you that hatching in general wasn’t an invention of Renaissance graphic art, and that what appears in the Voynich imagery isn’t “hatching” in the sense we use it of Renaissance graphic art. I think you decided not to ‘buy into’ (i.e. accept) that information either. The same reaction occurred when I tried to explain to you and to Rene that the cloud-band pattern couldn’t be used to prove a Germanic cultural character for the Voynich imagery: that on the contrary the standard opinion is (as it has always been) the cloud-band pattern came from the eastern world. That information wasn’t “bought into” (accepted as true) for fully five years… actually, come to think of it not until after I published a couple of extracts, in German, from German scholars. Then the assertion was quietly dropped, though without acknowledgement let alone apology for the insults and denigrating comments sent me in the meantime by members of the ‘central European theory’ clique. The only form of ‘persuasion’ we should use is evidence; to do otherwise assumes that the audience isn’t of reasonable persons moved by information but a mob to be herded by use of propaganda and polemic: argument by “meme”.

      Also, in discussing the ‘two fishes’ centre, I was speaking about the series of alterations to the way the fishes’ strings had been represented in the central part of that roundel.

      btw, the information and conclusions offered on my blog about this imagery doesn’t have to be ‘bought’; just acknowledged if used.

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  3. I fail to see how your reply addresses any of my critical comments.

    Your post asserts that the “second breast layer” and the Pisces tubs were added as part of some kind of later moralizing visual edit. I pointed out that not only was there no known single-breasted visual imagery tradition, but also that I found zero codicological evidence that there had been an early ‘indecent’ layer that had preceded the Pisces tub layer.

    I therefore concluded that you had zero evidence to support your various assertions here. What did I miss?

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    1. Nick,
      Yes, I did ask if you could provide details of where and when Stolfi preceded you in saying that the women had originally been drawn with one breast.

      Perhaps you mean evidence of the ‘cross’ not being drawn as a cross? Or the point about the unclothed figures being replaced by clothed figures?

      One cannot prove that the motive for adding the second breast, and so ‘normalising’ the figures, was a ‘compositional pass’ by an author, nor that it was only done as a form of correction or censorship or re-working to the norms of a subsequent audience. However, as I point out, we find indications of similar alterations made in other folios of the “ladies” section/s, where they do not occur (as far as I have seen) in the botanical folios or the associated ‘roots and leaves’ section. This adds to numerous other indications which I’ve noted in these posts (including close stylistic similarity between certain details and works produced in upper Mesopotamia in the twelfth century) that the botanical section (and’roots and leaves’ section) reached the west after the mid-twelfth century and came by a different route from the ‘ladies’ imagery. That we also find similar botanical motifs, and closely similar form for an astronomical personification in works produced in the south-western Mediterranean, by Jews, from the mid twelfth to fourteenth centuries* also appears to me to support Panofsky’s first, unpressured assessment of the manuscript as Anne Nill reported it soon after. I mean that the work’s appearance is not that of a Latin (i.e. Christian) European work, but one of southern (Sephardi/Mizrahi) Jews. It also accords with the more general assessment by the first appraisers of the manuscript before Friedman’s period, that its appearance is in keeping with the thirteenth century, rather than later. Of course, I do not dispute the early fifteenth century date for the present manuscript.

      The point here is that I’m tracing the path by which the material came to be copied and included in our present work – probably in northern Italy. Signs of these alterations, which I see as evidence of ‘translation’ for western mores, is part of that process. As far as evidence goes, neither you nor I have any final proof of whether the manuscript was produced where we think most probable: I having posited Padua and Veneto, whereas you think Milan.

      * this work noted by the scholars who evaluated the former MS Sasoon 823 as having come, quite specifically, from a non-Latin tradition of the al-Sufi corpus.

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