fol. 86v: emblems of direction Pt1

Folio 86v includes – as one might expect of any map –  signs for the  East, West, North and South.

For a clearer view of the map,the Beinecke library site offers a ‘zoom’ function.

East is marked by the sun’s rising over a high, flat landform.

West by the sun full-face, descending head-down into a cul-de-sac

The other two are not so obvious, expressing attitudes which (like this idea of the setting sun) do not derive from the same traditions as those of medieval Europe.

The emblem for South (between the setting and the rising sun) is formed by three  dots arranged into right angle, the whole surrounded by a border having around it sets of 3 short, parallel bars.

The emblem for North is not part of the class of  ‘T-O’ maps  although it does have some points in common.

Ultimately, all [such images of a walled, divided eternal domain]  go back to the idea of the Persian Parai.deza as an ideal, walled city and garden.

However, the T-O map was a picture of the ‘flat earth’ – the whole world. It was doubly enclosed: first by the limit of the earth’s firm land (which included all ‘3 continents’ and connecting seas, and then by a second and absolute limit or wall as the uttermost limit  – beyond which people often thought a ship might fall off the earth. As shown in the version above left, any path or road external to the earth was impossible.  Yet two external paths offer access to the place depicted for the map’s  ‘north’ emblem.

One interesting aspect of the T-O map (shown above, left) is the form given its exterior rings, which marks them both with equidistant circles or dots.

Marking a boundary- ring so is an eastern custom, the denser pattern certainly used in Coptic Egypt, and possibly in older North Africa. The figure above is a detail from the ivory tabula, an insignia of office, and shows the late Roman (-Byzantine) governor  Theodorus Philoxenus Sotericus (2ndC), upholding the cloth and rod which signify possession of the world.

A different form, but still a dotted ‘orizon, appears in Persian-influenced works. That shown below appears by the sixth century AD in Sasanian Persian silks, and again by the eleventh in imitative silks produced in Spain.

Sassanid fabric, silk, 6thC AD

By the 12th and 13thC AD,  the dotted boundary has become  familiar in west,  often seen on carved ivory game pieces. The motif is thought to have first come to western Christendom through workers in these same media of ivory and textiles.

However, in every case, the ring as ‘orizon refers to the boundary of the whole world, just as a T-O map does.

What we have in folio 86v’s ‘north emblem’ is noticeably different.

fol.86v ‘NORTH emblem’

WE do have two arcs of what appear to be towers or  pillars with near-circular cross-sections, but no complete enclosure of the inner circle, and there is no double barrier. Nor is there any doubt that the area is perceived as accessible: from one angle there enters a broad way,  apparently supported by an embankment, while from another angle a narrower, doubled way appears. It might represent a foot-road with a central drain, or a great stairway, but  access is certainly shown.

So whether or not is is merely a conventional emblem for ‘North’ here, or an allusion to some specific home, what it cannot be is a T-O map.

To attempt to identify this north-sign with any real location is hardly possible, at least at present.

Among the many older cities of roughly circular form, through which rivers or canals ran, one might mention such examples as  Taht-e Suleyman in Azerbaijan, the stronghold town of Mardin, the famous Baghdad of the early Muslim centuries, and others again mentioned  here.

So for now, I’ll  just describe this emblem as an aid to orienting the map, a mark signifying ‘North’,  and move on to the next of these emblems – the one used to signify  ‘west’. After that, I’ll look at why the map itself appears to have an east-west reversal according to our own culture’s expectations about means to orient a picture of the world.


Afterword: Baghdad was built in c.762AD and was home to Chinese, Arabians, Persians and Parthians,  Christians, Egyptian-Greek Harranians, Syrian and Babylonian Jews and others. Charlemagne wrote letters to the Caliph of Baghdad which were delivered. In return an embassy made its way to Aachen, probably bringing among its gifts a copy of Euclid, newly-translated by Nestorian Christians into Arabic, but soon after quoted by Rhaban Maur.

The Radhanites who are classed as Jews by Muslim geographers were more ambivalently described in Babylonian Jewish sources. What is known is that they travelled, and served as couriers between settlements of the diaspora, their routes extending to the west at least as far as the Iberian peninsula and to the east as far as southern China by no later than the ninth century.

Some have speculated that a collection of 11th century Jewish documents, written in Judeo-Persian, which were discovered in a cave in Afghanistan ( Samangan province) in 2011 may be work of Rhadanites, of whom little is heard after disruptions of the 11th century.

Their quarter in Baghdad appears to be that which had been formed of two cities, one the Hellenistic  Seleucis-on-Tigris and the other the Parthian Ctesiphon, these facing each other across the Tigris.

The Sasanian city of Gur [Goor], built five centuries before Baghdad, was another circular city,  very similar to Baghdad in its design.

(On Sasanian historical geography, see Negin Miri, ‘Historical Geography of Fars during the Sasanian Period’, available online as pdf  – approx. 8 Mg.


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