Paradoxical history of balsam #2

© D.O’Donovan

I have mentioned, more than once, the role played by Christians of the eastern church in the transmission of ancient and classical texts to the Islamic world.  An early schism had divorced this original branch, properly known as the Church of the East from both Byzantium and Rome, leading to their being termed Nestorians.  Here for convenience I reproduce the map shown in an earlier post demonstrating the extent of that Church at its greatest. Of particular interest, in this post, is the centre named here ‘Rai’ –  about which I have more to say in discussing the astronomical section – and a town today called ‘Silva’ by the Turks, but which in the sixth century bore the name ‘Martyropolis’ for the great number of relics rescued from centres in Persia and relocated there.

map Nestorian world Church of the East middle Ages

Direct links with other branches of the Church were maintained by a convention of sending members known as ‘Visitors’ to travel from the Patriarchal seats to subsidiary regions and this period, and system, will be important to our story.


In southern India, one branch of The Community of St. Thomas was allied to the Church of the East, while the other – so legend has it – had been founded earlier, and from Egypt.


Where Rome had one papal centre,  the Nestorian Church’s Patriarch had two, one in upper Mesopotamia and the other to the south near the Persian Gulf.


In late medieval times, the upper (to again repeat the content of earlier posts) was given to the White Sheep Turcomans, while the southern  had become more or less permanently relocated in Baghdad. Together the two regions appear to have been popularly termed ‘Iraquein’ ‘Iraqein’ – the two Iraqs, a term and an event which may be recorded in that vignette on f.116v.


When I first made this suggestion (in which, so far as I know I am still alone), I pointed out that the sheep shown here is an eastern fat-tailed sheep, not the northern or western breed.


Added note

(May 5th 2013). a similar head-dress, whether as wig or insignia, occurs on a sculpture of the pre-Islamic era. Originally described by as an Arabian queen, more recent descriptions speak of the figure ~ which is given an artificial beard~ tend to describe it as male).

fol. 116v detail sheep and wig sml

On folio 116v, the female figure has this type of headdress, one which  as I’ve shown is  still traditional in regions across the line between Arabia’s eastern coastline and southern India.


Added note 3rd. January 2018.  I have recently brought to the attention of the ‘voynich ninja’ forum the representation of various sheep, some apparently a fat-failed variety and others the usual sort of sheep, but with un-docked tails.  From the indiscriminate use of one or another in representations of Aries within the carvings and glass of Chartres it would appear the two were well-known to the carvers.  This is not as simple a matter as it seems for we do not know where the carvers came from and other twelfth century Latin monumental works employed e.g. Syrians, Ethiopians and north Africans.  Unfortunately this is not the place to expand on that issue, but the point is that some fat-tailed breeds were known of even as far north as Paris.


Given other indications in the manuscript’s botanical section of a focus on the eastern seas, and in other sections of strong influence from that region from the southern Caspian to as far as the ‘Tower’, so it is less suprising than it might otherwise be to find that it is in an Arabian-Christian manuscript, made in the twelfth century for the new ruler of Mayyafariqin (‘Silva’) a depiction of tree-roots unmistakably similar to the style employed in the Voynich manuscript.  Style does not necessary indicate the nature of the text, so please don’t leap to an assumption that the Voynich text will also be that of Dioscorides.

Balsam roots XII ms Rayfol 53v root mnemonics.

I have the detail (above) courtesy of the Metropolian Museum of Art, which holds the manuscript in question. The article discussing this, and other early examples is available as a pdf. I recommend it, despite its date. Most importantly, the commentary is meticulous in not confusing the territorial region of Islam, or use of Arabic, with appropriate cultural and linguistic description of the book’s maker, whom she describes as an Arabian Christian – not as an Armenian.


Florence E. Day, ‘Mesopotamian Manuscripts of Dioscorides’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 9 (May, 1950), pp. 274-280.


Those roots are pictured for the Balsam tree and in this, a first-generation translation into Arabic, a collophon dates the work to the third quarter of the twelfth century.


Given that another important botanical text had come from Arabia proper early in the tenth century, and this derived from texts already ancient, it doesn’t seem out of place to again notice the older script used in the Yemen, one known today as Sabaic miniscule but more usually among Arabic speaks as ‘psalm script’ – although it is the genre and not the religion of the psalms which is indicated.


Simply as illustration, here is an example of that script.  It is not Voynichese script but is one of those which include what I’ve described as the “ornate ‘P‘- shape.

script Sabaic minuscule detail drawing

I won’t elaborate in this post on the history of Yemen, only say that for the Greeks, to whom Homer was as the Psalter would be to medieval Europe, the people of the region were described as Homer’s people – Homeritae. In the Chinese records, Po-ssu and Sab.ban are the earliest recorded as trading regularly by sea to southern China,until the first massacre of foreign residents on Chinese soil.


And there is no doubt that before, as after, the opening of the Islamic era, Arabian ships were prominent in carriage of goods across the Great Sea.


It was only in Arabia, according to Dioscorides who wrote in the 1stC AD, that the Balsam grew.  Yet other sources show that this was probably not the case. The tree we identify as Dioscorides ‘Balsam’ or ‘Balm’ is  Commiphora  gileadensis, the red-fruited tree whose form appears, highly stylised, in that earlier manuscript ascribed to Samaqand. (see again below).


What is interesting is that in neither case are its leaves represented as they would be in later works, and as we have come to think of C. gileadensis.


Medicinal use for C.gildeadensis is all that is normally mentioned in histories of western copies of  Dioscorides, but the plant has other uses, other qualities and other names – these being more to point in regard to these mnemonics, and the curious absence of  ‘Balsam’ from the list of Dioscoridan plants available to Europe, whether in the eleventh century or the sixteenth.

Balsam XII century ms small caption marked

botanical art Balsam Samarqand

[end of  part 2]


    • Jacob, Forgive the delay in reply; the time available for me to research this one manuscript (interesting though it is) was limited and ended more than twelve months ago – I rarely visit this site now.

      If you click on the image, you will see it as large as the original that I used, and as far as I’m concerned you’re welcome to download and expand it (if you still want to). However, I had it from a website dedicated to the history of eastern Christianity, so if you haven’t done so already, finding that site and corresponding with the writers may be of more help.

      I have been remiss in not adding my source here but if I recall correctly, I found it by searching for information on the Nestorian community.


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