Saturday, 28 June 2008

Egyptian / Arabic link to the VMs...?

Note: this article has now moved to egyptian-arabic-link-to-the-vms on Cipher Mysteries

If (like me) you are a bit of a bibliophile, you may quite enjoy a little social web site called LibraryThing, which is based around a community of bibliophiles listing all the books they own (or rather, the ones they're happy to admit owning). Thanks to a low-tech web interface, adding your own books is a surprisingly quick process (marred only by its apparent inability to handle apostrophes in book titles effectively, *sigh*), and you can add up to 200 for free. So far, I 've added most of my VMs research titles, which you can see on my LibraryThing catalogue.

But it's then that LibraryThing starts to get interesting, because you can start to see who else there has similar bookshelves, and what they're reading - and what you haven't read. There are also user reviews, and various other tricksy book-related things you can do (like adding tags to books).

Which is where I wanted to start: one LibraryThing user called "morgan42" (Morgan Roussel) has a (frankly huge) book collection of all the right kind of stuff, and blogs about it etc. While searching for LibraryThing books tagged with "Voynich", I noticed that he had applied this tag to a most unusual book..

Morgan had been reading "Egyptology: The Missing Millennium" by Okasha el Daly: this concerns the transmission of Egyptian ideas through Arabic texts over a thousand year period that most accounts simply omit. In the book's Figure 24, there is a colour reproduction of folio 50a of British Library MS Add 25724 by the 13th-14th century Arab alchemist Abu Al-Qasim Al-'Iraqi, which itself reproduces (with various alchemical embellishments) "A stela of King Amenemhat II (ca 1928-1895 BCE) of the Twelfth Dynasty".

A quick web search reveals that Okasha el Daly is a professor at UCL, who revealed to a surprised world in 2004 that various Arabic alchemists were able to read hieroglyphics an entire millennium before Champollion. There's a decent-sized UCL press release about this over on the ArcheoBlog.

All fascinating stuff: but presumably nothing to do with the Voynich Manuscript, right? Well... Morgan noticed that Al-Qasim's drawing appears to contain the common Voynichese letter pair "ot", clear as day. And here it is:-

Note also that the letter one to the right of the "ot" looks not unlike like a "ch" struckthrough gallows, while the letter two to its right looks not like a "4" (EVA "q"). Of course, any Voynich researcher would tell you that these letters would never appear in that order in the actual VMs: but it's interesting, nonetheless.

So, I thought, let's have a look at the BL catalogue entry for this ms: rather unhelpfully, it says "For description of No. 25,724, see the Catalogue, of Oriental MSS". So I emailed the BL, and was told that "descriptions of [the BL's Oriental MSS] are at present only available in handwritten and printed catalogues kept for consultation on the open access shelves in our Reading Room". *sigh*

But the BL person also typed in the entry for MS 25,724 to save me the trouble of going on, which was very kind: it is "a volume containing several treatises on alchemy by Abu-l-Ka'sim al-Iraki, Balamaghus [?] al-Maghribi and others, with coloured symbolical drawings and cabbalistic writings. Arabic, 18th century". Which then raises the question... "18th century"?

In summary: though I don't honestly think this mysterious lettering is Voynichese, I must admit to being a little intrigued. Might the lettering in a similar 14th century Arabic document (of which this is apparently a copy) have been the specific inspiration for the Voynich's cipher alphabet?

I asked Okasha el Daly about this phrase: he said that he had " clue but they may be corrupted Greek or some other deformed Egyptian scripts. They may well be some of the many alchemical symbols used in these manuscripts."

A reasonable prediction would therefore be that this is a (possibly 18th century?) scribal corruption of stylized Ancient Greek or deformed Egyptian text - I'd guess Greek, in that the "o" is probably an omicron. But can we possibly reconstruct what that six-letter word originally was? It was located between a curious face and an alchemist at his furnace, with large ravens to the right (not shown below):-

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