First up, one of my upcoming projects afforded me a chance to write about what is possibly my favorite book of all time, though I must confess…I’ve never actually read it; I just like looking at the pictures. I’m talking about the Voynich manuscript.
The Voynich manuscript sounds like something made up for an adventure novel, but it’s real! A 240 page book written in a code that no one has ever been able to crack. I first learned of this amazing book in Max McCoy’s novel Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone, and at the time, I had no idea that it was real…but sure enough, it is. The most recent scientific testing confirms that it was produced in the 15th century, which has put to rest the popularly held belief that the book was a hoax perpetrated by famous Elizabethan era charlatan Edward Kelley, but we are no closer to solving its bizarre cipher-text now, than when Wilfrid Voynich rediscovered it a hundred years ago.
My research also introduced me to some remarkable historical figures from the Middle Ages, and one of the most outstanding to me was Khawaja Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Hasan Tūsī, though for brevity’s sake, I will use the name history has given him: Nasir al-Tusi.
Al-Tusi was a Persian scholar who lived in the twilight days of the Abbasid Caliphate—the end of the Golden Age of Islam. Few people today realize that, while Europe was mired in Dark Ages thinking, the Islamic world was on the cutting edge of science, technology, and culture…though in all fairness, there’s a good reason it’s slipped our minds. Most of that progress was swept away by invading Mongol armies that destroyed the Abbasid capital of Baghdad and subjugated most of the Islamic world. About a hundred years later, the Black Death came along and wiped out half the world’s population, more or less resetting the clock on progress.
Nasir al-Tusi had front row seats for the Mongol invasion. He had been a prisoner in the famed Alamut Fortress in Northern Iran, which in addition to being the seat of power of the infamous Assassins cult, boasted one of the largest library collections in history. When Alamut was destroyed (along with the library) al-Tusi became an advisor to Hulagu Khan, leader of the Mongol armies, and was present at the siege and destruction of Baghdad—which also had a spectacular library called the House of Wisdom. Despite al-Tusi’s efforts to preserve some of the library’s treasure of knowledge—he was reportedly able to save some 400,000 documents—contemporary reports said that the Tigris River ran black with the ink of books that had been thrown into it by the invaders.
Perhaps you’ve sensed a theme here. Libraries—repositories of knowledge—have a way of getting destroyed. In the era before the printing press, books had to be copied by hand, a laborious and time consuming process, and many of the scrolls, codices, and manuscripts in ancient libraries were unique and never copied at all. Who can say what has been lost forever, or how long it took to get back to where we were in the early 13th century. Imagine how different the world would be if those libraries had not been destroyed?
Switching gears a little, my research also led me to investigate the Epic of Gligamesh. Back in Jr. High social studies, I was taught that the Epic of Gilgamesh was one of the oldest stories in the world. The combined (Babylonian) version of the Epic dates to the 18th century BCE, but the story was probably already several hundred years old at that point. The Epic isn’t easy to read, and the characters are more flawed than heroic…maybe that’s why there’s never been a serious attempt to make a movie of it.
The Gilgamesh story bears many similarities to the account of the Great Flood in the Bible book of Genesis, including a character named Utnapishtim, who saved animals from the deluge and possessed the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim becomes a key figure in the Epic as Gilgamesh sets out to find the secret of eternal life, which can be found in a special plant that only Utnapishtim knows about. Gilgamesh finds the plant, but immortality is stolen from him by a snake. Sound familiar? Of course, when you consider that the book of Genesis was compiled in the 6th century BCE…and in Babylon no less…you have to wonder which story influenced the other.
Regardless, it’s great fodder for a treasure hunt adventure novel. So also is the story of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda.
I discovered Fontaneda completely by accident. I was doing research about…well, I don’t want to give too much away here, but suffice it to say, I was poking around the history of the Spanish settlement of Florida, and came across the story of an honest-to-goodness buried treasure dating back to the 16th century. According to reports, Calusa natives, under the leadership of “King Carlos” accumulated a vast trove of gold and silver from Spanish wrecks and kept it in a deep pit. What got my attention about the story wasn’t the rumor of wealth, but rather the source of the report—Fontaneda, a castaway whose life was spared by the Calusa, and who went on to write a memoir of his years living with the natives—a rare first hand account of life in the Americas before the large-scale migration of Europeans.
I liked Fontaneda so much, I put him in my book. Actually, the outline called for a character whose experiences more or less paralleled what happened to Fontaneda, so it was a fairly easy thing to work him in, though I will confess to taking some liberties with what happened after the events penned in his memoir.
So there you have it: an advance look at some of the things that will be showing up in my novels in the next few months. You’re welcome to try and figure out how they connect, or take your own Wikipedia Freefall—personally, I recommend doing the latter. You might come up with an even better story that I did!