Monday, May 4, 2009

Help Needed Decoding Scarf

This fascinating and mysterious silk scarf tells a story in pictures, each of the 36 blocks depicting a different scene. The scarf reminds me of my books narrated through wood prints. It presents the same kind of reading challenge, trying to figure out the story it tells. Unlike the wood prints, it has words, but I can't even identify what language they are written in, much less read them. It looks something like Arabic, but for some reason I don't think it is. I don't even know where the scarf is from. It belonged to my Aunt Fern, who might have bought it in Ethiopia, where she lived in the 60's, or in Egypt (given the pyramids in some of the scenes.)

I'm not sure what direction it should be read from. There is, however, a clue early on in the story, where a letter is given to a messenger, who in subsequent panels gets in a boat and hands the letter to a priest. Based on this, I photographed the 36 panels in groups of 3 from left to right and from top to bottom.

The story is obviously religious, probably Biblical. It starts with two men (or a man and a woman), one carrying a child, the other a sacrificial lamb or goat that he feeds to some kind of monster or spirit. A crowd gathers, including several kings or priests. They have a celebration with music and drinks, culminating in what looks like a canonization or ordination (judging from the cross on the crown.) Two richly robed men travel in a boat past the pyramids. They are given a letter by some priests (?) and return to their boat, which travels past the same two pyramids. The letter is passed on to two priests, one of whom has a Star of David on his robe. A whole crowd gets in the boat and journeys past the pyramids, where they attend a big feast. We see still more priests, a figure that might be the Madonna and child, a lion, camels, what looks like a game of hockey (!) and perhaps a dead body. What it all means is a mystery to me.

In hopes that some of you can assist in interpreting the story, or identify the language or religious tradition it depicts, I'm posting it here. (If you want a closer look, right click on the photos to open them in a new tab, or just click on them then hit the back arrow to return. I haven't figured out how to make pictures open in a separate window.)

And even if you can't read it, I hope you enjoy its charm nonetheless!


  1. Frankie, this is a fascinating object. The script looked Greek to me so I googled for Greek characters and here's the Wikipedia page for it -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_alphabet.

    What do you think?

    I'm hoping you will find something among Aunt Fern's notes. :)

  2. Sujatha,

    What a clever idea! I use wikipedia all the time, but never thought to look up alphabets. It doesn't quite look like Greek to me. Check this one out:

    The Ge'ez alphabet uses colons, and there are quite a few colons on the scarf. What do you think?

  3. Frankie,
    These kind of things fascinate me all the time. I love watching decoding of ancient scripts on the History channel. I watched decoding of Mayan hieroglyphic script yesterday on TV.
    That definitely doesn't look like Greek to me. I think the story-line could be medieval. It seems to have a middle-eastern theme to it. I may be wrong. I'm going to do some research on this now.
    Thanks for sharing them with the world.

  4. I agree, you might have better luck with the Ge'ez than with the Greek. Have you thought about contacting someone at the Smithsonian? An Egyptologist or some such person?

  5. Sujatha, that's probably a good idea, but I'm hoping that the vast knowledge of the internet will have the answer. It may take a while, but maybe one day I'll open up my blog and voila! someone will recognize it. I'm also going to show it to some of a student I know from Ethiopia...maybe they can at least identify the language. The scarf isn't an antique as far as I know. It's fun to contemplate though.

  6. Lak...it does look kind of hieroglphic and middle-eastern. Let me know if you come up with anything.