This well-known image showing a Byzantine dromon type ship using Greek fire has a blue object behind or on the ship on the right for which I have not been able to find any explanation:

Greek fire

Image source: Ancient History Encyclopedia (public domain)

The illustration dates from the 12th century AD and depicts the 821 to 822 AD Siege of Constantinople by Thomas the Slav.

It doesn't look like anything I can even imagine (at least, not from the Middle Ages). What is it?

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    Really, it doesn't look like anything?
    – SPavel
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 0:39
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    @SPavel Nice link :) Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 0:42
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    There is another snippet from the Madrid Skylitzes showing this same thing on land, on top of a hill, while the boat rows away, depicing Thomas the Slav fleeing to the Arabs. Link
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 10:10
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    @SPavel looks more like a Tardis to me...
    – Emond
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 10:38
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    @ErnodeWeerd And the lead oarsman in the ship on the right is clearly using an iPad. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 15:46

3 Answers 3


I'm not sure why @Spencer didn't post this as an answer, but I believe he is correct in his comment from Apr in 2018 (as is the more recent (June 2018) limited response from @Rob Crawford):

There is another snippet from the Madrid Skylitzes showing this same thing on land, on top of a hill, while the boat rows away, depicing Thomas the Slav fleeing to the Arabs. Link – Spencer Apr 11 '18 at 10:10

The referenced manuscript has the following image on pg 68 (of the pdf): enter image description here

It appears that the OP is correct in the original query,

behind or on the ship...

and that this structure is actually behind the ship in the original image (pdf page 78). If you go through the illuminated manuscript there are numerous images of land based scenes showing very similar representations for buildings.

A scene from the page before the depiction of Greek fire, showing more building representations : enter image description here

... and another several pages after, showing the building not on the ships: enter image description here

It seems pretty conclusive this structure is not part of the ships, but in fact is representing structures on shore. We can see crenellations on one of the buildings depicted above, differentiating a military structure, and many of the images show crosses on top to specify religious buildings, so the lack of any of these identifying features means the best we can say is that this represents a generic structure.

One other thing that can be observed from the manuscript itself, is that among the many other representations of ships within this document, I have found (so far) no others which show this structure on a ship. This adds to the conclusion that it represents a building on land. If it represented a common part of a ship, it should be represented as such elsewhere within the manuscript.

The entire illuminated manuscript can be viewed and downloaded at World Digital Library


It's probably a representation of the awning or tent that would have covered the Captain's berth at the stern of the vessel. The Wikipedia article on the Galley shows some other representations.

This model of a 16th century Maltese galley shows the awning at the stern quite clearly:

Maltese Galley

as does this 15th century representation of a Venetian Galley:

Venetian Galley

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    That does seem most likely, though the artist isn't helping much. Actually,it sort of looks like a folding or dressing screen but I guess that's rather unlikely in this context! :) Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 23:53
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    @LarsBosteen One of my tutors once described it as looking rather like "a Medieval Portaloo!" ;-) Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 23:57
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    @sempaiscuba: In post-caravel sailing vessels it was called the head because of its location on the ship; perhaps it was formerly known as the tail. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 0:33
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    @LarsBosteen: It's possible that the artist didn't know better since 3D-to-2D perspective projection wasn't widely known at the time or at least wasn't used in paintings. In Europe that only became common during the Renaissance. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 11:51
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    @RubelliteFae A couple of points. Since the image is from a manuscript (the Madrid Skylitzes), I suspect the blue is created from a copper compound or Lapis Lazuli rather than indigo dye. And since the picture celebrated the victory of the Byzantine empire over the fleet of Peter the Slav, I think they may have sprung for the extra expense in that particular copy of the manuscript. :) Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 22:03

The odd structure appears to be standing on a hill behind the ship. Could it be a tower, perhaps a stand-in for an entire city?

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