September 02, 2004

The Flight into Egypt

One day in July I found my way back to one of the very first web-sites I can recall ever having visited, François Almaleh’s. Amongst the things there that caught my eye were some scans from a book called The Flight into Egypt by Timothy C. Ely, an American book-artist. A quick check at Abebooks revealed that this volume was readily and quite cheaply available: I ordered a copy from Spoonbill & Sugartown in Brooklyn, which arrived here a few days ago.

Scan of a page from Timothy Ely's 'The Flight into Egypt.'

Ely makes books: beautiful, hand-made, one-of-a-kind books full of intricate diagrams, drawings and maps, accompanied by an indecipherable script of his own devising. He draws much of his inspiration from such esoterica as UFOs, alchemy and sacred geometry. Besides his unique productions, Ely has collaborated with the late ethnopharmacologist and psychonaut Terence McKenna on a limited-edition book called Synesthesia. As far as I know, The Flight into Egypt is the only one of Ely’s works to have been multiplied into a normal, trade edition: it was published by Chronicle Books in 1995.

Scan of a section of a page from Timothy Ely's 'The Flight into Egypt.'

In his foreword to the Chronicle edition, McKenna provides a memorable account of his encounter with the original manuscript:

I had never experienced the actual presence of the original Flight into Egypt until that moment, when alone, in good light and suitably activated by the lighter esters of delta six tetra-hydrocannibinol, I removed brass screws from a heavily insured wooden packing crate, lifted away the top, and gazed upon the work. Reality outran apprehension at last, and the thing lay before me.
Scan of a section of a page from Timothy Ely's 'The Flight into Egypt.'
Inside […] lay the book itself: a most unlikely object. The binding was a symbol-studded, finely worked leather of many colors and textures. The binding style seemed more sixteenth-century than modern. I could not help but notice the colored threads at the base of the spine, their placement obedient to some logic I could not discern. In the act of opening the book, my anticipation of otherness bordered on the Borgesian.
And there it was, the open tome […] part book, part journey, part secret doctrine, part jewel. The heavy pages must be turned carefully; the aura of magical craft is inescapable. The impression is of cartography, landforms and mindscapes. [...] There is text, but little is recognizable. Most is glyptoglossia, the rare written equivalent of spoken glossolalia...
Scan of a section of a page from Timothy Ely's 'The Flight into Egypt.'

In his introduction, Ely reveals that his primary inspiration for the book came from a notebook of his grandfather’s that contained a fragmentary record of the latter’s trip to Egypt: ‘Between the two world wars, for some sixteen weeks, my grandfather had journeyed on a solo mission of undetermined logic to a land difficult to reach’. Puzzlingly, Ely writes, the notebook gave neither the exact year when the trip was made, nor its purpose. Over this background, Ely has superimposed his own perceptions of ancient Egypt, fused with his experiences as a book-maker: several of the book’s illustrations depict the book’s own creation as a physical object. The result is a rather impenetrable, yet richly resonant work: ‘I wanted to create a manual, a device which, like a mandala, would impart or reveal certain knowledge if meditated upon,’ Ely adds.

Scan of a section of a page from Timothy Ely's 'The Flight into Egypt.'

Regarding the invented script, McKenna’s glyptoglossia, Ely has the following to say:

The “language” in my books comes from a peculiar situation that feels like a hybrid of automatic writing, automatic drawing, automatic marking. I can’t say that I’m tranecstatic when it’s happening. I do feel that when I am drawing it, making it, that the marks themselves correspond to the ideas that I am currently dazzled with.
Scan of a section of a page from Timothy Ely's 'The Flight into Egypt.'

Click on the images to see them enlarged. Note that the book’s pages are larger than A4 size, and all but the first of these images offer incomplete views of the contents of a given page. If I’d given it a little more thought, I would have scanned pages not already shown on M. Alamleh’s site: oh well. The images are Copyright © Timothy C. Ely, and are reproduced without permission, only for as long as no-one objects to their presence here.

Posted by misteraitch at September 2, 2004 11:48 AM | TrackBack

Oh, this is gorgeous! The invented writing and maps make me think of the Griffin & Sabine series by Nick Bantock which I love! (

Posted by: Marja-Leena on September 2, 2004 04:40 PM

So nice to see McKenna's name on a respectable website. As always, great find.

Posted by: RS on September 3, 2004 11:09 PM

Amazing! I immediately felt the need to draw on ebook for my baby-boy, hoping it will disclose him the appeal of books, geography and voyages.
thanks a lot.

P.S. I can't find this book anymore, can you provide us the ISBN code please?

Posted by: Tiberio on September 7, 2004 02:39 PM

The ISBN is 0811806200. When I last checked, there were several copies available via abebooks.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 7, 2004 03:57 PM

I have a copy of this lovely book too (not the limited edition) which I got years ago. Met Tim Ely in N.Y. and also here in London when we were both exhibiting our Livres d'Artiste/Livres de Peintre. He's an excellent artist.

Posted by: Natalie on September 7, 2004 11:03 PM

I have just seen an exhibition of Mr. Ely's work at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon (April 15 - May 26, 2005). The man is a consummate craftsman and a creative genius!

Posted by: Old Rover on April 26, 2005 07:49 PM

Very impressive!

Posted by: gulsen on April 27, 2005 11:17 AM

I bought the book about five years ago. I have found out that glossolalia is a form of what hardcore Christians call "speaking tounges". I do hope to meet Mr. Ely someday and ask him why there's so many 21's in his book. But as a student of ancient egypt, I like his use of the maps.

Posted by: on September 8, 2005 07:20 AM

Simply magical! What else can I say?

Posted by: Paul on September 12, 2005 03:46 PM

Great stuff - I was just eyeing over the Almaleh site and of course landed here. Must be time for a 2nd installment of the non-Almaleh material, no?

Posted by: peacay on March 12, 2006 07:30 AM
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