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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

IS THE WORLD FLAT?

[20] STILL, although the men of ancient time were learning fast about the land and sea, they were woefully ignorant. Hesiod, a Greek poet; who lived seven hundred and fifty years before the Christian era, declared that the world was flat, and the ocean stream or the "perfect river," as he called it, flowed round and round, encompassing all things.

Still, there was something beyond the water—something dim, mysterious, unknowable. It might be the "Islands of the Blest"; it might be the "sacred isle." One thing he asserted firmly: "Atlas upholds the broad Heaven . . . standing on earth's verge with head and unwearied hands," while the clear-voiced Hesperides guarded their beautiful golden apples "beyond the waters of Ocean."

"Hesperus and his daughters three

That sung about the golden tree."

But who thinks now of the weary Titan doomed for ever to support the ancient world on his head and hands, when the atlas of to-day is brought forth for a lesson in geography?

About this time comes a story—it may be fact or it may be fiction—that the Phśnicians had sailed right round Africa. The voyage was arranged by Neco, an enterprising Egyptian king, who built his ships in the Red Sea in the year 613 B.C. The story is told by Herodotus, the Greek traveller, many years afterwards.

[20] "Libya," he says, "is known to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia. This discovery was first made by Neco, the Egyptian king, who sent a number of ships manned by Phśnicians with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules (now known as the Straits of Gibraltar), and return to Egypt through them and by the Mediterranean Sea. The Phśnicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythrćan Sea, and so sailed into the Southern Ocean. When autumn came (it is supposed they left the Red Sea in August) they went ashore, wherever that might happen to be, and, having sown a tract of land with corn, waited until the grain was fit to cut. Having reaped it, they set sail, and thus it came to pass that two whole years went by, and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules and made good their voyage home. On their return they declared (I, for my part, says Herodotus, do not believe them, but perhaps others may) that in sailing round Libya they had the sun upon their right hand. In this way was the extent of Libya first discovered."

To modern students, who have learnt more of Phśnician enterprise, the story does not seem so incredible as it did to Herodotus; and a modern poet, Edwin Arnold, has dreamed into verse a delightful account of what this voyage may have been like.


[Illustration]

PILLARS OF HERCULES, AS SHOWN IN A MEDIAEVAL MAP.
(HIGDEN'S MAP OF THE WORLD, 1360 A.D.)

Ithobal of Tyre, Chief Captain of the seas, standing [21] before Neco, Pharaoh and King, Ruler of Nile and its lands, relates the story of his two years' voyage, of the strange things he saw, of the hardships he endured, of the triumphant end. He tells how, with the help of mechanics from Tarshish, Tyre, and Sidon, he built three goodly ships, "Ocean's children," in a "windless creek" on the Red Sea, how he loaded them with cloth and beads, "the wares wild people love," food-flour for the ship, cakes, honey, oil, pulse, meal, dried fish and rice, and salted goods. Then the start was made down the Red Sea, until at last "the great ocean opened" east and south to the unknown world and into the great nameless sea, by the coast of that "Large Land whence none hath come" they sailed.

Ithobal had undertaken no light task; contrary winds, mutiny on board, want of fresh water, all the hardships that confront the mariner who pilots his crews in search of the unknown. Strange tribes met them on the coast and asked them whither they went.

"We go as far as the sun goes

As far as the sea rolls, as far as the stars

Shine still in sky. To find for mighty Pharaoh what his world

Holds hidden,"

South and ever south they sailed, "day after day and night succeeding night, close clinging to the shore." New stars appeared, lower and lower sank the sun, moons rose and waned, and still the coast stretched southwards till they reached a "Cape of Storms" and found the coast was turning north. And now occurred that strange phenomenon mentioned by Herodotus, that while sailing westwards the sun was on their right hand. "No man had seen that thing in Syria or in Egypt."


[Illustration]

THE PILLARS OF HERCULES, AS SHOWN ON THE ANGLO-SAXON MAP OF THE WORLD, TENTH CENTURY.

A year and a half had now passed away since they [22] left home, but onward to the north they now made their way, past the mouth of the golden waters (Orange River), past the Congo, past the Niger, past the island of Gorillas described by Hanno, who explored the west coast under Neco either before or after this time, until at last the little Phśnician ships sailed peacefully into the Mediterranean Sea.

"Here is the Ocean-Gate. Here is the Strait

Twice before seen, where goes the Middle Sea

Unto the Setting Sun and the Unknown—

No more unknown, Ithobal's ships have sailed

Around all Africa. Our task is done.

These are the Pillars, this the Midland Sea.

The road to Tyre is yonder. Every wave

Is homely. Yonder, sure, Old Nilus pours

Into this Sea, the Waters of the World,

Whose secret is his own and thine and mine."

It will ever remain one of the many disputed points in early geography whether or not Africa was circumnavigated at this early date. If the Phśnicians did accomplish such a feat they kept their experiences a secret as usual, and the early maps gave a very wrong idea of South Africa. On the other hand, we know they had good seaworthy ships in advance of their neighbours.

"I remember," says Xenophon, "I once went aboard a Phśnician ship, where I observed the best example of good order that I ever met with; and especially it was surprising to observe the vast numbers of implements which were necessary for the management of such a small vessel. What numbers of oars, stretchers, ship-hooks, [23] and spikes were there for bringing the ship in and out of the harbour! What numbers of shrouds, cables; ropes; and other tackling for the ship! What a vast quantity of provisions were there for the sustenance and support of the sailors!" Captain and sailors knew where everything was stowed away on board, and "while the captain stood upon the deck, he was considering with himself what things might be wanting in his voyage, what things wanted repair, and what length of time his provisions would last; for, as he observed to me, it is no proper time, when the storm comes upon us, to have the necessary implements to seek, or to be out of repair, or to want them on board; for the gods are never favourable to those who are negligent or lazy; and it is their goodness that they do not destroy us when we are diligent."


[Illustration]

A GREEK GALLEY OF ABOUT 500 B.C.

There is an old story which says that one day the Greeks captured a Phśnician ship and copied it. However this may be, the Greeks soon became great colonisers themselves, and we have to thank a Greek philosopher living in Miletus, on the coast of Asia Minor, for making the first map of the ancient world. Of course, the Babylonians and Egyptians had made maps thousands of years before this, but this Greek Anaximander introduced the [24] idea of map-making to the astonished world about the year 580 B.C. What was the map like? It was "a bronze tablet, whereupon the whole circuit of the Earth was engraved with all its seas and rivers."

This is all we know. But this map-making Greek was famous for another idea in advance of his time. He used to study the heavens and the earth, and after much study he made up his mind that the earth was round and not flat. He taught that the world hung free in the midst of the universe, or rather in the midst of the waters. The centre of the earth was at Delphi. In the world of legend there was a reason for this. Two eagles had been let loose, one from the eastern extremity of the world, the other from the west, and they met at Delphi—hence it was assumed that Delphi was at the centre of the world. And Delphi at this time was such a wonderful city. On the slopes of Mount Parnassus it stood high on a rock—on the heights stood the temple of Apollo with its immense riches, its golden statue of the great god, and its ever-smoking fire of wood.

In the same way, in those days of imperfect geography, as we hear of Delphi being the centre of the Greek world, so we hear of Jerusalem being considered the central point of the world.


[Illustration]

JERUSALEM, THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD.

"This is Jerusalem," says Ezekiel, "in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her." [25] In the Mappa Mundi (thirteenth century) in Hereford Cathedral, Jerusalem is still the centre of the earth.

Following close on these ideas came another. It, too, came from Miletus, now famous for its school of thought and its searchers after truth.

A Tour of the World  is the grand-sounding title of the work of Hecatćus, who wrote it about 500 years B.C. It contains an account of the coast and islands of the Mediterranean Sea and an outline of all the lands the Greeks thought they knew. In the fragments that have come down to us, the famous old geographer divides both his work and the world into two parts. One part he calls Europe, the other Asia, in which he includes Africa bounded by the river Nile. He held that these two parts were equal. They were divided from one another by the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea, while round the whole flat world still flowed the everlasting ocean stream.


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