It’s the first half of the sixth century, the beginning of the middle ages, the time when the silk trade was growing between the Byzantine Empire and China, the time when the Anno Domini system was created which the Gregorian calendar is based upon, the time when the first reference in history to the use of toilet paper was made and the time when matches were first invented!
It’s true that at that time, people managed to travel across various lands, like in the case of the falling of the Western Roman Empire and losing most of its land to Germanic tribes, upon which the newly appointed emperor, Justinian the first sent his general and went on wars to reconquer the lost lands. However, in those days, most of the travelling routes were regarded with terror as being unsafe and many of the sea routes were alleged unnavigable. In such times, with none of the present day technological navigation systems or methods of signaling messages of distress and means of communication, it would have been –dare we say- a risky move to venture on a short voyage on your own, let alone a long one. Nevertheless, Cosmas Indicopleustes did venture on several lengthy voyages as such.
The meaning of his name would actually give you a quick peek on the nature of his life and works. Cosmas simply comes from the word, Kosmos (cosmos), which refers to his fixation with cosmological matters and Inidicopleustes means ‘the one who sailed to India’ more commonly translated as ‘Indian voyager’.
Cosmas wrote several writings including the titles “A Cosmography”, “An Astronomical Treatise”, “Commentaries on the Canticles” and” An Exposition of the Psalms”. Alas, all those were lost and only one remains till this very day and that is the Christian Topography manuscript. In his renowned work, Christian Topography, Cosmas wanted to illustrate a geographical representation of the world in such a way that would be in sync with the teachings of the Holy Scripture. The Topography consists of 12 volumes, rich in geographical descriptions and accompanying explanatory maps and sketches. His most prominent geographical description is how he depicted the universe to look like. He believed that the Earth is not spherical but rather completely flat, and that the world is a huge cubical chamber with a rectangular structure of which the base is the surface of the earth surrounded by the ocean and the heaven covers it on top as another rectangular level. The earth rises in the form of a cone-shaped mountain towards the north, and the sun, moon and stars revolve around that mountain. The length of the days and nights are determined by the position of the sun and how close it is to either the base or the summit of the mountain.
A detailed sketch of Cosmas’ pattern of the universe and a modern illustration of the pattern. (http://www.myoldmaps.com)
Many of Cosmas’ theories regarding the structure of the universe have been frowned upon and even labeled as ‘utterly absurd’. Nevertheless, their value lies in the systematic and meticulousness way in which they have been proposed and constructed by none other than a simple merchant who was sharp in both his observations and his intellect. That, and the fact that his writings document truthful and precise historical and geographical descriptions derived from the practical knowledge of the traveller.
Even though he was born, raised and lived his last days in the Mediterranean City of Alexandria, Egypt in North Africa, still – most probably due to his Greek parentage -, Cosmas is more often referred to as being Greek rather than Alexandrian, as opposed to Ibn Battuta who is referred to as a Berber Muslim . Cosmas had a basic education limited to the elementary branches of knowledge. This is only reasonable in his early life as the mercantile career that he pursued at the time didn’t require more than that. This didn’t mean though that he was the type to settle, on the contrary, he was ever so intellectually sharp and inquisitive that over the years he acquired knowledge in the various fields of literature and science. This made him rise to the level of the culture and society of his era.
His travels as a merchant took him across seas and countries far away from his home. He records that he sailed across the three major seas, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. He was set to sail towards India when faced by a storm that brought violent currents and dense fogs, he was then to reverse to the nearest port which was the port of Adule (the modern day Zulá).
While some scholars doubt whether Cosmas managed to reach India, his remarkably vivid and accurate narration of the island of Ceylon and the ports, commerce and animals of India stand as proof that those descriptions were penned by someone who actually visited the place.
Among his descriptions which are documented in the Topography, one of them stands out in particular which is the recounting of his travels to Ethiopia – which he designates to include the vast region stretching southward from Egypt towards the equator – ( the modern day countries; Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). This region, the Kingdom of Axum at that time and a center of commerce, learning and religion, is where he recounts that he witnessed the historical event and the military preparations planned by the king of Axumites, Abraha of Abyssinia.
The King was a Christian and a speaker of his native Ge’ez as well as the Greek language, and from Cosmas’ statements, he says that he was well received by the court and allowed to roam freely on their land. It was around 525 A.D that the Christian King was preparing for war against the Jewish King Dhu Nuwas of Himyarites in Southern Arabia (the modern day Yemen) who had been persecuting Christians. At that time, the governor of the king requested of Cosmas to copy the famous Greek inscriptions on the marble tablet and the basanite throne which lay on the outskirts of the town on the road leading to Axum. And so, along with his monk friend, Menas, he accurately copied the inscriptions of Adulis (Monumentum Adulitanum), making Cosmas’ copy, the sole preserved copy of this epigraphy.
A sketch of the Monumentum Adulitanum (http://www.myoldmaps.com)
In the year 535, Cosmas retreated as a monk to the St. Vatherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, where he started to document his impressions and descriptions of his voyages from around a large part of the ‘known’ world at his time. Finally, he returned back to settle in Alexandria and it appears that he has endured several ailments due to aging on his last days. This is mentioned by Cosmas himself in Topography Chr.2.1
[…] ἐνοχλῶν ἡμῖν περὶ τούτου οὐ διέλειπες, ἀσθενῶν ἡμῶν τυγχανόντων τῷ σώματι, ταῖς τε ὄψεσι καὶ τῇ ξηρότητι τῆς γαστρὸς πιεζομένων, καὶ συνεχῶς λοιπὸν ἐκ τούτου ἀσθενείαις συχναῖς περιπιπτόντων […]
[…] and never ceased to importune us about this work, enfeebled though we were in body, afflicted with ophthalmia and costiveness of the bowels, and as the result suffering afterwards from constant attacks of illness; […]