Ancient Maps and Documents Resurface

As trade developed between the Christian and Arab worlds, and as goods passed back and forth, so did knowledge and technology. Sometimes, when Muslims abandoned fortresses, mosques, schools, and libraries, they left important documents behind in their haste to flee the Christian forces. The first Europeans to obtain those documents seems to have been the Venetians and the Genoese.

Ptolemy’s Geographia

One of the most important documents that resurfaced was Geographia, the book Ptolemy compiled back in 150 CE that we described in our article about Technology Moving West. It had been lost to the western world since the Visigoths and Vandals over-ran Rome(1) in c450 CE.

But it had not been lost to the eastern world. In 956, a Persian writer and historian named al-Mas’udi(2) (896 – 956 CE) made a reference to the book. We know from his writing that it included “a colored map showing 4530 cities and 200 mountains.”

In 1295, a Greek monk and scholar named Maximus Planudes (1260-c1305) uncovered a copy of the book while rummaging around an old Byzantine library near his home in Constantinople. Maximus Planudes could read and write in both Latin and Greek. He translated Ptolemy’s writing from Greek to Latin, breaking the language barrier that had prevented Latin scholars from reading the text. He translated many more ancient texts, such as Ptolemy’s Almagest. These were extremely popular in Venice.(3) By 1397, copies of Geographia had reached Florence, where another Latin version was published in 1409/10. By that time, western scholars were studying Greek themselves and doing their own translations. All this helped the west assimilate eastern technology.

Through, Geographia, Ptolemy reminded the western world of something that the ancients knew a long time ago – the earth was a sphere.

Ptolemy, World Map, Geographia, Alexandria, 150 CE.(4)

Hanno the Navigator

Another important text that resurfaced was Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 CE] Chronology. In it he included the story about Hanno the Navigator that he had obtained from an old Greek periplus [stone tablet] titled The Voyage of Hanno, commander of the Carthaginians, round the parts of Libya beyond the Pillars of Heracles. Hanno himself had hung the tablet in a temple in Kronos in Carthage some 500 years earlier.

Arrian of Nicomedia (c86 – c160 CE), a Greek historian from the Roman period, also preserved this tale. The story as we know it today comes from both sources.

Hanno lived during the 6th or 5th centuries BCE in the Phoenician colony of Carthage on the North African coast of the Mediterranean. He went on a mission to find the source of the gold that nomadic Libyans brought to the markets of Carthage. [Portuguese explorers will search the west African coast for that same gold some 1800 years later.] Hanno departed from Carthage in command of a fleet of sixty galleys. He “passed the Pillars of Heracles [Greek spelling] and sailed into the outer Ocean with Libya [Morocco] on his port side, and he sailed on towards the east, thirty-five days all told. But when at last he turned southward, he fell in with every sort of difficulty, want of water, blazing heat, and fiery streams running into the sea.”

Hanno planted seven or more colonies along today’s Moroccan coast between Safi and the Senegal River. Sometimes the natives were friendly and sometimes they were not. Like so many ancient record-keepers, the Carthaginians did not reveal the exact location of where Hanno landed because they wanted to keep his discoveries secret from the Greeks and other rivals.

At the farthest place he went – before running out of provisions – Hanno came across an island that was heavily populated with savage and hirsute [hairy] people. The Carthaginians called them Gorillae. Female gorillai had rough skin and were more numerous than males. Hanno’s party tried to capture some of the males, but they escaped by climbing to the “top of precipices, which they mounted with ease,” and from where they threw down stones at the Carthaginians.

The Carthaginians then caught three females, “but they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors,” that the Carthaginians killed them, skinned them, and shipped the skins back to Carthage, where they were enshrined in the Temple of Tannit. In his history of Carthage, Pliny the Elder wrote that the skins were still there in the temple when the Romans destroyed it and the rest of Carthage in 146 BCE – three or more centuries after Hanno’s expedition.(5)

Hanno’s story was one of the sources of the rumor about boiling waters in the southern seas. Historians debate the location of his ‘farthest point.’ He described a mountain that could have been Mount Kakulima in today’s Guinea. Or it could have been Mount Cameroon, a 13,250 foot volcano near the Gulf of Guinea. The western lowland gorilla lives in both places.

Eudoxus of Cyzicus

Strabo’s writings from the 1st century also resurfaced. Of particular significance to the exploration of the Atlantic was the tale he included about Eudoxus of Cyzicus, told nearly a century earlier by Greek historian Posidonius (c.135-51 BCE). Posidonius was ‘perhaps the most learned man of his time,’ states the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Eudoxus came from Cyzicus in ancient Anatolia [Turkey]. He was one of the first to navigate the Monsoon winds to sail the Indian Ocean during the early silk trade. Returning from his second trip, he was blown ashore ‘past the Gulf of Aden down the east coast of Africa some distance.’ Along that shore he came across the wreck of a ship. From what the local natives told him, Eudoxus concluded that the ship had come from Gades [today’s Cadiz in Spain] and that to get there, it had traveled all the way south from Iberia under Africa.

This inspired Eudoxus to try the voyage himself. He traveled to Cadiz, where he gathered an expedition and set sail southward, just as Vasco da Gama would do between 1497 and 1498 – almost 1600 years later. Eudoxus never returned. Most sources claim he shipwrecked along the way. One of our readers, José Carlos Horta of Mozambique, states that his ship would never have survived ‘the mountains of water’(6) found offshore from today’s Namibia.” Nonetheless, Eudoxus’ tale will inspire the Portuguese to attempt the same trip.

Quaestionum Naturalium Causae

Another ancient text that resurfaced, known as Quaestionum Naturalium Causae, influenced Medieval mariners with its statement, “the distance from the farthest shore of Spain to India was a few days of fair wind.”

The text was written during the 1st century BCE by an ancient Greek named Asclepiodotus Tacticus. Asclepiodotus Tacticus implied that a ship could sail west from Spain to reach the East. However, his instructions were a tad confusing. Did he mean that a ship should continue west after leaving Spain like Christopher Columbus would do, or sail west, then south and east under Africa like Vasco da Gama would do? Either way, the statement gave more hope to European mariners in the 1300s that the East could be reached by sailing west from Iberia.


  1. A world map based on Geographia was displayed in Autun, Gaul [France], during late Roman Times.
  2. His full name was Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Mas’'udi.
  3. Geographia was the first book printed with movable and reusable type – including engraved illustrations – in Bologna, Italy. Earlier editions used wood cuts instead of engravings. A 1482 edition, printed in Ulm, was the first book ever printed north of the Alps. Aldus Manutius, in 1500, opened one of the first publishing houses in Venice after the invention of printing. He made a fortune from printing these ancient texts and distributing them by the thousands.
  4. Ptolemy World Map, redrawn in the 15th century. The British Library Harley MS 7182, ff 58v-59, Alexandria, Egypt, 150. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source:
  5. According to one of our readers, José Carlos Horta of Mozambique, Hanno’s men would not have been able to carry a gorilla female, “they are too strong. A gorilla is able to kill a jaguar by knocking once.”
  6. José Carlos Horta wrote that the Portuguese writer/poet Luís de Camões used that term to describe the seas west of the Cape of Good Hope along the coast of Namibia “where most Portuguese shipwrecks took place.” Ships returning home from India would have been weakened by the long voyage.


  1. Hanno: Wikipedia. Sources listed:
    • Warmington, Brian H. (1964) [First published 1960]. Carthage, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
    • Harden, Donald (1971) [First published 1962]. The Phoenicians, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
    • Herodotus, transl. Aubrey de Selincourt, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968 (1954)

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