Circumnavigating Africa six centuries before Christ June 1, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Beachcombing can barely take down M. Cary and E.H. Warmington’s The Ancient Explorers without a tremble of excitement running through his body, such treasures are to be found there. One of his favourite sections is their dissection of Herodotus 4, 42-43, a passage where the Greek historian describes, with requisite scepticism, a circumnavigation of Africa in the sixth or seventh century B.C. (pp. 111-120).
For me, I am amazed that men should have divided Africa, Asia and Europe, for these are most unequal. Europe is quite the length of the other two and its breadth should not be compared to them. Africa is surrounded by sea except where joined to Asia. This fact was first established by the Egyptian pharaoh Necho who after giving up on the canal he had started between the Nile and the Arabian Gulf [an early Suez], sent out a fleet with a Phoenician crew, with instructions that they should sail to the Pillars of Hercules [i.e. pass round Africa to Gibraltar on the other side] and come back to Egypt and the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians departed from Egypt and the Red Sea and went south. In autumn they came to shore and sowed the land, wherever they were in Africa, waiting for reaping. Then with the corn reaped they set sail. In this way two years passed and only in the third year did they pass through the Pillars of Hercules and make it home. Once home they claimed – though I do not believe them even if others might – that in passing around Africa the sun was on their right hand side. Thus was the extent of Africa discovered.
Herodotus is certainly a better source for Egypt than some other classical writers: we think of that old Sicilian cut-and-paster Diodorus. But still is there anything to this remarkable tale? Well, if the pharoah mentioned here is Necho II (610-595 BC) then the expedition can be nailed down chronologically. Then the memory of the sun on the sailors’ right have given generations of scholars pause for thought – it seems to be an authentic detail. Either Mediterranean thinkers had worked out that the sun would act in just this manner. Or some kind of knowledge of travel beneath the equator had reached Egypt in the generations before Herodotus arrived there, c. 450 B.C.
Beachcombing would not in the end go along with Cary and Warmington. Hoary old cynic, he doesn’t think that the voyage took place – though his younger self desperately wanted it to be so and he still likes the idea of a jaunt beneath the equator in the early centuries B.C. In the end he just can’t take that extraordinary image of sowing seeds on the African mainland while, presumably, friendly natives fanned the Carthaginian travellers with ostrich feathers. But there is still the question – one that Alan Lloyd attempted to answer in 1977 (JEA 63) – of howthe tradition of a voyage came about? We have never read a satisfactory answer to this. [drbeachcombing[at]yahoo[dot]com] And as to where the detail about the sun came from. God only knows…