If not for this book, Christopher Columbus couldn’t have crossed the Atlantic

One of the books I am currently reading is Martin Dugard’s The Last Voyage of Columbus. In the light of today’s celebration, I want to share these excerpts from the book:

In the second century AD, Claudius Ptolemy, a scholar at Egypt’s Alexandria library, undertook his comprehensive study of the cosmos, Geography. Ptolemy evinced a certain arrogance, fortified by his immense knowledge. He once wrote a tome on mathematics with a lengthy title that he shortened to Almagest–the “Greatest.” He was just as zealous about propagating his world knowledge in Geography. Ptolemy ruminated over the text, exhaustively analyzing and rejecting many widely held theories about the earth in his attempts to make the book definitive. The final result was a work of genius that still influences mankind nineteen centuries later. It includes a world map, more than two dozen regional maps, and a comprehensive listing of the earth’s known cities by latitude and longitude. His world map was the first to be oriented north and showed a planet of three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe.


Ptolemy’s map of the world, however, was also horribly flawed. The Atlantic and Indian oceans were too small. The Pacific was nonexistent. Asia was shown to be far broader than in actuality, covering more than half the world. The coast of China ran south and west until it connected with the African coast, totally enclosing the Indian Ocean. Grievous mistakes all, based on speculation and the deductions of “world” travelers. Ptolemy’s map, however, was accepted as fact.


When the Roman empire fell, the Alexandria library was looted, and its museum destroyed. In AD 391, a mob of Christian agitators, believing all things secular and intellectual to be evil, burned the library’s contents. Geography was among the books lost. A copy had been spirited away before the fire, which was a lucky break for later generations, for as Europe settled into the Dark Ages, cartography became a dead science. Ptolemy’s work was dismissed as pagan propaganda and then forgotten altogether. Once again it became popular for Europeans to believe that the world was flat. Most maps drawn during this time were speculative, more interested in showing pilgrims the way to Paradise than serving as an accurate outline of land and sea.


…..Meanwhile, Geography was quietly making its presence felt in the non-European world. Throughout the centuries Muslim Arabs had used it to produce their own detailed map of Africa and the Indian Ocean. In the fourteenth century, just as cartography began a European revival, a Benedictine monk came across a rogue copy of Geography while prowling through a used-book store in Constantinople. He purchased the book and took it back to Europe, where, despite the astonishing amounts of forgotten knowledge on its yellowed pages, it languished for another century. In 1478 it was rediscovered yet again and translated into Latin. Thanks to the birth of the printing press, it was finally disseminated throughout Europe…


…For mariners like Columbus, who had seen the dawn of maritime maps that showed the European coastline in minute detail, Geography’s long lost guide to the planet was a godsend. That its information dovetailed with Marco Polo’s accounts gave Geography the gravitas of biblical truth.



3 thoughts on “If not for this book, Christopher Columbus couldn’t have crossed the Atlantic

  1. The Ptolemaic map certainly carried a great deal of authority, but I think Dugard’s got it wrong in a couple of places. First, scholars and mariners alike generally accepted that the earth was a sphere in ancient and medieval periods, certainly in the 1400s. Aristotle’s physics, which placed a spherical earth in the middle of the universe, was a powerful touchstone for scholars in the late Middle Ages. The idea that Columbus proved that the earth was round is a myth perpetrated by Washington Irving who wrote a very popular biography of Columbus in the 1820s (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth). Second, I think that Columbus’s view on the shortness of an Atlantic transit was a minority opinion. Most cartographers and mariners of the day believed that the earth was larger in circumference (close to modern measurements) than Columbus did and therefore a direct sea route to Asia would probably be exceedingly dangerous.

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