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Volume 43, Number 3May/June 1992

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Pillars Of Hercules, Sea Of Darkness

Written by Paul Lunde

Where the Mediterranean and the Ocean meet are found the lighthouses of stone and bronze built by Hercules, the great king.   They are covered with inscriptions and surmounted by statues,  which point as if to say: 'There is no way beyond me; beyond me  there is no passage for those who enter the ocean from the Mediterranean! 'No ship can enter the ocean. It contains no inhabited land and no rational animals dwell there. Where it begins and where it ends are both unknown. It is the Sea of Shadmus, the Green Sea, the Circumambient Ocean.

For the Latin Middle Ages, the Atlantic was Mare Tenebrosum; for the Arabs, Bahr al-Zulamat. Both meant "The Sea of Darkness," and anyone who has looked west from the northern coast of Portugal and seen the heavy cloud banks lying across the horizon will admit the name is well-suited to the Atlantic. It was ill-omened: For Christians, the word tenebrosum sug­gested evil and evoked the Prince of Darkness. For Muslims, the Arabic word for "dark­ness," al-zulumat could not but call to mind the magnif­icent Qur'anic passage in Surah 24, al-Nur, "The Light," in which the state of the unbeliever is described as being like "the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed with billows, topped by billows, topped by [dark] clouds - depths of darkness, one above the other."

This name - and its ana­logue, "The Dark Sea," Bahr al-Muzlim - sufficiently indicates medieval man's fear and ignorance of the Atlantic Ocean. But the ocean had other, more propitious names as well. Two of these, "The Green Sea" and "The Circumambient Ocean," appear in the passage just quoted from the famous 10th-century Arab historian and geographer al-Mas'udi, whose works are full of fascinating geog­raphical information. The Arabs used other names also, such as the scholarly Uqiyanus, directly transliter­ated from the Greek word okeanos, and even, in later sources from the western Islamic world, Bahr al-Atlasi, "The Sea of the Atlas Mountains" - an exact rendering of the word "Atlantic."

But the most frequent Arabic name for the Atlantic was al-Bahr al-Muhit, the Circumambient, or All-Encompassing, Ocean. This name embodied a very ancient notion. The Babylonians, and perhaps the Sumerians before them, envisaged the inhabited por­tion of the world as an upturned boat, a gufa, floating in the sea. This old Sumerian word was used to describe the round-bottomed reed boats used in the marshes of southern Iraq, where they are still known by the same name. Name and concept have proved extraordinarily persistent. The idea passed from Baby­lonia to the Greeks, and geographers from Herodotus and Hecataeus on described the world as surrounded on all sides by a universal ocean, even when the limits of the known world had been expanded far beyond anything the Babylonians could have imagined.

Long after Aristotle had demonstrated, in the fourth century BC, that the world was a sphere, the old Babylonian image persisted. Writing almost 1400 years after Aristotle, and perfectly aware that the earth is spherical, al-Mas'udi could still compare it to an egg floating in water. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing 400 years after al-Mas'udi and almost 1900 after Aristotle, compared the inhabited portion of the world to a grape floating in a saucer of water.

The Babylonians had little knowledge of lands beyond Mesopotamia and its immediate surround­ings. Their image of the world was rooted in their cos­mology, rather than based on observation. That the Babylonians proved to be correct, in the sense that all the great bodies of water that encircle the globe are interconnected, is fortuitous. Yet it was this idea, passed on to the Greeks, then through the Arabs to medieval Europe, that contributed to the geog­raphical discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Hernando Columbus, in his biography of his father Christopher, lists the classical and medieval sources that led the admiral to think he could reach the Indies by sailing westward. One of the most important of these sources was Aristotle's De Caelo (On the Heavens), a book known in Arabic translation since the ninth century and often quoted by al-Mas'udi. The original Greek text reached Italy in the 15th century, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but was not printed until after the discovery of America. It had been known in Spain, however, since the 12th century through a commentary on it by Ibn Rushd of Cordova, the Averroes of the Latin Middle Ages. Whether Co­lumbus knew De Caelo through Latin translations of Averroes or more directly through the new Renais­sance translations by Italian humanists with whom he was in contact, is unknown. In any case, here is the passage that fired his imagination:

There is much change, I mean in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward. Indeed there are some stars seen in Egypt and in the neighborhood of Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions; and stars which, in the north, are never beyond the range of observation, in those regions rise and set. All of which goes to show not only that the earth is circular in shape, but also that it is a sphere of no great size; for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be so quickly apparent. Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is continuity between the parts about the Pillars of Hercules and the parts about India, and that in this way the ocean is one. As further evidence in favor of this they quote the case of elephants, a species occurring in each of these extreme regions, suggesting that the common characteristic of these extremes is explained by their continuity. Also those mathematicians who try to calculate the size of the earth's circumference arrive at the figure only that the earth's mass is spherical, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size. 400,000 stades. This indicates not only that the earth’s mass is spherical, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size.

Leaving aside Aristotle's estimate of the earth's cir­cumference, which is about twice too large, it is easy to see why Columbus seized upon this passage. Aristo­tle, the supreme authority for the Middle Ages, sug­gests that Asia may stretch right around the globe, perhaps joining Africa, or at least that both are washed by the same sea. Hence one could easily reach Asia by setting off westward, across the all-encompassing sea.

This, at least, was the theory. It was buttressed by many more classical references, as well as by medieval legends of islands to the west and even by odd sight­ings of worked wood cast up on the beaches of the Atlantic islands. But still to be overcome was a tremendous psychological barrier, the ancient belief that nothing lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules. This belief was enshrined in the motto ne plus ultra, "there is nothing beyond," a phrase echoed in al-Mas'udi's account of the statues "which point as if to say: 'There is no way beyond me....'"

For the classical world, the Columnae Herculis, the Pillars of Hercules, were not actual pillars - or light­houses - but two mountainous points on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, Calpe and Abyla: the Rock of Gibraltar and the mountainous point of al-Mina, where the city of Ceuta now stands on the ruins of Phoenician Abyla.

The Phoenicians sailed through the Pillars of Her­cules around 1100 BC and founded their first Atlantic port, Gadir ("Fortified Place") where the city of Cádiz now stands. Somewhere in the hinterland lay the fabulous region - or perhaps city - known to the clas­sical world as Tartessos and in the Bible as Tarshish. The Phoenicians established a rich trade with the eastern Mediterranean world in gold and silver from the rich mines of Tartessos. They also opened an Atlantic sea-route to the Cassiterides, the "Tin Islands," probably somewhere in Britain, and to the Baltic, where they traded for amber. Tin was a vital component in the making of bronze; amber was used for ornament. The Phoenicians had a virtual monopoly of both, and they jealously guarded it, sink­ing any rival ships that ventured into the western. Mediterranean. They regarded their trade routes as state secrets, and clas­sical sources" cite at least one   Phoenician  trading vessel that ran aground rather than let a rival learn its course.

The Phoenicians and their successors, the Carthaginians, established trading colonies along the coast of north and west Africa. Anticipating Portugal’s Prince Henry  Navigator by some 2000 years, they also made a num­ber of efforts to circumnavigate Africa. One of these, sponsored by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, took place about 600 BC. Herodotus, who calls Africa "Libya" and the Red Sea "the Arabian Gulf," is our only source of information about this voyage. Here is how he describes it.

As for Libya, we know that it is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Neco, who, after calling off the construction of the canal between the Nile and the Arabian Gulf, sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west-about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian Gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year's harvest. Then, having got their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Hercules in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement - which I do not myself believe, though others may - to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right - to northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered to be surrounded by sea....

There is no reason to doubt that this voyage took place. What Herodotus, and the Greek geographers that succeeded him, found difficult to accept was the sheer size of Africa. The consensus of opinion, made orthodox by Ptolemy, was that Africa extended little beyond 17° south latitude. Herodotus appears to have believed the same, hence his disbelief of the assertion that the sun was on the Phoenician voyagers' right.

Most pre-Ptolemaic Greek geographers did accept that Africa was bounded on all sides by the sea, except where it joined Asia. Ptolemy, however, supposed that not far below the Horn of Africa, the continent trended to the east, eventually joining the Chinese mainland and making of the Indian Ocean a landlocked sea. He may have been influ­enced in this by the pas­sage from De Caelo, where Aristotle    sug­gests that the presence of elephants in both Asia and Africa might indi­cate that the two conti­nents   were contiguous. Ptolemy compounded his error by postulating the exist­ence of a huge "Southern Conti­nent," a Terra Australis, to the south of Africa. This imaginary continent did not finally disappear from European maps until the early 18th century.

The Phoenician circumnavigators of Africa were practical seamen unhampered by theory. The Cartha­ginians, as the Phoenician colonists in the western Mediterranean came to be known, must have been aware of their compatriots' clockwise circumnavigation of Africa. Sometime before 480 BC, the Carthagin­ians sent a large expedition of their own, under a leader called Hanno, in the opposite direction. A Greek version of the original Punic account of this voyage makes it clear that Hanno reached a long way south, past the volcanic mountain he called "The Chariot of the Gods" - probably the 998-meter-high (3273-foot) Mt. Kakoulima in present-day Guinea - and as far as Sierra Leone. On the way he discovered both the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, so important later as staging points for trans-Atlantic voyages. The Cape Verde Islands were not rediscovered until 1455, nearly two thousand years later.

The Canaries are a classic example of how ancient discoveries were made and then lost. Discovered by Hanno in the fifth century BC, they were explored and colonized in 25 BC by Juba II, erudite king of Mauretania and husband of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Antony and Cleopatra. A passionate art collector, Juba was also interested in science and technology, invent­ing a new method of making purple dye from the orchil plant - and the export of orchil from the Atlan­tic islands was of economic importance until early this century. Juba populated the Canaries with Berber-speaking colonists, perhaps the ancestors of the Guanches. Gradually, knowledge of the location of the Canaries was lost, even though Lanzarote, the island nearest the North African coast, lies less than 100 kilo­meters (60 miles) west of the mainland. The Greeks called the Canary Islands Tōn Makarōn Nēsoi, "The Islands of the Blessed," and they were regarded as the furthest known land to the west. Ptolemy drew his 0° longitude line, or prime meri­dian, through the Canaries; the French continued to do so until the 19th century.

The Canary Islands were rediscovered in the 13th century by a French or Genoese ship blown off course. In 1402 the Normans par­tially conquered them, meeting stiff resistance from the indigenous Guanches. In the mid-15th century, the Spanish took control of the Canaries and continued the conquest. Fighting was still going on when Columbus used the islands as the first stop on all four of his voyages to the Caribbean. The Guanches were not finally subdued until the end of the 16th cen­tury, when they and their language virtually dis­appeared. From the few words of Guanche preserved in the Spanish chronicles, we know they spoke a form of Berber, and were therefore probably descended from Juba's colonists. Yet when Europeans encoun­tered them, they had no memory of the mainland; having no boats, they were unaware that the other islands in the group were inhabited.

The Arabs knew these islands through Ptolemy, and called them Jaza'ir al-Khalidat, "The Eternal Isles," presumably a version of the Greek name. Some sources speak of these islands as if they were legend­ary, telling us for example that on each of the six islands - there are in fact seven - there was a bronze statue, like the one in Cádiz, warning voyagers to turn back. But al-Idrisi, the famous 12th-century geog­rapher, who wrote at the court of King Roger of Sicily (See Aramco World , July-August 1977), tells of an attempted expedition to the Canaries in the late 12th-century, during the reign of the Almoravid amir Yusuf ibn Tashafin. The admiral in charge of the expedition died just as it was about to set out, so the venture came to nothing. Al-ldrisi says the admiral's curiosity was aroused by smoke rising from the sea in the west, probably the result of volcanic activity.

After telling us that the Canaries had been visited by Alexander the Great and that the tomb of a pre-Islamic South Arabian king, made of marble and col­ored glass, can be seen on one of them, al-Idrisi gives the names of two of the islands. The island with a "circular mountain" in the center is called Masfahan. This is probably Tenerife, and the round mountain would be the 3600-meter-high (12,000-foot) volcano called Pico de Teide. The other island is called Laghus and is probably Gran Canaria. Neither name is Arabic, nor do they appear to be transcriptions of Greek, Latin or Romance - but the fact that these two islands had names at all means mariners must have visited them, and the names are either native designations or hark back to some lost, perhaps oral, source.

Even more interesting is al-Idrisi's account of an actual voyage of exploration into the western Atlantic, undertaken by 80 brave men from Lis­bon whom he calls the mugharrirun, best ren­dered as "intrepid explorers." The expedition must have taken place before 1147 - the date Lisbon fell to the Christians - but it is impossi­ble to be more precise. The mugharrirun were so famous for their exploit that a street in Lisbon was named after them. The story is worth giving in full, for its mixture of fact and legend is characteristic of early accounts of Atlantic voyaging:

It was from the city of Lisbon that the mugharrirun set out to sail the Sea of Darkness in order to discover what was in it and where it ended, as we have mentioned before. A street in Lisbon, near the hot springs, is still known as "The Street of the Intrepid Explorers"; it is named after them. Eighty men, all ordinary people, got together and built a large ship and stocked it with enough food and water for several months. Then they set sail with the first gentle easterly and sailed for about eleven day's, until they came to a sea with heavy waves, evil-smelling, ridden with reefs and with very little light. They were sure they were about to perish, so they changed course to the south and sailed for twelve days, until they came to Sheep Island, There were so many sheep it was impossible to count them, and they ranged freely, with no one to watch them. They landed and found a spring of flowing water and a wild fig tree beside it. They caught some of the sheep and slaughtered them, but the flesh was so bitter they could not eat it. They took some sheepskins and sailed on to the south for another twelve days until they sighted an island. They could see it was inhabited and under cultivation. They headed toward it in order to explore and when they were not far offshore, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by boats, which forced their ship to land beside a city on the shore. They saw the men who lived there; they were light-complexioned, with very little facial hair. The hair on their heads was lank. They were tall, and their womenfolk were very beautiful. They were confined to a house for three days. On the fourth day a man who spoke Arabic entered and asked them who they were and where they were going and what was the name of their country. They told him everything and he said not to worry, and that he was the king's interpreter. The next day they were taken into the king's presence and he asked the same questions they had been asked by the interpreter. They told him what they had told the interpreter the day before, of how they had embarked upon the ocean in order to find out about it and see the wonders it contained, and how they had come to this place. When the king heard this, he laughed and told the interpreter to tell them the following: "My father ordered some of his slaves to sail this sea and they sailed across it for a month until there was no more light; they came back having found nothing of any use at all." Then the king ordered the interpreter to treat them well so they would have a good impression of the kingdom, and he did so. They were then taken back to their place of confinement until the west wind began to blow. A boat was prepared for them, their eyes were bound, and they were at sea for some time. They said: "We were at sea about three days and nights. Then we came to the mainland and they put us ashore. They tied us up and left us there. When dawn broke and the sun rose, we found we were in great pain because we had been so tightly bound. Then we heard noises and the sound of people and we all cried out. Some people approached and, seeing our difficulty, released us. They asked us what had happened and we told them the whole story. They were Berbers. One of them asked us: 'Do you know how far you are from your country?' 'No,' we answered. 'Two months journey!' he replied. Our leader said, 'Wa asafi!' (Woe is me!') and to this day the place is known as Asfi."

Asfi, a port on the southern coast of Morocco, is now called Safi. It is hard to escape the impression that we owe the preservation of this account largely to the folk etymology in the last line. But it is also obvious that this is a report of an actual Atlantic voyage. The "sea with heavy waves, evil-smelling, ridden with reefs and with very little light" can probably be ignored, for the passage is influenced by the "land of darkness" thought to exist in the farthest West, and the reefs may echo a passage in Plato's Timeus which speaks of the shallows in the Atlantic marking the site where Atlan­tis sank. But "Sheep Island" (Jazirat al-Ghanam) has the ring of truth. In another passage al-Idrisi gives more details of this island - incidentally showing that a longer account of the voyage of the mugharrirun must have existed. He says Sheep Island is large, shrouded in shadows, and filled with small sheep whose flesh is bitter and inedible. Nearby is another island, called Raqa, which is the home of a red bird the size of an eagle, which catches fish in its claws and never flies far from the island. A fruit like a large fig grows there; if eaten, it is the antidote to any known poison. A king of the Franks heard of this, al-Idrisi adds, and sent a ship to the island to bring him that fruit and some of the birds, but the ship was lost and never returned.

Sheep Island and Raqa are most probably two of the islands in the Azores. The Azores are named after a kind of goshawk - in Portuguese, açor - prevalent there at the time of discovery. The sheep are a prob­lem, for the Azores were uninhabited when settled in the 15th century, and even if we slightly stretch the meaning of the word ghanam, which can also mean "goats," we are still left with the problem of the origin of the creatures. No large mammals are indigenous to the Azores, and sheep or goats could only have been brought to the island by previous mariners. The Azores lie almost 1300 kilometers (about 800 miles) west of the coast of Portugal - one-third of the way to America. In the 19th century, Carthaginian coins were found on the most westerly of the islands, Corvo - 31° west longitude - and although the find has been ques­tioned, the origin of the coins has never been satisfac­torily explained. Corvo is marked on the Canterino map of 1351, where the name occurs as Corvini - con­siderably before its official discovery.

Al-Idrisi mentions a number of other islands in the west Atlantic:

Sawa is "near the Sea of Darkness." Alexander the Great spent the night there just before entering the western darkness. The inhabitants threw stones at the travelers and hurt several of Alexander's companions.

The inhabitants of the island of al-Su'ali are shaped like women and their canine teeth protrude. Their eyes flasrh like lightning and their thighs are like logs. They fight against the monsters of the sea. Men and women are not sexually differentiated, and the men have no beards. They dress in the leaves of trees.

The island of Hasran is crowned by a large, high mountain. A small fresh-water river runs down from the foot of the mountain, where the inhabitants live. They are short, brown people with broad faces and big ears. The men's beards reach their ankles. They eat grass and other plants.

Al-Ghawr is long and broad. Many herbs and plants grow on the island. There are many rivers and pools, and thickets where donkeys and long-horned cattle take refuge.

Al-Mustashkin is said to be inhabited. It has mountains, rivers, fruit trees, cultivated fields and a town, with high walls. There used to be a dragon in the area, and the people were forced to feed it with bulls, donkeys or even humans, according to the legend; when Alexander arrived, the people complained to him of the dragon's depredations. Alexander fed the creature a volatile mixture and blew it to pieces.

The island of Qalhan is inhabited by animal-headed people who swim in the sea to catch their food.

Then there is the Island of the Two Brothers, Shirham and Shiram. God changed them to stone for practicing piracy, the legend has it. This island is near Asfi [Safi], and on a clear day smoke can be seen rising from it. It was this smoke that led to the abortive expedition by Yusuf ibn Tashafin's admiral.

Some of the names of these islands make sense in Arabic, others do not. Sawa has no meaning. Al-Su'ali is a word that refers to a kind of female demon or vam­pire; judging by al-Idrisi's description of the female inhabitants of the island, it is apt. Hasran means "regretful" - Island of Regret? - but if the variant Khusran is chosen, it means "loss" - perhaps Island of Loss, or Lost Island. But if the word is Arabic, one would expect it to be preceded by the definite article al.

Al-Ghawr makes sense; it means a depression sur­rounded by higher land, and occurs elsewhere in the Arab world as a place name. Al-Mustashkin is prob­ably a corruption of al-mushtakin, meaning "the complainers" - appropriate enough for a population in thrall to a dragon. This story of Alexander and the dragon echoes the Eleventh Labor of Her­cules, the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the dragon Ladon. In the Arabic - speaking world, popular legend transfer­red a number of the heroic deeds of Hercules to Alex­ander - including the building of a land-bridge across the Pillars of Hercules. Some Greek mythographers thought the Islands of the Hesperides lay off the coast of North Africa, and we have already seen how al-Idrisi associates Alexander with two of the Atlantic islands.

Qalhan's "animal-headed people" might well be seals. The Two Brothers could be the two small islands off Lanzarote in the Canaries, Alegranza and Graciosa, or indeed, any two prominent rocks off their coasts.

A last island in the western Atlantic is Laqa. Al-Idrisi says aloe trees grow there, but their wood has no scent. As soon as they are taken away, however, the scent becomes perceptible. The wood is deep black, and merchants come to the island to harvest it and then sell it to the kings of the farthest West. The island is said to have been inhabited in the past, but it fell to ruin and serpents infested the land. For this reason, no one can land there. Could Laqa be Madeira? Madeira was heavily wooded when first settled in the 15th cen­tury - hence its name. The settlers quickly burned down all the forests, so it is now hard to know for cer­tain, but some sort of scented wood may have once grown there.

Al-Idrisi gives the names of 13 islands in the west­ern Atlantic; a 14th, visited by the mugharrirun, is nameless. This unnamed island, together with Masfahan, Laghus, The Two Brothers and possibly Sawa, are almost certainly islands in the Canary group. Laqa might be Madeira, and Sheep Island and Raqa part of the Azores group. Where al-Su'ali, Hasran, al-Ghawr, Qalhan and al-Mustashkin lay is anybody's guess. Al-Su'ali and al-Mustashkin both sound completely legendary, but there is nothing legendary about Has­ran and Qalhan, which sound as if they might belong together. Since the only inhabited islands in the west­ern Atlantic just before the coming of the Europeans were the Canaries, Hasran may belong to that group—unless, of course, it is to be sought in the Caribbean!

Here is another tantalizing reference to early Atlan­tic voyages, this time from al-Mas'udi. The account must date from before AD 942, the date al-Mas'udi completed the book from which it is taken:

It is a generally accepted opinion that this sea - the Atlantic - is the source of all the other, seas. They tell marvelous stories of it, which we have related in our work entitled The Historical Annals, where we speak of what was seen there by men who entered it at the risk of their lives and from which some have returned safe and sound. Thus, a man from Cordoba named Khashkhash got together a number of young men from the same city and they set sail on the ocean in ships they had fitted out. After a rather long absence, they returned with rich booty. This story is famous, and well-known to all Spaniards.

The Historical Annals, which presumably gave a much more detailed account of this and other voyages, is lost. That the story was preserved at all is probably due to the rarity of such voyages. On the other hand, this passage shows that Atlantic voyages were made, and remembered.

In what direction did Khashkhash sail? If he went north, he may well have plundered the coasts of Por­tugal, France or even England. But the story occurs in the context of a discussion of the All-Encompassing Sea, not the coasts of northern Europe, which were relatively well-known to the Arab geographers. The context implies that Khashkhash sailed west. If so, the nearest place that could offer rich booty was the Caribbean.

The voyages of the mugharrirun and Khashkhash were private undertakings, apparently motivated by curiosity and bravado. The mugharrirun were "ordi­nary people"; the companions of Khashkhash were simply "young men of Cordoba." This is probably why we know so little about them. Medieval historians focused their attention on the ruler and his court, and to a certain extent on the "urban elite." The doings of private citizens, particularly of the humbler classes, are only incidentally mentioned by Arab historians of the Middle Ages - or indeed, by their Christian coun­terparts. We know as much as we do about the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator to find the sea-route to the Indies because these expeditions were sponsored by the Crown, and the same is true of the four voyages of Columbus. Documents, logs and maps were placed in royal archives and were available to the historians of the time, whereas knowledge of the mugharrirun and Khashkhash has come down to us only because of the chance interest of al-Idrisi and al-Mas'udi. It is probable, however, that they entered sailors' lore along the Atlantic seaboard and joined the tales of other fabulous islands to the west - the Antilles, Bra­zil, St. Brendan's Isle, the Green Isle.

These imaginary islands were marked on 14th-century charts, along with others. The Antilles and Brazil, for so long legendary, continue today as the names of real places. Men were still seeking St. Bren­dan's Isle as late as the 18th century; Ilha Verde, the Green Isle, did not finally disappear from mariner's charts until the middle of the 19th century. Through­out the Middle Ages, stories of islands to the west kept interest in the far reaches of the Atlantic alive, and when real islands began to be discovered in the 14th century, the legends took on new life. After all, if the Islands of the Blessed really existed, why shouldn't the Antilles? In the 15th century, as the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands were gradually colonized and brought under sugar cultivation, the search became more intense. Genoese bankers were willing to finance sugar production; the search for free land - unencumbered by tenants who enjoyed hereditary rights and paid fixed rents in infla­tionary times - was seen as an escape from economic depression.

And who knew what lay beyond the Canaries, or the Azores? After all, al-Idrisi, who repeatedly says that nothing lies beyond the Eternal Isles, splendidly contradicts himself by telling us in another passage, quoting no less an authority than Ptolemy himself: "There are 27,000 islands in this sea, some inhabited, others not; we have mentioned only those closest to the mainland, and which are inhabited. As for the others, there is no need to mention them here."

This is the background against which Columbus's voyages were made. He had taken part in the expedi­tions sent along the African coast by Prince Henry the Navigator. He knew the Atlantic islands well; his wife was the daughter of Bartolomeo Perestrelo, one of the early settlers on Madeira. Her sister was married to Pedro Correa, of the same island, who found a piece of worked wood cast up on the beach that he believed had drifted east from unknown western lands. Co­lumbus's son Hernando, writing in 1537, shows very well the grip these islands had on his father's mind, after first describing his father's reading in ancient and medieval sources and Paolo Toscanelli's letter on the possibility of reaching Asia by sailing west:

The third and last thing that led the Admiral to discover the Indies was the hope he entertained, before reaching them, of finding some island or land of great utility, from which he could continue his main search. He was confirmed in this hope by reading the books of many wise men and philosophers who said, as a thing not admitting doubt, that the greater part of our globe is dry land, because the area covered by land is greater than that covered by water. This being so, he argued that between the coast of Spain and the borders of India then known, there would be many large islands, as experience has shown. He believed this the more readily because of certain fables and stories which he heard told by various people and mariners who traded in theislands and the seas west of the Azores and Madeira. These were stories which fitted in with his own opinions, and he remembered them. He never tired of telling them, to satisfy the curiosity of those who enjoy such curiosities.


 Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.

Al-Farghani and the “Short Degree”
Written by Paul Lunde

A marginal note in Columbus's own copy of Peter d'Ailly's Imago Mundi , now in the Columbina Library in Seville, reads: "Note: Sailing south from Lisbon to Guinea, I carefully noted the distance, as pilots and sailors do. Then I took the sun's elevation many times, using a quadrant and other instruments. I found myself in agreement with Alfraganus, that is to say, the length of a degree is 56⅔ miles. Thus this measurement must be accepted. As a result, we are able to state that the earth's cir­cumference at the equator is 20,400 miles...."

We know from another marginal note that an astronomer named Joseph, in the service of the king of Portugal, had calculated the latitude of Los Idolos Island, off the Guinea coast, as one degree five minutes north. The accepted lati­tude for Lisbon at the time was 40 degrees 15 minutes north. Columbus considered Lisbon and Los Idolos Island to be on the same meridian, and estimated the distance between the two places by dead-reckoning, probably comparing his own estimate with estimates made by the Portuguese navigators. By a simple calculation, he obtained the figure of 56 miles to the degree - close enough to Alfraganus's figure of 56⅔. To obtain the circumference of the earth at the equator, he simply multiplied 56⅔ by 360.

Columbus measured distance at sea by the Italian nautical mile, and thus, when he writes that the circumference of the earth is 20,400 miles, he is referring to Italian nautical miles. One Italian nautical mile is equivalent to 1480 meters (4856 feet), and, converted into modern units, Columbus's meas­ure of the circumference of the earth was thus 30,185 kilo­meters (18,756 miles), or about 25 percent less than the true value of 40,010 kilometers, or 24,861 miles.

His reading of Marco Polo and the Toscanelli letter and map had convinced Columbus that Asia extended much farther to the east than Ptolemy had thought and that, conse­quently, Cipangu lay about as far to the west of Spain as - in fact - the West Indies lie.

Columbus's argument for the feasibility of reaching the Spice Islands by sailing west hinged on this figure of 56⅔ miles to the equatorial degree. Since he was seeking royal support for his venture, he needed an authority of more weight than either Marco Polo or Toscanelli to underpin this crucial number; while they might both be dismissed as rather dotty fantasists, it was not so easy to dismiss Alfraganus, who carried all the authority of the Arab astronomical and mathematical tradition behind him. Columbus's claim to have verified Alfraganus's calculations must be seen in this light.

"Alfraganus" is the Latin version of the Arabic name al-Farghani, and refers to Abu al-'Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani. He was one of the scholars associated with the Caliph al-Ma'mun's great efforts to produce Arabic versions of Greek scientific texts in early ninth-century Bagh­dad. He may well have himself taken part in the scientific expedition which, sometime between 820 and 833, set out to measure the actual length of one degree of a meridian.

This was probably the first attempt since the time of Eratos­thenes to measure the length of a degree. Although there are no surviving eyewitness accounts of the experiment, we know from later sources how it was done: Two locations were identified whose latitudes, determined astronomically, dif­fered by one degree. A north-south baseline connecting them was carefully laid out by sighting along pegs, and the length of that baseline was measured. In the experiment in which al-Farghani took part, two pairs of locations were actually chosen, one pair in northern Iraq, on the plain of Sinjar, and the other near Kufah - both areas as flat and feature­less as possible. The results were then compared, and the length of a degree established as56⅔ miles.

Al-Farghani subsequently wrote a very influential little book on astronomy, a number of copies of whose Arabic text survive. The title can be translated Compendium of the Science of the Stars and Celestial Motions. This was twice translated into Latin in Spain during the Middle Ages, once by Gerard of Cremona and once by John of Seville, working under the auspices of Alfonso the Wise. A Hebrew translation also survives. The Compendium, in its Latin version, was widely circulated in Europe and remained a standard author­ity almost to the time of Galileo; it was first printed in 1493, the same year Columbus returned from his first voyage.

It is worth quoting al-Farghani's exact words, for they were of supreme importance to Columbus: "In that way we find that the value of a degree on the celestial sphere, taken on the circumference of the earth, is 56⅔ miles, each mile being equal to 4000 black cubits, as was ascertained during the time of al-Ma'mun - May God's grace be upon him! And on this point a large number of the learned are in agreement."

Yet the correct value for the length of a degree on the meri­dian is not 56⅔ but roughly 69 statute miles, of 60 nautical miles (by definition), or 111 kilometers and a fraction. How could competent astronomers, skilled in mathematics, have made an error of such magnitude?

The basic unit of measurement in the Arab world was the dhira', or cubit. Originally, this was the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, but a sophisticated cul­ture could not tolerate the variation implicit in this ancient unit of measurement, so the length of a cubit was standar­dized. The earliest standard cubit is known as the "legal cubit", so called because it is the one used in the holy law of Islam, the shar'iya . It is equivalent to 49.8 centimeters (19.6 inches). For surveying purposes, al-Ma'mun introduced another cubit, equivalent to 48.25 centimeters (19 inches). Finally, there is the "black cubit," the standard for which was indicated on the Nilometer on the island of Rawda, in the Nile River. This was equivalent to 54.04 centimeters (21.28 inches). Which cubit did al-Farghani use?  

The obvious answer is that he used the "black cubit" of 54.04 centimeters, since he actually uses that term. But we know from other sources that the black cubit had not yet been introduced during the reign of al-Ma'mun, when the length of a degree was measured on the plain of Sinjar. So in spite of the terminology al-Farghani uses, his "black cubit" must in fact refer to either the "surveying cubit" of 48.25 centimeters, or to the legal cubit of.49.8 centimeters. The latter is the more likely, since we know that it was the most commonly used unit during al-Farghani's lifetime.

There are 4000 cubits in an Arab mile. If al-Farghani used the legal cubit as his unit of measurement, then an Arab mile was 1995 meters (6545 feet) long. A degree on the meridian would measure 113 kilometers (70.25 miles) - two kilometers greater than the true value, but well within acceptable limits of error. If he used al-Ma'mun's surveying cubit, then a degree contained 109 kilometers (67.73 miles) - two kilo­meters less than the true value, but an equally respectable result under the circumstances.

In other words, al-Farghani's so-called "short degree" of 56⅔ miles was not short at all, but was very close to the true length of a degree of the meridian. The error was not al-Farghani's, but Columbus's. Unaware that an Arab mile was considerably longer than an Italian nautical mile, Columbus seized upon the figure of 56⅔ miles for the length of the degree and used it to justify the theory which - in all probabil­ity - he already held.

The Eternal Isles
Written by Paul Lunde

The rediscovery during the Middle Ages of the Canary Islands - the "Islands of the Blessed" of the clas­sical geographers, the "Eternal Isles" of the Arabs-not only represented, to Arabs and Europeans alike, the confirmation of the truth of a classical text, but also served as a spur to search for other islands said to lie to the west.

The Arabs were the first to sight the Canaries, driven there by chance; they may have landed on one of the islands as early as the 10th century. The Vivaldi brothers, out of Genoa, may have landed in the Canaries during their voyage south in 1291. A French ship, caught in a gale, was driven onto one of the Canaries in 1334, although a Portuguese expedition of about the same date failed to find them. Their existence was well-enough known by this time for a man named Juan de la Cerda, a grandson of the Spanish monarch Alfonso the Wise, to have himself crowned King of the Canaries, although he was never able to raise the financial backing to make his pre­tentious title a reality.

There were other voyages to the Canaries which have left no traces in the European sources. One of these, which must have taken place about 1350, is de­scribed by Ibn Khaldun, the most original of late Islamic thinkers, in al-Muqaddimah, the introductory volume to his comprehensive history. This passage is also impor­tant because it contains one of the few descriptions in a literary source of the portulan charts, as well as a clear explanation of the difficulties of Atlantic navigation.

"We have heard," says Ibn Khaldun, "that Frankish ships reached the Eternal Isles in the middle of this century. They attacked and plundered the natives, capturing some whom they sold on the coast of Morocco. These captives entered the service of the Sultan, and after learning Arabic were able to tell about life on their island. They said that they tilled the earth with horn tools, for they had no iron in their country. They ate barley bread and raised goats. They fought with stones, which they flung over their shoulders. They bowed down before the rising sun and had no scriptural religion. Muslim missionaries had not reached them."

All these details are confirmed by later European sources, including the peculiar method of hurling stones, which the Guanche did with extreme accuracy. It is unfortunate that Ibn Khaldun says nothing about their original language, for this is a subject that has been much discussed. Ibn Khaldun con­tinues with an important passage on the practice of late medieval sailors; everything he says applies equally well to the Mediterranean sailors of antiquity:

"The place where these islands lie cannot be found by intention, but only by chance, because ships sail on the sea where the winds take them, and navigation is dependent upon knowing the direction the wind blows, and where it blows from. A direct course is laid between two places that lie in the path of a particular wind. When the wind shifts to another quarter and the direction it is blowing is known, the
sails are adjusted and the ship sails according to the practices of sailors accustomed to sea voyages.

"The lands on the two shores of the Mediterranean are marked on a chart; their true positions on the coast are marked in order. The directions of the different winds are also noted. This chart is called the kanbas [compass]. Sailors depend upon these charts on their voyages.

"But no charts exist for the All-Encompassing Sea [the Atlantic]; that is why ships do not sail it, for if they were to lose sight of the coast, they would be hard put to return to it, for if they were to lose sight of the coast, they would be hard put to return to it. The surface of this sea is also covered with mist, which prevents ships from making their way.... Therefore it is difficult to lay a course for the Eternal Isles and find out more about them."

This is an excellent description of the coast-hugging tech­nique of the Mediterranean sailor. The use of kanbas to indi­cate a mariner's chart, rather than the pair of dividers used to measure distance, or the magnetic compass, is interest­ing, and may throw light on the obscure origins of this word.

Shortly after Ibn Khaldun wrote this passage, and largely as a result of the discovery of the Canary Islands, Portuguese and Spanish sailors discovered how to use the current and wind patterns of the Atlantic to reach destinations across open seas. The technique was called the volta da mar, or the "sea turn," and went against reason, for it meant sailing well to the northwest of the Canaries in order to pick up the easterlies and return home. This was the discovery that made Atlan­tic navigation, far out of sight of land, possible. The Ottoman naval officer Piri Reis, a practical sailor himself, was quick to realize the significance of the discovery, and in his Kitab-i Bahriye gives good descriptions of the wind systems of the north and south Atlantic.

The rediscovery of the Canary islands not only unlocked the secret of Atlantic navigation, thus opening the way to the New World, but set the pattern for conquest, settlement and economic exploitation of the Caribbean Islands. The Guanches, the indigenous inhabitants of the Canaries, were the first "primitive" people encountered by Europeans in modern times! Armed with the most rudimentary weapons, they heroically resisted their conquerors for more than a century and a half. In the end they succumbed, annihilated by superior weapons and unfamiliar diseases. Many were enslaved the rest were assimilated into the new dominant population. The same sad story was to be repeated in the New World.

Columbus knew the Canaries well and was familiar with the Guanches. When he first encountered the inhabitants of the New World, it was to the Guanches that he compared them, noting the many physical similarities. And here he may unconsciously touched upon a mystery to which the Canary Islands may once have held the key.

One of the few relics of the Guanches' material culture is a characteristic clay or wood seal, with a wide variety of designs, which was used to stamp colored patterns on the skin. These seals, called pintaderas in Spanish, are by no means unique to the Canaries. They are found in North and West Africa, the Balkans - where the earliest examples, dating from the fifth millennium BC, have been found - and even Japan. But they have also been found in archeological sites in the Caribbean and Central America, and many of these American examples have patterns very similar to those from the Canaries. The earliest examples from the Canaries have been dated to the second millennium BC; there is some evidence that they were still in use there at the time of the Spanish con­quest. Their presence means the Canaries were inhabited from a remote period - before the time of the Mauretanian king Juba II, who colonized the islands in about 25 BC –and they may even, because of their similarity to American seals indicate very ancient trans-Atlantic contacts.

The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder reported that the Canary Islands were named for the species of large dog found there in classical times - canis being the Latin word for dog - but this smacks of folk etymology. Unfortunately, so do all the other origins that have been proposed for the name, most recently that the name derives from qannariya, the Andalusian Arabic word for the vegetable called cardoon, which is said to have grown therein profusion. It is more likely that the name is related to that of the people who may then have inhab­ited the opposite coast and now inhabit northeastern Nigeria, and who were known to al-Idrisi as the qamanuriya; they are now called the Kanuri. Those names are close to "Canaria" in sound, and it is more likely that an island should be named after a people than after dogs or vegetables. In addition, the qamanuriya spoke Berber, al-Idrisi says; so did the Guanche. Perhaps the Kanuri were the original discoverers and colonizers of the Eternal Isles, the first stepping stone tow the New World.

This article appeared on pages 6-17 of the May/June 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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