The World According to Cosmas Indicopleustes – Concepts and Illustrations of an Alexandrian Merchant and Monk (Stefan Faller, 2011)

This paper is designed to give an insight into the person commonly called Cosmas Indicopleustes and his work, the Χριστιανικὴ Τοπογραφία (henceforth referred to as Christian Topography). We will take a look at the lavishly illustrated manuscripts, the cosmological model propagated therein, and Cosmas’ knowledge about parts of what we call the Far East—China, India and Sri Lanka. Moreover, we will examine whether Cosmas can be interpreted as a transcultural person according to Wolfgang Welsch’s definition. Welsch developed his concept of transculturality from 1991 onwards,[1] feeling that under the pressure of a constantly growing globalization, the common notion of “culture”, earmarked by Herder as a homogeneous, spherical and closed entity,[2] should be revised. Welsch does not think the concepts of multiculturalism and interculturalism to be fruitful alternatives, since, in his view, they perpetuate the notion that different cultures are somehow antagonistic, even though a peaceful modus vivendi is desired. Welsch proposes that, nowadays, formerly homogeneous cultures permeate each other, and in this sense living in this world has become transcultural.

It is not the scope of this paper to evaluate Welsch’s theory as a whole.[3] He has, however, always stressed that transculturality is not only a phenomenon among a great multitude of people, but also a category at the individual level;[4]moreover, despite the fact that it is universally existent today, he claims transculturality has been there since ancient times.[5] Therefore, it seems legitimate to examine whether Cosmas Indicopleustes fits his concept.

  1. Cosmas – a mysterious person

Trying to trace Cosmas as a person has always been difficult. While there is a wealth of images of authors from antiquity or late antiquity—be they realistic or fictitious—nobody seems to have even tried to depict Cosmas. Ulrich Harsch, who in 1997 started a very tremendous website with electronic texts of various kinds—called Bibliotheca Augustana[6]—gives the picture reproduced here as figure 1, when referring to Cosmas.

Fig. 1: ‘Cosmas’ as depicted in the Bibliotheca Augustana, courtesy of Ulrich Harsch.
Fig. 1: ‘Cosmas’ as depicted in the Bibliotheca Augustana, courtesy of Ulrich Harsch.

Professor Harsch adds the following caption, though: “Monachus anonymus (effigies Cosmae non exstat)” (an anonymous monk (a picture of Cosmas does not exist)). We will be able to clarify the identity of this person later.

Furthermore, there is quite a controversy about the name of this intriguing author; it started in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch scholar Isaac Voss claimed that Cosmas was not the real name of the author of the Christian Topography, but rather a nickname, prompted by his preoccupation with cosmological matters.[7] It is hard to prove or disprove this statement, but it is a fact that the name Cosmas—as well as the epithet μοναχός, which makes him a monk—only occurs in one of the manuscripts dating from the eleventh century.[8]

Also, his other, even more famous epithet, Ἰνδικοπλεύστης (the one who sailed to India), is doubtful. At any rate, it is a scholarly invention, based on the portions of his work in which he displays some knowledge about India. Unfortunately, he does not say anywhere that he actually visited the subcontinent—there is only one episode in which he relates that he embarked on a sea voyage to India, but owing to stormy weather and superstitious beliefs, the passengers convinced the captain that he should break off the journey and hasten to the nearest port, which happened to be in Africa (Top. Chr. 2.30).[9] Usually, the author openly tells his readers when he has visited a place he describes, but not so about India. For Sri Lanka, he explicitly mentions a merchant named Sopatros who provided him with information for a substantial portion of his narrative.

Since we will never find out if he was in India, or what his real name was, and since both Cosmas and Indicopleustes are possibly appropriate denominations, we may as well continue naming him in this way.

All the information we get about Cosmas is gleaned from his work. According to it, he wrote the Christian Topography about twenty-five years after he visited the Ethiopian city of Adule in the year that the Axumite king, Caleb Ella Asbeha[10], went to war against the Himyarites in Southern Arabia. This campaign started sometime between the years 522 and 525, which suggests that the Topography was written between the years 547 and 550 (Top. Chr. 2.54-63).[11] Also, the fact that Cosmas mentions two eclipses appears to corroborate this, as he is probably referring to the solar eclipse on February 6th and to the lunar eclipse on August 17th of the year 547.[12]

From Top. Chr. 2.1, in which he addresses a certain Pamphilus, at whose request he began his work on the Christian Topography, we learn that Cosmas considers Alexandria his own city—whether he was born there, we do not know, but at least around the year 550 his life seems to have been centred there.[13] From the same passage we learn that Cosmas seems to have been a somewhat elderly man at that time; at least he was suffering from several diseases that might intimate old age:

[…] 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; […][14]

In the same paragraph, Cosmas also tells us something about his education. He clearly did not take pride at all in worldly erudition:

[…] ἄλλως τε δὲ καὶ τῆς ἔξωθεν ἐγκυκλίου παιδείας λειπομένων καὶ ῥητορικῆς τέχνης ἀμοιρούντων καὶ στωμυλίαι λόγων ἢ κομπῷ χαρακτῆρι συνθεῖναι λόγον οὐκ εἰδότων, καὶ ταῖς τοῦ βίου πλοκαῖς ἀσχολουμένων.

[…] while besides we were deficient in the school-learning of the Pagans, without any knowledge of the rhetorical art, ignorant how to compose a discourse in a fluent and embellished style, and were besides occupied with the complicated affairs of everyday life.

This statement seems to be true, judging from the language and style displayed in the Christian Topography. While there are numerous passages of either confused content or reiterating thoughts, both of which defy any precepts of ancient rhetorical art, these incongruities are also found on the grammatical level. We cannot expect classical Attic grammar from an Alexandrian writer of the sixth century A.D., but Cosmas’ sometimes very long (and not always coherent) sentences are not a sign of a particular language variety, but of a lack of rhetorical training. Whenever he uses absolute nominatives, employs incongruent case structures or confuses singular and plural, it is hard to tell whether these are colloquialisms or errors that went unnoticed by a rhetorically unskilled mind.[15]

However, there is another sort of learning that the Christian whom we call Cosmas regarded as much more valuable than the “pagan” way of instruction—his authorities are the Bible and a certain bishop who deserves our attention:

Αὐτὸς οὐδὲν ἧττον ἐνοχλῶν ἡμῖν οὐ διέλειπες, ὡς λόγον ἡμᾶς ἔγγραφον ἐκθεῖναι […] οὐδ᾽ ἐξ ἐμαυτοῦ πλασάμενος ἢ στοχασάμενος, ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ τῶν θείων Γραφῶν παιδευθείς, καὶ διὰ ζώσης δὲ φωνῆς παραλαβὼν ὑπὸ τοῦ θειοτάτου ἀνδρὸς καὶ μεγάλου διδασκάλου Πατρικίου, […] μετέδωκε θεοσεβείας καὶ γνώσεως ἀληθεστάτης, ὃς καὶ αὐτὸς νυνὶ ἐκ θείας χάριτος ἐπὶ τοὺς ὑψηλοὺς καὶ ἀρχιερατικοὺς θρόνους ἀνήχθη τῆς ὅλης Περσίδος, καθολικὸς ἐπίσκοπος τῶν αὐτόθι κατασταθείς.

Nevertheless you ceased not pressing us to compose a treatise […], not as communicating opinions and conjectures of my own framing, but what I had learned from the divine scriptures, and from the living voice of that most divine man and great teacher Patricius, […]. Patricius propagated the doctrines of holy religion and true science, and has now by the grace of God been elevated to the lofty episcopal throne of all Persia, having been appointed to the office of Bishop Catholic of that country. [Top. Chr. 2.2]

As stated earlier, it may be uncertain whether Cosmas was indeed a monk; that he was a Christian is beyond doubt. That he was an adherent of Nestorianism is very likely—not only do his cosmological ideas have a Nestorian foundation, as we shall soon see, but his outright veneration for Patricius is telling. This person, a convert from Persian Zoroastrianism, is better known as Aba I. (or with the Syriac honorific title: Mar Aba). He followed and propagated the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius and was “Bishop Catholic” (i.e., patriarch) of the Assyrian Church of the East at Seleucia-Ctesiphon between 540 and 552.[16] Along with Thomas of Edessa, who translated Aba’s Syriac speeches into Greek, he gave lectures on Theodore and Nestorius in Alexandria, and it seems that Cosmas attended them. Patricius and Thomas had to withdraw from that city speedily, though—Nestorianism had been banned as a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and Alexandria was a strictly anti-Nestorian city.[17] In fact, Nestorius’ main opponent at the Council was the Alexandrian patriarch Cyril. The fact that Cosmas attended these heretic lectures and did not give up his ardent veneration of Patricius/Mar Aba clearly shows that his support for Nestorianism was indefatigable. This, of course, made him a member of a minority group in a somewhat hostile environment, and it may well have been the main reason for the author of theChristian Topography to hide so cautiously behind his work.

Whether his religious attitude is a sign of transculturality in Welsch’s sense is debatable. Put simply, it can be said that Cosmas was influenced by at least three religious systems—non-Christian beliefs (which he openly rejected), orthodox Christian beliefs (be they pre- or post Chalcedonian, i.e., mono- / miaphysite or not) and Nestorian (Christian) beliefs. If he had been an openly confessing Nestorian and, more importantly, had antagonized Christian orthodoxy (as he did with “pagan” beliefs), there would have been nothing transcultural about him in this respect, since an important point in Welsch’s concept is that features of different cultural entities are not only known to an individual subject, but are at least partly accepted. But Cosmas is more subtle and never disparages orthodoxy, to such an extent that neither Photius, who did not like the Christian Topography owing to linguistic and cosmological reasons,[18] nor Montfaucon, who procured its first modern edition in 1706, took note of the inherent Nestorianism.[19] It can be argued that Cosmas did not see a great difference between his favoured sect and official Christianity, as did the fathers of the Ephesian Council,[20] all the more so, if indeed he called Mary the “Mother of God” (which is not a Nestorian practice)[21] and if he really became a monk (because there were definitely no Nestorian monasteries anywhere in the vicinity of Alexandria).[22] Seen from this perspective, his religious attitude would indeed show transcultural traits.

There is yet another side to Cosmas, though. As he states himself, he used to be a merchant in his former life; as such, he has travelled to the Aksumite Empire in Ethiopia, as mentioned before. Explicitly, he also mentions having sailed around the island of Socotra (Top. Chr. 3.65) and having ventured into what he calls “three gulfs”:

Ταῦτα δὲ παραλαβὼν ἐκ τοῦ θείου, ὡς εἴρηται, ἀνδρός, ἤτοι καὶ αὐτῆς τῆς πείρας, ἐσήμανα· ἐμπορίας γὰρ χάριν ἔπλευσα τοὺς τρεῖς κόλπους, τόν τε κατὰ τὴν Ῥωμανίαν καὶ τὸν Ἀράβιον καὶ τὸν Περσικόν, καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν οἰκούντων δὲ ἢ καὶ πλεόντων τοὺς κόλπους ἀκριβῶς μεμαθηκώς.

Having learned these facts from the Man of God, as has been said, I have pointed them out as coincident also with my own experience, for I myself have made voyages for commercial purposes in three of these gulfs – the Roman, the Arabian and the Persian, while from the natives or from seafaring men I have obtained accurate information regarding the different places. [Top. Chr. 2.29]

The bodies of water Cosmas refers to are the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. These two aspects—devout Nestorian Christian doctrine combined with a vast personal travelling experience—are the two parameters we must keep in mind to further understand Cosmas’ work. It should be noted, however, that Cosmas himself does not see a dichotomy between these two “worlds”, as might be expected. Convinced by the speeches of Mar Aba, he still does not belittle or conceal his mercantile past, but finds the knowledge he acquired back then to be in keeping with his newly won convictions.

Another important detail from this short passage should be highlighted: So far, it has only become clear that Cosmas thought highly of the city of Alexandria (Top. Chr. 2.1) and may have associated it with notions of home. By referring to the Mediterranean Sea as a “[gulf stretching] towards the Roman Empire” ([κόλπος] κατὰ τὴν Ῥωμανίαν), he reminds us that Egypt then formed a part of the Byzantine Empire. ‘Romania’ (Ῥωμανία) was one of the contemporary terms the Byzantines used when referring to their empire, as does Cosmas on four occasions.[23] He also uses the adjective Ῥωμαϊκός (Roman) and always speaks of ‘Romans’ (Ῥωμαῖοι or Ῥωμεῖς) when he refers to Byzantine subjects. With Ἕλληνες (Greeks), he only refers to the ancient or Hellenistic Greeks and almost always uses the word in the sense of ‘pagan’.[24]  This is also in keeping with Byzantine terminology. It may be argued that the use of Byzantine phrases does not necessarily prove Cosmas to have been a legal subject of the Emperor of Constantinople,[25] but it certainly does show that he was influenced by Byzantine culture.

The entire 33 page article can be read here:

A sketch of Cosmas’ pattern of the universe, Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186, fol. 65r, 11th century, probably from Cappadocia, now at St. Katherine's monastery, Sinai..
A sketch of Cosmas’ pattern of the universe, Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186, fol. 65r, 11th century, probably from Cappadocia, now at St. Katherine’s monastery, Sinai..
A more detailed sketch of Cosmas’ pattern of the universe, Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186, fol. 69r, 11th century, probably from Cappadocia, now at St. Katherine's monastery, Sinai.
A more detailed sketch of Cosmas’ pattern of the universe, Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186, fol. 69r, 11th century, probably from Cappadocia, now at St. Katherine’s monastery, Sinai.
 Cosmas’ map of the earth, Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186, fol. 66v, 11th century, probably from Cappadocia, now at St. Katherine's monastery, Sinai
Cosmas’ map of the earth, Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186, fol. 66v, 11th century, probably from Cappadocia, now at St. Katherine’s monastery, Sinai