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

Religion and Geography in the Early Middle Ages (Natalia Lozovsky, 2009)

NOTE: This article is taken from the 32nd  chapter of Science, Religion & Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy, pp. 283-289:

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Geographical studies in medieval Europe, like other branches of knowledge in that period, developed by incorporating scientific and philosophical achievements of classical Greece and Rome into the framework of Christianity. Geographical interests formed an important part of medieval education and worldview, but geography was not instituted as a separate discipline and geographical studies did not yet have a distinctive name. The term geographia was used very rarely until the fifteenth century, and special geographical texts usually bore titles such as Cosmographia (Cosmography) or De Orbis Terrae (On the Earth). Different genres could accommodate geographical information: biblical commentaries, encyclopedias, histories, special geographical treatises, and accounts of pilgrimage.

St. Brendan’s ship on the back of a whale, and his men praying.

Many scholars, from the eighteenth century to modern times, have pointed to the tight connections between geographical material and the Christian worldview characteristic of medieval thought as the main cause of the decline of geographical studies in the Middle Ages. This view, however, is anachronistic. Medieval geographical studies did not pursue the same goals as modern geography, and they used different methods of collecting and evaluating information. Medieval maps, unlike their modern counterparts, did not always accompany geographical texts, and until the arrival of the portolans, or sea charts, in the thirteenth century, they were not meant for practical use in the modern sense. Thus mappamundi, or maps of the world, which ranged from schematic drawings to large and detailed pictures, presented the same worldview as medieval geographical writings, compiling information from biblical and classical sources and sometimes adding contemporary data.

Geography in the System of Christian Knowledge

Medieval geographical studies, as practiced by Christian scholars, described the earth as part of the material world created by God. Christian scholars believed that God was both the source and the ultimate goal of all knowledge and that studying the Bible was the best way to approach the understanding of the divine. The tradition of using classical knowledge in Christian culture originated in the first centuries of Christianity in the works of the fathers of the church, although they disagreed on the extent and exact contents of the classical learning useful to Christians. In their influential works, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–379) endorsed the use of classical knowledge and set up models for the Middle Ages to follow. Augustine explained that in order to understand the Bible and to attain an understanding of divine things (sapientia), a good Christian needed some knowledge of secular subjects (scientia), including geography. Augustine also demonstrated how to use classical geographical information in the Christian contextin his own biblical commentaries. Augustine’s ideas, expressed in Latin, formed the foundation of learning and education in Western Europe, where Latin was the language of learning. Basil’s Hexameron was a commentary in Greek on the biblical account of the first six days of creation. In his discussion of the biblical text, Basil used and adapted geographical and physical concepts of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. His ideas strongly influenced discussions of geographical questions in Greek-speaking Byzantium. Translated into Latin by Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397), Basil’s Hexameron also became influential in the West.

Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation).
Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation).

The program of Christian studies and the classification of knowledge proposed by Augustine was further developed in the West by Cassiodorus (c. 490–580) and Boethius (480–524). They fully incorporated the program of the seven liberal arts, inherited from antiquity, into Christian education. This program consisted of the verbal arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Geography did not explicitly appear in any medieval classifications, but it had a place within the studies of the created world (scientia), to which the liberal arts belonged. Cassiodorus included geographical readings in the program of education that he proposed for his monks. During the later centuries, medieval schools also taught geography, often as part of geometry, in the context of the quadrivium. Medieval historians also included geographical material in their books, often dedicating special sections to the description of the world and its regions. Thus geography functioned in various contexts, all ultimately serving the goals of edifying Christians.

Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus

Because Christian authorities endorsed the use of classical learning, the main features of Greek and Roman geography were preserved and transmitted to posterity. Among these were theoretical ideas, such as the conception of the spherical earth, the division of the earth into climatic zones, and the existence of three continents. Christian Europe also inherited descriptions of the regions based on old Roman provinces, as well as ethnographic tales about barbarians and monsters who lived at the edges of the earth. The Latin West acquired its knowledge of classical geography from books by Pliny the Elder and Pomponius Mela (both wrote in the first century), Solinus (third century), Macrobius (c. 400), and Martianus Capella (fifth century). Also popular was the geographical description of the known world with which Orosius, a Christian scholar of Spanish origin, began his Histories against the Pagans (written around 416). Orosius’s geographical introduction was entirely based on classical sources. The Greek-speaking East had access to classical geography in the book written by Strabo (first century), as well as in the writings of the fathers of the church. Manuscripts transmitting these works were copied throughout the Middle Ages, and Christian scholars used them to study and teach geography and as sources of data in composing their own treatises.

Paulus Orosius, shown in a miniature from the Saint-Epure codex.
Paulus Orosius, shown in a miniature from the Saint-Epure codex.

The Christianization of the Picture of the World

Early medieval scholars borrowed from the previous tradition the essential features of the classical picture of the world, placed them in a Christian context, and adapted them to the biblical worldview. To reconcile classical information with Christian doctrine, scholars proposed various theories about geographical matters. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Byzantine merchant, wrote his Christian Topography in Greek between 535 and 547. In this book he offered a thoroughly Christianized vision of the world, refuting the theory of the spherical shape of the earth and debating with classical Greek authorities. In his view, the world is shaped like the Tabernacle of Moses; the earth is flat and rectangular and surrounded by the ocean. In addition to theoretical ideas, Cosmas included descriptions of places that he had visited during his trade expeditions. Some manuscripts of Cosmas’s book include maps that represent his ideas: some of them show the rectangular earth, surrounded by the ocean; others demonstrate the great mountain located in the north that he thought accounted for the setting and rising of the sun.

World map, by Cosmas Indicopleustes. The map is oriented with north to the top.

Modern scholars often cite Cosmas’s work to demonstrate the decline of geography in the Middle Ages due to the pernicious influence of religion. But Cosmas is an isolated example. His book did not enjoy wide circulation; it was little known in Byzantium and inaccessible to the Latin-speaking West. Thus, the theory of a flat earth remained marginal to medieval geography, whereas the mainstream adopted classical ideas of the spherical world.

World picture from Christian Topography.

Classical geographical ideas entered the mainstream of Christian thought and education via compendia of Christian knowledge, which followed the influential model established by Isidore of Seville (c. 570–636). In his Etymologies, Isidore collected information from classical authorities and placed it in a Christian context. He presents information about peoples and languages, rivers and seas, regions of the earth, and measurements of distance. His geographical outline of the world in its details follows Pliny, Solinus, and Orosius, but it is structured and complemented by biblical references in such a way as to create a Christianized picture of the world. His earth is spherical, and his account of its regions begins with Paradise and ends with Hell. In between he lists the old provinces of the Roman Empire and follows the classical division of the earth into three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. Throughout his encyclopedia, Isidore provides etymological explanations of names and words, borrowed from classical and Christian sources. Isidore’s encyclopedia, transmitted in hundreds of manuscripts, influenced later geographical accounts both in its material and its method.

This T and O map, from the first printed version of Isidoor's Etymologiae, identifies the three known continents as populated by descendants of Sem (Shem), Iafeth (Japheth) and Cham (Ham).
This T and O map, from the first printed version of Isidoor’s Etymologiae, identifies the three known continents as populated by descendants of Sem (Shem), Iafeth (Japheth) and Cham (Ham).

Hrabanus Maurus in his encyclopedia On the Natures of Things (De Rerum Naturis), composed between 842 and 847 as a reference tool for reading scripture, continued Isidore’s tradition and went even further in his Christianization of the classical geographical material. Borrowing both the contents and the etymological method from Isidore, Hrabanus adds to them the exegetical methods of biblical commentaries. He looks for symbolic meanings behind the physical world. For instance, the division of the earth into the three continents, according to Hrabanus, signifies the Trinity. Structuring his account of the regions along Christian lines, he places Jerusalem at the center of the earth, and in describing Palestine he often associates places with biblical events.

Rabanus Maurus (left) presents his work to Otgar of Mainz
Rabanus Maurus (left) presents his work to Otgar of Mainz

In the second half of the ninth century, John Scottus Eriugena, the first major medieval philosopher in the West after Augustine, included theoretical geographical material in his magisterial synthesis of Christian knowledge, On Natures (Periphyseon). When discussing the created world, he treated in detail the shape and size of the earth and reported the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes’s calculations of the earth’s circumference. Analyzing the symbolism of the numbers in Eratosthenes’s result, John Scottus connected these calculations to Pythagoras’s idea of numerical and musical proportions underlying the structure of the world. He concluded that all these numbers and proportions reveal the structure and harmony of the world as being entirely in accordance with the scriptures.


In subsequent centuries, the compendia of Christian knowledge followed the same pattern, including geographical information among other data about the created world and drawing on established authorities, both Christian (Isidore and Orosius) and pagan (Pliny). Among these encyclopedias were Honorius of Autun’s Imago Mundi (c. 1110), Lambert of St. Omer’s Liber Floridus (1112–1121), Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia (1211–1214), Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Maius (c. 1260), and Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius (1266–1267).

Optic studies by Bacon

While working with classical information, medieval scholars were particularly concerned to reconcile it with the Bible. Many geographical concepts and places mentioned in the Bible and particularly important to Christianity had little or no equivalent in classical geography. One such place was Paradise, or the Garden of Eden, described in Genesis 2:8–14, and not mentioned in classical descriptions of the world. According to the biblical account, the Garden of Eden, where God put the first man, was located in the East. It pleasantly abounded with trees, and a great river ran through it. Be yond its boundaries, the river divided and became four rivers, named the Phison, the Geon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. Since Genesis implies that the Garden of Eden was located on earth but does not specify where, it left abundant room for Christian scholars to speculate on the location. The predominant medieval geographical and cartographical tradition, from Isidore of Seville on, placed Paradise in the East. It also usually identified the biblical river Geon as the Nile and the Phison as the Ganges, but some remarkable exceptions placed the Phison in Europe and thus connected Paradise to that part of the world. A biblical commentary composed in Canterbury between 650 and 750 displayed rather vague ideas about European geography, suggesting that the Phison was the same river as the Rhône, which in turn was the same as the Danube. The cosmography of Pseudo-Aethicus, composed between the fifth and the eighth centuries, mentions a river Geon beginning in the fields of Gaul. One ninth-century monastic history claims that the Geon is the same river as the Seine, where the monastery was located.

Psalter Map (1265). Paradise is the little circle at the top, at the eastern edge of Asia, with the faces of Adam and Eve inside.

Medieval scholars also used classical information to explain and elaborate on other biblical passages, which in their turn endorsed classical concepts. Thus, an account in Genesis 9:18–19 reports that after the Flood, the earth was populated by the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Christian writers, turning to classical geography, explained that when Noah distributed the earth among his three sons, Shem received Asia, Japhet Europe, and Ham Africa. The tripartite division of the earth, inherited from Greek and Roman geography, thus received a biblical explanation and justification and was widely used in geographical descriptions and maps. In accordance with Ezekiel 5:5, many medieval maps and geographical accounts place Jerusalem at the center of the earth, combining this biblical postulate with depictions and descriptions borrowed from classical geography. The biblical accounts of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 39:2 and Revelation 20:8), two figures or apocalyptic nations that were to bring devastation in the end of times, were combined with the classical tradition and produced the story of Alexander the Great enclosing these dangerous nations behind a wall. The lands of Gog and Magog found their place in medieval texts and maps, among other Christian and classical information. Throughout the Middle Ages, particularly feared peoples, such as the Mongols, were identified as “Gog and Magog.”

Al-Idrisi’s World Map (12th c.) with Gog & Magog behind the wall and circled in red. This map is oriented to the south so here Gog & Magog are in the proximity of China.
The Building of Alexander’s Gates from an early Arabic manuscript.

Pilgrimage and Descriptions of the Holy Places

Pilgrimage was a way for medieval people to share in the sacred. Travel to the holy land allowed people to see the locations where biblical events occurred, to pray there, and thus to approach a better understanding of the Bible, this ultimate source of Christian wisdom. According to the medieval tradition, travel to places that witnessed the activity of the saints or contained their relics, such as Rome, Canterbury, or Santiago de Compostela, brought people in direct contact with the power of the saints, which they believed could heal their bodies and save their souls. Numerous pilgrims who traveled to the holy land, such as Egeria (late fourth or fifth century), Bernard (ninth century), and John of Würzburg (twelfth century), left detailed accounts of their journeys, enumerating the holy places and recalling connected places in scripture. Some accounts conveyed firsthand experience; others were based on literary sources and other people’s travels. Adomnan in his On Holy Places (De Locis Sanctis) recorded the pilgrimage of Arculf, around 683–684, while Bede (673–735) composed his book of the same name using Adomnan’s text and other sources. Useful reference tools, such as Eusebius’s Onomasticon in Greek and its Latin translation by Jerome, focused on etymologies and the biblical significance of place names. Bede’s book, based on Jerome’s Latin version of the Onomasticon and the history by Josephus Flavius, performed the same service.

While pilgrims’ accounts described specific sights, there also existed special itineraries and guidebooks composed for pilgrims to help them find their way to the holy places. The anonymous Bordeaux Itinerary (333) lists the routes leading from Bordeaux to the holy land, also mentioning the number of miles on each leg of the journey, important stations, and changes of direction. The twelfth-century pilgrims’ guide to Santiago de Compostela, written in French, indicates several routes leading to the shrine from different places in Europe and gives information about the locations and peoples they pass through.

Medieval maps often included various holy places, from Jerusalem to European shrines. The mosaic map from the church in Madaba (sixth century) represents the holy land at the Byzantine period and quotes passages from the Bible corresponding to locations. With east on the top, it places a plan of Jerusalem with several important churches in the center. The map also contains plans of several other cities. Like other medieval maps, this one was not drawn to scale and was not meant as a practical guide for travelers. Rather, this representation of the holy land and the surrounding areas, laid out on the floor of the church as it was, may have served as a symbol of the earthly space within the cosmic space symbolized by the entire church building.

The Madaba map, 542 AD, Madaba, Jordan)
The map is dated to the sixth century, during the time of Emperor Justinian (527 – 565). It is the oldest known map of Palestine

Geography continued to develop in the context of religion throughout the almost one thousand years of the medieval period. Its main theoretical postulates and the principles of place descriptions remained remarkably stable and changed only little. However, it would be wrong to conclude that medieval geography was slavishly dependent on the classical and Christian traditions. Medieval authors complemented the traditional information with new data and thus modified the picture of the world. Two ninth-century writers, Dicuil in On the Measurement of the Earth (De Mensura Orbis Terrae) and an anonymous author in On the Location of the Earth (De Situ Orbis), built on the classical tradition, but each chose and reorganized the classical data in such a way as to shift the emphasis from the Mediterranean area, the focus of Roman geography, to the European regions closer to home. Dicuil, an Irish scholar who worked at the courts of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, gives an account of world geography with particular attention placed on dimensions and distances. He meticulously compared the data of classical sources and criticized some of them because they contradicted his own experience or the experience of other people. He also supplemented information drawn from books by reports of travelers about northern islands and the Nile.

Reconstruction of Pomponius Mela’s world map by Konrad Miller (1898).

A tenth-century historian, Richer, when describing France, complemented the classical account of Gaul composed by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE with contemporary names of the regions. Explanatory notes left by medieval scholars in the margins of manuscripts updated classical information by filling in contemporary names for peoples and locations. Scholars such as Bede and Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), while relying on authorities, used their own observations of the natural world. The creators of the Hereford Map (1300) based their large and detailed map of the world on classical information but also included some recent and local data.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi of 1280, drawn by Richard de Haldingham and Lafford
The Hereford Mappa Mundi of 1280, drawn by Richard de Haldingham and Lafford

The main principles of medieval learned geography in Europe, its reliance on authorities, its essentially bookish character, and its tight connection to a religious worldview were to give way only in the course of the great social, cultural, and intellectual changes that Europe experienced between 1400 and 1700. These changes, brought about by geographical explorations and discoveries and the new value placed on experience and observation, would transform medieval knowledge about nature, separate it from religion, and ultimately turn it into modern science. The processes that took place during the course of the medieval centuries, the growing extent of travel, the overseas expansion, and the rising interest in new knowledge paved the way for this transformation.

Illustrated map of Constantinople


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