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World Pictures of Cosmas-5

Abbasid Caliphate
Stacked Wooden Logs


Much of the tone of medieval European cartography and geography is reflected and exemplified by the work of Cosmas of Alexandria (later being conferred with the honorary surname of Indicopleustes, i.e., the "Indian - sailor"). During this time cartography was heavily "Christianized" as evidenced by the many religious themes and references incorporated in and even dominating many of the surviving maps from the Middle Ages. The rejecting of 'classical' geography and the impetus and rationale for this theocratic trend, while not originating with Cosmas, was synthesized and exaggerated in his works. Both philosophically and cartographically Cosmas' ideas were strictly dictated by his literal interpretation of the Bible. Cosmas' personal history, however, is rather contradictory to his later narrow interpretation of geography because he was originally a traveling merchant by profession. He claimed to have sailed the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, trading at the market places of Abyssinia and Socotia, western India and Ceylon, among others. This extensive travel can be substantiated through examination of his detailed description of these areas. As a climax to this unusually broad and worldly experience Cosmas embraced Christianity, going so far as to become a religious monk to demonstrate the depth of his conversion. It has been estimated that between the years of 535 and 548 A.D., in the solitude of a Sinai cloister, Cosmas wrote, besides his memoirs, an explanation of the universe entitled Topographia Christiana [Christian Topography].

Unfortunately, the book which he devoted to a description of countries, and which would have revealed his fine powers of observation, has not survived, like all of his other works - his Astronomical Tables, Commentaries on the Psalms, on the Song of Songs, and on the Gospels. Some of his geographic descriptions are to be found as part of the Topographia , and a few fragments of the above writings do exist.

The Christian Topography has been preserved in two copies: one a parchment manuscript of the 10th century belonging to the Laurentian Library in Florence, and containing the whole work except the last leaf; the other, a very fine unical manuscript of the 8th or 9th century, belonging to the Vatican Library, and containing sketches drawn by Cosmas himself, but wanting entirely the twelfth book, which is the last. There is, besides, in the Imperial Library in Vienna, a Cosmas manuscript, but this contains only a few leaves of the Topography. This treatise, completed around 547 A.D., remained rather obscure until 1706 when it was first published in its entirety (the Florentine codex collated with that of the Vatican) by a Benedictine monk, Father Montfaucon, as part of a larger work entitled Nova Collectio Patrum et Scriptorum Graecorum.

The Christian Topography contains references to nearly seventy authorities selected from among philosophers, historians, travellers, doctors of the Church, soldiers, and statesmen. Comas' primary objective and motivation in writing the treatise was to discredit the "false and heathen doctrine of a spherical earth". This he accomplishes with reprehensible religious zeal in the first book [chapter]. In order to disprove the pagan writers with such stature as Plato, Aristotle, Strabo, Pythagoras, Eudoxus, Pytheas of Marseilles, Ptolemy, Eratosthenes, and many others, Cosmas used two very effective weapons: the words of God and "common sense".

In subsequent Books (II-XII) he fulfills his secondary objective, that of revealing the "true doctrine" of the universe and the earth's place in it, as defined by Cosmas' interpretation of the Scriptures, confirmed by the Church Fathers (Book X) and even non-Christian sources (Book XII).

In addition to the above mentioned classical/pagan writers, Cosmas also takes issue with fellow Christian writers, such as Saint Basil, Isidore of Seville, Origen and others who either avoided the controversy of a spherical earth or argued on the side of the pagan scientists. Some of his fellow Christian writers openly declared that it did not matter so far as faith was concerned whether the earth was a sphere, a cylinder or a disc. But this sort of rationalizing was not good enough for Cosmas. God had once explained to Moses on Mount Sinai exactly how the Tabernacle was to be built, and when it was found in the writings of Saint Paul that there was a passage which could be interpreted to mean that the Tabernacle was a picture of the world, it was quite natural for the Church Fathers to envision the world as a vast tabernacle: a tent with a rectangular base, twice as long as it was broad, and with an arched roof supported by for pillars. Both prophets and apostles, says Cosmas, agree that the Tabernacle was a true copy of the universe, the express image of the visible world.

Using this biblical passage by the Apostle Paul (Hebrews IX:1-2) which declares that the first Tabernacle was a pattern of this world, for the first "had ordinances of divine service and a worldly sanctuary; for there was a tabernacle made; the first wherein was the candlestick and the table and the shewbread, which is called the Sanctuary". Cosmas undertakes, with much else, to explain the symbolism of that Tabernacle in detail. In calling it worldly, Cosmas explained, St. Paul was indicating a sort of pattern of the world; the candlestick represents the luminaries of the heavens (sun, moon, stars); the table was an analogy to the earth itself and the shew-bread symbolized the fruits produced from the world. The same logic was applied by Cosmas in his conception of the shape of the world, for the Scripture said "thou shalt make the table in length two cubits and in breadth one cubit" (Exodus XXXVII:10). This indicated to Cosmas that the earth was flat and twice as long, from east to west, as it was broad. Moreover, the earth was suspended, as Job said (Job XXXVIII:38), on nothing, but was founded on God's stability.

The heavens come downward to us in four walls, which, at their lower sides, are welded to the four sides of the earth beyond ocean, each to each. The upper side of the northern wall; at the summit of heaven, curves around and over, till it unites with the upper side of the southern wall, and thus forms, in the shape of an oblong vault, the canopy of heaven, which Cosmas likens to the vaulted roof of a bathroom.

This great dome is divided into two strata by the firmament; from the earth to the firmament is the present dispensation of angels and men containing the land, the sea and the inhabitants of the world, with the angels hovering close to the "roof" holding the sun, moon and stars which they controlled. In the second storey, from the firmament to the arch of the second heaven, was to be found the kingdom of the blessed (the saints and angels) and enthroned at the top was Christ himself. From some passages in Book IX it may be inferred that Cosmas estimated the distance from the earth to the firmament as double the distance from the firmament to the summit of the Upper Heaven.

"The sun", said Cosmas via Solomon, "on rising, turns first toward the north, where it went down, and thence hastened to the place in which it arose". The earth, he tells us, gradually rising up from the south, extends westward, until it culminates at last in a huge conical mountain situated somewhere in the far-away frozen north. Behind this immense cone, the sun at the close of the day disappears from view, and leaves not only the world which we inhabit in darkness, but is the source of darkness "even to the ocean beyond our earth, and thence to the land on the other side of our ocean," until, having circled round the cone, it reappears in the east to give birth to a new day. These facts were "proved" by the furniture of the Tabernacle. Here the candlestick, placed to the south of the table of shew-bread, typified the heavenly bodies shining on the earth; the molding that Moses put around the table of shew-bread signified the ocean encompassing our present world; and by a "crown of palm's width" beyond the molding, was indicated the former world of the patriarchs on the other side of the ocean, where man lived before the flood.

In all this Cosmas passed beyond the position of most of the theologians such as Lactantius (the "Christian Cicero" of the 3rd century) who preceded him. Where they had only denied, he affirmed, and affirmed with definitiveness. The faithful Christian in earlier times had been content to doubt or dispute the theory of a round world, and the monstrous fallacies such as the Antipodes associated with this pagan error; but, until Cosmas, they were never offered a clear alternative - God's word for man's. The system extrapolated by Cosmas was constructed from the Scriptures and no 'true Christian' could doubt such a source as this.

To illustrate this interpretive description of the earth and the universe, the Christian Topography contains, in all probability, the oldest Christian maps to have survived. There is little doubt among scholars that the numerous sketches - of the world, of the northern mountains, of the Antipodes in derision and the rest - which are to be found in the 10th century Florentine manuscript copy were really drawn by Cosmas himself (or under his direction) during the 6th century; and are thus contemporary with the Madaba mosaic map and at least two centuries earlier than the map of Albi (Slide #206), or the original sketch of the Spanish monk Beatus (Slides 207).

The world, as expressed by Cosmas on one of his diagrammatic maps shown here, is of course rectangular and flat, and is divided into two parts: present and antediluvian. The central part of the rectangular landmass (the present) is surrounded by a likewise rectangular unnavigable Oceanus which, in turn, is surrounded by another earth or borderland, Terra ultra Oceanum, in which the Paradise of Adam was located and "where men lived before the Flood". Located in the eastern portion of this antediluvian 'borderland' or Paradise can be found a large rectangular lake, and from this the 'four sacred rivers' flow, somehow, through or under the Oceanus to the inhabited present world.

Of these the Pheisôn [Pison] is the river of India, which some call the Indus or Ganges. It flows down from regions in the interior, and falls by many mouths into the Indian Sea, enjoying all of the same products as the Nile, from crocodiles to lotus flowers . . . The Geôn [Gihon or Nile] again, which rises somewhere in Ethiopia and Egypt, and discharges its waters into our gulf by several mouths, while the Tigris and Euphrates, which have their sources in the regions of Parsarmenia, flow down to the Persian Gulf . . .

Cosmas' map also contains the four great seas or gulfs: the Mediterranean, Persian, Arabian and Caspian; along with obvious graphic references to the Black and Adriatic Seas. The Mediterranean tapers off sharply in the west before it empties into the Oceanus and the Caspian is still perpetuated as a bay of the encircling ocean. According to Cosmas, the four 'corners' or extremes of the world are occupied by four nations [i.e., races of man]. In the east are the Indians, in the south the Ethiops, in the west the Celts and in the north the Scythians. But their regions are not of equal extent. As the world is an oblong, and the length of it is from east to west, the nations dwelling upon these sides have a far wider range than those which are placed at the two ends. The Scythians occupy what is left over from the course of the sun (i.e., the North); the Ethiopians over against them extend from the "Winter East to the Shortest West".

Concerning the dimensions of the world Cosmas writes: "for if, on account of a miserable trade, men now try to go to the Seres, would they not much rather go far beyond, for the sake of Paradise, if there were any hope of reaching it?" The Seric or Silk Land, indeed, lay in the most distant recesses of India, far past the Persian Gulf, and even past the island of Ceylon. It was also called Sina [Malaya ?], and just as Barbary or Somaliland had the ocean on its right, so this remote country was washed by the ocean on the left. And so the Brahmin philosophers declared that if you stretched a cord from Sina, through Persia, to the Roman Empire, you would exactly cut the world in half.

"Moreover, for as much as beyond Sina on the east, and beyond Cadiz on the west, there is no navigation, it is between these points that we can best measure the length of the world;" just as from the land of the Hyperboreans "living behind the north wind," and from the Caspian, that flows in from the Arctic waters, to the Southern Ocean and the extremest coasts of Ethiopia, one may estimate the breadth. The first will be found to be about 400 stages; the second about 200. Specifically, the breadth - from the Northern Ocean to Byzantium, 50 stages; from Byzantium to Alexandria, 50 stages; from here to the Cataracts, 30 stages; from here to the area called Axum, 30 stages; and from here to the incense-bearing coast of Barbary, a district called Sasou, about 50 stages. The length - from Sina to Persia, 150 stages; from here to the Roman Empire, at Nisbis, 80 stages; from here to Seleucia, 13 stages; and to Cadiz more than 150 stages.

Cosmas, like all good Christian geographers, shrank from the idea of an inhabited part of the world in the Antipodes, separated from Christianity by an ocean belt near the equator. The theory of such a region, found in some of the pagan writings of the early Greeks and later by the likes of Macrobius, Isidore and other perpetuators of pagan thought, was impossible, according to Cosmas, on two counts. In the first place, the region, if indeed there was land there, would be uninhabitable because of the withering heat. In the second place, the inhabitants could not possibly be descended from Adam, since the Ark of Noah carried the sole survivors of the great Flood. The subject of the Antipodes and the possibility of inhabitants in that region became an important theological issue, ably debated by St. Isidore of Seville in the 6th century (Slide #205). Two hundred years later Virgil of Salzburg with Basil and Ambrose agreed that even though it was a delicate subject, it was not necessarily closed to the Church. Cosmas was most emphatic on the subject. Pagans, he said, "do not blush to affirm that there are people who live on the under surface of the earth . . . But should one wish to examine more elaborately the question of the Antipodes, he would easily find them to be old wives' fables. For if two men on opposite sides placed the soles of their feet each against each, whether they chose to stand on earth or water, on air or fire, or any other kind of body, how could both be found standing upright? The one would assuredly be found in the natural upright position, and the other, contrary to nature, head downward. Such notions are opposed to reason and alien to our nature and condition."

In support of the same truth, Cosmas quotes the added testimony of Abraham, David, Hosea, Isaiah, Zachariah and Melchizedek, who clenched the case against the Antipodes - "For how, indeed, could even rain be described as 'falling' or 'descending' in regions where it could only be said to 'come up'?" Over against these disproofs of folly and error stands the countless array of evidences for the true tabernacle theory, for the flatness and immutability of earth, founded upon God's stability, and for the shape of heaven, stretched like a skin-covering over our world, and glued to the edges of it at the horizon.
The place of Cosmas in history has been sometimes misconceived. No scholar admits that his works had any major impact or traceable influence on medieval geographical thought. For, on the whole, its influence is only slightly, and occasionally, traceable. Its author stated his position as an article of Christian faith; but even in those times there was anything but a general agreement with his didactic conclusions. The subtleties of Cosmas were left to the Greeks, for the most part; the western geographers who pursued his line of thought were usually content to stop short at the merely negative dogmas of the Latin fathers; and no great support was given to the constructive tabernacle-system of the Indian merchant.

Yet, after all, the Christian Topography will always be remarkable for other than the intended purposes. It represents perhaps the final warning of a certain habit of mind, of that religious dogmatizing which fears nothing but want of faith. Quite apart from the genuinely useful notes that it contains of commercial and missionary travel, it is also one of the earliest important essays in scientific or strictly theoretic geography, within the Christian era, written by a Christian thinker. It is extraordinary that Cosmas should have really done some work in astronomy, and yet should have denied every lesson that astronomy teaches and nearly every assumption on which its progress has been based, yet so stand the facts; and in the Topography we have to deal, not with a mere fabulist like Solinus, still less with a servile statistician or tabulator, but with a bold and independent cosmographer. Had he not set out with the purpose of making facts conform to pre-judgements and forcing the heavens to tell the glory of God, Cosmas might have advanced the science that he set himself the task to overthrow. But it was this very destructive purpose that led him to write. He recognized no good in knowledge apart from the word of the Scriptures; and the observations which are to be found like fossils scattered among the layers of his arguments are, in part, merely to illustrate the latter, and, in part, as we mentioned, are probably taken from his other treatise. In the Topography Cosmas was mainly interested in constructing a theological system of the universe: never before or since was so complete and so ambitious an attempt made in this direction; but considerable knowledge, many opportunities, and some education were here allied to fervent piety. It was not because of ignorance or through living in the "Dark Ages" that Cosmas wrote as he did. He flourished at the time when Christianity perhaps most entirely and exclusively controlled a major area of the civilized world; and he seems conscious, not of a feeble and barbarized mind, but rather of having all knowledge for his province. He was not without profane science, but he now saw it (and saw through it) in the light of theology, the crown of sciences.

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