Cosmas idea of the world : a Tabernacle

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Cosmas Indicopleustes
(Byzantine Geographer)
Topographia Christiana (545A.D.)

The present text is edited out of :
-Dangerous tastes: the story of Spices. Dalby, Andrew                         
-The Spice trade of the Roman Empire. J. Innes Miller
-Selected documents: Freeman-Grenville
-The Hakluyt Society (internet).

The pagans even, availing themselves of what Moses has thus revealed, divide the whole earth into three parts: Asia, Libya, and Europe, designating Asia the east, Libya the south, extending to the west; Europe the North also extending to the west. And in this our part of the earth there are four gulfs which penetrate into it from the ocean as the pagans also say, and say with truth  when treating on this subject, namely, this gulf of ours, which entering from Gadeira in the west extends along the countries subject to Rome; the Arabian gulf called the Erythraean and the Persian, both of which advance from Zingium to the southern and more eastern parts of the earth from the country called Barbaria which begins where the land of the Ethiopians terminates. Now Zingium, as those who navigate the Indian Sea are aware is situated beyond the country called Barbaria which produces frankincense, and is girdled by the ocean which streams from thence into both gulfs. The fourth gulf is that which flows from the north-eastern part of the earth, and is called the Caspian or Hyrcanian Sea. These gulfs only admit to navigation, for the ocean can not be navigated on account of the great number of its currents, and the dense fogs which it sends up, obscuring the rays of the sun, and because of the vastness of its extent. Having learned these facts from the man of God (Moses), 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 man I have obtained accurate information regarding the different places.

Once when we sailed in these gulfs, bound for further India and had almost crossed over to Barbaria, beyond which there is situated Zingium, as they term the mouth of the ocean, I saw there to the right of our course a great flight of birds which they called Souspha (Albatross), which are like kites, but somewhat more then twice their size. The weather was there so very unsettled that we were all in alarm; for all the men of experience on board, whether passengers or sailors, all began to say that we were near the ocean and called out to the pilot: Steer the ship to port and make for the gulf, or we shall be swept along by the currents and be carried into the ocean and be lost. Where the ocean meets the known sea it creates a monstrous wave, and there is an undertow from the sea towards the ocean. We were terrified. Some of those birds called albatrosses flew with us for a long way, as if to warn us that the ocean was still near. ....

a giraffe in his work

(Later on he calculates the "length" of the earth using Sasu, in the south of Ethiopia as the most southern point)

Moreover, for as much as beyond Sina (China) 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 coast of Ethiopia, one may estimate the breadth. The first will be found to be about 400 stadia, the second about 200. Specifically, the breadth - from the Northern Ocean to Byzantium, 50 stadia, from Byzantium to Alexandria, 50 stadia, from there to the Cataracts, 30 stadia, drom here to the area called Axum, 30 stadia, and from here to the incense bearing coast of Barbary, a district called Sasu about 50 stadia. The length - from Sina to Persia, 150 stadia, from here to the Roman Empire, at Nisbis, 80 stadia, from here to Seleucia, 13 stadia, and to Cadiz more then 150 stadia.

The region which produces frankincense is situated at the projecting parts of Ethiopia, and lies inland, but is washed by the ocean on the other side. Hence the inhabitants of Barbaria, being near at hand, go up into the interior and, engaging in traffic with the natives, bring back from them any kind of spices, frankincense, cassia, calamus, and many other articles of merchandise, which they afterwards send by sea to Adule, to the country of the Homerites, to Further India, and to Persia. This very fact you will find mentioned in the book of kings, where it is recorded that the Queen of Sheba, that is, of the Homerite country, whom afterwards our Lord in the Gospels calls the Queen of the south brought to Solomon spices from this very Barbaria, which lay near Sheba on the other side of the sea, together with bars of ebony, and apes and gold from Ethiopia, which, through separated from Sheba by the Arabian gulf lay in its vicinity. We can see again from the words of the Lord that he calls these places the ends of the earth, saying: The Queen of the South shall rise up in judgement with this generation and shall condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, Matt XII 42. For the Homerites are not far distant from Barbaria, as the sea which lies between them can be crossed in a couple of days, and then beyond Barbaria is the ocean, which is there called Zingion. The country known as that of Sasu is itself near the ocean, just as the ocean is near the frankincense country, in which there are many gold mines. The king of the Axumites accordingly, every other year, through the governor of Agau, sends there special agents to bargain for the gold, and these are accompanied by many other traders- upwards, say 500- bound on the same errand as themselves. They take along with them to the mining district oxen, lumps of salt, and iron, and when they reach its neighborhood they make a halt at a certain spot and form an encampment, which they fence round with a great hedge of thorns. Within this they live, and having slaughtered the oxen, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces on the top of the thorns, along with the lumps of salt and the iron. Then come the natives bringing gold in nuggets like lupin seeds called tancharas, and lay one or two or more of these upon what pleases them-the pieces of flesh or the salt or the iron, and then they retire to some distance off. Then the owner of the meat approaches, and if he is satisfied, he takes the gold away, and upon seeing this its owner comes and takes the flesh or the salt or the iron. If, however, he is not satisfied, he leaves the gold, when the native seeing that he has not taken it, comes and either puts down more gold, or takes up what he has laid down, and goes away. Such is the mode in which business is transacted with the people of that country, because their language is different and interpreters are hardly to be found. The time they stay in that country is five days more or less, according as the natives more or less readily coming forward to buy up all their wares. On the journey homeward they all agree to travel well armed, since some of these tribes through whose country they must pass might threaten to attack them from a desire to rob them of their gold. The space of six months is taken up with this trading expedition, including both the going and the returning they quicken their pace lest on the way they should be overtaken by winter and its rains. For the sources of the Nile lie somewhere in these parts, and in winter, on account of the heavy rains, the numerous rivers which they generate obstruct the path of the traveler. The people their have their winter at the time we have our summer. It begins in the month Epiphi (July) of the Egyptians and continues till Thoth (September), and during the three months the rain falls in torrents, and makes a multitude of rivers, all of which flow into the Nile.

The facts which I have just recorded fell partly under my own observation and partly were told me by traders who had been to these parts.


(Here he gives a description of Ceylon.)
The island being, as it is, in a central position, is much frequented by ships from all parts of India and from Persia and Ethiopia, and it likewise sends out many of its own. And from the remotest countries, I mean Tzinista (China) ........and to Persia and the Homerite country, and to Adulis. And the island receives imports from all these marts which we have mentioned and passes them on to the remoter ports, while, at the same time, exporting its own produce in both directions.

(According to some authors this passage: "remoter ports" means that some of these ships returning to Ethiopia carried on along the east African coast. From there they thence returned northward.)      

Indicopleustes, the name means he who goes to India, only went as far south in Africa as Ethiopia. In those days Axum was a power to be reckoned with. He saw the preparations for the invasion of Arabia. (Axum intervened many times in south Arabia between the second and seventh century), in this way some authors claim its influence indirectly extended along the coast till a point well south of Mogadishu. This is however doubtful. The fact that no coins of Axum have been found in east Africa, as well as the fact that Cosmas speaks only very vaguely about Zingium, gives evidence that the East-African coast was deeply under the influence of the Sassanians of the Persian Gulf, what is acknowledged by archeological finds of their ceramics and coins.

Sasu is a well known name in Axum. In the inscription of Adulis which Cosmas copied it is mentioned as west of Axum. Also the kings of Axum had in their full title being king of  Kasu which would refer to Cush on the Nile.  There is however no doubt that the Sasu of Cosmas is south.

Note (3):
Some authors state that the gold bearing country (Sasu) must be Zimbabwe. However the earliest archeological evidence of gold mining in Zimbabwe dates from the 9th century. Since it has been suggested that the gold fields must be the gold bearing area in N-Kenya. One has prove that from Axum trade routes went to what is now southern Ethiopia, however it has not been proven jet that they extended into Kenya.


another worldmap in his work