Over 1500 years ago, a curious Syrian Greek traveler and merchant likely named Cosmas Indicopleustes (the traveler of the Indies) penned a peculiar geographical work.

Born in the 6th century as Constantine of Antioch, Cosmas settled in Alexandria, engaging in spice trade after various voyages. He wrote his book Christian Topography between 547 and 549, a twelve-book description of the world challenging the theories of Greek scholars.

Cosmas portrays himself as an importer of exotic goods and claims to have personally sailed the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, passing near Cape Guardafui in the Horn of Africa about 25 years earlier, at the beginning of Emperor Justinian I’s reign.

He meticulously describes places like Ethiopia, Arabia, and the island of Socotra, providing firsthand information, and mentions two solar eclipses in the year 547.

While the extent of his travels is uncertain, it seems unlikely he reached India or as far south as the sources of the Nile, places he mentions based on hearsay.

However, his detailed references to maritime trade in the Indian Ocean and descriptions of flora and fauna in lands like Ethiopia position him as one of the earliest Western sources describing this region. These details led to his translation and mention in numerous travel works until the 17th century.

Regarding the cosmological theories in his book, they are notably peculiar, influenced by his distinctive Nestorian Christian perspective. According to Cosmas, the universe took the form of a rectangular parallelepiped, resembling the Tabernacle described in the Bible, with a flat Earth held under a celestial vault. He rejected the Greek concept of a spherical cosmos, advocating for an ultra-literal reading of sacred texts.

However, these ideas weren’t his own; he claimed to have gathered them from the teachings of Aba I the Great, the patriarch of the Church of the East in Seleucia-Ctesiphon from 540 to 552, and a follower of Nestorian doctrine. Indeed, the translator of Nestorius’s work Bazaar of Heraclides of Damascus dedicated it to Aba.

These controversial theses were nearly universally rejected even in his time. Cosmas aimed to counter the ideas of John Philoponus, a Christian philosopher whose work, published in the same years, sought to reconcile Greek and Christian cosmologies by retaining the Greek tradition’s idea of the Earth and heavens’ sphericity.

In the 9th century, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople harshly criticized Cosmas’s extravagant hypotheses in his work Myriobiblon (Library) as a string of nonsense.

For Hellenistic science, sailors, later thinkers, and travelers, it was evident that the Earth was a sphere, not a rectangle.

In this regard, Cosmas is perhaps primarily responsible for the occasional association of early Christian thinkers, and by extension, all people in medieval Europe, with ideas against the Earth’s sphericity, which was not at all widespread. In fact, Cosmas is the only known medieval European who advocated for a flat Earth cosmology.

Despite his strange cosmological theories, Christian Topography retains undeniable historical value for the valuable geographical references it includes about the regions visited by its author.

His descriptions of the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea, and Ethiopia constitute a key piece for reconstructing the trade routes at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean in the High Middle Ages.

Cosmas Indicopleustes’s work is considered one of the earliest chronicles dedicated to the discovery of Asian cultures by the Western world. He was also the first Western author to provide details about the pepper plant and its cultivation.

His work has come down to us in three richly illustrated manuscripts: Vaticanus graecus 699 (copied in Constantinople in the 9th century), Sinaiticus graecus 1186 (copied in Cappadocia in the 11th century), and Laurentianus Pluteus IX (copied in a monastery on Mount Athos in the 11th century). The first modern edition was published in Paris in 1706.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 21, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cosmas Indicopleustes, viajero y geógrafo griego, es el único autor medieval conocido que pensaba que la Tierra era plana


Cosmas IndicopleustesChristian Topography | Cosmas IndicopleustesThe Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian Monk | Maja Kominko, The World of Kosmas: Illustrated Byzantine Codices of the Christian Topography | Cosmas of Alexandria (Encyclopaedia Britannica) | Wikipedia

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