The Chronology of Exploration

The Chronology of Exploration

The mountains lay back, beyond the reach of outsiders, engendering dreams, making their rains, their hail, their ice and snows at the summit clusters, clamped in cloud, or cresting – above the cloud and beyond the sight of man – amid clear heavens; and ever, as Aeschylus had written, ‘nourishing Egypt with its snow’, by the flow of the Nile.

Let us not hurry past the classical reference. For the ancient Mediterranean, astonishingly, knew of our mountains and had picked a name for them: mountains ‘of the moon’. Intrigued by the seasonal flooding of a lower Nile that snaked out of the desert to water the immemorial civilization, classical antiquity heard rumours: mighty lakes, it was said, and a range of snowy mountains in the heart of unknown Africa, gave birth to the life-giving stream. Aeschylus’ comment about the ‘snows’ that fed the Nile was dropped as if it were common knowledge. Scholars of late seventh century BC Attica would cross to Egypt for educational finish. One such was Solon, who brought back to Athens the story of Atlantis: we may speculate that a century or so later Aeschylus gathered up Egyptian reports of these tropical snows. A generation on, Herodotus vouchsafes the name, the Mountains of the Moon, which, with the lakes, were the ultimate watershed. Doing his own research, he sailed up the Nile…for about one seventh of the theoretic distance the journey would have entailed.

Solon’s teachings were surely in the ear of Plato who taught Aristotle; and Aristotle wrote of those speculated mighty lakes. So also – in the century after Aristotle (the third BC) – did Eratosthenes of Cyrene (north-east Libya), the great geographer who calculated with fair accuracy the circumference of the earth and was called in by Ptolemy Euergetes to supervise his celebrated library along the coast at Alexandria. So also, in the next century, Hipparchus, the astronomer-geographer and inventer of trigonometry. Hipparchus paved the way for the work of the Alexandrine geographer Ptolemy Claudius (c.AD 90-168). Late mediaeval European geographers attempted to draw the map of Africa originally devised by Ptolemy, using the co-ordinates and sites listed in his surviving writings. These had reached the West from the Arabs, for whom the geographies of El Qeludi (=Claudius) had served as a merchant marine aid for centuries. In his siting of the Mountains of the Moon (‘Mons Lune’ in the mediaeval Latin), Ptolemy may have considered the testimony of a Greek merchant named Diogenes, quoted in the contemporary seafarer’s handbook Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. Diogenes plied the trade route to India. He called at the East African port of Rhaptum (‘Raptum’) – which plausibly fits today’s Kenyan site of Malindi, just south of the outflow of the Galana river. Diogenes reported snow-covered heights twenty-five days’ march inland from Rhaptum. This would point to Kilimanjaro (which provides no waters for the Nile), Ruwenzori lying some two months’ march further westward. As to the ‘Rhapsi’ Aethiopians (Africans) in the mountains’ vicinity to which Ptolemy refers, we can but speculate. The word means ‘stitched’. Pygmies stitch leaves for garments; pygmies are there today. They were there when we ourselves – let us recall – we of this narrative retreated from those heights, not reaching the glaciers yet sighting them, with Stanley ’s lieutenant, WG Stairs, in June of 1889. Stairs knew, of course, as Stanley knew, what they were in the presence of: the two-millennium myth.


IP and © 2003 Tom Stacey