TITLE: World Pictures of Cosmas
DATE: 547 A.D.
AUTHOR: Cosmas Indicopleustes of Alexandria
DESCRIPTION: 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
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
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
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
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.
LOCATION: Nova Collectio Patrum et Scriptorum Graecorum, Florentine
Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy.
*Beazley, C., The Dawn of Modem Geography, volume I, pp. 273-303.
*Brown, L.A., The Story of Maps, pp. 91-102.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 261-63, 319,
348, Figures 15.1, 15.2.
*McCrindle, J.W., The Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian monk,
Hakluyt Society, Series I, vol . 98, 1897.