Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In search of the secrets of Africa

Mapmaker Sebastian Munster, on the 100 Deutschmark note.
If you were in Europe in the mid-16th century and you were interested in the rest of the known world, Sebastian Munster was the man you wanted to see -- Or, at least his maps. Munster was one of the best cartographers of the century, and he published great atlases that were the culmination of the best knowledge anyone had about what lay beyond Europe.

Consider this example of Munster’s handiwork, a map of Africa believed to have been published in 1554. It appeared in Munster’s Geographia, an atlas based on the earlier work of ancient mathematician and geographer Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy was an ancient Roman citizen who lived in Egypt and wrote in Greek several centuries before Munster, and compiled a book of the same name that depicted the known world of the Roman Empire. Needless to say, Munster expanded on it.

Munster did the best he could with what he had to work with. It appears that details of his map were also drawn from Portuguese and Arabic sources. Still, as with most maps of the period, he didn’t get everything right. For instance, the source of the Nile River is shown as two fictitious lakes.
This map is particularly famous for its Medieval depiction of a cyclops, the one-eyed, mythical Greek character probably best known from Homer’s Odyssey, though such characters show up in  the works of several ancient Greek and Roman writers.

Perhaps one of the best features of this map is that it depicts the location of the kingdom of Prester John, the benevolent Christian ruler. There it is, Hamarich, the capital, a little off to the right nestled there between forks of the mighty Nile River.

Trouble is, Prester John is the stuff of legends, not history. You can’t really blame Munster, though, since the Prester John legend persisted in Europe for about 500 years. It was a tale that was almost as hard to squelch as an Internet chain letter. In fact, something very much like a Medieval version of an Internet chain letter helped perpetuate the tale.

Scholars think the idea of a kingdom ruled by a wealthy and powerful Christian king lost among the Muslims and pagans probably got its start after the evangelistic travels of St. Thomas the Apostle in subcontinent India. Over time, the story took on added detail. The Kingdom of Prester John was said to contain the Fountain of Youth and the Gates of Alexander. Prester John was amazingly wealthy. He was depicted with a sepulcher encrusted with emeralds. He was virtuous and generous. He was descended from one of the Three Magi.

A bogus letter purportedly from Prester John was circulated in Europe for centuries. In fact, as with the fantastic chain letters distributed on the Web today, there were several different versions of the Prester John missive, more than a hundred.

Location of the kingdom was originally thought to be in India or in China or elsewhere in the Far East. Eventually, the supposed location changed to Ethiopia in Africa. In fact, the Portuguese rulers sent emissaries to Africa to contact Prester John. It took until the 17th century for people to stop believing such nonsense. At least the Prester John story got Europeans out and about, discovering new parts of the world as they searched for the elusive empire. 

For his part, mapmaker Sebastian Munster’s reputation remained intact. (He was just the messenger, right?) In fact, Munster is still pretty well regarded in modern day Germany. For about three decades, his face appeared on the 100 Deutschmark note.

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