Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge
And so we reach the days of Ptolemy the last geographer of the Pagan World. This famous Greek was born in Egypt, and the great Roman Empire was already showing signs of decay, while Ptolemy was searching the great Alexandrian library for materials for his book Alexandria was now the first commercial city of the world, second only to Rome. She supplied the great population in the heart of the Empire with Egyptian corn. Ships sailed from Alexandria to every part of the known world. It was, therefore, a suitable place for Ptolemy to listen to the yarns of the merchants, to read the works of Homer, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Strabo, Pliny, and others, to study and observe, and finally to write.
He begins his great geography with the north-west extremities of the world—the British Isles, Iverna, and Albion as he calls Ireland and England. But he places Ireland much too far north, and the shape of Scotland has little resemblance to the original. He realised that there were lands to the south of Africa, to the east of Africa, and to the north of Europe, all stretching far away beyond his ken. He agrees with Pliny about the four islands in the neighbourhood of Scandinavia, and draws the Volga correctly. He realises, too, that the Caspian is an inland sea, and unconnected with the surrounding ocean.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Ptolemy's geography is that which tells us of the lands beyond the Ganges. He knows something of the "Golden Chersonese" or Malay Peninsula, something of China, where far away towards the north, and bordering on the eastern ocean, there is a land containing a great city from which silk is exported, both raw and spun and woven into textures."
"THE UNROLLING OF THE CLOUDS."—II.
THE WORLD AS KNOWN TO PTOLEMY AND THE ROMANS.
The wonder is that Ptolemy did not know more of China, for that land had one of the oldest civilisations in the world, as wondrous as those of Assyria and Egypt. But China had had little or no direct intercourse with the West till after the death of Ptolemy. Merchants had passed between China and India for long centuries, and the Indians had made journeys in the golden deserts in troops of one or two thousand, and it is said that they do not return from these journeys till the third or fourth year." This was the Desert of Gobi, called golden because it opened the way to wealth.
But perhaps the most interesting part of this great geography, which was to inform the world for centuries yet to come, was the construction of a series of twenty-six maps and a general map of the known world.
This was one of the most important maps ever constructed, and forms our frontispiece from mediŠval copies of the original. The twelve heads blowing sundry winds on to the world's surface are characteristic of the age. The twenty-six maps are in sections. They are the first maps to be drawn with lines of latitude and longitude. The measurements are very vague. The lines are never ruled; they are drawn uncertainly in red; they are neither straight nor regular, though the spaces between the lines indicate degrees of fifty miles. The maps are crowded with towns, each carefully walled in by little red squares and drawn by hand. The water is all coloured a sombre, greeny blue, and the land is washed in a rich yellow brown. A copy can be seen at the British Museum.
It is only by looking back that we can realise the progress made in earth-knowledge. Ptolemy wrote just a thousand years after Homer, when the little world round the Mediterranean had become a great Empire stretching from the British Isles to China.
Already the barbaric hordes which haunted the frontiers of the Roman Empire were breaking across the ill-defended boundaries, desolating streams were bursting over the civilised world, until at last the storm broke, the unity of the Empire was ended, commerce broken up, and the darkness of ignorance spread over the earth.
During this time little in the way of progress was made, and for the next few centuries our only interest lies in filling up some of the shadowy places of the earth, without extending its known bounds.