The Writings Of Cosmas

The earliest Christian map-maker, Cosmas of Alexandria, named also Cosmas Indicopleustes on account of his many voyages to the East, has a good deal to say about Abyssinia where he travelled, traded, and pursued historical enquiry about the middle of the sixth century after Christ. He is an earnest, accurate and entertaining writer save when he indulges in theological digressions; but it is worth while suffering these for the occasional excellence of his descriptive material. It must be remembered, too, that but for his religious purposes it is unlikely that any of his great works would have been written, for he retired to a monastery in Sinai to end his years in the peaceful compilation of several geographic treatises to the greater glory of God.

Of his works there survives only his Topographia Christiana—that is, a Christian as opposed to a pagan design of the universe. His Geography, in which presumably he gave a more detailed account of the earth’s surface, is lost together with his various treatises on the motions of the stars, his annotations of the Psalms, and his Commentary on the Song of Songs, this last a particularly unfortunate loss to the student of the legend of the Queen of Sheba, concerning which Cosmas had probably collected first hand information during his visit to the Holy City of Aksum situated just on the borders of Eritrea. Fortunately, however, it was necessary in any description of the universal scheme to include considerable mention of the earth, so the Topographia is fairly well supplied with geographical detail and has some extremely interesting maps.

Cosmas has been long undervalued, but for this his theological obsessions are to blame. The fate of the souls of still-born babies no longer appeals to the average reader as a fascinating problem to be solved by the nice application of logic to selected quotations from sacred sources, and when Cosmas treats of this and kindred subjects he sinks to a level of complicated absurdity which only amuses for a page or so, and then becomes tedious beyond bearing. But for those prepared to overlook both his theology and his scientific theory there is a rich reward.

Some, no doubt, will find it harder to forgive his science than his exegesis. The modern reader, for instance, will be inclined to smile indulgently at a writer who, wishing to substantiate his theory that all the earth slopes upwards to the north where a huge conical mountain is the hiding place of the sun, brings forward as conclusive evidence the fact, which he has observed in the course of his travels, that Euphrates and Tigris, rivers flowing to the southward, are swifter than the northward flowing Nile. To our minds it seems inconceivable that a geographer, capable at other times of such shrewd observations, should think of a great river as labouring uphill to its mouth, but before Cosmas is dismissed as a humbug there is one point which must be urged in his favour. He states quite frankly that he has never seen a unicorn.

Now this is a notable admission, for it suggests that Cosmas sticks to facts. After all, it is facts which we want from our ancient geographers and historians. Their theories may be ludicrous, but that is unimportant by comparison if only the facts which they have collected are right. Cosmas believed with a passionate certainty that the earth was flat, and considered the pagan Ptolemy, also a citizen of Alexandria, a blasphemous fool for suggesting that it was round and that the path of the sun encircled it. This must detract from the reputation of Cosmas as a philosopher, but it makes very little difference to his usefulness. What the historian needs is not philosophy but plentiful and accurate detail, and when a monk of the Dark Ages, with his reputation as a traveller to uphold, is careful enough of the truth to admit that he has never seen a unicorn, this must be considered as splendid testimony to his reliability.

In fact, the picture which Cosmas gives of the Abyssinia of that day, can be accepted as true in all essentials; and it is this which makes his works so important, since but for them we should know practically nothing of the vast trade which, with Rome as its main base, connected the whole Mediterranean seaboard with India, Africa, Socotra and Ceylon, using for this purpose the ships of Abyssinia.

For it is quite clear from the manner in which Cosmas refers to his voyages that he was no Columbus discovering new worlds but simply a trader, one of many, who followed established routes in pursuit of normal commerce.

He describes the huge palace of the King of Abyssinia with four great towers and statues of unicorns cunningly wrought in bronze. He describes the great city of Aksum, more than one hundred miles inland from its port, Adulis, and was, he says, the honoured guest of the Governor of that port. He was consulted in the matter of some ancient inscriptions (of which, unfortunately, the modern explorers have found no trace) and actually went on an expedition in search of them. Interest in archaeology and learned dispute concerning it, for it is clear there was much considered argument, indicate a very high level of culture. And indeed the general picture is one of great peace and prosperity, trade being extensive and well organised, currency soundly managed, and justice adequately administered over a large area.

Diplomatic exchanges with the great ports of the Mediterranean appear to have been frequent, the country was considered a valuable ally against the non-Christian peoples of Yemen, and as an important stage on the sea route to the Indies was able to extract considerable wealth from the trade in spices and silks.

But it was not only to India and Ceylon that the traders went. Cosmas describes far stranger journeyings in which he himself played an honourable part.

The King of Aksum, he tells us, sent every year a well-equipped trading fleet to bargain with the people of Barbary. This term, from the Greek barbaroi—literally the people whose speech sounded “bar... bar... bar”—is used of almost any tribe of lesser civilisation and must not be confused with its later uses in the Mediterranean. The Barbary coast of the Abyssinians was almost certainly Italian Somaliland, probably the southern and more fertile parts.

Five hundred men would set out on these expeditions. As they rounded Cape Gardafui, they were careful not to be caught by the great currents which would sweep them south into the “unnavigable oceans.”... This actually happened once to Cosmas, whose ship was driven so far off her course that he gave himself up for lost. He records that a huge bird was sighted over the sea—no doubt, an albatross, from which it seems likely that he was indeed carried several hundred miles to the south and was in considerable danger.

But this was only one of the many perils which these traders had to encounter. When they landed on the coast of Sasu “on the edge of the Great Ocean,” there was a long journey inland to the “Land of Gold.” The three chief products with which they traded were cattle, salt and iron, all of which they exchanged for lumps of gold which the natives mined, where and how they were never able to discover. Driving their cattle before them and labouring under their heavy loads the expedition would push on through the wild and inhospitable country until they reached the established rendezvous. Here a strange method of trade was employed, the reasons for which are easily imagined. Arrived at the level ground where the bargaining was to be conducted, the traders would advance cautiously and place their salt, iron or beef wherever convenient—often, says Cosmas, on thorns. The traders then retired into safety and the natives, emerging from concealment, would bring their lumps of gold, placing the amount of it they were willing to pay on or beside any ‘lot’ they wanted. They then went back to hiding and it was the custom for the merchants to come forward to value the offers. If they took the gold and left the goods that meant that they were satisfied; but if they considered that more gold was necessary they retired having touched nothing. It was then for the natives either to place more gold on the various piles until the traders were satisfied or to take back their gold as a sign that they were calling off the negotiations. This bargaining went on for several days, though rarely more than five. Then came the dash back to the coast with the bartered gold. Even in the matter of fact phrases of the shrewd old merchant turned monk it is possible to feel the fear which possessed all members of the expedition that robbers or other disaster might rob them of their hard-won gains. Trade was indeed an adventure in those times, and it is impossible not to feel respect for Cosmas, the sturdy adventurer, who, though plagued by poor sight and terrible digestive miseries (for which dysentery was doubtless a good deal to blame) travelled, and bargained, and nosed into all sorts of strange places, and then placed his doings on record in honour of the God in whom he so devoutly believed.

Cosmas retired to his Sinaian monastery in A.D. 549. His muddled thinking and preoccupation with non-essentials are typical of the state of learning at that time. Alexandria, once the centre of the world’s intellectual activity, the city of the great Museum of the Ptolemies and of the first great scientific library of the human race, had become a hive of petty and bickering theologians. Cosmas was a victim of the prevailing infection, and he would not merit further mention here were it not that in his Topographia the Tabernacle of Moses plays a prominent part.

Cosmas believed, and he was not alone in this, that the Tabernacle was more than a shrine, that it was, in fact, in its construction a model of the entire Universe. Ideas of this kind were not new, for the Egyptians had often held that their temples were models of the world, but never had this type of theory been worked out with such fantastic logic as when Cosmas set himself to prove it by detailed demonstration. The table of shewbread surrounded by a waved border was the earth surrounded by the ocean. The ocean, on which only Noah had sailed led to the Earthly Paradise where the sons of men lived before the Flood. From this abode rose the walls of Heaven, the north and south walls curving to meet in a high vault. On a gallery in this vault lay Heaven itself.

Since the dimensions of the scheme are such that the enclosed space is twice as long east to west as broad north to south, this plan of the universe has been jocularly described as resembling a lady’s trunk with a rounded lid and with a top shelf inside it. Cosmas himself says that it is all very like the Public Baths.

The whole Ptolemaic conception of the universe was anathema to Cosmas, but what shocked him most was the idea that the heavenly bodies moved of their own accord. It is clear from his vehemence that the idea of an automatic universe frightened him badly. That way lay madness. His scheme required the assistance of angels in pushing the stars round their courses, and he felt much safer when stellar motion was thus provided for; though it never occurred to him that this condemnation of the angelic creatures to perpetual hard labour was surely a little unfair.

But it is not these astronomical speculations of Cosmas that make his narrative of value here, though it was impossible without them to give a true picture of the man. What lends his theory interest is that it explains the great veneration with which the Ark of the Covenant is guarded by the Ethiopian Church to-day.

By giving into the hands of His Church a mystic model of the world God gave them the power to conquer. The Ethiopian Church considers that the Ark guards the fate of their country. While it is in their possession they cannot be conquered. Lesser arks are taken into battle to encourage the soldiers, but the true Ark is hidden where no invader can find it. The taking of the Holy City of Aksum means nothing so long as the Ark of the Covenant is saved.

This the Emperor Haile Selassie has sworn to guard with his life. He and his chieftains are pledged by the most sacred oaths to perish to the last man rather than let the sacred symbol pass into the hands of an invader.

The Legend of the Ark of the Covenant is one of the great stories on which the Ethiopian faith is founded. There is another legend, hardly less remarkable, with which Abyssinian history is inextricably mingled.... The Story of Presbyter John.

Next Chapter

Electronic edition created and published online by members of the
Emperor Haile Sellassie First Theocracy Reign
Order of the Nyahbinghi

Crest of the Nyahbinghi Order

March 26, 2021