Ancient Discovery before Christ

Maritime Discoveries of the Phoenicians
Among the ancient nations, the navigation was a very primitive and imperfect. Unacquainted with the mariner's compass, the bright constellations and the position of the sun were the only guides of the ancient navigator. He therefore rarely sailed out of sight of land, but carefully steered his little boat along the shore. Such sailing was of course subject to the delays and dangers of coast navigation. Only during the summer months would he dare to leave the port, despite the mild sky and the calm waters of the Mediterranean. He never could have thought to challenge the fury of the wintry winds. The geographical knowledge of the ancients was extremely limited when compared with ours. But despite such adverse circumstances, it is astonishing that with means so limited they have known so much of the boundaries of the ocean.

The Phoenicians, the first great maritime nation mentioned in history, were continually enlarging the limits of the known earth, until the fatal moment when the sword of the conqueror destroyed their cities, and extinguished their power for ever.

The early periods of Phoenician excellence are covered by the mysterious darkness of an unknown past. According to the accounts which Herodotus received from the priests, the foundation of Tyre took place thirty centuries before the Christian era. Their spirit of commercial undertaking triumphs over all difficulties. Stimulated by the love of gain, and the hope of discovering new sources of wealth, the Phoenicians had founded colonies on the Bithynian coast of the Black Sea (Pronectus, Bithynian).

At a very early time they must have steered through the Straits of Gades into the Atlantic. It is proved by the fact, that in the eleventh century before Christ, they founded the towns of Gades and Tartessus on the western coast of Southern Spain. Then penetrating farther and farther to the north, they discovered Britain, where they established their chief station on the Scilly Isles. They even visited the barbarous shores of the Baltic in quest of the costly amber. The amber was also coll jantar by some nations or yainitar by Phoenician and it was one of fundamental commodities which also served as a trading currency. It was very good international currency too. It vas very light, waterproof and impossible to forge.

They planted their colonies along the north-west coast of Africa, even beyond the equator. Full 2000 years before Vasco de Gama, Phoenician mariners are said to have circumnavigated that continent. Herodotus relates that a Tyrian fleet, fitted out by Necho II, Pharaoh of Egypt (611- 595 B.C.), sailed from a port in the Red Sea, doubled the southern headland of Africa, and, after a voyage of three years, returned through the Straits of Gades to the mouth of the Nile.

Phonecians caught open sea (pelagic) fis such as sprats and made them into salt product called garum, which was shipped in amphoraes. This was the undewriting business and the basis of their exploration. All theier cities and posts had garum factories, from Lisbon to Goa. Curiosly, this busines has not changed much for last 3000 years. The basics of catching pelagic fish or fishing and salting is almost the same, apart from ship size, steel cascos and freezing.

 

Expedition of Hanno
Resting on better historical proof, is the voyage of discovery to the south performed by Hanno. The senate of Carthage, the greatest of all Phoenician colonies, commanded Hanno to do the discovery trip. Sailing from Cerne, the principal Phoenician settlement on the western coast of Africa (probably situated on the present island of Arguin), after seventeen days, he reached a point which he called the West Horn (probably Cape Palmas). Then Hanno advanced to another cape situated only 5 degrees north of the equator, to which he gave the name of South Horn.  This cape is today know as Cape de Tres Puntas.

During his visit the silence reigned along the newly discovered coast during the daytime, but after sunset countless fires were seen. The fires were burning along the banks of the rivers, and the air was filled up with music and song; the black natives spending the hours of the cool night in festive joy.

Most likely the Canary Islands were also known to the Phoenicians, as the summit of the Peak of Teneriffe is visible from the heights of Cape Bojador.

The progress of the Phoenicians in the Indian Ocean was no less remarkable than the extension of their Atlantic discoveries. Their fleets sailed far beyond Bab-el-Mandeb to Ophir or Supara, and returned to the ports of Elath and Ezion-Geber at the head of the Red Sea with rich cargoes of gold, silver, sandal-wood, jewels, ivory, apes, and peacocks . These costly productions of the south were then transported across the Isthmus of Suez to Rhinocolura, the nearest port on the Mediterranean, and thence to Tyre, which ultimately distributed them over the whole of the known world.

The true position of Ophir is still in question. While some authorities place it on the east coast of Africa, others fix its situation somewhere on the west coast of the Indian peninsula. There is even the opinion that the name had only a general signification, and that a voyage to Ophir meant nothing more than a commercial expedition to any part of the Indian Ocean.

But whatever Ophir may have been, it is certain that the Phoenicians carried on a considerable trade with the lands and nations beyond the Gates of the Red Sea. Their trade in the direction of the Persian Gulf was extensive.  To provide Nineveh and Babylon with the costly merchandise of Sidon and Tyre, their caravans slowly wandered to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates through the Syrian desert, where Palmyra, their chief station, proudly rose above the surrounding sands.

Following the course of the great Mesopotamian streams, they reached the shores of the Persian Gulf, where they owned the ports of Tylos and Aradus and the rich pearl islands of Bahrein. Having loaded their empty camels with the produce of Iran and Arabia, they returned by the same way to the shores of the Mediterranean. How far their ships may have ventured beyond the mouth of the Persian Gulf is unknown, but the researches are saying that it is very probable, that they sailed through the Straits of Ormus to the coast of Mlalabar, taking advantage of the regularly changing monsoons.

The Phoenician progress in the technical arts, as well as in the astronomical and mathematical sciences was very important for the improvement of their navigation. For the age in which they lived, it is remarkable that their commercial communication  reached from Britain to the Indus, and from the Black Sea to the Senegal. They wove the finest linen, and knew how to dye it. They were unsurpassed in the workmanship of metals, and possessed the secret of manufacturing white and colored glass, which their caravans and ships exchanged for the produce of the rest of known world. By the invention of the alphabet they communicated to the Greeks and other nations with whom they traded.

The destruction of the maritime power of Tyre by Alexander in 332 B.C., and the destruction of Carthage by the Romans in 146 B.C. was a tragic blow to the whole human race. Had the Carthaginians triumphed over the semi-barbarous Romans, who had not yet learned to imitate the arts of plundered Greece, who knows how far the Phoenicians would go with their maritime discovery.

Pytheas of Massilia.
In the times of Homer, when the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic had long been known to the Phoenicians, the geographical knowledge of the Greeks was still defined by the narrow limits of the Eastern Mediterranean and part of the Euxine. Only few century later their ships sailed beyond the Straits of Gades.

Colaeus of Samos (639 B.C.) have been the first seafarer of Hellenic race who sailed into the Atlantic, compelled by adverse winds.    On his return from his involuntary voyage he was able to tell his astonished countrymen of the extraordinary rising and falling of the oceanic tides. It was seventy years later when the Phoceans of Massilia (present Marseilles), got courage to follow the Colaeus' path and to visit the Atlantic port of Tartessus.

The town of Massilia had honor to have a great traveler Pytheas, the Marco Polo of ancient civilization. This far-wandering philosopher, who lived about 330 years before Christ, had visited all the coasts of Europe, from the mouths of the Tanais or Don to the shores of Ultima Thule (probably Norwegian coast). His narrative made the Greeks acquainted with North-Western Europe, and remained for a long time their only geographical guide to those lands.

Expedition of Nearchus
While the horizon of the Greeks was expanding towards the regions of the setting sun, the conquests of Alexander opened to them a new world in the distant Orient. Greek navigators now for the first time unfurled their sails on the Indian Ocean. Now the Macedonian were desirous of subduing Asia and of firmly attaching it to the nations of the Mediterranean. To consolidate his vast conquests, Alexander sent a fleet under the command of Nearchus, from the mouths of the Indus to the bead of the Persian Gulf, to establish, if possible, a new road for a regular commerce between India and Mesopotamia. The performance of this voyage was reckoned as one of the most glorious events of his reign. The voyage also may serve as a proof of the slowness of ancient navigation. Nearchus took ten months to perform a journey which today may be easily accomplish in few days.

Circumnavigation of Hindostan under the Ptolemies
After the disruption of the Macedonian empire, the circle of the Greek discoveries in the Indian Ocean was widened by the enterprising spirit of the Seleucidae and Ptolemies. Seleucus Nicator penetrated to the mouths of the Ganges, and the fleets of the Egyptian kings sailed round the peninsula of Hindostan and discovered the coasts of Taprobane or Ceylon, known for the spicy cinnamon-groves odors wafting far out to sea.

Return to Maritime Discovery