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Herodotus The Traveller

The greatest traveller of olden times now comes upon the scene—Herodotus, the Greek, the "Father of History."

The greatest traveller of olden times now comes upon the scene—Herodotus, the Greek, the "Father of History." He is a traveller as well as a writer. He has journeyed as one eager for knowledge, with a "hungry heart" and a keen, observant eye. He tells us what he has seen with his eyes, what he has heard with his ears. He insists that the world is flat, he acknowledges that it is divided into two parts—Europe and Asia; but he can afford to laugh at those who draw maps of the world "without any sense to guide them," in which they make the whole world round as if drawn with a pair of compasses, with the ocean stream running round it, making Europe and Asia of equal size.

His first journey is to Egypt.

"I speak at length about Egypt," he says, "because it contains more marvellous things than any other country—things too strange for words. Not only is the climate different from that of the rest of the world and the rivers unlike any other rivers, but the people also, in most of their manners and customs, reverse the common practice of mankind. The women are employed in trade and business, while the men stay at home to spin and weave. Other nations in weaving throw the woof up the warp, but an Egyptian throws it down. In other countries, sons are constrained to make provision for their parents; in Egypt it is not only the sons, but the daughters. In other countries the priests have long hair; in Egypt their heads are shaven. Other nations fasten their ropes and hooks to the outside of their sails, but the Egyptians to the inside. The Greeks write and read from left to right, but the Egyptians from right to left." After sailing for some seven hundred miles up the river Nile from the coast, past Heliopolis, the once famous city of Ancient Egypt, past Memphis, the old capital, past Thebes, with its hundred gates, to Elephantine, the "ivory island," opposite to what is now Assuan, he is more than ever puzzled about its course and the reason of its periodical floods.

"Concerning the nature of the river, I was not able to gain any information from the priests. I was particularly anxious to learn from them why the Nile, at the commencement of the summer solstice, begins to rise and continues to increase for a hundred days—and why, as soon as that number is past, it forthwith retires and contracts its stream, continuing low during the whole of the winter until the summer solstice comes round again. On none of these points could I obtain any explanation from the inhabitants, though I made every inquiry." The sources of the Nile entirely baffled Herodotus as they baffled many another later explorer long years after he had passed away. "Of the sources of the Nile no one can give any account, since the country through which it passes is desert and without inhabitants," he explains, his thirst for knowledge unsatisfied. Some priest volunteers this explanation. On the frontiers of Egypt are two high mountain-peaks called Crophi and Mophi; in an unfathomable abyss between the two rose the Nile. But Herodotus does not believe in Crophi and Mophi; he inclines to the idea that the Nile rises away in the west and flows eastward right across Libya.

He travelled a little about Libya himself, little realising the size of the great continent of Africa through which he passed. Many a strange tale of these unknown parts did he relate to his people at home. He had seen the tallest and handsomest race of men in the world, who lived to the age of one hundred and twenty years—gold was so abundant that it was used even for the prisoners' chains—he had seen folks who lived on meat and milk only, never having seen bread or wine.



From a vase-painting.

Some thirty days' journey from the land of the lotus-eaters he had found tribes who hunted with four-horse chariots and whose oxen walked backwards as they grazed, because their horns curve outwards in front of their heads, and if they moved forwards these horns would stick in the ground.

Right across the desolate sandy desert of the north, Herodotus seems to have made his way. The "region of the wild beasts" must have been truly perilous, "for this is the tract," he says, "in which huge serpents are found, and the lions, the elephants, the bears, and the horned asses." He also tells us of antelopes, gazelles, asses, foxes, wild sheep, jackals, and panthers. There is no end to the quaint sights he records. Here is a tribe whose wives drive the chariots to battle, here another who paint themselves red and eat honey and monkeys, another who grow their hair long on the right side of their heads and shave it close on the left. Back through Egypt to Syria went our observant traveller, visiting the famous seaport of Tyre on the way. "I visited the temple of Hercules at that place and found two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of emerald, shining with great brilliancy at night." That temple was already two thousand three hundred years old.

Herodotus makes some astounding statements about various parts of the world.

He asserts that a good walker could walk across Asia Minor, from north to south, in five days, a distance we know now to be three hundred miles! He tells us that the Danube rises in the Pyrenees Mountains and flows right through Europe till it empties its waters into the Black Sea, giving us a long and detailed account of a country he calls Scythia (Russia) with many rivers flowing into this same Black Sea.

But here we must leave the old traveller and picture him reading aloud to his delighted hearers his account of his discoveries and explorations, discussing with the learned Greeks of the day the size and wonders of the world as they imagined it.


This map shows the extent of Hanno's voyage from the Pillars of Hercules, past the Equator, to what is now called Sierra Leone.

News travelled slowly in these bygone days, and we know the Phoenicians were very fond of keeping their discoveries secret, but it seems strange to think that Herodotus never seems to have heard the story of Hanno the Carthaginian, who coasted along the west of North Africa, being the first explorer to reach the place we know as "Sierra Leone." Hanno's "Periplus," or the "Coasting Survey of Hanno," is one of the few Phoenician documents that has lived through the long ages. In it the commander of the expedition himself tells his own story. With an idea of colonising, he left Carthage—the most famous of the Phoenician colonies—with sixty ships containing an enormous number of men and women.

"When we had set sail," says Hanno shortly, "and passed the pillars (of Hercules) after two days' voyage, we founded the first city. Below this city lay a great plain. Sailing thence westward we came to a promontory of Libya thickly covered with trees. Here we built a temple to the Sea-god and proceeded thence half a day's journey eastward, till we reached a lake lying not far from the sea and filled with abundance of great reeds. Here were feeding elephants and a great number of other wild animals. After we had gone a day's sail beyond the lakes we founded cities near to the sea." Making friends with the tribes along the coast, they reached the Senegal River.

Here they fell in with "savage men clothed with the skins of beasts," who pelted them with stones so that they could not land. Past Cape Verde they reached the mouth of the Gambia, "great and broad and full of crocodiles and river-horses," and thence coasted twelve days to the south and again five days to the south, which brought them to Sierra Leone—the Lion Mountain as it was called long years after by the Portuguese.

Here Hanno and his party landed, but as night approached they saw flames issuing from the island and heard the sound of flutes and cymbals and drums and the noise of confused shouts.

"Great fear then came upon us; we sailed therefore quickly thence much terrified, and passing on for four days found at night a country full of fire. In the middle was a lofty fire, greater than all the rest, so that it seemed to touch the stars. When day came on we found that this was a great mountain which they called the chariot of the gods." They had a last adventure before they turned homewards at what they called the Isle of Gorillas. Here they found a "savage people" (Gorillas) whom they pursued, but were unable to catch. At last they managed to catch three. "But when these, biting and tearing those that led them, would not follow us, we slew them and, flaying off their skins, carried them to Carthage." Then abruptly this quaint account of the only Phoenician voyage on record stops.

"Further," says the commander, "we did not sail, for our food failed us." Further knowledge of the world was now supplied by the Greeks, who were rapidly asserting themselves and settling round the coast of the Mediterranean as the Phoenicians had done before them. As in more ancient days Babylonians and Egyptians had dominated the little world, so now the power was shifting to the Greeks and Persians. The rise of Persia does not rightly belong to this story, which is not one of conquest and annexation, but of discovery, so we must content ourselves by stating the fact that Persia had become a very important country with no less than fifty-six subject States paying tribute to her, including the land of Egypt. Efforts to include Greece had failed.

In the year 401 B.C. one Artaxerxes sat on the throne of Persia, the mighty Empire which extended eastwards beyond the knowledge of Greeks or Phoenicians, even to the unknown regions of the Indus. He had reigned for many years, when Cyrus, his brother, a dashing young prince, attempted to seize the throne. Collecting a huge army, including the famous Ten Thousand Greeks, he led them by way of Phrygia, Cilicia, and along the banks of the Euphrates to within fifty miles of the gates of Babylon. The journey took nearly five months, a distance of one thousand seven hundred miles through recognised tracks. Here a battle was fought and Cyrus was slain.

It was midwinter when the Ten Thousand Greeks who had followed their leader so loyally through the plains of Asia Minor found themselves friendless and in great danger in the very heart of the enemy's country.

How Xenophon—a mere Greek volunteer, who had accompanied the army from the shores of Asia Minor—rose up and offered to lead his countrymen back to Greece is a matter of history. It would take too long to tell in detail how they marched northward through the Assyrian plains, past the neighbourhood of Nineveh, till they reached the mountain regions which were known to be inhabited by fierce fighters, unconquered even by the powerful Persians.

Up to this time their line of retreat had followed the "royal road" of merchants and caravans. Their only chance of safety lay in striking north into the mountains inhabited by this warlike tribe who had held out amid their wild and rugged country against the Persians themselves. They now opposed the Greeks with all their might, and it took seven days of continuous fighting to reach the valley which lay between them and the high tableland of Armenia. They crossed the Tigris near its source, and a little farther on they also crossed the Euphrates not far from its source, so they were informed by the Armenians. They now found themselves some five or six thousand feet above sea-level and in the midst of a bitter Armenian winter. Snow fell heavily, covering all tracks, and day after day a cold north-east wind, "whose bitter blast was torture," increased their sufferings as they ploughed their way on and on through such depths of snow as they had never seen before.

Many died of cold and hunger, many fell grievously sick, and others suffered from snow-blindness and frostbite.

But Xenophon led his army on, making his notes of the country through which they were toiling, measuring distances by the day's march, and at last one day when the soldiers were climbing a steep mountain, a cry, growing louder and more joyous every moment, rent the air— "Thalassa! Thalassa! The sea! The sea!" True enough, on the distant horizon, glittering in the sunlight, was a narrow silver streak of sea—the Black Sea—the goal of all their hopes. The long struggle of five months was over; they could sail home now along the shores of the Black Sea. They had reached the coast near the spot Colchis, where the Argonauts landed to win the Golden Fleece long centuries before.

In a work known as the Anabasis, Xenophon wrote the adventures of the Ten Thousand Greeks, and no geographical explorer ever recorded his travels through unknown countries more faithfully than did the Greek leader of twentythree hundred years ago.

Reference book: A Book Of Discovery

Tags: History, Travel, World travel,

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