Where the Mediterranean and the Ocean meet are found the lighthouses of stone and bronze built by Hercules, the great king. They are covered with inscriptions and surmounted by statues, which point as if to say: 'There is no way beyond me; beyond me there is no passage for those who enter the ocean from the Mediterranean! 'No ship can enter the ocean. It contains no inhabited land and no rational animals dwell there. Where it begins and where it ends are both unknown. It is the Sea of Shadmus, the Green Sea, the Circumambient Ocean.
For the Latin Middle Ages, the Atlantic was Mare Tenebrosum; for the Arabs, Bahr al-Zulamat. Both meant "The Sea of Darkness," and anyone who has looked west from the northern coast of Portugal and seen the heavy cloud banks lying across the horizon will admit the name is well-suited to the Atlantic. It was ill-omened: For Christians, the word tenebrosum suggested evil and evoked the Prince of Darkness. For Muslims, the Arabic word for "darkness," al-zulumat could not but call to mind the magnificent Qur'anic passage in Surah 24, al-Nur, "The Light," in which the state of the unbeliever is described as being like "the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed with billows, topped by billows, topped by [dark] clouds - depths of darkness, one above the other."
This name - and its analogue, "The Dark Sea," Bahr al-Muzlim - sufficiently indicates medieval man's fear and ignorance of the Atlantic Ocean. But the ocean had other, more propitious names as well. Two of these, "The Green Sea" and "The Circumambient Ocean," appear in the passage just quoted from the famous 10th-century Arab historian and geographer al-Mas'udi, whose works are full of fascinating geographical information. The Arabs used other names also, such as the scholarly Uqiyanus, directly transliterated from the Greek word okeanos, and even, in later sources from the western Islamic world, Bahr al-Atlasi, "The Sea of the Atlas Mountains" - an exact rendering of the word "Atlantic."
But the most frequent Arabic name for the Atlantic was al-Bahr al-Muhit, the Circumambient, or All-Encompassing, Ocean. This name embodied a very ancient notion. The Babylonians, and perhaps the Sumerians before them, envisaged the inhabited portion of the world as an upturned boat, a gufa, floating in the sea. This old Sumerian word was used to describe the round-bottomed reed boats used in the marshes of southern Iraq, where they are still known by the same name. Name and concept have proved extraordinarily persistent. The idea passed from Babylonia to the Greeks, and geographers from Herodotus and Hecataeus on described the world as surrounded on all sides by a universal ocean, even when the limits of the known world had been expanded far beyond anything the Babylonians could have imagined.
Long after Aristotle had demonstrated, in the fourth century BC, that the world was a sphere, the old Babylonian image persisted. Writing almost 1400 years after Aristotle, and perfectly aware that the earth is spherical, al-Mas'udi could still compare it to an egg floating in water. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing 400 years after al-Mas'udi and almost 1900 after Aristotle, compared the inhabited portion of the world to a grape floating in a saucer of water.
The Babylonians had little knowledge of lands beyond Mesopotamia and its immediate surroundings. Their image of the world was rooted in their cosmology, rather than based on observation. That the Babylonians proved to be correct, in the sense that all the great bodies of water that encircle the globe are interconnected, is fortuitous. Yet it was this idea, passed on to the Greeks, then through the Arabs to medieval Europe, that contributed to the geographical discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Hernando Columbus, in his biography of his father Christopher, lists the classical and medieval sources that led the admiral to think he could reach the Indies by sailing westward. One of the most important of these sources was Aristotle's De Caelo (On the Heavens), a book known in Arabic translation since the ninth century and often quoted by al-Mas'udi. The original Greek text reached Italy in the 15th century, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but was not printed until after the discovery of America. It had been known in Spain, however, since the 12th century through a commentary on it by Ibn Rushd of Cordova, the Averroes of the Latin Middle Ages. Whether Columbus knew De Caelo through Latin translations of Averroes or more directly through the new Renaissance translations by Italian humanists with whom he was in contact, is unknown. In any case, here is the passage that fired his imagination:
There is much change, I mean in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward. Indeed there are some stars seen in Egypt and in the neighborhood of Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions; and stars which, in the north, are never beyond the range of observation, in those regions rise and set. All of which goes to show not only that the earth is circular in shape, but also that it is a sphere of no great size; for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be so quickly apparent. Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is continuity between the parts about the Pillars of Hercules and the parts about India, and that in this way the ocean is one. As further evidence in favor of this they quote the case of elephants, a species occurring in each of these extreme regions, suggesting that the common characteristic of these extremes is explained by their continuity. Also those mathematicians who try to calculate the size of the earth's circumference arrive at the figure only that the earth's mass is spherical, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size. 400,000 stades. This indicates not only that the earth’s mass is spherical, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size.
Leaving aside Aristotle's estimate of the earth's circumference, which is about twice too large, it is easy to see why Columbus seized upon this passage. Aristotle, the supreme authority for the Middle Ages, suggests that Asia may stretch right around the globe, perhaps joining Africa, or at least that both are washed by the same sea. Hence one could easily reach Asia by setting off westward, across the all-encompassing sea.
This, at least, was the theory. It was buttressed by many more classical references, as well as by medieval legends of islands to the west and even by odd sightings of worked wood cast up on the beaches of the Atlantic islands. But still to be overcome was a tremendous psychological barrier, the ancient belief that nothing lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules. This belief was enshrined in the motto ne plus ultra, "there is nothing beyond," a phrase echoed in al-Mas'udi's account of the statues "which point as if to say: 'There is no way beyond me....'"
For the classical world, the Columnae Herculis, the Pillars of Hercules, were not actual pillars - or lighthouses - but two mountainous points on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, Calpe and Abyla: the Rock of Gibraltar and the mountainous point of al-Mina, where the city of Ceuta now stands on the ruins of Phoenician Abyla.
The Phoenicians sailed through the Pillars of Hercules around 1100 BC and founded their first Atlantic port, Gadir ("Fortified Place") where the city of Cádiz now stands. Somewhere in the hinterland lay the fabulous region - or perhaps city - known to the classical world as Tartessos and in the Bible as Tarshish. The Phoenicians established a rich trade with the eastern Mediterranean world in gold and silver from the rich mines of Tartessos. They also opened an Atlantic sea-route to the Cassiterides, the "Tin Islands," probably somewhere in Britain, and to the Baltic, where they traded for amber. Tin was a vital component in the making of bronze; amber was used for ornament. The Phoenicians had a virtual monopoly of both, and they jealously guarded it, sinking any rival ships that ventured into the western. Mediterranean. They regarded their trade routes as state secrets, and classical sources" cite at least one Phoenician trading vessel that ran aground rather than let a rival learn its course.
The Phoenicians and their successors, the Carthaginians, established trading colonies along the coast of north and west Africa. Anticipating Portugal’s Prince Henry Navigator by some 2000 years, they also made a number of efforts to circumnavigate Africa. One of these, sponsored by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, took place about 600 BC. Herodotus, who calls Africa "Libya" and the Red Sea "the Arabian Gulf," is our only source of information about this voyage. Here is how he describes it.
As for Libya, we know that it is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Neco, who, after calling off the construction of the canal between the Nile and the Arabian Gulf, sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west-about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian Gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year's harvest. Then, having got their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Hercules in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement - which I do not myself believe, though others may - to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right - to northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered to be surrounded by sea....
There is no reason to doubt that this voyage took place. What Herodotus, and the Greek geographers that succeeded him, found difficult to accept was the sheer size of Africa. The consensus of opinion, made orthodox by Ptolemy, was that Africa extended little beyond 17° south latitude. Herodotus appears to have believed the same, hence his disbelief of the assertion that the sun was on the Phoenician voyagers' right.
Most pre-Ptolemaic Greek geographers did accept that Africa was bounded on all sides by the sea, except where it joined Asia. Ptolemy, however, supposed that not far below the Horn of Africa, the continent trended to the east, eventually joining the Chinese mainland and making of the Indian Ocean a landlocked sea. He may have been influenced in this by the passage from De Caelo, where Aristotle suggests that the presence of elephants in both Asia and Africa might indicate that the two continents were contiguous. Ptolemy compounded his error by postulating the existence of a huge "Southern Continent," a Terra Australis, to the south of Africa. This imaginary continent did not finally disappear from European maps until the early 18th century.
The Phoenician circumnavigators of Africa were practical seamen unhampered by theory. The Carthaginians, as the Phoenician colonists in the western Mediterranean came to be known, must have been aware of their compatriots' clockwise circumnavigation of Africa. Sometime before 480 BC, the Carthaginians sent a large expedition of their own, under a leader called Hanno, in the opposite direction. A Greek version of the original Punic account of this voyage makes it clear that Hanno reached a long way south, past the volcanic mountain he called "The Chariot of the Gods" - probably the 998-meter-high (3273-foot) Mt. Kakoulima in present-day Guinea - and as far as Sierra Leone. On the way he discovered both the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, so important later as staging points for trans-Atlantic voyages. The Cape Verde Islands were not rediscovered until 1455, nearly two thousand years later.
The Canaries are a classic example of how ancient discoveries were made and then lost. Discovered by Hanno in the fifth century BC, they were explored and colonized in 25 BC by Juba II, erudite king of Mauretania and husband of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Antony and Cleopatra. A passionate art collector, Juba was also interested in science and technology, inventing a new method of making purple dye from the orchil plant - and the export of orchil from the Atlantic islands was of economic importance until early this century. Juba populated the Canaries with Berber-speaking colonists, perhaps the ancestors of the Guanches. Gradually, knowledge of the location of the Canaries was lost, even though Lanzarote, the island nearest the North African coast, lies less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the mainland. The Greeks called the Canary Islands Tōn Makarōn Nēsoi, "The Islands of the Blessed," and they were regarded as the furthest known land to the west. Ptolemy drew his 0° longitude line, or prime meridian, through the Canaries; the French continued to do so until the 19th century.
The Canary Islands were rediscovered in the 13th century by a French or Genoese ship blown off course. In 1402 the Normans partially conquered them, meeting stiff resistance from the indigenous Guanches. In the mid-15th century, the Spanish took control of the Canaries and continued the conquest. Fighting was still going on when Columbus used the islands as the first stop on all four of his voyages to the Caribbean. The Guanches were not finally subdued until the end of the 16th century, when they and their language virtually disappeared. From the few words of Guanche preserved in the Spanish chronicles, we know they spoke a form of Berber, and were therefore probably descended from Juba's colonists. Yet when Europeans encountered them, they had no memory of the mainland; having no boats, they were unaware that the other islands in the group were inhabited.
The Arabs knew these islands through Ptolemy, and called them Jaza'ir al-Khalidat, "The Eternal Isles," presumably a version of the Greek name. Some sources speak of these islands as if they were legendary, telling us for example that on each of the six islands - there are in fact seven - there was a bronze statue, like the one in Cádiz, warning voyagers to turn back. But al-Idrisi, the famous 12th-century geographer, who wrote at the court of King Roger of Sicily (See Aramco World , July-August 1977), tells of an attempted expedition to the Canaries in the late 12th-century, during the reign of the Almoravid amir Yusuf ibn Tashafin. The admiral in charge of the expedition died just as it was about to set out, so the venture came to nothing. Al-ldrisi says the admiral's curiosity was aroused by smoke rising from the sea in the west, probably the result of volcanic activity.
After telling us that the Canaries had been visited by Alexander the Great and that the tomb of a pre-Islamic South Arabian king, made of marble and colored glass, can be seen on one of them, al-Idrisi gives the names of two of the islands. The island with a "circular mountain" in the center is called Masfahan. This is probably Tenerife, and the round mountain would be the 3600-meter-high (12,000-foot) volcano called Pico de Teide. The other island is called Laghus and is probably Gran Canaria. Neither name is Arabic, nor do they appear to be transcriptions of Greek, Latin or Romance - but the fact that these two islands had names at all means mariners must have visited them, and the names are either native designations or hark back to some lost, perhaps oral, source.
Even more interesting is al-Idrisi's account of an actual voyage of exploration into the western Atlantic, undertaken by 80 brave men from Lisbon whom he calls the mugharrirun, best rendered as "intrepid explorers." The expedition must have taken place before 1147 - the date Lisbon fell to the Christians - but it is impossible to be more precise. The mugharrirun were so famous for their exploit that a street in Lisbon was named after them. The story is worth giving in full, for its mixture of fact and legend is characteristic of early accounts of Atlantic voyaging:
It was from the city of Lisbon that the mugharrirun set out to sail the Sea of Darkness in order to discover what was in it and where it ended, as we have mentioned before. A street in Lisbon, near the hot springs, is still known as "The Street of the Intrepid Explorers"; it is named after them. Eighty men, all ordinary people, got together and built a large ship and stocked it with enough food and water for several months. Then they set sail with the first gentle easterly and sailed for about eleven day's, until they came to a sea with heavy waves, evil-smelling, ridden with reefs and with very little light. They were sure they were about to perish, so they changed course to the south and sailed for twelve days, until they came to Sheep Island, There were so many sheep it was impossible to count them, and they ranged freely, with no one to watch them. They landed and found a spring of flowing water and a wild fig tree beside it. They caught some of the sheep and slaughtered them, but the flesh was so bitter they could not eat it. They took some sheepskins and sailed on to the south for another twelve days until they sighted an island. They could see it was inhabited and under cultivation. They headed toward it in order to explore and when they were not far offshore, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by boats, which forced their ship to land beside a city on the shore. They saw the men who lived there; they were light-complexioned, with very little facial hair. The hair on their heads was lank. They were tall, and their womenfolk were very beautiful. They were confined to a house for three days. On the fourth day a man who spoke Arabic entered and asked them who they were and where they were going and what was the name of their country. They told him everything and he said not to worry, and that he was the king's interpreter. The next day they were taken into the king's presence and he asked the same questions they had been asked by the interpreter. They told him what they had told the interpreter the day before, of how they had embarked upon the ocean in order to find out about it and see the wonders it contained, and how they had come to this place. When the king heard this, he laughed and told the interpreter to tell them the following: "My father ordered some of his slaves to sail this sea and they sailed across it for a month until there was no more light; they came back having found nothing of any use at all." Then the king ordered the interpreter to treat them well so they would have a good impression of the kingdom, and he did so. They were then taken back to their place of confinement until the west wind began to blow. A boat was prepared for them, their eyes were bound, and they were at sea for some time. They said: "We were at sea about three days and nights. Then we came to the mainland and they put us ashore. They tied us up and left us there. When dawn broke and the sun rose, we found we were in great pain because we had been so tightly bound. Then we heard noises and the sound of people and we all cried out. Some people approached and, seeing our difficulty, released us. They asked us what had happened and we told them the whole story. They were Berbers. One of them asked us: 'Do you know how far you are from your country?' 'No,' we answered. 'Two months journey!' he replied. Our leader said, 'Wa asafi!' (Woe is me!') and to this day the place is known as Asfi."
Asfi, a port on the southern coast of Morocco, is now called Safi. It is hard to escape the impression that we owe the preservation of this account largely to the folk etymology in the last line. But it is also obvious that this is a report of an actual Atlantic voyage. The "sea with heavy waves, evil-smelling, ridden with reefs and with very little light" can probably be ignored, for the passage is influenced by the "land of darkness" thought to exist in the farthest West, and the reefs may echo a passage in Plato's Timeus which speaks of the shallows in the Atlantic marking the site where Atlantis sank. But "Sheep Island" (Jazirat al-Ghanam) has the ring of truth. In another passage al-Idrisi gives more details of this island - incidentally showing that a longer account of the voyage of the mugharrirun must have existed. He says Sheep Island is large, shrouded in shadows, and filled with small sheep whose flesh is bitter and inedible. Nearby is another island, called Raqa, which is the home of a red bird the size of an eagle, which catches fish in its claws and never flies far from the island. A fruit like a large fig grows there; if eaten, it is the antidote to any known poison. A king of the Franks heard of this, al-Idrisi adds, and sent a ship to the island to bring him that fruit and some of the birds, but the ship was lost and never returned.
Sheep Island and Raqa are most probably two of the islands in the Azores. The Azores are named after a kind of goshawk - in Portuguese, açor - prevalent there at the time of discovery. The sheep are a problem, for the Azores were uninhabited when settled in the 15th century, and even if we slightly stretch the meaning of the word ghanam, which can also mean "goats," we are still left with the problem of the origin of the creatures. No large mammals are indigenous to the Azores, and sheep or goats could only have been brought to the island by previous mariners. The Azores lie almost 1300 kilometers (about 800 miles) west of the coast of Portugal - one-third of the way to America. In the 19th century, Carthaginian coins were found on the most westerly of the islands, Corvo - 31° west longitude - and although the find has been questioned, the origin of the coins has never been satisfactorily explained. Corvo is marked on the Canterino map of 1351, where the name occurs as Corvini - considerably before its official discovery.
Al-Idrisi mentions a number of other islands in the west Atlantic:
Sawa is "near the Sea of Darkness." Alexander the Great spent the night there just before entering the western darkness. The inhabitants threw stones at the travelers and hurt several of Alexander's companions.
The inhabitants of the island of al-Su'ali are shaped like women and their canine teeth protrude. Their eyes flasrh like lightning and their thighs are like logs. They fight against the monsters of the sea. Men and women are not sexually differentiated, and the men have no beards. They dress in the leaves of trees.
The island of Hasran is crowned by a large, high mountain. A small fresh-water river runs down from the foot of the mountain, where the inhabitants live. They are short, brown people with broad faces and big ears. The men's beards reach their ankles. They eat grass and other plants.
Al-Ghawr is long and broad. Many herbs and plants grow on the island. There are many rivers and pools, and thickets where donkeys and long-horned cattle take refuge.
Al-Mustashkin is said to be inhabited. It has mountains, rivers, fruit trees, cultivated fields and a town, with high walls. There used to be a dragon in the area, and the people were forced to feed it with bulls, donkeys or even humans, according to the legend; when Alexander arrived, the people complained to him of the dragon's depredations. Alexander fed the creature a volatile mixture and blew it to pieces.
The island of Qalhan is inhabited by animal-headed people who swim in the sea to catch their food.
Then there is the Island of the Two Brothers, Shirham and Shiram. God changed them to stone for practicing piracy, the legend has it. This island is near Asfi [Safi], and on a clear day smoke can be seen rising from it. It was this smoke that led to the abortive expedition by Yusuf ibn Tashafin's admiral.
Some of the names of these islands make sense in Arabic, others do not. Sawa has no meaning. Al-Su'ali is a word that refers to a kind of female demon or vampire; judging by al-Idrisi's description of the female inhabitants of the island, it is apt. Hasran means "regretful" - Island of Regret? - but if the variant Khusran is chosen, it means "loss" - perhaps Island of Loss, or Lost Island. But if the word is Arabic, one would expect it to be preceded by the definite article al.
Al-Ghawr makes sense; it means a depression surrounded by higher land, and occurs elsewhere in the Arab world as a place name. Al-Mustashkin is probably a corruption of al-mushtakin, meaning "the complainers" - appropriate enough for a population in thrall to a dragon. This story of Alexander and the dragon echoes the Eleventh Labor of Hercules, the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the dragon Ladon. In the Arabic - speaking world, popular legend transferred a number of the heroic deeds of Hercules to Alexander - including the building of a land-bridge across the Pillars of Hercules. Some Greek mythographers thought the Islands of the Hesperides lay off the coast of North Africa, and we have already seen how al-Idrisi associates Alexander with two of the Atlantic islands.
Qalhan's "animal-headed people" might well be seals. The Two Brothers could be the two small islands off Lanzarote in the Canaries, Alegranza and Graciosa, or indeed, any two prominent rocks off their coasts.
A last island in the western Atlantic is Laqa. Al-Idrisi says aloe trees grow there, but their wood has no scent. As soon as they are taken away, however, the scent becomes perceptible. The wood is deep black, and merchants come to the island to harvest it and then sell it to the kings of the farthest West. The island is said to have been inhabited in the past, but it fell to ruin and serpents infested the land. For this reason, no one can land there. Could Laqa be Madeira? Madeira was heavily wooded when first settled in the 15th century - hence its name. The settlers quickly burned down all the forests, so it is now hard to know for certain, but some sort of scented wood may have once grown there.
Al-Idrisi gives the names of 13 islands in the western Atlantic; a 14th, visited by the mugharrirun, is nameless. This unnamed island, together with Masfahan, Laghus, The Two Brothers and possibly Sawa, are almost certainly islands in the Canary group. Laqa might be Madeira, and Sheep Island and Raqa part of the Azores group. Where al-Su'ali, Hasran, al-Ghawr, Qalhan and al-Mustashkin lay is anybody's guess. Al-Su'ali and al-Mustashkin both sound completely legendary, but there is nothing legendary about Hasran and Qalhan, which sound as if they might belong together. Since the only inhabited islands in the western Atlantic just before the coming of the Europeans were the Canaries, Hasran may belong to that group—unless, of course, it is to be sought in the Caribbean!
Here is another tantalizing reference to early Atlantic voyages, this time from al-Mas'udi. The account must date from before AD 942, the date al-Mas'udi completed the book from which it is taken:
It is a generally accepted opinion that this sea - the Atlantic - is the source of all the other, seas. They tell marvelous stories of it, which we have related in our work entitled The Historical Annals, where we speak of what was seen there by men who entered it at the risk of their lives and from which some have returned safe and sound. Thus, a man from Cordoba named Khashkhash got together a number of young men from the same city and they set sail on the ocean in ships they had fitted out. After a rather long absence, they returned with rich booty. This story is famous, and well-known to all Spaniards.
The Historical Annals, which presumably gave a much more detailed account of this and other voyages, is lost. That the story was preserved at all is probably due to the rarity of such voyages. On the other hand, this passage shows that Atlantic voyages were made, and remembered.
In what direction did Khashkhash sail? If he went north, he may well have plundered the coasts of Portugal, France or even England. But the story occurs in the context of a discussion of the All-Encompassing Sea, not the coasts of northern Europe, which were relatively well-known to the Arab geographers. The context implies that Khashkhash sailed west. If so, the nearest place that could offer rich booty was the Caribbean.
The voyages of the mugharrirun and Khashkhash were private undertakings, apparently motivated by curiosity and bravado. The mugharrirun were "ordinary people"; the companions of Khashkhash were simply "young men of Cordoba." This is probably why we know so little about them. Medieval historians focused their attention on the ruler and his court, and to a certain extent on the "urban elite." The doings of private citizens, particularly of the humbler classes, are only incidentally mentioned by Arab historians of the Middle Ages - or indeed, by their Christian counterparts. We know as much as we do about the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator to find the sea-route to the Indies because these expeditions were sponsored by the Crown, and the same is true of the four voyages of Columbus. Documents, logs and maps were placed in royal archives and were available to the historians of the time, whereas knowledge of the mugharrirun and Khashkhash has come down to us only because of the chance interest of al-Idrisi and al-Mas'udi. It is probable, however, that they entered sailors' lore along the Atlantic seaboard and joined the tales of other fabulous islands to the west - the Antilles, Brazil, St. Brendan's Isle, the Green Isle.
These imaginary islands were marked on 14th-century charts, along with others. The Antilles and Brazil, for so long legendary, continue today as the names of real places. Men were still seeking St. Brendan's Isle as late as the 18th century; Ilha Verde, the Green Isle, did not finally disappear from mariner's charts until the middle of the 19th century. Throughout the Middle Ages, stories of islands to the west kept interest in the far reaches of the Atlantic alive, and when real islands began to be discovered in the 14th century, the legends took on new life. After all, if the Islands of the Blessed really existed, why shouldn't the Antilles? In the 15th century, as the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands were gradually colonized and brought under sugar cultivation, the search became more intense. Genoese bankers were willing to finance sugar production; the search for free land - unencumbered by tenants who enjoyed hereditary rights and paid fixed rents in inflationary times - was seen as an escape from economic depression.
And who knew what lay beyond the Canaries, or the Azores? After all, al-Idrisi, who repeatedly says that nothing lies beyond the Eternal Isles, splendidly contradicts himself by telling us in another passage, quoting no less an authority than Ptolemy himself: "There are 27,000 islands in this sea, some inhabited, others not; we have mentioned only those closest to the mainland, and which are inhabited. As for the others, there is no need to mention them here."
This is the background against which Columbus's voyages were made. He had taken part in the expeditions sent along the African coast by Prince Henry the Navigator. He knew the Atlantic islands well; his wife was the daughter of Bartolomeo Perestrelo, one of the early settlers on Madeira. Her sister was married to Pedro Correa, of the same island, who found a piece of worked wood cast up on the beach that he believed had drifted east from unknown western lands. Columbus's son Hernando, writing in 1537, shows very well the grip these islands had on his father's mind, after first describing his father's reading in ancient and medieval sources and Paolo Toscanelli's letter on the possibility of reaching Asia by sailing west:
The third and last thing that led the Admiral to discover the Indies was the hope he entertained, before reaching them, of finding some island or land of great utility, from which he could continue his main search. He was confirmed in this hope by reading the books of many wise men and philosophers who said, as a thing not admitting doubt, that the greater part of our globe is dry land, because the area covered by land is greater than that covered by water. This being so, he argued that between the coast of Spain and the borders of India then known, there would be many large islands, as experience has shown. He believed this the more readily because of certain fables and stories which he heard told by various people and mariners who traded in theislands and the seas west of the Azores and Madeira. These were stories which fitted in with his own opinions, and he remembered them. He never tired of telling them, to satisfy the curiosity of those who enjoy such curiosities.
Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.