On Ancient Travel Writing and the Search for Discovery in the 21st Century

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by Hazel Anna Rogers by the Carl Kruse Blog

I’ve been watching David Attenborough’s ‘Perfect Planet’ documentary of late, aired on a Sunday in the U.K. at 8pm. It’s a glorious symphony of unimaginably lush landscapes and the strange and wonderful exploits of their resident animals and plants, juxtaposed with a sincere message about climate change and how it’s affecting said residents. These beings, who have adapted and evolved to follow particular weather patterns and seasonal changes, are now facing the sporadic and unpredictable climate that has resulted from our polluting human civilizations. 

While I watch, I find myself feeling slightly disheartened, not because of the problems of our planet, but for a more egotistic reason; these documentaries always leave me feeling like I will never discover anything new. It is like all of earth is already accounted for and no intriguing and fantastical isles or creatures remain for me to find on my own. That isn’t to say I would necessarily have the courage nor the means to do so, after all I don’t own a boat, or a plane, or even a car, let alone how to drive any of them.

Pliny the Elder’s ‘Natural History’ of AD 77, which was likely the first ever encyclopedia and was published posthumously by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, is filled with dream-like realms and downright bizarre myths about our planet. These myths include the well-known example of the Monopods, a species first depicted in Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’ of 414BC but elaborated upon by Pliny through (supposed) testimonials from first-hand sightings of these dwarfish beings in Taprobana (now Sri Lanka). Allegedly, these creatures had one leg and an enormous foot that they used as a parasol to shade themselves from the scorching midday sun. It almost makes me laugh to think of such a creature. Pliny suggests that with his hugely detailed encyclopedic work, he offers us ‘a brief excursion under our direction among the whole of the works of nature’ (Natural History VII:44, Loeb). Isn’t it brilliant to think of a world before the more complex understanding of life that we have gained from modern science and geography, and to revel in the concept that, in the past, any idea one could possibly have had about the world might have had some verity in it? 


Carl Kruse Tech Blog of image showing a Monopod.

Monopod depicted in the Nuremburg Chronicles, 1493. Image from Wikipedia commons.


I am grateful for the understanding we have of the natural world, and how dedicated biologists and geographers have pursued answers in the wake of the most complex of worldly workings. In that particular episode I watched of Attenborough’s documentary, I was enlightened by the images of the last wild camels on earth, the Wild Bactrian (two-humped) camel who has existed and thrived in the barrenness and extreme cold of Chinese and Mongolian Gobi desert for many a thousand years. They can literally smell water, and when they smell it, they race to where it can be found. More often than not, considering the meagre four inches of rain that falls in these deserts per year, the water they seek is in the dry snow that blows off of the mountains of the Gobi. These camels are magnificent masters of their landscape, one the harshest in the natural world. They are a species traceable back to North America some 45 million years ago up until their migration some 4 or 5 million years ago over the Bering land bridge to Eurasia. Isn’t is astounding to think we have the capacity to chronologize the movements of a single species over millions of years? I am ever astonished by the knowledge we gain, year upon year, about the development of our world.

But despite my astonishment, and my gratitude for the work of centuries in the realm of natural history, I find an equal joy and fascination in the prospects of discovery that one encounters in older historiological texts. Italian explorer Marco Polo’s (1254-1324) travel writings of his epic adventures in Asia over the Silk Road and into China (or Cathay) influenced travel writers that would come after him and even the cartography of Europe. Polo’s influence on mapwork led to the eventual creation of the Fra Mauro map of 1460. His text ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ follows Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo through their trials and tribulations on their way to China to visit and fulfil the wishes of Kublai Khan. It’s a tale that involves all the mystique and ‘chinoiserie’ that became increasingly popular in the western world over the course of centuries of exploration. Much of it is fairly accurate with regards to archaeology, geography, and anthropology, no mean feat when one considers the number of fictional or at least misguided accounts from other travelers. At least when compared to other such explorers as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William of Rubruck, Polo was especially honest and objective about his discoveries, whereas the former two adventurers were far more disdainful and critical of the ways of living in the east and emphasized the perceived ‘barbarity’ of the Chinese and Mongol citizens they encountered during their travels. 


Carl Kruse Tech Blog - Fra Mauro

The Fra Mauro Map, 1460. Image from the Wikipedia Commons.


Travel writing is a distinctly riveting genre, particularly due to its less than truthful beginnings that led to a wealth of mythological fallacies about our earth that were perpetuated throughout centuries of human development. In Greco-Roman travel writing, such texts as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad were so deeply entrenched in ancient world culture that they themselves acted as guidebooks for journeys various peoples would undertake. In the early 21st century, topographical and spatial researchers discovered a 1st century BCE papyrus roll, known as P. Artemid. In its pages they found some incomplete words on ancient geography, believed to be composed by Artemidorus of Ephesus. The work also contains ancient maps (likely some of the oldest to remain in existence), along with a plethora of images on its reverse sides of both imagined and real animals. These pages offer a fascinating anthropological perspective on late Ptolemaic Egypt and the widely held beliefs of its peoples. In this work, we see the humble beginnings of a meld of authentic and fantastical geography that would continue to lead the way in travel literature. 


Depiction of a giraffe on the P. Artemid papyrus

As we move further through the ancient world, a certain belief becomes evident, and it is one that still resonates in the modern day; to travel is to search for some form of psychological enlightenment. But there are fundamental differences between the travel we pursue today and that of the old world. The fear of the unknown in the form of unexplored space brought a different resonance to the idea of travel as a search for wisdom and mental clarity. Not knowing what to expect of foreign lands and having the literary backing of such authors as Apuleius and Philostratus, who perpetuated fantastical and often terrifying myths about lands far from the Western world, made exploring foreign places both more frightening and more exciting than it might be to us today. There is something in the civilizing of travel, through airlines, airports, and ferries, that means that we are never far from comfort, wherever we go. There is a definite feeling of the ‘known’ space when one exits an airport, a sensation that the land we have happened upon can never be ours to claim in discovering or exploring, that the paved and graveled roads we journey on are already documented on maps and can be viewed on a simple internet search. I love to read ancient travel writing and topography purely because of the sheer breadth of imaginative suggestions about what could possibly lurk on the earth’s surface. There was such a capacity for dreaming and discovering when humanity was limited to the slow journeying of ships, smaller boats, horses, and the humble foot. Now that everything is so fast-paced and industrialized, we can get from A-B so very quickly that we need not even consider the journey itself. In travel, we are boxed up in safe metal cocoons, and emerge like disgruntled butterflies unto lands we already know by heart, despite never having stood upon them. There must have been something essential in the knowledge of the hardship one would have to face if embarking upon a voyage in the pre-fossil-fuel eras, knowing that one might not survive this endeavor that could endure over weeks, months, or even years.

Here in this 21st century we are so safe, so abundant with all we could possibly need and want that our capabilities for imagination run ever-more dry, and we can look to older geographical and travel texts and readily distinguish fact from fiction. In my research of ancient travel writing, I found in myself an unquenchable thirst for newness, for discovery of things no other has thought of, animals no one could imagine, and lands that one couldn’t possibly think up, even in a dream. I feel the same when I read the Harry Potter books, funnily enough. They make me yearn for the verity of magic and despair in my knowledge that such a thing doesn’t exist.

Yet, perhaps all this despair is pointless. After all, I am in awe every time I watch the starlings murmur over the sea waves during wintertime, knowing that no expert has ever managed to discover why they do so. Of course, plenty of hypotheses exist, like the information center hypothesis (that they’re sharing information about where to find food in the scarcity of winter), or to warm up the air around them to warm themselves against the cold winter nights, or maybe to avoid predators using the protection of high numbers. But no one really knows why these birds waste so much energy dancing around against the sunset every evening in the winter months. I like to think they’re simply meeting up with their local community and taking that time to enjoy themselves through dance. It’s a comfort to learn that we still don’t know so many things about our planet, that so many of the bizarre acts of animals and plants alike remain a mystery to us. But what of travel, exploration, discovery? Well, to put it simply, I suppose there’s no real remedy to my wanderlust for the unexplored realm. But, in the nooks and winding streets of my city and the hills around, I have come to understand there are endless possibilities for discovery. A new route to walk home by, a tiny patch of moss taking root in the brickwork of a dilapidating building, a cluster of wood-ear mushrooms growing bountifully on the stump of a dead tree, a robin saluting the sun with song in the bushes opposite my home. I know these paths and these beings in geographical and biological terms, but I can also relish the idea that maybe no one has stopped to take a look at these objects, or enjoy the prospect of discovering a new pathway to a home that I know is none other than mine to know. Sure, these things pale in comparison to the beasts and lands of ancient Greek mythology, where such things as the two headed serpect, amphisbaena, and the charybis, an enormous sea monster who could create huge whirlpools in the ocean, inhabited the world, and where the mythical island Atlantis and the city of Nysa, a valley inhabited by rain nymphs, were said to exist. But there are so many delights and secret coves that exist in the places we know, and I am learning to rejoice in these small discoveries of wonder that I can call my own. 

This Carl Kruse blog homepage is at http://carlkruse.at
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other posts by Hazel Anna Rogers include articles on Grimes and AI Art and On Those Glorious Trees.
The blog’s last post was on the state of online classes.
Bio for Carl Kruse

Author: Carl Kruse

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7 thoughts on “On Ancient Travel Writing and the Search for Discovery in the 21st Century

    1. Good heavens Hazel. Serves me right for ferocious multi-tasking. My apologies. Have revamped authorship and credits to you and apologies to Fraser as well who I had originally attributed authorship. All should be good now.


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