1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cosmas (of Alexandria)

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COSMAS, of Alexandria, surnamed from his maritime experiences Indicopleustes, merchant and traveller, flourished during the 6th century A.D. The surname is inaccurate, since he never reached India proper; further, it is doubtful whether Cosmas is a family name, or merely refers to his reputation as a cosmographer. In his earlier days he had sailed on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, visiting Abyssinia and Socotra and apparently also the Persian Gulf, western India and Ceylon. He subsequently became a monk, and about 548, in the retirement of a Sinai cloister, wrote a work called Topographia Christiana. Its chief object is to denounce the false and heathen doctrine of the rotundity of the earth, and to vindicate the scriptural account of the world. Photius, who had read it, calls it a “commentary on the Octateuch” (meaning the eight books of Ptolemy’s great geographical work; according to some, the first eight books of the Old Testament). According to Cosmas the earth is a rectangular plane, covered by the vaulted roof of the firmament, above which lies heaven. In the centre of the plane is the inhabited earth, surrounded by ocean, beyond which lies the paradise of Adam. The sun revolves round a conical mountain to the north—round the summit in summer, round the base in winter, which accounts for the difference in the length of the day. Cosmas is supposed by some to have been a Nestorian. Although not to be commended from a theological standpoint, the Topographia contains some curious information. Especially to be noticed is the description of a marble seat discovered by him at Adulis (Zula) in Abyssinia, with two inscriptions recounting the heroic deeds and military successes of Ptolemy Euergetes and an Axumitic king. It also contains in all probability the oldest Christian maps. From allusions in the Topographia Cosmas seems to have been the author of a larger cosmography, a treatise on the motions of the stars, and commentaries on the Psalms and Canticles. Photius (Cod. 36) speaks contemptuously of the style and language of Cosmas, and throws doubt upon his truthfulness. But the author himself expressly disclaims any claims to literary elegance, which in fact he considers unsuited to a Christian circle of readers, and the accuracy of his statements has been confirmed by later travellers.

The Topographia will be found in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, lxxxviii.; an edition by G. Siefert is promised in the Teubner series. See H. Gelzer, “Kosmas der Indienfahrer,” in Jahrbücher für protestantische Theologie, ix. (1883) and C. R. Beazley, The Dawn of Modern Geography, i. (1897). There is an English translation, with introduction and notes, by J. W. McCrindle (1897), published by the Hakluyt society.