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The shape of the world we live in is determined by the extent we explore it. We can explore it in many ways, through speculation, artistic creation and scientific experiment, but most of all by traveling to unfamiliar regions.

Humans and their ancestor species have been doing this for six million years, but for most of this time such exploration has been confined to searching for food and water, avoiding predators and finding prey. It was only when humans had settled in cities that they were able to objectify other places, only when they had created a culture they could identify others as ‘foreign’.

The world has taken on many shapes in the last 2,000 years. In the late sixth century BC a geographer belonging to one of the schools of Pythagoras in southern Italy conceived of the world as a sphere, one of 10 such bodies rotating around the sun, a fire which existed in space, and which included the planets and a counter earth which was invisible to our observation (John Parker’s Discovery, quoted in Peter Watson’s Ideas). This was pure theory, but accepted by Plato, and verified by Eratosthenes and Hipparchus at Alexandria in the second century BC at least as far as the shape and size of the earth was concerned. By the sixth century AD the monk Cosmas, by referring exclusively to the Bible, which he saw as the only true source of knowledge, thought of the earth as a rectangle, shaped like a tabernacle, as revealed in the Book of Exodus. This flat earth was joined to heaven at its rim. To the east was Paradise, and the holy city of Jerusalem was at the centre (Watson p.426). Concepts like these were tried and tested by humans who walked, sailed or rode great distances, bringing back travelers’ tales to make men wonder.

The earliest travelers were explorers of the psyche who travelled vast distances in search of answers to the mysteries of life and death. Heroes and gods, like Gilgamesh, Atthis, Osiris and Orpheus, trod the psychic pattern we all must tread, and tried to return some answer to the question we all must ask, the question “why?”

The first and greatest of all travelers who explored the lands about him lived about the twelfth century BC: Odysseus. His journey must have seemed a great one to his contemporaries, though not to us, who fly great distances shielded by inflight video and land in places pretty similar to that where we embarked. Travelers like Odysseus experienced the world through their senses, they felt it, at great risk to their lives. The world was dangerous, and full of wonders. The ancient Greeks possessed a rare gift of wonder, in both meanings of the word: they marvelled at what they saw, and speculated why it was so, often at the same time. I’m convinced by Tim Severin’s book The Ulysses Voyage that Odysseus travelled around the north coast of the Aegean from Troy and was swept southwards at Cape Sounion past Crete and Malta to the coast of Egypt before beating a northern passage back to Ithika. On the way he spent a year with Kirke (falcon), (the sister of Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, and of Aeetes, keeper of the Golden Fleece). Another goddess, Calypso, kept him seven years and offered him immortality. He heard the song the Sirens sang and escaped their lure, outwitted the giant Polyphemus, survived the land of the Lotus Eaters and came home at last to tell his tale to Homer. Homer would also have sung the tale of Jason (healer), Odysseus’ contemporary, whose Argosy covered the northern Aegean, then crossed the Sea of Marmara, and coasted the southern shores of the Black Sea as far as Poti in Georgia (Tim Severin’s The Jason Voyage), an area where as many Greeks settled as at Magna Graeca in Italy, both far more fertile areas than the Balkan mountain slopes. Fascinating to see the faint traces of pre-Hellenic religious rites left behind in both stories, which have become fairy stories for the later cultures who have heard them. Nothing has survived of the tales of great voyages the Greeks made to found Marseilles, or of the stories the Phoenicians told of the settling of Carthage and the journey past the Pillars of Herakles into the Atlantic.

One ancient traveler who did venture into the Atlantic was Pytheas, who lived about 350 BC and whose narrative, The Voyage, survived until the time of Pliny but is now lost. From remarks and quotations from later authors we can gather that Pytheas travelled from Marseilles through the Pillars of Herakles, along the coast of Portugal and France, crossed over to Lands End, sailed along the entire coast of Great Britain, to the Orkneys and across to Norway. He was looking for a source of tin, known to come from Britain. Along the way he entered the Arctic Circle, observed the fact that the sun did not set, that the ocean was frozen, saw icebergs, found a source of amber, and noticed the tides were influenced by the moon. Pytheas apparently observed much about the ancient Britons (a word he first used of these people) including what could be the first description of Stonehenge. Like most travelers much scorn was cast on some of his stories. Although trade was his avowed reason for the journey it is doubtful if it was the main reason, as a trading depot at Lands End or in Brittany would have sufficed for this purpose. Though winds may have blown him off course and ignorance of tides and currents taken him out of his way, the indication is that Pytheas was curious, that he travelled to explore, to find out.

About the same time as Pytheas another famous explorer, Alexander III of Macedon, was setting out on his incredible career. Although I am doubtful his military prowess is more than a much loved myth – his army and power base was created by his father Philip II, and the Persian empire was disintegrating under the incompetent reign of the usurper Darius before Alexander arrived from Macedon (and in any case the process of ‘conquering’ other peoples has never had the slightest effect on their historical development) – Alexander’s journey to India was the stuff of myth and entered the folklore of many cultures. Following his walkover victories in Persia, Bactria and Afghanistan, Alexander entered the Punjab, and encountered real opposition, virtually for the first time in his career. He won his battles with hill tribes, and with Porus, king of a Punjabi empire, but with great loss of life, and serious personal injuries. When he discovered there were several strong and militant kingdoms further to the east, Alexander was forced to turn back by his rebellious troops. It is usual to credit Alexander with the development of Hellenistic civilization through this exploit, but trade between Persia and Greece had been going on since the sixth century BC, and had already profoundly influenced the development of both cultures.

As the Graeco-Roman culture declined, the empire of Islam expanded with sudden vigour from the seventh century AD, and Muslim traders advanced down the east coast of Africa, and sent ships on trading expeditions throughout south east Asia. The sultan Haroun al-Rashid (763-809) is associated with an equally famous traveler, Sindbad the sailor. Although the story of the seven voyages (and shipwrecks) is thought to have an Indian and Persian origin, and incorporates episodes that seem taken from the Odyssey, it was the knowledge of true exploits of Muslim sailors that gave the tales their great popularity in Arabic culture.

One of the most extraordinary travelers of all time was ibn Battuta (1304-77), who travelled 75,000 miles over the Islamic world, from North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East. He described his journeys in the Rihla (The Voyage). Ibn Battuta first travelled from Morocco to Alexandria, Damascus and Syria to Mecca, on hajj. But a spirit of wanderlust affected him, for he then detoured, first to Iraq, then Persia. He witnessed the devastation the Mongols had caused in Bagdad, then returned to Mecca for a second hajj. He moved restlessly on, to Aden, Somalia, the Swahili coast, Mombasa and Tanzania, before returning to Mecca for a third hajj. From there ibn Battuta travelled to Turkey and the Black Sea. He made his way to Constantinople in 1332, then on to Bukhara and Samarkand, Afghanistan, then India. After imbroilment in local politics, shipwreck and imprisonment, ibn Battuta ended up in Sri Lanka. Further travels took him to Sumatra, Vietnam, the Philippines and China. Another hajj, then ibn Battuta moved on to Spain, Morocco, then south to Mali and then Timbuktu. Before he died ibn Battuta dictated an account of what he had seen on his travels. He had seen virtually the whole known world of his time, most of it Muslim.

But ibn Battuta had little influence on Western concepts of the world. That world was significantly expanded by the travels of two Italians. Marco Polo travelled with his father and uncle from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan, where they were valued as the first European visitors. His stories were retailed to a cellmate during his brief imprisonment on his return to Italy, and gave birth to the legend of the fabulous wealth of Xanadu. Stories of Chinese inventions such as paper money, the printing press and gunpowder began to circulate. The stories strongly influenced another Italian, the Genoese Cristoforo Colombo (1451-1506), who owned a heavily annotated edition of Marco Polo’s book. Both Polo and Colombo were strongly motivated by the profit motive, and were looking for routes to the eastern spice markets, where fortunes could be made at that time. Colombo, with a significantly imprecise map of the world, succeeded in reaching some of the islands off the east coast of central America, the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, but was convinced these were the islands of Japan, and that the nearby landmass was China, or perhaps India, the sources of spices. His discoveries led to the Spanish kingdom’s colonisation of America and the consequent destruction of native American cultures by disease, the sword and Christianity. It also led to a wealth drain which Spain used to bolster its European empire and which resulted in bankruptcy for Spain and the disintegration of that empire.

An even greater achievement than Colombo’s was that of the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, Colombo’s younger contemporary. He and his successor in command, the Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano, succeeded in circumnavigating the globe, an incredible achievement for the time and the state of navigation. The 18 survivors were able to note they had “lost” a day when sailing against the earth’s rotation. Magellan’s voyage stimulated cartographers, and led, together with the explorations of the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, to the systematic colonisation of the Americas, which would prove a significant power shift in world politics over the next 200 years.

A man of genius associated with this colonisation was Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), poet, historian, scientist, politician, soldier, explorer and courtier. He helped form two prevalent concepts connected with America. The first arose from the failed colonisation of Virginia at Roanoke Island of 1584 and 1587, underresourced and beseiged by native Americans, which had disappeard by 1590 when further colonists arrived on the spot. This was a basic plot in many subsequent ‘western’ books and movies. Later in the decade, in 1594/5, Raleigh went looking for the Golden City, the legend of El Dorado of the Chibcha people, and was as unsuccessful in finding it as the obsessive conquistadors who came after him.

The heroic voyagers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped create the modern world, and their epitome was Captain James Cook (1728-1779) whom Benjamin Franklin so admired, and who explored the Pacific and Antarctic area through voyages which are a model of careful planning, precise navigation and logging and humane treatment of crew. But the greatest traveller of this era rivals Odysseus. Another shipwrecked mariner: Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719 and has been ever since one of the most popular and influential books ever published. Setting aside any examination of the facts or fictions which form its narrative structure, this popularity exists because the book is essentially truthful to a picture of human nature we need to relate to. Crusoe is a trader who makes money, a shipwrecked mariner as unlucky as Sindbad, a traveler over most of Europe (Part II) and a devotedly religious man (Part III). His adventures answer an important question. Can a man survive when he loses everything? Crusoe does. He does it the same way we do today, living one day at a time, drawing up his lists of good and bad things. Confined to a narrow space, Crusoe travels vast distances in time, re-inventing human culture through his intelligence, resourcefulness and persistence. A savage, he invents agriculture, clothing, society and warfare before leaving the island, and with no resources but his brain and his hands.

The world was almost in the shape we know it today. Little was left unexplored except Africa, and that was where travelers went in the nineteenth century. The traveler par excellence of this period was Sir Richard Burton (1821-90), a linguist who mastered 25 languages and as many dialects, a scholar in many cultures, familiar with many exotic societies but at home in none, whose journey to find the source of the Nile in 1858 was truly an epic. I have written on Burton here:

By the start of the twentieth century travelers began to look inward. Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1897 explores the mysterious terrain of Romania, but most successfully its history and mythology. Once again we are on psychic terrain, where the dead come to life and attack the living, where the undead have no mirror reflection, and crawl like bats across castle walls. This is the same world collected in the tales of the Grimm brothers. Dracula is an evil spirit which a shaman might encounter in one of his journeys. He is a defiant proof that despite scientific explanations of the world, there is still mystery and danger there. The basic dilemma of making our way in the world is independent of any knowledge we have, as Kafka’s character K found out: there are demands made on us we cannot understand, and procedures at work around us we only vaguely understand, which make any journey difficult.

To complicate matters even more, around 1900-1913 an Austrian doctor called Sigmund Freud intuitively discovered what he called the subconscious, an infinite space within each human mind where primal forces compel each of us to create the self we are and the world we live in. This was based largely on an examination of his own mind. A rigorous scientist with the mind of a poet, Freud has been attacked by many people, during his lifetime and up to the present, for the many scientific errors he made despite his efforts to be objective, yet he is easily the most influential writer of the twentieth century, someone who can be ranked with Plato in his capacity to change the way people think and act in the world. The space we travel in dreams, the ground we mark out with compulsions, has been forever changed because of Sigmund Freud.

About the same time as Freud a German theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, developed a number of theories, intuition-based ‘thought experiments’, which later scientists were able to verify. As well as virtually founding quantum mechanics, Einstein suggested that space and time were a continuum, and that there were conditions under which time and matter would become aspects of each other. Quantum mechanics were developed partly by Heisenberg, whose famous uncertainty principle suggested quantifiable limits to the practice of exact scientific observation, to the point where only inexact results could be ‘proved’. This led to the introduction of subjectivity in science. The world which had been charted, mapped and explored, settled, exploited and damaged ecologically has now become far less certain than it once was. Freud and Einstein between them have expanded our universe considerably, giving us the freedom to travel anywhere.

In July 1969 Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. His remark “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” hasn’t been listened to by any subsequent human government, who have all preferred to squander fossil fuels in futile battles to gain more fossil fuels, destroying thousands of lives and threatening the environment with total destruction. A reminder that we don’t have to travel anywhere: we can remain stationary.

Two observations come to mind. Tobias Smollett’s 1766 Travels notes that many people travel merely to confirm that the world they are familiar with is preferable, that other societies, in so far as they are different, are wrong. These people move from place to place, but they don’t travel. The other observation is made by Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote in an essay I awoke from school daze to hear and remember, “to travel in expectation is better than to arrive”. The author of the immortal Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Weir of Hermiston is right (probably, and relatively).

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Thanks to Wikipedia. Please inform post author of any violation.


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