When Sailors from Ancient Egypt Discovered the World is Not Flat, No One Listened
The first ship to sail around Africa left from Egypt sometime around 600 BC. Their only goal was to find another way to the straits of Gibraltar. But by watching the sky overhead, they discovered something they’d never expected: the first hints that the world is not flat, but round.
When they reached the southern tip of Africa and started sailing west, the sailors reported back to their homes that they noticed that the sun’s position had changed in the sky. Now it rose and fell in the north instead of the south.
It was a small detail – but for a civilization that believed the world they lived on was flat, it was a discovery that challenged everything they thought they understood about their world. And it was such a radical discovery that most people refused to believe it.
Pharaoh Necho II’s Journey Around Africa
Pharaoh Necho II ordered the expedition around Africa. He ruled the nation between 610 and 595 BC, during an incredibly dangerous time. In the east, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II was waging a war that every Egyptian knew would soon spill into their own country. It was a fight the Egyptians were destined to lose.
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It is highly unlikely that, during such dangerous times, Necho II’s expedition around Africa was meant to be a simple voyage of discovery. He lived in a desperate time; every move he made was meant to keep his people safe against the Babylonian threat.
Kneeling Statuette of King Necho , ca. 610-595 BC. Bronze. (CC BY/ Brooklyn Museum )
He’d already tried to dig a massive canal all the way from the Nile to the Red Sea, hoping to use it to make a naval fleet that could hold Nebuchadnezzar off. He gave up, though, when a priest convinced him that his incredibly ambitious project would only make it easier for the Babylonians to attack.
There are no records explaining exactly why Necho II decided to send a ship sailing around Africa, but he sent his men out almost immediately after giving up on his canal project. Likely, he wanted to find a way to send off warships that could pounce unexpectedly on Babylonian flee.
Painting of an Egyptian ship. From the Tomb of Menna. ( Ancient Egypt Wikia )
As a military operation, his plan would fail. Africa was far too massive for a fleet of ships to circle for a surprise attack. As a scientific expedition, though, it was an incredible breakthrough. His men would make a discovery nobody expected.
The First Men to Circumnavigate Africa
The men on the ship weren’t Egyptian. They were Phoenicians ; men from the nation that, at the time, had a reputation for creating the greatest sailors and explorers in the world.
Phoenician ship (hippos). Relief from the palace of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin (now Khorsabad). Louvre. ( Public Domain )
Their plan required an incredible amount of endurance. In their time, it wasn’t possible to stock up on enough supplies to keep a crew fed while they sailed around Africa. Instead, they decided to dock their boat every growing season, set up a camp, plant food, and hold out until the crops were ready.
They would set up a home in an uncharted land for half of each year just to grow crops. Then they would harvest all the food they could, load up their ship, and sail off once more.
An Egyptian merchant ship. ( Ancient Egypt Wikia ) Note the carrying capacity.
We know very little about their journey. The only source we have for their trip is Herodotus, a Greek writer who lived more than 100 years after they set sail. Historians, however, have a few theories on what they would have seen.
It’s believed that they would have spent their first year traveling through known lands, sailing down the Red Sea and crossing by Punt, a kingdom Egypt traded with regularly . But when Punt drifted away in the distance, they would have moved into an uncharted part of the world.
Here, they may have seen whales for the first time in their lives. They would have landed in African jungles and sowed crops. And it was here, we know for certain, that they saw the sun rise in the wrong part of the sky.
In a then uncharted part of the world the sailors saw the sun rise and set in the wrong part of the sky. (fdecomite/ CC BY 2.0 ) This was one of the first clear indications the world is not flat.
The Sky in the Southern Hemisphere
Our only source for this story is a man who doesn’t believe it’s true. Herodotus wrote:
“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.”
Compared to his contemporaries, Herodotus was being generous. Other writers completely rejected the idea that the trip ever could have been taken. Roman thinkers like Ptolemy insisted that it was physically impossible to circle Africa. Africa, Ptolemy believed, was an endless landmass that went onto the edges of the earth, with no coast at its southern tip.
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A mid-15th century Florentine map of the world based on Jacobus Angelus's 1406 Latin translation of Maximus Planudes's late-13th century rediscovered Greek manuscripts of Ptolemy's 2nd-century ‘Geography’. Ptolemy's 1st (modified conic) projection. ( Public Domain )
Ironically, though, their disbelief is the best proof that it really happened. We know, today, that the shape of our planet does make the sun appear in the north when in southern Africa. And the fact that they were the first people to witness this proves that they really did make that trip around a massive continent.
They went home to a crowd of people who called them liars and insisted it was impossible. But now, thousands of years later, their story has finally been vindicated. They were the first men to ever travel around Africa.
Top Image: An ancient Egyptian ship. Sailors sent out by Pharaoh Necho II saw some of the first hints that the world is not flat. Source: YouTube Screenshot
By Mark Oliver
Dollinger, André. “Herodotus on Necho.” Reshafim. http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/herodotus/nekhau.htm
“Herodotus on the First Circumnavigation of Africa.” Livius. April 12, 2018. http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/herodotus-on-the-first-circumnavigation-of-africa/
Herodotus. The Histories . Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt. Penguin Classics. https://books.google.com/books?id=pi11hWycd-8C&printsec=frontcover#v=snippet&q=made%20a%20statement%20which%20i%20do%20not%20myself%20believe&f=false
Vigano, Marco. “African Circumnavigation by Africans.” Academia. Addis Ababa University. https://www.academia.edu/24616712/African_circumnavigation_by_Africans._Carthaginians_discover_Mount_Cameroon_the_Ugandan_tin_Phoenicians_sold_in_Europe._Two_thousand_years_old_African_lighthouses_in_the_Mediterranean_and_North_Atlantic