Category Archives: Africa

cosmo kramer in his underwear

Extraordinary Travelers – Cosmas the Flat Earther

Sorry Seinfeld fans, I’m not talking about Cosmo Kramer. Cosmas Indicopuleustes was a far more fascinating figure though, although probably not as delightful at opening doors and making witty comments.

Cosmas was a writer, merchant, traveler, monk who is most famous for his 6th century tome Christian Topography in which he provided some of the earliest world maps on record for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

cosmas indian ocean explorerBefore becoming a monk and a hermit, Cosmas was a very successful voyager and trader who visited Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, and most famously, India. Cosmas seemingly difficult last name was easy for Byzantines and Greeks – it was Indicopleustes and essentially means  “Voyager of the Indian Ocean” – which was helpful when you were trying to remember which Cosmas to invite to your Christmas party – you wouldn’t want to accidentally invite the one who explored the Aegean – Cosmas Aegeapleustes…that guy is impossible to deal with…

Of course, you might not have wanted to invite Cosmas Indicopleustes either since one of his most famous conventions was that the world was flat. It was he who introduced that idea to the early Christian Church. He spent considerable time in his book and in his life trying to prove that Ptolemy’s view that the Earth was a sphere was laughable.  He was of the much more (to him) reasonable opinion that it was flat and had a treasure chest type lid  on it.

flat earth photo by John O'Sullivan

He was not the person that ‘cosmology’ was named after, though it was one of his passions.  Mostly, it was the fact that he covered some serious ground and drew maps about it, that he is remembered for, though, like Donald Trump, his ridiculous views about some things eclipse his true accomplishments.

 

vagabond woman

Cross Dressing Vagabond – Isabelle Eberhardt

Traveling the world used to be a game that only the men played, but as in all fields, brave pioneers broke out of the Victorian conception of women as meek and mild and showed that even the hardest travel makes no distinction among the sexes. Isabelle Eberhardt was one of these extraordinary feminist vagabonds.

Isabelle Eberhardt was a Swiss writer and explorer who lived and traveled widely in North Africa. She is considered to have been an extremely independent individual, who refused normal European ethics and characterization of women. Instead she followed her own path which led her to world travel. Isabelle’s first trip was with her mother to North Africa in 1897. They were trying to set up a new life there on this journey, and during that time they both converted to Islam.

feminist vagabondIsabelle’s half brother Vladimir committed suicide and another brother was married to a French woman whom Eberhardt was not in favor of. From then onwards, she spent her life in Africa, she made Northern Algeria and Morocco her home and became a true desert vagabond. Isabelle was in Tunisia for some time as well. She was frequently disguised as a man and there are many who conjecture that she not only lived as a man but loved women as a man does.

The life and writings of Isabelle Eberhardt:
The Nomad
In the Shadow of Islam
Prisoner of Dunes
The Oblivion Seekers
The Vagabond

female vagabondIsabelle married an Algerian soldier, Slimane Ehnni in 1901. She was known to drink and fight in the hardest of ways. She died in a flash flood in Algeria in 1904. She had rented a house there which was constructed of clay. The house collapsed on Isabelle and her husband during the flood, she saved her husband but she didn’t survive the disaster. She wrote about her travels in several books and the newspapers of France. Her books and articles include “In the Hot Shadow of Islam”, “Algerian Short Stories” and “The Day Laborers”. She also wrote a novel, Vagabond which was translated into English by Annette Kobak. The journals of Isabelle were recovered from the flash flood, they covered the final four years of her life and now these journals are also available in English.

Isabelle Eberhard was a nomad in Africa but more importantly she explored the limits and boundaries of gender as well as the deserts of Africa and continued her writing during that time. Most of her novels, books and journals on her travels can be found in English, Spanish, French, and German.

world traveling vagabond

Vagabond Explorer – Sir Richard Francis Burton

Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was quite possibly the greatest vagabond in history. In his lifetime he lived diverse cultures, broke boundaries, and did most of it without much in the way of resources or travel money.

As I listen to the call to prayer outside my window, I can’t help reflecting on the amazing life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Quite possibly the greatest explorer and adventurer the world has ever known.

Burton was born on the 19th of March, 1821 in England and died at the age of 69 in Austria-Hungary on October 20, 1890. During his life Burton was a writer, explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer, soldier, spy, linguist, and poet.

He is said to have spoken twenty nine languages and was the first European man to go to many places in Asia, Africa,and even to the United States where he infiltrated and exposed the bizarre beliefs and customs of the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Richard F. Burton Nomad

Why does the call to prayer remind me of him? For one because he was the first European to make the hajj and disguised as an Arab he entered Mecca. For two because Burton was in fact, a Muslim. Third, Burton was the translator of The Thousand and One Nights which is probably the best known collection of stories concerned with Arab and Muslim cultures ever written.

In addition to these achievements he also translated the Kama Sutra and was the first European to see the source of the Nile River. His writings included studies of human behavior, ethnographies, travel writing, books about sexual practices, and more. He was a cofounder of the Anthropological Society of London before most people had any idea what anthropology was (although most still don’t).

To a certain extent, Burton was hated and persecuted for his honesty, his refusal to bend before the man, and the suspicion that rather than having masqueraded as a Muslim, he might have actually been one.
Muslim Richard Burton
Burton always claimed to be a Muslim, but after his death, in an attempt to save her reputation, his wife Isabel published a biography that most believe to be false in which she claimed he was always a strong believer in Christ- like her. She also burned all of his unpublished writings so that her account was the only one which people could turn to. This went specifically against Burton’s wishes, but he probably didn’t care much since he was already dead.

To understand just how many books Burton wrote, how much ground he covered, and how incredible the man was you need only read his fascinating biography.