The spread of mankind throughout the world out of , over the past two million years, is a form of exploration. So are the great tribal movements of historical times. But in these cases the motive is practical – to find better pastures, or seize somebody else’s property.

In true exploration the motive is one of enquiry. What is beyond? How can we get there? Journeys of this kind may have a practical purpose (is there a more convenient trade route?) or an intellectual one (where does this river come from?). They are only likely to be undertaken by settled communities, to whom the answer can be brought back. An outstanding early example is a Phoenician voyage round Africa in about 600 BC.

Navigation by Polaris: from c.1100 BC

The use of Polaris, the pole star, as a navigational aid is credited to the Phoenicians (the position of the pole star in the sky is so close to the northern end of the axis on which the earth rotates that it appears static throughout each night and is a reliable indication of due north). The Phoenicians also build up a store of information about winds and currents, which they guard jealously as valuable trade secrets.

One extraordinary indication of their skills is an expedition of about 600 BC. Sponsored by an Egyptian pharaoh, Phoenician ships make a complete voyage round the coast of Africa.

The pharaoh Necho II sends a fleet of Phoenician ships south through the Red Sea to discover whether Africa is entirely surrounded by water. Their achievement of this astonishing feat of exploration might easily be dismissed as legend.

But Herodotus, in his account, mentions one detail which he dismisses as highly improbable. Instead, it proves the story true. He says that the sailors, when they came back, claimed that during the furthest part of their journey they saw the Sun to the north of them.

The coast of northwest : c.310 BC

Pytheas, an explorer from the Greek city of Massilia (now Marseilles), voyages past Gibraltar and turns north up the European coast. Off Brittany he veers west to visit Cornwall, where he describes the trade in tin. He then sails up the west coast of Britain and continues beyond it for six days to reach a land which he calls Thule. It is inhabited but uncomfortable and strange. At midsummer the sun never sets, and beyond here the sea is frozen.

As a result of this report Thule (presumably Norway) becomes for all Greek and Roman geographers the most northerly place in the world.

Zhang Qian hears of Greece and India: 138-125 BC

The purpose of the journey of Zhang Qian is political (sent by the emperor Wudi to find allies in the west against the marauding Xiongnu), but his discoveries give him the status of an explorer.

In 138 BC he sets off through the Jade Gate at the western end of the Great Wall. Ahead is the vast open territory of the Xiongnu. The little party of 100 must have seemed very vulnerable. The most important member is a former slave, captured as a child from the Xiongnu and put to work in a Chinese family. He is their only means of talking to the barbarians.

The entire group is soon captured. They are kept prisoner, but they are well treated. Zhang Qian is even provided with a wife, by whom he has a son. After twelve years he escapes, together with his wife and the faithful slave. As a loyal envoy, he continues his mission – heading west rather than homewards. Eventually he reaches the Yuezhi, to the north of Bactria. They have no interest in attacking the Xiongnu on behalf of the Chinese, so on its own terms his journey has been a lengthy failure.

But Zhang Qian has been looking around. And he has made some surprising discoveries.

The first is that Bactria has a different culture from the surrounding regions. The reason, Zhang Qian learns, is that a conqueror, Alexander the Great, came here from the west. As a result this place has Greek coins, Greek sculpture and a Greek script. Zhang Qian’s presence here is the first recorded contact between the civilizations of the Far East and of the Mediterranean.

Even more surprising, the explorer finds in Bactria objects of bamboo and cloth made in southern China. They are brought here, he is told, by merchants from a land to the southeast, situated on a great river, where ‘the inhabitants ride elephants when they go into battle.

The envoy heads home. Arriving back through the Jade Gate, the little group astonishes the Chinese. Zhang Qian and the faithful slave are all that remain of the party which set off thirteen years previously. The barbarian wife is an interesting addition.

Zhang Qian is given high office in the imperial bureaucracy. Even the slave is ennobled – with the resounding title ‘Lord Who Carries Out His Mission’. And in view of the new information about the unknown land, another expedition is sent out.

Zhang Qian reasons that if the land of the elephants is southeast of Bactria, it must be southwest of China and probably not too far away. The expedition sent to reach this land is frustrated by the jungle of southeast Asia and by fierce tribes, but evidence is found that merchants do occasionally travel this way to a kingdom in the west where there are elephants. From China’s point of view India, along with Greece, is now on the map.

On Zhang Qian’s northern route, contact between the civilizations soon becomes commonplace. By 106 BC, twenty years after his return, the Silk Road is an established thoroughfare.

The known world: from the 1st century AD

By the 1st century AD the world’s great central land mass, Eurasia, is to a considerable extent familiar to its best informed inhabitants. The Roman empire provides a pool of shared knowledge covering the entire Mediterranean world and most of Europe. The Silk Road establishes a living link between the Mediterranean and the Pacific.

In Christian Europe, after the collapse of the Roman empire, missionaries take the faith to northern regions and bring back news of places and people. The same happens further east through the Christian link between Constantinople and Russia. In the 13th century the Mongols open a new and forceful channel of communication between east and west.

and Australia are still over the horizon. Of the known world, for those living in Europe and Asia, only Africa south of the Sahara remains a place of total mystery. In these circumstances the available opportunities are not so much for exploration as for travel – albeit travel of extreme discomfort and danger by our standards. Even Marco Polo, in his great 13th-century journey, visits no places unknown to his contemporaries. His distinction is to write about them.

But one Muslim traveller of the next century undertakes such ambitious journeys that he deserves to be regarded as an explorer. He is Ibn Batuta.

Ibn Batuta: AD 1325-1354

In 1325 Ibn Batuta sets off from home in Morocco to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He accompanies a caravan to Alexandria and Cairo on what is a standard journey for any serious Muslim. But Ibn Batuta’s adventure differs from others in one major respect. It is twenty-four years before he gets back to Morocco, and he has spent the time in almost continuous travel.

After his pilgrimage he tours southern Persia and Iraq, then crosses the Persian Gulf to Yemen before travelling down the east coast of Africa to Kilwa. After a return visit to Mecca, he makes his way up through Syria and into Anatolia – where he finds the Ottoman Turks beginning to expand their territory.

Ibn Batuta’s next ambition is to visit two of the most vigorous Muslim powers of his day, the Golden Horde in southern Russia and the Tughluq dynasty in Delhi. His journey to the capital of the Golden Horde at Sarai Berke takes him through the Genoese port of Caffa on the Black Sea. In his first experience of a Christian city, he finds the sound of the church bells unsettling – a culture shock experienced in the other direction by many arriving for the first time in a Muslim town today, with the muezzin’s call to prayer amplified from the minaret of every mosque.

Travelling from Bukhara through the Hindu Kush, Ibn Batuta reaches India in 1333.

The Moroccan traveller, learned in Muslim law, is taken into the service of the Tughluq sultan of Delhi. He spends much of the next twelve years in India, interrupted by occasional trips. One takes him to Ceylon, another to Sumatra and on to China.

Eventually Ibn Batuta takes a meandering route homewards. He is in Syria and Egypt while the Black Death is raging. From Egypt he makes another quick pilgrimage to Mecca before finally sailing home along the north African coast (via Sardinia, for travel remains irresistible). He reaches Morocco in November 1349. But his most ambitious journey, most nearly deserving the name of exploration, remains ahead.

In 1352 Ibn Batuta sets off south through the Sahara to visit the African kingdoms in the region of the Niger. He reaches Mali and its eastern neighbour, as yet less powerful but growing in prestige – the Songhay kingdom, with a capital on the Niger at Gao.

Ibn Batuta’s detailed descriptions of these African territories are the main written source of information about them (one of the tasks, surely, of a successful explorer). By 1354 the great traveller is back in Fez. On the command of the sultan he dictates the story of his travels to a royal scribe.

European maritime adventures: AD 1402-1460

Until the end of the Middle Ages the most westerly region known to Europeans is the Canary Islands. The islands are visited in about 40 BC by seafarers from Mauretania, a client kingdom of Rome in northwest Africa. An account of this expedition is known in the next century to Pliny the Elder. He explains that the islands are called Canaria because they have so many large dogs (canes).

In the 2nd century AD the westernmost island, Ferro, the nearest known point to the setting sun, is chosen by the geographer Ptolemy as his prime meridian of longitude – the role now occupied by Greenwich.

If Pliny’s great dogs existed in the Canaries, they belonged to the aboriginal inhabitants. Known as the Guanches, these people seem to have been Cro-Magnon in type. They have found their way to the islands at some unkown time long before their discovery in Roman times. They remain largely undisturbed until Adventurers from France arrive in 1402 – beginning almost a century of dispute and warfare.

By the 1430s European settlement begins also on two island groups further out in the Atlantic. Unlike the Canaries, Madeira and the Azores are previously uninhabited. Their colonization by settlers is part of the great programme of exploration associated with Prince Henry the Navigator.

Madeira features on an Italian portolan chart of 1351 but an accidental sighting by a Portuguese navigator, blown off course in 1418, is regarded at the time as a discovery. Returning in 1420, the navigator (João Gonçalves Zarco) finds the island uninhabited and lush. Prince Henry immediately despatches colonists both for Madeira and its smaller companion, Porto Santo. The forests are slashed and burned. Rich land is brought into cultivation, mainly for sugar cane and vineyards.

The productivity of the islands soon comes to depend on another aspect of Portugal’s new seafaring activities – the African slave trade, which results from Prince Henry’s later expeditions.

A group of islands much further into the ocean is sighted by a Portuguese ship in 1427. Prince Henry sends settlers to the Azores from 1432.

The practical use of these islands is not yet obvious. But with the European discovery of America in 1492, and of the sea route round Africa to India in 1498, the Azores become an invaluable landfall almost in the middle of the north Atlantic. They are particularly well placed, in later centuries, for ships on the long curving ocean route between Europe and the Cape of Good Hope. As yet these future advantages are unknown to Henry the Navigator, whose ambitions now centre on Africa.

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