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The Mountains of the Moon

Mountains of Moon

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The History

The Mountains of the Moon are one of the world's oldest and most widespread geographic myths. They have adorned maps for nearly two thousand years and were only recently disproved and removed. The story of how and why this mythical mountain range came into being is a fascinating tale that involves many of the most famous geographers and explorers in human history.

Mountains of the MoonThe idea of the Mountains of the Moon came into existence as a function of another geographic mystery, the source of the Nile River. Since the dawn of civilization geographers had puzzled over the source of the Nile, but never managed to conclusively solve it. In his The Histories Herodotus, who himself tried to solve the riddle, stated that "With regard to the sources of the Nile, I have found no one among all those with whom I have conversed, whether Egyptians, Libyans, or Greeks, who professed to have any knowledge."

Out of this geographic uncertainty, the Mountains of the Moon emerged as a convincing answer that would appear with varying frequency for the next 18 centuries. The longevity of the Mountains of the Moon are a testament to the influence of the famed geographer Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy's magnum opus Geographia is the first to describe the Mountains as the source of the Nile. By most accounts, Ptolemy's information about the mountains came from the tale of a Greek merchant named Diogenes who was a rough contemporary of Ptolemy's. Diogenes claimed that he had ventured inland from the eastern coast of Africa and after a perilous journey of 25 days, came across a jutting range of mountains where water pooled into two large lakes. Out of these lakes drained two mighty rivers, which Diogenes said were the upper reaches of the Nile. Diogenes claimed the Mountains were called the "Mountains of the Moon" by the natives because of how their snowcapped peaks glistened white in the sun. Ptolemy believed Diogenes and included these mountains in his maps, as did many other ancient Greek and Roman geographers. Ptolemy depicted the Mountains of the Moon as a long ridge of mountains from which a series of rivers drained into two lakes, as seen below. This depiction would be reproduced with slight derivations by hundreds of other geographers throughout the following centuries.

Inspired by Ptolemy's account, multiple expeditions were launched to try and find the source of the Nile. Numerous expeditions by the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Arabs and Romans had all failed to unravel the mystery, their expeditions foiled by disease, swamps, starvation, hostile natives and the unforgiving sun of the Sahara. As a result, Ptolemy's account of the river's origins lay unchallenged, and unconfirmed, for centuries. Even later Arab geographers, who had a better knowledge of Africa, took Ptolemy's map at face value and included the Mountains of the Moon in the same location.

Later Exploration

Centuries later when European and American explorers began to venture into Central Africa, they searched for the source of the Nile and the Mountains from whence it sprang. Many explorers found nothing but sickness, hardship and death, but several of them identified various mountains as Ptolemy's Mountains of the Moon.

Dr. James Bruce, commonly identified as the first European to track the Blue Nile to its source, identified the Mountains of the Moon as part of the vast highlands of Ethiopia. He surmised that Mount Amedamit, which he claimed was the source of one of the Blue Nile's tributaries, was the inspiration for Diogenes' account. Bruce wrote that Mount Amedamit surrounded the river "in two semi-circles like a new moon ... and seem, by their shape, to deserve the name of mountains of the moon, such as was given by antiquity to mountains in the neighborhood of which the Nile was supposed to rise."

Other explorers and geographers disputed Bruce's claims, and found alternative identifications for the Mountains. In 1846 German missionaries Johan Ludwig Krampf and Johannes Rebmann reported seeing two large snowcapped Mountains in the African interior. This report caused considerable confusion among the geographic circles of Europe. Numerous experts like the British Royal Geographical Society's William Desborough Colley rejected the reports out of hand, declaring that snow could not exist so close to the equator. Others wondered whether these mountains were not isolated peaks, but instead part of the supposedly snowcapped Mountains of the Moon that Diogenes had described. In reality, Krampf and Rebmann where the first Europeans to see the isolated peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, but this would not be proven for several decades.

Years later when British explorers John Hanning Speke and James Grant explored the Great Lakes Region of Africa in the early 1860s, they found no mountains and instead claimed that the Nile arose in the newly discovered Lake Victoria, causing more confusion as to whether the Mountains of the Moon existed and if they played any role in the Nile's origins. Even later, the explorer Henry Morton Stanley would add another layer of confusion on his last African expedition. Stanley, who was heralded for "solving the Nile Question", glimpsed a series of snowcapped peaks in modern Uganda in 1889. These mountains had escaped the view of Europeans in the area for over 40 years because they were almost always covered in a thick layer of mist and cloud. This mountain range, today known as the Rwenzori, were heralded by many geographers as the ultimate source of the Nile and Ptolemy's Mountains of the Moon.

Following the explorations of Speke, Stanley and others, the Mountains of the Moon, at least as Ptolemy depicted them, disappeared from the map. Modern geographers are divided on which Mountains Ptolemy and Diogenes described. Many reject Diogenes' account entirely, while others credit the Rwenzori, or Kilimanjaro or the Highlands of Ethiopia as the inspiration for the legendary range. While the runoff from these mountains are each the source of some of the Nile's water, it is unlikely that any these peaks will be definitively proven as the true Mountains of the Moon, if they ever existed.

Wherever the truth lies, the confusion over these Mountains and the role they played in the source of the Nile river have left us a wonderful set of maps that give us a glimpse not only into the interior of Africa, but also into the time and situation in which they were made. These maps are lovely representations of one of geographies most enduring mysteries.


A Selection of Maps

Hondius Africa
Jodocus Hondius "Nova Africae Tabula." Amsterdam: J. Hondius, 1607. 14 3/4 x 19 3/4. Full original hand color. Full margins. Excellent condition. French text on verso. Denver.

In 1606, Jodocus Hondius brought out his first edition of Gerard Mercator's Atlas, the plates for which he had purchased in 1604. Besides maps from these plates, Hondius introduced some new maps of his own, adding more each year the atlas was reissued. Amongst the first maps Hondius added were ones of each of the four continents. This is Hondius' version of Africa, issued in the same atlas as Gerard Mercator, Jr.'s map, which was based on the famous 1569 Gerard Mercator map of the world.

Hondius took most of his depiction from the Mercator map, though he made some modifications. He altered the shape of Madagascar, as well as many coastal features of the continent. He added a note about the resources on St. Helena's Island mentioning its use as a place for providing for journeying ships. Hondius changed Mercator's river system a bit, returning more to Ptolemy's depiction for the source of the Nile, which is shown as arising in two large lakes, "Zaire" and "Zaflan." The Senegal and Niger Rivers are depicted as continuous, another long standing conception, with the latter river ending in Central Africa in the "Niger Lacus." Like on Mercator's map, Hondius shows the Congo as joining up to the Nile River system, in this case in Lake Zaire, making it possible to sail from the Atlantic to Cairo through the landmass of Africa.

Hondius removed Mercator's vignette of Prester John, but adds small pictures of an elephant, a monkey, and a camel. Off the coast Hondius added even more decorative features, including several sea monsters, sailing ships, and an unusual native dugout canoe with a square rigged sail. The title cartouche is a wonderful example of seventeenth century style, crowned with a grinning monkey head. The colors of this map, applied at the time of publication, are superb and add immeasurably to its decorative appeal. With so little really known of the 'dark continent' in the seventeenth century, the passing of years did not necessarily mean that new maps were any more accurate than earlier ones. Unquestionably, however, this is one of the most interesting and attractive maps ever produced of Africa. $1,300



Cary Africa
John Cary. "A New Map of Africa, from the Latest Surveys." London: J. Cary, 1805. 18 1/2 x 20 7/8. Original outline coloring. Light creasing and light smudges at center. Short tear at lower centerfold. Otherwise, very good condition. Denver.

This map was drawn, engraved and published by John Cary (fl 1769-1836) in London for the 1805 edition of his New Universal Atlas. Amidst the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, British naval power was rising, and mapmaking as an art and science kept pace. Cary used existing maps and new surveys to provide his clients with the most up-to-date information on all parts of the world. Inaccuracies might be evident, but they reflect the state of knowledge in western Europe when they were made. The northern parts of the continent show much information along the rivers, and trade routes. A non-existent mountain chain stretches across the continent; the eastern half of this range, "Mountains of the Moon," are a remnant of the Ptolemaic conception of Africa; the western half "The Mountains of Kong" were the result of a mistake by cartographer John Rennel in 1798. This map was the first to show the "Mountains of Kong" and the "Mountains of the Moon" as part of the same giant mountain range, a feature which would remain on maps of Africa until the 1850s. The southern half of the continent has information mostly along the coasts where traders and European settlements had been made. The interior of the south is mostly blank, "Unknown Parts," though Lake Maravi, an early reflection of the interior lakes, is shown. Attractive, with interesting information and absence of information, this is an excellent map of Africa from the beginning of the nineteenth century. $550



Burr Africa
David H. Burr. "Africa." From A New Universal Atlas (1835). New York: Thomas Illman, 1834. 10 3/8 x 12 1/2. Engraving by Illman & Pilbrow. Full original color. Light smudges in upper right. Else, very good condition. Denver.

An excellent map of Africa by David H. Burr, one of the most important American cartographers of the first part of the nineteenth century. Having studied under Simeon DeWitt, Burr produced the second state atlas issued in the United States, of New York in 1829. He was then appointed to be geographer for the U.S. Post Office and later geographer to the House of Representatives. As a careful geographer, Burr is painstaking in this map to put in only information for which he felt there was a scientific basis. Despite that, this map includes a long chain of the Mountains ofthe Moon across mid-continent. Below this is "Unexplored Region." Elsewhere, rivers, deserts, mountains, towns, and a number of countries are clearly presented. Also shown are the Mountains of Kong. Burr's maps are scarce and quite desirable. $225



Tanner: Africa 1844
Henry S. Tanner. "Africa." From Tanner's Universal Atlas. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1844. 12 x 14. Engraving. Original hand coloring. Very good condition. Denver.

This map was made by the great American cartographer, Henry Schenck Tanner. In 1816, Henry, his brother Benjamin, John Vallance and Francis Kearny formed an engraving firm in Philadelphia. Having had experience at map engraving through his work with John Melish, Tanner conceived of the idea of compiling and publishing an American Atlas, which was begun in 1819 by Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co. Soon Tanner took over the project on his own, and thus began his career as cartographic publisher. The American Atlas was a huge success, and this inspired Tanner to produce his Universal Atlas, of more manageable size. The maps were issued by Tanner until 1841, then in 1844 by Carey & Hart. Later the maps were issued by S. Augustus Mitchell, and then Thomas, Cowperthwait & Co. into the second half of the century. This map shows the fictional trans-African mountain chain known as the Mountains of the Moon and the Mountains of Kong. An interesting document $225




Giovanni Miani. "Nouvelle Carte du Bassin Du Nil indiquant la commune origine de ce Fleuve avec les Rivieres du Zanguebar." Paris: Societe de Geographie de Paris, 1858. Separately issued, folding map; dissected into 24 sections and mounted on linen. 39 1/2 x 23. Steel engraving by Erhard Schieble. Original hand color. The backs of two sections contain advertisements for "Stanford's Series of New Library Maps." Very good condition. Denver.

A lovely and highly detailed map of the Nile by Giovanni Miani (1810-1872). Miani was an Italian adventurer and explorer obsessed with finding the source(s) of the Nile River, who led a number of expeditions past Khartoum to find the "springs" of the river. On this map he shows limited knowledge of the Blue Nile going into Abyssinia, but what would later be called the White Nile flows from very far south. Beyond his "Frontiere actuelle de l'Egypte" is designated "...Limite de la Race des Elephants" where he organized elephant hunts for ivory to finance his expeditions. Travelling south up the river farther the map designates various tribes, and at the southern border a large mountain range is drawn east to west with a valley within designated "Iles habitués par des Crocodiles et des Hippopotames d'Elephants et de Rhinoceros." In the extreme bottom left is today's Lake Victoria which he calls "Grand Lac d'Uniamesi" or "Lac Zaire (d'apres les Portugais)." At this time explorers continued to keep the ancient "Mountains of the Moon" theories as a possibility. The advertisements on the back shows that such a work was marketed throughout the world, as this example was sold in England. A wealth of information on knowledge of the entire Nile River system at that time. Interestingly, four years prior to the publishing of this map, Ferdinand de Lesseps was granted the Suez Canal concession. In 1858 the Suez Canal Company raised 200,000,000 francs, so work was begun. The modernization of Egypt commenced in earnest. This 1858 printing is the earliest one recorded. See: Tooley's Dictionary (p 248) and the British Museum Catalog both record imprints of 1862 and 1864. A scarce and early map. $750




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