Early historical references to Kilimanjaro

The Periplus and Ptolemy

And so it is to the notes of foreign travellers that we must turn in order to find the earliest accounts of Kilimanjaro. These descriptions are usually rather brief, often inaccurate and more often than not based on little more than hearsay and rumour rather than actual firsthand evidence.

One of the first ever descriptions of East Africa is provided by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written anonymously in AD45. The Periplus – a contender for the title of the world’s first ever travel guide – is a handbook for seafarers to the ports of Africa, Arabia and India and includes details of the sea routes to China. In it the author tells of a land called Azania, in which one could find a prosperous market town, Rhapta, where ‘hatchets and daggers and awls … a great quantity of ivory and rhinoceros horn and tortoise shell’ were all traded. Yet interestingly, there is no mention of any snow-capped mountain lying nearby; indeed, reading the Periplusone gets the impression that the author considered Rhapta to be just about the end of the world:

Beyond Opone [modern day Ras Harun on the Somalian coast] there are the small and great bluffs of Azania … twenty-three days sail beyond there lies the very last market town of the continent of Azania, Rhapta …

Black and white line drawing of Ptolemy of Alexandira

Ptolemy of Alexandria

Less than a hundred years later, however, Ptolemy of Alexandria, astronomer and the founder of scientific cartography, wrote of lands lying to the south of Rhapta where barbaric cannibals lived near a wide shallow bay and where, inland, one could find a ‘great snow mountain’. Mountains that wear a mantle of snow are pretty thin on the ground in Africa; indeed, there is only one candidate that is permanently adorned in snow, and that, of course, is Kilimanjaro.

How exactly Ptolemy came by his information is unknown, for he almost certainly never saw Kilimanjaro for himself. Nevertheless, based on hearsay though it may have been, this is the earliest surviving written mention of Africa’s greatest mountain. It therefore seems logical to conclude that the outside world first became aware of Africa’s tallest mountain in the years between the publication of the Periplus in AD45, and that of Ptolemy’s work, sometime during the latter half of the second century AD.

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