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Outsiders Arrive

History of Kilimanjaro: the outsiders arrive

Arab geographers, an anonymous Chinaman and  some Portuguese

Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama – African Explorer

Following Ptolemy’s description, almost nothing more is written about Kilimanjaro for over a thousand years. The Arabs, arriving on the East African coast in the sixth century, must have heard something about it from the local people with whom they traded. Indeed, the mountain would have proved essential to the natives as they travelled from the interior to the markets on the East African shore: as one of the few unmissable landmarks in a largely featureless expanse of savannah and scrub, and with its abundant streams and springs, the mountain would have been both an invaluable navigational tool and a reliable source of drinking water for the trading caravans.


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But whether the merchants from the Middle East actually ventured beyond their trading posts on the coast to see the mountain for themselves seems doubtful, and from their records of this time only one possible reference to Kilimanjaro has been uncovered, written by a thirteenth-century geographer, Abu’l Fida, who speaks of a mountain in the interior that was ‘white in colour’.

The Chinese, who traded on the East African coast during the same period, also seemed either ignorant or uninterested in the land that lay beyond the coastline and in all their records from this time once again just one scant reference to Kili has been found, this time by an anonymous chronicler who states that the country to the west of Zanzibar ‘reaches to a great mountain’.

After 1500, and the exploration and subsequent conquest of the African east coast by Vasco da Gama (pictured) and those who followed in his wake, the Arabs were replaced as the major trading power in the region by the Portuguese. They proved to be slightly more curious about what lay beyond the coast than their predecessors, perhaps because their primary motives for being there were more colonial than commercial.

A vague but once again unmistakable reference to Kilimanjaro can be found in a book, Suma de Geographia, published in 1519, an account of a journey to Mombasa by the Spanish cartographer, astronomer and ship’s pilot Fernandes de Encisco:

West of Mombasa is the Ethiopian Mount Olympus, which is very high, and further off are the Mountains of the Moon in which are the sources of the Nile.

Amazingly, in the fourteen hundred years since Ptolemy this is only the third reference to Kilimanjaro that has been found; with the return of the Arabs in 1699, it was also to be the last for another hundred years or so. Then, just as the eighteenth century was drawing to a close, the Europeans once more cast an avaricious eye on East Africa.

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