A Distant Shore

I picked up a bottle half buried in the wet sand, covered with barnacles, but stoppled tight, and half full of red ale, which still smacked of juniper,—all that remained I fancied from the wreck of a rowdy world,—that great salt sea on the one hand, and this little sea of ale on the other, preserving their separate characters. What if it could tell us its adventures over countless ocean waves! Man could not be man through such ordeals as it had passed. But as I poured it slowly out on to the sand, it seemed to me that man himself was like a half-emptied bottle of pale ale, which Time had drunk so far, yet stoppled tight for a while, and drifting about in the ocean of circumstances, but destined ere-long to mingle with the surrounding waves, or be spilled amid the sands of a distant shore.

Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod

As the monk Maximos Planudes lifted the copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia from the tomes piled around the book dealer’s stall in Constantinople, that day back in 1294, one piece of the wreckage of Alexandria began a new journey.

Planudes had turned the ancient words into maps, which were added to and improved on by the Byzantine court. One of these had itself found its way from the edges of Asia to a wealthy Florentine with the time and money to translate its Greek text back into the Latin that the scholars of Europe still understood. From Florence that map found its way to Rome, to the Apostolic Library of the pope, then the most powerful man on earth. And from there copies made their way across Europe, to the palaces and castles of the princes of Christendom.

One of those would reach the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, where in 1484 a young explorer named Christopher Columbus was, like Ptolemy before him, beginning to think the unthinkable. What if the world was indeed a sphere? What if he could sail west to Cathay? What if the book he held in his hands that day was correct? A book called the Geographia by Claudius Ptolemy. A book from the library at Alexandria.










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