Flat Earth versus Round Globe

The Bible (Genesis I.7) states that during creation, God separated the waters below the firmament from those above the firmament. This was interpreted as he earth being a flat disk, surrounded by the seas, and covered by the firmament (sky) in the shape of a half-globe, to the top of which the stars were fixed. This firmament again was thought to be covered by a stream of water (the waters above the firmament).
Actually, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, head of the Great Library of Alexandria had proven the earth to be round. Knowing that on a certain day, at noon, an obelisk in Luxor (s. Egypt) would cast no shadow, at exactly the same time he measured the shadow of an obelisk in Alexandria. He knew the height of the obelisk and the distance between Alexandria and Luxor; the rest is trigonometry. Claudius Ptolemy's geography is also based on the concept of the earth being round, and sun, moon and the stars circling around the earth.

During the Renaissance, Greek texts were rediscovered, among them Eratosthenes' calculation and Ptolemy's geography. Yet to openly state the earth to be round was generally perceived as contradicting the bible, which, in its entirety, was believed to be the word of God. A person who postulated the earth to be round was a case for the inquisition.

Popular concept had it, that at the fringes of the earth people would fall down into the depth of hell. However, the campaigns of Alexander (to India), of Marco Polo and others (to China) were well-remembered and their travelogues not objected to by the Catholic church. The Viking discovery of Vinland (North America) was only remotely remembered; the church did not object to the concept that there were vast bodies of water and land out there yet to be discovered by christian Europeans.

Columbus claimed to sail out in order to prove the hypothesis, the earth to be round, wrong (an argumentation designed to outtrick the Inquisition). Arriving in the Caribbean Islands (1492), he referred to the archipelago as the Indies, soon to be known as the West Indies.
In the following year (1493), Pope Alexander VI. suggested the world outside of Europe to be partitioned between Castile and Portugal. When this partition was concluded in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), only one line was drawn - the concept of a flat earth maintained. Only in 1529, after the circmnavigation taken on by Magellan had been concluded in 1522, was the eastern equivalent fixed in the Treaty of Zaragoza (1525). By now the traditional church policy of the earth being flat was no longer tenable.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-195 B.C.), from MacTutor; by Eric Weisstein (his biographical data vary from source to source)
Claudius Ptolemy, by Bill Thayer; Ptolemy of Alexandria, from Technology Museum of Thessaloniki

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 23rd 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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