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Dutch title page of Varthema's book Itinerario, 1654

Ludovico di Varthema, also known as Barthema and Vertomannus (c. 1470-1517) was an Italian traveller and writer. He was the first European non-Muslim known to have entered Mecca as a pilgrim.

Contents

Biography

First explorations and journey to Mecca

Varthema was born in Bologna.

He was perhaps a soldier before beginning his distant journeys, which he undertook apparently from a passion for adventure, novelty and the fame which (then especially) attended successful exploration.

He left Europe near the end of 1502. Early in 1503 he reached Alexandria and ascended the Nile to Cairo. From Egypt he sailed to Beirut and thence travelled to Tripoli, Aleppo and Damascus, where he managed to get himself enrolled, under the name of Yunas (Jonah), in the Mamluk garrison. From Damascus he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina as one of the Mamluk escort of the Hajj caravan (April-June 1503). He describes the sacred cities of Islam and the chief pilgrim sites and ceremonies with remarkable accuracy, almost all his details being confirmed by later writers.

From the imprisonment to India

With the view of reaching India, he embarked at Jeddah, a city-port around 80 km west to Mecca, and sailed down the Red Sea and through the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb to Aden, where he was arrested and imprisoned as a Christian spy. He gained his liberty after imprisonment both at Aden and Radaa through the partiality of one of the sultanas of Yemen, made an extensive tour in south-west Arabia (visiting San‘a’), and took ship at Aden for the Persian Gulf and India. On the way he touched at Zaila and Berbera in Somalia; he then (early in 1504) ran across to the Indian port of Diu in Gujarat, afterwards famous as a Portuguese fortress.

From Diu he sailed up the Gulf of Cambay to Gogo, and thence turning back towards the Persian Gulf made Julfar (just within the entrance of the gulf), Muscat and Ormuz. From Ormuz he seems to have journeyed across Persia to Herat, returning thence south-west to Shiraz, where he entered into partnership with a Persian merchant, who accompanied him during nearly all his travels in South Asia.

After an unsuccessful attempt to reach Samarkand, the two returned to Shiraz, came down to Ormuz, and took ship for India. From the mouth of the Indus, Varthema coasted down the whole west coast of India, touching at Cambay and Chaul: at Goa, whence he made an excursion inland to Bijapur, at Cannanore, from which he again struck into the interior to visit Vijayanagar on the Tungabhadra; and at Calicut (c. 1505), where he stops to describe the society, manners and customs of Malabar, as well as the topography and trade of the city, the court and government of its sovereign (the Zamorin), its justice, religion, navigation and military organization.

Nowhere do Varthema's accuracy and observing power show themselves more strikingly. Passing on by the backwater of Kochi, and calling at Kollam (formerly known as Quilon), he rounded Cape Comorin, and passed over to Ceylon (c. 1506). Though his stay here was brief (probably at Colombo), he learnt a good deal about the island, from which be sailed to Pulicat, slightly north of Madras, then subject to Vijayanagar. Thence he crossed over to Tenasserim in the Malay Peninsula, to Bengal, perhaps near Chittagong, at the head of the bay of Bengal, and to Pegu, in the company of his Persian friend and of two Chinese Christians whom he met at Bengal.

Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Nagapattinam

After some successful trading with the king of Pegu, Varthema and his party sailed on to Malacca, crossed over to Pider (or Pedir) in Sumatra, and thence proceeded to Banda Aceh and Monoch (one of the Moluccas), the farthest eastward points reached by the Italian traveller.

From the Moluccas he returned westward, touched at Borneo, and there chartered a vessel for Java, the largest of islands, as his Christian companions reckoned it. He notes the use of compass and chart by the native captain on the transit from Borneo to Java, and preserves a curious, more than half-mythical, reference to supposed Far Southern lands.

From Java he crossed over to Malacca, where he and his Persian ally parted from the Chinese Christians. From Malacca he returned to the Coromandel coast, and from Nagapattinam in Coromandel he voyaged back, round Cape Comorin, to Kulam and Calicut.

Return in Europe

Varthema was now anxious to resume Christianity and return to Europe. After some time he succeeded in deserting to the Portuguese garrison at Cannanore (early in 1506). He fought for the Portuguese in various engagements, and was knighted by the viceroy Francisco d'Almeida, the navigator Tristão da Cunha being his sponsor.

For a year and a half he acted as Portuguese factor at Kochi, and on the 6th of December 1507 he finally left India for Europe by the Cape route. Sailing from Cannanore, Varthema apparently struck Africa about Malindi, and (probably) coasting by Mombasa and Kilwa arrived at Mozambique, where he noticed the Portuguese fortress then building, and described with his usual accuracy the negroes of the mainland.

Beyond the Cape of Good Hope he encountered furious storms, but arrived safely in Lisbon after sighting St Helena and Ascension Island and touching at the Azores. In Portugal the king received him cordially, kept him some days at court to learn about India, and confirmed the knighthood conferred by d'Almeida.

Legacy

His narrative finally brings him to Rome, where he takes leave of the reader. As Richard Francis Burton said in his book The Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah:

For correctness of observation and readiness of with Varthema stands in the foremost rank of the old Oriental travellers. In Arabia and in the Indian archipelago east of Java he is (for Europe and Christendom) a real discoverer. Even where passing over ground traversed by earlier European explorers, his keen intelligence frequently adds valuable original notes on peoples, manners, customs, laws, religions, products, trade, methods of war.

Varthema's work (Itinerario de Ludouico de Varthema Bolognese) was first published in Italian at Rome in 1510. Other Italian editions appeared at Rome, 1517, at Venice, 1518, 1535, 1563, 1589, &c., at Milan, 1519, 1523, 1525. Latin translations appeared at Milan, 1511 (by Archangelus Madrignanus); and at Nuremberg, 1610.

References

Itinerary of Ludovico Di Varthema of Bologna from 1502 to 1508. By Lodovico de Varthema, John Winter Jones, Richard Carnac Temple. Contributor Lodovico de Varthema, John Winter Jones, Richard Carnac Temple. Published by Asian Educational Services, 1997. ISBN 8120612698, 9788120612693. 121 pages.

The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopia, A.D. 1503 to 1508. By Lodovico de Varthema; Edited by George Percy Badger; Translated by John Winter Jones. Originally published by the Hakluyt Society, London in 1863. Reprint by Adamant Media Corporation, 2001. ISBN 1402195532 9781402195532.

The travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopia, A.D. 1503 to 1508 (1863). Various formats


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