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0291 Notes on Marco Polo : vol.2
Notes on Marco Polo : vol.2 / Page 291 (Color Image)

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doi: 10.20676/00000246
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Note on « Magellanic Clouds » offered to Prof. Louis Hambis, editor of the late Paul PELLIOT's Notes on Marco Polo, for the vol. II, s. v. Mogedaxo.

P. PeRiot having asked L. Massignon if any Arabic priority could be ascertained for the discovery of the « Magellanic Clouds », shown in Sumatra (= Giava minor) to Marco Polo (1285), here are some positive elements for an answer :

Ptolemaeus is mute on Magellanic Clouds, though Greek pilots, as says Humboldt (Examen critique..., 1839, t. v, p. 235), had the possibility to observe them, when crossing the Red Sea straits (on their way to Rhapta) ; but they didnt. But Arab pilots did, in spite of the blind worship of Arab astronomers for Ptolemaeus' exhaustiveness. Five centuries at least before the Portuguese pilots of 1515-1521 (see P.M. de Anghiera, A. Corsali, Pigafetta, 1515-1521). And it must have been in Mogedaxo.

It is in Mogedaxo that the boats coming from Raysût (and Zufâr) directly, and sailing for the southern Indian Ocean, had to change their « steering », leaving the North Pole Star (sunk under the verge), and steering by a South Pole Nebula (Magellanic Clouds are only at 120 from the South Pole), according to the example of the Indian pilots of Cutch (Kacch), their forerunners in the cruel and precious trade from the Zanj coasts, and Madagascar : slaves, ivory, and rhinoceros hide. As soon as our 8th century (Zanj slaves rebellion in Basra occurred one century later).

The first Arabic mention of the Magellanic Clouds, discovered by Ideler ( Untersuchungen..., 1809, p. 263), studied by Humboldt (l.c., supra), appears in the « kawdkib wasuwar » of Abdurrahmân Safi (d. 376 H.), ed. tr. Schjellerup, Petersbourg, 1881, p. 229. It is in a rather doubtful remark that this accurate observer mentions an untested hearsay about « two white clouds at the feet of Canopus (Suhayl), named « al-baqar », not to be found in the Almagest : not visible in Iraq nor Jajd, but only in Tihâma (SW corner of Arabia). From where Sufi too this hearsay « true or false » ? Apparently not from pilots. Destombes thinks it was taken from a kitdb al-anwd, one of these empirical guides (immemorial in India and Arabia), for the « steering of the caravanes » in the deserts, based on the so-called Calendar of the Pleiades. It may be so ; but I must say that in the practical « rose sidérale » constructed by Arabs for the Red Sea, on the 14 + 14 = 28 Anwd (lunar mansions), according to d'Abbadie (1841 : see G. FERRAND, Introduction..., p. 99 sq.), no « fixed cloud in the south » is mentioned, neither, near Achernar, nor near Canopus.

At the beginning of the 13th century, however, the testimonies collected from Mogedaxo on the Bahr al-Zanj by Yâqût (Mu'jam al-bulddn, I, 501-502), were unanimous on the existence of a fixed mark close to the South Pole in the heaven, the only one (with Canopus) : « a thing of the seize of the moon, as an arch (tdga) in the sky, or as a piece of white cloud, never sinking, nor moving from its place » : for the Zanj and the Madagascar people. Yâqût doesnt actually remind the name given to this asterism : our Magellanic Clouds.

We can go further : Muslim pilots (Arab and Persian) used these clouds for « steering »; they had borrowed it from the Indian Cutch pilots, who boasted having learnt Arabs how to build ships for crossing the Indian Ocean (W. HAMILTON, Descr. Hindostan, 1820, I, 596; quoted by G. Pauthier) and who told Lt. Leech how, on their way from Cutch (Mândvi) to Zanzibar, « at midway, there was