The first circumnavigation
of Africa
by Jona Lendering

Herodotus, The Histories 4.42: The first circumnavigation of Africa

Libya is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Neco, who, after calling off the construction of the canal between the Nile and the Arabian gulf, sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year's harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right - to northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered by sea.


The Egyptian pharaoh Neco, or -more properly- Wehimbre Necho, was the ruler of the old kingdom along the Nile from 610 to 595. When he started his reign, there were some serious problems on Egypt's northeastern border. The old kingdom of Assyria had succumbed to Babylonian aggression (click here for some details), and the Babylonian king wanted to punish Egypt for its support to the Assyrian cause (cf. the biblical book 2 Kings 23.29). From a Babylonian chronicle, we know that Neco was campaigning in Syria from 609 until 605, when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar decisively defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish and proceeded along the Mediterranean coast. It is not entirely clear where the border was drawn: 2 Kings 24.7 implies that Egypt retired to the Sinai desert and left the Palestine coast in Babylonian hands; Herodotus 2.159 suggests that Gaza remained Egyptian.

However this may be, it is obvious that Neco was in big troubles, and he seems to have considered the possibility to attack southern Babylonia by sea. He ordered a canal to be made between the Nile and the Red Sea; however, he learnt from an oracle that he was giving free access to his enemies too, and therefore, the canal remained uncompleted until the Persians had taken over Egypt in the last quarter of the sixth century.

The circumnavigation of Africa must have been related to his defense projects. Neco asked for Phoenician assistance because the Phoenicians (who lived in modern Lebanon) were excellent sailors and had several colonies in the West, such as Carthage and the islet of Mogador opposite modern Essaouira, which has been identified with ancient Arambys. The Phoenicians must have been happy to help the Egyptians, because they shared the Babylonian enemy.

They must have started their voyage in July, and they must have reached the Horn of Africa after an uneventful trip, relying on the northern wind. The Red Sea (which Herodotus calls "Arabian Gulf") was well known to their Egyptian pilots, because the Egyptians traded incense with the Arabians of modern Yemen.

The Egyptian sources inform us also about a mythological country named Punt or Pwanit. Usually, this is identified with the north coast of modern Somalia, but this is unlikely, since the Egyptians brought back antimony. This was produced, however, in modern Mozambique; it may be noticed that Pwani is the Swahili word indicating "seaside" and a similar word may have existed 2600 years ago. In later times, the route to "Rhapta" (somewhere in the neighborhood of Dar-es-Salaam) was well-known to Egyptian and Roman sailors. Whatever the precise location of Punt, the first part of the expedition of the Phoenicians covered known territories.

After they had passed Africa's most eastern shores,  the northeast monsoon -which started in October- sped up their journey, and in March they must have reached the equator. The Agulhas Current must have brought them through the Mozambique Channel and along the coast of modern South Africa. Sailing on their westerly course, they must have observed that they had the sun on their right. (Something that Herodotus, who was unaware of the earth's spherical shape, was unable to believe.) Something else must have fascinated these men, too:  they must have seen whales.

When they reached Cape Agulhas, they left the current that had helped to the south. At the same time, they encountered the contrary South East trade winds. And they must have been shocked to discover that here, on the southern hemisphere, the winter was already approaching. However, they must happily have noticed that they had started to go north. The plane behind Saint Helena Bay, 150 kilometers north of modern Cape town, offered a fine opportunity to land. They must have sowed their wheat in June, started to repair their ships, and harvested in November.

The Benguela Current and the now favorable South East trade winds brought the Phoenician sailors back to the hot equatorial regions, and the will have experienced its effects in a most unpleasant way, when they sailed along the Namibian coast, which is a desert. It took several weeks to reach a more fertile coast. In March, a new and equally unpleasant surprise awaited them: they had been traveling on a northerly course, but now, the coast curved to the west again. They may have benefited from the westward Guinea Current, but not for long, because it changes its direction during the spring. For weeks, they were struggling against the wind and the current, only to reach -in July- the African west coast, where they encountered the contrary Canary Current and the North Eastern trade winds. But they were rowing in a northerly direction.

Somehow they managed to beat against the wind and the current, and in november they must have landed somewhere on the coast of modern Mauritania, maybe at Bay of Arguin, where their Carthaginian compatriots were to build the trading post of Kerne in the not too distant future. The voyagers, sowed their wheat, repaired their ships, and waited for the next harvest. Maybe they made contact with the Berber population; in that case, they may have learned that they could obtain gold from the Bambouk region if they returned to the mouth of the Senegal - something that the Carthaginian sailor Hanno probably did.

In May, they brought their ships to the sea, and started to beat their way up to along the Moroccan coast, where they discovered that they had returned to the world they knew: the town on Mogador island was occupied by Phoenicians. Having told the incredible story of their trip to the southern hemisphere and with new equipment, they continued their voyage; soon they reached Phoenician towns like Lixus, modern Cadiz and Malaga, and Carthage. They must have reached Egypt at the end of the summer. Their expedition had lasted almost three years.


This short text is discussed by A.B. Lloyd in his Herodotus. Book II (1975, 1988 Leiden). On the location of Punt, see W.F.G. Lacroix, Africa in Antiquity. A linguistic and toponymic analysis of Ptolemy's map of Africa (1998 Saarbrücken), appendix III.