Cosmas Indicopleustes

Coptic Church
Egypt , Ethiopia

Cosmas Indicopleustes, the name given to an anonymous Nestorian author of the twelve-book Christian Topography, written a few years before the Second Council of Constantinople (553). Cosmas was an Egyptian merchant, probably from Alexandria, who plied his trade in Alexandria, the Red Sea port of Adulis (Sawākin), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), calling at the island of Socotra and the ports of the Malabar Coast of south India on the way. He had probably sailed as far north as the Somali Coast (Zingion) (II.30).

Cosmas was a man of his time, one for whom interest in theological questions took precedence over those of topography and animal life, with which he was also profoundly and intelligently concerned. He eventually became a monk. Though he had never studied theological questions systematically, he claimed to be a follower of the Nestorian catholic os Mār Aba (540-552) (II.2). The Nestorian tendency of his biblical exegesis is shown by the influence of works of Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodorus of Mopduestia, and Severian of Jabalah (especially the last named), all representatives of the Antiochene theological school, at a time when this school was increasingly under threat of condemnation by Emperor Justinian (527-565) and his advisers. At the same time, Cosmas made use of the festal letters of Athanasius, the writings of Severus of Antioch, and writings of the Monophysite patriarchs of Alexandria, Timothy III (517 -535) and Theodosius I (535-567; died in exile in Constantinople in 567), if these appeared (whether inadvertently or not) to support his two-nature theology and belief in man’s destiny to dwell with Christ in heaven after the Resurrection. Also of interest is Cosmas’s knowledge of Alexandrian, pagan, and anti-Jewish writers, such as Manetho, Apollonius Molon, and Apion, who demonstrated, to Cosmas’s approval (XII.4), that Moses was the leader of a scurvy band of beggars who revolted against Egypt and formed the Jewish nation.

The Christian Topography was written over a period of years: the first five books were compiled for a friend, Pamphilus, and the remainder as occasion arose: partly to answer critics of the original books, partly to provide evidence from earlier writers for the truth of his understanding of scripture, and (bk. XI) to describe the animals and other curiosities he had encountered in his travels, especially to the island of Taprobane (Ceylon).

The first concern of Cosmas, however, was theology. He aimed at proving, contrary to prevailing Greek and some Christian theories, that the universe had the same shape as Moses’ tabernacle (see III.51), that it was in the form of a cube and not a sphere. The earth was a flat, oblong table, 12,000 miles long and 6,000 miles wide, surrounded by ocean (II.24, 47, 48) beyond which was Paradise, where Adam and Eve had lived (cf. II.43). The whole area was surrounded by high, perpendicular mountains on which the vault of heaven rested. Between heaven and earth lay the firmament, dividing the universe into two stages. God and the just dwelt on the upper level, to which man would be admitted after the Resurrection; on the lower was humanity in this life.

The geographical descriptions that Cosmas provides are therefore incidental to his main purpose, but they are nonetheless very accurate. As a young man he was in Adulis at the outbreak of the war between the kingdom of Axum and the Himyarites of southern Arabia (522), and he describes monuments set up long before, by Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 B.C.) in that port (II.56-63). He also refers to numerous Alexandrian traders established there. His work is valuable for the evidence it provides of the spread of Christianity down the Nile Valley, to Socotra, to south India, and to Ceylon. He refers to the kingdom of Meroë and the cataracts of the Nile (VI.6), but-perhaps significantly-there is no description of the Nubian kingdoms to which Justinian and Theodora were sending missions about the time Cosmas was writing. For Meroë and ideas about the sources of the Nile he relies on current tradition.

Cosmas shows how by the middle of the sixth century the discoveries concerning the physical universe made in previous ages were being superseded by others that were more fanciful, based on what was believed to be the meaning of the literal text of the Bible. Cosmas, however, retains his interest through his meticulous descriptions, often illustrated, of what he saw during his travels. In particular, he provides evidence for the continuance of Alexandria as a major trading center for goods imported into the Byzantine Empire from the countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

W. H. C. Freno

Note: The DACB uses the transliteration system of the Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd ed.), dropping the diacritical marks on the kha, dtaa, saad, and daad.


Cosmas Indocopleustes. Christian Topography. In PG 88, cols. 52-476. Paris, 1864.

Leclercq, H. “Kosmas Indicopleustès.” Dictionnaire d’Archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Vol. 8, cols. 820-49. Paris, 1928.

Peterson, E. “Die alexandrinische Liturgie bei Cosmas Indicopleustes.” Ephemerides liturgicae 46 (1932):66- 74.

Winstedt, E. O. The Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Cambridge, 1909.

Wolska-Conus, Cosmas Indicopleustes–Topographie chrétienne. Sources chrétiennes 141, 159, 197. Paris, 1968-1973.

This article was reprinted, with permission from The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 2, copyright © 1991 by Macmillan, New York, U.S.A., edited by Aziz S. Atiya. All rights reserved.