Every great people of antiquity, as a rule, regarded its own central city or most holy place as necessarily the centre of the earth.

The Chaldeans held that their "holy house of the gods" was the centre. The Egyptians sketched the world under the form of a human figure, in which Egypt was the heart, and the centre of it Thebes. For the Assyrians, it was Babylon; for the Hindus, it was Mount Meru; for the Greeks, so far as the civilized world was concerned, Olympus or the temple at Delphi; for the modern Mohammedans, it is Mecca and its sacred stone; the Chinese, to this day, speak of their empire as the "middle kingdom." It was in accordance, then, with a simple tendency of human thought that the Jews believed the centre of the world to be Jerusalem.

The book of Ezekiel speaks of Jerusalem as in the middle of the earth, and all other parts of the world as set around the holy city. Throughout the "ages of faith" this was very generally accepted as a direct revelation from the Almighty regarding the earth's form. St. Jerome, the greatest authority of the early Church upon the Bible, declared, on the strength of this utterance of the prophet, that Jerusalem could be nowhere but at the earth's centre; in the ninth century Archbishop Rabanus Maurus reiterated the same argument; in the eleventh century Hugh of St. Victor gave to the doctrine another scriptural demonstration; and Pope Urban, in his great sermon at Clermont urging the Franks to the crusade, declared, "Jerusalem is the middle point of the earth"; in the thirteenth century an ecclesiastical writer much in vogue, the monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, declared, "As the heart in the midst of the body, so is Jerusalem situated in the midst of our inhabited earth,"--"so it was that Christ was crucified at the centre of the earth." Dante accepted this view of Jerusalem as a certainty, wedding it to immortal verse; and in the pious book of travels ascribed to Sir John Mandeville, so widely read in the Middle Ages, it is declared that Jerusalem is at the centre of the world, and that a spear standing erect at the Holy Sepulchre casts no shadow at the equinox.

Ezekiel's statement thus became the standard of orthodoxy to early map-makers. The map of the world at Hereford Cathedral, the maps of Andrea Bianco, Marino Sanuto, and a multitude of others fixed this view in men's minds, and doubtless discouraged during many generations any scientific statements tending to unbalance this geographical centre revealed in Scripture.[99]

Nor did medieval thinkers rest with this conception. In accordance with the dominant view that physical truth must be sought by theological reasoning, the doctrine was evolved that not only the site of the cross on Calvary marked the geographical centre of the world, but that on this very spot had stood the tree which bore the forbidden fruit in Eden. Thus was geography made to reconcile all parts of the great theologic plan. This doctrine was hailed with joy by multitudes; and we find in the works of medieval pilgrims to Palestine, again and again, evidence that this had become precious truth to them, both in theology and geography. Even as late as 1664 the eminent French priest Eugene Roger, in his published travels in Palestine, dwelt upon the thirty-eighth chapter of Ezekiel, coupled with a text from Isaiah, to prove that the exact centre of the earth is a spot marked on the pavement of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and that on this spot once stood the tree which bore the forbidden fruit and the cross of Christ.[100]

Nor was this the only misconception which forced its way from our sacred writings into medieval map-making: two others were almost as marked. First of these was the vague terror inspired by Gog and Magog. Few passages in the Old Testament are more sublime than the denunciation of these great enemies by Ezekiel; and the well-known statement in the Apocalypse fastened the Hebrew feeling regarding them with a new meaning into the mind of the early Church: hence it was that the medieval map-makers took great pains to delineate these monsters and their habitations on the maps. For centuries no map was considered orthodox which did not show them.

The second conception was derived from the mention in our sacred books of the "four winds." Hence came a vivid belief in their real existence, and their delineation on the maps, generally as colossal heads with distended cheeks, blowing vigorously toward Jerusalem.

After these conceptions had mainly disappeared we find here and there evidences of the difficulty men found in giving up the scriptural idea of direct personal interference by agents of Heaven in the ordinary phenomena of Nature: thus, in a noted map of the sixteenth century representing the earth as a sphere, there is at each pole a crank, with an angel laboriously turning the earth by means of it; and, in another map, the hand of the Almighty, thrust forth from the clouds, holds the earth suspended by a rope and spins it with his thumb and fingers. Even as late as the middle of the seventeenth century Heylin, the most authoritative English geographer of the time, shows a like tendency to mix science and theology. He warps each to help the other, as follows: "Water, making but one globe with the earth, is yet higher than it. This appears, first, because it is a body not so heavy; secondly, it is observed by sailors that their ships move faster to the shore than from it, whereof no reason can be given but the height of the water above the land; thirdly, to such as stand on the shore the sea seems to swell into the form of a round hill till it puts a bound upon our sight. Now that the sea, hovering thus over and above the earth, doth not overwhelm it, can be ascribed only to his Providence who `hath made the waters to stand on an heap that they turn not again to cover the earth.'"[102]


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The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.