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Pytheas (ca. 300 BCE)

In the period just after Alexander the Great, a Greek sailor ventured through the Strait of Gibraltar, into the Atlantic, and up the coast of Europe.  The Greeks were masterful navigators, who had planted their colonies all around the Mediterranean, but Pytheas (he lived in Marseilles) went far beyond their world.  He reached Cornwall, explored the British Isles, and continued on, probably to the Baltic Sea and Norway, which he called Ultima Thule.  Some historians think Pytheas might have landed on Iceland.  Pytheas might have landed on Iceland.  Pytheas chronicled his travels in his book On The Ocean.  While it hasn’t survived, the historian Polybius wrote about Pytheas in the 100s BCE.  That’s how we know about his observations, including his accurate distance measurements, astronomical readings, and reports on fair-haired northern folk.

Abdullah Muhammad ibn Pattuta (1304-1368 or 1369)

In 1325 this well-born young man left his native Tangier, in North Africa, for a pilgrimage to Mecca.  Going by way of Egypt, where he studied to be an Islamic judge, Ibn Battuta was bitten by wanderlust.  Over succeeding decades he logged an estimated 75,000 miles – more than any other traveler before the steam age – visiting every part of the Muslim world and beyond, ranging as far as Sumatra and china to the east, Georgia to the north, Granada in Spain, and across the Sahara Desert to Sudan.  Back home in 1353, Ibn Battuta hired a Moroccan poet to help him write his richly detailed travelogue, Rihlih.  It vividly describes 60 rulers he met, including the treacherous sultan of Mogul  India, Muhammad ibn Tughluq.

Cheng Ho (ca. 1371-ca. 1473)

In 1381 the Ming dynasty conquered the last Mongol stronghold in China.  Ming soldiers captured Mongol boys, castrated them, and placed them in the emperor’s service.  Apparently holding no grudge, one of those boys grew up to command the emperor’s great naval expeditions in the early 1400s – sailing to India, the Persian Gulf, and Africa.  Cheng Ho (sometimes spelled Zheng He) made seven voyages, visiting capitals in Arabia, Egypt, and even Mozambique.  Some modern theorists, notably British author Gavin Menzies and the Zheng He Association in London, argue that certain shipwrecks in the Caribbean, stone inscriptions in the Americas, and even a 1424 navigational chart prove that the Chinese traveled much farther, circumnavigating the earth a century before Magellan did.