The Mountains of the Moon & Sanson and Mariette

Collector's Corner: The Mountains of the Moon by Joe McAlhany

Africa’s unforgiving terrain ensured that the search for the source of the Nile would never be simple. Until its sources were finally discovered and confirmed in the late nineteenth century, the question of the river’s origins was answered with theories often taken from secondhand accounts and whimsical pseudoscience. But for centuries one answer triumphed over the rest: Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon and the two spurious lakes derived from them. Among the most enduring of cartographic myths, the Mountains of the Moon and the lakes often referred to as Zaire and Zaflan appeared on early Ptolemaic maps and did not vanish until the nineteenth century.
Ptolemy did not pull this conception of the Nile’s sources out of thin air. He most likely found the idea through the work of Marinus of Tyre, a Syrian geographer. Marinus wrote of Diogenes, a Greco-Roman merchant and traveler who landed unexpectedly in East Africa in 110 AD. After 25 days of moving along existing trade routes, Diogenes found two lakes and a snow-capped range of mountains, which he claimed were the sources for the Nile. It is possible that Diogenes came across Lake Victoria and/or another of Africa’s Great Lakes, and that the mountains he saw were what came to be known as the Rwenzori Mountains (the range is informally called the Mountains of the Moon today), but there is no certainty on the matter.
Regardless of the inaccuracy of Diogenes’ claims, his alleged sources of the Nile would be widely accepted for centuries to come thanks to the work of Ptolemy. The influential geographer’s map of the African continent included the Mountains of the Moon and the associated lakes south of the equator. Referred to as Montes Lunae, the mountains are depicted with several rivers flowing out of the range into the apocryphal lakes, originally called Paludes Nili (which translates to Swamps or Marshes of the Nile). The western lake would eventually come to be known as Zaire (or, occasionally, Zaire in the north and Zembere in the south) and the eastern lake as Zaflan. Small islands are commonly found in both. The mountains are always named some variation of Mountains of the Moon. The origin of the range’s otherworldly name is unclear, although a common guess among commentators is that it is the result of sloppy translation, likely of another range’s name.

Even as knowledge of the continent expanded, Ptolemy’s mountain range and source lakes were slow to disappear from maps. In the early half of the 17th century, two Jesuit missionaries, the Spaniard Pedro Paez and the Portuguese Jeronimo Lobo, found and described the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana. Paez, who arrived at the springs at Gish Abay in 1618, described the “fountains” as gushing from the root of a water-filled mountain, Mount Gish.
The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher published Paez’s account in his Mundus Subterraneus (circa 1665), a work that focused in part on the fantastic idea that a network of underground waterways kept water circulating throughout the earth. Kircher included a fascinating map to accompany Paez’s account showing the water within the hollowed-out core of the Mountains of the Moon. This curious map is an excellent example of where the latest discoveries and utter nonsense intersect; for while Kircher’s map is based on Paez’s mostly accurate (if a bit primitive) account of the head of the Blue Nile, the geography is woefully off, with the equivalent of Lake Tana (here called Lac Bed) near the southern tip of the continent instead of above the equator in eastern Africa. The two spurious lakes are depicted upriver.
The beginning of the end for Ptolemy’s sources of the Nile in cartography was French cartographer Guillaume Delisle’s L’Afrique dressee sur les Observations de Ms. de l’Academie Royale des Sciences…, first published in 1700. In addition to adjusting the longitude of the Mediterranean, therefore righting the shape of the northern part of Africa, Delisle was also the first cartographer to eliminate Ptolemy’s fabled lakes. Delisle believed in a scientific approach to cartography—if he could not verify the validity of a piece of geographic information, he would not include it on his maps. Fortunately he lived in an age when information about Africa was increasing, thanks to France’s growing presence on the continent.
Delisle’s map correctly identifies the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, but the White Nile is omitted since its origins were still unknown. This map—and Delisle’s modern, rational approach-- proved hugely influential, but variations of Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon and his two lakes remained in cartography for at least another century.  Respected cartographers such as D’Anville, Tirion, Bonne, and Kitchin continued to include Ptolemy’s speculative sources of the Nile on maps after the publication of Delisle’s landmark work, albeit with adjustments that often awkwardly mixed the newest information with Ptolemy’s ancient and stubborn theory. Many maps appeared with the Nile’s heads now above the equator, but they still used the basic model Ptolemy gave to the world in the 2nd century.
The myth of the Mountains of the Moon and the lakes Zaire and Zaflan only ended when the source of the White Nile was definitively determined at last by Henry Morton Stanley in the 1870s. Stanley built on the explorations of those who came in the decades before him, most notably Richard Francis Burton and John Speke, to confirm that Lake Victoria was indeed the source of the White Nile. He was also the first European to report seeing the Ruwenzori range, the snowy mountains that are arguably the actual Mountains of the Moon (and which bear that nickname today). It is still somewhat controversial as to whether or not the vague similarities between Ptolemy’s mythical origins of the Nile and the actual sources are merely coincidental or the result of a game of geographical telephone, where real discoveries were confused by second and third-hand accounts. Either way, it’s a stimulating example of how an inaccuracy can flourish for centuries in cartography.
Baynton-Williams, Ashley, “Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon,” MapForum Issue 4, London, Winter 2004.
Betz, Richard L., The Mapping of Africa: A Cartobibliography of Printed Maps of the African Continent to 1700, Hes & De Graaf Publishers, t’ Goy-Houten, the Netherlands, 2007.
Delaney, John, To the Mountains of the Moon: Mapping African Exploration, 1541-1880, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey, 2007. <>  [accessed 6 August 2014]
“The Mountains of the Moon and the Sources of the Nile,” Geographicus Antique Map Blog, 17 September 2009. <> [accessed 6 August 2014]
Norwich, Oscar I., Norwich’s Maps of Africa (2nd Edition), Terra Nova Press, Norwich, Vermont, 1997.

Sanson & Mariette - A Complicated Relationship by Eliane Dotson

Nicolas Sanson was one of the foremost French cartographers of the 17th century, and is often considered as the "father" of French cartography.  By around 1640, the French market in maps and atlases surpassed that of the Dutch, thereby initiating the Golden Age of French cartography.  Born in Abbeville in December 1600, Nicolas Sanson was educated by the Jesuits in nearby Amiens.  He studied history, and it is believed that he turned to cartography simply as a means to illustrate history.  One of his first cartographical enterprises was a 6-sheet map of ancient Gaul, published in 1627, although Sanson apparently had begun drafting the map as young as 18 years of age.  His maps soon came to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII's chief minister, and Sanson was asked to tutor the king in geography.  Louis XIII later appointed Sanson "Geographe Ordinaire du Roy" (Geographer to the King).  This appointment helped both expand and protect Sanson's role in the French map market.
Of course Sanson did not work alone, and developed several important partnerships over the years.  His first important collaboration was with Melchoir Tavernier, an engraver and dealer of maps in Paris.  Tavernier wished to compete with the Dutch map publishers and partnered with Sanson to publish an important map of the post roads in France in 1632 and of the rivers and waterways in 1634.  The two partners continued to work together until Sanson discovered that the unscrupulous Tavernier had begun to put his own name on Sanson's maps.  Sanson moved to Paris soon thereafter to protect his interests and authorship, and began to edit and publish his work on his own.  The most significant works that Sanson edited on his own were his quarto atlases of the four continents - L'Europe, L'Asia, L'Afrique, and L'Amerique - which he published between 1647-57.
However, around 1644, Sanson formed a new partnership with Pierre Mariette, an engraver and printseller who had purchased Tavernier's stock after he left the business to become Contrôleur de la Maison du Duc d'Orléans (Controller of the House of the Duke of Orléans).  Due to his bad experience with Tavernier, Sanson formed formal contracts with Mariette.  The duration of each contract lasted 3 years, and Sanson and Mariette completed 4 such successive contracts with one another, beginning in 1648.  The key terms of their contract stated their respective roles, the ownership of the work produced, and the responsibility of any liabilities.  Sanson's role was to obtain the rights and to draw the folio-sized maps, while Mariette was required to engrave the plates and print the maps at his own cost.  All completed folio plates were shared equally between them.  The "sharing" of plates was a complicated matter, in that Sanson and Mariette divided the plates equally so that each had possession of half of the total.  They were allowed to exchange plates between one another and could also buy plates from each other at the price of six Sols.  As a result, some of the plates bore the address of Sanson, while others were inscribed with Mariette's address.  Each was allowed to sell his own maps printed from the plates in his possession.  However, neither could publish a world atlas on his own, as neither possessed a complete set of geographical plates.
Their intricate arrangement began to unravel when Sanson, poorly versed in commercial matters, began leaving his own folio plates with Mariette for storage purposes.  Mariette's address was then added to those plates.  Mariette died in 1657, and his business was passed to his son, Pierre Mariette II.  When Mariette's son took over the business, he was still bound by the initial contract with Sanson.  Sanson subsequently made claims that Mariette had abused his rights to the sale of the maps from Sanson's folio plates, which had been left in Mariette's possession.  The dispute remained unresolved until well after Sanson's own death in 1667.  After his death, Guillaume and Adrien Sanson assumed control over their father's business.  Guillaume, a cartographer in his own right, succeeded in the role of Geographer to the King, while Adrien served as a silent partner.  Finally, in 1674 the sons of Sanson and Mariette agreed to meet in court with a prosecutor in the Chamber of Accounts to settle their disagreement.  Under pressure, Mariette's son agreed to divide the stock again and gave the Sansons the larger portion of the folio copperplates.  Once again, the imprints on the plates returned to the Sansons were changed from "chez Mariette" back to "chez l'auteur."
By this time, both the contract and the partnership between the Sansons and Mariettes had long since concluded.  Sanson's sons had already begun working with Alexis-Hubert Jaillot in 1670, a collaboration which served both families well. 
Over his career, Nicolas Sanson created around 300 maps, two of which were of particular importance: Amerique Septentrionale (1650) and Le Canada ou Nouvelle France (1656).  Sanson's complete stock of copperplates was eventually reunited.  Pierre Moullart-Sanson, nephew of Guillaume and Adrien Sanson, purchased the stock of over 180 plates from the Sansons in 1692, and left the plates to three faithful friends upon his death in 1730.  One of these friends was Gilles Robert de Vaugondy, who later purchased the remaining stock from Mariette's son, thereby reassembling the entire work of Nicolas Sanson.  Robert de Vaugondy continued to sell Sanson's maps, but the maps were never again published in atlas form.
Moreland, Carl & David Bannister, Antique Maps, Phaidon - Christie's Limited, Oxford, 1986.
Pastoureau, Mireille, Les Atlas Francais XVIe - XVIIe Siecles, Bibliotheque Nationale, paris, 1984.
Petto, Christine Marie, When France Was King of Cartography, Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2007.
Tooley, R.V., Maps and Map-Makers, Dorset Press, New York, 1990.