Herodotus had been called the worlds first professional traveller. He was born around 490 BC in the Greek city of Halicarnassus in what is now western Turkey, and during his life visited Palestine, Asia, Egypt and other parts of the then-known world. But the reason Herodotus is so important is that he wrote a detailed narrative of his journeys, and his Histories are really the worlds first great travel diary.
It was during his long stay in Egypt that he was told a tale which he only half believed. An influential Egyptian informed him that nearly two centuries previously, Pharaoh Neccho (630 BC) had tried to build a canal linking the Nile and the Red Sea. Failing in this project, however, Neccho sent a fleet of Phoenician sailors south, through the Red Sea to circumnavigate Libya as the Greeks then called Africa.
Herodotus recounts that not only did they succeed, but that the voyage took two full years in all. The sailors wintered at two locations on the African shore to plant and harvest crops before entering the Mediterranean through the Pillars of Hercules, or the straits of Gibraltar and returning to Egypt.
This sounded like a tall story to Herodotus, and his doubts were confirmed on hearing what when the mariners "sailed on a westerly course around the southern end of Libya, they had the Sun on their right - to the northward - of them." Now, what fool would believe that? Doesn't everyone know that when you face west at noon the Sun is always on your left - to the south?
Yet it is Herodotus's very scepticism that provides us with clinching proof, for only in the northern hemisphere, it really is rightward and to the north.
It would be fascinating to know how far into the southern hemisphere Egyptian sailors had penetrated before Neccho's time. As early as 2400 BC Egyptian records mention voyages to the Land of Punt, probably off the east African coast. But it is Herodotus who, in a tale of astronomy he was reluctant to believe, confirms that Africa had been circumnavigated 2700 years ago.