Hanno was a Phoenician admiral and explorer thought to have lived around the 6th century BC, originally from the city-state of Carthage Hanno is most famous for reportedly circumnavigating the African continent 2000 years before the first European explorers. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people, called Phoinikes by the Romans for the purple cloth they treasured. Although of East-Mediterranean origin they were great adventurers and merchants who constantly explored and exploited new places for trade.

Hanno was an Admiral and a deep-sea sailor, rather than the shallow water sailors who stayed close to shore and travelled only during daylight. Hanno and his like would travel far out to sea, navigating by the stars. In fact the North Star was known in the ancient world as the Phoenician star because of their use of astronomy for navigation. Hanno’s legendary journey around Africa would have taken him through the Straits of Gibraltar right round the coast of Africa to its joining with Arabia, a voyage otherwise attributed to Portuguese explorers 2000 years later.

The other remarkable thing about this voyage is that we can learn about it first hand. A report of the voyage, written by Hanno himself, was engraved on the wall of a Phoenician temple to their sun god Baal. It is one of the very few surviving pieces of Phoenician text although their language and alphabet is the basis for many modern languages. The report was translated in to Greek around the fifth century B.C. and has survived as the “Periplus” Greek for vopyage.

The Periplus tells how Hanno was ordered to establish colonies on the coast of Morocco, he sailed from Carthage with a cargo of provisions and equipment, as well as a figure of thirty thousand men and woman (which may well be exaggerated slightly). The report goes on to tell of the places Hanno established colonies, the tribes he traded with and the things he saw on his journey. Many of the places mentioned in the Periplus can be identified today, however others remain a mystery. The animals and events he recorded are less of a mystery, they include meetings with gorillas, elephants and a live volcano, probably Mount Camaroun.

Evidence to support the accuracy of the Periplus is found in other Greek writings, most notably Pliny the elder described how the Carthagians rounded the continent of Africa. Another Greek writer, Herodotus describes how the explorers would trade with the native Africans by leaving goods on the shore and lighting a signal fire. The natives would, on seeing the fire, leave the value of the goods in gold before retreating. The Phoenicians would return and if the price was judged acceptable remove the gold and return to their ships before the natives collected the goods. This practice was reported by Hanno in his report, helping to authenticate it.

That Hanno and his explorers were able to circumnavigate the African continent a full 2000 years before the first Europeans is an indicator of the might of the Phoenician empire. An empire which, briefly, rivalled the Romans.

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