In 1492 Christopher Columbus got lost, followed some birds and wound up on some islands he’d never been to before. He came up with a plot to enslave some of the people he met there, went home and staked a claim that would be contested by Vikings and Bristolians and the Turkish president: he called dibs on America.
The idea that any group discovered a supercontinent inhabited by thousands of native people for well over 10,000 years has long been pilloried, but that did not deter the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Sunday, he said that Muslims probably discovered the Americas before Columbus.
“Muslim sailors reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus, in 1178,” Erdoğan said at a gathering in Istanbul of Muslim leaders from Latin America. “In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba.” Erdoğan added that he would like to see a mosque on that hilltop, too, but didn’t mention what Cubans might think of that.
That “mosque” in Columbus’ memoirs was almost certainly a metaphor: Chris saw a large and memorable bit of geography and waxed eloquent; a turn of phrase like this during the renaissance evoked something majestic and exotic, and Columbus was a man who liked frills. There is no archaeological evidence of Islam in the Americas before Columbus’s arrival, and though a 10th century historian tells the story of a Muslim navigator who returned from a western “unknown territory” with marvelous treasures, complete with a map showing a vague outline of a western coast shrouded in fog, the tale does not mean Muslim merchants beat Columbus.
As the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor points out, Erdoğan is probably alluding to the work of one controversial semi-academic, Youssef Mroueh, who takes the mosque literally and suggests that indigenous peoples’ words have Arabic etymologies.
Vikings are usually called the first Old Worlders to reach western shores. Erik the Red and his father, who were respectively exiled from Iceland and Norway for murders, reached Greenland. In 985 Erik took about 500 people, with farm animals and supplies, to settle Greenland, and his son Leif Eriksson returned a few years later, when the region had some 1,000 settlers. Vikings told a saga about Leif’s westward adventures, but it wasn’t until 1960 that archaeologists found evidence – halls, peat houses, ironwork – of 11th century Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows and Baffin Island in Canada.