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The Mountains of the Moon

The Nile in the Ancient World

This map of north Africa by Jacob d’Angelo (author) and Nicolaus Germanus (artist) based on Ptolemy’s Geographia, was published in 1467 in Bavaria. The Mountains of the Moon are shown as Lunae Montes in the bottom right of the map, with rivers flowing north from the mountains to several large unnamed lakes.

The success of ancient Egyptian civilization from as far back as 4000 BC came partly from its ability to adapt to the conditions of the Nile River Valley. The predictable flooding and controlled irrigation of the fertile valley produced surplus crops, which fueled social development and culture. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC, wrote that ‘Egypt was the gift of the Nile’.

The Nile in north-east Africa is 4,160 miles (6,695 km) long and is the longest river in the world. The Nile’s two major tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, meet near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum before flowing 1,857 miles (2,988 km) through the desert to the Nile delta on the Mediterranean Sea near Alexandria in Egypt. The longer White Nile rises in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, and its most distant source is considered to be the Ruvyironza (or Luvironza) River in Burundi.

Finding the source of the Nile fascinated the Ancient World. Herodotus, Alexander the Great, and the Emperor Nero all puzzled how the river could flow through thousands of miles of desert without the support of a single tributary. Both the Greeks and the Romans tried to find the source of the Nile, but failed.

Ptolemy’s Map

In the 1st century, a merchant named Diogenes is said to have travelled inland from Rhapta in East Africa ‘for a twenty five days’ journey and arrived in the vicinity of two great lakes and the snowy range of mountains whence the Nile draws its twin sources’. He reported that the natives called the mountain range the Mountains of the Moon because of their snow-capped whiteness. These reports were accepted as true by Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greco-Roman mathematician and geographer living in Alexandria. Ptolemy wrote a cartographic treatise, Geographia, on what was known about the world’s geography in the Roman Empire at the time.

Only copies of the original maps in the atlases in Ptolemy’s Geographia survived, so early Renaissance cartographers produced maps from these copies based on the coordinates in the original text. In the maps of north Africa, the source of the Nile, as depicted by Ptolemy, are rivers at the foot of the Lunae Montes, or Mountains of the Moon, which flow into two large unnamed lakes.

The Search for the Source of the Nile

Map of the River Nile showing the source of the White Nile at Lake Victoria and the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The Mountains of the Moon lie south of Lake Albert along the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It would be another 1,700 years before an expedition commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society set out from Zanzibar in 1857 to ‘find’ the source of the Nile. It was led by the British explorer Richard Francis Burton with John Hanning Speke as his junior. Burton was an army captain and intelligence officer in India; blunt, bold, enigmatic and resourceful (though he was to be seen later as a slightly disreputable intellectual). Speke had also been in the army in India as a lieutenant. He was said to be upstanding, charming, and fanatical about fitness, and he had been a surveyor and a naturalist. Speke had already been on an expedition with Burton to Somalia in 1854, and although their qualities appeared complimentary, they had not got on well. Their personalities turned out to be totally incompatible, and a poisonous rivalry developed between them.

In February 1858, the explorers, each suffering ill-health from a variety of causes, reached the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika (known to the Arabs as the Sea of Ujiji), which Burton was convinced was the headwater of the Nile. After three months, they started back towards the coast but they heard of a large lake to the north. By now Speke had recovered and he set off with a small party, but without Burton, to find the lake. After 200 miles, he reached the southern shore of Lake Victoria (known locally as the Sea of Ukerewe) in August 1858. After calculating the height of the lake above sea level, he concluded intuitively that this lake, and not Burton’s, must be the source.

He then hurried back to Burton to announce his great discovery. Burton demanded what proof Speke had that it was ‘the’ lake. Speke suggested that they should both go and investigate the lake’s true extent, but Burton rejected this. This was a tactical blunder by Burton. Speke began to see the ‘discovery’ as his own, and perhaps Burton’s scepticism reflected his fear that he had made a fatal mistake.

The Fued between Burton and Speke

Burton and Speke returned wearily to the coast. Speke sailed immediately for England, but Burton stayed a further two weeks until he was stronger. According to Burton, Speke had promised not to say anything to the Royal Geographical Society until both were back in England. But when Burton arrived in May 1859, he found that Speke had gone straight to the Royal Geographical Society to announce that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile. Burton was outraged at what he saw as Speke’s betrayal, his chance of a lifetime had gone forever. A very public quarrel ensued. The Royal Geographic Society sent Speke back to substantiate his claims, and this expedition left the coast of east Africa in September 1860. Speke was delayed by having to negotiate with local rulers, but he eventually reached the north shores of Lake Victoria in July 1862. Here he found a large outlet flowing north, the Ripon Falls, which supported his claim that the lake was the source of the Nile.

Portrait of John Hanning Speke
‘Discover’ of Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile
1827-64

When Speke returned to Britain and addressed the Royal Geographic Society, he was the hero of the hour. But his published reports were poorly edited and inaccurate, and he appeared boastful. Burton argued that because Speke had not followed the river north from Lake Victoria, he couldn’t be sure it was the Nile. The two men were at loggerheads, so a debate was planned between the two before the Royal Geographic Society in Bath on 16 September 1864. The previous day however Speke had gone shooting in nearby Corsham in Wiltshire. Just after jumping down from a dry stone wall, his gun somehow went off, shooting him fatally. The inquest concluded that the death was accidental, but word spread that he had committed suicide because he was too scared to face Burton in debate. An obelisk dedicated to Speke stands in Kensington Gardens, London.

Ultimately it was the British journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who in circumnavigating Lake Victoria in 1877 and finding the Ripon Falls on the Lake’s northern shore, confirmed Speke’s claims. The source of the White Nile lay in the feeder streams and rivers entering Lake Victoria; its water flowed out at Ripon Falls, then flow to and out of Lake Albert, joining the Blue Nile at Khartoum.

The Mountains of the Moon Located

However in 1886, Stanley led an expedition into the interior of Africa, ostensibly to relieve Emin Pasha, General Charles Gordon’s besieged governor of Equatoria, who was threatened by Mahdist forces. The expedition came to be both celebrated because it crossed ‘darkest Africa’ following the Congo river from the west coast, and then across to the east coast, but also notorious, for the deaths of so many of its members and the disease unwittingly left in its wake. In May 1888, the expedition had reached Lake Albert, and Stanley reconnoitered a mountain range between Lake Albert and Lake Edward to the south which he identified as Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon.

Stanley gave the mountains the name ‘Ruwenzori’, a local name which he recorded as meaning ‘rain-maker’ or ‘cloud-king’ and described his view of the range ‘Peak after peak struggled from behind night-black clouds … until at last the snowy range, immense and beautiful … drew all eyes and riveted attention, while every face seemed awed.’

Given the proximity of the Mountains of the Moon to the two lakes, Lake Victoria and Lake Albert, between which the Nile flows, the lakes were conceivably Ptolemy’s two lakes ‘whence the Nile draws its twin sources’. Whether Ptolemy’s map is accurate however is debatable. Although the mountains are the source of some of the Nile’s waters, this is only a fraction of the total flow of the river. Diogenes would also have crossed the White Nile east to west to reach the mountains rather than tracing the Nile south to get to them as suggested in Ptolemy’s map. A number of scholars have suggested that Diogenes’ reports were fabricated, or that the Mountains of the Moon should be identified with Mount Kilimanjaro, 570 miles (915km) to the south, or with mountains in Ethiopia.

Mount Speke in the Ruwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda. All the mountains in the range have multiple jagged peaks, and highest peak of Mount Speke is Vittorio Emanuele at 16,042 feet (4,890 m).

The Rwenzori Mountains

Geographically the Mountains of the Moon, which are now known as the Rwenzori Mountains, the spelling having been changed from Ruwenzori in about 1980 to conform more closely with the local name ‘Rwenjura’, lie slightly north of the Equator on the western edge of Uganda bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The range is up to 30 miles (50 km) wide and extends south-north for 80 miles (130 km). The highest point is Mt Stanley’s Margherita Peak at 16,763 feet (5,109 m), the higher peaks are permanently snow-capped and often hidden by clouds, and the higher valleys are glaciated.

The Rwenzori Mountains  National Park which protects the highest parts of the range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains amongst the most dramatic diversity of ecosystems in the world five distinct zones of habitation. There are mountain gorillas, leopards, elephants, monkeys, hyraxes and chameleons. With heavy rainfall and a very rich soil much of the vegetation grows to gigantic proportions. Lobelia plants resemble telegraph poles, heather grows as tall as a tree, and earthworms can grow to be three feet long. The Mountains of the Moon, have been described as ‘mysterious, unearthly and remote’ and many people have fallen under their spell.

In Books and Films

The search for source of the Nile, the feud between Burton and Speke, and the Mountains of the Moon have provided a rich vein of drama for books and films.

Speke and the Discovery of the Source of the Nile by Alexander Maitland, first published by Faber in 1971, and reprinted in 2010, is the only full-length biography of Speke and is one of the most important books about Victorian exploration.

In his book Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Great Victorian Adventure published by Faber in 2011, Tim Jeal argues using new research that Speke’s place in history was eclipsed by the jealous, charismatic Burton, who stole the limelight by convincing others that Speke was an unscrupulous, disloyal man devoid of emotion. 

The film Mountains of the Moon directed by Bob Rafelson and released in 1990 depicts the 1857-58 expedition of Burton and Speke and the latter’s discovery of the source of the Nile River, focusing on the relationship between the two very different men. Patrick Bergin plays Burton and the Scottish actor Iain Glen is Speke. The film is based on William Harrison’s biographical novel Burton and Speke published by St Martins in 1982.

Choosing Mountains of the Moon for the title of this film seems to make use of the fascination of these mountains, even though Burton and Speke never encountered them on their expedition!

H Rider Haggard

Because of their mystery and their remoteness, they are said to be the mountains that figure in Henry Rider Haggard’s book King Solomon’s Mines (1885). This tells of the search by Sir Henry Curtis and the narrator, Allan Quatermain, a sort of Indiana Jones character, for Sir Henry’s younger brother George who has been lost in the interior of Africa for two years in the quest for King Solomon’s Mines, the legendary source of the biblical King’s enormous riches.

H Rider Haggard was one of the great adventure writers of the 19th Century and he travelled extensively throughout Africa and worked in various departments of the British public service abroad. Haggard followed King Solomon’s Mines with eleven other Quatermain adventures.

1957 paperbook edition of H Rider Haggard’s She
Price 2/6 (12p)

She Who Must Be Obeyed

The other novel for which Rider Haggard is famous is She – A History of Adventure (1887). She is one of the classics of imaginative literature, and is one of the best-selling books of all time. The story is of the journey by Horace Holly and his ward Leo Vincey to a lost kingdom in the African interior. There they are captured by the savage Amahagger people, a primitive race of natives who are ruled by a mysterious white queen, Ayesha, who reigns as the all-powerful ‘She’, or ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’. The novel notably explored themes of female authority and feminine behaviour.

In this work, Rider Haggard developed the conventions of the Lost World sub-genre. In the years following She, Conan Doyle would create his Lost World of dinosaurs on a South American plateau, and Edgar Rice Burroughs populated hidden corners of Africa with innumerable strange cultures in his Tarzanadventures.

In the latter half of the book, Ayesha reveals that she has learned the secret of immortality and that she has lived for more than two millennia, awaiting the reincarnated return of her lover, the priest Kallikrates whom she had slain in a fit of jealous rage. When Ayesha sees Leo, she believes him to be the physical reincarnation of Kallikrates. In the climax of the novel, Ayesha takes the two men to see a pillar of fire in the heart of an ancient volcano. If Leo bathes in the fire he will become immortal and remain with Ayesha forever. To allay his fears, Ayesha steps into the fire, but with this second immersion, the life-preserving power is lost and Ayesha begins to revert to her true age. Before their eyes, Ayesha withers away in the fire, and her body shrinks. Before dying, she tells Leo, ‘Forget me not, Kallikrates. Have pity on my shame; I shall come again, and shall once more be beautiful, I swear it’.

She – Hammer’s Epic Film

Though this story does not mention the Mountains of the Moon, it evokes the physical surroundings of just such a primitive and remote lost world. And not unsurprisingly in the re-make of the film of the book by Hammer Film Productions in 1965 – it had been filmed six times previously – Horace Holly and Leo Vincey cross the Desert of Lost Souls to the Mountains of the Moon where they encounter Ayesha. In this film the two Hammer stable mates, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee play the supporting roles of Horace Holly and Ayesha’s fanatical chief priest Bilali, with John Richardson and Ursula Andress cast as the immortal lovers.

Still from Hammer Films 1965 production of She.
Leo Vincey (John Richardson) threatens Ayesha (Ursula Andress) with high priest Bilali (Christopher Lee) looking on.

The film, directed by Robert Day, was one of Hammer’s most ambitious projects and it aspired to be a spectacular epic. For the most part however it remains earthbound except for the lavishness of some of the sets for the lost city, and Ursula Andress’s appearance in a fabulous elaborate gold and feather headdress. Nevertheless the end of the film conveys more conviction than most lost world films. Ayesha persuades Leo to take her hand and enter the mystical blue flame, which occurs only briefly during certain astronomical alignments. But Ayesha withers and crumbles to dust in the flame as her second exposure destroys her immortality and her body rapidly reverts to her true age. Leo is left immortal and swears to wait as long as it takes for the fire to next burn blue so he can undo his immortality. However, despite much of the film being unexceptional, for devotees of lost world movies, this version of She, is a film worth watching. Clips from the film can be seen here , though they seem limited to scenes between Ayesha and Leo.

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