Hydrophilacium Africæ precipuum, in Montibus Lunæ situm, lacus et flumina præcipua fundens, ubi et nova inventio originis Nili describitur.
Sometimes compared to Leonardo da Vinci for the breadth and depth of his interests, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was a German Jesuit scholar who published works on such subjects as Egyptology (and hieroglyphics), geology, and music theory. He examined the blood of plague victims under a microscope, concluding the disease was caused by microorganisms; he constructed a magnetic clock; he designed a cat piano engineered to drive spikes into the tails of cats so they would yowl to specified pitches (though he is not known to have constructed it). One historian called him the “first scholar with a global reputation”; the Encyclopædia Britannica describes him as a “one-man intellectual clearinghouse for cultural and scientific information”.
Kircher’s Mundus subterraneus, dealing with geophysics, earthquakes, and volcanoes, was one of his most popular and spectacular works, full of exotic engravings and strange theories. (Fascinated with underground rumblings, Kircher had himself lowered into Vesuvius shortly after a nearby earthquake in 1638.) In it, he published an account from the journal of Pedro Páez, a contemporary Jesuit colleague, who had visited Ethiopia in the early 1600s and described seeing the “fountains of the Nile.” James Bruce, the English Nile explorer, translated Kircher’s version in his own work, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790):
«On the 21st of April, in the year 1618, being here, together with the king and his army, I ascended the place, and observed every thing with great attention. I discovered first two round fountains, each about four palms in diameter, and saw, with the greatest delight, what neither Cyrus king of the Persians, nor Cambyses, nor Alexander the Great, nor the famous Julius Caesar, could ever discover. The two openings of these fountains have no issue in the plain on the top of the mountain, but flow from the root of it. The second fountain lies about a stone-cast west from the first: the inhabitants say that this whole mountain is full of water, and add, that the whole plain about the fountain is floating and unsteady, a certain mark that there is water concealed under it; for which reason, the water does not overflow at the fountain, but forces itself with great violence out at the foot of the mountain. ... [T]he fountain seems to be a cannon-shot distant from Geesh. ... [Vol. 3, pp. 619-20]».
Another Portuguese Jesuit, Jerónimo Lobo, claimed to have passed through the area in 1629. He offered a different (and fairly accurate) description [compare with the photographs in SCATURRO]:
«In this territory of Toncua is the known head and sourse of the River Nile, by the natives called Abani (i.e.) the Father of Waters. ...The Head rises in the most pleasant Recesse of the Territory, having two Springs, called Eyes, each about the bigness of a Coach-wheel, distant twenty paces.…These two springs rise in a little field covered over with green and thick wood. ...This plain is on the top of a high mountain, overlooking many spacious Vallies and from this hight insensibly descends. ... At little more than three dayes journey from the Head, the River is large, deep enough for vessels to sail in. … [A Short Relation of the River Nile, of Its Sourse and Current ... (London, 1669), pp. 8-11]».
Kircher’s map visualizes Páez’s description of the source of the Nile, showing the river flowing out from under the Mountains of the Moon, through Ethiopian lakes that are also linked subterraneously. It is an imaginative exercise, for none of the geography is accurate.