The French naturalist and physician Pierre Belon (1517-1565) was born in Soultière and is best known for his texts, works of a self-taught naturalist, than for his services as secret agent to cardinals du Bellay and of Tournon. He worked first as an apothecary and later as an agronomist. He studied Medicine in Wittenberg with Valerius Cordus in 1540-1541 and in Italy in 1551. At that time, helped by the political situation, he completed his studies in physic at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des Prés, from where he graduated "cum laude" in 1560, although he was never awarded the title of doctor.
Belon owed his career mainly to his political patrons. From 1542 onwards he was in the service of the Cardinal of Tournon and took part in various diplomatic legations. Entrusted with missions to the court of Charles V and to Germany, he later followed his teacher Valerius Cordus to Rome, collecting flora also from the gardens of Venice, Padua, Milan and the lakes of Northern Italy.
Again in the service of the Cardinal de Tournon, now minister to the king, Belon frequented the court and the palace of Saint Germain en Laye, admiring the monarch’s collection, which included curious specimens from all over the then known world, such as lions, panthers, ostriches, timber from Brazil and rare plants. It was then that Belon decided to translate Dioscurides and Theophrastus, collating ancient and modern plant names in his work. In 1546, at the age of just thirty, he joined Ambassador d’Aramon’s diplomatic mission to the East, a move that was to determine the rest of his life and work.
D’Aramon left Paris secretly in December 1546, with a numerous embassy, including for the first time a team of scientists. After crossing France and Switzerland, they arrived in Venice, from where they sailed away in three galleys, in February 1547. Coasting the Adriatic, the party arrived in Ragusa, from where the ambassador took the land route to Constantinople, via the southern Balkan Peninsula. Belon and Bénigne de Villers, an apothecary from Dijon, chose the maritime route through the Ionian Sea.
At Paxi, while Belon was collecting flora, his companion was kidnapped by pirates. In the spring of 1547, Belon arrived on Crete. He stayed in the house of Callergis, who provided him with guides to Mount Ida, Rethymnon and the mountains of Sphacia. The French naturalist observed the flora and fauna of the island, was tricked by the false labyrinth, watched how labdanum was collected, wandered about, collected and tried specimens, and asked questions on everything he was looking for or came upon.
Belon left Crete for Constantinople on a Venetian felucca. While sailing by Cea, the ship was attacked by pirates, but finally, by way of southern Euboea, it reached the Bosporus coast, probably in late spring. Together with Pierre Gilles, also attaché to the French embassy, Belon explored the maze of bazaars and alleys of the Ottoman capital. He became friends with a wise Turk who knew Arabic, with the help of whom and of the Avicenna Canon, which gave the names of the medicinal flora, he compiled a glossary of plants in Turkish. With this in hand, Belon explored the bazaars, in order to get to know all the edible and medicinal plants bought and sold in Turkey.
Such products were among the most important imports in the trade with the East, which was till in the hands of Venetian middlemen. Thus, Belon’s researches were to be of great help to France, mercantile rival of Venice.
Famous among the curative products of the time was “Lemnian earth” ("terra lemnia" or terra "sigillata"), the medicinal clay of Lemnos, which all European ambassadors sought to bring to their masters as a precious gift. Belon decided to visit the place of extraction of this mineral. Carrying his letters of recommendation, he embarked on a brigantine and sailed to Lemnos. Due to windless weather, the ship was again in peril from pirates and sought refuge in a harbour of Imbros, where it stayed for two days. Finally, the party reached Lemnos by rowing. In spite of Belon’s fervent wish to see the extraction of "terra lemnia", this was not possible as is it takes place only once a year, on 6 August, the feast of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. Nonetheless, Belon explored Lemnos in depth and studied its flora and fauna. He offered medical services to local patients, was housed by the island’s authorities, and finally managed to arrive in the area of the "terra lemnia" deposits, escorted by a janissary. From Lemnos, Belon reached Thasos, in the company of two monks, after a storm blew them off course near Skyros. Finally, he managed to sail by boat in four hours from Thasos to the coast of Mount Athos. He collected plants, fished, chased insects and birds and was only disappointed when he was unable to locate traces of Xerxes’ canal.
Within two days, Belon arrived in Thessaloniki. He was the first to visit and describe the metal mines of Siderocausia in the Chalcidice. He then took the route to the Strymon river, visited Serres and Drama, and toured the ruins of Philippi. He stayed in the "imaret" in Cavala and wrote on hospitality provided in similar "vakuf" ("waqf" – religious endowment) hostelries. He also passed through the lagoon of Porto Lagos, the city of Comotini, the alum mines at Sapes, and from Heraclea, Rhaidestos (Tekirdag) and Silivri in Eastern Thrace. There, he came across four thousand Ottoman troops bound for Persia, camped next to a caravanserai and moving about in exemplary discipline and quiet.
At the beginning of August 1547, Belon returned to Constantinople. In the company of Mr de Fumel and many other French noblemen, escorted by janissaries, subalterns ("çavuş") and dragomans (interpreters), they departed on the voyage to the East, starting from Egypt. Exiting the Dardanelles, Belon becomes the first European traveller to locate the ruins of Troy. He wrote on the edible plants of Lesbos, the mastic and the kindly women of Chios. Sailing by Samos, he speaks of the Greek sailor travelling with them, who was a native of that island. On visiting Patmos, he also mentions Saint John and the "Apocalypse", as well as the islands of Leros and Pserimos, Kos and Hippocrates. The ship finally dropped anchor in Rhodes. The city of the Knights, its market and port, local products and inhabitants unfold in Belon’s notes.
The company arrived in Alexandria at the end of August. They visited Cairo, Memphis, the Giza pyramids and reached the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. The Egyptian part of Belon’s journey is one of the first and most insightful approaches made by a European traveller to the exotic Arab Muslim world of the East. The Nile and its canals, the markets and the fauna of Africa, the womenfolk, curiosities of dress, mummies, the pyramids, the oases and the desert of Arabia, boats on the Red Sea, minerals and wild animals find their place for the first time in a dense text with unique style.
From Egypt, the company proceeded to Palestine, where they arrived ten days later, and the Holy Land becomes Belon’s new field of research. He lists rare animals, semiprecious stones, fish, birds, the uses of water, wells, and identifies trees, shrubs and native flora. He does this according to his favourite model, that is, the contrasting of modern information with ancient testimonies, without failing to record the uses and the varieties of each species. Thus, he made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land in his own way and was moved to tears in such hallowed places as Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jericho.
After touring Palestine, the travellers headed northwards. Walking across fields of sesame and cotton, they reached Damascus within five days. Belon makes a systematic classification of every remarkable thing he sees: the walls of Damascus, Syrian medicine and justice, caravanserais and pilgrims to Mecca, rare flora of the land, cedars, local methods of cultivation, the ruins of Baalbek, Aleppo (ancient Beroea), alleyways and coins, Antioch and the remains of early Christianity, Adana and the fields where Alexander the Great fought his battles, and every curiosity he came upon in the Middle East.
In central Asia Minor, Belon makes observations on the local dietary habits, especially of the Turks, and on the textiles, without neglecting plants, therapeutic springs, horses and a local species of goat. By way of Iconium (Konya) and Aksehir (he makes mention of Ankara), Belon reached Afyonkarahisar, where he stayed the rest of the winter of 1547 and until early spring of 1548. In that city he was able to write the third part of his chronicle, which speaks of the origin of the Turks, their public and private life, the institutions and administration of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the customs and religious beliefs of the Muslims.
Belon then visited to Kütahya, and toured Bursa. When he finally arrived in Constantinople, the French ambassador d’Aramon was preparing to follow Suleiman the Magnificent on his campaign against Persia. The military expedition left Ottoman capital in May 1548. The indefatigable Belon, together with Gilles and Thevet, came along as well, but this time the French naturalist only made it to Nicomedia. He returned to Constantinople and sailed to Venice at the beginning of 1549. In 1550 he left France again on a new diplomatic mission to England.
Belon became a protegé of the Montmorency family. He divided his time between botanical explorations in the provinces of France and Italy (from where he brought cypresses, plane trees and rhododendrons to his country), and his clerical duties, becoming more and more fervently opposed to the Reformation. In the last years of his life he became embroiled in the religious wars as a fanatic supporter of the Catholics. He was murdered mysteriously in the Bois de Boulogne of Paris, on an April night of 1565, while on his way to the Château de Madrid, where he had been offered a place to stay. The perpetrator was probably a fanatical Huguenot. Belon was just 48 years old.
From 1551, Belon had dedicated himself to writing and publishing his works, starting with his essay entitled "Histoire naturelle des étranges poissons marins", with his own illustrations. In 1553, he published another work on fish, "De aquatilibus", which was followed two years later by its French version, "De la nature & diversité des poissons". Again in 1553, the chronicle of his voyage circulated, which was republished in 1554 and in a revised and expanded version in 1555, together with "Histoire de la nature des oiseaux". In that same year, Belon published two studies on two different subjects, "De arboribus coniferis" and "De admirabile operum antiquorum".
Belon’s travel chronicle was reprinted in 1558, 1585, and 1588. The last edition was enriched with two engravings absent from the previous editions (Mount Sinai and Lemnos-Mount Athos). It was translated into Latin, English and German during the eighteenth century, and into Bulgarian in 1953. Extracts from this work (on Lemnos and Mount Athos) have on occasion been translated into Greek, and a publication of the chapters on Crete is currently in preparation.
Belon was a man of the sixteenth century, a pragmatist, barely sensitive to the enchantments of nature. He is a fine example of a humanist traveller-researcher, devoted as he is to the quest for truth, in his case almost exclusively in relation to matters of botany or zoology. He is the first model of a truly reliable informant, and his work was the basic manual for all travellers until Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who visited the Aegean archipelago and the East in 1700-1702, and whose work, published in 1717, became the model for the description of the Greek islands.
Belon travelled in foreign lands with the passion of the humanist naturalist. He abandoned his books in order to don the habit of the wandering researcher, with a zeal for life and scientific knowledge. He was the first who dared to decipher, albeit not consciously, a whole world, the Greek world, rid of the myths of antiquity, the shadow of foreign domination and the fanatical religious prejudices of his contemporaries. He is also the precursor of a host of future travellers to Greece, whose legacy is a treasure trove of travel chronicles, invaluable to the study of multiple aspects of modern Hellenism.
Written by Ioli Vingopoulou