Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Babylon, Rome, and the Islamic World

One of the great­est chal­lenges for writ­ers and great­est joys for read­ers of fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion is what we call “world build­ing,” the art of cre­at­ing cities, coun­tries, con­ti­nents, plan­ets, galax­ies, and whole uni­vers­es to peo­ple with war­ring fac­tions and nomadic truth seek­ers. Such writ­ing is the nat­ur­al off­spring of the Medieval trav­el­ogue, a genre once tak­en not as fan­ta­sy but fact, when sailors, cru­saders, pil­grims, mer­chants, and mer­ce­nar­ies set out to chart, trade for, and con­vert, and con­quer the world, and returned home with out­landish tales of glit­ter­ing empires and peo­ple with faces in their chests or hop­ping around on a sin­gle foot so big they could use it to shade them­selves.

One of the most famous of such chron­i­clers, Sir John Man­dev­ille, may now be most­ly for­got­ten, but for cen­turies his Trav­els was so pop­u­lar with aspir­ing nav­i­ga­tors and lit­er­ary men like Shake­speare, Mil­ton, and Keats that “until the Vic­to­ri­an era,” writes Giles Mil­ton, it was he, “not Chaucer, who was known as ‘the father of Eng­lish prose.’”

Man­dev­ille, like Mar­co Polo half a cen­tu­ry before him, may have been part adven­tur­er, part char­la­tan, but in any case, both drew their itin­er­aries, as did lat­er nav­i­ga­tors like Colum­bus and Wal­ter Raleigh, from a very long tra­di­tion: the mak­ing of spec­u­la­tive world maps, which far pre­dates the ear­ly Mid­dle Ages of pil­grim­age and thirst for East­ern spices and gold.

In the West­ern tra­di­tion, we can trace world map­mak­ing all the way back to 6th cen­tu­ry B.C.E., Pre-Socrat­ic thinker Anax­i­man­der, stu­dent of Thales, whom Aris­to­tle regard­ed as the first Greek philoso­pher. We have no copy of the map, but we have some idea what it might have looked since Herodotus described it in detail, a cir­cu­lar known world sit­ting atop an earth the shape of a drum. (Anax­i­man­der was also an orig­i­nal spec­u­la­tive astronomer.) His map con­tained two con­ti­nents, or halves, “Europe” and “Asia”—which includ­ed the known coun­tries of North Africa. “Two rel­a­tive­ly small strips of land north and south of the Mediter­ranean Sea,” with ten inhab­it­ed regions in total, that illus­trate the very ear­ly dichotomiz­ing of the world—in this case divid­ed top to bot­tom rather than west and east.

Anax­i­man­der may have been the first Greek geo­g­ra­ph­er, but it is the 2nd cen­tu­ry B.C.E. that Libyan-Greek sci­en­tist and philoso­pher Eratos­thenes who has his­tor­i­cal­ly been giv­en the title “Father of Geog­ra­phy” for his three-vol­ume Geog­ra­phy, his dis­cov­ery that the earth is round, and his accu­rate cal­cu­la­tion of its cir­cum­fer­ence. Lost to his­to­ry, Eratos­thenes’ Geog­ra­phy has been pieced togeth­er from descrip­tions by Roman authors, as has his map of the world—at the top in a 19th-cen­tu­ry reconstruction—showing a con­tigu­ous inhab­it­ed land­mass resem­bling a lob­ster claw.

You’ll note that Eratos­thenes drew pri­mar­i­ly on Anaximander’s descrip­tion of the world. In turn, his map had a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on lat­er Medieval geo­g­ra­phers. A Baby­lon­ian world map, inscribed on a clay tablet around the time Anax­i­man­der imag­ined the world (and thought to be the ear­li­est extant exam­ple of such a thing), may have influ­enced Euro­pean map-mak­ing in the age of dis­cov­ery as well. It depicts a flat, round world, with Baby­lon at the cen­ter (see the British Muse­um for a detailed trans­la­tion and com­men­tary of the map’s leg­end).

The Baby­lon­ian map is said to sur­vive in the sim­i­lar-look­ing “T and O map” (third image from top), rep­re­sent­ing the words orbis ter­rar­i­um and orig­i­nat­ing from descrip­tions in 7th cen­tu­ry C.E. Span­ish schol­ar Isado­ra of Seville’s Ety­molo­giae. The “T” is the Mediter­ranean and the “O” the ocean. In the ver­sion above, a recre­ation of an 8th cen­tu­ry draw­ing, and every deriva­tion there­after, we see the three known con­ti­nents, Asia, Europe, and Africa, with the holy city, Jerusalem, at the cen­ter. This map great­ly informed ear­ly Medieval con­cep­tions of the world, from cru­saders to gar­ru­lous knights errant like Man­dev­ille, and racon­teur mer­chants like Polo, both of whom made quite an impres­sion on Colum­bus and Raleigh, as did the cir­ca 1300 map from Con­stan­tino­ple above, the old­est of many drawn from the thou­sands of coor­di­nates in Roman geo­g­ra­ph­er and astronomer Ptolemy’s Geo­graphia.

It wouldn’t be until 100 years after the trans­la­tion of Ptolemy’s text from Greek to Latin in 1407 that his geo­graph­i­cal pre­ci­sion became wide­ly known. Until this, “all knowl­edge of these co-ordi­nates had been lost in the West,” writes the British Library.  This would not be so in the East, how­ev­er, where world maps like Ibn Hawqal’s, above from 980 C.E., show the influ­ence of Ptole­my, already so long dom­i­nant in geog­ra­phy in the Islam­ic world that it was begin­ning to wane. Many more world maps sur­vive from 11–12th cen­tu­ry Britain, Turkey, and Sici­ly, from 16th cen­tu­ry Korea, and from that wan­der­ing age of Colum­bus and Raleigh, begin­ning to increas­ing­ly resem­ble the world maps we’re famil­iar with today. (See a 15th cen­tu­ry recon­struc­tion of Ptolemy’s geog­ra­phy below.)

For most of record­ed his­to­ry, knowl­edge of the world from any one place in it was almost whol­ly or part­ly spec­u­la­tive and imag­i­na­tive, often peo­pled with mon­sters and won­ders. “All cul­tures have always believed that the map they val­orize is real and true and objec­tive and trans­par­ent,” as Jer­ry Brot­ton Pro­fes­sor at Queen Mary Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don tells Uri Fried­man at The Atlantic. Colum­bus believed in his spec­u­la­tive maps, even when he ran into islands off the coast of con­ti­nents chart­ed on none of them. We are still con­cep­tu­al prisoners—or con­sumers, users, read­ers, view­ers, audiences—of maps, though we’ve phys­i­cal­ly plot­ted every cor­ner of the globe. Per­spec­tives can­not be ren­dered objec­tive. No gods-eye views exist.

Nonethe­less, sev­er­al cul­tur­al­ly for­ma­tive pro­jec­tions of the world since Ptolemy’s Geog­ra­phy and well before it have changed the whole world, point­ing to the pow­er of human imag­i­na­tion and the leg­en­dar­i­ly imag­i­na­tive, as well as leg­en­dar­i­ly bru­tal, acts of “world build­ing” in real life.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Inno­va­tion that Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Map Design (1943)       

“Every Coun­try in the World”–Two Videos Tell You Curi­ous Facts About 190+ Coun­tries       

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.