A History of the World in Maps

The Atlantic has brought to my attention a book that definitely piques my interest as both a map aficionado and history buff: Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in 12 Mapswhich catalogues maps that reflect key periods and developments in the human understanding of the world. You can learn a lot about a time, place, or culture by the sorts of maps it produces.

And setting aside their historical, these maps are absolutely beautiful. They may not be the most elegant or accurate, but there is something visually intriguing and deeply appreciable about humanity’s efforts to understand this big and difficult-to-grasp world of ours.

From the works of the father of geography, to the latest satellite-graphed maps, here are just some of the cartographic endeavors that span civilizations across centuries (courtesy of The Atlantic).

Cartography’s Foundation: Ptolemy’s Geography (150 AD)

A 15th-century reconstruction based on Ptolemy’s projections of the world (Wikimedia Commons)

Humans have been sketching maps for millennia, but Claudius Ptolemy was the first to use math and geometry to develop a manual for how to map the planet using a rectangle and intersecting lines—one thatresurfaced in 13th-century Byzantium and was used until the early 17th century. The Alexandria-based Greek scholar, who may never have drawn a map himself, described the latitude and longitude of more than 8,000 locations in Europe, Asia, and Africa, projecting a north-oriented, Mediterranean-focused world that was missing the Americas, Australasia, southern Africa (you can see Africa skirting the bottom of the map and then blending into Asia), the Far East, the Pacific Ocean, and most of the Atlantic Ocean. Ptolemy’s Geography was a “book with a 1,500-year legacy,” Brotton says.

Cultural Exchange: Al-Idrisi’s World Map (1154)

Wikimedia Commons

Al-Sharif al-Idrisi, a Muslim from Al-Andalus, traveled to Sicily to work for the Norman King Roger II, producing an Arabic-language geography guide that drew on Jewish, Greek, Christian, and Islamic traditions and contained two world maps: the small, circular one above, and 70 regional maps that could be stitched together. Unlike east-oriented Christian world maps at the time, al-Idrisi’s map puts south at top in the tradition of Muslim mapmakers, who considered Mecca due south (Africa is the crescent-shaped landmass at top, and the Arabian Peninsula is in the center). Unlike Ptolemy, al-Idrisi depicted a circumnavigable Africa—blue sea surrounds the globe. Ultimately, the map is concerned with representing physical geography and blending traditions—not mathematics or religion. “There are no monsters on his maps,” Brotton says.

Imperial Politics: Kwon Kun’s Kangnido Map (1402)

Wikimedia Commons

What’s most striking about this Korean map, designed by a team of royal astronomers led by Kwon Kun, is that north is at top. “It’s strange because the first map that looks recognizable to us as a Western map is a map from Korea in 1402,” Brotton notes. He chalks this up to power politics in the region at the time. “In South Asian and Chinese imperial ideology, you look up northwards in respect to the emperor, and the emperor looks south to his subjects,” Brotton explains. Europe is a “tiny, barbaric speck” in the upper left, with a circumnavigable Africa below (it’s unclear whether the dark shading in the middle of Africa represents a lake or a desert). The Arabian Peninsula is to Africa’s right, and India is barely visible. China is the gigantic blob at the center of the map, with Korea, looking disproportionately large, to its right and the island of Japan in the bottom right.

Territorial Navigation: Mercator’s World Map (1569)

Wikimedia Commons

Next to Ptolemy, Brotton says, Gerardus Mercator is the most influential figure in the history of mapmaking. The Flemish-German cartographer tried “on a flat piece of paper to mimic the curvature of the earth’s surface,” permitting “him to draw a straight line from, say, Lisbon to the West Coast of the States and maintain an active line of bearing.” Mercator, who was imprisoned by Catholic authorities for alleged Lutheran heresy, designed his map for European navigators. But Brotton thinks it had a higher purpose as well. “I think it’s a map about stoicism and transcendence,” he says. “If you look at the world from several thousands miles up, at all these conflicts in religious and political life, you’re like ants running around.” Mercator has been accused of Eurocentrism, since his projection, which is still occasionally used today, increasingly distorts territory as you go further north and south from the equator. Brotton dismisses this view, arguing that Europe isn’t even at the center of the map.

Geoactivism: Peters’s Projection (1973)

Wikimedia Commons

In 1973, the left-wing German historian Arno Peters unveiled an alternative to Mercator’s allegedly Eurocentric projection: a world map depicting countries and continents according to their actual surface area—hence the smaller-than-expected northern continents, and Africa and South America appearing, in Brotton’s words, “like long, distended tear drops.” The ‘equal area’ projection, which was nearly identical to an earlier design by the Scottish clergyman James Gall, was a hit with the press and progressive NGOs. But critics argued that any projection of a spherical surface onto a plane surface involves distortions, and that Peters had amplified these by committing serious mathematical errors. “No map is any better or worse than any other map,” Brotton says. “It’s just about what agenda it pursues.”

I am a big Galls-Peters fan myself, as outlined in a previous post about the subject. See the other pivotal maps here. This book is definitely on my wishlist.


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