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 Maps, which 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).
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)
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.