A History of the World in 12 Maps
A fascinating look at twelve maps—from Ancient Greece to Google Earth—and how they changed our world
In this masterful study, historian and cartography expert Jerry Brotton explores a dozen of history’s most influential maps, from stone tablet to vibrant computer screen. Starting with Ptolemy, “father of modern geography,” and ending with satellite cartography, A History of the World in 12 Maps brings maps from classical Greece, Renaissance Europe, and the Islamic and Buddhist worlds to life and reveals their influence on how we—literally—look at our present world.
As Brotton shows, the long road to our present geographical reality was rife with controversy, manipulation, and special interests trumping science. Through the centuries maps have been wielded to promote any number of imperial, religious, and economic agendas, and have represented the idiosyncratic and uneasy fusion of science and subjectivity. Brotton also conjures the worlds that produced these notable works of cartography and tells the stories of those who created, used, and misused them for their own ends.
Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah, modern-day Iraq), sixth century BC
In 1881 , the Iraqi-born archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered a small fragment of a 2 , 500 -year-old cuneiform clay tablet in the ruins of the ancient Babylonian city of Sippar, today known as Tell Abu Habbah, on the south-west outskirts of modern-day Baghdad. The tablet was just one of nearly 70 , 000 excavated by Rassam over a period of eighteen months and shipped back to the British Museum in London. Rassam’s mission, inspired by a group of English Assyriologists who were struggling to decipher cuneiform script, was to discover a tablet which it was hoped would provide a historical account of the biblical Flood.1 At first, the tablet was overlooked in favour of more impressive, complete examples. This was partly because Rassam, who could not read cuneiform, was unaware of its significance, which was appreciated only at the end of the nineteenth century when the script was successfully translated. Today, the tablet is on public display at the British Museum, labelled as ‘The Babylonian Map of the World’. It is the fi rst known map of the world.
The tablet discovered by Rassam is the earliest surviving object that represents the whole world in plan from a bird’s-eye view, looking down on the earth from above. The map is composed of two concentric rings, within which are a series of apparently random circles, oblongs and curves, all of which are centred on a hole apparently made by an early pair of compasses. Evenly distributed around the outer circle are eight triangles, only five of which remain legible. Only when the cuneiform text is deciphered does the tablet begin to make sense as a map.
The outer circle is labelled ‘marratu’, or ‘salt sea’, and represents an ocean encircling the inhabited world. Within the inner ring the most prominent curved oblong running through the central hole depicts the Euphrates River, fl owing from a semicircle in the north labelled ‘mountain’, and ending in the southern horizontal rectangle described as ‘channel’ and ‘swamp’. The rectangle bisecting the Euphrates is labelled ‘Babylon’, surrounded by an arc of circles representing cities and regions including Susa (in southern Iraq), Bit Yakin (a district of Chaldea, near where Rassam himself was born), Habban (home of the ancient Kassite tribe), Urartu (Armenia), Der and Assyria. The triangles emanating outwards from the outer circle of sea are labelled ‘nagû’, which can be translated as ‘region’ or ‘province’. Alongside them are cryptic legends describing distances (such as ‘six leagues between where the sun is not seen’),2 and exotic animals – chameleons, ibexes, zebus, monkeys, ostriches, lions and wolves. These are uncharted spaces, the mythical, faraway places beyond the circular limits of the known Babylonian world.
The cuneiform text at the top of the tablet and on its reverse reveals that this is more than just a map of the earth’s surface: it is a comprehensive diagram of Babylonian cosmology, with the inhabited world as its manifestation. The tantalizing fragments speak of the creation myth of the battle between the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ti’amat. In Babylonian mythology, Marduk’s victory over what the tablet calls the ‘ruined gods’ led to the foundation of heaven and earth, humanity and language, all centred on Babylon, created ‘on top of the restless sea’. The tablet, made from the earth’s clay, is a physical expression of Marduk’s mythical accomplishments, the creation of the earth and subsequent achievements of human civilization, fashioned out of the watery primal chaos.
The circumstances of the tablet’s creation remain obscure. The text on the back of the tablet identifies its scribe as a descendant of someone called ‘Ea-bel-ili’ from the ancient city of Borsippa (Birs Nimrud), to the south of Sippar, but why it was made and for whom remains a mystery. Nevertheless, we can tell that this is an early example of one of the most basic objectives of human understanding: to impose some kind of order and structure onto the vast, apparently limitless space of the known world. Alongside its symbolic and mythic description of the world’s origins, the tablet’s map presents an abstraction of terrestrial reality. It comprehends the earth by categorizing it in circles, triangles, oblongs and dots, unifying writing and image in a world picture at the centre of which lies Babylon. More than two millennia before the dream of looking at the earth from deep space became a reality, the Babylonian world map offers its viewers the chance to look down on the world from above, and adopt a god-like perspective on earthly creation.
Even today, the most committed traveller can never hope to experience more than a fraction of the earth’s surface area of more than 510 million square kilometres. In the ancient world, even short-distance travel was a rare and diffi cult activity, generally undertaken with reluctance and positively feared by those who did so.3 To ‘see’ the world’s dimensions reproduced on a clay tablet measuring just 12 by 8 centimetres must have been awe-inspiring, even magical. This is the world, the tablet says, and Babylon is the world. To those who saw themselves as part of Babylon, it was a reassuring message. To those who saw it and were not, the tablet’s description of Babylonian power and dominion was unmistakable. No wonder that from ancient times, the kind of geographical information relayed by objects like the Babylonian tablet was the preserve of the mystical or ruling elite. As we shall see throughout this book, for shamans, savants, rulers and religious leaders, maps of the world conferred arcane, magical authority on their makers and owners. If such people understood the secrets of creation and the extent of humanity, then surely they must know how to master the terrestrial world in all its terrifying and unpredictable diversity.
Although the Babylonian world map represents the fi rst known attempt to map the whole known world, it is a relatively late example of human mapmaking. The earliest known examples of prehistoric art showing the landscape in plan are inscribed on rock or clay and predate the Babylonian world map by more than 25 , 000 years; they stretch back to the Upper Palaeolithic period of 30 , 000 BC . These early inscriptions, much debated by archaeologists as to their date and meaning, seem to represent huts with human figures, livestock enclosures, divisions between basic dwellings, depictions of hunting grounds, even rivers and mountains. Most are so stark that they might easily be mistaken for abstract, geometrical attempts to represent the spatial distribution of objects or events when they are in fact probably more symbolic marks, connected to indecipherable mythic, sacred and cosmological references for ever lost to us. Today, archaeologists are more cautious than their nineteenth-century predecessors in ascribing the term ‘map’ to these early pieces of rock art; establishing a clear date for the emergence of prehistoric rock art seems to be as futile as defi ning when a baby first learns to differentiate itself spatially from its immediate environment.4
The urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct. 5 Where would we be without maps? The obvious answer is, of course, ‘lost’, but maps provide answers to many more questions than simply how to get from one place to another. From early childhood onwards, we make sense of ourselves in relation to the wider physical world by processing information spatially. Psychologists call this activity ‘cognitive mapping’, the mental device by which individuals acquire, order and recall information about their spatial environment, in the process of which they distinguish and define themselves spatially in relation to a vast, terrifying, unknowable world ‘out there’. 6 Mapping of this kind is not unique to humans. Animals also use mapping procedures, such as the scent-marking of territory performed by dogs or wolves, or the location of nectar from a hive defined by the ‘dance’ of the honey bee. 7 But only humans have made the crucial leap from mapping to mapmaking. 8 With the appearance of permanent graphic methods of communication more than 40 , 000 years ago, humans developed the ability to translate ephemeral spatial information into permanent and reproducible form.
So what is a map? The English word ‘map’ (and its derivatives) is used in a variety of modern European vernaculars such as Spanish, Portuguese and Polish, and comes from the Latin term mappa, meaning a tablecloth, or napkin. The French word for map – carte – originates in a different Latin word, carta, which also provides the root for the Italian and Russian words for map (carta and karta) and refers to a formal document, which in turn is derived from the Greek word for papyrus. The ancient Greek term for map – pinax – suggests a different kind of object. A pinax is a tablet made of wood, metal or stone, on which words or images were drawn or incised. Arabic takes the term in a more visual direction: it uses two words, surah, translated as ‘fi gure’, and
naqshah, or ‘painting’, while Chinese has adopted a similar word, tu, meaning a drawing or a diagram.9 The term ‘map’ (or ‘mappe’) only enters the English language in the sixteenth century, and between then and the 1990 s more than 300 competing definitions of it have been proposed.10
Today, scholars generally accept the definition provided in the ongoing multi-volume History of Cartography, published since 1987 under the general editorship of J. B. Harley and David Woodward. In their preface to the first volume, Harley and Woodward proposed a new English definition of the word. ‘Maps’, they said, ‘are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.’ 11 This defi nition (which will be adopted throughout this book) ‘naturally extends to celestial cartography and to the maps of imagined cosmographies’, and frees them from more restricted geometrical definitions of the term. By including cosmography – which describes the universe by analysing the earth and the heavens – Harley and Woodward’s definition of maps enables us to see archaic artefacts like the Babylonian world map as both a cosmic diagram and a map of the world.
Self-conscious perceptions of maps, and the science of their creation, are relatively recent inventions. For thousands of years what different cultures have called ‘maps’ were made by people who did not think of them as being in a category separate from the writing of formal documents, painting, drawing or inscribing diagrams on a range of different media from rock to paper. The relationship between maps and what we call geography is even more subtle. Since the Greeks, geography has been defined as the graphic ( graphein) study of the earth (ge), of which mapping represents a vital part. But as an intellectual discipline geography was not properly formalized as either a profession or a subject of academic study in the West until the nineteenth century.
It is in this disparate variety of maps – as cloths, tablets, drawings or prints – that much of their remarkable power and enduring fascination lies. A map is simultaneously both a physical object and a graphic document, and it is both written and visual: you cannot understand a map without writing, but a map without a visual element is simply a collection of place names. A map draws on artistic methods of execution to create an ultimately imaginative representation of an unknowable object (the world); but it is also shaped by scientifi c principles, and abstracts the earth according to a series of geometrical lines and shapes. A map is concerned with space as its ultimate aim, according to Harley and Woodward’s definition. It offers a spatial understanding of events in the human world; but, as we shall see in this book, it is often also about time, as it asks the viewer to observe how these events unfold one after another. We of course look at maps visually, but we can also read them as a series of different stories.
All these strands meet in the type of map that is the subject of this book: maps of the world. But just as much as the term ‘map’ has its own elusive and shifting qualities, so too does the concept of ‘the world’. ‘World’ is a man-made, social idea. It refers to the complete physical space of the planet but can also mean a collection of ideas and beliefs that constitute a cultural or individual ‘world view’. For many cultures throughout history, a map has been the perfect vehicle to express both these ideas of ‘world’. Centres, boundaries and all the other paraphernalia included in any map of the world are defined as much by these ‘world views’ as they are by the mapmaker’s physical observation of the earth, which is never made from a neutral cultural standpoint anyway. The twelve maps in this book all present visions of the physical space of the whole world which result from the ideas and beliefs that inform them. A world view gives rise to a world map; but the world map in turn defines its culture’s view of the world. It is an exceptional act of symbiotic alchemy. 12
World maps pose challenges and opportunities for the mapmaker different from those involved in mapping local areas. To begin with, their scale means they are never seriously used as route-fi nding devices to enable their users to get from one location on the earth’s surface to another. But the most significant difference between local and world mapping is one of perception, and presents a serious problem in making any map of the world. Unlike a local area, the world can never be apprehended in a single synoptic gaze of the mapmaker’s eye. Even in ancient times, it was possible to locate natural or man-made features from which to look down on a small area at an oblique angle (a ‘bird’s-eye’ perspective) and see its basic elements. Until the advent of photography from space, no such perspective was available to perceive the earth.
Before that momentous innovation, the mapmaker creating a world map drew on two resources in particular, neither of which was physically part of the earth: the sky above and his own imagination. Astronomy enabled him to observe the movement of the sun and the stars and to estimate the size and shape of the earth. Connected to such observations were the more imaginative assumptions based on personal prejudice and popular myths and beliefs, which indeed still exert their power over any world map, as we shall see. The use of photographic satellite imagery is a relatively recent phenomenon that allows people to believe they see the earth floating in space; for three millennia before that, such a perspective always required an imaginative act (nevertheless, a photograph from space is not a map, and it is also subject to conventions and manipulations, as I point out in this book’s final chapter on online mapping and its use of satellite imagery).
Further challenges and opportunities beyond perception affect all world maps, including those chosen in this book, and each one can be seen in embryo by looking again at the Babylonian world map. An overriding challenge is abstraction. Any map is a substitute for the physical space it claims to show, constructing what it represents, and organizing the infinite, sensuous variety of the earth’s surface according to a series of abstract marks, the beginnings of borders and boundaries, centres and margins. Such markers can be seen in the rudimentary lines of topographical rock art, or the increasingly regular geometrical shapes of the kind on the Babylonian tablet. When these lines are applied to the whole earth, a map not only represents the world, but imaginatively produces it. For centuries the only way of comprehending the world was through the mind’s eye, and world maps showed, imaginatively, what the physically unknowable world might look like. Mapmakers do not just reproduce the world, they construct it. 13
A logical consequence of mapping as a powerful imaginative act is that, in the dictum coined by the Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski in the 1940 s, ‘the map is not the territory’. 14 Rather like the relation between language and the objects it denotes, the map can never consist of the territory it purports to represent. ‘What is on the paper map’, argued the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson, ‘is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all.’ 15 A map always manages the reality it tries to show. It works through analogy: on a map a road is represented by a particular symbol which bears little resemblance to the road itself, but viewers come to accept that the symbol is like a road. Rather than imitating the world, maps develop conventional signs which we come to accept as standing in for what they can never truly show. The only map that can ever completely represent the territory it depicts would be on the effectively redundant scale of 1 : 1 . Indeed, the selection of scale, a proportional method of determining a consistent relationship between the size of the map and the space it represents, is closely related to the problem of abstraction, and has been a rich source of pleasure and comedy for many writers. In Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded ( 1893 ), the other-worldly character Mein Herr announces that ‘[w]e actually made a map of the country, on a scale of a mile to the mile!’ When asked if the map has been used much, Mein Herr admits, ‘It has never been spread out’, and that ‘the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the county itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’ 17 The conceit was taken a stage further by Jorge Luis Borges, who, in his one-paragraph short story ‘On Rigour in Science’ ( 1946 ), recast Carroll’s account in a darker key. Borges describes a mythical empire where the art of mapmaking had reached such a level of detail that
the Colleges of Cartographers set up a Map of the Empire which had the size of the Empire itself and coincided with it point by point. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, Succeeding Generations understood that this widespread Map was Useless and not without Impiety they abandoned it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and of the Winters. In the deserts of the West some mangled Ruins of the Map lasted on, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole Country there are no other relics of the Disciplines of Geography. 18
Borges understood both the timeless quandary and potential hubris of the mapmaker: in an attempt to produce a comprehensive map of their world, a process of reduction and selection must take place. But if his 1 : 1 scale map is an impossible dream, what scale should a map-maker choose to ensure their world map does not endure the fate he described? Many of the world maps described in this book offer an answer, but none of their chosen scales (or indeed anything else about them) has ever been universally accepted as defi nitive.
A further problem that presents itself is one of perspective. At what imaginary location does the mapmaker stand before beginning to map the world? The answer, as we have already seen, invariably depends upon the mapmaker’s prevailing world view. In the case of the Babylonian world map, Babylon lies at the centre of the universe, or what the historian Mircea Eliade has called the ‘axis mundi’.19 According to Eliade, all archaic societies use rites and myths to create what he describes as a ‘boundary situation’, at which point ‘man discovers himself becoming conscious of his place in the universe’. This discovery creates an absolute distinction between a sacred, carefully demarcated realm of orderly existence, and a profane realm which is unknown, formless and hence dangerous. On the Babylonian world map, such sacred space circumscribed by its inner ring is contrasted with the profane space defi ned by the outer triangles, which represent chaotic, undifferentiated places antithetical to the sacred centre. Orienting and constructing space from this perspective repeats the divine act of creation, shaping form out of chaos, and placing the mapmaker (and his patron) on a par with the gods. Eliade argues that such images involve the creation of a centre that establishes a vertical conduit between the terrestrial and divine worlds, and which structures human beliefs and actions. Perhaps the hole at the centre of the Babylonian world map, usually regarded as the result of a pair of compasses marking out the map’s circular parameters, is rather a channel between one world and the next.
The kind of perspective adopted by the Babylonian world map could also be called egocentric mapping. Throughout most of recorded history, the overwhelming majority of maps put the culture that produced them at their centre, as many of the world maps discussed in this book show. Even today’s online mapping is partly driven by the user’s desire to first locate him- or herself on the digital map, by typing in their home address before anywhere else, and zooming in to see that location. It is a timeless act of personal reassurance, locating our selves as individuals in relation to a larger world that we suspect is supremely indifferent to our existence. But if such a perspective literally centres individuals, it also elevates them like gods, inviting them to take flight and look down upon the earth from a divine viewpoint, surveying the whole world in one look, calmly detached, gazing upon what can only be imagined by earthbound mortals.20 The map’s dissimulating brilliance is to make viewers believe, just for a moment, that such a perspective is real, that they are not still tethered to the earth, looking at a map. And here is one of the map’s most important characteristics: the viewer is positioned simultaneously inside and outside it. In the act of locating themselves on it, the viewer is at the same moment imaginatively rising above (and outside) it in a transcendent moment of contemplation, beyond time and space, seeing everything from nowhere. If the map offers its viewer an answer to the enduring existential question ‘Where am I?’, it does so through a magical splitting which situates him or her in two places at the same time.21
This problem of defining where the viewer stands in relation to a map of the world is one geographers have struggled with for centuries. For Renaissance geographers, one solution was to compare the viewer of a map to a theatre-goer. In 1570 the Flemish mapmaker Abraham Ortelius published a book containing maps of the world and its regions entitled Theatrum orbis terrarum – the ‘Theatre of the World’. Ortelius used the Greek definition of theatre – theatron – as ‘a place for viewing a spectacle’. As in a theatre, the maps that unfold before our eyes present a creative version of a reality we think we know, but in the process transform it into something very different. For Ortelius, as for many other Renaissance mapmakers, geography is ‘the eye of history’, a theatre of memory, because, as he put it, ‘the map being laid before our eyes, we may behold things done or places where they were done, as if they were at this time present’. The map acts like a mirror, or ‘glass’, because ‘the charts being placed, as it were certain glasses before our eyes, will the longer be kept in memory, and make the deeper impression in us’. But, like all the best dramatists, Ortelius concedes that his ‘glasses’ are a process of creative negotiation, because on certain maps ‘in some places, at our discretion, where we thought good, we have altered some things, some things we have put out, and otherwhere, if it seemed to be necessary, we have put in’ different features and places. 22
Ortelius describes the position from which a viewer looks at a world map, which is closely related to orientation – the location from which we take our bearings. Strictly speaking, orientation usually refers to relative position or direction; in modern times it has become established as fixing location relative to the points on a magnetic compass. But long before the invention of the compass in China by the second century AD , world maps were oriented according to one of the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. The decision to orientate maps according to one prime direction varies from one culture to another (as will be seen from the twelve maps discussed in this book), but there is no purely geographical reason why one direction is better than any other, or why modern Western maps have naturalized the assumption that north should be at the top of all world maps.
Why north ultimately triumphed as the prime direction in the Western geographical tradition, especially considering its initially negative connotations for Christianity (discussed in Chapter 2 ), has never been fully explained. Later Greek maps and early medieval sailing charts, or portolans, were drawn using magnetic compasses, which probably established the navigational superiority of the north–south axis over an east–west one; but even so there is little reason why south could not have been adopted as the simplest point of cardinal orientation instead, and indeed Muslim mapmakers continued to draw maps with south at the top long after the adoption of the compass. Whatever the reasons for the ultimate establishment of the north as the prime direction on world maps, it is quite clear that, as subsequent chapters will show, there are no compelling grounds for choosing one direction over another.
Perhaps the most complex problem of all that confronts the map-maker is one of projection. For modern cartographers, ‘projection’ refers to a two-dimensional drawing on a plane surface of a three-dimensional object, namely the globe, using a system of mathematical principles. It was only consciously formulated as a method in the second century AD by the Greek geographer Ptolemy, who employed a grid of geometrical lines of latitude and longitude (called a graticule) to project the earth onto a flat surface. Prior to this, maps like the Babylonian example provided no apparent projection (or scale) to structure their representation of the world (though of course they still projected a geometrical image of the world based on their cultural assumptions about its shape and size). Over the centuries, circles, squares, rectangles, ovals, hearts, even trapezoids and a variety of other shapes have been used to project the globe onto a plane, each one based on a particular set of cultural beliefs. Some of these assumed a spherical earth, some of them did not: on the Babylonian world map the world is represented as a fl at disc, with its inhabited dimensions encircled by sea, beyond which are its literally shapeless edges. Early Chinese maps also appear to accept the belief in a fl at earth, although as we shall see this is partly based on their own particular fascination with the square as a defi ning cosmological principle. By at least the fourth century BC the Greeks had shown that the earth was a sphere, and produced a series of circular maps projected onto a plane surface.
All these projections struggled with an enduring geographical and mathematical conundrum: how is the whole earth reduced to a single flat image? Once the earth’s sphericity was scientifically proved, the problem was compounded: how was it possible to project the sphere accurately onto a plane surface?23 The answer, as the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss conclusively proved in his work on projections in the 1820 s, was that it was not possible. Gauss showed that a curved sphere and a plane were not isometric: in other words, the terrestrial globe could never be mapped onto the plane surface of a map using a fixed scale without some form of distortion of shape or angularity; we shall see some of the many distortions which have been adopted in the course of this book.24 Despite Gauss’s insight, the search for ‘better’, more accurate, projections only intensified (even Gauss went on to offer his own method of projection). Even today, the problem remains hidden though in plain view, invariably acknowledged on world maps and atlases, but buried in the technical detail of their construction.
One of the many paradoxes of maps is that, although mapmakers have been creating them for thousands of years, our study and understanding of them is still in its relative infancy. It was only in the nineteenth century in Europe that the academic discipline of geography came into existence, coinciding with the professionalization of the mapmaker, who was redesignated with the more scientific title of ‘cartographer’. As a result, geography has only recently begun a systematic attempt to understand the history of maps and their role in different societies. In 1935 Leo Bagrow ( 1881–1957 ), a Russian naval officer trained in archaeology, founded Imago Mundi, the first journal dedicated to the study of the history of cartography, followed in 1944 by the completion of his Die Geschichte der Kartographie (History of Cartography), the first comprehensive study of its subject. 25 Since then, only a handful of popular books on the subject have been published by experts in the field, and the multi-volume History of Cartography edited by Harley and Woodward (who have both tragically died since the project’s inception) will not be brought up to the present for years to come. Cartography remains a subject in need of a discipline, its study generally undertaken by scholars trained (like myself) in a variety of other fields, its future even more uncertain than the maps it seeks to interpret.
This book tells a story which shows that, despite the strenuous efforts of generations of cartographers, the ultimate claims of scientifi c cartography have never been realized. The first great national survey of a nation based on Enlightenment principles of science, the Carte de Cassini, discussed in Chapter 9 , was never really finished, and its global equivalent, the International Map of the World, conceived at the end of the nineteenth century, and whose story is told in the Conclusion, was abandoned towards the end of the twentieth. Geography’s erratic development as an academic and professional discipline over the last two centuries has meant that it has been relatively slow to question its intellectual assumptions. In recent years, geographers have developed serious reservations about their involvement in the political partition of the earth. Belief in the objectivity of maps has found itself subject to profound revision, and it is now recognized that they are intimately connected to prevailing systems of power and authority. Their creation is not an objective science but a realist endeavour, and aspires to a particular way of depicting reality. Realism is a stylistic representation of the world, just like naturalism, classicism or romanticism, and it is no coincidence that the claims for cartography’s objectivity reached their height at the same moment as the ascendancy of the realist novel in Europe in the nineteenth century. Instead of arguing that mapmaking follows an inexorable progress towards scientific accuracy and objectivity, this book will argue that it is a ‘cartography without progress’, which provides different cultures with particular visions of the world at specifi c points in time. 26
The book takes twelve world maps from cultures and moments in world history, and examines the creative processes though which they tried to resolve the problems faced by their makers, from perception and abstraction to scale, perspective, orientation and projection. The problems are constant, but the responses are specific to the mapmaker’s particular culture, and we discover that what drove them was as much personal, emotional, religious, political and financial as geographical, technical and mathematical. Each map either shaped people’s attitudes to the worlds in which they lived, or crystallized a particular world view at specific moments in global history – often both. These twelve maps were created at particularly crucial moments, when their makers took bold decisions about how and what to represent. In the process they created new visions of the world that aimed not only to explain to their audiences that this was what the world looked like, but to convince them of why it existed, and to show them their own place within it. Each map also encapsulates a particular idea or issue that both motivated its creation and captured its contemporaries’ understanding of the world, from science, politics, religion and empire to nationalism, trade and globalization. But maps are not always shaped exclusively by ideology, conscious or unconscious. Inchoate emotional forces have also played their part in making them. The examples here range from the pursuit of intellectual exchange in an Islamic map from the twelfth century, to global conceptions of toleration and equality in Arno Peters’s controversial world map published in 1973 .
Although this book makes no claim to provide anything approaching a comprehensive story of the history of cartography, it does offer several challenges to prevailing assumptions about the subject. The first is that, however we interpret the history of maps, it is not an exclusively Western activity. Current research is revealing just how far pre-modern, non-Western cultures are part of the story, from the Babylonian world map to Indian, Chinese and Muslim contributions. Secondly, there is also no hidden agenda of evolution or progress in the historical mapping of the world. The maps examined are the creation of cultures which perceive physical, terrestrial space in different ways, and these perceptions inform the maps they make. This leads to the third argument, that each map is as comprehensible and as logical to their users as the other, be it the medieval Hereford mappamundi or Google’s geospatial applications. The story told here is therefore a discontinuous one, marked by breaks and sudden shifts, rather than the relentless accumulation of increasingly accurate geographical data.
The map, whatever its medium or its message, is always a creative interpretation of the space it claims to represent. The critical ‘deconstruction’ of maps as objective representations of reality by writers like Korzybski, Bateson and others has left them looking like malevolent tools of ideology, weaving a conspiratorial web of deceit and dissimulation wherever they are to be found. Instead, the maps in this book are interpreted more as a series of ingenious arguments, creative propositions, highly selective guides to the worlds they have created. Maps allow us to dream and fantasize about places we shall never see, either in this world or in other, as yet unknown worlds. Perhaps the best metaphorical description of maps was graffitied in 45 -centimetre letters on a wall next to the railway line approaching Paddington Station in London: ‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.’ A metaphor, like a map, involves carrying something across from one place to another.
Maps are always images of elsewhere, imaginatively transporting their viewers to faraway, unknown places, recreating distance in the palm of your hand. Consulting a world map ensures that faraway is always close at hand.
‘How valuable a good map is,’ wrote the seventeenth-century painter Samuel van Hoogstraten in a similar vein,‘wherein one views the world as from another world.’ 27 Oscar Wilde developed Hoogstraten’s transcendental sentiment when he famously remarked that a ‘map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail.’ 28 Maps always make choices about what they include and what they omit, but it is at the moment such decisions are made that Wilde dreams of the possibility of creating a different world – or even new worlds beyond our knowledge (which is one of the reasons that science fiction writers have been drawn irresistibly to maps). As Ortelius admitted, every map shows one thing, but therefore not another, and represents the world in one way, and as a consequence not in another. 29 Such decisions might often be political, but they are always creative. The ability expressed by all the mapmakers in this book to rise above the earth and look down on it from a divine perspective represents an idealistic leap of imaginative faith in humanity, but so powerful is this vision that various political ideologies have sought to appropriate it for their own ends.
This legacy brings the discussion right up to the present day, and the ongoing controversy surrounding the increasing domination of digital online mapping applications, exemplified by the subject of my fi nal chapter, Google Earth. After nearly two millennia of being made on stone, animal skins and paper, maps are now changing in ways unknown since the invention of print in the fifteenth century and are facing imminent obsolescence as the world and its maps become digitized and virtual. Perhaps these new applications will create an unprecedented democratization of maps, allowing greatly increased public access, even giving people the ability to build their own maps. But it seems more likely that the corporate interests of multinational companies will bring a new world of online maps in which access is prescribed by fi nancial imperatives, subject to political censorship and indifferent to personal privacy. One of the arguments of this book is that anyone who wants to understand the consequences of online mapping and why the virtual, online map of the world looks like it does today needs a longer perspective, one that reaches back as far as the fi rst Greek attempts to map the known world and beyond.
The world is always changing, and so are maps. But this book is not about maps that have changed the world. From the Greeks to Google Earth, it is not in the nature of maps meaningfully to change anything. Instead, maps offer arguments and propositions; they defi ne, recreate, shape and mediate. Invariably, they also fail to reach their objectives. Many of the maps chosen were heavily criticized at the moment of their completion, or were quickly superseded. Others were neglected at the time, or subsequently dismissed as outdated or ‘inaccurate’, falling into obscurity. But they all bear witness that one way of trying to understand the histories of our world is by exploring how the spaces within it are mapped. Space has a history, and I hope this book goes a little way towards telling that history through maps.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: