A History of the World Decoded Through Maps

The relationship between travel and mapmaking.

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Claudius Ptolemy’s illustration of the world. Photo: http://maps.bpl.org/Flickr/Creative Commons (bit.ly/1jxQJMa)


In an age when physical maps have almost entirely been replaced by apps, going back to the roots of mapmaking is like entering a magical world. That’s what happened when I met historian and cartography expert Jerry Brotton at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival. In his talk at the festival, he traced the history of mapmaking from an illustration by Claudius Ptolemy (who’s called the first armchair geographer) from 150 A.D. to Google Earth’s images today. His books, A History Of The World In 12 Maps and Great Maps, illustrate how far we’ve come in our techniques and knowledge of mapping the world.

We spoke to Brotton about the pivotal role of maps during Shah Jahan’s time, before the Berlin Wall fell, and his own upcoming 3D map of the global environmental meltdown. Excerpts below:

The map that changed an East Berliner’s identity

I lived in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall fell and had a friend who was a sculptor. He told me the most amazing story about a map – he said that you couldn’t get maps of Berlin as a unified city, and they were illegal, they weren’t allowed in East Germany. And he had found one. So he had a map of Berlin without the Wall down the middle, and he’d hear on the radio about places in West Berlin that he wasn’t allowed to go into. He could look on the map and he’d know where they all were. He told me the night the Wall came down in 1989, he went through the Wall and he could walk around the entire city – he knew it like the back of his hand. And he said that a West German came up to him and said, “Could you tell me where a certain street is? I’m lost.” And my friend said, “Yeah. It’s down there, third right, second left.” He’d never been there, but he knew because the map was in his brain. I thought, that’s an amazing description of how a map can shape your identity. And he said, “In that moment, when I gave the man from West Berlin the description of where to go, I was no longer an East Berliner. I was just a Berliner.” And it’s always made me very emotional. It’s an amazing story, it changed his identity at that one moment. I remember thinking how powerful a map is – not only in your imagination but also something that does allow you to move around, and that was over 20 years ago. That’s how it all started.

“How many times have you used a map and it hasn’t worked for you?”

I’ve got my map of Jaipur, it’s a mess. I’ll throw it away when I get home, probably. But that has so much history in it because it’s a map that’s enabled me to move around Jaipur. I don’t want the framed, beautiful maps on the wall. But those are the maps we have left: the nice presentation maps. I want to get hold of the used maps, when people have really been working out the relationship between the map and the territory. How many times have you used a map and it actually hasn’t quite worked for you? And you have to go, “Never mind, I’ll find my way.” And I love that movement, that you do need the map. The thing I say at the end of the book that I wrote, A History Of The World In 12 Maps, I said, “The great paradox of maps is that you can’t do without one, but you also can’t trust them.” That’s the great paradox, yeah? – you can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Ptolemy, the first armchair geographer

Ptolemy’s called the father of geography. He’s also called the first armchair geographer. So he’s a man who sits in Alexandria [in Egypt] making all the maps, and we believe he never travelled. Many of his contemporaries say, “Don’t trust people who are travellers, because they make stories up about where they’ve been.” In Greek, he’s known as “Akoe”, which means “hearsay” or “gossip”. Ptolemy says, “What you’ve got to do is sift all this material to try and work out how you’re gonna draw your map.”

And you see this in all the medieval maps – the monsters get more and more grotesque because more travellers come back and they want their stories to be heard. You don’t want to come back and say, “India’s a very nice place. The people are lovely, the food is terribly nice. I had a great time.” Nobody wants to hear that. They want to hear, “There’s gold! And there’s spices!” And so Marco Polo does that. He comes back, tells these great stories, and then the map becomes real. You have to pick the map and say, “No, none of it’s true.” So it’s always a kind of give and take between the mapmaker and the traveller.

The island that Google Earth proved didn’t exist

[Gerardus] Mercator was also an armchair geographer. He never left what today we’d call Germany and Belgium. He never went more than 200 miles away from the place in which he lived, yet he maps the entire world. [The Mercator map was drawn in 1569 for maritime navigation.] We’ve got his letters and he’s always saying, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this letter from so-and-so and this chap has come back”. It’s often with mapmaking that nobody starts with a blank piece of paper. You’ve always got a previous map to work against. The Renaissance has the Greek maps and the Greeks have the Babylonian maps and the Babylonians have earlier maps. There’s a great story recently about the fact that they discovered that there was an island off Australia that didn’t exist. Google Maps discovered this. It’s [supposed to be] off the north west coast of Australia. It’s been named and it’s been on maps for hundreds of years. They did a flyover and there was no island there. So that’s an example that knowledge just gets built up and people believe that there’s the island, but it’s not really there.

On an Indian map from Shah Jahan’s court, circa 1647

Map of the Inhabited Quarter by Sadiq Isfahani

Map of the Inhabited Quarter by Sadiq Isfahani from “Great Maps”. Photo: © Dorling Kindersley Ltd

Sadiq Isfahani was making it at the Mughal court for Shah Jahan in 1647. He’s really writing history, and of course, a lot of historians use maps. I don’t think he’s a mapmaker, I think he needs to explain and visualise history. What’s interesting is that he’s drawing on all kinds of different traditions – Islamic traditions obviously, he’s drawing on Persian and Greek traditions because he has these climata [strips that go east to west] and he understands the world according to those zones. His organising principle is these climata. Baghdad’s in one climate and it’s the same climate that North Africa is in, so he thinks that you unify north Africa with Baghdad because they’re on the same strip. He doesn’t think in terms of continents. It’s a different way of thinking about space.

“All maps represent their culture”

What I wanted to do with the book A History Of The World In 12 Maps is to tell a global story. I wanted to say that the history of mapmaking is never about one nation or one area. There is South Asian mapping. There’s Ming China, there’s African methods of mapping, there’s American New World, pre-Columbian methods of mapping. I wanted to do enough that gave it a global sweep to say that all cultures map and there’s nothing wrong or better or worse about certain maps. They all represent their culture. What imperialism does is it creates a map which has north at the top and is defined by national boundaries and that’s a legacy of Western European imperialism, colonial rule. And we have now basically, globally, all agreed that that’s the kind of map that we use.

On religious maps

Hereford Mappa-Mundi

Hereford Mappa-Mundi from “Great Maps”. Photo: © Dorling Kindersley Ltd

[The Hereford map] is an extraordinary map because it really sums up the Western medieval Christian mind. It shows the fact that the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve are there, and it shows all the Old and New Testament stories. And for me it’s interesting because it shows east at the top, west at the bottom. It fills India with monstrous races because the further away you get from the centre of Jerusalem and from Christian belief, the more monstrous it assumes everything must be. But I often say that that map is as much about the passing of time as about space. The Hereford Mappa-Mundi [that is on display at the Hereford Cathedral in England] goes from the top, from the beginning of time and it moves down through Old Testament time and into New Testament time, and the surround of the map is about the end of the world. So it’s a kind of extraordinary map because it’s saying, “We want the world that we’re showing you to end. We want to get beyond time, space and geography. We want to get to heaven.” In heaven, there’s no such thing as the world, because it’s the kingdom of God. And that’s as natural to a Christian and as weird, probably, to a Muslim or a Hindu, who would say “No, that’s a completely wrong world picture.” And of course, that’s what the Islamic maps do, they’re completely different.

On his 3D map project

My colleague Adam Lowe and I are using digital data to create a three-dimensional world map. It’s partial and selective because it’s about global environmental meltdown. It’s about the dangers that the globe itself now faces. We’ve chosen a specific kind of projection which looks a bit weird, but for us that makes sense when you show what happens when you flood the world. So we’re very open about it, we’re saying we don’t tell you the truth. We’re just giving you one version of what we think the world looks like. It’s an art project so it’s not drawing a line – but we defend it by saying it’s trying to do something interesting and evocative.

It means going to Madrid where we’d make it, and to Venice where we hope to show it. One of the arguments that I have with Adam is that we have to make it with timber so that we can uproot it, we can dismantle it. We number all the pieces and we move it to Mumbai. Doing it in India would be an extraordinary thing to do, it seems to me. There are certain places where it would make absolute sense to do it. But again, it depends how the project is financed. Maybe it’s truly what we call a Utopian project. It’s all in the mind, and some of the best maps are always in the mind. Oscar Wilde once said something wonderful, he said, “I’m only interested in maps that show Utopia. Because that’s the only place we’re really interested in getting to. Any other map is pointless.”




  • Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.


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