A History of the World in Twelve Maps

by Jerry Brotton

A History of the World in Twelve Maps

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Excerpt: A History Of The World In Twelve Maps

The urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct. 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'. 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. But only humans have made the crucial leap from mapping to mapmaking. 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 'figure', and naqshah, or 'painting', while Chinese has adopted a similar word, tu, meaning a drawing or a diagram. The term 'map' (or 'mappe') only enters the English language in the sixteenth century, and between then and the 1990s more than 300 competing definitions of it have been proposed.

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.' This definition (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 scientific 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.

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-finding 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.

From A History Of The World In Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton. Copyright 2012 by Jerry Brotton. Excerpted by permission of Allen Lane.

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