Bulletin 4 - March 1978: A Short History of Middle Eastern Maps

A Short History of Middle Eastern Maps

by Ralph Lindley

In the 1st century AD Claudius Ptolemy in Alexandria compiled his "Itineraries" -- latitude and longitude references of place names around the then known world. He probably compiled a world map on this basis, but no copies have survived, though traces of Ptolemy's projection can be seen in extent maps of the 12th and 13th centuries. An example is the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral (13th century).

True maps do not really exist until the beginning of printing in the 15th century, when Ptolemy's maps were produced on woodcuts. These maps are obtainable today but are very rare and expensive.

Ptolemy's Tabula VI map of the "Persian" Gulf reflects a 1st century view of the area. His map of "Arabia Felix" was probably based on information derived from the ship's masters of Alexandria sailing the Indian Ocean, and from written accounts from the Alexandria Library which dated back to the conquests of Alexander in the 4th century BC. His projection gives a distorted view of the Gulf because his measurement of the circumference of the world was 7, 000 miles out! Without knowledge of the Americas, he tended to stretch everything eastward from his Prime Meridian which ran through the Cape Verde Islands. All his place names are Greek and many can still be identified today. His maps continued, however, to be printed until the 17th century and the later copies were substantially. identical to the rare earlier examples. More and later information was added and the maps were made more beautiful as printing improved.

In the 16th century, one of Ptolemy's maps was printed by a Dutchman named Abraham Ortelius who produced his own atlas of the world at about the same time as Mercator, another Dutchman. Ortelius and Mercator are literally the fathers of modern map making, incorporating as they did the discoveries of the 16th century explorers with their own new and more accurate projections.

Mercator's maps from copper engravings continued to be published for many years after his death, and maps attributed to Hondius, Jansson and Bleau of Holland as well as John Speed of England are based on Mercator's original plates, suitably amended and altered as more information became available.

The years 1570 -- 1640 mark the great Dutch period in map making, but by 1650 the centre of the art was moving to France. Nicholas Sanson published his atlas in 1654, and due to his influence and the encouragement of the King of France, the French school of cartography dominated the field for the next one hundred and fifty years. A number of cartographers -- de Wit, de Lisle, d'Anville, Ie Rouge, Bonne, Vaughgondy, Jaillot, du Val and Senex -- gradually built up more and more accurate maps of the world.

In Britain from about 1700, small world atlases began to be produced, probably for school purposes, with maps mainly drawn by Herman Moll, a Dutchman who lived in London. But from about 1770 a new and virile school of English map makers began to appear, printing maps from steel engravings. During the years 1780 and 1820 a number of more and more accurate atlases were produced by such men as Arrowsmith, Teesdale, Lizar, Thompson, Cary, Playfair and Dunn. No doubt there was an awakening of world interest during the Napoleonic Wars. These maps are not rare, and they are also much more functional than the 17th century maps, lacking the glorious cartouches and other decorations of those of the 17th century. But the maps of the Gulf of this time are interesting in that they reflect the lack of detailed knowledge of this area -- there is, for example, no peninsula at Qatar, there is a river near Dubai and many of the names are misplaced.

After 1838 the Gulf maps become much more accurate, reflecting as they do the information derived from the Hydrographic Survey carried out at that time by the British Royal Navy. The Tallis Atlas in 1850 and others begin to incorporate names familiar to us: "Apu Thuppi" and "Dubay" even "Daus Island"; the river at Dubai disappears and the Qatar Peninsula is drawn for the first time.

Editor's Note: Ralph Lindley has held several exhibitions of his collection of old maps of the Middle East. The above short history was a "handout" at a recent exhibition.


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