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A History of the World in Twelve Maps

Brotton, Jerry

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Jerry Brotton is the presenter of the acclaimed BBC4 series "Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession". Here he tells the story of our world through maps. Throughout history, maps have been fundamental in shaping our view of the world, and our place in it. But far from being purely scientific objects, world maps are unavoidably ideological and subjective, intimately bound up with the systems of power and authority of particular times and places. Mapmakers do not simply represent the world, they construct it out of the ideas of their age. In this scintillating book, Jerry Brotton examines the significance of 12 maps - from the mystical representations of ancient history to the satellite-derived imagery of today. He vividly recreates the environments and circumstances in which each of the maps was made, showing how each conveys a highly individual view of the world - whether the Jerusalem-centred Christian perspective of the 14th century Hereford Mappa Mundi or the Peters projection of the 1970s which aimed to give due weight to 'the third world'. Although the way we map our surroundings is once more changing dramatically, Brotton argues that maps today are no more definitive or objective than they have ever been - but that they continue to make arguments and propositions about the world, and to recreate, shape and mediate our view of it. Readers of this book will never look at a map in quite the same way again.

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About the Author:

Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, and a leading expert in the history of maps and Renaissance cartography. His most recent book, The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and his Art Collection (2006), was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize as well as the Hessell-Tiltman History Prize. In 2010, he was the presenter of the BBC4 series 'Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession'.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


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 ...

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Brotton, Jerry Author
Published by Allen Lane (2012)
ISBN 10: 1846140994 ISBN 13: 9781846140990
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