The History Of Maps
Popular Mechanics South Africa|Popular Mechanics March/April 2021
The map has no single origin or known inventor. But these breakthrough maps illuminate the milestones of science and discovery that guided civilisations – and define how we view the world today.
Meghan Neal
BABYLONIAN MAP OF THE WORLD

THE OLDEST SURVIVING WORLD MAP

The oldest surviving world map depicts the world view of Babylonians circa 600 BCE. The five-inch stone tablet is centred around Babylon, the wide rectangle, which straddles the Euphrates River, depicted by the crooked lines running from top to bottom. Babylon, likely the world’s most populous city at the time, is surrounded by neighbouring cities represented by small circles, all within a greater circle to denote the ocean. Though its geography is limited, this map reveals the inherent bias of mapmakers to place themselves at the literal centre of the world.

Other early maps served more practical needs, such as the stick and shell charts built to denote currents around islands in the South Pacific more than 2 000 years ago, or the Egyptian papyrus maps that led miners through the desert in the 12th century BCE. But the Babylonian Map of the World is the earliest example of a political map used to champion a country or city.

PTOLEMY’S GEOGRAPHIA

THE FIRST WORLD ATLAS

The Greeks were the first known culture to apply a scientific approach to measuring and mapping the world. The philosopher Pythagoras theorised as early as the 6th century BCE that the Earth was round. And by 200 BCE, the scholar Eratosthenes compared the angles of shadows cast simultaneously in two distant cities to accurately estimate the planet’s circumference within 1 600 km.

Combining the work of earlier Greek scholars with travellers’ stories and town records from across the then-Roman world, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy compiled Geographia, an eight-volume atlas that formed the basis for the next 1 500 years of map-making. Completed around 150 CE, Geographia served as a how-to manual for cartography. Ptolemy explained map projections – depicting a globe on a flat plane. And he listed the coordinates for 8 000 locations in the recorded world – at the time, Eurasia and northern Africa – based on parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude, a precursor to today’s system. Maps based on Ptolemy’s blueprint for the shape and size of the world informed Columbus’s voyage to the Americas and led Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition around the globe. Yet his work disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire, not re-emerging for almost 800 years.

TABULA ROGERIANA

AN UPDATE FOR THE NEXT MILLENNIUM

The Tabula Rogeriana, or Book of Roger, was completed by Moroccan cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in 1154. Compiled over 15 years for King Roger II of Sicily – who hoped the map could inform and expand his rule – the book included a world map with 70 regional maps, each accompanied by a detailed description of their cities, roads, rivers, and mountains. For the next three centuries, it was among the most accurate geographic works in existence of the known world. It later helped guide Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India by sea.

Though it was produced for a Norman king in Italy, the atlas was a culminating achievement from the Islamic Golden Age – while science took a sabbatical in most of Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Al-Idrisi’s work was in large part based on Geographia, which was rediscovered and translated into Arabic around the 9th century. Islamic cartographers built on Ptolemy’s work and corrected errors based on their knowledge of the growing empire. They accurately drew the Indian Ocean as open and connected to the Pacific Ocean, instead of Ptolemy’s landlocked sea.

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