Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Books I'm Reading: A History of the World in 12 Maps
Brotton starts with a mention in his introduction of the oldest known map of the world, a map on a clay tablet excavated near modern-day Baghdad in the 1880s dated to c. 700BC - c. 500BC. However, the first of the 12 maps mentioned in the title of the book is the picture of the world created around 150AD by Ptolemy in his Geography, which, apparently, included no maps at all, but rather instructions on how to create a world map, the first known attempt to create a world map based on scientific principles and with an understanding of the mathematics of projection. It is remarkable for being an attempt to transmit knowledge digitally rather than pictorially--that is, with the numbers required to draw a map rather than by reproducing the map itself (although it is not entirely clear that the text was unaccompanied by maps published separately; in any case, none have survived). Ptolemy's known world was centered on the Mediterranean. What lay beyond the westernmost point in Europe, beyond modern-day Portugal, was unknown. The New World was yet to be discovered. Africa was not yet understood to be a continent surrounded by water. What lay beyond India was only vaguely understood and suggested.
He moves on to an 1154 map of the world made in Sicily by one Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Idris al-Sharif al Idrisi (mercifully shortened to Al-Idrisi), part of what Brotton describes as a "comprehensive summary of the known world" that included more than 70 regional maps and the world map discussed. Brotton further describes Al-Idrisi's work as an attempt to bring together "Greek, Christian, and Islamic traditions of science, geography, and travel to produce a hybrid perspective on the world based on the exchange of cultural ideas and beliefs between different faiths." Al-Idrisi's approach was inclusive and syncretic and an attempt to describe the world as it really is, even if that goal is elusive and the possibility of achieving it illusory.
Thoughtful, wide-ranging, absorbing. Highly recommended.
*Shown is an overlay of the Mercator and Peters (or Gall-Peters) projections, the Mercator in black outline, the Gall-Peters projection in solid aqua. I have been unable to find the original source of this comparison graphic. If anyone reading this knows, please share, as I'd like to properly credit its creator.
[Here's a link to a brief Mental Floss article about a new Japanese world map that attempts to overcome the usual projection problems in a novel way. http://www.mentalfloss.com/article/88138/more-accurate-world-map-wins-prestigious-japanese-design-award. I see that this resembles the Dymaxion map or Fuller map, created by Buckminster Fuller. The Japanese one, however, is a single, uninterrupted sheet, whereas Fuller's map is highly interrupted.]