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The Long Way Around

Before the advent of Google and Global Positioning Systems, travelers used to pack a quaint, foldable creation known as a map. As critical as a compass, good boots, and supplies, painstakingly hand-inked and illustrated, many of the old “charts” were based on myth, legend and conjecture, some were more accurate than others, and often they were incomplete. But when heading out into virgin territory, adventurers, travelers and explorers would be lost without them.

Seen throughout history, maps ultimately tell stories about places, and the people who lived there. Always a representation of knowledge, and forever an instigator of adventure, maps trace the broad sweep of human history.

Theatrum Orbis Terrrarum (Theater of the World) by Ortelius is one of the earliest landmarks in the history of cartography and world geography. Published in Latin in 1750 in Antwerp, it is recognized as the world’s first atlas. It marks the first time that a set of maps, contemporary to the time, was drawn and bound in one volume.

Utilizing the then-spanking new technology of moveable type, “Theater of the World” was a product of the intellectually vibrant Renaissance. It included gorgeous copper engraved plates, and suddenly appeared to challenge the accepted Middle Age notions of “flat earth” and “three continents” (Europe, Africa and Asia).

No Beginning and No End

So much of how maps are conceived is organized less by hard geographic fact than by construct – by human ideas. In the U.S., notions like the South, the West, and the Midwest are perfect examples. None of them exist as places, as say, New York City, but they are accepted as if they do. Less a place, these geographic areas are perhaps more a state of mind than anything.

Even the idea of a continent – a great landmass surrounded by water – is a human construct with only partial bearing in reality. Aren’t Europe and Asia, both continents, really just one landmass, divided by an arbitrary line (roughly speaking, the Caspian to the Barents Sea)? And isn’t Antarctica really just a gathering of islands connected by a massive ice sheet?

In the 1960’s, some enterprising scholars even tried reorganizing the continents based on ethnicity, something akin to cartographic profiling. The Americas were split north and south at the Rio Grande, creating in effect a new Spanish/English Mason-Dixon Line; Africa was divided between an Arab/Islamic north and an animist/Christian sub-Sahara, and Asia … well, never mind. Globalization and the increasing movement of populations left that xenophobic effort on the ash-heap of Very Bad Ideas, proving the point that, living or dead, maps are whatever you make them, and most often they are made by the winners in history.

Over the centuries, as people traveled and explored, they remembered what they saw, and that memory forms the basis of all maps. Even early hunters and gatherers were forced to “map” perils lurking in the landscape, if only in the mind. Memory thus became a matter of life and death, and as any experienced traveler will say, a good map, like a charged cellphone battery, can easily save your life.   But maps – unlike the changing stories they tell, or even the yarns spun by travelers – have no beginning and no end.

The Sea in the Middle of the Earth

The oldest map thought to exist has been traced back about 7,000 years ago to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (literally “Between Two Rivers” – the Tigris & Euphrates). Reflecting the importance of irrigation in the Sumerians’ dry Mediterranean winters, this clay tablet proto-map, shows the city-state of Nippur sharply defined by engineered canals, and speaks proudly of their effort to expand civilization.

One of the first ancient civilizations to thrive on the shores of the Mediterranean (Medi-Terra-nea, the sea in the middle of the earth), the Sumerians, in terms of expansion, fared fairly well.

They contributed to the advent of writing, established banking, and along with a system of standard weights and measures, came up with a little accounting placeholder called zero. Not to mention the spoked wheel. And their maps, telling the history of an ancient land “Between Two Rivers”, survive to tell the tale.

Death, Taxes … and Geometry

Neighboring the Sumerians to the east (and overlapping them in time), the ancient Egyptian empire was also built around a body of water, the Nile, and it proved to be just as important to the development of mapmaking.

Each September and October, as the river would flood, rendering the adjacent plains fertile with black silt, so the government would chart and sketch the annual ebb and flow. Art was less their concern than commerce, because it was with these highly accurate sketches that they could determine property lines, and thus the most reliable taxes (paid in crops). And so, the arts of surveying and geometry were born, and you can thank the taxman for that.

The Egyptians’ mapping and observational skills were so advanced that even the great pyramids at Giza, built over 5,000 years ago, are accurately aligned to the four cardinal points on the compass.   Sadly, because they drew mostly on papyrus, and not on the more durable clay, little exists of their genius cartography.   Given their emphasis on the afterlife in their cosmology, one telling map did survive: the Route to Paradise, a most important gift to the deceased.   Perhaps the one journey where you would not want to get lost.

Falling off the Map

It was in ancient Greece, a short time later, about 2500 years ago, where a select group of men swore off the Bacchanal long enough to suggest that the reason for humanity’s existence was “to comprehend and map the Earth”. Among these men was Anaximander of Miletus, who created the first comprehensive map of the known (habitable) world.

Gathering information from the “mental maps” of sailors, soldiers, traders and bards, he assembled pieces of an immense geographic puzzle, and even went so far as to calculate latitudes.

While revolutionary in concept, by today’s standards the map appears incomplete, given that there is no proportionality (that was still more than 100 years away), and that the Earth is represented as a vertical cylinder, resembling a stone pillar. It doesn’t explain how rain fell in the southern hemisphere (upside down?), or even how people down under did not fall off. It took an Englishman, a physicist with a fondness for apples, who was busying himself accurately mapping celestial mechanics, to explain why: a small matter of gravity.

Coiled by a Dragon

Far from the insular world of the Mediterranean, the Chinese mindscape produced the oldest known comprehensive maps of China in 1136, a twin tablet (in reverse, for printing) used as a teaching aid to prepare students for service in their Confucian-based government.   One tablet was administrative in focus, expressing the importance of map-making in Chinese politics, and the other a scaled grid with impressive geographic accuracy, even to this day.

Unlike in the West, Chinese cartography was noted for its abstraction of external details, containing both the physical world and the mapmaker’s memories and reflections. They depicted philosophical concepts such as feng shui (the art of harmonizing residences for the living and the dead), and enjoyed poetic titles, such as “The Map of a Place Coiled by a Dragon and Crouched by a Tiger”, inspiring, perhaps, the year 2000’s Oscar-winning movie. It was the great 13th century Chinese cartographer, Zhu Siben, who was first to depict Africa’s triangular shape correctly.

Are We There Yet?

Over the centuries, maps have charted everything from recent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, to “The Life and Wanderings of Patriarch Abraham” (16th century), to the Babylonian cosmos (6,000 years ago), and even every street and building footprint in the ancient city of Rome – on 60 x 40 ft. carved marble slabs, no less. Not your average Lonely Planet Guide.

All of history has been written into maps – the epic journeys of Drake & Magellan; human migrations out of Africa; and the rise and fall of empires too many to name. As much as anyone, it was Napoleon who understood that geography explains history, because for every conquest and defeat, a new nation would die or be born, and those epic struggles, with a definite beginning and end, would be always written into maps – by the winners.

For all their importance throughout history – defining nations, landscape, armistices, and even voting districts today – maps are surprisingly expendable. They rot, are replaced, get burned and lost, or like the Egyptian papyrus, simply decay with time.

But what maps inspire is indestructible: the desire to pack your bags, head out, and explore. Whether satellite-enabled or not, don’t leave home without one.