Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ancient Maps and Their Significance

It is also important to understand the mind-set of the people regarding their world to better understand some scriptural references, and especially the events described in scripture.

The Psalter Map 1265. East is at the top, at the center is Jerusalem, on the far right is Africa, at the bottom is the western edge of the world where the sun set and geography and history come to an end

As late as 1395 A.D., the idea of an instantly recognizable and easily replicable map of the world was a novelty, and the very idea conjured up any number of dramatically different ways of depicting the world—a schematic depiction of the cosmos, a simple T-O or zonal diagram, an elaborate mappamundi (a haphazard illustration of a map of the world), a marine chart or any number of idiosyncratic hybrids of the above. The world had not agreed-upon shape design, or orientation—it might appear framed in a circle, a square, or a rectangle; it might show marvels and monsters or nothing but coastlines and names; it might put any of the cardinal directions at the top (though East was the most common direction to put at the top of a map at the time).

With Latin speakers declining in the east and Greek in the west, the two worlds ceased to speak to one another. The gains that had been made in the east after Claudius Ptolemy’s 3rd Century A.D. “Geography” soon were lost for it dropped out of sight for centuries in Greek-speaking Byzantium, and it might never had been recovered at all had not a Byzantine monk named Maximos Planudes developed an obsession with finding it during the final years of the 13th century.

In 1352, international scholar and poet, Francesco Petrarch, began to argue for the return of the papacy to Rome, believing it was being held captive in Avignon in southern France during the Catholic schism from 1309 to 1423. This continued, along with the schism between Greek (east) and Latin (west) until into the next century; however, Planudes, like Petrarch, was a learned scholar and poet who dedicated himself to the revival of lost classical texts. Somehow he came across Ptolemy’s maps and what he saw on the world map made him ecstatic, for mapped according to Ptolemy’s detailed specifications was the full extend of the “oikoumene” (the world) as it had been known in the second century, extending from the Fortunate Isles in the west on the left, to the Chinese port city of Cattigara in the east, and from Thule in the north to Africa and the great unknown continent in the south.

Several copies of the Geography appeared in Constantinople in the decades after Planudes’ discovery, all of which included a single world map followed by twenty-six regional maps—and all of which had been traced back to Planudes’ original copy. Had any of one of those copies made it to the West in the early 1300s, the history of cartography and indeed the European Age of Discovery might well have unfolded very differently. But during that time the Latins and the Greeks were not getting along and it wasn’t until 1397, that Ptolemy’s “Geography” arrived in Europe, which included the first map that would be recognizable to us today, with north showing north, and in which there was a proportionality of distances for all things, including latitude and longitudinal lines.

The idea of an instantly recognizable and easily replicable map of the world—the world map, an ideas we now take for granted—was a novelty when the Ptolemaic atlas began to appear in the West. For the first time, people of different nationalities and different walks of life—scholars, merchants, statesmen, princes, clerics, lay readers—began to see the advantages of looking at the world from the same perspective.

The flat non-perspective drawing above shows the nature of flat and non-perspetive maps. However, linear perspective in architecture changed toward the end of the 15th century which, in turn, led to a new kind of mapping—the plotting of locations of various sites of interest with two different sets of coordinates, leading to the idea that a “sky” view of the world was possible—that is, seeing the world from above—something we take for granted in our map making today (a belief also held by Leonardo da Vinci during this same period).

This led to the “perspectograph” and was championed by numerous artists, painters, map makers, and others, who, in their own fashion, helped reconstruct the ancient world during the latter half of the 15th century. In fact, throughout the entire century, Imago mundi—image of the world—kept expanding, and following Ptolemy’s instructions that his map should be expanded and added to according to greater knowledge as it was uncovered, the world map took on a life of its own.

All this led to the eventual Age of Discovery with first, the Portuguese sailing around Africa which led to the second part, Columbus’ voyage westward out into the Atlantic.

(See the next post, The Fourth Part of the World”)

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