Mys­tique of Maps!

Il­lus­trat­ing Earth’s to­pog­ra­phy for ease.

Alive - - Con­tents - ■ by Ma­haraaj K. Koul

Maps are mar­vel­lous story-tell­ers. No story has more drama than the dy­namic Alaskan coast. No novel has more plots than the twist­ing cur­rents of the mighty Ama­zon river. No fable sup­ports leg­end bet­ter than the colos­sal tes­ta­ment of the Nile. No epi­taph sig­ni­fies in­fin­ity more sadly than the track­less wastes of Siberia or the in­nu­mer­able sands of the Sa­hara. We see it all on a map: his­tory, na­ture, fate, al­most ev­ery­thing.

A map is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion or a draw­ing of the Earth’s sur­face or a part of it drawn on a flat sur­face ac­cord­ing to a scale. But it is im­pos­si­ble to flat­ten a round shape com­pletely. The word ‘map’ is de­rived from the Latin word ‘mappa’, mean­ing cloth, as many of the ear­li­est maps were drawn on skins, cloth or parch­ment. Maps are of many types. Com­monly

“Jour­ney all over the uni­verse in a map with­out the ex­pense and fa­tigue of trav­el­ling, with­out the suf­fer­ing or in­con­ve­nience of heat, cold, hunger and thirst.”

— Cer­vantes

used maps are: po­lit­i­cal, phys­i­cal, weather, to­po­graph­i­cal, ge­o­log­i­cal, nau­ti­cal, avi­a­tion and tourist.

A map is meant to be a rep­re­sen­ta­tion on pa­per or any other suit­able ma­te­rial, of a part of the Earth’s sur­face, show­ing phys­i­cal (both nat­u­ral and ar­ti­fi­cial) and po­lit­i­cal fea­tures. Maps are made on var­i­ous scales and show dif­fer­ent types of de­tails with ac­cu­racy, de­pend­ing on what is re­quired. Any point of de­tail on a map should also have its cor­rect lo­ca­tion on the Earth as a whole and should bear a cor­rect rel­a­tive po­si­tion with ref­er­ence to any point of de­tail on it.

Noth­ing sym­bol­ises bet­ter than maps — our hu­man de­pen­dence on place, on know­ing our lo­ca­tion, our earthy ad­dress. Maps say a lot about our world, but they say more about us. To Herodotus, the cen­tre of the world was Greece. To the Ro­mans, nat­u­rally, it was Rome. In the de­vout Mid­dle Ages, the cen­tre was Jerusalem. Even when we be­gan to sci­en­tif­i­cally chart the Earth, as­tronomers de­ter­mined that the best place to site the prime merid­ian — the world’s imag­i­nary cen­tre — just hap­pened to be near Lon­don in Britain.

Maps are our old­est lit­er­a­ture, older than the books. It is widely be­lieved

that map was the first thing we hu­mans ever wrote to com­mu­ni­cate with each other. Per­haps over one mil­lion years ago, in the Great Rift Val­ley of East Africa, the ear­lier hu­mans stopped to rest dur­ing their long and wan­der­ing evo­lu­tion. With a stick in the mud of a lake bed, they drew some lines to rep­re­sent the lake, a river, a thick for­est and some good hunt­ing grounds be­yond the jun­gle they pointed out their map and said: “Here, fel­lows. We’re here now. And we hope to be there to­mor­row!”

His­tory of maps

How was the first world map drawn? The ear­li­est ev­i­dence of map­ping comes from West Asia. The first world map was chis­elled on a clay tablet in an­cient Baby­lon in 6 BC. The Egyp­tians and Me­sopotami­ans af­ter that tried to rep­re­sent their world in the form of fig­ures. Early Eski­mos car­ried ivory coastal maps and the In­cas built relief maps of stone and clay. But as early as 1000 BC, the Chi­nese were the most ad­vanced, ac­cu­rate and de­tailed map-mak­ers in the world. They used their maps to ad­min­is­ter their em­pires, but showed lit­tle in­ter­est in mak­ing world maps, even though they had knowl­edge about the world out­side China.

For that, it was im­por­tant to know the shape of the Earth. The Greek thinkers were the most pro­gres­sive with re­spect to that. First, Thales pro­posed that the Earth was a disc on the ocean. Later, Anax­i­man­der mod­i­fied it to a cylin­der, with land on its carved sur­face. Fi­nally, Pythago­ras said that the Earth might be a sphere due to its ge­o­met­ri­cal per­fec­tion. Aris­to­tle backed this by ob­ser­va­tion, though this view wasn’t ac­cepted by most of the world till the 15th cen­tury.

Era­tothenes, a li­brar­ian of Alexan­dria, Egypt, first used merid­ian (lon­gi­tudes) and par­al­lels (lat­i­tudes) to lo­cate places in re­la­tion­ship to each other in the known world. In 150 AD, Ptolemy com­piled known as­tro­nom­i­cal data and cre­ated the first known pro­jec­tion of the known, spher­i­cal world, onto a plane. He pro­duced a sixvol­ume at­las called Geo­graph­i­cal con­tain­ing sev­eral maps of the world known dur­ing his time. This was the be­gin­ning of sci­en­tific car­tog­ra­phy. His co­or­di­nate sys­tems are still in use to­day. In spite of his er­rors (that the sun re­volved around the Earth,

As early as 1000 BC, the Chi­nese were the most ad­vanced, ac­cu­rate and de­tailed map-mak­ers in the world. They used their maps to ad­min­is­ter their em­pires, but showed lit­tle in­ter­est in mak­ing world maps, even though they had knowl­edge about the world out­side China.

and his cal­cu­la­tion of the Earth as 3/4th of its present known size), he was far ahead of his time.


How­ever, soon af­ter, Europe en­tered the Dark Ages of map-mak­ing as the knowl­edge of Greek thinkers was lost. The view of the world was shaped by the­o­log­i­cal con­cerns and lack of the con­tact with other places. The most in­ter­est­ing maps that came af­ter that were the ‘T – O’ maps. That’s be­cause they were shaped in an ‘O’ and di­vided by a ‘T’. These proved to be the main world maps for cen­turies. But still, dur­ing this pe­riod, itin­er­ar­ies and route maps were pub­lished for Cru­saders and pil­grims. In con­trast, Arab maps ad­vanced the ear­lier Greek prac­tices. Al-Idrisi de­signed a still fa­mous world map. The ideas of the Greeks and Ptolemy are pre­served in Ara­bic trans­la­tion.

The Book of Roger, com­mis­sioned by a Nor­man king in Sicily in the 12th cen­tury, had maps and a ge­og­ra­phy based on Ptolemy. Ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion, prob­a­bly based on trade in the East was used to up­date the Ptole­maic maps. In the 13th cen­tury, mariners be­gan to re­alise that maps would be help­ful and be­gan keep­ing de­tailed records of their voy­ages that land-based map-mak­ers used to cre­ate the first nau­ti­cal charts called Por­tolan Charts. The charts, cre­ated on sheep­skin or goatskin, were rare, ex­pen­sive, and highly dec­o­rated.

And, how was it that a Ger­man pri­est writ­ing in Latin and liv­ing in a French city far from the coast be­came the first per­son to tell the world that a vast ocean lay to the west of the Amer­i­can con­ti­nents? This is one of the big­ger

Map pro­duced by James Ren­nell.

First pub­lished in 1564.

12 maps are com­bined to show the world.

A Wald­seemuller map of 1507.

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