Adventures in Cartography

For ancient and medieval Europeans the standard map of the world looked like this:

T and O map

Yes, they knew it wasn’t strictly accurate; it’s supposed to be stylised. Of course they didn’t know how inaccurate it was. Remember that the Greeks knew of nothing east of India, west of Gibraltar, northeast of the Black Sea, or south of the Sahara. (When Alexander was in India he was enraged at being forced by his troops to turn back, since he thought he was in a few miles of seeing the eastern coast of Asia.) The Phoenicians knew better, having circumnavigated Africa – Herodotus expresses skepticism about this, in light of the to him implausible Phoenician account of the northerly position of the sun in the subequatorial sky, but this detail is precisely what has convinced modern historians that the Phoenicians indeed went where they said they went. The Phoenicians tended to keep their charts secret for commercial reasons, however, which may be why the foreshortened European version of Africa (also called “Libya”) didn’t get corrected. (Some think the ancient tales of the impassability of the waters west of the Straits of Gibraltar (which Plato invokes the ruins of sunken Atlantis to explain) were invented by Phoenicians (specifically Carthaginians) to safeguard the route of their tin trade with Cornwall.)

Mediterranean world This is why Europe, Asia, and Africa are called “continents” – because these land-masses surround, “contain,” the inner waterways – the “Mediterranean,” or middle-of-the-earth sea – where known civilisation flourished. This is also the origin of Europe and Asia being regarded as separate continents – because they were mostly separated by water in that area with which Europeans were familiar.

For the ancients, Delphi was the “navel of the world.” (According to legend, Zeus identified the centerpoint by releasing twin eagles from opposite ends of the earth and marking the place where they passed each other – a nice example of the seeds of science germinating in the soil of myth.) The medievals shifted the center about a thousand miles southeast to a more Judeo-Christianly appropriate site. (To modern western Europeans the late shift of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople seems like a move from a central location to a periphery, but to the ancients it seemed like the other way around.)

This style of map also survived the transition from a flat to a round earth. For most of the ancients, this map represented Earth as a disk with “Ocean” – for them the name of a giant river – running around the edge like Paul Bunyan’s Round River; for most of the medievals, on the other hand, this map represented the habitable side of a spherical Earth.

One Response to Adventures in Cartography

  1. Tim June 17, 2007 at 4:43 am #

    I’ve always wondered why europe was called a “continent” rather than a peninsula with pretensions.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes