THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

23 September 2019

Diverse cartography of the Levant

Over the centuries the Levant (or the Middle East as we now know it) has received a significant amount of cartographic attention and has featured on countless maps. This isn’t particularly surprising considering the region’s role in trade between Europe and Asia but what makes it rather special is the diversity of cartographical output. Maps of the Levant come in many different styles. As expected, they demonstrate the evolution of geographical knowledge, which gradually improved over time, and there is also an additional aspect of the region’s mapping, very different in content and style of depiction, reflecting the interest in this part of the world from the ancient history and biblical studies points of view. These different approaches were very often merged into one image resulting in an interesting fusion of contemporary and historical geography.  

The first printed map of the region falls into the category of the ancient geography and comes from the edition of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia published in Bologna in 1477.

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The first printed map of the Levant. TABVLA 18 from Ptolemaei cosmographaie, Bologna. 1477. (C.3.d.5) 

The depiction is basic and the engraving technique rather crude but let’s not forget that this is the earliest printed atlas issued with engraved maps. It is assumed that the atlas was prepared in haste and the engraver was pressed for time to complete the plates before competitors in Rome had a chance to publish their edition of the Ptolemy’s work.

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Detail from TABVLA 18 showing the Eastern Mediterranean with exaggerated Cyprus (C.3.d.5)

 

The Ptolemy’s Cosmographia appeared in numerous editions but even within this genre the geographical representation varied greatly depending on the sources used in the compilation and mapmaker’s interpretation. For example, Sylvanus in his edition of the work (published in 1511) decided to incorporate the contemporary geographical information directly into the Ptolemaic maps in order to demonstrate the geographical discoveries. This method did not find followers and Waldseemüller in his editorial note to the 1513 edition criticised the idea stating that rather than enlighten the readers it confuses them. 

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Qvarta Asiae Tabvla from the Sylvanus’ edition of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia published in Venice in 1511 (Maps C.1.d.7.)

 

The second category of the cartographical depiction of the Levant comprises maps produced to illustrate the biblical geography. A prime example is A map shewing ye situation of Paradice and ye country inhabited by ye Patriarchs design’d for the better understanding ye sacred history from the Sacred geography, contained in six maps published in 1716 by Senex and Taylor.

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A map shewing ye situation of Paradice and ye country inhabited by ye Patriarchs design’d for the better understanding ye sacred history (118.e.7.)

The map not only shows the location of the terrestrial Paradise, but also includes the position of Sodom and Gomorrah within the Dead Sea waters, the Noah’s Arc as built on the top of Mount Arrat, as well as multiple references to the biblical texts. Alessandro Scaffi’s extended research on the Maps of Paradise was published in his fantastic book well worth reading if interested in the subject.

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Detail from A map shewing ye situation of Paradice ... (118.e.7.)

The thematic maps of the Levant in conjunction with the multitude of those produced to express the contemporary geographical knowledge provide a complete picture of the vivid interest the region received from mapmakers through the centuries. 

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A New Map of Turkey in Asia by M. D'Anville published in 1794 in London by Laurie and Whittle. Maps * 46970.(2.)

 

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Turkey in Asia, drawn from the most respectable authorities by Robert Wilkinson published in 1794 in A General Atlas, being a Collection of Maps of the World and Quarters. (Maps C.10.a.29.)