Why a map is a window on to history

Maps tell us so much more than how to get from A to B, or where C is in relation to D. They can be tools of power and snapshots of history, and reveal the fears and prejudices of their age, says historian Jerry Brotton

A remarkable things about maps is people’s resistance to the most basic fact of mapmaking – they can never be completely objective, accurate images of our world.

Talk to any mapmaker and they will tell you that the mathematics of mapping the globe onto a flat piece of paper mean that some form of distortion, manipulation and selection will always occur because, to put it simply, you cannot square the circle.

But for most people who use maps in their everyday lives – on sat navs, phones, online map applications, even the good old-fashioned Ordnance Survey – the idea that maps are partial, selective images of the world is extremely unsettling.

Almost unconsciously we expect maps to help us move around the world, whether getting to Tokyo or just finding the way to the nearest Italian restaurant. They give us a feeling of security that the big, wide world is somehow manageable and navigable.

But throughout history, maps have usually been more interested in providing people with that basic sense of security, before trying to get them from A to B. Each society tends to get the world map they deserve, one which manages to summarise and define a particular society’s hopes and fears, prejudices and beliefs.

Throughout time, different cultures produced radically different images of the world. None of them could be labelled “right” or “wrong”, they all simply reflected a culture’s preoccupations.

A map of China called the Yujitu was made in 1136. It was carved on stone and stood in a Chinese schoolyard to instruct bureaucrats to learn about Chinese geography and history. To our modern eyes it looks remarkably modern and accurate – the outline of China is quite clear, and there seems to be a grid showing latitude, longitude and scale.

But you quickly discovered the map made some basic errors. The course of the Yellow River was wrong, and another river, the Heishui, apparently didn’t even exist. But the river did exist in a book called the Yugong, the story of a mythical Chinese ruler called Yu, who saved China from Noah-like floods in the 21st Century BC. The map’s title, Yujitu, translates as “Map of the tracks of Yu”.

In other words, it is a map designed to follow the mythical text, even when it knew the Yugong was inaccurate. Geographical realism gave way to a mythical story of the foundation of China, which was more important to the scholars and teachers who used the map than the exact location of a particular river’s course – especially as most people who saw the map would never travel far enough to see the river.

South at top

West of China at about the same time, Christian and Muslim scholars were creating very different maps of the whole world. They also conformed to their particular theological beliefs, rather than the pursuit of cartographic accuracy.

Just as the Yujitu was being made, the Muslim mapmaker Muhammad al-Idrisi was working on his own world map in Sicily. The result showed the earth with south at the top, because for Idrisi, Mecca and the Arabian Peninsula was now the symbolic centre of the world. Around his map’s edges is a Koranic inscription that suggests this is a world made in Allah’s image.

Just over a century later, Christian world maps like the Hereford mappamundi rotated the world 90 degrees, to put east at the top. On the Hereford map, the sacred city of Jerusalem lies at the heart of the map, with the Garden of Eden in Asia sitting at the top of the map, with Christ looking down from the map’s frame.

Both these maps were telling believers to think of the life beyond the earthly one. The results were very different, but they made sense according to the specific theology of the two religions.

In the West, maps continued to reflect particular cultural preoccupations, even when they ostensibly claimed to be about scientific accuracy and navigating from A to B. The infamous Mercator Projection of 1569 distorts the world at the north and south poles, to ensure navigational accuracy when sailing east to west.

This was the most important issue for merchants and statesmen following the establishment of the sea routes to India and the new world of America in the late 15th Century.

Even today, Google Earth manipulates the first image of the earth that you see when you log on. But is it any surprise? How can you show a three-dimensional globe on a two-dimensional computer screen without choosing a projection that mimics how we imagine we see the earth from space?

All of this might sound unsettling, but we should see this as an opportunity – not an anxiety. As online mapping increasingly pervades our everyday lives, we need to be a bit sceptical about how maps are being used to shape our behaviour.

In the past they wanted us to accept a particular religion, or embrace a specific political ideology. Today they are more likely to be encouraging us to buy things as we zoom virtually around the globe.  But that doesn’t mean they’re any less powerful, or selective, than they’ve ever been.

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