Relic: Road Maps

What is a map? A map is defined as a symbolic depiction highlighting a relationship between elements of space, such as objects, regions, and themes. In short, they’re a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space. This allows people to know where things are and how to get there. Today, we’re very much spoiled by global positioning satellite (GPS) systems in our cars and on our phones, so that we always know the fastest and shortest routes from point A to B.

The profession and science of cartography, or map making, has been around since 25,000 BC. Maps of the Earth may have been dated to around 25,000 BC in the Czech Republic, while maps of the stars have been dated to around 16,500 BC in Lascaux, France. The first known accurate maps involving surveying were created by the ancient Babylonians. The oldest surviving map, the Babylonian World Map, dates to around 600 BC. However, it was a symbolic map and was probably used for religious purposes.

The ancient Greeks were also knowledgeable about the area around them. Anaximander of Miletus drew the first map of the world known to the Greeks, but the map was lost. However, Hecataeus, also of Miletus, drew another map in 500 BC that still survives to this day. Pythagoras (of Pythagorean theorem fame) was the first to theorize that the Earth was round and divided into five zones: two cold (both polar regions), one hot (area between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn), and two temperate regions. However, Aristotle proved that the Earth was round, namely because the lunar eclipse was circular, ships seem to sink as they move away from view and pass the horizon, and some stars can be seen only from certain parts of the Earth.

The Roman road map, or the Tabula Peutingeriana (Peutinger’s Table), illustrated the cursus publicus, or the road network of the Roman Empire.
This map was created around the fifth century AD.

The Chinese have been undertaking the science of cartography since the fifth century BC, with Pei Xiu, or the “Ptolemy of China,” creating a map with a plotted geometrical grid and graduated scale. Indian cartography focused on the Pole Star and constellations, and Mongolian cartography was unique in that they required the nations they conquered to send geographical maps back to them (this was an area that stretched from as far west as eastern Europe to around the Korean Peninsula).

The Arabs continued using Ptolemy’s methods of cartography, but an Abbasid caliph, al-Mam’un, commissioned geographers to create a map of the world (which has since been lost). The Arabs began to use modern methods of cartography, using spherical trigonometry and map projection. Abu Zayd al-Balkhi in particular created the Balkhi school of mapping, which produced world atlases and regional maps as well, writing extensively on the peoples, products, and customs of the Muslim world, which spread as far west as Spain and as far east as Pakistan and India. The famous traveler Ibn Battuta traveled 120,000 kilometers across Africa, Europe, and Asia over three decades, giving cartographers more information to work with. The Tabula Rogeriana was one of the most complete maps of its time when it was released in 1154, showing Europe in addition to Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Far East. Piri Reis, an Ottoman cartographer, created many navigational maps. In the second version of the Kitab-i Bahriye (Book of Navigation), published in 1513, he showed parts of the Americas for the first time on a map.

The Age of Exploration prompted the expansion of cartography, and depictions of Terra Australis (Southern Land) were featured on many maps during that time. The Terra Australis theory was that there was a great southern landmass that balanced out the mass of the Northern Hemisphere. Gerardus Mercator produced the Mercator projection in 1569, in which landmasses such as Greenland and Antarctica appear much larger than entire continents. Greenland is actually only a fourteenth of the size of Africa, while on the Mercator projection, it appears as large as (or even larger) than the continent itself. Abraham Ortelius created the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) in 1570, and was also reportedly the first person to believe that the continents were once joined together.


While Terra Australis gradually disappeared from maps upon the discovery that Australia and New Zealand were landmasses in their own right, cartography started taking off as the New World was settled. By 1884, the Greenwich Prime Meridian in London, England was classified as 0 degrees longitude, and used as a reference by mapmakers. Improvements in printing and photography made production of maps cheaper and easier during the twentieth century. Maps of countries and cities became commonplace.
Now, with GPS systems being the norm, many people are able to access maps from their smartphones just about anywhere in the world that there is cell signal. However, take time to thank those who risked life and limb to venture into the unknown to discover what you see.

Also published inn April 2016 issue.

Words by Jose Alvarez