Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 9 July 2020

A matter of perspective

This map of the world, known as the Tabula Rogeriana, dates from 1154. Science Photo Library
This map of the world, known as the Tabula Rogeriana, dates from 1154. Science Photo Library
Cyrus Patell

When I moved to Abu Dhabi three years ago, Google Maps wasn't much help as I tried to find my way around the city by car. Too much unmapped territory, and too much road construction with which the app simply couldn't keep up.

I had particular trouble navigating my way to the house of one of my son's friends, which was located in Mohammed bin Zayed City. I was armed with a hand-drawn map and a set of cryptic directions, which were fine - so long as you didn't make a wrong turn, which I did more than once. Frustrated by all the time spent circling among the houses and compounds, I decided to get clever: parked in front of the villa, I dropped a pin. Presto: no more uncertainty. Pin marks the spot, and Google Maps would get me there from now on.

Except that the next time I started out for MBZC, the app directed me towards the Corniche. Apparently, the pin was located at a place that hadn't been mapped yet, and so the app plugged in some generic Abu Dhabi coordinates and sent me driving off to what it thought was downtown.

That kind of story is familiar to anyone who has spent time navigating the streets of Abu Dhabi and who is therefore well equipped to appreciate one of the central points that Jerry Brotton makes in his book A History of the World in Twelve Maps: Although every cartographer aspires "to create a more 'accurate' and scientifically objective map of the world", any map "is always partial and inherently selective". Brotton, who is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University in the United Kingdom, draws on a wealth of scholarly resources to create a highly readable account of the history of global empires and the role that maps have played in their rises and falls.

Google's mapping applications (Maps and Earth) are the last of the 12 maps that Brotton considers. Like all of the chapters in this engagingly written and well-illustrated book, the 12th chapter opens with the name and date of the map under scrutiny, preceded by a title that indicates the larger thematic issue that Brotton plans to address: in this case, "Information". (The list of other titles - "Science", "Exchange", "Faith", "Empire", "Discovery", "Globalism", "Toleration", "Money", "Nation", "Geopolitics" and "Equality" - will give you a sense of the wide range of topics that Brotton explores as he moves from 700BC to the present day.)

Brotton also grounds each chapter in a specific time and place, which emerge as crucial to an understanding of the contexts, methods and significance of the map under scrutiny. This starting point turns out to be an analytical centre from which each chapter's analysis radiates: Brotton feels free to range widely, moving backwards and forwards in time, traversing relevant geographic locales, and describing the lives of the key actors - not only mapmakers, but also explorers, kings and queens, politicians, merchants, scientists and collectors - who play roles in the production and reception of each map.

Unlike the preceding chapters, the account of Google Earth begins with a location that isn't actually on the Earth: "Virtual Orbital Space, 11,000km above the Earth's surface, 2012". In fact, the location isn't even "actual": it's "virtual", a vantage point constructed through a composite of satellite images and data. What we realise, however, is that this vantage point is precisely what every cartographer who has attempted to draw a map of the entire world has had to create: not a bird's-eye perspective but an astronaut's-eye perspective that no human being had ever achieved until the era of manned space flight. Indeed, the orbiting astronaut's perspective is still comparatively limited, because it lacks the ability to discern detail that marks either the divine or the cartographic point-of-view.

Brotton perceptively argues that all of the maps that he surveys might thus be characterised as examples of "egocentric mapping": each, Brotton writes, "is a timeless act of personal reassurance", which invites us to "locat[e] ourselves as individuals in relation to a larger world that we suspect is supremely indifferent to our existences". The perspective of the map "literally centres individuals", but it also has the effect of "elevat[ing] them like gods, inviting them to take flight and look down upon the earth from a divine viewpoint, surveying the whole world in one look, calmly detached, gazing upon what can only be imagined by earthbound mortals". As Brotton's account of the lives of cartographers such as Gerard Mercator reveals, mapmaking was often a dangerous business: the power implicit in this elevated perspective was not lost on those ruling authorities who, throughout history, have sought to control and manipulate the mapmaker's knowledge of geography.

World maps are "egocentric" in another sense as well: "The overwhelming majority of maps," Brotton writes, "put the culture that produced them at their centre." Each map offers a view of the world, but each map also embodies a world view, an ideology that represents the beliefs and assumptions of the culture from which it springs. The 12 maps are presented chronologically, and the first three maps are seemingly chosen to give a sense not only of geographical diversity but also of ideological diversity.

The first isn't even a proper "map" at all: it is the ancient Egyptian cartographer Ptolemy's Geography (circa 150AD), which offers a post-Euclidian approach to mapping that seeks "to make the world comprehensible through the imposition of geometrical order onto the chaotic variety of the world 'out there', while also retaining a sense of wonder at its infinite variety". Ptolemy's treatise is the culmination "a 1,000-year tradition of Greek mapmaking", but it is likely that the original scroll included no maps at all, just directions for how maps should be created.

Ptolemy's scientific approach to mapping contrasts strikingly to the approach taken by the Arabic cartographer al-Sharif al-Idiisi in his Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq (Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World), completed in 1154. Taking advantage of a moment of cultural pluralism during the rule of the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II, al-Idrisi's Entertainment maps the world by creating 70 regional maps, each offering detailed "descriptions of towns, cities, communities, commodities, trade routes and distance across the inhabited world", but never intended to be assembled into a seamless whole. According to Brotton, al-Idrisi "resisted unifying all 70 of his local maps into one global image, because such an image would inevitably beg the question of its creation based on the beliefs of one faith or another". In Brotton's account, al-Idrisi's maps are the products of "exchanges between not only Christians and Muslims but also Greeks and Jews", and, like so many of the cartographers whose careers Brotton recounts, al-Idrisi was ahead of his time, and his maps were underappreciated in his own time, as "religious belief triumphed over geographical description".

Brotton's third map, the famous Hereford Mappamundi (circ 1300), offers yet another approach. A large map created on an animal skin and likely intended to serve as the middle panel for an altarpiece in Hereford Cathedral, the map places Jerusalem at its very centre and presents not worldly geography but rather a Christian sacred geography in which "each place is charged by a specific Christian event". The map, Brotton tells us, "appears to have been intended to inspire the faithful to contemplate pilgrimage" and "to reflect on the widely held medieval belief that the Christian life was itself an ongoing metaphorical pilgrimage."

What links together these three very different maps and those that follow is a common problem: how to "project" a three-dimensional globe onto the flat two-dimensional plane that we associate with a "map". Any such projection necessarily brings with it distortions and a range of difficult choices about what to include. Vividly wending his way through exemplary moments in the history of cartography, Brotton deftly leads us to understand that, whether we are looking at Mercator's famous 1569 world map or Google's latest street view, "we must always make compromises when we choose our partial maps of the world". A History of the World in Twelve Maps will likely leave its readers pondering the meanings of the title's key terms - "history", "world" and "maps" - and thinking about the ways in which each is inseparable from the other two.

Cyrus Patell teaches literature and humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Updated: December 12, 2013 04:00 AM

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