The Dr Sultan Al Qassimi Centre of Gulf Studies has one of the most remarkable collections of maps of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula ever accumulated, going back to the days when the world was seen as heart shaped.
Map collection gives insight into nation's history
SHARJAH // Now more commonly valued for their aesthetic appeal, old maps help capture the evolution of man's view of the world and how subjective the drawings were depending on the dominant empire of the time.
"This coast is dangerous and chiefly inhabited by pirates," reads a note on a black and white "Gulf map" from 1816.
It was drawn up by the British on the area known today as the coast of the UAE.
Enlarged, it covers an entire wall, and is one of hundreds of rare maps from the personal collection of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, Ruler of Sharjah, on display free to the public at the Dr Sultan Al Qassimi Centre of Gulf Studies.
"Every map tells a different story," said Yousif Aydabi, the director of the centre and an adviser to the Ruler. "Often an inaccurate one of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula."
The map warning the British navy of the pirates is accompanied by an explanation putting it into context.
"The conventional view has justified British imperial expansion in the Gulf region because of the need to suppress Arab piracy," wrote Dr Sheikh Sultan, in his book The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, published in 1986. "Any misfortune that happened to any ship in the area was capriciously attributed to the 'Joasmee pirates'."
As a consequence, maps of the early 1800s continued to label the Emirati coast as run by pirates, until the Qawasim fleet was destroyed by the British when they stormed Ras al Khaimah in 1819.
An older map from 1666, drawn up by the Dutch exploration of the coast from Khasab to Muscat, clearly marks the locations of Calba, Gorfocaan, and Dabba names that have evolved to this day as Kalba, Khorfakaan, and Dibba.
"It is interesting to see history through maps," said Mr Aydabi. "What places were marked and what were their names and how colourful and imaginative the explorers and cartographers were when they drew these maps."
A collection 30 years in the making, the hall of maps includes the first map printed in Arabic script. It is by Haj Ahmad, from Tunis, and dated 1559, when the world was viewed as an apple-shaped heart. In another, printed on a woodblock and dated 1581, the continent of Asia has been depicted as the winged horse Pegasus, complete with mermaids splashing about in its oceans.
The first maps of the Gulf were said to be printed in 1477 from Geographia, a manual by the Greek author Ptolemy. The best were drawn by the famous German Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator in the 1570s.
However, issues of mislabelling and difficulties in translation made it impossible for many places to be properly identified.
Rhegama is believed to be Ras al Khaimah, Gerra to be Qatif, Catara as Qatar, while Cape Musandam was called Cape Asaborum.
The bay in the maps labelled as Ieros Kolpos in Greek, or Sacer Sinus in Latin, was identified as the Gulf of Kuwait. The labelling is traced to the time of Alexander the Great, whose forces used Kuwait as a base of operations. The early maps roughly captured the shape of the Arabian peninsula, with their impressions of the surrounding seas bigger and wider than what they were in reality.
A new set of maps of the Gulf was created after the Portuguese invaded the Arab kingdom of Hormuz in 1507. It took four decades before actual maps of the area surfaced, with the first set in 1548 showing a mixture of data from Ptolemy with some modern information.
However, the true extent of knowledge obtained from western explorations of the Gulf in the 17th century remained restricted to their navigators and governments.
The history of cartography of the Gulf is different from the history of printed maps in general, because explorers kept their new findings confidential - meaning maps that were produced were obsolete reproductions.
As a result, some of the discovered manuscript maps showed a development far ahead of those widely available. It was not until the 19th century that some form of accuracy started to emerge in maps depicting the Gulf.
"The different western powers were in competition with each other and wanted to keep information they discovered about the Arabian Peninsula to themselves for their own benefits," said Dr Hamad bin Seray, a historian based in RAK, who has visited the hall of maps.
From 1645, the Dutch started explorations of the route from Basra in Iraq along the northern coast of Gulf. It was the Dutch maps that first clearly labelled the islands on the way, including the Tunb islands in their correct positions.
The British followed, developing more accurate maps in 1820 depicting their empire's expansion in the area. "The maps were not drawn for geographical reasons, but for military and political ones," said Dr Seray. "So we see figures like depths of the waters included to help navigate their ships in the area.
"The most accurate map of the Arabian Peninsula was actually born out of conflict between the British and the Ottoman interests in Arabia in the period before the First World War."
Whether appreciated for their detail or lack of it, maps were Western introduction to the region with many of the place names changed over time.
For example Al Ain's Al Ouha, which means "something bad", was changed to the more positive Al Foua, or "smell of a flower", by the late Sheikh Zayed in the late 1980s.
"The Arab tribes and Bedouins didn't need drawn up maps, they relied on the moon and stars and the caravan routes that were passed down through the generations," said Dr Seray. "They had maps in their minds and they were boundless."
The world from two dimensions
In the beginning, there were two different images of the world. One was the image of the classical Greek author Claudius Ptolemaeus of Alexandria, familiarly known as Ptolemy, dating from the second century AD.
His view survived into the late Middle Ages from Byzantium and transported to western Europe via Italy.
The other image was in a late Roman road map of the fourth century, an anonymous copy discovered in a German monastery.
Known as the Peutinger map, it noted the distances between places without any attempts to show realistic shapes. It is believed Roman travellers would carry the scroll as a travelling map.
While the road map was forgotten, Ptolemy’s maps remained a point in reference for more than a millennium.
An old Arab text by the Muslim Scholar al Idrisi, dating to 1154 and translated into Latin, helped introduce a more detailed view of the Arab world, with names like Bahrain and Basra surviving to this day. It was drawn with the south at the top.
Reference: “The Map’s archive” at the Dr Sultan Al Qassimi Centre of Gulf Studies