Lecture series on the art of cartographySea Monsters and Their Absence
3 November 2020, by Christina Krätzig
Photo: Leiden University Library
The map from the “Book of routes and realms” was created over 1,000 years ago. It shows the Persian Sea. On the left is the African coast; on the right the Middle Eastern and Asian coast from the Gulf of Suez to southern India.
Photo: N. Danilenko / Universität Hamburg
The so-called Persian Sea includes the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and part of the Indian Ocean. The following landmarks are indicated:
The island of Qeshm, Iran, in the Persian Gulf
Kharg Island, Iran, in the Persian Gulf
Bahrain Island, Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf
Indian subcontinent with Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
Tigris River and Persian Gulf
The city of al-Qulzum near today’s Suez on the Gulf of Suez, Egypt
Photo: Universität Hamburg
Because of its orientation, it is difficult for today’s users to find their way around this section of the historical map, which is over 1,000 years old.
Photo: Universität Hamburg
Turning the map makes orientation easier.
The first Arabic description of the world using texts and maps was created in the 10th century. The maps are amazingly modern, partly because they left unknown areas empty rather than filling them with fictional beings and places, explains Dr. Nadja Danilenko, an Islamic studies researcher in the Cluster of Excellence Understanding Written Artefacts.
The coastal cities line up like pearls—for example, Aden, a port city in today’s Yemen, and Siraf, which lies further east and is described in the accompanying text as one of Persia’s richest cities. In Kitāb al-Masālik wa-al-Mamālik (Book of routes and realms), which was written over 1,000 years ago, each city is represented by a rectangle or colored circle. These colors and shapes are used throughout the book, which contains 21 maps in total: one world map and 20 regional maps.
“One of the work’s authors was a man named al-Iṣṭakhrī. We know very little about him. However, he was seemingly far-traveled, because he always mentions that he has visited places himself. Perhaps he was a trader or an administrative official in the Islamic world, which—at that time—stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to present-day Pakistan,” explains Dr. Nadja Danilenko, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the book.
The book was not intended for travelers but rather for educated readers as a reference work.
It was probably copied multiple times immediately after its creation and, as was common then, carried from place to place in the luggage of traveling scholars. Copyists everywhere made additional copies for private and public libraries–for example, like those found at courts.
The astonishingly modern appearance of the maps, which are over 1,000 years old, comes from the use of colors and forms throughout the book: once the reader understands the principle, orientation is easy. It is also the result of the different scales used. “Even if the maps are not to scale, they show sections of the countries known at that time as if they had been taken with various zoom lenses. All the maps refer to each other, and it is always clear where the individual regions are located. Al-Iṣṭakhrī was thus primarily concerned with overview and orientation, similar to today’s maps,” says Danilenko.
However, it is especially against the background of the open spaces that the information contained in the maps comes into its own. The maps are particularly striking when compared with their medieval counterparts from the Western world or with later copies.
“The book was copied into the 19th century, sometimes being modified and adapted to the spirit of the times,” explains Danilenko. In Understanding Written Artefacts, the Islamic studies researcher is examining manuscripts that were in circulation during the 16th century in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, today’s Istanbul. In the course of this work, she has also come across copies of the “Book of routes and realms”—
including a multicolored copy from the 16th century in which not only a few cities but the entire Indus River has been lost to the African continent. It is unknown why the geographical features on this 16th century map are less accurate than the original. It is possible that the illustrator worked with a damaged version.
The newly added figures catch the eye
Now cavorting in the Persian Sea are Jonah and the whale, here in the shape of a big fish. And from the African coast, the archangel Gabriel is handing clothing to the prophet. “Here, the illustrator has freely interpreted the maps and has cast aside al-Iṣṭakhrī’s main concerns. Whereas al-Iṣṭakhrī included historical and cultural details in the text in order to keep the maps clear, this illustrator used the free spaces like a canvas. The illustrator placed cities and rivers based on aesthetic sensibility and added motifs that they associated with specific regions. By doing so, the illustrator enriched al-Iṣṭakhrī’s maps with new levels of meaning that were familiar to him from the visual culture of his time,” explains Danilenko.
For Jonah and the whale already appeared in a copy from the 15th century. “The multicolored copy from the 16th century shows how motifs circulated in the Ottoman capital and led to new interpretations of older material,” says Danilenko. She is also studying these types of cartographic transformations in Understanding Written Artefacts.
The lecture series is a cooperation project of the Cluster of Excellence Understanding Written Artefacts, the Center for Natural History (CeNak), the Mineralogical Museum, the Museum am Rothenbaum / Kulturen und Künste (formerly the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg), and the Stiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv.
Podcast by Nadja Danilenko on the book culture of the Islamic world
In her podcast Tell Me a History, Dr. Nadja Danilenko takes us on journeys in the Islamic world: from North Africa to the Middle East to Indonesia, and from the 7th century to the 21st century. She talks to experts about events, ideas, religions, and ways of life. The podcast is aimed at laypeople who would like to get a picture of the region and its stories.