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Nine World Changing Maps

by David Hollander MFA '97

The Tabula Rogeriana

The Tabula Rogeriana

Created: 1154
Author: Muhammad al-Idrisi

Created by Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for King Roger II of Sicily, the Tabula Rogeriana (Latin for "The Book of Roger") contains both an extraordinarily accurate partial-world map, and cultural and political commentaries on the seven climate zones it represents. The map was informed by al-Idrisi's interviews with scores of experienced travelers, and it remained the most authoritative depiction of the Eurasian continent and the northern part of Africa for three centuries. (If you're confused, try turning the map upside-down; it's oriented with north at the bottom, as per Arab convention of the time.)

The Tabula is notable for more than its cartographical brilliance. According to Dean of the College Jerrilyn Dodds, it epitomizes the interfaith partnerships that were more common during the warring Middle Ages than we might expect. "Roger II was profoundly Christian," she says, but having an empiricist like al-Idrisi in court was "a very Islamic-kingly thing to do." The Tabula reveals science's nondenominational penetration of the medieval world, and suggests that "history was less polarized than we often think," says Dodds.


Beatus Mappa Mundi

Beatus Mappa Mundi

Created: 1050
Author: Beatus of Liébana

If the Tabula Rogeriana captures the growing role of science in the Middle Ages, the Beatus Mappa Mundi reveals religion's parallel strength. Nearly contemporary with the Tabula, the Beatus map organizes the world around the Bible, placing Jerusalem at its center and dividing the earth into three continents, each of which is the inheritance of one of the sons of Noah. (You'll note, if you look closely, the Garden of Eden, depicted at top center.)

Originally drawn by the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana, the Beatus map maintains that revelation trumps observation. Dean Dodds suggests that this embodies one of the differences between Christianity and Islam in the Middle Ages: Christianity was more likely to feel threatened by scientific rigor. This is a map that, in Dodds' words,"encourages you to see yourself as a part of the divine unfolding" It views the geography of our observable world as symbolic of the world as God created it.


Ning-hai County, China

Ning-hai County, China

Created: 13th c.
Author: Unknown

Maps like this were common accompaniments to 13th century Chinese gazetteers, which offered government officials detailed information on their prefectures and counties—including transportation routes, population figures, and notes on local customs. The map depicts a complex of government buildings (center left) isolated by a moat or canal (represented by a perimeter of squiggly lines), and connected by bridges to surrounding neighborhoods.

Ellen Neskar, who teaches Asian Studies, says that while there's nothing groundbreaking about this particular map, the phenomenon of maps delivered alongside continually revised gazetteers was unprecedented, and emblemizes "one of the earliest flourishing civil societies on earth." Not only did the gazetteers provide the government with reliable information on a sprawling empire; they also stirred local pride by highlighting each prefecture's social and cultural achievements. If this all sounds strangely civilized for the Middle Ages, it should; Europe was still crusading against pagan hordes, and wouldn't develop a similar level of stability for two centuries.


The London Tube

The London Tube

Created: 1933
Author: Harry Beck

If this map of the London Tube looks vaguely familiar, it's because masstransit cartographers have been mimicking its principles for more than 75 years. It was designed by engineering draftsman Harry Beck, who realized that subway riders were more interested in the intricacies of station-to-station travel than they were in the city's above-ground geography. Beck's map treats the Tube like an electrical schematic, and its clarity remains the envy of designers of all stripes.

But this clarity doesn't come without sacrifice. Jonnie Greene '51—an art critic who has studied subway maps—says that Beck's elegant map "should be mounted, framed, and exhibited as an art installation," but not accepted as the ultimate in subterranean cartography. For Greene, the best subway maps—such as the electrical ones in some Paris metro stations—show riders both their most efficient underground route and the corresponding street layout. Beck's brainchild is gorgeous and cerebral, but you'll have to look elsewhere for terrestrial London.


The New World

The New World

1500
Juan de la Cosa

Spanish conquistador Juan de la Cosa was the owner and captain of the Santa María, the flagship of Christopher Columbus's seminal voyage to the so-called New World. Fortunately for posterity, he was also a cartographer, and he left us with what most historians agree is the oldest representation of our continent's coastline. Despite Columbus's claims to the contrary, de la Cosa rightly portrays Cuba as an island and Central and South America as a continuous landmass—not bad for someone working quite literally from scratch.

But Pauline Watts, history faculty emerita and former dean of the College, points out that the map records more than geography. The otherwise vague interior is adorned with an image of Columbus hefting the Christ-child onto his shoulder. According to Watts, de la Cosa has preserved, through this icon, Columbus's view of himself as a prophesized Christian missionary. "Once you start looking at these old maps in context," Watts says, "many turn out to be full of all kinds of doctrine and ideology."


La Carte de Tendre

La Carte de Tendre

Created: 1654
Author: Madeleine de Scudéry

The allegorical "Map of Tenderness, " introduced to the world by the 17th-century French novelist Madeleine de Scudéry, portrays the qualities necessary to win a woman's heart. Beginning at New Friendship, a traveler of this imagined landscape must avoid places like Meanness and Indiscretion, pushing bravely onward toward the prize of Requited Love.

The Map of Tenderness suggests the prominence of courtly love in 17th-century France, but it also depicts a fundamental shift in the literary landscape, according to French teacher Eric Leveau. "Maps," Leveau says, "like epic literature, were traditionally associated with warfare and exploration." In contrast, the Map of Tenderness pitches the heart and its feelings as the realm most worth surveying. In Scudéry's map, Leveau says, "we see the birth of the psychological novel, whose plots will focus on the inner drama of heroes."


The Human Genome

The Human Genome

Created: 2000
Author: Multiple

It took researchers more than a decade to sequence the 3 billion chemical base pairs that form the rungs of our DNA. The result of their prodigious efforts is this map of the human genome—essentially the blueprint for building a normal human animal.

The bars represent our 23 pairs of chromosomes; the darker an area is shaded, the more tightly packed it is with DNA. The pattern is uniquely human, and minor deviations—when rendered in greater detail—can indicate an individual's vulnerability to common diseases like breast cancer and diabetes. But biology teacher Drew Cressman points out that the genome is more than some newfangled diagnostic tool. "It's helped us begin to understand what it means to be human," he says. One revelation is that we're not as genetically exceptional as we thought: in 2005, comparisons revealed that we share more than 96 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees.


Electoral Map

Electoral Map

Created: 2000
Author: Various media outlets

During the contentious 2000 election, this map became the default representation of a divided nation's battle lines. With long stretches of Democratic blue lining the coasts and Republican red dominating the landlocked center, this media-friendly map gave us a stark new language for talking about political difference. It's us-versus-them in primary colors.

But politics teacher Sam Abrams—co-author of Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America—points out that the map is also reductive ad absurdum. His research shows that Americans are, in fact, overwhelmingly centrist and pragmatic, but that elite political ideologues steer us into warring camps. (By way of example, he points out that most Americans aren't starkly "pro-choice" or "pro-life," but somewhere in the middle.) "The media likes to exaggerate and simplify," says Abrams, which is why you probably shouldn't expect a thousand-shade-of-purple map anytime soon.


The Internet

The Internet

Created: 2005
Author: Barrett Lyon

This map of the Internet—created by computer programmer Barrett Lyon—allows us to visualize the flow of traffic through a purely abstract (cyber)space. In principle, every online computer on earth exists somewhere in this image; lines represent traffic between networks, and nodes (which look like bright stars) correspond to high-traffic portal sites like Google or Yahoo. The lines are also color-coded to correspond with real-world geography, so that (for example) cyber-travel originating in North America appears in blue.

The map can be updated in less than a day, and can thus be used to study the Internet’s growth, as well as the effects of government blackouts and natural disasters on the global flow of information. But as SLC computer science professor Jim Marshall points out, the map is also an extraordinary aesthetic accomplishment, one that, he says, "takes countless layers of mathematical and computational abstractions, and renders them tangible, eerie, beautiful— almost otherworldly."