Gog and Magog in Antique Maps

Gog and Magog in Sanson's Map of the World

Gog and Magog in Sanson's 1691 Map of the World

The appearance of the lands of Gog and Magog in many early maps is one the most interesting and enduring examples of Biblical lore being translated into the cartographic medium. The kingdoms of Gog and Magog appear in many early maps of Asia and the World produced between about 1200 to 1750. Generally these kingdoms are situated somewhere west of the Caspian Sea and, more frequently, to the north of China around Mongolia or Siberia. How did they get there?

The tale of Gog and Magog is, of course, Biblical in origins with elements in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. They appear in Genesis and Ezekiel as cursed grandchildren of Noah and are set up early on as enemies of the righteous. The most alarming mention of Gog and Magog appears in Revelation 20:7-8:

… And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed from his prison, and shall go out to seduce the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and shall draw them to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea…

But who exactly where Gog and Magog and where did this terrifying empire have its lands? The Biblical location “the four corners of the earth”, is not exceptionally helpful save that it puts these nations at the extreme edge of existence. The Jewish historian Josephus associates Magog with the Scythians. In antiquity Scythia was an empire to the north of Parthia or Persia that included much of central Asia as far east as India and Tibet.

Building Alexander's Walls

The Building of Alexander's Gates from an early Arabic manuscript.

The Alexander Romance, a c. 300 CE compendium of stories and myths associated with Alexander the Great, brings Gog and Magog into a historical context. Apparently when Alexander marched his army into the Caucuses he discovered a people beset and harassed by the empires of Gog and Magog to the north. Alexander responded to this threat by constructing an enormous wall of adamantine between two mountains known as the “Breasts of the World”. Today this is commonly associated with the Caspian Gates of Derbent. This mighty wall, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, stretches some forty kilometers between the Caspian Sea and the nearby mountains, effectively blocking passage through the Caucuses. Though Alexander had nothing to do with this wall, it was actually constructed by the Sassanid Persians to defend against Gokturk invasions, it does once again place the lands of Gog and Magog somewhere to the north and west of the Caucuses.

Pliney too locates Gog and Magog behind a great set of gates in the Caucuses, describing a place where the mountains have been torn asunder and “gates have been placed, with iron covered beams, under the center of which flows a river emitting a horrible odor. On this side of it on a rock stands the fortress called Cumania, erected for the purpose of barring the passage of the innumerable tribes.”

The Qur’an next takes up this story and adds its own more mythical element. The great hero Dhul Qarnayan (literally “two-horned one”, a reference to the ram horns Alexander wears on coins minted during his rule to indicate his descent from the Egyptian god Amun) is said to have walled the infernal armies of Gog and Magog behind a great gate where they will remain – until doomsday. At this point,

when Gog and Magog are let loose and they rush headlong down every height (or advantage). Then will the True Promise draw near. (Qur’an 21:96-97).

Al-Idrisi World Map

Al-Idrisi's World Map with Gog and Magog behind the wall and circled in red. Note, this map is oriented to the south so here Gog and Magog are in the proximity of China.

In the 9th century the Caliph Al-Wathik-Billa actually sent out an expedition, under one Sallam the Interpreter, to discover the Gates of Alexander. Sallam is said to have searched the Caucuses high and low without success before heading deeper into Asia where he discovered the mighty wall. Sallam’s report influenced a number of important Islamic geographies, most importantly for this story, the 12th century geographer Muhammed al-Idrisi, who was employed by the Sicilian monarch Roger II. Idrisi directly associates Alexander’s Gates, and consequently Gog and Magog, with the Great Wall of China. Idrisi’s work includes some of the most sophisticated and advanced cartographic work of pre-modern Europe and profoundly influenced European cartography for the next several hundred years. Though not widely distributed in his lifetime, nor solely responsible for the presence of Gog and Magog in later European maps, the influence of Idrisi’s map and geographical notations cannot be ignored in any consideration of how these Biblical kingdoms/figures entered the mainstream of later European cartography.

In the rest of Europe, tales of Gog and Magog and the horrors associated with them were a constant element in mediaeval religious rhetoric, which preached of an imminent “end of days”. Saint Augustine in his 15th century religious classic “City of God” discourses at length on the duo suggesting that when “final judgment is imminent . . . the whole city of Christ being assailed by the whole city of the Devil, as each exists on earth . . . which he names Gog and Magog”. Augustine did not associate Gog and Magog with an actual place, but rather with an evil that existed all around us. Even so, this concept must have been too abstract for the medieval man who continued to look for the lands of Gog and Magog. History was about to oblige.

In 1241 CE the hoards of Ghengis Khan swept out of Asia destroying and conquering everything in their path. The brutal, efficient, and alien Mongols must surely have seemed to be the wrath of god unleashed – the prophesied end of days had come and with it, Gog and Magog. One Russian chronicler says: “In those times there came upon us for our sins unknown nations. No one could tell their origin, whence they came, what religion they professed. God alone knows who they were, God, and, perhaps, wise men learned in books.” The period of the Mongol invasions lasted roughly from 1241 to 1285 CE. Nonetheless, after devastating the Chinese Empire, sacking Baghdad, laying waste to Russia, and storming into Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland, the invincible hoard simply vanished … or so it must have seemed in Europe. In fact, beset with internal political turmoil and the death of the Great Khan, the hoards retreated to Central Asia in order to reorganize. At this time Europe, who had yet to rediscover Ptolemy and truly develop a modern cartographic tradition, wasn’t actively making maps, but when it did, a place of origin Tartars or Mongols (Gog and Magog) would have to be identified.

1697 Rossi Map of Asia - Magog appears north of China.

1697 Rossi Map of Asia - Magog appears north of China.

Marco Polo, in his Travels, is possibly the first European literary figure to identify Gog and Magog with the Tartars. Polo, claimed to have lived in China from 1271 to 1298, where he became an important functionary in the court of Kublai Khan. Polo worked for years as an emissary of the Great Khan and traveled extensively throughout the vast empire. Much of the information about Asia appearing on early maps of the continent, including the Vinland Map and the Waldseemuler Map, can be directly linked to Polo’s narratives. Polo associates Gog and Magog with the lands of Tenduk, a province to the north of China ruled by Prester John. In Polo’s narrative Gog is translated as Ung and Magog is the home of the Tartars. Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Moroccan traveler, referring to the tale of Dhul Qarnayan, supports Polo by himself connecting the Great Wall of China with the gates setup to restrain Gog and Magog, “Between it [the city] and the rampart of Yajuj and Majuj is sixty days’ travel.”

Zoom of of Magog in Rossi's 1697 Map of Asia.

Zoom of Magog in Rossi's 1697 Map of Asia.

Though many dispute the validity of Polo’s journals, his impact on the European conception of the world was profound. With the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography by Italian humanists and the development of a sophisticated European cartographic tradition the need for more advanced and updated Ptolemaic maps emerged. Many of these maps referenced Polo and al-Idrisi in adding Gog and Magog in the unknown lands of east Asia, thus influencing the cartographic representation of this area for centuries to come.

Today Gog and Magog are considered by many scholars to be a Jungian representation of “the other”, “the frontier”, or both.

References: (partially researched by Lindsay McMullen)
Augustine, Saint, The City of God, (Translated by Marcus Dods), page 658.
The Bible
The Koran
Stoneman, Richard (editor and translator) (1991). The Greek Alexander Romance. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044560-9.
Boyle, J. A., “The Alexander Romance In The East And West”, Bulletin Of The John Rylands University Library Of Manchester, 60 (1977), pp. 19–20.
Yule, Henry; Cordier, Henri (1923), The Travels Of Marco Polo, Mineola: Dover Publications, ISBN 9780486275864.
Pliny, Natural History, (translated by H. Rackham).
Lester, Toby, The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History’s Greatest Map, pp. 45-64.
Anderson, A. R., Alexander’s Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations, 1932.
The Chatauquan, Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, Chautauqua Institution, vol 3, pp. 304.

Antique Map of the Week: 1710 Nansenbushu Map of the World

First Printed Japanese Map to Show Europe, Africa, and America

First Printed Japanese Map to Show Europe, Africa, and America

Entitled, Nansenbushu Bankoku Shoka No Zu or “Outline Map of All Countries of the Universe”, this is considered to be the first Japanese printed map to depict the world, including Europe and America, from a Buddhist cosmographical perspective. Printed by woodblock in 1710 (Hoei 7), this map was composed by the Buddhist monk Rokashi Hotan. Inspired by the 1653 publication of Si-yu-ki, a pilgrimage narrative of the Chinese monk Hsuang-Tsang’s (602-604) travels to India in search of sacred Sanskrit writings, Rokashi Hotan’s map attempts to update Buddhist mythological cartography, as exemplified in the 1634 manuscript map Gotenjikuzu (Map of the Five Regions of India), to correspond with the Si-yu-ki, as well as with contemporary and ancient religious texts, Chinese annals, travel narratives, and even some European maps. Rokashi Hotan lists these texts, 102 in all, at the top of the map. The consequent product of Rokashi Hotan’s work is this magnificent amalgam of disparate ideas and traditions.

In essence this is a traditional Buddhist world view in the Gotenjikuzu mold centered on the world spanning continent of Jambu-Dvipa. At its center is Lake Anavatapta, a whirlpool-like quadruple helix lake believed to be the center of the universe. This lake, which is commonly associated with Lake Manasarovar in northern India, is believed in Buddhist mythology to be the legendary site where Queen Maya conceived the Buddha. From the quadrouple beast headed helix (heads of a horse, a lion, an elephant, and an ox) of Manasarovar or Lake Anavatapta radiate the four sacred rivers of the region: the Indus, the Ganges, the Bramaputra, and the Sutlej.

South of Jambu-Dvipa, India is recognizable for in its peninsular form. Japan itself appears as a series of Islands in the upper right and, like India, is one of the few recognizable elements – at least from a cartographic perspective. China and Korea appear to the west of Japan and are vaguely identifiable geographically, which itself represents a significant advancement over the Gotenjikuzu map. Southeast Asia also makes one of its first appearances in a Japanese Buddhist map as an island cluster to the east of India.

On the opposite side of the map a series of islands is intended to represent Europe, which had no place at all in earlier Buddhist world maps, making this one of the first Japanese maps to depict Europe. Umukari (Hungary), Oranda, Baratan, Komo (Holland or the country of the red hair), Arubaniya (Albania?), Itarya (Italy), Suransa (France) and Inkeresu (England) are all named. Africa appears as a small island in the western sea identified as the “Land of Western Women.”

Of special note is Rokashi Hotan’s mapping of the Americas. Prior to this map America had rarely if ever been depicted on Japanese maps, so Rokashi Hotan turned to the Chinese map Daimin Kyuhen Zu (Map of China under the Ming Dynasty and its surrounding Countries), from which he copied both the small island-like form of South America (just south of Japan), and the curious land bridge (the Aelutian Islands?) connecting Asia to what the Japanese historians Nobuo Muroga and Kazutaka Unno conclude “must undoubtedly be a reflection of North America” (page 63). Whether this represents ancient knowledge from early Chinese navigations in this region, for which there is some literary if not historical evidence, or merely a printing error, we can only speculate.

While this map represents a significant step forward in the Japanese attempt to combine religious and contemporary geographic knowledge it remains in essence a Buddhist map. It is likely that Rokashi Hotan was aware important European style maps circulating in China at the time. The Mateo Ricci Map is one such example and copies were known to have reached Japan in the 17th century. It is curious that Rokashi Hotan chose to ignore it and other Eurocentric data in exchange for a religious world view, while at the same time attempting to reconcile Buddhist and modern geography. Ultimately, this map makes a lot more sense when one understands that Rokashi Hotan scaled his world map not by distance but rather by religious importance. India, the birthplace of the Buddha, is the central locale in the Jabmu-Dvipa conception and on this map. Other countries, including China, Japan itself, and even more so the distant continents of Africa, Europe and the Americas, Rokashi Hotan considered “but mote-like countries in the Jambu-Dvipa” and “as small as a millet-grain”.

Rokashi Hotan’s map became the model on which all future Japanese Buddhist world maps were drawn well into the 19th century. The confused cosmological view upon which his map is based, referencing at once religious, secular, and non-Buddhist teachings, matched the growing religio-secular conflict that would emerge in Japan during the coming centuries. Ultimately this is one of the most important, beautiful, and influential printed maps ever to emerge in Japan.

Two identical versions of this woodblock map appeared in 1710. The more common was published by Chobei Nagata of Kyoto. A less common example was published by the bookseller Bundaiken Uhei and corresponds to this example. Bundaiken Uhei’s mark and name appear in the lower left quadrant. In most examples coloration varies. A strong crisp image suggests that this is one of the first examples that Bundaiken Uhei printed, as wooden plates tend to wear quickly and many other examples show signs that the woodblock was more heavily worn.

A must for any serious collection of Japanese cartography.


Is my Antique Map Authentic? Breaking Down the Rare and Antique Map Authentication Process

How can I tell if my antique map is authentic? This is one of the most common questions we are asked. Most people who ask this question are looking for a quick checklist that they can run through to determine authenticity. Unfortunately, authentication is rarely so simple. Most experts and experienced dealers in old maps and prints can identify a fake or reproduction at a glance, leading the uninitiated to assume that authentication is an easy and straight forward process. The facts are far different. The quick glance of a map expert is comparable to a master chef tasting his signature soup. In a single sip he is able to identify which spices are needed to perfect the dish. The chef is able to perform this remarkable feat by accessing a vast and partially subconscious database of experiences and tastes. Much in the same way, the map or print expert is able to instantly assess a variety of factors including printing style, paper type, coloration factors and production style. He or she compares them with what he knows the map or print should look like based upon numerous examples of the same or similar maps he may have previously encountered. In this post I will attempt to break down some of this process.

Before going into greater depth regarding how the authenticity of an antique map is determined, I will attempt to highlight what sort of fakes and reproductions are out there. Rarely in life is the answer this or that, rather, it usually lies somewhere in-between. The same is true of antique maps. There is a broad spectrum between absolutely fake and absolutely authentic. An “absolutely authentic” map is an original map printed as dated (or if not physically dated, when it should have been based upon what it is) with old or no color. From the 15th through the 18th centuries, many maps were printed in black and white and colorized by or at the request of the purchaser. In this case “old color” is the term. In most cases old color is more desirable than new color. Even so, many maps have been colorized in comparatively recent times. Sometimes this work serves simply to refresh the original color and sometimes the new color work is more comprehensive. Good quality color work almost always enhances the value of map even if it has been added recently. Some maps have been printed and reprinted over a long period of time. A map originally printed in 1700 for example may have been reprinted 100 or more years later and still be an antique. With regard to these, some are produced from their original plate while others are lithographic productions. While these later printings are indeed reproductions, many are still old enough to be considered antiques in their own right and have considerable value. Next are modern (within the last 100 years) high quality professional reproductions. While not authentic maps, a few are made to the highest standards using recreated printing plates and old fashioned papers. Some of these are quite beautiful though few have serious value. Next are lower quality copies and reproductions commonly sold as tourist souvenirs and decorative pieces. These have no value whatsoever. Standing slightly outside this spectrum are forgeries. Forgeries can be masterpieces in their own right, though few come close to this mark. Most of the fake maps that come our way are simply tourist items or professional reproduction of greater or lesser quality that confuse their owners.

When attempting to determine the authenticity of an antique map, the expert will evaluate the map’s overall style, the printing technique used, the paper type, the supposed date, color, and the map’s condition. While any one of these factors may set off an alarm that the map is less than what it seems, it is usually a composite of several factors that allows for full authentication. With that in mind, we will now address each of these individually.

The most notable aspect of a map tends to be its overall style. From the style of the map we can identify what it is attempting or supposed to be and from this we can get direction for the authentication process. Does the map conform to 16th, 17th, 18th, or 19th century styles? Is it a atlas map, a folding map, a broadside, a wall map, or a nautical chart? Addressing this issue alone will often go a long way in identifying a contemporary reproduction. Many modern maps are made to look old by incorporating various elements particular to an earlier period – such as elaborate baroque title cartouches, sea monsters, compass roses, etc. An amalgam of different styles from different periods does not guarantee that map is fake, but it may raise flags for further investigation. Addressing these questions will also help significantly further down the road. A 19th century map will obviously look and feel different than a 16th or 17th century map. Once we have identified the period of production, we can begin to examine printing style, paper, color and other factors reflective of the printing period.

Map Type

Various types of map exhibit characteristics that, if lacking can lead one to speculate on authenticity.

Atlas Maps: Most antique atlas maps show evidence of binding into a book. These may include a discernible centerfold or, in the case of larger maps, multiple crisscrossing folds. Early maps were generally bound into books by applying glue along the centerfold and attaching the map to a flap of paper that was itself bound into the book with thread and glue. This technique allowed the map to fold open more easily. Most of the early glues used were highly caustic and centerfold damage and discoloration due to the glues is quite common. Fold lines also exhibit the most wear and often show signs of soiling and aging – but we will cover this further later in the article. A map without evidence of binding may suggest that the map is not authentic, but it may also simply be that this individual map was never bound or that it was side bound – where the effects of binding are limited to missing marginal areas.

Folding Maps: Folding maps were common from the 18th century onwards. These maps, made to be folded and pocketed are designed to be transportable. Most early folding maps have been dissected into panels and mounted on a backing material – usually linen. The earliest examples tend to be backed on a course sailcloth, while 19th century folding maps are often mounted on fine linen. With such maps, we can learn a lot by examining the backing. If an older map (pre 1810) is attached to exceptionally fine linen – something is usually wrong. Those folding maps that were not dissected and instead were bound into the backs of books and inside folders should exhibits signs of wear and use, including discoloration along the fold lines, wear, and soiling. Such maps usually also exhibit some glue damage and discoloration where they were originally attached to their binder – this is particularly the case with mid 19th century American material. While pristine examples do exist, it is highly uncommon and should be a flag for further study.

Wall Maps: Wall maps, like many folding maps, are almost universally mounted on linen or heavy sail cloth. Most exhibit extreme wear, flaking , and other damage due to their manufacture process which often included causing glues, paints, and varnishes. An example that does not exhibit certain conditional issues may suggest extensive restoration work – which is not in any way bad – but does bear note.

Broadsides and Nautical Charts: Occasionally one comes across a broadside or a nautical chart that was stored flat or rolled. While uncommon, these can often challenge many of the rules above. Such maps may resemble atlas maps, but may never have been folded or bound in any way. For such maps, we need to study the paper and other factors for authentication.

Printing Technique

Most early maps, prior to the mid 19th century, fall into three categories: manuscript, copper plate, and woodcut. Lithography, another common printing process, was developed in the 19th century.

Manuscript: The earliest maps, prior to the invention of printing in Europe, are almost all manuscript – that is hand drawn. These are exceptionally rare and characterized by the fact that each is a unique work of art. Manuscript maps will not exhibit a pressmark or any sign of printing. Generally speaking they will have been produced with meticulous care in European monastic libraries and tend to exhibit elaborate color work and other embellishments. Such maps are often drawn on broad sheets of vellum rather than more contemporary paper and usually require detail laboratory test of the inks used to fully authenticate. Later manuscript work, dating will into the 19th century, is more common and will follow different patterns according to the period. Often early nautical charts, produced at sea, and military charts, produced on the battlefield, tend to be manuscript work and are highly desirable. Around the late 18th and early 19th centuries the schoolboy or schoolgirl map begins to appear. These manuscript maps, drawn by school children as classroom exercises tend to be beautifully rendered whimsical productions. Often drawn on low quality papers with inferior and caustic inks, many exhibit considerable wear and aging such that many can look far older than they are.

Woodcut :Woodcut maps are among the first printed maps. The great woodcut cartographers include Munster and Waldseemuler among others. Woodcut style printing can generally be identified by the style of the engraving. Wood, being a soft medium, requires that the engraver use thicker lines. Also, because woodcut printing plates are less durable than metal plates, wear to the plate and smaller printing runs tend to be more common. Many woodcut maps do not exhibit a pressmark, as it is the raised area rather than the cut-away that is inked. This can make it more difficult to identify an original woodcut print, however, given other factors, not impossible. Generally speaking woodcut printing was abandoned for easier and more reliable copper plate printing techniques by the mid 1600s. However, in Asia, particularly China and Japan, woodcut printing, there called woodblock, persisted and developed well into the late 19th century.

Copper Plate: Copper plate maps, by far the most common, account for about 98% of all maps printed between 1500 and 1850. Unlike woodcut maps, most all copper plate maps exhibit a pressmark surrounding the image. This is because the printed area is the portions of the plate that have been “cut away” rather than those that protrude. Also unlike woodcut plates, copper plates allow for much finer engraving work and much larger printing runs. Because copper plates work through raised areas which hold the ink and press it into the paper, most maps printed by copper plate exhibit a discernible texture – especially on the thicker lines. One should be able to literally feel a depression where the copper plate pressed into the map. This is especially evident on thicker papers, which will take an impression better. Very thin papers will often exhibit signs of the printing process on the verso of the paper, with lettering and strong lines creating discernible raised areas.

In the case of both woodcut and copper plate prints the lack of a pressmark or texture on the verso is a strong sign that the map may be questionable, however, neither factor in and of themselves can be considered hard evidence. The pressmark may have been trimmed off the page by bookbinders and may have faded with time and exposure to certain conditions. Similarly, the lack of a texture to the printing itself either on the recto or verso may simply be evidence of a weak impression, not falsity.

Lithography: In the mid 19th century lithographic process printing begins to appear. This printing technique, which replaces copper or steel plates with lithographic stones is what copper plate printing was to woodcut printing in the 17th century. Lithographic process allowed for larger more stable printing runs. Lithographic prints do not have a characteristic pressmark nor do they leave a textured impression on the paper. In fact, basic lithographic printing of today is little different from lithography of old. Most maps printed from about 1850 onward are lithographs. The great American lithographic map makers include J. H. Colton, A. J. Johnson, S. A. Mitchell, and many others. Lithographic maps can be harder to authenticate than plate printed maps, however, there are other factors we can take into account.

Coronelli Globe Gore

Pressmark and laid paper from an 17th century Coronelli Globe Gore

The paper a map is printed on can provide a wealth of information to the experienced observer. The oldest maps are drawn or printed on vellum or treated animal skins. While the use of vellum is not a guarantee the map is authentic or even exceptionally old, it can be a factor in authenticating certain exceptionally rare pieces. In the mid 1400s paper became more common. The first good quality papers were made with macerated cotton or rag fiber which was then laid over a screen and dried – hence the term laid paper. This type of paper is generally thick and textured. When back-lit such papers commonly reveal a crisscross pattern of lines where the original screen would have left its mark. Some such papers may also bear watermarks as indicators of the paper’s manufacturer. In certain very special cases faulty, missing, or incorrect watermarks can be an indication of a fake, but this is not a universal rule. In the early 19th century woven papers began to appear. Woven papers – which include most of the papers we use today – are much smoother than laid paper and will not exhibit the same lay lines that appear in older papers. The 19th century also witnessed the introduction of wood pulp papers to the commercial printing market. Wood pulp papers naturally have a very high acid content and tend to brown, brittle, and deteriorate significantly with age. Thus there is at least one absolute guide we can offer, if a map purporting to be printed prior to the late 1700s is printed on woven or wood pulp paper, it is certainly a fake or at the very least a later reproduction.

We receive daily phone calls from individuals interested in getting more information about their map. When asked to describe their map, they tell us, “its old”. Our response, “How do you know, is it dated?” Theirs, “no, it just looks old”. One of the most common mistakes made by the map or print novice is the assumption that just because a map is in poor condition that it must be old and rare. While condition does play a factor in authentication, it is more with regard to specific elements than with the map’s overall state of decay. The overall condition of a map is mostly dependent on the kind of paper it was printed on, environmental factors it may have been exposed to, and the materials including inks, washes and glues, used in the maps manufacture.

Early cotton based papers and vellums are much more durable than woven wood pulp papers and consequently, maps dating to the 1600s or earlier are often in far better condition than maps printed in the late 19th century. Most cotton based laid papers are pH neutral, very thick, and extremely stable. Woven wood pulp papers on the other hand, due to their high acid content, will naturally degrade, brown, and brittle over time. The rate of this process, and hence the condition of the map, is strongly influenced by environmental factors. Exposure to mold, moisture, heavy use, rapid temperature changes, and sunlight can bring about a much quicker deterioration. In terms of authentication, a “look of age” on a map or print actually tells us very little.

There are however other conditional factors which can tell us a great deal. One is the centerfold, other fold lines, and the evidence of binding discussed earlier. If a map should have been folded and isn’t, it is a fair indication that something is wrong. In some cases the piece may have been professionally humidified and flattened by a restorer, but even in this case, there should be a sign of wear about where the folds should have been. It is almost impossible to fully erase stress marks acquired along fold lines that have been in place for centuries. Occasionally we have come across modern reproduction maps that have been folded in imitation of an original. In this case, a close examination of the fold line should reveal different types of stress. In the case of older maps, the paper will have actually relaxed and the fibers along the fold lines loosened somewhat. In a contemporary fold, the fibers may be stretched, but will in most cases remain strong and consistent.

Another factor we can take into account – this it is less important – is map color. Most early maps were issued without color. If color appears, it may have been added by the original buyer or at a later date. Original color is usually the most desirable and certain factors can help to identify it. Many old inks and color washes will degrade over time – this is especially common with blue and green inks. Degraded blue and green inks will often take on a brownish tone that will be apparent on both the recto and verso of the map. Other colors, if they are old, are less likely to bleed through to the verso. Modern color, due to changes in the paper itself, is more likely to bleed more universally onto the verso. Even so, expert colorists are masters at replicating the effect of aged color. Nor is modern color necessarily bad – if done well it is generally desirable – but must still be taken into account in the authentication process.

Assessing all of the above factors can enable an expert to identify a fake in almost all cases. There are however, a few examples of maps that deceive even master authenticators. These are often masterpieces of the forgers art. They are made using old papers, specially compounded inks, and printing plates perfectly replicated using three dimensional scanning The Vinland Maptools. For the most part, the construction of a fake map of this caliber is extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Consequently, it is rarely worth the effort. Nonetheless, it does happen. The raging debate on the authenticity of Yale’s Vinland Map is perfect example. Though submitted to any number of advanced tests and high tech authentication procedures, the debate continues, with both sides standing on well argued and valid points. We may never know if the Vinland map is authentic or not and it is a sad fact that such maps are extremely rare, so though such maps can challenge all authentication conventions, few will ever encounter one.

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Antique Map of the Week: The Turgot-Bretez Plan of Paris

The Magnificent Turgot & Bretez Map of Paris

The Magnificent Turgot & Bretez Map of Paris - click on map for gallery listing.

This is the c. 1900 Taride edition of Louis Bretez and Michel-Etienne Turgot’s monumental 1739 map of Paris. Turgot’s map of Paris is possibly the most ambitious urban mapping ever undertaken. Shows the whole of 18th century Paris and offers a wonderful perspective on the city prior to Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann’s 19th-century redesign. Turgot, who held the mayor-like office of Prévôt des Marchands de Paris , commissioned Louis Bretez and Claude Lucas to produce this
The Turgot Plan

A dramatic contemporary presentation of the Turgot Plan.

map in 1734. Oriented to the east on an axonometrical projection, this map is best understood as an aerial view where in every building, window, tree, shadow and park is shown. It took the team nearly five years of exhaustive sketching and surveying to assemble this masterpiece. In order to produce the thousands of sketches and surveys required to complete this map, Bretez was issued a permit to enter every building in Paris. The completed map which consists of twenty individual sheets, can be assembled into a massive and striking display roughly 8 feet by 10 feet. Twenty-one loose sheets embraced in a marbled folio, this is Alphonse Taride’s c. 1900 issue of Bretez’s Plan de Paris.

For more information: http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/Paris-turgot-1900

The Arrow Points North: Directional Orientation in Antiquarian Cartography

A regular reader of this blog (thank you) suggested I write on the topic of directional orientation in maps. Why are most maps oriented to the north? How did this practice originate? Is it necessary? Is it universal? The concept of a consistent northward orientation in all maps is neither as standardized nor as universal as it might seem at first glance. Even in modern times, it is more practical for many maps to have orientations other than north. The standard map of New York City for example, a variant of which is the classic New York Subway map, is commonly oriented to the northeast. In some non-western cultures with highly developed cartographic traditions, such as Japan, directional orientation is often not even a factor – but we will return to this at a later point.

In the west, if it can be called that, the tradition of orienting maps to the north began, as did so many things cartographic, with the 5th century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy’s work, the Geographica, is considered the first known geography. While the Geographica as it has come down to us today has no maps in it, it does contain detailed instructions for the construction of a map. These include a well laid out coordinate system and considerable geographic description.

Ptolemy's World Map

Ptolemy's World Map

The world as it was known to Ptolemy would have been centered on a relatively narrow latitudinal swath of land focused around the Mediterranean. The known lands at that time would have extended from the Strait of Gibraltar eastward as far as India. The southern lands beyond the Sahara and most of northern Europe and Asia were, for all intent and purposes, unknown. Thus, in order for Ptolemy to fit his map on a long narrow scroll, it would have been oriented to either the north or the south. Some scholars argue that this alone was sufficient motivation for Ptolemy to orient his map to the north. However, upon a closer examination of Ptolemy’s work, we can see that the real reasons behind his choices are more complex.

Ptolemy was very much aware that the world was spherical and that his home in Alexandria was in the Northern Hemisphere. With this knowledge in hand Ptolemy went about assembling his coordinate system. Ptolemy realized that for his coordinate system to be consistent, he needed a mathematical formula that would enable him to map the globular world on a flat surface – a projection. While Ptolemy did not invent the idea of a projection system, he did refine it considerably. Ptolemy’s intention was that his projection “above all the semblance of the spherical surface be retained” and that “it would be well to keep lines representing the meridians straight”. What he came up with is today referred to as a conical projection, with all longitudinal lines meeting at the north pole and radiating outward towards the equator, at which point they again radiate inwards, this time towards the South Pole.

While Ptolemy could have, in theory, calculated his meridians to meet at any point on the globe, the north pole was the most practical choice. The reason behind this is as follows. First, the Ptolemaic world was a band focused on the central part of the northern hemisphere. It did not extend exceptionally far either north or south. Since the meridians on his projection converged as the map went further north, the room for detail decreased – which was fine, since he didn’t know what was there anyway – leaving the plenty of room for detail in the known central parts of the maps. Second, the Ptolemaic world was divided into various climatic zones, the inhospitable frigid zones (near the poles), the hospitable temperate zones (the northern of which occupied much of the known world), and the inhospitable torrid zone on either side of the equator. With such a zonal layout intact, Ptolemy knew his focus must be on the habitable zones of the northern hemisphere and consequently he designed his projection to reflect this. Third, as an astronomer, Ptolemy would have made regular celestial observations and therefore been familiar with the movements of the heavens around the fixed point of Polaris, the North Star. Therefore, as a matter of making his projection mathematically simpler, of encapsulating his known world, and of aligning the globe with the celestial spheres, the choice of a northward orientation would have been obvious.

Beatus World Map c. 1050

Beatus World Map c. 1050

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of European civilization in to the middle ages, Ptolemy was, for all intent in purposes, forgotten. This world map, known as the Beatus Map, dates to c. 1050 and is one of the oldest surviving medieval maps. It is also a beautiful example of the mapping conventions that developed during this period. This maps offers a religious view of the cosmos and, though interesting on many levels, has little of the cartographic sophistication of Ptolemy’s Geographica. The map depicts the world as a flat disk centered on Jerusalem. Most medieval scholars believed that the Garden of Eden lay at the extreme eastern end of the world. Being closely associated with heaven, Eden the Earthly Paradise was naturally placed at the top of the map. Most other maps of the period followed suit. It was not until the Renaissance that the works of Ptolemy were rediscovered. With their coordinate system and scientific approach, Ptolemy’s maps were quickly recognized by Renaissance scholars as superior to most contemporary material. With the development of printing, Ptolemy’s maps were mass produced and, relatively speaking, widely available. These maps re-established the convention of a northward orientation.

World on Mercator's Projection

World on Mercator's Projection

It is also around this time that the Great Age of Exploration truly gets underway and maps suddenly were given a new purpose – navigation. Early sailors tended to either hug the coast or, when entering the open sea, travel in a straight line along a directional path. Consequently, what navigators need was a map that presented the entire world on a flat plane such that any two points could be connected with a straight line. In this way, a ship need only be oriented in the correct direction, and after a period of sailing, should, in theory, arrive at the desired destination. Enter the Mercator Projection. Mercator’s projection was essentially a navigational tool that sacrificed proportion for the ability to accurately connect all points with straight lines. These lines, which appear on most navigational maps, are called rhumb lines. The use of Mercator Projections, rhumb lines, and the compass for navigation solidified the convention established by Ptolemy.

1632 Tirinus Map of the Holy Land

1632 Tirinus Map of the Holy Land

Even so, not all maps were oriented to the north. Mapmakers regularly, though not frequently, oriented maps in other directions. Sometimes the decision to use an alternate orientation was based upon the need to fit a region of a certain form onto and appropriately sized sheet. Maps of the Holy Land, for example, were frequently oriented to the East. Several important maps of North America, including Blaeu’s Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova, also use unusual orientations. It is not until the 19th century that almost all new maps being made were given a northward orientation.

1843 Edo Map of the Vicinity of Mt. Fuji

1843 Edo Map of the Vicinity of Mt. Fuji

All the above applies to European cartography. Mapmaking in other parts of the world, like Japan for example, did not use an established directional orientation. Many Japanese maps from the Edo Period, what might be considered the Golden Era of Japanese Cartography, radiate outward from the center, so that to read the map, you would simply orient it to the direction you are facing. This has some practical advantages for getting around but was most useful only on smaller scale maps and city plans. In the Meiji period (late 19th century), European cartographic norms began to exert an influence on traditional Japanese Cartography. By the turn of the century, most Japanese maps had adopted a northerly orientation.

To recap, the convention of orienting maps to the north comes down to us from Ptolemy, for whom it was a practical choice given the style in which his maps were made, the extent of the world he attempted to cover, and the nature of his projection. While briefly abandoned in the middle ages, the northerly convention was re-established during the renaissance and reaffirmed with the advent of navigational cartography in the 16th century.

Related Maps in our Inventory:

Cibola: A Tale of Estebanico, Coronodo, and the Seven Cities of Gold

Cibola is circled in red.

Cibola is circled in red.

About a week ago a client told me she was from Cibola. Now, as a map dealer, Cibola I am well aware of. It appears on most early maps of the American southwest. It was sought after by Coronado, Marcos, and other early conquistadors. By most reports it was never found and is today considered to have been an apocryphal destination associated with the 8th century Spanish legend of the “Seven Cities of Gold”. Of course, now I was confronted with another puzzle, for there it was on the map, the modern map, Cibola County, New Mexico. I had always been meaning to do a post on Cibola – I find legends of the golden cities of the American southwest particularly interesting, and this event was enough to prompt me to further research.

The legend of Cibola emerged in Europe long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, during the Moorish invasion of Spain. It was said that when the Moors invaded Porto in the early 8th century, the city’s seven bishops took all of their wealth and fled to sea. They landed on an island in the Atlantic called “Antilla”. There, each of the seven bishops established a city. The island of Antilla actually appears on many early portolan charts of the Atlantic. It is a rectangular island, usually but not always set on a north south axis, with seven deep bays, each of which holds a magnificent city.

Antilla appears on the far left of this 1455 map by Pareto.  Spain and Morocco are on the right.

Antilla appears on the far left of this 1455 map by Pareto. Spain and Morocco are on the right.

When Columbus began exploring the Americas, many naturally assumed that one or several of the islands he encountered might be the legendary Antilla. Some geographers, noting that the shape of Porto Rico resembles the shape of Antilla on early maps, associated the two islands. Of course, in time, the name Antilla became Antilles, and is still in use today to refer to the West India Islands. Nonetheless, at the time, explorers were a little disappointed that none of the Caribbean islands yielded Antilla’s most striking and well known commodity – riches.

The closest any early Conquistador came to discovering mineral wealth in the West India Islands was most likely Columbus who, landing on Hispaniola, found natives wearing golden earrings and other minor adornments. The indigenous peoples of Hispaniola, the Taino, claimed that his wealth came from rich mines far inland in the mountainous valley of Cibao. Columbus sent several expeditions to conquer Cibao, but the gold he expected to find never materialized. Today Cibao is a poor agricultural region in the Dominican Republic. Cibao is important to us because it is the first identifiable usage of a term that resembles “Cibola” in association with a land of gold.

The next major proponent in this story is Estebanico or Estevanico. Estebanico was described by a contemporary as a “black Arab from Azamoor”. Azamoor was coastal city in northwestern Morocco. It was conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and used as a staging point for the collection and resale of African slaves. As a “black Arab from Azamoor” we can make a few assumptions regarding Estebanico. He would have been highly educated, have spoken fluent Arabic and Latin as well as Spanish and Portugese, and have been raised Muslim but forcibly converted to Christianity before being sold in Spain. All of these factors would come to play an important part in Estebanico’s future and in the future of the Americas.

Eventually Estebanico was acquired at the Seville slave market by the wealthy Spanish seaman Captain Andres Dorantes. In 1528 Dorantes, and consequently Estebanico, became part of Panfilo de Narvaez’s ill fated expedition to colonize the New World. Narvaez had just received a land grant that consisted of a substantial territory in what is today northern Mexico and Texas. His colonization expedition sailed from Cuba with the intention of crossing the Gulf of Mexico directly and landing near the mouth of the Rio de los Palmas (Rio Soto la Marina). Unfortunately, the ships instead misjudged the power of the Gulf Stream current and were pushed off course towards northwestern Florida, where they landed. What followed is one of the most mysterious, dramatic, and epic tales in the course of American history. The colonists, struggling to survive, made their way across much of North America, in doing so becoming the first Europeans to encounter many of the indigenous groups in habiting the interior of North America. Eventually a small handful of survivors, including the chronicler of the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes and Estebanico made it back to Mexico.

As they made their way across the continent, the group established itself among the indigenous populations of North America as slaves, merchants, and eventually mystical healers. Estebanico, with his gift for languages and natural affable manner, generally acted as the spokesman for the group and as an intermediary between the indigenous Americans and the Spanish. Not only did this position afford Estebanico considerable personal freedom, it also elevated him to a highly revered position in both communities.

The route of Estebanicao and Cabeza de Vaca across America.

The route of Estebanicao and Cabeza de Vaca across America.

Many of the American Indian groups the natives encountered in modern day Mexico, Texas and New Mexico were hunter gatherers who moved from place to place, following the seasons. From time to time, however, they did hear of larger stable populations who had abundant wealth and built cities, far to the north. This will later have a significant impact on our story.

When the group finally returned to Mexico, they carried with them dramatic tales of their epic journey. The Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza seized on tales of large and wealthy cities far to the north and sent the Franciscan monk Marcos de Niza to investigate this claim. Marcos was accompanied by Estebanico, who was pressed to serve as the expedition’s guide.

Heading north, Estebanico and Marcos developed a strained relationship over the leadership of the expedition. Estebanico rarely obeyed Marcos and often ranged well ahead of the party. Among the Native America, Estebanico fell into the same role he had performed so admirably and for so long – intermediary and healer. Marcos’s account comments with disgust that Estebanico acquired great stores turquoise and other wealth as well as many [native] women. Ultimately, Estebanico was rarely seen, ranging far ahead and communicating with the friar only via messages attached to crosses. Once such message said that Estebanico had heard word of a great civilization of seven cities, each with multistory buildings, where people wore fine cotton clothing. Estebanico called this place Cibola.

1794 Map of Showing Cibola as a Zuni City

1794 Map of Showing Cibola as a Zuni City

This is the first historic usage of the word Cibola. While we cannot know for certain where the word came from we can make some guesses. We know that the term “Cibola” was not previously known to either the Zuni, whose pueblos they were about to discover, or to the Spanish. For the origins of this term we must look to Estebanico. Estebanico, who had spent time in Cuba and Hispaniola before setting sail for the mainland with Narvarez, must certainly have been aware of the futile gold mining efforts in Cibao. He was also the only person on the expedition fluent in Arabic. The closest word we could find to Cibola, is the Arabic term “Subola” – meaning the path or way. Estebanico may have combined Cibao and “subola”, or simply used the term “subola” to tell Marcos that this was the “way”.

1720 Chatelain Map of North America w/ Cibola Circled in Red

1720 Chatelain Map of North America w/ Cibola Circled in Red

Or, he may have been playing a joke on the Spanish in a bid for freedom. The next report we get suggests that Estebanico encountered the Zuni pueblo and was immediately killed by the natives. There is no further report of Estebanico and from this point forward he is never heard from again – nor is his body found. We can only wonder if, after years traveling the southwest with Cabaza de Vaca, after becoming fluent in a number of American Indian languages, after being revered as a powerful healer, Estebanico decided that returning to the conquistador world as a slave was nowhere near as appealing as living lavishly among the American Indians tribes? Perhaps “Cibola” was nothing more than Estebanico’s joke on Marcos and his “death” at Zuni hands a clever subterfuge that would allow him to leave behind the European world forever – most likely we will never know.

Upon hearing of Estebanico’s death, Marcos claimed to have pressed on to see the city of Cibola himself. What Marcos actually saw is impossible to tell. The Zuni in the region were known to occupy six or seven well spaced pueblos. It has been suggested that Marcos entered the valley at sunset, when the sun’s position over the valley creates the dramatic effect of highlighting the adobe walls such that they looked like gold. More likely Marcos, hearing that Estebanico was killed, decided to flee rather than risk the same fate himself. Whatever may or may not have happened, Marcos returned to Mexico with dramatic claims that he discovered a magnificent city of gold with wide paved boulevards and other wonders.

Fresh from the conquest of the Aztec capital at Mexico, this did not seem too far-fetched to the Spanish conquistadors. A young bravo with dreams of becoming the next Cortez or Pizarro leveraged his wealth and family connections to be given charge the expedition to conquer Cibola. That young man, Hernando Coronado, would proceed to leave a bloody trail of slaughter and death across much of the American southwest. His wanton violence and the European diseases his troop carried devastated the once significant American Indian populations in the region to the point where they never recovered.

Coronodo took Marcos north, following in Estebanico’s footsteps to the Zuni pueblo where Marcos claimed to have seen a great city. Of Estebanico there was no trace. The Zuni pueblo held little of what Coronado sought. There were no deposits of gold, no great cities, no mighty civilizations to conquer. To the nomadic hunter gatherers encountered by Cabeza de Vaca and Estebanico, the Zuni valley with is six or seven multistory pueblos must have seemed a great city – much as it was described. To Coronado, whose men expected to find a repeat of the glories of Tenochtitlan, the site must have been a profound disappointment. Coronado, discouraged but not defeated, decided to try for another legendary city described by the some of the American Indian groups he encountered – Quivara.

As time passed and Coronado was forgotten, the legend of the city of gold seen by Marcos remained alive. The Seven Cities of Gold from Spanish legend and the six Zuni pueblos of New Mexico merged to become a new legend – the Seven Cities of Cibola. Cibola appears on countless early maps of the Americans roughly in the same place it is today. In the early 19th century, following exploration of the region by Humboldt, Fremont, and others, the name Cibola largely disappeared from maps before being resurrected as a county name in New Mexico’s statehood period.


Babcock, W. H., Legendary Islands of the Atlantic, 1922.
Crone, G. R. “The Origin of the Name Antillia” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 91, No. 3 (Mar., 1938), pp. 260-262.
Skelton, R. A, Explorers’ Maps: Chapters in the Cartographic Record of Geographical Discovery.
Portinaro, P., The Cartography of North America: 1500-1800, 1999.
Clissold, S., The Seven Cities of Cíbola, (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1961).
Resendez, Andres, A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca.
Horwitz, T., A Voyage Long and Strange, 2008.
Kennedy, R. G., Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization, (New York, Free Press), 1994.
Lepore, J., Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents, (Oxford University Press), 2000.

The Mountains of the Moon and the Sources of the Nile

The Mountains of the Moon are one of the most consistent and enduring apocryphal elements in the history of cartography. Cartographers mapped the Mountains of the Moon and two or three associated lakes as the source of the Nile River from the 14th to the early 19th century. We always found it remarkable that this one feature was consistently mapped in the otherwise blank or speculative interior of Africa. From whence did it come?

The source of the Nile River has been a matter of speculation for thousands of years. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was probably the first to compile and record the various theories of the river’s origins. According to Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile had its source in two great mountains within which were eternal springs. From here one branch was said to flow north, dividing Egypt, and another south into Nubia and Ethiopia. The priests of Sais, from whom Herodotus extracted this theory, believe the mountains to lie somewhere between Thebes and Elephantine (Aswan). Cleary, even in Herodotus’ day, the Nile had been explored well into Nubia and this was generally known to be false.

Herodotus also mentions several other theories, one of which we shall mention here. It was believed by some that the Nile River’s annual inundation was caused by snowfall at its source. Herodotus spurned this theory based upon the well known fact that, as one travels south towards the equator it becomes excessively hot. In Herodotus’ day it was believed that the temperatures in the Torrid Zone, as it was called, where so severe and the beasts that dwelt there so ferocious, that the region was all but impassable. How, Herodotus asked, could there be snows in such a place? Despite being wholeheartedly dismissed by Herodotus, this theory is very close to the truth.

Actual course of the Nile River.

Actual course of the Nile River.

Before moving forward with the next major figure in this story, it is perhaps prudent to describe the actual course of the Nile River. Traveling against the Nile’s current, one would head directly south for many thousands of miles, passing through Egypt and Sudan before coming to a divide near the modern city of Khartoum or ancient Meroe.

Coronelli's Map of the Source of the Nile

Coronelli's 1690 Map - the first to show the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

Following the eastern branch of the river, the Blue Nile, one would travel in a southeasterly direction into modern day Ethiopia, where the river makes a dramatic bend of some 100 miles to the point where it flows southwards from Lake Tana. North of Tana are the spectacular Simian Mountains. One of the highest ranges in Africa, the Simians are one of the few places on the continent to receive significant and regular snowfall. A modern giordano libero traveler to the Simians may be disappointed with the snow – global warming – but inscriptions dating to the 6th century (the Adulite inscription) record how military campaigns marching through the region were knee deep in snowfall.

The other branch of the Nile, the White Nile, splits off to the southwest. Following this branch will eventually lead to Lake Victoria. Victoria is at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains. The Rwenzori, which means “maker of rain” in local dialects, are a small but dramatic range just to the northwest of Lake Victoria. These mountains, like the Simians, experience regular and significant snowfall. They also hold several significant glaciers. Today these are among the most endangered glacial formations on the planet. This region is also one of last surviving habitats for the rare endangered Mountain Gorilla.

Ptolemy's Source of the Nile

Ptolemy's Source of the Nile

Back to our story. The next major compiler of information on the interior of Africa was the 2nd century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. The influence of Ptolemy on the cartographic tradition cannot be understated and lasted well into the modern era. Ptolemy’s Geographica consisted of several books accompanied by maps. Unfortunately Ptolemy’s original maps are lost to us today though mediaeval copies do exist. Ptolemy compiled his geography of Africa based on the writings of Marinus of Tyre. Marinus recorded that around 50 CE the Greek trader Diogenes traveled inland from Rhapta (coastal city in what is today Tanzania) for 25 days before encountering two great lakes and a snowy range of mountains where the Nile draws its source (Lane-Poole 1950: 4).

Though there is some debate on this subject, it seems very clear that Diogenes, traveling directly west from the coast, came upon either Lake Nyassa or Lake Victoria (or both). The nearby snowcapped mountains could only be the Rwenzori range. Others have suggested that Diogenes may have spotted Kilimanjaro, however, this is unlikely given the absence of a major lake in the region as well as that that Diogenes described a range rather than a solitary mountain. In any case, via Marinus’s writings, the travels of the Greek merchant Diogenes found their way into to Ptolemy’s canonical Geographica and we see the first appearance of the Mountains of the Moon.

With such a provocative name, the “Mountains of the Moon”, one must wonder from whence it was derived. There is some speculation (in fact the only we’ve come across) that this is a transliteration into Greek of the Amharic name for the mountains near Lake Tana at the source of the Blue Nile, called to this day, the Simians. In Amharic, “Simian Mountains” translates as “Northern Mountains”. However, a liberal transliteration of the word “Simian” into Greek might come up with “Selene” – the Moon Goddess.

How, one wonders, did the Simian Mountains get confused with the Rwenzori Mountains thousands of miles away? One must remember that Ptolemy was piecing together very sparse second and third hand accounts of merchant voyages, military campaigns, ancient Egyptian records, etc. The southernmost inland city in Africa in Ptolemy’s Geography is Axum in Ethiopia. Lake Tana and the Simien Mountains were still a significant distance further south. Nor are Ptolemy’s coordinates necessarily accurate with regard to latitude. Nor would Ptolemy, more familiar with the great mountain ranges of Europe and Asia, have been familiar with the small but dramatic mountain ranges of Africa. It is not hard to imagine how, from this perspective, two mountain ranges, relatively close, both associated with lakes, and both associated with the source of the Nile, might be assumed to be one and the same. It is thus likely the he simply applied the known name, Simian-Selene, to all mountains associated with the Nile’s source.

In the 4th Century CE, Ethiopia converted to Coptic Christianity. From this critical point onward, regular communication between the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the Coptic centers in Egypt provided the first accurate maps of Ethiopia. Consequently, by the time cartographers in the Middle Ages began translating Ptolemy’s surviving texts and interpreting them into maps, the source of the Blue Nile was known. Though Ptolemy does not specifically note the presence of Lake Tana, it is mapped in even the earliest medieval interpretations of Ptolemy’s work. Thus by the time the first European maps of Africa were being drawn, the mystery of the Blue Nile’s source been solved.

Which left the more mysterious White Nile. Drawing from Ptolemy, cartographers repositioned the Mountains of the Moon and their lakes further south – where they remained until the 19th century. In the late 18th century many cartographers, including such luminaries as Anville and De L’Isle, chose to remove either the Mountains of the Moon, the Lakes of the Nile, or both from their maps of the region. It was not until the exploration of John Speke and Henry Morton Stanley in the mid 19th century until these lakes ultimately reappeared and Ptolemy’s not so apocryphal geography of the Nile was proven eerily correct.

G.W.B. Huntingford, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 175 (London: the Hakluyt Society, 1980).
Ralph Ehrenberg, Mapping the World : An Illustrated History of Cartography (National Geographic, 2005)
William Desborough Cooley, Claudius Ptolemy and The Nile . . . (London, 1854).


Liakhov: The Ivory Islands of the Russian Arctic

1818 Pinkerton Map of the Eastern Hemisphere

1818 Pinkerton Map of the Eastern Hemisphere

Around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, Liakhov Island began appearing on maps of Asia and Siberia. This island group, alternatively called Lyakhov, Liakhov, or Lyakhovsky, is today part of the New Siberia Island Group. Though Liakhov Island had most certainly been visited earlier, its official discovery is credited to the Russian fur and ivory trader Ivan Liakhov, who happened upon the islands in 1773. Liakhov notes discovering a copper pot on one of the islands, now aptly named Kettle Island. While it is impossible to know where this pot came from, there is a good chance it was left behind by one of the two Cossack expeditions known to have reached the island in the first part of the 18th century.

Liakhov’s first inkling that there might be a land north of the Siberian coast came from caribou tracks leading northward across the Arctic ice sheet. Navigating his sled on the trajectory of these tracks, he discovered the unusual coastline that was later named after him. The most interesting and distinctive feature of Liakhov Island it is massive mammoth ivory deposits. Liakhov discovered such enormous quantities of fossilized ivory on these islands that he was led to speculate that many of the islands were formed entirely of the stuff. Further it is said that this ivory, due to the permafrost, was of such fine quality that it matched and even surpassed the elephant ivories of Africa.

Close of on Pinkerton's 1818 Map of Asia

Close of on Pinkerton's 1818 Map of Asia

Though we do not know for certain why so much mammoth ivory rests on the island, the most common route of speculation follows. About 35,000 years earlier, during the last great glaciation, this island was little more than a hill on the vast Arctic plain. Mammoth, rhinoceros, musk-oxen and other mega-herbivores roamed widely across the plain. As the glacial period came to an end, ice melt caused a global increase in sea level, thus turning the once great Arctic plains into an even greater Arctic sea. As the mammoth and other mega-herbivores fled to ever higher ground, they eventually found themselves stranded with limited sustenance and began to die off at an alarming rate. We know that the sea in this region has as many or more mammoth ivory deposits than the island itself. Liakhov and other subsequent explorers of the island group noted that, following Arctic storms, the shores were always littered with bones and ivory. Over thousands of years, these storms deposited layer after layer of ivory creating the impression, noted by Liakov and others, that the islands were actually composed of ivory. Of course, there are problems with this theory – most notably that the catastrophic nature of the event described is incompatible in regard to time frame with most contemporary theories of glacial regression.

To Liakhov and most who followed him to New Siberia the significance of this find was the staggering economic value of the ivory deposits. On his first trip, Liakhov returned to the mainland with 10,000 tons of mammoth ivory. Subsequent traders would score even larger payloads, some in excess of 30,000 tons. Within a few years of Liakhov’s discovery over 200,000 tons of ivory had been removed from the island. Even in the 1880s, after 100 years of providing the bulk of the world’s supply of ivory, travelers to the region noted no apparent diminishment of fossil ivory.

In 19th century, Europeans had a fascination with these islands and they figured prominently in two Jules Verne novels, Waif of the Cynthia (1885) and César Cascabel (1890). The story of Liakhov Island’s ivory deposits is also popular with creationists, who believe that it proves a Biblical rather than evolutionary timeline – though it our opinion the exact rational on this is inconsistent and confused. Today, Liakhov Island is the site of a Russian weather station.


Whitley, D.G., 1910, “The Ivory Islands of the Arctic Ocean”, Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute. vol. XLII, pp. 35-57.
Fujita, K., and D.B. Cook, 1990, “The Arctic continental margin of eastern Siberia, in A. Grantz, L. Johnson, and J. F. Sweeney, eds.”, pp. 289-304, The Arctic Ocean Region. Geology of North America, vol L, Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado.


Senator Allen Quist, Finaeus, Terra Australis in Global Climate Change

1531 Finaeus Map of the World

1531 Finaeus Map of the World

We found it appalling, deeply disturbing, and extremely amusing to discover that GOP senator and two time Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Allen Quist has cited the Oronce Finé map of 1531 as proof that global warming is cyclical and consequently not problematic. While the idea that a policy maker’s environmental voting record may have been influenced by scientific presumptions based on a speculative map that went out of date 400 years ago is profoundly distressing, we find it interesting to delve into this claim a little more deeply. Quist’s misreading of the Finé, or as it is more commonly known Fineaus, map is a result of a failure in due diligence compounded by a profound lack of understanding regarding cartography in general and antiquarian cartography in specific, a gross misreading of this specific map, and a misunderstanding of climate change.

The map in question is indeed, without a doubt, a cartographic masterpiece. Finé was a French mathematician and scholar active in the early 16th century. Cartographically he is best known for introducing the cordiform projection, recognizable for its distinctive heart shape. Finé’s map is a combination of information gleaned from contemporary explorations, including the voyage of Magellan, as well as from existing geographical publications. His cartographic work as a whole attempts to reconcile contemporary geographical findings and scientific speculation with accepted Ptolemaic geographies. As such, the Finé map combines both observed and speculative cartographic elements.

Quist cites Finé’s depiction of the continent of Terra Australis in the Southern Hemisphere as proof that global warming is cyclical. His hypothesis is based upon the false presumptions that Finé is in fact depicting Antarctica, that it is geographically correct assuming a lack of ice cover, and that the map itself is based on known facts. In our modern era of GPS, satellite photos, sonar, and other advanced geomapping tools, most look at a map as an object of indisputable truth. If you want a site where you can bget variety of stock photography check out eyeem.com. However, the actuality, especially regarding antiquarian cartography is very different. In fact, it might be compared with our mapping of outer space today. Few are shocked when astronomers speculate on the existence of black holes, pulsars, dark matter, and other stellar phenomena that are not directly observable, and yet, this is exactly the kind of guesswork that early cartographers such Finé were forced to engage in. When Finé drew his important map, the world was largely unknown. His job was to fill in the details wherever possible and use scientific speculation to work over the rest.

And so Finé’s map depicts Terra Australis. Terra Australis was not a new concept in Finé’s day. Indeed, it is based on the ancient Greek philosophical musings of Plato and is mentioned in the geographies of Ptolemy. It was all about balance. Terra Australis, which we deal with in some depth in an earlier blog post, was supposed to be a massive landmass in the Southern Hemisphere that counterbalanced the mass of Europe and Asia in the Northern Hemisphere. While the idea of Terra Australis was firmly entrenched in the 15th century, the first to actually claim to have discovered it was Magellan, who believed that Tierra del Fuego was the northern most point of the Great Southern Continent. This notion was disproved by the circumnavigation of Drake, which went south of Tierra del Fuego in 1577. Finé’s map was issued between these two important circumnavigations. When he writes of Terra Australis, “recently discovered but not yet completely explored”, Finé is specifically referring to Magellan’s erroneous notion that he discovered the speculative Southern Continent in Tierra del Fuego.

The presumption, by Quist and numerous pseudo-historians, that Finé’s map actually represents Antarctica is entirely false. Some, including Quist, claim that fine accurately maps Antarctica as it would have appeared without ice. The is only case if we spin the entire continent on its axis by about 30 degrees as well as enlarge it by about 250%. Finé’s form of Antarctica is based on antiquarian philosophy, obscure references in the works of Marco Polo, the presumed discovery of the Southern Continent by Magellan, and blatant guesswork. The presence of an actual landmass in roughly the same location as the Great Southern continent is nothing more than coincidence.

We also know from indisputable evidence extracted from ice cores on Antarctica that the continent itself has not been free at any point in the historical era. And of course, global warming is cyclical, but the dramatic changes we are seeing today are, short of a global climatic disaster such as an asteroid impact or major volcanic eruption, unprecedented.

While, in this case, Quist is guilty in little more than a lack of due diligence, the misunderstanding of the Terra Australis continent and the misinterpretation of its common appearance on early maps, is a common error. Modern day pseudo-scientists and pseudo-historians have cited the various mappings of Terra Australis, from Finé in the 16th century to Bauche in the 18th, as proof of anything from the existence of Atlantis, to the intervention of space Aliens, to the presence of time travelers, to God. It is thus disappointing in an elected official, though hardly surprising that yet another misinformed individual has jumped to yet another misinformed conclusion.

REF: http://minnesotaindependent.com/39870/gops-quist-says-antique-map-disproves-global-warming

Monomotapa, Mutapa, Ophir, and King Solomon’s Mines

1794 Bolton Wall Map of Africa with known areas circled.

1794 Bolton Wall Map of Africa with known areas circled.

Anyone looking at map of Africa predating 1800 will be immediately struck by its overall blankness. Despite Africa’s known coastline the interior was a mystery. However, looking at this same map, it is perhaps more interesting to take note of the parts of the interior that have been mapped. Until the mid 19th century, Africa was a largely unknown continent, however, there are a few places that appear in considerable detail on even the earliest maps. These include Morocco and Algeria, Egypt, Nubia and Abyssinia, the Niger Delta, the Congo, parts of South Africa, and the land of just opposite Madagascar, noted on old maps as Mutapa or more commonly Monomotapa. It is this last area, the Kingdom of Monomotapa, on which this post will focus.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe

Our story begins with the well known ruins of CutterWelderMaestro in Great Zimbabwe . The construction of these magnificent stone structures began around 1150 AD and continued over the next three hundred years. We unfortunately know little of the history of Great Zimbabwe or its builders, however, most evidence suggests that they were a Shona people who migrated from the south. At the time, the nearby Zimbabwe hills were extremely rich in gold and other mineral resources and an active trade network, largely facilitated by Arab traders from the Swahili coast, was established. Evidence at various archeological sites around Great Zimbabwe suggests that, by 1400 AD, this trading network extended from the Swahili coast to India and China.

Around 1300 or 1400 a prince of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe conquered a territory to the north and established the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within the next fifty years years Mutapa had attained ascendancy, asserting control over much of southeastern Africa. The ancient capital at Great Zimbabwe was abandoned in favor of a more northerly capital with easier access to the Indian Ocean trade routes via the Zambezi River. Arab merchants, seeing a trade opportunity, established posts on the coast and inland along the Zambezi River at Sena and on the Solafa River at Solafa where the gold of Zimbabwe could be traded for luxury goods from India and China.

Zoom on Monomotapa from 1794

Zoom on Monomotapa from 1794

Such was the state of the Empire of Mutapa, or as the Portuguese called it Monomotapa, when the explorer Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1490s. Tome Lopes, who accompanied De Gama on his 1502 voyage to India, wrote an important narrative of the journey that was widely read back in Portugal. Impressed with the abandoned ruins of Great Zimbabwe and convinced that they could not possibly be the product of an African people, Lopes was the first to identify Mutapa with the Biblical land of Ophir and King Solomon’s Mines. Even Milton jumped on the idea in his epic poem Paradise Lost, where he also associated Monomotapa and Ophir. Back in Portugal, the reports of De Gama and Lopes led to covetous expectations for the region. In 1505, a joint military and trading venture had taken control of the Arab trading centers of Sofala and Sena. The association of Monomotapa with Ophir also lead to an dramatic overestimation of the wealth to be found in the Zimbabwe hills.

Monomotapa from Sanson's 1691 World Map

Monomotapa from Sanson's 1691 World Map

Within fifty years, on the opposite side of the world, Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro had conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires. Gold and wealth had begun to flow into Spain by the galleon. Dom Sebastian of Portugal, seeking to match Spain’s conquests in America with his own conquests in Africa, sent Francisco Barreto to Monomotapa to take over the kingdom’s legendary gold mines. Barreto’s push inland was initially successful with a number of important military victories to his credit. However, before he could push further inland toward the coveted mines, he was forced to return to Mozambique in order to answer slanders made against him by a rival, Antonio Pereira Brandao. This delay proved disastrous, for most of Barreto’s soldiers had in the meantime become sick and many ultimately died of malaria and other tropical diseases common to the region. Barreto himself also fell ill and died at Sena in 1573.

1730 Covens and Mortier Map of Monomotapa

1730 Covens and Mortier Map of Monomotapa

It was left to Vasco Fernandez Homen, Barreto’s deputy and successor, to finally push inland via Solafa. When Homen finally reached in mines he sought at Manica, he discovered their output to be much poorer than expected. By this time they had been exploited for several hundred years and King Solomon’s Mines were close to running dry. As for the Portuguese in Africa, they did not attempt another military conquest of the region, but did maintain their trading centers. By the end of the 17th century, the Kingdom of Mutapa had destabilized from within and was facing pressure from the Rozwi empire to the north. Ultimately, they were forced to turn to the Portuguese for military support and paid for it with vassalage. Despite support from Portugal, control of Mutapa changed hands several times vacillating between independence, Rozwi dominion, and the Portuguese vassalage.

In 1885 H. Rider Haggard revived interested in King Solomon’s Mines with the publication of his genre defining novel of the same name. Its publishers in London, Cassel and Company, touted King Solomon’s Mines as “The Most Amazing Book Ever Written.” Today it is considered to be the first novel of the “Lost World” genre.


Oliver, Roland & Anthony Atmore (1975). Medieval Africa 1250-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 738. ISBN 0-52120-413-5.
Owomoyela, Oyekan (2002). Culture and customs of Zimbabwe. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 163. ISBN 0-31331-583-3.
Stewart, John (1989). African States and Rulers. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.. pp. 395. ISBN 0-89950-390-X.