1584 Mercator Map of Arabia Based on Ptolemy

Asiae VI Tab. - Main View

1584 Mercator Map of Arabia Based on Ptolemy


Most finely-engraved Ptolemaic map of Arabia.


Asiae VI Tab.
  1584 (undated)     13 x 18.5 in (33.02 x 46.99 cm)     1 : 9150000


This is Gerard Mercator's map of the Arabian Peninsula, based on the second-century mapping of Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100 - 170), the progenitor of modern geography. Mercator - both an authoritative geographer and a gifted engraver - executed this map for his 1578 Duisberg edition of Ptolemy's Geographia, intended to be the definitive edition of that foundational work.
Exceeding all Previous Works
Previous editions, both copperplate and woodcut, had been comparatively crude renditions that often omitted detail and were prone to ambiguities. Mercator, produced his versions of Ptolemy's maps using the latest engraving techniques, surpassed any that came before. 'This map is much more finely engraved and more accurately fitted to the tables, than any of the maps of the previous Ptolemy editions.' (Tibbetts, Arabia) Mercator's maps were more beautifully presented than any earlier Ptolemy, but his own innovations in the use of italic fonts allowed for the legible inclusion of more detail than prior iterations. (Mercator had in 1540 produced the first instructional handbook on the use of italics to appear outside Italy, and Mercator was the first engraver to use the typeface on a map.) Mercator had also edited and re-drafted the maps, consulting many printed and manuscript editions of Geographia in order to present as clear a rendition of Ptolemy's original design as possible. On the other hand, Mercator presented Ptolemy's maps on modern projections, dispensing with the crude trapezoidal projections employed in most earlier editions.
The Cartographic Detail
The map's detail derives from the knowledge available in Alexandria in the second century, thus the place names change dramatically. The map does mention several places in present-day Qatar (Abucei, Leaniti, Themi, Asateni, and Aegei). Names added to this edition of the map include Mesmites Sinus, Idicar, and Iuicara, located in present-day Kuwait. The island of 'Ichara' appears: this is now understood to be the island of Kharj. The peninsula 'Chersonesi Extrema,' is believed to correspond to Ra's Rakan in present-day Qatar. Other notes point out details such as famous shrines, and Ichtyophagorium Sinus (the strait of the fish-eaters).
The Importance of Ancient Geography
European exploration in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century had resulted in a massive expansion to their known world, far superseding Ptolemy's second-century geographical knowledge. And yet, mapmakers continued to publish editions of Ptolemy - often simultaneously with modern maps reflecting the new discoveries. The reason for this was that despite his antiquated data, Ptolemy's methodology remained essential and authoritative. By employing his great innovation - laying out a grid, and assigning to real-world locations coordinates - one could produce a mathematical representation of the world showing clearly the distances between known features. Every geographer of the Age of Discovery embraced Ptolemy's methodologies to absorb new discoveries. Any geographer, before developing new work, needed to understand the Ptolemaic foundations of their discipline and as a consequence, editions of Ptolemy would continue to be printed well into the eighteenth century.
Publication History and Census
Mercator produced the first edition of his Ptolemy in Duisberg in 1578, as well as a second edition printed in Cologne from the same plates in 1584. The plates later passed to Jodocus Hondius, his successor, who issued editions in the early 17th century. In 1694, the plates were sold at auction to François Halma (1653 - 1722) who reworked them and published editions in 1695, 1698, and 1704. A final edition, from which this map came, was published in 1730 by R. and J. Wetstein and G. Smith. Some twenty examples of the 1584 Ptolemy are cataloged in institutional collections. The separate map appears in several institutions in its 1578 edition, but only the Biblioteca Nacional de España shows a copy of this map in the 1584 edition.


Gerard Mercator (1512 - 1594) is a seminal figure in the history of cartography. Mercator's calculations and map designs redefined the 16th century concept of cartography and were the first to break away from the Ptolemy model. Many of his systems of measurement, such as the Mercator Projection, are still in use today. Despite his prominence as a cartographer, he started his career as a crafter of scientific instruments. He did not construct his first map until 1540, when he made two maps, one of Flanders and another of Palestine. These two impressive works earned him the patronage of the Emperor Charles V, for whom he construed a globe and several large scale maps. Despite this imperial patronage, Mercator was accused of heresy and in 1552 fled to Duisburg. In Duisburg he set himself up as a cartographer and began work on his revised edition of Ptolemy's Geographia. This three volume work was the first book to be called an "Atlas", after the Titan and King of Mauritania. Following Mercator's death his descendants took over his firm but languished because of heavy competition from the Ortelius firm. It was not until Mercator's plates were purchased and republished ( Mercator / Hondius ) by Henricus Hondius and Jan Jansson that Mercator's position as the preeminent cartographer of the age was re-established. Learn More...

Claudius Ptolemy (83 - 161 AD) is considered to be the father of cartography. A native of Alexandria living at the height of the Roman Empire, Ptolemy was renowned as a student of Astronomy and Geography. His work as an astronomer, as published in his Almagest, held considerable influence over western thought until Isaac Newton. His cartographic influence remains to this day. Ptolemy was the first to introduce projection techniques and to publish an atlas, the Geographiae. Ptolemy based his atlas on the "Geographiae" of Strabo, the cartographic materials assembled by Marinus of Tyre, and contemporary accounts provided by the many traders and navigators passing through Alexandria. Ptolemy's Geographiae was a ground breaking achievement far in advance of any known pre-existent cartography, however, it was not without flaws. In a masterstroke of ego that would last over 1,500 years, Ptolemy filled the many unknown and unexplored lands with mountains, lakes, and rivers that he merely assumed must exist. His other great error involved his use of the Cape Verde Islands as a Prime Meridian, thus wildly over estimating distances east of this point, and conversely underestimating the distances west. The ultimate result of this error was Columbus's fateful expedition to India in 1492. In any case, though the text of Ptolemy's Geographiae did survive, the maps that supposedly accompanied it did not. The earliest known Ptolemaic maps are in manuscript format and date to approximately 1300. Most of Ptolemaic maps that have come down to us today are based upon the manuscript editions produced in the mid 15th century by Donnus Nicolaus Germanus, who provided the basis for both the 1477 Bologna and the 1482-6 Ulm Ptolemies. Even after printed versions became broadly available, later authorities - Waldseemuller in 1513, Mercator in 1578 - would consult early manuscript Ptolemies in revising new editions of the work. Learn More...


Ptolemy, C. and Mercator, G. Cl. Ptolemaei Alexandrini Geographiae Libri Octo recogniti iam et diligenter emendati cum tabulis geographicis ad mentem auctoris restitutis ac emendatis, (Cologne) 1584.    


Very good condition. Several filled wormholes in border, with very slight loss, else excellent.


Tibbetts, G. R. Arabia in Early Maps, no. 39. Karrow, R., Mapmakers in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 376-406.