Maps show us the way and identify major landmarks — rivers, towns, roads and hills. For centuries, they also offered a perspective on how societies viewed themselves in comparison to the rest of the world.
Karen Pinto, assistant professor of history at Boise State University, is researching a book project titled “The Mediterranean in the Islamic Cartographic Imagination,” which looks at maps from the medieval and early-modern Muslim world. Her research is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In an age before GPS and detailed images of Earth captured by astronauts in the International Space Station, maps and charts focused less on mathematical scale than a subjective perception of superior might and privilege. In the case of pre-Renaissance Islamic maps, the many visual inaccuracies caused scholars to largely ignore the maps for centuries in favor of more geographically precise European cartography.
But Pinto believes that reading the maps as carto-ideographic models of the medieval world will reveal insights into the history of the period, much like first-person texts.
“We can glean insights from maps and other forms of visual culture that we cannot see from texts alone,” she said. “In these maps we see images informed by the work of other societies, by myth and religious belief, and by physical reality. We also see subtle reflections of the map-makers.”
Her goal is to learn more about the people who created the maps — the constructors, the painters and the patrons — and their world.
Most of the maps Pinto is studying were published in manuscripts comprising 21 charts — one world map and 20 regional maps. These maps date from the mid-10th century and often appear in collections titled “Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik” (KMMS, Book of Roads and Kingdoms). Not only do they include physical details about specific regions, but many also illuminate the human geography of the land, including boundaries marked by the Muslim and Christian worlds.
The maps raise a number of questions, which Pinto addresses in her research. These include why the maps always have the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea at the top, even though it is not north; why the Mediterranean is pictured as a bulbous form with shores that mirror one another; why the sea’s islands are lined up on the central axis of the map; and more.
“I have learned that what meets the eye is not always what the cartographer intended,” Pinto said. “These images were crafted to communicate specific messages to their viewers through their forms, calligraphy and embellishments.”
Currently, most scholars view the Mediterranean as relatively insignificant to the Muslim world. By providing the Islamic perspective, Pinto is writing a more accurate history of the region.
For instance, maps drawn with north at the top are the result of an early modern European phenomenon. Medieval Europeans oriented maps with east at the top while Muslims oriented their maps with south at the top. Yet today we are so used to seeing maps with north at the top that rotating them means we have a hard time recognizing the world.
“We need history to understand the roots of what goes on in the world around us, and maps provide one very useful gateway,” she said. “By studying the maps of other cultures we can begin to understand how different cultures viewed the world in different periods.”