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Where Can You Find Some Of The World's Oldest & Most Fascinating Maps?

Jun 1

Use these archaic navigational instruments to chart humanity's path through history

Cartographers had a trick up their sleeves back when mapmaking was still a young profession in the United States: they would put fictitious towns onto the maps they produced. Not to sabotage passengers' navigational efforts, but to apprehend copycats. Forgery was a major issue, and it was standard practice to replicate and profit from other people's maps. It was much easier to show copyright infringement if a false town was discovered on a competitor's map.

The first phony town was Agloe, New York, which appeared on a map by the General Drafting Co. in the 1930s. It resurfaced on Rand McNally maps when mapmakers discovered that someone had opened a store at the identical location of the imaginary Agloe and dubbed it the Agloe General Store, thereby rendering the town "actual."

Fake towns, on the other hand, are a relatively new innovation in the history of maps. The first known maps were engraved onto stone tablets about 2,300 B.C.E. We're not sure whether any of the cities listed below are phony, but here are six of the world's oldest or first of their type that you can visit right now.

British Museum, London, UK, Imago Mundi

The Imago Mundi, often known as the Babylonian Map of the World, is the world's earliest surviving map. It is presently on exhibit in London's British Museum. It was discovered in the Iraqi village of Sippar and dates from 700 to 500 BC. The carved map represents Babylon in the middle, with Assyria and Elam nearby, all of which are encircled by a "Salt Sea" that forms a ring around the city. Eight islands or areas are etched into the tablet outside of the ring. A cuneiform inscription discussing Babylonian mythology in the places portrayed on the stone is included with the map.

Galleria Estense, Italy - The Cantino Planisphere

This map, made in Lisbon in 1502 by an anonymous Portuguese mapmaker, was once the target of international espionage. It was named after Alberto Cantino, an Italian who worked for the Duke of Ferrara as an undercover spy. Though no one knows for sure how Cantino got his hands on the map, we do know that he paid 12 gold ducats for it, which was a significant sum at the time. The essential aspect of this map, however, is not that it was technically stolen. It was the first map in history to include the Arctic Circle, the equator, the tropics, and the line between Portuguese and Spanish possessions, among other firsts for maps at the time. It also has the earliest named representation of the Antilles, as well as the first illustration of Florida's lower shore. The Planisphere was stolen again in the mid-1800s, but it was ultimately discovered and is currently on exhibit in Italy's Galleria Estense.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Mappamundi - American Geographical Society Library

The American Geographical Society Library includes over 1.3 million artifacts in its archive, and this is the oldest global map in the collection. It was one of only three globe maps made and signed by Venetian geographer Giovanni Leardo in 1452. The map illustrates the European vision of the globe throughout the Middle Ages, with Jerusalem at its center. It was the first map of its day to depict accurately delineated Mediterranean and Western European shorelines. The Mappamundi might be used as a calendar as well. The map is surrounded by ten circles depicting Easter dates spanning a 95-year period, from April 1, 1453, to April 10, 1547. Moon phases, months, zodiac signs, festivals, select Sundays during the time period, and day length are all shown on the rings. If the map isn't now part of a touring display, it may be obtained upon request.

Tabula Peutingeriana - National Library of Austria, Vienna

The map on exhibit at the Austrian National Library isn't the original, which was drawn in the 4th or 5th century, but it's a close second, a monk-made reproduction from the 13th century. In essence, this is an old Roman Empire roadmap (the first illustration of what would grow into the current roadmap), measuring 22 feet wide and charting all public highways from the Atlantic Ocean to present-day Sri Lanka. Each route is designated at 30 to 67 mile intervals to approximate a day's trip. There are around 550 cities and 3,500 identified locations and physical features along the pathways. This map is helpful for calculating distances, but if you're seeking for a true geographical picture of ancient Rome, search elsewhere since the top and bottom have been squished together to fit onto the long chart.

Papyrus Map of Turin - Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy

This might be one of the first world maps, used to guide an expedition across ancient Egypt. Around 1150 BC, a well-known scribe named Amennakhte (sometimes written Amennakht) produced the chart for King Ramses IV's quarry trip to Wadi Hammamat. The men on the journey were supposed to bring back stone blocks for sculpting statues of gods and renowned Egyptians of the period. The Turin papyrus has been examined since it was unearthed in a private tomb near Luxor in the early 1800s. The map was discovered in three pieces of papyrus, but it has since been stitched together and shown as a single sheaf at the Museo Egizio.

University of Oxford, Oxford, UK, Tabula Rogeriana

When cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi made this map for King Roger II of Sicily in 1154, he was the first to split down the known globe into smaller regional maps determined by Ptolemy's seven temperature zones and ten separate geographical regions. Not only is there a map in each segment, but also a description of the region and the indigenous people that live there. And it was done brilliantly—so well, in fact, that it served as the standard map for anybody wishing to view a region spanning Africa, Scandinavia, China, and Spain for over 300 years. The map is presently in the possession of the University of Oxford, and although it is a replica of the original, it is not that much older; it was created about 1300.