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Jewish Journal

The power of maps, in history and politics

by Jonathan Kirsch

January 30, 2013 | 3:58 pm

On display in my office is a globe that captures a perilous moment in time — the world as it existed on very eve of World War II.  The Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo can be seen in what is today northeast China, but both Austria and Czechoslovakia have disappeared into the Third Reich. Korea is shown as a province of Japan, and the Baltic countries are still only “republics” of the Soviet Union.  Such is the power of a map to serve as a snapshot of history.

Simon Garfield, author “On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks” (Gotham Books, $27.50), clearly understands not only the magic of a map but also its role in the real world. “[M]aps hold a clue to what makes us human,” he explains in his lively, often witty and always enlightening book. “They reflect our best and worst attributes — discovery and curiosity, conflict and destruction — and they chart our transitions of power…. Maps fascinate us because they tell stories.”

Garfield, as it happens, is a gifted storyteller, as he demonstrated in his earlier book on typography, “Just My Type.” Now he turns his attention to cartography, starting with the crude maps that have survived from antiquity, and finishing up with the ubiquitous digital maps that he lightheartedly characterizes as “The Instant, Always-On, Me-Mapping of Everywhere.”

The first maps, drawn on scraps of papyrus and shards of clay, were “mystical and brilliantly imaginative…, the sort of thing that inspires conspiracy theories and blockbuster novels.”  More disciplined and scholarly maps were the result of work by Eratosthenes, Strabo and Ptolemy.” The first recorded terrestrial globe — the work of an ancient philosopher Crates of Mallus — was reportedly 10 feet in diameter and depicted the world as “four clear regions, all islands, all of roughly equal size.”  But “the world appeared to fall into the cartographic dark ages for about a thousand years.”

Thus, for example, a celebrated medieval map from Hereford in England is a phantasmagorical mash-up of myth and legend, including “the Tower of Babel; Noah’s Ark as it comes to rest on dry land; the Golden Fleece; [and] the Labyrinth in Crete where the Minotaur lived.” More practical, but no more reliable, was the map that purported to guide pilgrims from London to Jerusalem but left the itinerary up to the user, “the first route map that we know of with such a laissez faire attitude to the actual route.”

One fundamental use of maps, as Garfield points out, has always been political.  One of the earliest surviving maps from China, for instance, is a “highly politicized representation of China’s place in the world,” less useful for travel or trade than for indoctrinating the civil servants who administered “the ‘Middle Kingdom’ in which the emperor ruled ‘all under Heaven.’” And the period that Garfield describes as “the golden age of mapmaking,” which began in the Renaissance and arrived just in time to document the discovery, exploration and settlement of the New World, “set a template that we still recognize we look at a map today.”

Sometimes political self-interest works against cartographic accuracy.  When Francis Drake circumnavigated the world in 1580 in search of plunder, Queen Elizabeth I forbade the making of maps of his voyage to prevent others from duplicating the feat, which vastly enriched the royal treasury. But the decree was circumvented when a jeweler fashioned a silver medallion on which the route map appeared. “It is without doubt the smallest map to document so much geographical significance on one side, and conceal so much ruthless piratical history on the other.”

Even more historic are the recent advances in cartography that have rendered the art of mapmaking on paper to be obsolete.  As recently as 2009, Garfield reports, one ambitious publisher issued a gargantuan atlas with 580 pages and six-foot gatefolds, “the biggest, most expensive, most user-unfriendly atlas of the world in the world.” By contrast, a GPS-equipped cellphone, thinner and lighter than a deck of cards, “has already begun to obliterate the pleasure and exasperation of the massive windblown Ordnance Survey sheet and … the large spiralbound road atlas.”  But, even so, Garfield insists that ultra-miniaturization of maps comes at a price: “It can be harder for our brains to process the information,” he argues. “A large sheet map offers a perfect way to register where we have come from, where we are going, how to get there.”

Garfield, as it happens, debunks more than a few myths about map-making.  The fearsome phrase “Here Be Dragons,” he insists, has never actually appeared on any historic map, and he characterizes the conventional wisdom as “a map myth as mythical and wonderful as dragons themselves.” The depiction of California as an island — a mistake that persisted for more than two centuries — began with a Carmelite friar whose crude and erroneous map fell into the hands of Dutch cartographers. And he reprises the story of the Vinland Map, which came to light only in 1957 but “suggested that North America had been discovered and settled by Norse travelers some five hundred years before Columbus.” After decades of intense scrutiny and noisy argument over its authenticity, the map “is described with delicious understatement as ‘the subject of considerable debate.’”

“But even if it is a fake (and we may never know for sure), its true and lasting value goes beyond its authenticity or fraudulence,” the author insists. “The mystery of Vinland shows us the power of maps to fascinate, excite and provoke, to affect the course of history, to serve as a silent conduit to the compelling stories of where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

Garfield’s verdict on the Vinland Map also serves to describe the wonders to be found in his own remarkable book, a delightful excursion through history and cartography.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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