What are your first thoughts when you see a map? Does it immediately fill you with a sense of wanderlust? Or is it just a practical tool, offering you the quickest way from A to B? With popular programs such as Google Maps, it’s impossible to imagine a world without navigation nowadays, but do you ever stop and think what stories maps could actually tell you?
What do maps mean to me?
A sneak peek into people’s lives from the past
Do you have a special fascination for certain objects? To me, historical maps are entirely ‘da bomb’! This fascination (some might say obsession) started at Uni. One day one of our professors showed us a medieval map of the world. Well, I say ‘the world,’ but in the Middle Ages not much of it had been discovered yet. Instead it was thought to consist only of Europe, (parts of) Africa, Asia and a small number of seas.
Looking closer at this ancient map I immediately noticed something else, something utterly surprising. Despite being ‘made in Europe’, it didn’t feature Europe at its centre. Instead, the orientation of the map was set in such a way that the viewer’s eye was immediately drawn to what the makers considered as its focus points: the earthly locations of the mythical Garden of Eden and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in contemporary Near and Middle East.
Not exactly a practical map for keen explorers then you might think! Thankfully medieval maps weren’t strictly used for navigation but rather had religious purposes. (All the better because the distances and scale were way off!)
Deluxe copy of a 1482 map printed on parchment. I discovered it in a special exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. (It’s not the map I saw at Uni.) The Americas are still missing from the map, as is southern Africa, and Asia is just vaguely recognisable.
This was such a mind-bending revelation to me. (Yes, you guessed it, my life as a young adult was pretty exciting.) At heart, the map was nothing more and nothing less than a simple drawing. But actually, those few pen lines opened up a whole new (or rather, ancient) world to me.
Opening up a new world filled with exotic people and animals
In that very moment I had such an intense insight into the past. Into the thoughts and beliefs of people who lived hundreds of years ago and how they saw the world. Just have a look at the mythical creatures and depiction of indigenous people in the maps below.
Since then I’ve visited countless exhibitions about maps. And still, every time it feels like I’m travelling through time, sharing an intimate moment with some distant, exotic culture.
Detail of the remarkable world map by Dutch cartographer Joan Blaue from 1648. The map is 2×3 metres big and I made a special visit to the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam in 2017 to visit their Blaue exhibition. Here you see enslaved Africans operating the sugar mills in Brazil. The Dutch wanted to conquer and keep Brazil to get their hands on this prosperous industry.
Close-up of a rare map, made by Jaochim Bormeester around 1695. I took this photo of the ‘New Wall Map of All Asia’ at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden in 2018. Maps like this one were very popular during the Dutch Golden Age.
Exploring the world without ever leaving your home
I was pleased (and relieved!) to learn that I’m not the only one with such a great love for maps. Inspired by the invaluable role they played during her childhood, the German author Judith Schalansky wrote Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln (2009). (English title: Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have never visited and never will). And no surprise, it’s one of the most precious books in my collection.
Schalansky’s deep love for maps and atlases was born during her childhood. Growing up in East Berlin, on the ‘wrong side’ of the Berlin Wall, travelling was inconceivable for her. Instead, she travelled the world by tracing her finger over the rivers, borders and meridians on maps. This allowed her to travel to the most remote locations in the world without ever leaving home. Now, many years later, she has compiled her own atlas, telling the chronicles of 50 remote islands, all illustrated by maps of course.
Maps aren’t dead but very much alive and kicking!
In contrast to Schalansky, my first memories of maps are far from romantic. I remember them more as a mere necessity. As a tool to learn the names of rivers, cities and countries by rote at primary school.
I never imagined that I would ever want to visit those countries and see them with my own eyes. That I would go and live in that big red dot on the other side of the Channel as an adult. Or how one day, far in the future, I would look down on those majestic Alps from a plane window in complete awe. Looking at the map, I never imagined that they would be so tall they pierced right through the clouds. And in reality their colour didn’t correspond with the brown colour from the atlas legend at all. They were actually pitch black, covered in a dazzling white layer of ice.
Later, when I went to secondary school, it was required to have an approved atlas. Luckily I could use my brother’s old school atlas, a book I still treasure today. Published in 1981, and looking back at it today, it feels bizarre to hold a piece of history in my hands. Many of the countries in it don’t even exist anymore! Can you spot these in the map below?
Some of the country names I had spent hours learning by rote no longer exist! Zagreb, for instance, was a city in Yugoslavia during my school days and Croatia didn’t exist at all. And Prague was the capital of Czecho-Slovakia, which would later dissolute into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Considering I’m not that old, I find it quite remarkable I can still remember these changing European country borders.
Even today maps are still constantly changing. Perhaps not so much because of political reasons anymore as the earlier examples, but consider the construction of new motorways, towns and roundabouts. Even Siri or your Sat Nav may not be able to keep up with the changes!
However, it doesn’t stop with new roads layouts. Consider for instance the ever-changing geography because of manmade land. The palm islands right off the coast of Dubai are a good example of this. And in the Netherlands there’s even a whole province that was created artificially by man!
Photo of the Palm Islands in Dubai by Christoph Schulz on Unsplash
However, man’s reclamation of land from the sea is mere child’s play compared to Mother Nature. Within an instant, great natural forces can wipe complete pieces of land off the map or create brand-new ones.
When hubby and I visited Kaikoura – the ‘whale watching capital of New Zealand’ – last year, we witnessed the destructive results of the 2016 earthquake. It’s still impossible to reach the town by train because the tracks have been completely destroyed at those places where the earth was quite literally split. At the same time, the seabed was thrust to the surface, exposing an entirely new and lunar-like landscape along 20 kilometres of the coast. Moments like this can certainly remind you how powerless you are against such natural forces!
This new landscape along the coast of Kaikoura was created as a result of the destructive 2016 earthquake. (Photo taken by me in March 2018.)
I heart maps!
I think it’s pretty clear by now that I have ‘a thing’ for maps. So you can imagine my absolute delight when I received an email from the Dutch company wereldkaarten.nl (literally translated as worldmaps.nl) offering me a poster size map printed on canvas entirely for free! Of course I expected to opt for a historical map, but scrolling though their collection of over 100 designs, I chose a rather modern interpretation. Don’t you agree that this black and red map matches the red brickwork in our living room just perfectly?
The company has been around for a few years now, but they’re only just opening up their services to the British market now. I’ve been told the English online shop is in development at the moment. So, if you’re interested in ordering one of their beautiful maps, you might want to bookmark their website for the future. They offer maps printed on canvas (or on wood, aluminium, cork, plexiglass) and even scratch maps (where you can literally scratch away the landscape in the style of a lottery card!). What type of map would you choose?
So, going back to my first question: What do maps mean to you? Have you ever dreamt of visiting a place simply because you saw an exotic name on a page? Or are you happiest touring the world from the comfort of your sofa?
Love, Zarina xx
Disclaimer: I received the canvas world map from wereldkaarten.nl in exchange for a review. As always, this article reflects my personal and honest opinion.