7 maps that changed history
Maps are one of the oldest forms of communication. From marks scratched on rocks by Neolithic peoples, to the vast digital databases of the 21st century that deliver custom-made maps on demand to mobile devices, cartography has, for millennia, shaped our perception of the world. Whether documenting mankind’s growing geographical knowledge, charting great political developments, or promoting an ideology, maps have been an important feature of most cultures. Here, Philip Parker, history editor of The Times History of the World in Maps, explores seven of the most historically important
Hereford Mappa Mundi (Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Very few maps survive from the ancient world, but those that do demonstrate a surprising level of sophistication in the depiction of small-scale areas. This is accurate enough in the case of the Turin papyrus map, a painted papyrus scroll from c1150 BC, to allow the identification of a specific location in Egypt’s Eastern Desert as the subject of the map.
As well as showing routes through a region that was crucial for the mining of sandstone for monumental statues – the Wadi Hammamat, a major ancient trade route, is shown as a bold line crossing the lower portion of the map – the papyrus may represent the world’s earliest geological map.
The hills shown on the map – conical protrusions for the peaks and wavy lines for the slopes – are shaded to mirror the colours of the Eastern Desert mountains seen from afar; with black for schist and pink for granite. In fact, the map may have some connection with an expedition to the Eastern Desert to find bekhen, a greenish sandstone particularly prized for royal statues.
To add to its precious nature as one of the earliest pieces of cartography we possess, we even know the name of its compiler, as an inscription on the map records that it was drawn by Amenakhte, son of Ipuy, the Scribe of the Tomb during the reign of the pharaoh Ramesses IV (1156–50 BC).
More like this
Hereford Mappa Mundi
Although the few Roman maps we possess include a number of itineraries (lists or sometimes visual depictions of routes through the provinces), this tradition largely died away after the collapse of the Western Roman empire in the late fifth century AD. In medieval Europe, maps were not intended as a practical means for way-finding, or even as an accurate representation of terrain. Instead the genre known as mappae mundi (‘maps of the world’) drew on religious works to present a view of geography shaped by Christian history and scholarship.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi, dating from around 1290, is one of the finest examples, showing the world centred on the holy city of Jerusalem and with a figure of Christ in judgment over virtuous souls. The central portion of the map is packed with representations of towns and biblical scenes, while at the very top Adam and Eve are shown being expelled from the Garden of Eden.
The map’s compilers were also steeped in the traditions of classical geographers such as Pliny the Elder, who avidly collected accounts of fabulous creatures and peoples to be found along the margins of the Roman world. The Hereford map is enlivened with drawings of manticores, mandrakes and unicorns as well as the unlikely figure of the Sciapodes who, it’s said, used its single enlarged foot as a living parasol. Medieval maps might serve for religious instruction, but they were also intended to inspire wonder, awe and, quite possibly, to entertain.
The Reynolds Slavery Map
With the growing sophistication of cartography fuelled by the great age of exploration in the 15th and 16th century – not to mention the demands of increasingly powerful rulers to chart their domains – maps came to be put to a wider range of uses, eventually being co-opted as a tool of political polemic. Few maps are as emblematic of a national crisis as William C Reynolds’s 1856 Political Map of the United States. It formed part of the increasingly bitter debate between abolitionists and defenders of slavery and is one of the first examples of mapping used for a particular political purpose.
The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act had laid down that territories acquired by the United States from France by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 should be free to determine by popular vote whether slavery be allowed or outlawed, and tempers became inflamed in the struggle to sway public opinion towards the respective sides. Reynolds’s map show free states drawn in red, slave states in black and those territories that might potentially be opened to slavery shaded in deep green.
The map is accompanied by a wealth of statistical information comparing free states with slave ones, intending to show the latter in a distinctly unfavourable light (even in terms of the number of public libraries they possessed).
The Reynolds map marked the birth of cartography as propaganda, but the polemic it provoked did little to ease tensions between the northern and southern states over the slavery issue, which finally erupted five years later in the American Civil War.
Military cartography, pioneered in the 17th century and refined during the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars, played a crucial role in the global conflicts that scarred the 20th century. The static warfare of the First World War trenches produced casualties on an unimaginable scale. As many as 10 million soldiers lost their lives during the war, with almost 20,000 British soldiers dying on 1 July 1916 alone, the first day of the battle of the Somme (this includes Commonwealth and empire soldiers, who also sustained heavy casualties on the first day of the Somme).
By 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) had been established to comb the battlefields, searching for burial sites and moving the bodies to military cemeteries where they could be cared for with respect. The IWGC created maps, meticulously marking the site where each of the fallen had been found.
Divided into 500-yard grid squares, this map of the bodies collected after the third battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) is cartographic testament to its calm and methodical work in the face of appalling horrors. Each of the blue annotations indicates the number of soldiers' bodies recovered from a particular area, men who had lost their lives amid the mud-choked, shell-pocked hell into which the battlefield had been transformed. In its silent presentation of the topography of death, the map marks one of the first small steps in coming to terms with the sheer scale of the tragedy of the First World War.
Operation Neptune, the codename for the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944, was the largest amphibious invasion in history. Its success was in large part due to accurate Allied intelligence about the deployment of German units and the location and scale of the defences that they had constructed. In this, mapping played a key role. As General Bernard Montgomery, commander of Allied ground forces in Normandy, remarked: “At no time did map supply fail or prejudice the conduct of operations.”
As early as 1943 a Benson programme of special maps of the intended invasion area was begun, using modified prewar mapping, aerial photographs and even postcards of selected coastal regions. This was supplemented in the final assault maps with overprints that included additional intelligence that had been gained about German defences and engineering along the beaches selected for the landings.
This US military map of Omaha Beach includes details of underwater obstacles, such as rocks, which might present dangers to military landing craft, as well as inland strongpoints near the shoreline which the assaulting troops would have to capture to break clear of the beach.
The D-Day landings were highly risky ventures, in which the margin between disaster and success was uncomfortably narrow. Accurate maps such as this were one means by which the Allies were able to move the odds slightly in their favour.
Cuban Missile Crisis
When the Soviet Union was found to be preparing to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962 – in contravention of assurances the Soviet leadership had repeatedly made to the Americans – fears that these missiles could target almost the whole of the United States led to a crisis that left the world teetering on the brink of disaster.
An American U-2 spy plane flew over Cuba on 14 October and the photographs it took proved that the Soviets had indisputably been lying. Two days later the CIA informed President Kennedy of this intelligence and he marked the map used during that briefing with the annotation “missile sites”.
An American-imposed blockade on Cuba was successful in preventing most of the longer-range nuclear missiles from reaching their intended bases, but it was only on 28 October that the Soviet leader Khrushchev blinked first and agreed to pull out the missiles in exchange for a similar American withdrawal of nuclear missiles based in Turkey. The map, though, remains as a chilling testament to a confrontation between superpowers that very nearly led to a nuclear war.
Mapping Space – the Moon Map
For centuries mankind’s efforts at cartography were limited to mapping the Earth (and occasional imaginary worlds). Although there had been drawings of the moon made on the basis of telescopic observations by Galileo as early as 1609, the first modern map of Earth’s satellite had to wait until the mid-20th century and the inception of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. When President John F Kennedy announced in May 1961 the goal of placing a man on the moon within a decade, the obvious need arose to create a map of the lunar terrain on which the astronauts would land.
Large telescopes, such as at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, were used to capture photographic images, which were then compiled to create this Generalized Photogeologic Map of the Moon. The coloured areas on the map classify the moon’s surface into Pre-Maria (orange), the oldest areas of cratered highlands formed by thousands of ancient meteorites, and the younger Maria (yellow) and Post-Maria (green) rock formations.
The information assembled during the creation of the map enabled the identification of possible landing sites for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission. When Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first step beyond the Earth, there already existed a map to show him where he was treading.
The Times History of the World in Maps, published by Times Books, brings together 70 of the most significant maps ever produced, dating back to the Babylonian and Egyptian civilisations.
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99