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A History of the World in 12 Maps

Cover of A History of the World in 12 Maps

A History of the World in 12 Maps

A New York Times Bestseller

"Maps allow the armchair traveler to roam the world, the diplomat to argue his points, the ruler to administer his country, the warrior to plan his campaigns and the propagandist to boost his cause... rich and beautiful." – Wall Street Journal
Throughout history, maps have been fundamental in shaping our view of the world, and our place in it. But far from being purely scientific objects, maps of the world are unavoidably ideological and subjective, intimately bound up with the systems of power and authority of particular times and places. Mapmakers do not simply represent the world, they construct it out of the ideas of their age. In this scintillating book, Jerry Brotton examines the significance of 12 maps - from the almost mystical representations of ancient history to the satellite-derived imagery of today. He vividly recreates the environments and circumstances in which each of the maps was made, showing how each conveys a highly individual view of the world. Brotton shows how each of his maps both influenced and reflected contemporary events and how, by considering it in all its nuances and omissions, we can better understand the world that produced it.
Although the way we map our surroundings is more precise than ever before, Brotton argues that maps today are no more definitive or objective than they have ever been. Readers of this beautifully illustrated and masterfully argued book will never look at a map in quite the same way again.

"A fascinating and panoramic new history of the cartographer's art."
The Guardian

"The intellectual background to these images is conveyed with beguiling erudition.... There is nothing more subversive than a map."
– The Spectator

"A mesmerizing and beautifully illustrated book."
The Telegraph


From the Trade Paperback edition.
A New York Times Bestseller

"Maps allow the armchair traveler to roam the world, the diplomat to argue his points, the ruler to administer his country, the warrior to plan his campaigns and the propagandist to boost his cause... rich and beautiful." – Wall Street Journal
Throughout history, maps have been fundamental in shaping our view of the world, and our place in it. But far from being purely scientific objects, maps of the world are unavoidably ideological and subjective, intimately bound up with the systems of power and authority of particular times and places. Mapmakers do not simply represent the world, they construct it out of the ideas of their age. In this scintillating book, Jerry Brotton examines the significance of 12 maps - from the almost mystical representations of ancient history to the satellite-derived imagery of today. He vividly recreates the environments and circumstances in which each of the maps was made, showing how each conveys a highly individual view of the world. Brotton shows how each of his maps both influenced and reflected contemporary events and how, by considering it in all its nuances and omissions, we can better understand the world that produced it.
Although the way we map our surroundings is more precise than ever before, Brotton argues that maps today are no more definitive or objective than they have ever been. Readers of this beautifully illustrated and masterfully argued book will never look at a map in quite the same way again.

"A fascinating and panoramic new history of the cartographer's art."
The Guardian

"The intellectual background to these images is conveyed with beguiling erudition.... There is nothing more subversive than a map."
– The Spectator

"A mesmerizing and beautifully illustrated book."
The Telegraph


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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  • From the book Introduction

    Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah, modern-day Iraq), sixth century BC

    In 1881 , the Iraqi-born archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered a small fragment of a 2 , 500 -year-old cuneiform clay tablet in the ruins of the ancient Babylonian city of Sippar, today known as Tell Abu Habbah, on the south-west outskirts of modern-day Baghdad. The tablet was just one of nearly 70 , 000 excavated by Rassam over a period of eighteen months and shipped back to the British Museum in London. Rassam's mission, inspired by a group of English Assyriologists who were struggling to decipher cuneiform script, was to discover a tablet which it was hoped would provide a historical account of the biblical Flood.1 At first, the tablet was overlooked in favour of more impressive, complete examples. This was partly because Rassam, who could not read cuneiform, was unaware of its significance, which was appreciated only at the end of the nineteenth century when the script was successfully translated. Today, the tablet is on public display at the British Museum, labelled as 'The Babylonian Map of the World'. It is the fi rst known map of the world.

    The tablet discovered by Rassam is the earliest surviving object that represents the whole world in plan from a bird's-eye view, looking down on the earth from above. The map is composed of two concentric rings, within which are a series of apparently random circles, oblongs and curves, all of which are centred on a hole apparently made by an early pair of compasses. Evenly distributed around the outer circle are eight triangles, only five of which remain legible. Only when the cuneiform text is deciphered does the tablet begin to make sense as a map.

    The outer circle is labelled 'marratu', or 'salt sea', and represents an ocean encircling the inhabited world. Within the inner ring the most prominent curved oblong running through the central hole depicts the Euphrates River, fl owing from a semicircle in the north labelled 'moun­tain', and ending in the southern horizontal rectangle described as 'channel' and 'swamp'. The rectangle bisecting the Euphrates is labelled 'Babylon', surrounded by an arc of circles representing cities and regions including Susa (in southern Iraq), Bit Yakin (a district of Chaldea, near where Rassam himself was born), Habban (home of the ancient Kassite tribe), Urartu (Armenia), Der and Assyria. The triangles emanating out­wards from the outer circle of sea are labelled 'nagû', which can be translated as 'region' or 'province'. Alongside them are cryptic legends describing distances (such as 'six leagues between where the sun is not seen'),2 and exotic animals – chameleons, ibexes, zebus, monkeys, ostriches, lions and wolves. These are uncharted spaces, the mythical, faraway places beyond the circular limits of the known Babylonian world.

    The cuneiform text at the top of the tablet and on its reverse reveals that this is more than just a map of the earth's surface: it is a compre­hensive diagram of Babylonian cosmology, with the inhabited world as its manifestation. The tantalizing fragments speak of the creation myth of the battle between the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ti'amat. In Babylonian mythology, Marduk's victory over what the tablet calls the 'ruined gods' led to the foundation of heaven and earth, humanity and language, all centred on Babylon, created 'on top of the restless sea'. The tablet, made from the earth's clay, is a physical expression of Marduk's mythical accomplishments, the creation of the earth and subsequent achievements of human civilization, fashioned out of the watery primal chaos.

    The circumstances of the tablet's creation...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from September 2, 2013
    In an era when Google Maps is regarded as a standard convenience, this history of 12 epoch-defining maps—including Google’s—is a revelation. Renaissance scholar Brotton examines a cross-cultural sampling of historic world maps, exploring them as representations of both the Earth, and of the philosophical mores of the cultures that produced them. The maps range in function from the “practical maintenance of empire” to the spiritual concerns of uniting “the earth and the heavens in a harmonious, universal whole.” Each simultaneously represents a geographical survey, an aesthetic achievement, technological progress, theological instruction, and political demarcation. These multiple functions are mirrored in the structure of the book, which reflects political, philosophical, and cultural development. The maps are about humanity’s changing relationship with itself, others, the Earth, and the heavens, and this broad scope makes for rich reading. Ultimately, the unifying function of each map is to “rise above the earth” and see with a “divine perspective,” and Brotton offers an excellent guide to understanding these influential attempts at psychogeographical transcendence. Of course, each historic map, despite the cartographer’s efforts, contained inaccuracies, necessitating revisions—a humbling lesson for our current information-dense age. Maps.

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Jerry Brotton
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