Society for the History of Discoveries


Mapping the World: An Illustrated History of Cartography. Ralph Ehrenberg.
Washington DC: National Geographic, 2006. 245 p., many plates. ISBN 0792265254. $40.00


The sub-title of this large, handsome, profusely illustrated book is misleading. It might rather be called Snapshots in the History of Cartography. It is difficult to do justice to the book without quibbling. Rather than a text with map illustrations, this book is map illustrations - over one hundred of them - with text. Its purpose was not to provide a reader with chapters on the development of surveying or on the problem of the longitude. There is no sustained treatment of topics usually covered in a history of cartography. Instead, a selection of maps has been chosen to illustrate major themes explored in six sections: Emergence of Mapping Traditions; Charting the Age of Discovery and Exploration; Maps for Royalty, Nobility, Clergy, and Merchant Princes; National Surveys and Thematic Cartography; Maps for Everyone; and Satellite Imaging, Digital Mapping, and Virtual Reality. 

A general Introduction sketches a very brief outline of the development of cartography from Babylonian to recent times. The six sections trace a generally chronological path from the frequently described 600 BC Babylonian world map on a clay tablet to a digitally produced map of the globe, 2004. The sections open with a two-page introduction which discusses the main points to be illustrated, followed by a selection of pertinent maps with commentary on each. These include well-known blockbusters - the Catalan atlas, the Piri Reis chart, Leo Belgicus, John Mitchell’s “British and French Dominions”, Lewis and Clark’s map of the West - as well as many lesser-known but important maps. While most of the maps are of European or American origin, seven maps from the Islamic world, thirteen from China, Japan, or India and several from pre-literate societies are a very welcome recognition that mapmakers other than those in the West were at work.

The main value of the book lies not only in the number and variety of the maps but also in the very scholarly accompanying texts. Each map is explicated in terms of its historical as well as geographical context, and made relevant to the history of cartography. The author is not only able to put the Mitchell map into the political scene of 1750s colonial America, but to explain the importance and background of a Chinese sea chart, discuss the Japanese imperial edict that prompted the construction of route maps, or the necessity for a medieval Turkish “quibla”, a map to guide the faithful in the direction of Mecca.

And herein lies my major quibble. The jacket of the book lists Ralph E. Ehrenberg, in very small black letters on a dark blue background, below the title. A picture of Ehrenberg with thumb-nail biography is on the back flap. But he is not listed as author on the title-page, and unless an enquiring reader should look on the final page where he is listed as Editor (again in small type), and where a statement of acknowledgments bears his signature, he/she would be unaware of Ehrenberg’s enormous contribution. While the overwhelming number of maps have been culled from the vast collection at the Library of Congress, maps have been drawn from twenty-three other institutions in nine countries, a reflection of a mind thoroughly familiar with cartographic materials and sources. The National Geographic Society may have conceived of the idea for this idiosyncratic book, but Ehrenberg has carried it out brilliantly.

However, no reviewer can leave a book without throwing in a few caveats. There is no list of the maps included, and using the index to track down a possible map is cumbersome. Most of the maps illustrated are on one page, facing the text. However, some larger maps cover facing pages, and the tight binding makes it difficult to see details in the gutter. In general the reproductions are excellent, though some of the colors seem, to this reviewer, too muddy. And I found one strange error, probably due to a typo or an oversight, but surely the Catalan Atlas does not have south at the top?

That said, this is an excellent buy for the price. Where else can one find so many maps both illustrated and explicated? Don’t buy it if you are looking for an ordinary history of cartography, but do buy it to get a feel for the sweep and extraordinary reach of maps and man’s desire to depict his physical, social, political and spiritual environment.

Barbara McCorkle
Lawrence, Kansas


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