Two Maps of the Mediterranean

By Zeynep Olgun, @Fall_of_Zeynep

Two maps of the Mediterranean, one included in the medieval cosmological treatise Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes (Kitāb Gharā’ib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn) and the other frequently reproduced in modern scholarship, first appear very distinct, but perhaps share a similarity: they reflect a mariner’s view of the Mediterranean.1 I will discuss what this view might have been, and how both maps have reproduced this knowledge.

Mariners’ perspectives were directly related to the way they navigated the Mediterranean, not using physical maps to find their way, but reliant upon generations of knowledge accumulation and transfer, producing what we call mental maps. These maps are part of common-sense geography, which is the implicit knowledge of the landscape by the communities that inhabit it. It is often called “lower” geography and compared to “higher” geography which includes maps produced by professional geographers, such as Ptolemy’s map from the second century CE.2

Higher geography maps were not used on ships, and contrary to the popular belief, the sun and the stars played a minimal role in ancient and medieval Mediterranean navigation.3 Instead, sailors relied on dead reckoning, which prioritises the wind and duration of sailing over other estimates. A ship would set sail from point A under a certain wind, and its sailors would know how long it will take in these conditions to reach point B. During the journey, the captain would adjust his course by landmarks: ranging from islands, mountains, and capes to man-made structures like lighthouses, temples, and towers. Most of the time, sailors would repeat their known routes, for which they had common-sense geography—knowledge of a combination of the winds and landmarks. This is exactly where the medieval and the modern map coalesce.

Bodleian Library MS. Arab. c. 90, fols. 30b and 31a.

The medieval map of the Mediterranean examined here is from a treatise called The Book of Curiosities.4 It was compiled from ancient sources on astronomy and geography by an anonymous author between 1020 and 1050 CE, possibly in Fatimid Egypt. From the Straits of Gibraltar on the left (indicated by the red line) clockwise towards the right, the first 13 anchorages marked on the map are those from the Western Mediterranean. Out of the next 110 anchorages, 93 of them cover the area between Northern Aegean and Alexandria, dominating most of the map. While the islands in the Western Mediterranean are simply noted as jazirah (island), those in the Eastern Mediterranean are more detailed. This is particularly evident for Sicily and Cyprus which are represented as big rectangles. The anchorages themselves reveal their relation to the winds: either which winds would reach them, or which winds they would be protected from. This medieval map reflects the knowledge of someone who used the winds to travel from Egypt across the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the islands of Sicily and Cyprus with which the Fatimids had close trade contacts. Its anonymous author confirms the suspicion that his map reflects the knowledge of mariners, as he mentions that he wrote down what he had heard from trustworthy sailors.5

The Corrupting Sea, Map 9.

This brings me to a modern map, which has been reproduced in many publications concerned with seafaring in the last two decades and shows the regions of the Mediterranean where land is visible from the sea.6 I first encountered this map in The Corrupting Sea (Map 9) where it was used to visualize the “lines of sight” in the Mediterranean.7 The authors cited Emerging Complexity (Fig. 59), which highlighted the areas out of sight and interestingly had the complete opposite approach to the map.8 This rabbit hole took me to the Cambridge University Library, where I found Emerging Complexity’s source in a 1980 archaeological excavation report of an Iberian site.9 There, the map was given with a calculation of how it was drawn, but the archaeologist Wilhelm Schüle was not the first one to draw it. To my satisfaction, the work of the first cartographer had been digitised.

Die Grenze Der Sichtbarkeit des Landes Auf dem Meere, Map 21.

In the forty-seventh volume of Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen (1901), Ludwig Henkel declared that although scholars have emphasized the importance of landmarks for early seafaring, no one had visualized the boundary of sight, which he thought would have very important anthropogeographical implications.10 His calculations were based on the height of mountains visible from the sea. Schüle and Henkel’s calculations are arguably different, yet the ideas behind their maps remain the same. In fact, the ideas behind the modern and the medieval map are also very similar: both maps were informed by the “lower” form of geographic knowledge of sailors but were adapted for a “higher” geography map. The modern map, especially, superimposes sailors’ common-sense geography by outlining what the sailor could and could not see.   

1 This manuscript was obtained by the Bodleian Library in 2002, and it is catalogued as Bodleian Library, MS Arab. c. 90. See Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Arab. c. 90,

2 Anca Dan, Wolfgang Crom, Klaus Geus, Günther Görz, Kurt Guckelsberger, Viola König, Thomas Poiss, and Martin Thiering, “Common Sense Geography and Ancient Geographical Texts,” Journal for Ancient Studies 6 (2016): 571–97.

3 Pascal Arnaud, “Ancient Mariners between Experience and Common Sense Geography,” in Features of Common Sense Geography: Implicit Knowledge Structures in Ancient Geographical Texts, ed. Klaus Geu and Martin Thiering, Antike Kultur Und Geschichte 16 (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2014), 39–68.

4 The edition and translation of the text with comments, as well as the facsimile, can be found in Emilie Savage-Smith and Yossef Rapoport, An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013).

5 Bodleian Library, MS Arab. c. 90, fol. 29a.

6 As I was drafting this post, I was reading Matthew Harpster’s very recent monograph, Reconstructing a Maritime Past where I again encountered this map. See Matthew Harpster, Reconstructing a Maritime Past (London: Routledge, 2023). The map can also be found in Thomas F. Tartaron, Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 109; Cyprian Broodbank, An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 40.

7 Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 127.

8 Robert Chapman, Emerging Complexity: The Later Prehistory of South-East Spain, Iberia, and the West Mediterranean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 262.  

9 Wilhelm Schüle, Orce Und Galera: Zwei Siedlungen Aus Dem 3. Bis 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr. Im Südosten Der Iberischen Halbinsel, I Übersicht Über Die Ausgrabungen 1962-1970. (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Phillip von Zabern, 1980), 17.

10 Ludwig Henkel, “Die Grenze Der Sichtbarkeit des Landes Auf dem Meere,” Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 47 (1901): 284–85 (map on page 729).

Featured Image Credit: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Arab. c. 90 fols. 30b and 31a,

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