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A History of the World in 12 Maps [Hardcover]

Jerry Brotton
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. (Nov.)

From Booklist

Maps, both ancient and current, can reveal more than hard, physical facts such as rivers, mountains, and lines of latitude and longitude. They can also indicate the perceptions and biases of the cartographers and the cultures in which they labored. That is a recurring theme throughout this striking collection of maps, ranging from a world map based on Ptolemy’s second-century CE calculations, to a current Google Earth map. The maps and excellent commentaries that accompany them illustrate, of course, the advances of scientific knowledge about the earth. But they also show how these creators were influenced by their ethnocentric views and the political pressures of various interest groups. For example, a map from medieval Europe shows the Far East as a land under the sway of cannibals and outcasts, while a Chinese map portrays lands to the west controlled by savages. This is a stimulating and thought-provoking study of how the mixing of science, politics, and even religion influenced and continues to influence cartography --Jay Freeman


“[A] rewarding journey for the intellectually intrepid.”
“If there’s a single takeaway from this fascinating and richly illustrated book, it’s that mapmaking is perennially contentious.”
—The Daily Beast
 “A stimulating and thought-provoking study of how the mixing of science, politics, and even religion influenced and continues to influence cartography.”
“This history of 12 epoch-defining maps—including Google’s—is a revelation… Brotton offers an excellent guide to understanding these influential attempts at psychogeographical transcendence.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“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.  In addition, they can be extraordinarily beautiful… All these facets are represented in British historian Jerry Brotton’s rich A History of the World in 12 Maps.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Author Jerry Brotton's book dips into maps spanning millenia of human experience, from Ptolemy's Geography (circa 150 AD) all the way up to Google Earth, the dynamic, increasingly omnipresent Internet Age way that we answer the age-old question "Where am I?" …Along the way, he finds some marvelous things.”
—Christian Science Monitor

About the Author

Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London and a leading expert in the history of maps and Renaissance cartography. His most recent book, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection (2006), was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize as well as the Hessell-Tiltman History Prize. He lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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 remain obscure. The text on the back of the tablet identifies its scribe as a descendant of someone called ‘Ea-bel-ili’ from the ancient city of Borsippa (Birs Nimrud), to the south of Sippar, but why it was made and for whom remains a mystery. Nevertheless, we can tell that this is an early example of one of the most basic objectives of human understanding: to impose some kind of order and structure onto the vast, apparently limitless space of the known world. Alongside its symbolic and mythic description of the world’s ori­gins, the tablet’s map presents an abstraction of terrestrial reality. It comprehends the earth by categorizing it in circles, triangles, oblongs and dots, unifying writing and image in a world picture at the centre of which lies Babylon. More than two millennia before the dream of look­ing at the earth from deep space became a reality, the Babylonian world map offers its viewers the chance to look down on the world from above, and adopt a god-like perspective on earthly creation.

Even today, the most committed traveller can never hope to experi­ence more than a fraction of the earth’s surface area of more than 510 million square kilometres. In the ancient world, even short-distance travel was a rare and diffi cult activity, generally undertaken with reluc­tance and positively feared by those who did so.3 To ‘see’ the world’s dimensions reproduced on a clay tablet measuring just 12 by 8 centi­metres must have been awe-inspiring, even magical. This is the world, the tablet says, and Babylon is the world. To those who saw themselves as part of Babylon, it was a reassuring message. To those who saw it and were not, the tablet’s description of Babylonian power and dominion was unmistakable. No wonder that from ancient times, the kind of geographical information relayed by objects like the Babylonian tablet was the preserve of the mystical or ruling elite. As we shall see through­out this book, for shamans, savants, rulers and religious leaders, maps of the world conferred arcane, magical authority on their makers and owners. If such people understood the secrets of creation and the extent of humanity, then surely they must know how to master the terrestrial world in all its terrifying and unpredictable diversity.

Although the Babylonian world map represents the fi rst known attempt to map the whole known world, it is a relatively late example of human mapmaking. The earliest known examples of prehistoric art showing the landscape in plan are inscribed on rock or clay and predate the Babylonian world map by more than 25 , 000 years; they stretch back to the Upper Palaeolithic period of 30 , 000 BC . These early inscrip­tions, much debated by archaeologists as to their date and meaning, seem to represent huts with human figures, livestock enclosures, divi­sions between basic dwellings, depictions of hunting grounds, even rivers and mountains. Most are so stark that they might easily be mis­taken for abstract, geometrical attempts to represent the spatial distribution of objects or events when they are in fact probably more symbolic marks, connected to indecipherable mythic, sacred and cos­mological references for ever lost to us. Today, archaeologists are more cautious than their nineteenth-century predecessors in ascribing the term ‘map’ to these early pieces of rock art; establishing a clear date for the emergence of prehistoric rock art seems to be as futile as defi ning when a baby first learns to differentiate itself spatially from its immedi­ate environment.4

The urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct. 5 Where would we be without maps? The obvious answer is, of course, ‘lost’, but maps provide answers to many more questions than simply how to get from one place to another. From early childhood onwards, we make sense of ourselves in relation to the wider physical world by processing informa­tion spatially. Psychologists call this activity ‘cognitive mapping’, the mental device by which individuals acquire, order and recall informa­tion about their spatial environment, in the process of which they distinguish and define themselves spatially in relation to a vast, terrify­ing, unknowable world ‘out there’. 6 Mapping of this kind is not unique to humans. Animals also use mapping procedures, such as the scent-marking of territory performed by dogs or wolves, or the location of nectar from a hive defined by the ‘dance’ of the honey bee. 7 But only humans have made the crucial leap from mapping to mapmaking. 8 With the appearance of permanent graphic methods of communication more than 40 , 000 years ago, humans developed the ability to translate ephem­eral spatial information into permanent and reproducible form.

So what is a map? The English word ‘map’ (and its derivatives) is used in a variety of modern European vernaculars such as Spanish, Por­tuguese and Polish, and comes from the Latin term mappa, meaning a tablecloth, or napkin. The French word for map – carte – originates in a different Latin word, carta, which also provides the root for the Ital­ian and Russian words for map (carta and karta) and refers to a formal document, which in turn is derived from the Greek word for papyrus. The ancient Greek term for map – pinax – suggests a different kind of object. A pinax is a tablet made of wood, metal or stone, on which words or images were drawn or incised. Arabic takes the term in a more visual direction: it uses two words, surah, translated as ‘fi gure’, and


naqshah, or ‘painting’, while Chinese has adopted a similar word, tu, meaning a drawing or a diagram.9 The term ‘map’ (or ‘mappe’) only enters the English language in the sixteenth century, and between then and the 1990 s more than 300 competing definitions of it have been proposed.10


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