Book Impressions: To the Ends of the Earth: 100 Maps That Changed the World

“How can maps – mere pictures on paper or impressions in clay – change the world? … Through history, mapmakers have played on our instinctive belief in the truth of maps. Maps have been used as powerful propaganda, from Agrippa’s map of the Roman Empire to Hitler’s map of the Austrian Anschluss. Border can be moved, names can be changed, features can be omitted. Maps have changed out world – and they will shape our future.”

Jeremy Harwood’s 2006 book on maps and their history around the world is a pleasure to read or simply just page through. The maps are divided into the following parts:

  • The Ancient World
  • The Classical World
  • The Medieval World
  • The Age of Discovery
  • The Age of Empire
  • The Modern World

The oldest map in the book is the Idaho Map Rock (10 000 B.C.), while the newest is the “Blue Marble Map” (2005) by NASA.

Harwood makes sure to use maps from around the world, though I think if costs were not a consideration, he would have liked to include even more maps (but I am glad the publisher kept it affordable!). He also includes maps ranging from the encompassing mappae mundi to local street maps to illustrate the vastly different ways in which the world we live in can be plotted.

There is also a definite move to explain the different world views through the ages and how the “driving force behind [maps’] creation [could be] religious and philosophical” (Harwood, 2006:31), rather than simply showing what a part of the world looked like.

The book also includes some of my favourite maps like the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi (c. 1300 AD) which was “designed to instruct the faithful about significant events in Christian history” (Harwood, 2006: 38-39) and in which the world is depicted as the body of Christ, his arms embracing it and its peoples” (Harwood, 2006:39). The Fra Mauro Mappa Mundi (1459 AD), which was made in Italy, is also included. Fra Mauro (a Venetian Monk) said of his goal: “In my time I have striven to verify the writings through many years’ investigation and intercourse with persons worthy of credence who have seen with their own eyes what is faithfully set above” (Harwood, 2006:57).

The Cantino Planisphere (Portugal, 1502 AD) also shows Africa in quite splendid detail on this master map (Harwood, 2006:63), not to mention Gerardus Mercato’s 1538 world map (Harwood, 2006:84-85).

In “Exploring the Pacific” (Harwood, 2006:116-123), Harwood shows an example of a Marshallese stick chart, which I find fascinating. Another prime example of beautiful mapmaking is the 1853 Japanese world map shown on p126-127. The 2005 Blue Marble Map by NASA – the final one in the book – is one of those images that puts the immense size of the world in comparison with us and yet also remind us of the tiny size of our planet in comparison with the galaxy (not to mention the known universe) into perspective.

I can really recommend this volume to those who love maps and history or who would just like to find out more about the world they live in.

Harwood, J. (2006). To the Ends of the Earth: 100 Maps that Changed the World. Cape Town: Struik.


By Carin Marais

Bibliophile, writer of speculative fiction, non-fiction, and maybe-fiction, language practitioner, doer of stuff.

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