Obsession of the Day: Ancient Maps/ The Key To Earth’s Legend

It’s common knowledge that the earth is round, but never forget the fact that there was once a time when it was common knowledge that the earth was flat. Discovery, and its many forms, is the end result of exploration . How better to learn your way around the cracks and crevices of the Earth’s surface than with a map? Here’s a look at ancient maps, my obsession of the day.

Ancient Maps: The Onset of Navigation, Civilization and More 

Picture yourself in a cave off the coast of somewhere, waves crashing against the shoreline. You’re alone when that white streak in the sky disappears and nothing but darkness surrounds you. Bearings are difficult to gather since you don’t even have an understanding of which way the tide rolls in. As such, figuring out where to pitch your hut and not get eaten in the process is somewhat challenging. This was life before cartography, when everyone who wandered truly was lost. Today, it may look like we’ve covered lots of ground, but believe it or not, there are plenty of unmapped corners to go and that’s only on this planet. When you take into consideration the vast spinning universe, it becomes clear that we still know very little about our surroundings.

Ancient Maps: Why We’re Obsessed With Them

Sure today’s maps are likely more reliable and definitely easier to make but part of the allure of these quondam documents lies in their imperfections. Modern day maps tell us a bit about where we’re headed. The maps of yesteryear however, tell us a lot about where we’ve been, why we went there and what the world looked like through the eyes of ancient voyagers. Spacial information, the scientific stuff that maps are made of, isn’t always easy to convey. In fact, there’s an entire school of thought dedicated to the map makers’ perspective and how that perspective influences the map itself. More on that in a minute. For now, let’s just focus on the most intriguing part of the ancient map making process.—The escapade. You see, back then, if you wanted to map a course for the world, you had to take a journey, often one of the treacherous, life altering variety.

Choose A New Obsession



“I have indeed—praise be to God—attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth, and I have attained this honour, which no ordinary person has attained.” IBN Baṭūṭah, World Traveler 1304-1369


Famous voyagers Who Brought Us The World On Parchment

What did it take to brave the high seas of yesteryear and return to your homeland with treasures and visual aids? Well aside from courage and fleets of ships and sailors to help navigate said ships, you also needed:

  • Money — in order to fund your stay in various destinations upon arrival as well as upkeep of the ship, crew, etc.
  • Connections— Theft was common at the dawn of exploration so maintaining worldly connections was a great way to avoid the perils of life on the open water and world.
  • Sea legs—Travel by water was often safer, faster and more effective.
  • Medicine— Falling ill whilst on a journey was  common and could often be fatal

Ancient Maps Could Never Exist Without These Great Explorers

The below listed voyagers had all of the aforementioned attributes and something else too—a deep understanding of our ever changing planet. Meet them and the ancient maps they brought forth.

Ibn Baṭūṭah
ootd maps ibn 2Hailing from Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Baṭūṭah was a Muslim scholar and world traveler revered as one of the “greatest travelers of all time” — quote from Glimpses of World History. His many maps charted multiple places in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Incidentally, he happened to be one of the wealthiest Islamic intellectuals and voyagers of the Medieval Times.

Ancient Map from Medieval Times

ootd maps ibn 3

Sieur De La Salle

La Salle University was named after this renowned French traveler who set sail across the Great Lakes of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. You might have heard of the La Salle Expedition. If not, look out for it in an upcoming obsession.

Leif Erikson

Iceland native Leif Erikson is notable, not only for his exploration, but also because his sole existence as an explorer defies a lot of what is often taught in social studies in regards to Christopher Columbus. While it is widely known that Christopher Columbus didn’t exactly discover America (due to the fact that people were already living there) he is still regarded as having brought the discovery of America back to Europe. Upon further archeological scrutiny, however, it becomes clear that Erikson, who was of Norse descent, was actually the first European voyager to set foot on American soil. Depicted below you will find one of the ancient maps of Iceland and Greenland or Groenland as it is believed to have been called.

Charles A Lindbergh

Speeding things forward in time, let’s have a look at Charles A Lindbergh whose flight from New York to Paris in 1929 single handedly changed the course of aviation for years to come. While there were several previous failed attempts at what is now known as a “Transatlantic Flight”, many of which involved hot air balloons, his was the first successful mission to be completed. Refer to the below depicted maps for a look at the course of aviation directly following Lindbergh’s success.

ootd maps lindbergh 2

Map makers-putting it all into perspective

As stated above, ancient maps were often flawed, or at the very least, influenced by the map makers’ perception of the world. Notable inaccuracies that caused quite the stir include:

  • The depiction of Africa which was frequently drawn as much smaller than its actual size
  • Ficticious locations drawn seemingly deliberately on maps such as those that depicted Mount Richard and Sandy Island, neither of which have ever existed
  • Errors due to natural and environmental changes. This happens when long periods of time lapse and old maps remain in circulation. In order to provide you with a firmer understanding of just how quickly things can change. Here’s a look at Southeast Asia from 120 AD up into the 1800s’.

From Ptolemy’s Perspective In Roughly 120 AD

ootd Ptolemy_Asia_detail

Southeast Asia in 400 AD

OOTD Asia_400ad

And Again, the Same Area in 1801

ootd se asia

I know what you’re thinking-what about all the monster maps?

Wait a minute—monster maps? While you might not have learned about them in history class, ancient maps are absolutely littered with mythical creatures. Things like sea monsters, dragons and dinosaurs roared ugly heads upon even the most famous of documents, particularly during the notorious Medieval era when legend had many a missing person written off as devoured by a fire-breathing monstrosity or worse but here’s something really noteworthy— many of the descriptions of these monsters were identical despite the fact that the accounts were given by travelers from different corners of the Earth who likely didn’t know each other or have contact with each other at all. Ahhh… The things that breed my new obsessions. Fire breathing dragons. Check.   

upcoming obsessions Fueled By this topic

Researching ancient maps has me looking forward to learning about fire breathing dragons, hot air balloons, the LaSalle Expedition, aviation history, stamps, unmapped lands and undiscovered waters.

the obsession that started today’s topic

This topic began as an offshoot of my very first documented obsession: Underwater Worlds.


Whenever possible, I like to gather my information the good old fashioned way—by heading over to the library. Below are the books and websites I relied upon to create this post along with which part(s) of the topic they covered.

  • To continue learning about Ibn Baṭūṭah please refer to wikipedia
  • For more information related to notable ancient explorers please see “Magill’s Choice Explorers“.
  • To continue learning about map projections, errors, inaccuracies and the most accurate map created in medieval times please see this post on Cartography  


This webpage contains unaltered versions of Wikimedia’s Ibn Battuta, Faroe stamp 225 Discovery of America – Leivur Eiriksson, History of Greenland and History of Southeast Asia all of which were available under Creative Commons licensing.

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