Ancient Maps That Illustrate How People Used To View The World

Before explorers, pioneers, and cartographers, the world might have seemed like a very small place. People weren’t sure how far the land stretched, or if it ever stopped. For all they knew, the tiny village they settled in was the center of the entire universe. But eventually, people became daring.

They started mapping out the land around them, venturing further and further into unknown regions. One of the first known maps ever created is the clay tablet containing the Babylonian Map of the World, dating back over 2,500 years ago. From there, ancient maps became bigger and more intricate with ever-changing centers of the universe.

The Oldest Known Map Dates Back To The 6th Century B.C.

The Oldest Known Map Dates Back To The 6th Century B.C.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The oldest known map of the world is the Babylonian Map of the World, dating back to the sixth century B.C. This clay tablet has a labeled depiction of the world as it was known back then, with the Euphrates river in the center and Babylon situated on the northern half of the map.

The map was discovered on the east bank of the Euphrates and was translated in 1889. Unfortunately, the description accompanying the illustration is partially lost, so we might never know what this ancient map says. As of 2020, the clay tablet resides in the British Museum.

Isidore of Seville Created The First T-O Patterned Map

Isidore De Sevilla Created The First T-O Patterned Map
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The first cartographer to showcase a “T and O” pattern was Isidore of Seville, c. 636. In his book Etymologiae, Origins in English, Isidore described the design, illustrating the unique pattern that would go on to become a blueprint for many historians of the medieval time.

His design clearly shows the “T” of the Mediterranean splitting the three continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. In his description, Asia was the size of both of the other two continents combined and located on the top, his east. It was thought that because the sun rose in the east, paradise, The Garden of Eden, was located in Asia.

Hecataeus Of Miletus’ Map Of The World

Hecataeus of Miletus' Map Is Divided Into Three Parts
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images

Hecataeus of Miletus was a Greek geographer who is credited with improving the map of Anaximander, a philosopher. The map was designed back in the fifth or sixth century B.C. and is split into three different sections: Asia, Europe, and Libya. All three of them are surrounded by a huge body of water that we call the Mediterranean Sea.

In simple terms, Hecataeus’ map is a round disc of land surrounded by a massive body of water. Some believe that his inspiration for the map’s redesign came from writing the book Ges Periodos, which illustrates his travels through Asia and Europe.

Posidonius’ Map Expands On The Ancient Greeks’ World

Posidonius' world map
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Wikimedia Commons

This map was drawn in 1630 by Petrus Bertius, working off ideas of the Greek historian Posidonius that were published in the 1st-century B.C.E. At the time, Posidonius was considered one of the greatest polymaths; that is, he had a wide range of knowledge, including geography, politics, astronomy, and philosophy.

While the Greek intellectual wouldn’t have known everything shown on the above map, Bertius used his written words about where the continents would be located, with Armenia in the very center.

Heinrich Bünting’s Understanding Of The World In 1581

Artist Heinrich Bünting's Understanding Of The World In 1581
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Heinrich Bünting was a pastor and theologian known for his 1581 published work of woodcut maps titled Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae, or “Travel book through Holy Scripture.” “The World in a Cloverleaf,” pictured above, was one of many illustrated in the book depicting the travels of notable persons in both the Old and New Testament.

Of course, this particular map is a figurative display of the world, encompassing biblical geography instead of physical, with Jeruselum right in the center of it all. This beautiful map can be found in the National Library of Israel’s Eran Laor maps collection.

The Genoese World Map Relied On The Work Of Explorer Niccolo Da Conti

The Genoese World Map Relied On Explorer Niccolo Da Conti
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images

The 1457 Genoese World Map was a modern version of the 1450 Fra Mauro map. The latter relied heavily on the exploration of Italian merchant Niccolo Da Conti to show the route from Europe around Africa and over to India, something the modern version illustrates with sea monsters.

While the artist is unknown, historians believe they had a certain taste for exotic wonders, a common scientific interest at the time. Interestingly, the oval shape of the world isn’t unusual for the time. The writer Hugh of Saint Victor once said that the world was shaped like Noah’s Ark!

Hereford Mappa Mundi Is The Largest Known Medieval Map

Hereford Mappa Mundi Is The Largest Known Medieval Map
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Dating back to 1280, the Hereford Mappa Mundi is the largest known medieval map in existence, measuring 158 cm by 133 cm. Drawn on prepared animal skin, the depiction derives from a T-O pattern, one of the earliest designs to illustrate the physical world.

While the T-O pattern typically means the cartographer believed the world was flat, that is not the case here. Even though a spherical world was acknowledged by people of the time, only known parts of the Northern Hemisphere were thought to be inhabited by humans, so the circular representation was accepted.

Ptolemy’s Map Was The First With Longitude And Latitude

Ptolemy's Map Was The First With Longitude And Latitude
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Ptolemy World Map is based on the description in geographer Claudius Ptolemy’s c. 150 book Geography. While there are many interesting aspects of this ancient map design, one of the biggest is that it is the first to use longitude and latitude lines.

The map illustrates three main continents, Europe, Asia, and Lybia (Africa), with the World Ocean located to the west and two large seas, the Mediterranean, and Indian. Due to Ptolemy’s incorrect calculation of the world’s circumference, the former actually extends too far, and unknown lands surround the latter.

Tabula Peutingeriana Illustrates The Roman Empire’s Roadways

Tabula Peutingeriana Illustrates The Roman Empires Roadways
Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Tabula Peutingeriana is an ancient map showing the Roman Empire’s road network. At one foot and one inch high and 22.1 feet long, the parchment scroll covers Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia, stretching all the way to India.

Unfortunately, those measurements are from a map that was recreated by a monk in eastern France in 1265, as the original Roman map has been lost to time. Nevertheless, the map is designed to show the intricate network of roads that connected settlements during the Roman Empire.

Cosmas Indicopleustes Believed The World Was Flat

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DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

In his 6th-century work, Christian Topography, Cosmas Indicopleuste shares his view that the world is, in fact, flat, and that the heavens form a chest-like shape on all side of the land. He scorned the teachings of Ptolemy, who was preaching that the world was round, aiming to prove pre-Christian geographers were incorrect.

His goal was to illustrate how the world was modeled on the tabernacle, a place of worship God described to Moses. However, his view was not well-received in even the most religious of circles.

Jean Mansel Depicted Europe, Asia, And Africa

t-o-world-map
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Drawn by Jean Mansel between 1459-1463, this T-O map is a beautiful rendition of Isidore of Seville’s original thinking in the 7th century. The design is an early model of how scholars saw the physical world, broken into three pieces, Europe, Asia, and Africa, with each surrounded by water and Jeruselum at the center.

This particular T-O map was first derived in Jean Mansel’s book La Fleur des Histoires, a collection of work showcasing historical events from the time of Creation to the death of King Charles VI in 1422.

The Cottoniana Map Falls Outside Medieval Mapping Tradition

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Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Based on the journey of Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from Rome, The Cottoniana Map was first thought to have been drawn around CE 992–994. After further analysis of the world map, it’s been decided that it was actually illustrated closer to 1025-1050.

Interestingly, this map falls outside the lines of traditional medieval mapping. Jerusalem is not in the center of the world, the Garden of Eden is nowhere to be found, and east is at the top instead of north.

Beatus Of Libeana’s Map Is Considered A “Christian Map”

Beatus Of Libeana's Map Is Considered A
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Created in the 8th century AD, this world map comes from Beatus of Libean’s illustrated manuscript called Saint-Sever Beatus, featuring the Commentary on the Apocolypse. The map is, in fact, one of the oldest Christian world maps, dating back to the 8th century.

The cartographer uses the ever-prominent T-O pattern to separate continents, splitting them with a massive body of water. Unfortunately, the original manuscript, as well as the map illustration, have been lost, but several copies are still available.

Map Of The Tracks Of Yu Was Carved Into Stone

Map Of The Track Of Yu Gong Was Carved Into Stone
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Map of the Tracks of Yu dates back to 1136. The map was carved into a monument on the grounds of a school in Xi’an. Travelers would walk up to the map and make detailed rubbings of the map using paper and ink.

The intricate lines detail the wide scope of the Chinese Empire during the time. And while it looks modern, some geographical inaccuracies show it is a product of the time. In his article “Georeferencing the Yujitu,” Alexander Akin describes one error, saying, “Ya prefecture on the island of Hainan is placed at the opposite end of the island from its true site.”

Albi Mappa Mundi

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REMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images
REMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images

The Albi Mappa Mundi is a medieval map that was included in a manuscript from the latter half of the 8th century. Measuring 27 cm high by 22.5 wide, the map depicts 23 countries on three continents, all of which are represented in the shape of a horseshoe.

The opening at the bottom is the Strait of Gibraltar, with the Mediterranean surrounding the physical landmass. The landmass includes Europe on the left, North Africa on the right, and the Middle East located at the very top.

Mahmud al-Kashgari’s Map Shows Places Prophesied To Appear In The End Times

Mahmud al-Kashgari's Map Shows Places Prophesied To Appear In The End Times
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Mahmud al-Kashgari compiled the manuscript called Compendium of the languages of the Turks in the 11th century. The manuscript is illustrated with a “Turkocentric” world map, centralized around the ancient city of Balasagun. Kyrgyzstan stands in the location today.

The interesting aspect of this map isn’t that east is located on the top, but that specific locations prophesied to appear during the end times, including Gog and Magog, are depicted. Otherwise, the map is full of conventional symbols, such as red lines for mountain ranges and blue lines for bodies of water. The map is now located in the Pera Museum.

Tabula Rogeriana Was Commissioned By Norman King Roger II

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Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

After staying at his court for 18 years, Moroccan geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily to draw an accurate representation of the physical world as they knew it. The end result was the Tabula Rogeriana, shown above.

So, in 1154, al-Idrisi incorporated the knowledge of Arab merchants, explorers, and geographers to show the world at the time. In its entirety, the map illustrates the continents of Europe and Asia while only showcasing the northern part of Africa.

The Psalter World Map Depicts Jesus Blessing The World

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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

No one knows who originally drew this map, but it was found in a psalter, a volume containing the Book of Pslams, and has since been named the Psalter World Map. Thought to have been drawn around 1260, the map is small in size, measuring 3.7 inches high, but contains a lot of detail.

The map shows both geological and historical detail, some of which have been put in the frame of “salvation history.” This is noted by Jesus standing on top of the world, i.e., east, where the Garden of Eden was thought to be located.

The Ebstorf Mappa Mundi Was Painted On 30 Goat Skins

The Ebstorf Mappa Mundi Was Painted On 30 Goat Skins
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Drawn sometime during the thirteenth century by Gervase of Ebstorf, the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi is very large in size. Painted on top of 30 goatskins that were sewn together, the map measures 12 feet by 12 feet and is more of a tapestry than something found in the pages of a manuscript.

As with a lot of maps of the time, the world is illustrated using a T-O pattern, although there is much more detail than other depictions. Otherwise, the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi has Jerusalem at the center with the Head of Christ on the top, i.e., east. Unfortunately, the original was destroyed during World War II.

Pietro Vesconte’s Map Is Among The First Accurate Nautical Depictions

Pietro Vesconte's Map Is Among The First Accurate Nautical Depictions
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In 1321, Pietro Vesconte mapped one of the first accurate nautical charts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions. After centuries of geographers and historians drawing T-O patterned charts, Vesconte began dabbling in the field of portolan charts. These nautical maps are noted for being fairly accurate for the time.

The map also showcased a more concise illustration of the northern coastline of Europe. Before Vesconte, this type of precision and detail was unheard of in the genre of Mappa Mundi, medieval maps.

Da Ming Hunyi Tu’s Map Shows China As The Dominating Power

da-ming-world-map
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Da Ming Hunyi Tu map was constructed in the late 14th century and shows the world as it appeared to the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty. As shown, China dominates a vast majority of the physical world, with Europe nothing but a blip in the west.

This world map was constructed on stiff silk and measures 386 x 456 cm in size with text written in Classical Chinese, a written form of what is known as Old Chinese. Unfortunately, the original is lost, and it is unknown whether the copy’s translation matches the original.

The Kangnido Map Enlarges Its Country Of Origin

kangnido-korean-world-map
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Similar in style to the Da Ming Hunyi Tu map, the Kangnido world map is different in its scale, enlarging the country of Korea and drawing a more accurate representation of Japan, although off-scale and in the wrong location.

Made in Korea in 1402, the map shows the post-Mongol era and how East Asian maps weren’t evolving with the expansion of Western Civilization. It wasn’t until the 16-17th centuries, when European knowledge was more accessible, that the maps began to change.

Mer Des Hystoires Was Made To Provide A Visual Narrative

Mer Des Hystoires Was Made To Provide A Visual Narrative
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Wikimedia Commons

According to David Woodward’s 1985 article “Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps,” the 1491 Mer des Hystoires world map is “primarily to provide a visual narrative of Christian history cast in a geographical framework, not to communicate geographical or cosmographical facts.”

Drawn in a typical medieval T-O pattern, the world map shows Jeruselum in the center of the world with the Garden of Eden at the easternmost location, at the top, the biblical representation of Paradise. Interestingly, this map was created during the age of exploration when people were beginning to realize the world was larger than originally thought.

The Erdapfel Globe Is The Oldest Surviving Terrestrial Globe

The Edapfel Globe Is The Oldest Surviving Terrestrial Globe
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Made by German textile merchant Martin Behaim in 1492, the Erdapfel is thought to be the oldest surviving terrestrial globe in the world. Although this image shows the overlay painting created by Georg Glockendon, the globe is actually formed out of a laminated linen ball that is reinforced with wood.

As the above image shows, the Americas are not yet included in illustrations of the world, as Columbus wouldn’t have returned to Spain until a year after the globe was completed. The continent would later be showcased in the large expanse of ocean located between Asia and Europe.

Johannes Ruysch’s Map Is One Of The First To Show The New World

Johannes Ruysch's Map Is One Of The First To Show America
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

Produced in 1507 by explorer, astrologer, and cartographer Johannes Ruysch, The Ruysch Map is one of the first published illustrations of the New World. Ruysch used Claudius Ptolemy’s calculations, John Cabot and Christopher Columbus’ discoveries, and Marco Polo’s accounts to map out an illustration of the new physical world.

Some examples of the various beliefs and discoveries showcased on the map are the connection of Newfoundland to Asia. Sipganus, aka Japan, and Spagnola, aka the island of Hispaniola, were the same.

The Waldseemüller And Ringmann Map Was The First To Label The New World “America”

The Waldseemüller And Ringmann Map Was The First To Label The New World
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

After collecting data over the course of several years, German cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann developed this map of the physical world. Their map included new discoveries, such as the New World, and was the first public record of a map using the term “America.”

Their belief was that America was a continent, shown on the left-hand side of the map as a sliver of the east coast, founded by Italian explorer and merchant Amerigo Vespucci, not a small island.

The Pietro Coppo Map Is The Last To Feature The “Dragon’s Tail”

The Pietro Coppo Map Is The Last To Feature The
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In 1520, Italian cartographer and geographer Pietro Coppo designed a world map as it was known in the 16th century. This particular map is the last to feature the “Dragon’s Tail,” the long extremity coming out of the eastern part of Asia and sloping down south.

This map is interesting because it depicts geographer Claudius Ptolemy’s vision of a nearly-landlocked Indian Ocean, something he illustrated more than 1,500 years prior to Coppo’s 16th-century work.

The Nicolaes Visscher Map Is Highly Decorated

The Nicolaes Visscher Map Is Highly Decorated
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Nicolaes Visscher created the Orbis Terrarum Nova et Accuratissima Tabula map in Amsterdam in 1658, illustrating both hemispheres of the world, including the smaller northern and southern poles. This map is interesting not because of the actual mapping, but because of its embellishments.

Painted by Nicolaes Berchem, the borders surrounding the physical map illustrate numerous Greek gods and goddesses. Among them are Zeus, Persephone, Demeter, and Neptune. Visscher’s design, along with Berchem’s artistic drawings, is said to be an early example of decorated Dutch world maps.

Hendrik Hondius’ Map Is The First Dated Map In An Atlas

Hendrik Hondius' Map Is The First Dated Map In An Atlas
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images

In 1630, Dutch cartographer Hendrik Hondius created the Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula, a map of the world. The map is very detail-oriented, illustrating the four elements of water, fire, air, and land, as well as portraits of notable people in each of the four corners.

In the corners are pictures of Gerard Mercator, Jodocus Hondius, Julius Caesar, and Claudius Ptolemy. Hondius’ map is notable because it is the first dated map to be published in an atlas, making it wildly accessible, and it’s also one of the first to showcase parts of Australia!

Samuel Dunn’s Map Illustrated A General Outline Of North America

Samuel Dunn's Map Illustrated A General Outline Of North America
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Before his passing in 1794, British mathematician Samuel Dunn published a map illustrating a double hemisphere projection of the world. His vision of the world came shortly after the explorations of Captain James Cook in both the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic.

Due to the Captain’s journey, Dunn was able to map out the complete outline of North America. During this time, little westward expansion across the Mississippi had happened, leaving the bulk of the country up for interpretation. Also, Antarctica is notably absent from the southernmost point of the map.