The mappa mundi

I've just finished reading Jerry Brotton's fascinating A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Allen Lane: 2012). I'll tell you about three.

The first is the Hereford mappamundi. It is the largest of its kind to have survived intact for nearly 800 years, and shows what the world looked like to a thirteenth century Christian. Made from an animal skin it measures 1.59 metres high and 1.34 metres wide. The world is circular and divided by the Mediterranean into Europe, Asia and Africa. East is at the top. 

Jerusalem is right in the centre. Far away at the edges of the world are ‘all kinds of horrors, more than can be imagined,... savage people who eat human flesh and drink blood.’ At the top of the world just inside the circular border lies the Garden of Eden, inhabited by Adam and Eve. To the south they are shown being expelled from the Garden. At the very top, above the circular border, Christ presides over the Day of Judgement. At his right an angel resurrects the saved souls from their graves and at his left another angel leads the damned away to hell. Brotton comments:

The Hereford mappamundi was therefore designed to work at various levels: to display to the faithful the wonders of God’s created world; to explain the nature of creation, salvation and, ultimately, God’s final judgement; to project the history of the world through locations, moving gradually from east to west, from the beginning of time to its end; and to describe the physical and spiritual world of pilgrimage, and the ultimate end of the world. All of this is built from the long historical, philosophical and spiritual tradition it inherits, stretching back through the early Christian Fathers to Roman times.

mackinderMy second choice is Halford Mackinder’s world map ‘The Natural Seats of Power’, 1904. Mackinder was a British imperialist and his map is a contribution to geopolitics. According to his theory central and northern Eurasia is ‘the pivot region of the world’s politics’. World empire would be in sight if Russia and Germany formed an alliance. Surrounding the Pivot Area is the ‘inner or marginal crescent’, Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, India and part of China. The ‘outer or insular crescent’ included Japan, Australia, the Americas, Southern Africa and Britain. He summarised his argument:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.

His theory was a major influence on both sides in the Second World War and the Cold War. In 1994 Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, wrote that ‘Russia regardless of who governs it, sits astride what Halford Mackinder called the geopolitical heartland, and is the heir to one of the most potent imperial traditions’. In 1997 Zbigniew Brzezinski, another former National Security Advisor, argued that ‘Eurasia is the world’s axial supercontinent’... a ‘glance at the map also suggests that a country dominant in Eurasia would almost automatically control the Middle East and Africa’. Brotton comments:

Ostensibly, Mackinder’s political geography was based on a stated desire to keep the peace. In reality, it was predicated on perpetual military conflict and international warfare, as the various pieces on his global chessboard vied with each other for increasingly scant resources.

At first sight no map could be less like the mappamundi. Brotton thinks otherwise:

To Mackinder, the Hereford mappamundi was defined not by theology, but by the geopolitics of the Crusades and the westward shift of empire from Babylon to Jerusalem. Mappaemundi were therefore simply an early confirmation of his central thesis: the enduring conflict between empires for control of a heartland. With the benefit of historical distance, we can see that Mackinder’s 1904 map is in fact a manifestation of the same kind of ideological geometry that inspired the Hereford mappamundi: the providential mission of empire had replaced the pursuit of organized religion, but both of them sought to reduce the plurality and complexity of the world to a series of timeless truths. 

apollo17My third choice is the photograph of the earth taken from 33,500 kilometres away by the astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972. Brotton writes:

The Apollo 17 photograph, in its depiction of both the sublime grandeur and exquisite beauty of a singular blue world floating in the dark abyss of empty, inhospitable space, inspired wonder and also indignation at the state of ‘our’ world. The language of religious awe that accompanied the photograph’s reception was quickly superseded by political and environmental reflections on the fragility of a world that united all its inhabitants, regardless of creed, colour or political orientation. 

The image influenced activists, both environmental – like James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’ theory – and economic, like the 1980 Brandt Report on the world’s economic development:

From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery and soils. Humanity’s inability to fit its doings into that pattern is changing planetary systems fundamentally.

Although Brotton does not say so, I think it has often been interpreted in a contrary way. The message of the image can also be that we are but insignificant spots in a vast uncaring universe, whizzing around and getting nowhere. We don’t matter.

Those are just three of Brotton’s maps. There are lots of others, but these are enough to offer a wide choice. You are on the way to eternal judgement; or trapped in a never-ending power struggle between imperialists; or part of a highly complex network of life-creating processes, supremely valuable but increasingly threatened; or a meaningless speck in a vast uncaring expanse of emptiness.

Compared with these, what sort of map describes where you are?