Karen C. Pinto, Medieval Islamic Maps: An Exploration (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Karen Pinto (KP): My enduring love and fascination of Islamic maps propels me to research and write about them. They present intriguing windows into the perceptions of a world of cartographers, artists, travelers, thinkers, and conquerors a millennium and more ago. They employ a series of curious geometric forms to depict the world and its twenty regions under Muslim control. Deconstructing these forms to grasp the subliminal messages embedded within them entails deep historical research that is extremely challenging and is for this reason richly rewarding.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
KP: To make the maps accessible to a general reader, the first four chapters of the book provide an overview of medieval Islamic maps. The remainder of the book focuses on three crucial elements of Islamic cartography: iconography, ethnography, and patronage. Each aspect is tackled through a deep analysis of one example.
Iconography is addressed though the analysis of a key form: The Encircling Ocean (Bahr al-Muhit), which is studied from the perspective of its prehistoric metaforms, extending to its relationship with other medieval and early modern mappings, through Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman geographical texts. Delving into the origins of the encircling ocean proves that it is a motif with no clear beginning or end. Its ring form is the basic universal stamp of all imago mundi—images of the world.
Employing the Husserlian lens of reproductions and retentions, I examine the ethnonym of the obscure, stateless Buja people of East Africa to understand why they are absent in the history books yet ever present on the Islamic maps, with no less than two place markers. Out of this study emerges an understanding of the role of imagination in what goes on a map and what is left off. Thus, the temporal imagination emerges as one of the dominant architects of space. It presents itself as an imagining that is triggered as much by extreme otherness as it is by a subtle reflection of self.
The final three chapters of the book address the question of patronage through the examination of a set of Islamic map manuscripts that were copied in Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century, shortly after its conquest by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. Out of this inquiry emerges an understanding of Aqqoyunlu manuscripts and its comparison with the quality of the Ottoman atelier just after the conquest. It establishes the need to distinguish between maps for public and private consumption, and Mehmet’s desire to stock the shelves of his newly created post-conquest Istanbul libraries with maps showing his ambitious vision of Ottoman world dominance.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
KP: From my earliest work on Islamicate maps, I have been fascinated by the questions surrounding “form and function” in maps. This still drives my work on Islamic maps, although the specific lens of analysis used differs with each set of maps. Rather than imposing a particular framework of inquiry on the maps, I let the forms of each map lead me to the ideal lens for analyzing function.
With my work on the medieval Islamic maps of the Mediterranean, for instance, the theme of conflict and division emerges out of the query of form and function. The maps of the Mediterranean have a distinct form that closely resembles the depiction of the imprint of the Prophet Muhammad’s sandal (naʿl), with a central defensive backbone running through the image from the great boundary (thughur) between Byzantium and the Islamic caliphate. The struggle for power and control of contested boundaries dominates the Islamicate vision of the Mediterranean.
In the case of the set of maps showing the Maghrib and Andalus, a different kind of conflict reigns: that of the longing of nostalgia coupled with bitterness over the circumstances of conflict that resulted in a gut-wrenching separation for Muslims from Spain. Passion and conflict are baked into the hyper-sensualized male vs. female forms that are used to depict the landforms signifying desire and rejection. To decode these maps, I turned to the signposts in Hispano-Arabic poetry.
When I first started studying the maps as a graduate student at Columbia, upon which I based my 1992 master’s essay, “Surat Bahr al-Rum: The Mediterranean in the Muslim Cartographical Imagination,” I had to rely primarily on the outdated one-hundred-year-old work of Youssuf Kamal's 1926–1951 Monumenta Cartographica Africae et Aegypti and Konrad Miller's Mappae Arabicae (Stuttgart, 1926–1931). Both Miller and Kamal made the mistake of dating the manuscripts by the death date of the original authors, even though not a single manuscript in the hand of the original authors exists. All are later copies. Some were made within a century of the death of the original author, while others were made some nine hundred years later.
Medieval Islamic Maps rectifies and corrects the dates of the manuscript and their maps. I completed this date rectification through multiple years of work in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscript collections worldwide. Through the rectification of manuscript and map dates it was possible to classify unusual manuscript conglomerations, such as the one that resulted in the identification of the Ottoman cluster, which composes the last three chapters of the book.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
KP: My work has gained excellent traction and has garnered interest around the world among experts, students, and map aficionados alike. The reception of my book has been heartening. It won a 2017 Choice Outstanding Academic Titles (OAT) award and has generated discussion among scholars outside of the mainstream of Islamic history—including among medieval Europeanists, art historians, and, especially, members of the history of cartography, where my work is held in high standing in the field.
I am keen that the ideas reach young scholars entering the field of Islamic history and the history of cartography in order to light the way toward innovative approaches to the material. I invite those interested in working with me to reach out. I believe the best way forward for productive research is through collaboration. I have some three thousand images of Islamic maps, many that have never been published. After three decades of working on this rich material, I realize that I cannot study it all. I hope that others will take an interest in this work and reach out for collaborative projects.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KP: I am working on a Mediterranean maps sequel to Medieval Islamic Maps: The Mediterranean—a culmination of earlier work on the material. I am also completing a short book on What is ‘Islamic’ about Islamic Maps? (under contract with Arc Humanities Press/Amsterdam University Press), with a book on the maps of the Maghrib to follow.
I have an abiding interest in Islamo-Christian cartographic connections, and to this end I have completed two articles on the subject: “Interpretation, Intention, and Impact: Andalusi Arab and Norman Sicilian Examples of Islamo-Christian Cartographic Translation,” in Knowledge in Translation: Global Patterns of Scientific Exchange, 1000–1800 CE (Pittsburgh, 2018), and “Eureka! A 9th Century Isidoran T-O map labeled in Arabic” (forthcoming in Chapter and Verse of Non-Muslim Contributions to Islamic Civilization, Edinburgh, 2020), and I hope to write a book on it too.
In addition, I am preparing a section on Islamic mapping for “Mapping the Worlds of the Global Middle Ages,” that is part of Geraldine Heng and Susan Noakes born-digital series on the “Global Middle Ages” (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).
Other digital projects include 3D mapping of spaces in the Middle East for teaching and touring purposes and a digital encyclopedia of Islamic maps (MIME), which I hope to release to the public someday soon through the Medieval Institute of Kalamazoo and Amsterdam Press. In addition, I have written shorter articles on the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, and his patronage of Islamic maps, Islamic cartographic connections with the Piri Reis Map. Recently, I published my discovery of the earliest extant Islamic image of the moon from the eighth century, found in the famous Umayyad bathhouse of Quṣayr ‘Amra in Jordan. This discovery predates the earliest known painting of the moon by seven centuries, and aims to make a major contribution to selenographic studies.
J: Why do we value mimesis over symbolic images in maps?
KP: Maps can never achieve mimesis, or at least not the conventional 2D ones. Borges asserts that the only truly accurate map is a 1:1 map. In our new age of 3D, we are starting to achieve the Borgian ideal. However, all maps prior to 3D are doomed to inevitable error.
The penchant for mimesis has led to the overlooking of a rich set of imaginative Islamic maps, which is why when I first started working on these maps in the early 1990s; they were all but forgotten. Historians of Science and Historians of Cartography sidelined them—and even pretended that they did not exist—because of their extreme lack of precise geographic replication. Fortunately, some of us are drawn to the lack of cartographic exactitude. It mesmerizes and liberates us to work on paths not previously taken. Medieval Islamic maps aim only to show a stylized rendition of the world. In spite of—or because of—their deliberate amimesis, they provide valuable historical insights into the cultural milieus that produced them.
Excerpt from the Book
Scattered throughout collections of medieval and early modern Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts are thousands of cartographic images of the world and various regions. The sheer number of these extant maps tells us that from the thirteenth century onward, when copies of these map manuscripts began to proliferate, the world was a much-depicted place. It loomed large in the medieval Muslim imagination. It was pondered, discussed, and copied with minor and major variations again and again, and all with what seems to be a peculiar idiosyncrasy to modern eyes. The cartographers did not strive for mimesis (imitation of the real world). They did not show irregular coastlines even though some of the geographers whose work includes these maps openly acknowledge that the landmasses and their coastlines are uneven. They present instead a deliberately schematic layout of the world and the regions under Islamic control.
These images employ a language of stylized forms that make them hard to recognize as maps. Scholars of Islamic science and geography often ignore and belittle these maps on the grounds that they are not mimetically accurate representations of the world. What these scholars miss is that these schematic, geometric, and often symmetrical images of the world are iconographic representations—“carto-ideographs”—of how medieval Muslim cartographic artists and their patrons perceived their world and chose to represent and disseminate this perception.
On the surface it seems that these often elaborately illuminated nonmimetic cartographic works, employing pigments made from precious metals and stones, must have been produced for the elite literati of medieval Islamic society such as the commissioners / patrons, collectors, copyists, and high-status readers of the geographic texts within which these maps are found. This conclusion ignores the easy-to-replicate nature of these schematic images, which would have enabled students visiting the libraries of sultans, amirs, and other members of the ruling elite to transport basic versions of these carto-ideographs back to the people of their villages and far-flung areas of the Islamic world.
Medieval Islamic maps present a millennia-old conception of the world that we may never fully understand. Much of their appeal lies in their conceptual opacity. They are beautiful puzzles that hint at a hidden, larger picture. In this chapter, we will look more closely at the pieces of these puzzles and discern how they fit together. This is the primer where we begin to understand the visual language of the KMMS images in preparation for the iconographic element of the tripartite approach that I pursue in this book…
Muslim cartographers of medieval times did not seek to show the earth’s precise shape. They chose instead to create stylized images that can be best described as mnemonic ideational maps presenting a world both as they saw it and as they wished it to be understood. Transported through memory and easily redrawn, these images serve some thousand years later as reminders of bygone worldly imaginings.
This broad yet necessarily cursory transcultural survey of the Encircling Ocean in this and the previous chapter reveals that it was a widespread motif best classified as a metaform—nurtured by the observation that no matter what direction one travels in, one eventually reaches the sea. It emerges as an important component of water-based hylogonies—namely, cosmogonies that are based on water as the source of life and death of the world. The Encircling Ocean becomes the basic outline stamp of all premodern imagines mundi and turns into a useful signifier of power and domination for ruling groups seeking an easy stamp of world dominion…
Thus the seemingly benign Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ hovering on the periphery of world maps opens out textually into a complex feature that hovers between two extremes: a hierophany and an antihierophany. It is the realm where reality melds with myth and fantasy, beyond which the cosmic mountains of Qāf beckon souls seeking peace and unity with the maker, and paradise waits. In its many manifestations it presents linkages to a multitude of cultural traditions: The Iranian notion of the Vurukasha Sea, the Hebraic notion of Tehom, the Babylonian notion of primeval chaos, the Indian notion of the multiple Encircling Oceans and worlds, as well as the empirical Greek notions of Oceanos. It hovers on the periphery as an unmistakable mark of the difference between earth and water, between life and death, between the known and the unknown. Its familiar double-edged-ring form turns it into a metamotif that is used to signal the imago mundi. It reinforces the idea that our world is an island marooned in a vast sea struggling to keep the waters at bay…
Texts provide one dimension of the picture; symbols provide another. Texts undergird a form whereas symbols layer it from above. Textual meaning is generally explicit and self-contained, whereas the messages of symbols are expansive and reach toward infinite horizons. Humans have envisioned and depicted themselves as encircled since time immemorial. We are subject to the law of the center versus the periphery, the navel vis à vis the rest of the body, the circumference and its radii. We encircle and are encircled ad infinitum. It is this metameaning that the Muslim Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ encapsulates on a symbolic plane…
If we let go of our rigid definition of what constitutes a map, we can see manifestations of the encircling ocean motifs in other visual forms. Those familiar with Islamic visual vocabulary know that the double-ringed circle dominates the art and architecture of the Middle East. Standing as it does for Islam’s prime principle of tawḥīd (unity) or the Sufi equivalent, waḥdat al-wujūd (oneness of being, unity of existence), manifestations of it as a hierophany abound…
A survey of Islamic art and architecture shows that this encircling ocean / imago mundi motif dominates Islamic material culture, from mosques and tiles to brass bowls and banners. There is no better signifier for the importance of the hierophany of encirclement for Islam than the phenomenon of ritual encirclement of the holy site of the Kaʿba in Mecca during the annual hajj, when countless circumambulating pilgrims create a vibrant encircling ocean of believers around the navel of Islam.
The study of history through maps warrants, among other things, a close analysis of place from the point of view of time and space. Graphics of territory—whether real or imagined, macro or micro—imply the collapsing of space from an infinite three-dimensional expanse to a constrained two-dimensional sheet.1 Like the creation of pictures, this requires a conscious selection of what to include and what to leave out. The production of space on maps revolves around two issues: what places to include and how to create the illusion of an identifiable landscape. It is in the resolution of these issues that the signs of form (mimetic or not), symbol, boundary, label, marker, and place come into active play.
The constraints of space play a vital role in the act of creating any map. The limitations of space require that the map be ordered, and this, in turn, requires that it be distorted. Since the map is a product of a specific time, in a particular milieu, the distortion of space is culturally located. It is in the selections, the distortions, and the omissions that we find telling biases of structure and imagination. In this way the constraints of space turn paradoxically into a window overlooking a set of cultural constructs. Space is informed (if not determined) by time: One without the other would result in a map that is no more than a dot…
Nowhere are the constructs of time more apparent than in the case of world maps, where space is at the highest premium. The ambitious scope of a world map means even less can be included, and the cartographer, whether medieval or modern, situated in a global whirl of events (composed of reproductions and retentions, as Husserl suggests), is faced with the task of choosing that which is most important and its form of representation. It is aspects of this cartographic process of choice, signification, and distortion that I seek to explore through a close analysis of place. The object is to understand the meaning behind the territorial allocation of place and space.
Place of copy is one of the most telling features of any manuscript—where it was made, the ambiance of the atelier in which it was produced, the guiding principles employed, all these factors influenced the final product. What can the illustrations of the Ottoman cluster tell us about the ambiance in which they were copied? One would presume that the ambiance in the atelier must have been based in part on the mood among the people and in part on the mentalité of their chief. Is there an answer buried in the flourishes and exaggerations that can lead us to an understanding of the mind-set of Meḥmed’s Istanbul palace atelier and beyond it to Meḥmed himself? Have the artisans of the maps deliberately communicated certain messages through the forms?...
Nowhere is Meḥmed’s Alexander ethos better expressed than in the representation of the Ottoman empire on the KMMS Ottoman cluster world maps as “Bilād al-Rūm” combined with “al-Arḍ al-Kabīra min al-Rūm” in Europe. This may be read as an affirmation of the idea that the Ottomans saw themselves as heirs to Byzantium. In fact, by co-opting the name and location of the former Byzantine Empire on the map, Meḥmed accorded to himself and his empire the highest position in the Muslim world akin to the Roman Empire.
If one can see in these Ottoman cluster world maps the expression of Meḥmed’s imperial ideals, then it is not difficult to see why he would have commissioned these KMMS copies for the public libraries of his new capital. They presented an ideal format with which to stimulate support among the Ottoman populace for his conquests—another spoke in the wheel of a smart ruler’s propaganda machine. Meḥmed’s artists could manipulate these iconic KMMS images in ways that would not have been possible with the more mimetic contemporary European productions…
The study of the Ottoman cluster points to the distinction between public and private dimensions we must make when studying cartographic collections. No one expected to find Ottoman patronage of Islamic maps, yet this Iṣṭakhrī set proves that interest in classical forms of Islamic mapping continued well into the Ottoman and early modern periods. It also proves that the counterintuitive thrives in maps and history. We just have to uncover it.
Maps are not territory; they are spaces, spaces to be crossed and recrossed and experienced from every angle. The only way to understand a map is to get down into it, to play at the edges, to jump into the center and back out again. We need to trace and retrace its lines by eye and by hand and question it’s every dot until the liminal palimpsest below the surface reveals itself to yield clues of the elusive social mentalité within which the map was born. We must lay bare the ideograph in order to grasp the keys that it holds. Only then can we use maps as alternate doorways into history.
This book is about the many ways of seeing maps, Islamic maps of the world in particular, that take us to different places, spaces, and gazes. These Islamic maps are unique in the way they cross time and space, from medieval to early modern, from one end of the Islamic world to another, retaining from India to Spain across the span of eight centuries an iconographic singularity of form that enigmatically resists cartographic encroachments from modernity. Nuances of the cartographers lurk in the crevices of map lines and patterns of illumination that when studied reveal surprising new insights into medieval and early modern Islamic history…
It is my hope that through these three different approaches this book will prove useful in revealing new ways of reading maps. In the same way that a digital file can be compressed and yet mysteriously contain a larger set of data encoded in its symbols, so it is with maps. We can apply the methods in this book as decryption keys to unfold from maps a larger picture—that of the history surrounding them. This book is deliberately not a comprehensive study of all aspects of Islamic maps. It asserts that Islamic cartography, like all cartography, is best understood through in-depth analysis of its many dimensions. This book explores only a few of these dimensions as a contribution to assembling an understanding of the tantalizing world of Islamic mapping.