The ideology and historical legacy of world maps

In the hands of the Western countries maps sometimes showed the land to be exploited, and many times used as a tool to create equilibrium in their own favour

World Bulletin / News Desk

The maps that were in the possession of Western nations were sometimes used to show the lands that were to be colonized and, sometimes used as an instrument of balance to overshadow the truth in their favor.

Up until the 15th century in Europe, the earth was considered and accepted to be circular in shape and flat.  The world maps that were drawn in this period, consisted of circles that had lands which were separated by seas and rivers similar to a 't' section.

The maps which had depicted only small areas, had later on been drawn to encapsulate much broader areas with the advancement in sailing and fleets.  However the maps in hand were insufficient for the nations that were in the forefront of exploration to explore further outwards.  For it is well known that in the age of discoveries, the Europeans ventured off into unknown lands and also to seek new resources.

In this period, namely in the 15th and 16th century, the European forces had substantially advanced in the field of mapping.  Cartographers had dawn maps which showed the necessary features for the maritime industry including shore lines, islands, rivers and ports.  Compass lines and all other useful features were also included to aid in sea voyages.
New map projections were developed and spheres were made.  These maps and spheres were of much value in the economy, military and diplomatic fields.  For this reason they were kept as national or commercial secrets.

The Portuguese and the Spanish were at the forefront of these discoveries.  To reach India was their target.  This target had become a starting point for them in the due process for their colonial politics.  Their ambitions were to find the sources of gold, silver and spices and develop routes  to deliver them to Europe.  In this way, many new lands were discovered through voyages made to Africa, American continents, Asia and Oceania.

Bartelmi Dias who was of Portuguese origin, had discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, by reaching to the Southern point of Africa.  Christopher Columbus who was of Spanish origin, had made his voyage starting from the port of Palas in Spain to travel through the Atlantic Ocean, to finally reach the continent of America in the year 1492.  Europe had achieved a great wealth.  The painful history of the geographies that they went to had started with these discoveries.


Together with the discoveries during the Medieval Ages, the methods of mapping had also seen some differences.  The newly developed map projections included the two dimensional transformation of the three dimensional sphere onto a map, using mathematical methods.  As a basis, in order to mark out points on the equator, poles or any other point, the desired projection was made on a cylinder, cone or plane.

However, as it was possible theoretically to have an endless number of map projections, only some of these projections were picked out and used as a preference.  The most common of these projection techniques was the 'Mercator Cylindrical Projection', which had been developed by Gerardius Mercator, the FlFlemen mathematician and Cartographer.
Despite all its handicaps, in the development period of higher standards in geography and graphics, Mercator's world map was used as a basis.  Even though very little shape changes were seen on the map, these changes became more steadily obvious as you moved further away from the equator.  The actual variations in size difference became less when comparing the regions of the equator and the regions of the North.

The main problem indicated in the Mercator projection is that in the portrayal of a spherical object onto a plane, there was bending and twisting which resulted in the process that had lead to information which was misleading.  These bending and twisting projected the regions in the North and South as much larger than they actually are.  However there was no shrinking in the middle regions.

The Mercator projection did not only portray the areas of the North and South as much larger than they are in an exaggerated manner, but it also showed Africa which is a huge continent in the middle of the world, much smaller than it really is.

Even though Greenland and the continent of Africa seem as they are of the same size on the map, this was actually a misleading portrayal of the Mercator projection.  In actual fact the difference of size in these two geographies are of a huge difference than what they are portrayed to be.  The size of Greenland, which is shown to be of equal size to Africa in the Mercator projection, is approximately 2 million meters square.  In contrast the reality is that continent of Africa which is about 30 million meters square is large enough to fit 15 Greenlands inside of it.


During the period of the cold war the effect of the Mercator projection was felt.  Hence it was of use to the big powers of that era to put themselves in the forefront on the maps.  Primarily Mercator and other similar projections were of a huge effect in the century leading up to what is accepted in these days, regarding the international balances.
Hence during the years of the cold war, the world was not only involved in conflicts over border lines, but it had also witnessed ideological differences between the East and West blocks.  The two main actors in this conflict was the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

The reflection of this on the map was also easily visible.  On the one side a huge Soviet geography and on the other side a huge North America which was bounded by the United Stares of America.  In the middle was a little Europe, Africa which was under control and a compressed Middle East.

In this map which was accepted, the two main actors also displayed geographically their ideologies.  The map reflected the realities of that era politically, even if it was not reflected as much geographically.  However the ratio between this projection and what had been made accepted were different  geographically.

While primarily Africa, China, Arab Peninsula and South America were shown as much smaller than what they actually are in reality, in this map where America and Europe is at the center, The United States of America, Canada and England were portrayed as much larger than what they actually are in reality.


Certainly map projections were used by many nations for the purpose of propaganda.  Hence these nations, preferred a world where they are at the center on these maps.  These days almost all of the maps which have been accepted internationally have the same viewpoint.

A larger Europe at the center, America which is spread over vast lands in the West and Russian dominance in the East.  This situation is nothing other than the reflection of the sovereign concept of the sovereign nations onto maps.  The Soviet Union had drawn a map where it is at the center or used symbols on the maps that it had used within its own boundaries, for the purpose of propaganda.

Even though the maps drawn by the United States of America putting itself at the center is not commonly used, it is still a confirmation of this assumption.

Throughout history, nations have used their own maps as opposed to these map projections.  Certainly their own nations were at the center.  The Chinese dynasty in the 16th century, had made the West look totally unimportant, by placing itself in the center of the spheres it had drawn.

However there are mapping methods in existence which actually go beyond that.  The most interesting example is that of Australia.  Even though it is not of common use, in retaliation to their positions to the European based maps, they printed maps where the North and South Poles were switched around and Australia was at the top.


The world map which was drawn based on the Mercator projection was surely responsible for discussions as time went by.  One of the strongest answers given, regarding the viewpoint which was seen as a mistake at the center of these discussions, was with the Gall-Peters projection.

This projection was comprised by Arno Peters in the year of 1974.  Even though it was claimed by Peters that he had personally developed this projection himself, in reality, it was identical to the one developed by the Cartographer named James Gall in the year of 1855.  Once this similarity was realized, Peters map became referred to as the 'Gall-Peters Projection'.

The projection was of a cylindrical structure which showed the area properly.  This map was developed as a projection in opposition to the maps which were developed according to the Mercator viewpoint, which portrayed the developed nations of the North as much larger than they actually are in reality.  Even though it was not exact, it showed the areas of nations and continents much closer to the truth of the reality.

However this was only one side of the discussions.  According to Peters, not only was the Mercator projection in error but it was also discriminate.  Peters pointed out that in the Mercator map there was a false portrayal whereby North America and Eurasia were shown to be much larger than they actually are in reality, in the Northern hemisphere.  When the Mercator projection was overlapped with the projection that was more consistent with the actual reality, the difference was obviously visible.

Peters had claimed that this error resulted in the majority of the developed world turning a blind eye, to the struggles of the nations around the equator which were much larger and more impoverished.

He called for the banning of the Mercator map as he said that it was a symbol for colonialism.  However his calls were met unanswered in that era.

These days, the discussions have come to an end to a great degree.  As there were more maps developed with less error, both these projections became obsolete as a result of their errors.  

However some nations, mainly England, have continued to use the Gall-Peters map in opposition to Mercator

Although the Mercator projection is no longer commonly published, it is still used by some navigation instruments and some map programs in the virtual environment.


Cartography was a field which was give much importance in the period of the Ottoman state.  The role played by Ottoman sailers in the world history of cartography was certainly important.  After the conquest of Istanbul, there was a new era in the science of cartography for the Ottomans.  Mainly with Piri Reis, the Ottoman sailers and scientists had made important contributions to the science of geography in the 16th century.  At the same time as the West, the works conducted in the Ottoman state in the field of maps were groundbreaking in many areas.

The first name which comes to mind is Piri Reis, without a doubt.  Piri Reis who had joined in on voyages  in the West Mediterranean at the time of Beyazid Han the second, came to the forefront with the maps he had drawn of the Mediterranean.  Piri Reis who had joined Yavuz Sultan Selim on his Egyptian expedition with a fleet,  went to Cairo through the Nile River route.  He provided geographical knowledge about the region by mapping out the branches of the Nile.

Piri Reis's book named 'Kitab-i Bahriyye', was the first book in the world for cruising and hydrography.  With over 200 maps in his book, Piri Reis had secured a rank which was irreplaceable in the Ottoman Science of geography.  The book which was presented to Sultan Suleiman the Lawmaker, had taken its place as the most important source in the Turkish maritime history.
The interest shown towards the famous world map of Piri Reis which was discovered in 1929, continues without any loss of interest.  UNESCO announced the year 2013 as the '500 th year of the Piri Reis Map'.  Only one piece has been preserved to this day of the world map which was drawn at Gallipolli dated with the year of1523.  The section remaining of the world map which was presented to Yavuz Sultan Selim showed  both shorelines of the Atlas Ocean including Spain, Portugal and West Africa, also the East side of America, Florida and Antilles.
Piri Reis left a blank spot instead of unknown places in the first map.  Later on he made additions to the map he had drawn.  The maps which were drawn on deer skin or camel skin, has been accepted as the most important map of its time which shows the world in general.

The book named 'Cihannuma' written by Katip Celebi in the 17th century, had changed the classical Ottoman geography schooling, which was based on Islamic geography tradition, whereby a new schooling was established.  'Cihannuma' which was comprised of five maps, was a turning point in the area of geography which showed the world from an Eastern perspective which transitioned to a Western perspective.
Cihannuma which was planned to be a general book of geography by Katip Celebi, was restricted to the North by the Erzurum province and to the South by Iraq-Mesopotamia, because of a lack of resources.

Later on Sheikh Mehmet Effendi had rewritten Cihannuma after examining different atlases. 

The book was published in the year 1831 by Ibrahim Muteferrika to reach a wider population.  Together with Muteferrika's additions and new drawings, Cihannuma was enriched.  However in the Ottoman period, Cartography was not just limited with only this much.

In the palace of Sultan Murad Sheikh the third, there was a miniature with a drawing of a world sphere by Seyyid Lokman. In the world map on the miniature, the newly discovered places were drawn with more accuracy as compared to the maps of Piri Reis.  This situation is proof that in the period after Piri Reis, new developments were followed in the field of cartography.


The history of cartography which dates as far back as the ages when human beings were first adapting to communal living, started with the first simple sketches which had the purpose of outlining living areas and the nearest eating-hunting areas as a source.

The earliest discovered sketch, was that of the plan of the city of Catalhoyuk, which was dated to be 6200 BC.  This plan has no similarities with the maps that we know of today and was made on blocks of rocks.

However in the historical process, together with either the developments in commerce or the necessity which was born to indicate commercial routes and sources of raw materials, the drawing of large scale maps had started.

The first map which can really be considered as a map as we know of today that has been preserved to this day, is a Babylon map which has been drawn on a clay tablet, which dates back to 3800 BC.  However throughout the history of cartography there have been varying views  regarding the shape and size of the world, which has brought along with it many hardships and complexity.

In the year 500 BC , Heredot considered the Earth to be a flat oval.  In the world map he had drawn, he had portrayed the world as comprised of three large continents which included Europe, Asia and North Africa.  The concepts of latitude and longitude were based on Heredot's map.  Aristotle had claimed that the world must be a sphere.  For he defended the argument that the surface of the sea is curved.

When we had come to 100 BC, in the world model developed by the earth scientist Strabon, the world consisted of five segments which were between poles.  It was assumed that there was no life in existence beyond the South of the equator.

In the period of the Roman Empire, maps were drawn which had included depiction of military routes, commercial roads, natural resources, ports and sea routes.  After the collapse of the empire, Cartography had gone into a relapse with the pressure asserted by the church.  In the world of Islam it had gone to higher levels.  Muslims had achieved much advancements in the area of astronomy and cartography.

In the year of 1154, Arab geographer Muhammed El-Idrisi had comprised the knowledge obtained from geographers before his time and the information gathered by traders and explorers.  Tabula Rogeriana had prepared the Medieval atlas.  In this map, not only was the latitude and longitude of important places recorded, but also the distances apart and their corresponding climate segments were also recorded.  This map remained as the most accurate world map for the next 3 centuries.


Seta Security Research Director and lecturer at the University of Sakarya, Ass. Prof. Dr. Murat Yesiltas claimed that in order to better understand the viewpoint of the West towards the science of cartography and geography you need to consider the speech made in the 1900s by the English geographer Halford Mackinder and the book written in the 1970s by the French geographer Yves Lacoste.

Yesiltas continued as follows: 'At the Royal Geography Society in 1904, Halford Mackinder had made a speech which said that  'cartography of Colombus's era has ended.  From now on we are entering a new era.  From now on geography should serve the benefits of the state.  geography should go beyond discovering new places  and describing them to serving the benefits of the state, working for the state'.  Therefore in the methodology of geography, imperialist thinking especially in the state run schools of England, whereby in the geography lessons conducted in the schools, the existence of the English Empire in distant lands would be instilled in the minds of children, almost putting in place a perspective which  makes their thinking patterns relate them to a story of an empire once again.

As an example of this perspective, French geographer Yves Lacoste had written a book in the years 1975-76.  The book is even connected to this: Geography is for war.  Now, when we look at history from this perspective we actually realize that maps are basically a matter of great importance from the early ages to these modern days.  They have appeared as an element which makes the lives of humans easier.  However with the resurgence in cartography in the 15-16th centuries, we can see that it has become a serious instrument for colonialism in the new developments.

Source: Kuzey Haber Ajans