The Fantastic Other (Ibn Battuta)

Like Marco Polo, another long sojourner in the Mongolian Empire was Muhammad Ibn Battuta, who, in 1325 CE, set out from his home in Tangiers on the Hajj, and ended up spending about 25 years on the road traveling through Asia and Africa, mostly within the realms of Islam, which included much of the former Mongol empire.

From 1330-2 CE, Ibn Battuta sailed south from the Arabian peninsula past the Horn of Africa and visited the East African ports of Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Kilwa. In the following century, this area would be dominated by the Portuguese, who produced incredible sea charts like the one below. These charts reflect the knowledge the Portuguese had of the lucrative nautical routes between the Cape of Good Hope, Arabia, and Goa on the west coast of India, the contemporary key link to trading in the Spice Islands.

Ibn Battuta wrote of vast caravans, rich with gold accoutrements and gems, throwing golds coins before them as they made progress through cities, and these not of the great Kubilai Kahn, but of the rulers of the pieces of the formerly unified empire. Like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, too, might have exaggerated; his description of the opulence of the great rulers of Asia at least matches that of Polo. But then who in all of history would we expect to be richer than the rulers of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known?

Western views of “the East” are often accused of being tinged with fantasy, but what could be more fantastic than the creations of a vast empire? Is Imperial Rome any less fantastic in our imaginations than “The Orient”? Are the palaces and temples of Asia less fantastic than the palaces and temples of Europe or the Americas? Perhaps the only difference is that the familiar is less exciting than the new, and the imagination offers glories that reality can rarely match.

Ibn Battuta’s story—like most travelogues—brings us visions of a world we do not know, focusing on the most striking elements, sparking our imaginations of a fantastic world.

Marco Polo - Life on the road

A long vacation might last a month, which allows plenty of time to travel to the opposite side of the globe. A sabbatical might last a year, allowing time to live in another land. That presumes air travel, of course. Before that, ocean liners took days to make transatlantic crossings. The sailing explorers—Columbus, Magellan, Cook and their ilk—took years to make their voyages. Ferdinand Magellan died two years into the three-year expedition (1519-1521 CE) that was the first to circumnavigate the earth.

By contrast, Marco Polo lived on the road for 24 years between leaving Genoa in his youth (at 17, in the year 1271 CE) and his return in 1295. Polo traveled with his father and uncle through the vast Mongolian Empire, which was just beginning to fragment, but which still maintained the Pax Mongolica—internal order—allowing travel throughout what was the largest contiguous empire in human history (ruling approximately 16% of the earth’s land area; only the British Empire, which ruled approximately 23% of the earth’s land in the early 20th century, was larger).

Travel at the time, whether by land or sea, was not so expeditious as the sailing ships of the 15th and later centuries. Polo did not constantly travel, taking various jobs that kept him in various cities for months or occasionally years, but that is perhaps part and parcel of living in a world where travel is slow and perilous.

Other Europeans had traveled in Central Asia (indeed, Polo's father and uncle had made a trip to Asia before the journey on which they took him), but Polo related his story to a writer, and his Travels of Marco Polo became widely circulated in Europe, providing Europeans with a rare view into life in Asia.

Above all, Marco Polo painted a picture for European audiences about an unknown land: China. His report was the definitive source on East Asia for centuries, an influence that made its way from the late medieval period into the Renaissance. The dearth of geographical information on this part of the world made Marco Polo’s Travels a common reference for map makers well into the 16th century. See for example this map by Abraham Ortelius, which includes a note stating that a large number of the place names in Asia emanate from the writings of Marco Polo.

Not to mention of this map: it is one of the first to name California, portrays mythical cities, and includes a variety of cartographic phantoms.


In this era of smart phones and wireless connectivity, we know where things are (at least in a global sense). With GPS, you can know exactly where you are on the face of the earth with respect to both the equator and the Greenwich meridian used as the point of reference—the 0—from which all other longitudes are measured. Map applications can tell you the location of your favorite restaurant to six decimal places.

Globes, atlases, and road maps—the best geographical resources of the 20th century—seem quaint and low-tech. Even orbital images of the earth are now commonplace. The famed “Blue Marble” photograph taken by Apollo 17 in 1972 is now 45 years old. But what is quaint and old fashioned now, was once the very cutting edge of science and technology.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Latitude—the measurement of distance from equator to pole (measured in degrees)—is easy to define and determine: how far north or south of the equator can be measured by looking at the height of celestial objects. The poles define two possible extremes, the equator, a natural center.

Longitude, however, is not so easy. Longitude is the measurement east or west of some defined point. There is no natural landmark from which to determine longitude—no equator or pole to set the 0 point—which is why longitude was historically measured from different points by different people. The international standard now is the Greenwich meridian in Greenwich, England, just east of London. Part of the reason that this is the standard has to do with one of the great scientific/technological problems of an earlier age.

Drawing of Earth with longitudes but without latitudes, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Drawing of Earth with longitudes but without latitudes, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the age of sailing ships, the ability to determine longitude was often a matter of life or death, and the practical solution to the problem of longitude was one of the great scientific/technological discoveries that shaped our world. That the first practical solution was created by an Englishman surely contributed to the rise of the British Empire and the ultimate international standard for longitude—the 0 point from which all distances are measured—being located just outside the British imperial capital.

Dava Sobel’s book Longitude tells the story of the problem of longitude and the development of the first practical solution—John Harrison’s “chronometer”—which he constructed in the middle of the 18th century. It was a time piece so accurate that it could be used to determine longitude—so accurate that after months at sea, it would still tell the proper time at the Greenwich meridian, and thus could be used to determine how far a ship was east or west of Greenwich by comparing local noon with Greenwich noon. It was a tool that, as it was replicated, changed sailing, and led to newer, more accurate maps—maps that, unlike maps of previous eras, started to more closely resemble the maps we use today because the means to accurately measure longitude had been discovered.

Roman Roads and the London Underground

A particularly conspicuous feature of the cultural landscape of the first and second century CE Mediterranean was a network of roads connecting Rome and its provinces. The Romans invested great energy and resources in the planning of road systems. They cleared and leveled rocky terrain, constructed embankments, retaining walls, and bridges where necessary, and placed milestones at intervals of one Roman mile, approximately 1.5 kilometers.

The most famous graphic representation of a transportation system is surely Henry C. Beck's 'electrical circuit' map of the London Underground, which dispensed with scale, left only the Thames as a surface feature, plotted equidistant stations, and set angles at either 45 or 90 degrees.

Henry C. Beck, Map of London's Underground Railways - available at Altea Gallery, London

Henry C. Beck, Map of London's Underground Railways - available at Altea Gallery, London

Fortunately for us, Sasha Trubetskoy, an undergraduate economics student at the University of Chicago, had the brilliant idea of visualizing the ancient Roman road network on Beck's model:

As for contemporary ancient Roman maps, the only map of Roman roads that has survived from Antiquity is the Tabula Peutingeriana, the surviving copy of which actually dates from the 12th or 13th century, and takes its name from Konrad Peutinger, a collector of antiquities who was willed the map in the early 16th century.

During the Renaissance, there was widespread public interest in ancient Greece and Rome. In this interest Abraham Ortelius saw an opportunity and in 1598 published the Parergon, considered the first historical atlas. The Parergon consisted of 38 maps and views of the classical world, including a 4-sheet map of the Peutinger Table.

Other cartographers published versions of the Peutinger Table as well, including Johannes Janssonius, who prepared a new plate and inserted it into the ancient world volume (VI) of his Atlas Maior and then into Accuratissimia Orbis Antiqui Delineatio, with G. Hornius's text printed as a single volume. Our friends at Libreria Antiquaria Perini in Verona have an excellent example on sale here:

Neatline is headed to Rome

The first edition of the Rome Map, Atlas & Travel Book Fair will take place at 80 Piazza Santi Apostoli, Rome on Friday 29, Saturday 30 and Sunday October 1, 2017 with 30 International map dealers from Italy, Europe, and America.

Access to the fair is free of charge. We hope to see you there!

Vernissage 29 September 18.45  -  21.00

Saturday 30 September 10.00 - 18.00

Sunday 1 October 10.00 - 13.00

San Francisco Map Fair 2017 - September 15-17

The San Francisco Map Fair will take place in the Lodge at the Regency Center, 1290 Sutter St. Antiquarian map dealers from around the world will be displaying their maps and there will be several lectures sponsored by the California Map Society. We hope to see you there!

More details:

Opening Night Cocktail Reception

  • Friday, September 15, 2017
  • 5:00pm  7:30pm

Join us for the Preview Night Reception and enjoy two and a half hours of passed hors d'oeuvres, and a premium open bar. By coming to the Opening Night Reception you will get first opportunity to view and purchase any of the wonderful antiquarian map material our exhibitors have brought from around the world. This event also serves as a great time to interact with other map collectors, enthusiasts, and the dealers in a more relaxed, social setting. Tickets are $50; all NET proceeds of this event go to the History in Your Hands Foundation.


  • Saturday, September 16, 2017
  • 10:00am  5:00pm


1:00 PM - Star Maps by: Nick Kanas M.D.

3:00 PM - What’s in a Map (…and How Do I Get It Out)? by: Stace Maples


  • Sunday, September 17, 2017
  • 10:00am  3:00pm


12:00 PM - Early Maps of San Francisco by: Charles A. Fracchia 

1:30 PM - The Map Comes First: Crowd-sourcing for an Organic Atlas Narrative
A Panel Discussion led by: Darin Jensen


Westward the course of empire takes its way

In Names on the Land, George Stewart writes that "the distinctive quality of California's later naming history was its self-consciousness," and illustrates this point with the story of Berkeley. In 1864, a site was chosen and forty acres purchased for a new college. A committee was appointed to find a name for the town, but no agreement could be reached. Searching for the perfect name, over a year and a half passed.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect, proposed Peralta, the name of the original property owner. Peralta seemed perfect, even as a possible Latin motto for the university: Per Alta ("through the high things" --  especially appropriate for UC Berkeley it would seem).

And yet, even Peralta was passed over. A few days later, the trustees gathered on site for an informal meeting. Stewart relates that beneath a high sun on a clear spring day, watching out-bound ships cross the magnificent San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate, someone quoted George Berkeley: "Westward the course of empire takes its way."

Berkeley's full quote sits atop this incredible art-deco style pictorial map of the East Bay:

Stewart, George R. Names on the Land: a historical account of place-names in the United States. New York: 1946, p. 346-8.

Cosmographia - a landmark achievement of Renaissance scholarship

One of the most successful descriptions of the world from the Renaissance and certainly the most successful of the 16th century was Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia. First published in Basel in 1544, it contained an important collection of woodcut maps based both on Ptolemy and new maps for the Age of Discovery.

The new maps include a world map in its first state, showing a Northwest Passage to the Mollucas (per hoc fretum iter para Molucas - by this passage is the way to the Moluccas). North America is called Terra Florida and is almost into a separate Francisca (New France). South America is still referred to as America sive Insula Brasilii (America or the island of Brazil), referring to an island that was drawn in the western ocean before the Americas were discovered (Shirley 70).

The book - which is a hybrid of geography, history, and philosophy - is perhaps most famous for its map of the Western Hemisphere (Burden map 12, state 3), the inclusion of which, according to Burden, helped popularize the name 'America.' Magellan's ship, the Victoria is shown in the Pacific and Magellan's Straight separates the continent from Tierra del Fuego. In addition to the curious details and form of North America (seen also in the world map), cannibals dominate Brazil and the Yucatan is depicted as an island.

Other important new maps include the Asia map, which shows Japan as an empire of over seven thousand islands, and the Africa map, on which kingdoms are indicated by crowns, Guinea is dominated by a cyclops, and the Mountains of the Moon feed the Nile River (Betz map 3).

Overall, Münster's Cosmographia remains an incredible work of craftsmanship and science, a representation of the Renaissance worldview and known world in the 16th century.

References: Graesse IV, 622; Burmeister 68; Sabin 51386. Burden, The Mapping of North America, #12, 1st state. Shirley, The Mapping of the World, #77, 1st state. Alden, Vol. I, p. 52, #542/22. Stevens (Ptolemy) 49: Karrow. Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century, p. 422.

Maps as visual encyclopedias

Maps play many roles: introducing newly discovered lands, illustrating battle scenes, guiding ship captains through treacherous waters, and more. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, we start to see maps become a type of visual encyclopedia, jam-packed with information. A good example is this world map on Mercator's Projection, published in Germany.

This is a map that tells the story of the geography of the world alongside the expanding technological and commercial reach of human populations; among the many subjects presented are steamship lines and routes, drift ice, sailing routes, telegraph lines, wind course directions, and ocean currents.

Neatline is headed to London!


Saturday 17th June 2017; 12.00 pm to 7.00 pm
Sunday 18th June 2017; 10.00 am to 6.00 pm

Royal Geographical Society 1 Kensington Gore London SW7 (Entrance Exhibition Road)


This event brings together around 40 of the leading national and international antiquarian map dealers as well as hundreds of visiting dealers, collectors, curators and map aficionados from all parts of the world. A very large selection of Original Antique Maps will be available for sale, ranging in age from the 15th to the 20th c.

For more information:

Happy 80th birthday Golden Gate Bridge

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. Its completion in 1937 came one year after the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in November, 1936. Both bridges were celebrated at the Golden Gate International Exposition held on Treasure Island in 1939-40.

The theme of the exposition was "Pageant of the Pacific," and it showcased the goods of nations bordering the Pacific Ocean. Embodying this theme was the "Tower of the Sun" and a giant, 80-foot statue of Pacifica, goddess of the Pacific ocean, both of which are marked on this guide map designed by Ruth Taylor:

Of course, construction of the bridges was not celebrated by all, especially railroad companies, which offered ferry services to their rail connections around San Francisco Bay; something we discussed in our Northwestern Pacific Marin County hiking map video:

Transcontinental passages

The New York Times had an interesting feature discussing how disappearing Arctic sea ice could lead to the opening of shipping routes once thought impossible -- including directly over the North Pole.



For the student of cartographic history, it is hard not to see this graphic and think of the centuries of maps that invented, promoted, discussed, or refuted a Northwest Passage -- a conduit through the North American continent to the riches of the East Indies.

European explorers searched for a Northwest Passage from the early 16th century until the end of the 18th century. Expeditions found consistent funding because of the great lure of replacing the arduous and dangerous journeys through the Straight of Magellan or around the Cape of Good Hope.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, this conduit was often imagined as a transcontinental waterway known as the River of the West (also known as the Long River, Rivière longue), an idea buoyed by a combination of wishful thinking and a popular 1703 travel account which purported the existence of such a river.

Some maps depicted the Long River, but shied away from connecting it completely to the Pacific Ocean.

1745 Seale - A Map of North America with the European Settlements...

1745 Seale - A Map of North America with the European Settlements...

Some maps plotted a complete transcontinental passage, like this French map from a few years before the American Revolution, which shows a waterway starting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, passing though a series of lakes (both real and invented), and continuing on to the Pacific Ocean.

1777 De Pretot - Carte de l'Ancien et du Nouveau Monde...

1777 De Pretot - Carte de l'Ancien et du Nouveau Monde...

And some more discerning mapmakers included text on their maps mentioning the debate, like this map by Bellin on which he states that the English have been searching around Hudson Bay for the entrance to a Northwest Passage.

1763 Bellin - Carte de l’'Amerique et des Mers Voisines

1763 Bellin - Carte de l’'Amerique et des Mers Voisines

Little did they know a Northwest Passage does exist, just not the one imagined by explorers past. Those explorers viewed the passage as the key to a new economic system; the consequences of melting arctic sea ice in this century remain to be seen.

A city after our own hearts

"At last Marseilles was revealed. From the sea. The way Phocian must have seen her for the first time, one morning centuries ago. With the same sense of wonder. The port of Massilia. I know its happy lovers, a Marseilles Homer might have written about Gyptis and Protis. The traveler and the princess." Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos

San Francisco to Santa Cruz: The Ocean Shore Railroad

A discussion of the Ocean Shore Railroad touches on many larger themes of general railroad history, including innovation, marketing, competition, land speculation, cost burden, and the eventual rise of the auto industry.

At its most basic, the Ocean Shore was built to connect the perpetually-growing city of San Francisco with the popular resort town of Santa Cruz. But as was the case for railroads big and small built in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the beginning and end points were only part of the story. Like the full-press promotion of western settlement connected to the biggest project of all, the Transcontinental Railroad, land speculation was the primary business activity linked to the Ocean Shore. 

Most histories of the Ocean Shore Railroad begin with the year 1905, when initial surveying and preparation began, only to be dealt a serious blow by the devastating toll of the 1906 earthquake. But the idea for the such an endeavor was actually discussed decades earlier and at Neatline we have recently come across a small pamphlet published in 1881 and titled: Report upon the San Francisco and Ocean Shore Railroad Company, California.

The pamphlet constitutes a statement from President W.W. Walker and Chief Engineer Lyman Bridges to the company's Board of Directors and is imbued with optimism found so often with speculative projects: "the entire line has an unparalleled scenery of mountain, ocean, valley and plateau, with an ever-changing panorama of sea-side attractions." The authors predict that the railroad will become a major player in freight, moving both coal and lime, and stimulate agricultural production. At the same time, the seaside will flourish, with Point San Pedro developing into the Coney Island of the west.

The pamphlet also includes a small map of the proposed route. The coastal line is similar, but the San Francisco section has an interesting difference. The actual San Francisco station for the Ocean Shore was at 12th and Mission, from which it traveled south roughly along the same route followed by Highway 101 today before veering off to the coast. The 1881 proposal, however, begins at City Hall itself, heading directly west on Fulton and D streets along the northern edge of Golden Gate Park, which itself receives no small praise: "it is being developed and beautified year by year, and will soon be one of the most beautiful parks on the Continent."

Land along the San Mateo County coast south of San Francisco was marketed in two main ways, both of which attracted speculators eager for high returns on investment. First, the coastal communities were promoted as idyllic places to live or maintain a holiday house. Second, tourists were encouraged to escape the city and enjoy the beautiful coastline, stopping in resort towns like Granada, with its street grid designed by Daniel Burnham.

In the end, however, the ultimate goal of creating populations large enough to support train service was never realized. Housing plots became agricultural land as the railroad was plagued by unforeseen costs, especially associated with the stretch of coast that includes Devil's Slide. Only Half Moon Bay developed into a significant tourist destination. After a short run, the Ocean Shore was finished in 1920. Much of the excavation, leveling, and other track preparation work would be used for roads as the automobile became the preferred mode of transportation.

Detail from a 1919 map of San Francisco showing the route of the Ocean Shore R.R. past Bernal Heights along a similar path to Highway 101 today.

The tracks of the Ocean Shore R.R. make a brief appearance along the east side of this 1917 Spring Valley Water Company contour map of area around Lake Merced.

Inset of the Bay Area from Godwin's famous pictorial map of San Francisco; interestingly, although published in 1927, the route of the Ocean Shore R.R. is still depicted.


References and further information:

Hunter, Chris. Ocean Shore Railroad (Images of Rail). Arcadia Publishing, 2006.