The Madaba Map
in the History of Cartography

by Soren Giversen

This short paper examines three topics. It surveys early cartography in general, looks at the very few maps or map-like documents that survive from antiquity, and shows how the artist of the Madaba Mosaic Map dealt with the subject in order to achieve his goal.
In Ezekiel 4:l we read: "And you, O son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and portray upon it a city, even Jerusalem." That passage is certainly not the beginning of cartography, but the words have inspired generations. And perhaps they also inspired the artist who designed and created the Madaba Mosaic Map. The Madaba Mosaic Map belongs to antique Greek and Roman cartography, which in spite of its lack of developed technical equipment achieved considerable proficiency.
The Greek and Roman cartographers had to measure distances by counting, e.g. the steps of pedestrians; and sometimes they benefited from the experiences of travelers, explorers or seamen; on the sea they used the counting unit of 500 stades. The stars or the sun enabled the seamen or travelers to find the right direction, while cartographers could determine latitude using the techique introduced by Anaximander in Babylon, of using sticks that threw their shadow into a bowl. Longitude, however, could not yet be determined with certainty.
When the Madaba map was made the tradition of constructing world-maps was already at least one thousand years old. We know that the world-maps were constructed already in the sixth century BC by Anaximander and Hecataios. Apparently their main feature was a plane mass of land, a circular contour, which surrounded the terra cognita around the Mediterranean Sea. Herodotus was familiar with such maps.
Truely scientific cartography, however, was not founded before Aristotle spoke of the sphericity of the earth (cfr. Metaphysics 262 a ff, Cal. 293 b ff) - an idea that Pythagoras had already had. Progress was made when Dicaiarchos around 310 B.C. laid down a meridian, drawn from Gibraltar in the west to the Himalayas in the east.
Around 200 BC Eratosthenes succeeded in calculating the circumference of the earth; his estimates of distances have turned out to be much more accurate than those of his more famous successor Ptolemy. Progress of lasting importance was made when Hipparchos around 140 B.C. divided the central parallel of latitude of Eratosthenes into 360 degrees and fixed 12 parallels of latitude. Maps were drawn and globes were constructed as practical results of such theoretical scientific observations. World-maps were constructed already in the sixth century B.C.; a hundred years later or so maps of smaller areas came into use, and a globe was build by Crates.
Travelers, astronomers, geographers and historians contributed in many ways to the development of cartography. The construction of the long Roman roads, where milestones were erected with their exact information about distances, were also of great importance, as can be seen in the Geography of Strabo (vol. 3, 116-117), and in the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder. A great globe could be inspected by interested Roman citizens, who at the same time perhaps also had the opportunity to see a plane world-map made by Ptolemy. He tried to solve the problems of the discrepancy between the plane map and the non-plane earth with curved lines of latitude and longitude. His calculations are, however, not accurate, to put it very mildly.
It was the intention of Ptolemy to reform the world-map, as he says in one of his eight books, which he would do by bringing up to date an earlier map made by a previous geographer Marinus of Tyre (about AD 120).
The map of Ptolemy covered much of the then known world from about 20 degrees south to about 65 degrees north, and it had as its base a meridian drawn through the Canary Islands to 180 degrees east. Unfortunately Ptolemy in general underestimated the distances between any two positions of longitude. That is the reason why so much of his information must be taken with a grain of salt.
There are only four significant maps or map-like documents that date back to antiquity, and of these four examples only a single one has been preserved in its original shape: the Madaba Mosaic Map. The three other examples, however, are very interesting for the history of cartography.
1) Most famous are the maps attributed to the second-century Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaios. The maps of Ptolemy were presumably drawn to illustrate his great work the Geography, for which they served as kind of additional atlas. The only copies of this work that survive were made during the Middle Ages. These maps cover a much larger area than does the Madaba Mosaic Map, although the map with the title, the fourth part of Asia, includes in a very small scale the Terra Sancta, which probably depicts that region of the world as it was in the Antonine period. From a cartographic point of view it is very interesting to note that this map introduces the map orientation towards the north.
2) The Tabula Peutingeriana is apparently a copy of a map from the third century. The extant copy dates from the 13th century and it measures about 682 by 33 cm. It seems to be a copy of a traditional guide-book; perhaps with not a few additions to the original text. The purposes of this strange book - or very long strip was probably to provide a pilgrim with clear information about the way he should follow.
3) The so-called maps of St. Jerome are known in two copies that both seem to go back to a map from the time of Jerome. They are preserved in a copy of his De hebraicis quaestionibus et interpretationibus Veteris et Novi Testamenti. From their contents it appears that they were produced in the patristic period. The maps are both rather simple and not very artistically done, but they were used as models for the many maps which were drawn later on the Middle Ages as short guidebooks for those who wanted to visit the Holy Land. They probably also were used in combination with information from the Onomasticon of Eusebius and his Praeparatio by those who did not copy the maps but only wrote a booklet about what was to be seen on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I have found examples in the 13th century manuscript by the Abbot Nicolaus of Tveraa in Iceland.
In the Middle Ages two new types of maps appeared, the mappae mundi which were intended not to depict what could be seen, but rather to explain and illustrate some ecclesiastical or sometimes mystical ideas about the heaven and earth, and the so-called portolano maps, which describe our region during or after the Crusader period, and which were of interest mainly for seamen or perhaps also pilgrims who came by sea.
The Madaba Mosaic Map is unique in the history of cartography. The map reflects a stage in the cartography of the Byzantine period when many holy places deliberately were concentrated along certain roads for the sake of convenience. But it reflects also a stage in which the cartographer is more an artist who tries to reach a certain objective. Of the 91 geographical names on the Madaba Map, 60 are mentioned in the Onomasticon of Eusebius. The maker of the map shows himself to be not merely a critical editor of the text of Eusebius; who would have corrected some of the mistakes Eusebius made. Rather, he shows himself to be a real artist, repeating uncritically Eusebius' mistakes. He was more preoccupied by the artistic point of view: to create a vision, a beautiful work which could serve the Christian message.
The same thing can be observed when one compares the relation of the artist to the use of geographic names in the Septuagint and the New Testament. Of the 600 geographical names in the Septuagint and the 25 geographical names in the New Testament he has as an artist had to make his choice. The geographical names in the Septuagint and in the New Testament are however unequally distributed: many localities are mentioned around Jerusalem, while in the desert, e.g. the Negev, there are only a few. The artist could therefore add some non-biblical names in the desert, while he had to be careful and restrict himself around Jerusalem. He succeeded, however, and did it so well that in what is left of the northern area on the map he records half of the names mentioned in the Four Gospels, and it seems most likely that when the Madaba Mosaic Map was complete, it included all the sites mentioned in the Gospels, while the proportion of names from the Septuagint was more restricted.
Thus while producing this masterpiece of a map, the artist concentrated on what was essential for a Christian church. The result was not what could be used as a guidebook, but it made a contribution to the message of the church, and doing it so the artist showed himself to be a master.

This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 248-250.

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Created Saturday, December 16, 2000 at 11:16:36
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copyright - Studium Biblicum Franciscanum - Jerusalem 2000