Thinking with Maps: Understanding the World through Spatialization

Spatial reasoning, which promises connection across wide areas, is itself ironically often not connected to other areas of knowledge. Thinking with Maps: Understanding the World through Spatialization addresses this problem, developing its argument through historical analysis and cross-disciplinary examples involving maps.

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Is Blanc the center?

Hamlet of Blanc

Hamlet of Blanc

In my last post, I speculated that İstanbul was a good candidate for the center of the world.

But now, I’m sitting in İstanbul’s antithesis, the hamlet of Blanc sur Sanctus, France, wondering whether the center might instead be here. Where İstanbul is large and hyperactive, Blanc barely hangs on and wonders about its future.

Moss near Blanc

Moss near Blanc

Blanc sits above the valley of the river Sanctus, whose early traces form a boundary between departments of Aveyron and Tarn. It’s in the Langedoc region, where names still resonate in Occitan. It’s also in the Parc naturel régional des Grands Causses, a lush region of limestone plateaus, cascading mountain streams, beech and pine forests, and family-scale agriculture.

Blanc was settled at least a millennium ago. A chateau was built in the 10th C. The place changed over the years, growing and prospering, especially in the 17th C. But by the mid 19th C, there were only 54 inhabitants, and the last two left in 1960. The combination of a the general rural exodus and WWI were too much for it. Today, it and its environs are protected by an association, Sauvegarde du Rouergue, and by two men who operate a set of guesthouses on the site.

Forest primeval?

Forest primeval?

We’re staying in what used to be the school and post office. It’s restored to protect it and to provide modern conveniences, but with the perfect weather we had, we could have lived outdoors.

Some would say that Blanc represents well the past for France, and the world. Small-scale agriculture is uncompetitive and too difficult. People are drawn to the cities–the good jobs, shopping, culture and night life, automobiles, new technologies and modern conveniences. Wherever the center may be, it certainly can’t be in Blanc.



And yet, in Blanc you can take long walks through forests and meadows to reconnect with nature and your own body. You can drink pure water from mountain streams. You can feel how rocks were carried to form walls and houses, rather than to read about them or see them in a museum. You can understand how water and topography have always shaped human lives and continue to this day.

Enfant Sauvage

Enfant Sauvage

Moreover, you can see that the life in Blanc is not so different from that in similar places in Turkey, the US, China, or elsewhere in the world. Few people would choose to re-enter that rural lifestyle, but many people seek the kind of peace and wholeness that it promises. There’s a solidity to life here that is more than merely the fact everything seems to be built out of rock. Nearby, the “wild child” of Aveyron perplexed early 19th C villagers with his back to nature existence.

Blanc affords an opportunity to find one’s individual center in a way that the intensely social world of İstanbul does not.

Ottoman fortification

Theodosian Walls at the Selymbria Gate, showing outer walls, inner walls, &  moat wall

Theodosian Walls at the Selymbria Gate, showing outer walls, inner walls, & moat wall

Last Monday I walked along the Walls of Constantinople, then returned along the Sea of Marmara. It was a beautiful day, with great views in every direction.

The stone walls were built in 324–336 to protect the city of Constantinople (née Byzantium) after its founding as the new capital of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great. It was the last and one of the most complex fortification systems built in antiquity. Gunpowder began their demise, but it was the large number of Ottoman invaders that caused the city to fall to a siege on May 29, 1453.

Mihrimah Sultan Camii

Mihrimah Sultan Camii

Nevertheless, the walls had protected the city for over 1100 years, making them the most successful ever built. Even after the fall of Constantinople, Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II added to the fortifications by building the Yedikule Hisari (Seven Towers Fortress) at the Golden Gate.

The walls have suffered from wars, earthquakes, and urban development, but still stand as an impressive monument and a marker of inner and outer İstanbul. Restoration began in the 1980s.

It’s not possible to walk on top of the walls the entire 4.5 km length. There are heavily damaged sections and major roads now pass through most of the original gates. Several times I climbed up steep stone stairs overgrown with weeds and broken in many places. I’d walk a while, then find that I needed to retrace my steps. At other times, I had to walk away from the wall to circle through some neighborhood before returning to it. As a consequence, I had to walk at least twice the length of the wall itself.

Ottoman Empire, 1683

Ottoman Empire, 1683

The route is part of the Sultan’s Trail, a project to build a long-distance path from Vienna to İstanbul. That project appears stalled, but you can still see blazes for it. You can also see many aspects of İstanbul: beautiful vistas and trash piles, new and ancient constructions, carefully planned development and urban sprawl. In Turkish, I’d say güzel ve çirkin, yeni ve eski, iyi ve kötü.

There are many interesting sights along the wall. My favorite is the Mihrimah Sultan Camii (mosque) at Edirnekapı (the Edirne Gate). It was designed by Mimar Sinan (“Sinan the Architect”) for the favorite daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent, Princess Mihrimah. It’s filled with light due to the extraordinary number of windows, a speciality of Sinan’s. Although it’s a large cami, it has only one minaret, symbolizing the loneliness of Mihrimah and Sinan due to their forbidden love. Edirnekapı itself is where Sultan Mehmed II entered the city after its defeat in 1453.

Ottoman furniture today

Ottoman furniture today

As I walked, I imagined what it would take to make something like the Promenade Plantée in Paris or the High Line in New York City. With some repairs to the wall, a little new construction, and handrails for people like me, İstanbul could have the best of these new urban walkways.

Walking back through a park along the Sea of Marmara made this into a strenuous, but rewarding day. I was personally fortified with a tradtional Ottoman dinner in the Sultanahmet area at Pasazade and appreciated the Ottoman-style furniture in our hotel. The day after, we ate at Asitane, which claims to have done six months of research on the details of fine Ottoman court cuisine in order to recreate that food culture.

Andrea Bianco

Zhong He's map, 1418

Zhong He’s map, 1418

I’ve always been interested in maps, and that interest has grown rather than diminished as I began to learn about them as rhetorical devices. Mark Monmonier discusses this in his How to Lie with Maps.

As faithful representations of reality, maps are endlessly fascinating and useful as tools for many purposes, not just finding one’s way. But as constructed artifacts, they embody a mix of physical reality and human passion––becoming devices for power, greed, delusion, hope, art, and more.

Recently, I read The Mapmaker: A Novel of a Great Navigator who sailed Fifty Years Before Columbus by Frank G. Slaughter. It’s a fictionalized account of Bianco’s life, but one done with an attempt to represent accurately what is known about Bianco, while filling in the gaps with a plausible story.

Portugal’s ruler Prince Henry the Navigator, sent various expeditions into the western Atlantic and along the African coast, beginning in 1418. These voyages were secret. There was a real interest in adding to the knowledge of the world, but that was coupled with a desire to use that knowledge for private gain. Not all of the discoveries were shown on published maps, and some were designed to mislead commercial rivals by concealing the existence of new lands and resources.

Antilles within the Caribbean

Antilles within the Caribbean

The Portuguese had probably reached the Antilles archilpelago at the Eastern edge of the Caribbean by 1430. Between 1436 and 1448, Andrea Bianco made, but did not publish, maps showing the locations of Newfoundland, Florida, and Brazil. Later Portuguese maps, published in 1459 and 1489, show Asia with something like Florida, conveniently omit South America.

Bianco developed the “Tondo e Quadro” (“circle and square”) method for seeing and measuring a return course. This was invaluable for repeat voyages to secure foreign resources. He collaborated with Fra Mauro, who made other detailed world maps and estimated the world’s circumference within 10% of modern figures. See The Ancient Americas: Migrations, Contacts, and Atlantis, by David Pratt.

Prior to the Portuguese voyages, the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He (a Muslim) had circumnavigated the earth. A world map was published in China during the Ming dynasty in 1418. It shows that the Ming navy had a rough knowledge of Baja California, the west coast of South America, as well as Labrador, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Chinese maps probably contributed to the Europeans’ knowledge.

The Europeans also learned from Arab science and technology. Arabs put south at the top of maps. When you face the sun in the morning, south is on the right, and right has positive associations. Also, with the sea to the south their land was then on the top of the map. Europeans flipped the map to put north and themselves on top.

Andrea Bianco, explorer and mapmaker

Andrea Bianco, explorer and mapmaker

These points are supported by other historical accounts, which in sum show that 15 C Europeans knew that the world was a sphere roughly 24,000 miles in circumference and that there were large land masses between Europe and East Asia. The issue was not to “discover” America nor to prove the word was round, but to map the details and determine who should control it.

To me, this all suggests that what I had learned about voyages of discovery was mostly wrong, and much less interesting than the fuller, more objective accounts available today. School textbooks tended to minimize or omit entirely any non-European contribution. That left out crucial parts of the story, including the cultural aspects of geography.

The textbooks also represented the discovery era as one of courageous, individualized pursuit of knowledge. Instead, the voyages were an essential aspect of empire building based on already extensive knowledge. Rather than enlightening an ignorant world, they were used to acquire knowledge, then deliberately mislead competitors.

Global understanding


Finding Turkey

Finding Turkey

It makes sense that global understanding starts with understanding the globe. At least that’s what some children and I think.

It was a Monday in the Multipurpose Unit Early Classroom Intervention Program (MUECIP) in Çanakkale, Turkey. This program is an innovative approach for 4-5 year-olds from low-SES families, which integrates music and arts. The student teacher, Dilsad Korkmaz, did an excellent job of keeping the children engaged and allowing for the inevitable individual differences.

The program draws from approaches such as Orff, Babies with Identity, and High-Scope. There is ample use of graphic displays on class size, seasons, daily activities, birthdays, responsibilities, etc. Family participation is encouraged through interviews with the families and home visits to observe children in their natural lives. Parents rotate in providing breakfasts, which also gives them an opportunity to observe the class and engage in the activities.

Finding Cape Cod

Finding Cape Cod

Research by Özlem Çelebioğlu Morkoçc and Ebru Aktan Acar at Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University has shown that the program supports overall development, including cognitive and psychomotor skills, self-care, language, and personal-social skills.

It was more compelling to me that the children seemed so engaged in learning. They were excited to talk and share, to dance, and to investigate everything. I had to remove my electronic fitness bracelet when it became too great a distraction. Besides, it was embarrassing that they figured out how to operate it in about 1/10 of the time I had taken.

At one point we drew upon a globe for some collaborative map work. Using many fingers, we first found Turkey, then Cape Cod. I’m not sure how much they comprehended about the globe versus how much they just wanted to interact with each other and their American “uncle.”

Islamic Science and Technology Historical Museum

Yalikavak, Turkey

Our last stop in Istanbul was at the İstanbul Islâm Bilim ve Teknologi Tarihi Müzesi (Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam) in the Eminönü district. It’s a wonderful museum, displaying centuries of achievements in geography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, music, optics, chemistry, chronometry, historiography, medicine, military, civil engineering, and other disciplines.

I was told in school that the period when most of these discoveries and creations occurred (9th-16th century CE) was called the Dark Ages, a time of fear, superstition, lack of progress, even regression from the Classical era. Then the Classical learning was miraculously rediscovered and expanded during the Renaissance. And of course, like many things I learned in school, it was partly true.

But the fact is that while great scientific and technical accomplishments were happening in the Islamic world, much of Christian Europe languished in these areas, not completely, but to a large extent in comparison. Islamic scholars maintained and extended the Classical learning, and incorporated additional ideas from Greek, Byzantine, Indian, Judaic, and other traditions. They not only advanced learning considerably, but did so by listening to and learning from other cultures.

Long before Roger Bacon, they articulated and promoted experimental science, and they wrote about inductive or scientific methods long before Francis Bacon. They studied the circulation of blood before William Harvey, and made many other medical advances. But the exhibits do not take a “who did it first?” approach; instead, they emphasize the continuity of learning, across time and across cultures.

The Ages were not Dark everywhere, and the Renaissance in Europe was not autonomous; it was dependent upon and grew organically from an Islamic culture that valued learning in all its forms.

The Museum displays fascinating astrolabes, glassware, maps, globes, medical instruments, ships, an elephant clock, and many other artifacts. I’ve never seen such an assemblage anywhere, and these are beautifully presented and explained with multilingual text and video. Scientists, mathematicians and other scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Sena (Avicenna), Geber, Al-Jazari are featured.

That’s why it was both surprising and a bit depressing to see how few people came to the exhibits. I counted five total visitors during the entire time that we were there, Make that seven if I include Susan and me. There were about fifteen staff and guards. Of course, it’s been open only two years.

İstanbul offers tough competition for any museum. World Heritage sites like the Topkapi Palace nearby, the Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque), and Hagia Sophia are just a few of those within easy walking distance, each offering jaw-dropping sights. But those also offer long lines and crowded viewing. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the Topkapi dagger while being shoved along in a crowd. The Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam offers a different and equally important view of Islamic culture, one that I suspect is not well known by many within or outside of Islam,

The Museum is housed in the Has Ahırlar (Imperial Stables) complex now in Gülhane Park. This area was once the outer garden for the Topkapı Palace during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

The working instruments and other objects were constructed by the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, based on illustrations and descriptions in textual sources, and to some extent, on surviving original artifacts. There is a similar exhibit there under the direction of Fuat Sezgin. The İstanbul museum is a joint project of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and Goethe University.

Yandex Probki

Keith Gessen has an interesting article about Moscow’s horrible traffic, Letter from Moscow, “Stuck,” in The New Yorker (August 2, 2010, p. 24).

Among other things, he describes Yandex Probki (Яндекс.Карты), an excellent example of a user-created map, which shows Moscow traffic patterns in real time. The site’s content comes, not from webcams or pavement sensors, neither of which would both practical there, but from GPS-enabled smartphones. Users send in descriptions from their own situations.

You can get a sense of the site from this video below, but you can also explore the map itself and get a sense of the enormity of the traffic jams, even if you don’t read Russian.