• Weird History

Here's What Map Makers Originally Thought The World Looked Like Throughout History

Historical world maps are full of secrets. They sometimes exclude entire hemispheres or add imagined continents that never existed. And world map changes over time reveal just how much humanity's view of the planet has evolved through the centuries.

How was the world map created? Some of the earliest world maps focus on the three known continents - Europe, Africa, and Asia - and often disorient modern viewers by placing east or south at the top. Many of them are inventive, creative works of art. Maps through time have been adapted and changed according to the people making them and viewing them, giving us a particularly unique glimpse into the past.

Maps of the world also reveal how different cultures saw themselves and their place in the world. Was the center of the world Jerusalem, or Mount Meru? Was the earth mostly land, or mostly water? And is the ocean blue, or green? World maps are rich historical windows to the past, and here are just a few of the most striking.

  • A View From Korea In 1800

    Photo: Unknown, c.1800 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    This stunning world map was made in Korea around 1800. It blends together religion and geography by focusing its attention on Mount Meru, which was reported to be the center of the world according to Hindu mythology. Two rings of water dotted with land surround the central continent.

    This map comes from a group of maps called “Cheonhado,” which translates to “Map of all under heaven.” All world maps contain clues about the cultures that made them—and many of them weave religion into their view of the world.

  • An Ancient Greek Map, Rediscovered During The Renaissance

    Photo: After Ptolemy, 1st c. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many European world maps owe a great debt to Claudius Ptolemy, a 2nd century Greco-Roman geographer and the author of Geographia. Ptolemy is known as the “Father of Geography” because his works shaped Christian and Islamic maps for over fifteen hundred years.

    When Ptolemy’s writings were rediscovered in the 15th century, his orderly map style based on latitude and longitude became the basis for dozens of new maps. 

  • A 12th Century Muslim World As Seen From Sicily

    Photo: Al-Idrisi, 1154 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Muslim scholar Al-Idrisi created the Tabula Rogeriana in 1154, while he was working for the Christian king of Sicily. Al-Idrisi drew information from interviews he conducted with dozens of travelers, blending them with authoritative texts, such as Ptolemy’s. 

    The map puts south at the top, which makes it disorienting for modern viewers to understand. In fact, it did not become common to place the north at the top until the 16th century!

  • A 14th Century World Map To Start A Crusade

    Photo: Pietro Vesconte, c. 1320 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Around 1320, Pietro Vesconte drew a circular map of the world. It followed the medieval style of centering the world around Jerusalem, using the map to promote the Christian ordering of the world.

    This map also served an overtly religious purpose: it was included in a book written by Venetian merchant Marino Sanudo, urging Christians to begin a new Crusade to retake the Holy Lands.