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Lord Clyde (Commander in Chief of the British forces in India, 1857-61) once described Shimla as being ‘like a very crumpled sheet of stiff paper thrown down.‘ It was a chance remark in a conversation he had with Lady Charlotte Canning, the first Vicereine of India, but it was an observation she thought significant enough to record in the journal she maintained of the tours across India between 1858 and 1861.  In a sense, Lord Clyde in that one unwitting remark had encapsulated the difference between Geography and Cartography.

It could be argued that Cartography is Geography with all the creases ironed out. If Geography is in the round and three dimensional, then by comparison Cartography is flat, two dimensional, contained within the finite length and breadth of a sheet of paper or vellum. The very word ‘cartography’ is a composite of the Greek words for carto/paper and graphia/writing.    

The earliest known map – lines inscribed on a clay tablet fired in ancient Egypt – dealt with journeys, with travel. It marked the various stages of a trip someone had taken in those times.  Importantly, it was a trip someone else might want to make. He (perhaps an itinerant merchant) may have needed a guide, and what better than something as portable and durable as a clay tablet.  

Cartography as we know it developed not in land-locked countries but in the realms of sea-faring nations. Information collected by naval captains on their voyages would on their return be taken off them, scraped like the barnacles from the hulls of their ships. Every pertinent detail – readings of coastlines, hospitable coves and inlets, sighting of islands, location of fresh water ports – would be then collated, interpreted, recorded and readied for use by the next captain who needed it.

One of the earliest examples of such incremental documentation can be found in the work Al-Idrisi, a Moroccan geographer who worked at the court of Roger II of Sicily in the early 12th century. He compiled what we would call an atlas, containing all the information known of the world at that time. He gave it the fanciful title: ‘Entertainment for those wanting to discover the world’. Its only disability lay in the need to stand on one’s head in order to comprehend it. The world was shown upside down with North where we would expect to find South. [Plate 1.]  Corrected, one can recognise continents, coastlines and the contours of the Arabian peninsula. [Plate 2.]    Al-Idrisi drew his map in 1154. We know of it from copies made by 'Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî's in 1456. For those intervening three hundred years, Al-Idrisi’s views remained the accepted (albeit upside-down) view of the world.   

A millennia before Al Idrisi, in c. the Graeco-Roman geographer Ptolemy compiled his atlas titled Geographia, a studious work that consolidated all known data of the extensive Roman Empire in his day, supplemented by maps of the regions. That atlas remained the template for most maps until the 16th century. An early edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia was printed in Ulm in 1482. It featured woodcut engravings, which were then hand-coloured. A second edition was brought out in 1486. [Plate 3.] Maps supported the exhaustive text. [Plate 4.]  Ptolemy’s maps may appear to us distorted, but for those early users, his introduction of a rudimentary form of longtitude and latitude constituted a radical innovation. Interestingly, this post-Alexander map includes the location of Bucephala, the spot where Alexander’s famous horse Bucapehlus was buried near the river Jhelum.

Less than seventy years separate Gastaldi’s version from the Ulm map of the areas that are now Pakistan. Printed in a hand-sized format, Gastaldi followed the Ptolemiac convention. Tabula Asia IX covered what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of northern India. Three areas of interest are Drangiana/Iran’s Sistan province, Arachosia/modern Afghanistan, and Gedrosia/Makran and its environs. The river Indus is prominently visible in the right foreground. [Plate 5.]

The word Gedrosia meant ‘land of the dark people’, and whatever was known of the topography of the Makran coast was embellished with a fanciful description of the local tribes. They were described as Ichthyophagi or ‘fish eaters’ by Alexander’s troops who passed through Makran on their way home via Persia. The hunting scene in the right corner (according to the Latin text) depicts ancient Makranis – ‘a hairy race, with long nails with which they used to divide their fish, and they used for weapons wooden piles hardened in the fire.’

The growth of four European countries – Spain, Portugal, France and Italy – into trans-oceanic maritime powers brought about an accretion of knowledge about the various coastlines of the world.  Perhaps the most impressive project of its kind was Robert Dudley’s Dell’Arcano del Mare (Secrets of the Sea), published in 6 volumes. They covered the whole field of navigation, astronomical tables, shipbuilding and kindred subjects.

Sir Robert was the illegitimate son of the Earl of Leicester (a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I). Employed as a sea captain by the Duke of Tuscany, Dudley spent thirty years on his atlas.  The folio shown here [Plate 6a.] is of the southern coastline of Pakistan, from Pasni to the shores of Indian Cutch. It shows the various ports at which freshwater would have been available and re-victualling possible. In the enlargement is visible ‘C. Craches’, which must be the earliest reference to the modern port of Karachi. [Plate 6b.]

This map is extremely rare and valuable, not only because it required 5,000 lb. of copper in its making but because any complete atlases like Dudley’s Dell’Arcano del Mare will now be more valuable in their complete form than the sum of their cannibalised individual folios.  

Contemporary to Dudley’s atlas is the expansive map of Mughal India, done in 1646 Joan Blaeu and titled Magni Mogolis Imperium /The Grand Mughal Empire. [Plate 7.] The Blaeus ran a family business as cartographers in Amsterdam. Early editions of maps were amplified, corrected, and continuously reprinted. Blaeu’s maps ‘are now among the most treasured by collectors, both for their fine engraving and artistic decoration,’ a pioneering map collector turned historian Susan Gole has written. ‘It was reprinted many times after its first appearance on 1635 until 1662, and it is difficult to tell which edition any particular map is from, unless  it is found in the complete atlas with the date on the title page.’

Notice the linear route from the coast of Surat travelling through Punjab as far as Kabul. Every stop en route is identified for the convenience of the traveller of those times. Modern armchair tourists will recognise Lahore, Raolo pend (Rawalpindi), Hassan Abdal, Attock and Pishore (Peshawar). 

Areas in eastern India that were lesser travelled and therefore about which comparatively little was known were left blank, though more often than not (for decorative purposes) embellished with exotic animals such as camels and elephants.  Gratuitous insertions such as these led the satirist Jonathan Swift to comment:

          So geographers in Afric maps,

          With savage pictures fill their gaps,

          Ad, o’er inhabitable downs,

Place elephants for want of towns.


The Mughals despite the grandeur of their imperial vision were essentially an insular dynasty. The horizons of the Mughal empire never extended beyond the coastlines of its domains. Emperors like Shah Jahan may have appointed admirals but he never gave them any significant ships to command. That has always been a mystery to historians. Considering that the peninsular empire had a sea coastline of over 6,000 miles which needed to be defended, the lack of a robust navy seems a luxury the Mughals could ill afford. No wonder in time they were defeated by a maritime power – the British.


Yet, it is not as if the Mughal emperors were unaware of their own geography. In a famous portrait done in 1617-18 by Abu’l Hasan, the emperor Jahangir is depicted embracing his Persian counterpart Shah Abbas I. They stand together on a map of the world, with the Indian peninsula at the Mughal’s feet. No wonder when the visiting British envoy Sir Thomas Roe presented Jahangir with an atlas printed by Mercator, the emperor returned it, disappointed at seeing how other empires of the world seemed to overshadow his.  


By 1663, when M. Thevenot published his map of the Mughal empire, the emperor Aurangzeb had dethroned his father Shah Jahan, eliminated his sibling rivals, and lodged himself securely on the fabled peacock throne. [Plate 8.] This map shows the emblem of the Mughals in the upper cartouche and the Mughal dynasty in the lower one. The location of cities is awry. Oddly, Multan is shown northwest of Lahore.  Of particular interest is the highway lined with trees linking Agra to Lahore. This would have been the origins of the expression ‘thandi sarak’ or cool road – a boon for travellers.


By 1732, the date of the map by the Turkish geographer Katib Celebi, it was clear that these western maps of the Mughal empire had become the model for later imitations. [Plate 9.] This was the first map of India to be printed in the Arab world. All the cities are identified in Persian.  Al-Idrisi’s world had come full circle.


In the centuries that followed, maps of greater complexity, detail and refinement were produced as more and more information became available, enhancing their utility. Copper plate engravings gave way to steel maps, then survey maps, and finally the unequalled Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTSI). The GTSI, begun in the 1790s, continued for 80 years, and even by 1876 when the GTSI was officially completed, not all of India had been mapped.  Today, the art of cartography has yielded to technology, dominated by Google and satellite maps. There is no part of the globe that has not been surveyed, no area left to the imagination.


To appreciate the true worth of these antique maps, though, one needs to understand the painstaking process by which they were produced. Early maps were laboriously crafted from woodcut blocks. They left no room for modifications. Maps engraved on metal sheets had the advantage that their surfaces could be softened with heat and incised afresh with corrections or to incorporate newer information. Copper coating increased the number of impressions that could be taken economically from each master plate. Map making was inevitably a tedious, time-consuming, meticulous sequence of many activities. The only way to learn the job was to do the job. Apprentices began young and became master cartographers after years of diligence and application.


Any map over a hundred years is automatically classified as an antique. Not all are worth collecting. If anyone is serious about building a collection, as I was forty years ago, one should first define the perimeters of one’s interest. I decided to concentrate on the areas that now form modern Pakistan. I knew little about maps at the time and so I decided to buy one map per known cartographer and not more than three per period. That ensured that I did not have too many by the same cartographer. It gave a chronological coherence to our collection. I say ‘our’ because it belongs to both my wife Shahnaz and myself. She shares both ownership and an interest in this rather arcane hobby.  


Since our first purchase in the 1970s, when almost no one was interested in maps of the Indian subcontinent (and even less on areas that are now Pakistan), rare maps were still available, not always but often at affordable prices.  Forty years later, I have more or less exhausted whatever I needed to collect. Our collection now has over 150 maps dateable from 1486 to 1947. It is time to stop collecting and to begin savouring them.


I am often asked what each is worth. I reply that, like all collectibles, they are worth only the pleasure they bring to you.  To me, maps are more than geography uncreased on paper. They are the precious nacre of knowledge that has adhered layer over previous layers to yield the pearl that we can hold, view and appreciate as an antique map.




[The Aleph Review, 2019 issue, p.163 et seq.] 



19 March 2019
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