Where on earth are we?

PORTFOLIO

Maps, as a Walters exhibit shows, help us find our way in a world full of unknowns and promises of adventure.

November 11, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

I'm not really a map person; some days I can barely distinguish I-95 from U.S. 1. Lately, though, I've been flipping through the atlas, tracing a river called the Helmand with my finger, peering at the Hindu Kush mountains, examining where Afghanistan touches Pakistan and Tajikistan, as though by doing so I could divine the state of the world.

A lot of people are doing the same thing: At the National Geographic Society, requests for maps of Afghanistan and its neighbors surged on Sept. 12 and have yet to recede. "Demand leaped overnight," says chief cartographer Allen Carroll. "But what has been really interesting is that while there has been specific interest in the Afghanistan region, sales of our world maps and atlases have jumped, too."

A few days after the terrorist attacks, Carroll woke up filled with determination. "I went to the editor of the magazine and said, 'We need to set our plans aside and work day and night on a map of Afghanistan.' " It usually takes seven months to produce a new map, but in five weeks, the society's cartographers have drawn an up-to-date map of Afghanistan that will appear in next month's magazine and in stores.

The document is more than one map: It includes a political map and a satellite image revealing the extreme ruggedness of the Afghan terrain. And there are smaller insets showing the patchwork of ethnic groups living there, the vegetation and the devastation wrought by drought, the migrations of the refugees and the areas held by the Northern Alliance.

Maps give perspective. They offer the intangible comfort of knowing where one stands. As a child, I loved books like The World of Pooh that included the illustrated whereabouts of all the important places in the story: Piglet's House or the bee tree or Pooh's heffalump trap. Building imaginary worlds, I always wanted to know, at least in a general way, where this was in relation to that.

Old maps, with their elegant hand-drawn lines and partially imagined geographies, hold the promise of adventure. Grand experiences lie just around the corner, these maps seem to say, over this never-seen mountain, across that distant ocean. Some terra incognita can be reached by sailing past whimsical sea monsters that ride the ocean waves, or by riding camels past the lair of lions fancifully depicted by cartographers. Maps show the real, the hoped for -- and the feared. They also give clues to the biases and beliefs of their makers.

Views of the world

At a new map exhibit at the Walters Art Museum last week, I was reminded of how profoundly our beliefs affect the way we see the world -- and how that view can change over time. That our views change has particular resonance right now. I may have imagined it, but other people seemed to linger longer than usual or lean in a little closer as they studied the exhibit. I know I did.

Called "Expanding World Views: A Millennium of Maps," it includes documents from the 12th century to the present. There is an aerial map of Baltimore taken earlier this year via satellite that is vivid with blues and greens; a 19th-century Chinese map painted on a scroll; a 17th-century British map of North America confidently depicting California as an island.

Ideas once firmly held to be true can change as though written only in sand. A natural science textbook owned by an English monk in the late 12th century includes a map of the universe; the Earth rests comfortably at its center. On the following page, seven astronomical bodies, including the sun and the moon, orbit the Earth in perfect circles.

A drawing of Africa created in 1652 by renowned Dutch mapmaker Nicholas Visscher contains elaborate illustrations of mountains, rivers and lakes -- none of which exist. Some professional mapmakers, it seems, were reluctant to admit ignorance of the lands they charted. They made up the details.

Across the room, a 17th-century Islamic map depicts Cairo and its environs. A shimmering silver streak forms the Nile, and gold-topped mosques and palaces fill the city. Green, umbrella-shaped trees with orange fruit dot the edges of the gleaming waterway. The map appears in a portolan, or book of navigational instructions, elegantly bound in red leather and written by a Turkish naval commander, Muhyiddin Piri Re'is. Through maps and descriptions, he leads travelers around the Mediterranean coast and the waterways of Africa.

Movable north

Looking at the path of the river and the pyramids drawn in the upper right corner, I realized that the cartographer placed north at the bottom of his map, south at the top. On different pages of this book, "north" switches from bottom to left or right, depending on the cartographer's whim and compositional needs.

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