Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Mon, Oct 9th, 2017

Mapping the Middle East

Since the earth as we know it today is a globe, the directions of east and west are contextual. Yet the maps that direct our way of thinking about global directions still resonate with the idea that there is a West and an East. It does not matter that America is an east to Japan and that Europe is an East to America. The East or Orient that was mapped out when the world was thought to be flat assumed that Europe was a central point and those lands to its east became the Orient.

The idea of an Orient extends back to the Greeks, who had to contend with Persian invasions and then was extended with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The part of the Orient that mattered most to Europe with the rise of Christianity was the Holy Land, the cradle of the faith. It eventually became known as the Near East, as explorers and missionaries worked their way further east to a Far East of China and Japan. By the early 20th century the idea of a Middle East, useful at least for military purposes, was proposed. Archaeologists and historians still tend to see the region as a Near East, but political scientists and the media reckon the region as a Middle East, adding North Africa for good measure.

There are other ways of imagining the region besides mere directions. One of the most intriguing is a map drawn by the German theologian Heinrich Bunting (1545-1606) in his Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae, first published in 1581 and reprinted 10 times over the next 70 years. A Czech translation appeared in 1592 and one in English was completed in London in 1682. An online edition of the German text can be found at the website of Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg.

Three of his maps are figurative: one is the world at the time seen as three intersecting parts of a cloverleaf with Jerusalem as the center and the new world of America off to the side. England, predating Brexit, is just above Europe. A second shows Europe as a Spanish queen wearing a long robe, and holding Sicily in her right hand. Her heart appears to rest in Bohemia.

A third map turns Asia into the winged horse Pegasus. Using a major mythic figure from Greek mythology is an interesting choice to depict the region, although the text makes it clear that Pegasus flying is symbolic of Christ, who triumphed over death. In the iconography of the map Pegasus is charging towards Europe, with its mouth in Asia Minor ready to bite into Constantinople (which in fact it had already done in 1453, a century before Bunting’s birth). Arabia Petraea and Arabia Felix form the front legs with Persia as the riding blanket. India brings up the hinder parts as though China did not exist. The wings are the Tartars and the Scythians. Had Bunting lived a couple centuries longer he probably would have the Queen, perhaps in a British royal robe, riding the horse in their imperial conquest of India.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.