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Early Modern Mapping of Africa

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Map of southern Africa showing sources of the Nile in a cavern beneath the Mountains of the Moon. Athanasius Kircher. Amsterdam, 1665
This fanciful map speculates that the Nile begins in an underground cavern beneath the Mountains of the Moon, in the faraway south of Africa. In the early 1600s, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Páez had found the source of the smaller Blue Nile in the mountains of modern-day Ethiopia, and reported that there were two “fountains” there. Here, the mapmaker is placing fountains at the source of the main Nile (White Nile), perhaps extending the colorful story of Páez to a new setting.
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Map of the whole of Africa based on Ptolemaic sources. Sebastian Münster. Basel, 1542
This is one of the earliest maps of Africa showing the whole continent, after the Portuguese explorers had documented the coastline in Portolan charts. Many features of the interior are taken from Ptolemy, including the Atlas Mountains as one long chain across North Africa and the source of the Nile as two lakes flowing out of mountains. The kingdom of Prester John, Hamarich, makes its home at the split in the Nile. The one-eyed giants, or Monoculi, are among the marvels inherited from the Ancients. Note the printing error on this map, at the kingdom of Quiola.
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Africae tabula noua. Abraham Ortelius. Antwerp, 1570
In 1570, Ortelius published his first edition of the Theatrum orbis terrarum, a book of over 50 uniformly sized maps that is often considered to be the first atlas. The Theatrum was enormously popular and reprinted in many editions for over 40 years. This map was part of the Theatrum and (boosted by the advent of printing) became the standard image of Africa in the late 1500s. Ortelius shows one large lake called Cafates as the main source of the Nile, with a smaller lake to the northeast of it; and places the lakes well south of the equator, filling the continent. The Mountains of the Moon are gone. Madagascar finally appears, and the overall shape of the continent is familiar to us today.
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Africa. Drawn from the coordinates of Claudius Ptolemy. Lyons, 1535
This map shows Africa as described by Ptolemy in his Geography, written around 160 CE. Although this map was drawn in 1535, it is a literal rendering of information in the Geography, so it is a classical Ptolemaic view of Africa. One can see the origin of patterns that appear in later maps. The source of the Nile is shown below the Equator, as lakes flowing out of Mons Lune, Mountains of the Moon. The names of places and peoples throughout (such as Meröe and Anthropophagi) are also found in the Geography. Prester John, the king seated in the middle of the Nile, is a deviation from Ptolemy—a medieval addition from the mapmaker.
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Africae nova descriptio. Willem Janzoon Blaeu. Amsterdam, 1644
Willem Blaeu produced maps and atlases with especially fine engravings and rich pictorial detail. This was the Golden Age of Dutch map-making, and Blaeu’s works were prized by wealthy collectors, especially in the Low Countries. This map of Africa features exotic creatures on land and sea (always a curiosity), and includes a carte à figures illustrating cities and native peoples. The geography is similar to the Ortelius, though now the lakes are identified as Zaire and Zaflan, and an elongated territory labeled Abissinia is wrapped around the Nile. At the bottom of this region the Lunae Montes, Mountains of the Moon, make a comeback.
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Aethiopia. Willem Janzoon Blaeu. Amsterdam, 1666
This later map by Blaeu identifies Aethiopia as the region of Prester John, the fabled lost Christian king. Prester John appeared in popular European chronicles beginning in the 12th century—a Christian in a faraway land who ruled over a kingdom of riches and marvels. The kingdom was first thought to be in the “East,” but it began to find its way into stories of Africa in the 14th century and later onto maps of Ethiopia (Abissinia on some maps). This also shows other river systems flowing west out of Lake Zaire through the Congo, continuing the speculations about the headwaters of the Nile.

The outline of Africa took shape in the European mind, and on European maps, around 1500. This was the Age of Exploration—Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1480s, and shortly after, Vasco de Gama continued all the way around the continent to the Spice Islands. As mariners brought back their observations and measurements of the coasts they passed by, the shape of Africa familiar to us today appeared on maps.

The interior of Africa was another matter. Europeans did not penetrate the heart of the continent for centuries to come, and yet maps of Africa from the 16th and 17th centuries are filled with geographic detail. The most prominent and consistent feature in these maps is the Nile River, both its source and its course. The source usually appears as one, two, or three lakes, typically in “Mountains of the Moon,” and sometimes with fountains, springs, and more rivers heading off in other directions—all variations on a single theme. If the Europeans had not yet penetrated the heart of Africa, where did these ideas come from? As it turns out, from the Ancients.

Much of the detail about inner Africa came from the Geography, a treatise written around 160 CE by the Alexandrian Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy. The Geography was lost to the Latin West after the fall of Rome in the 5th century, but it was rediscovered in Byzantium around 1300 and later found its way to Italy. Ptolemy’s work was translated into Latin around 1410, and from that moment on, it had a profound influence on European cartography. The Geography provided coordinates of all the locations in the world known to the Ancients (the oikumene)—along with conjecture on places known through story, including the source of the Nile. For centuries, Ptolemy’s description of inner Africa appeared in one form or another on maps, often intermingled with medieval Christian legend and the residue of classical stories from Greek and Roman authors such as Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.

The maps in this case illustrate the Early Modern mapping of Africa, and the persistence of the Ancients even in the Age of Exploration.

Barb Mackraz, MLA 2016