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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Holy Cartography

Maps are wonderful things; they are both informative and stimulating of the imagination. Halfway between text and illustration, they fuel our fancies and dreams and it is little wonder that children love looking at them. A map transports us into the world it represents. It shows us that world from above, the way birds or angels might see it. Here are towns and villages, roads and fields, streams and seas, houses, ships and people. A map takes us on a trip and points out what we can observe along the way. Medieval maps are less true in the factual appearances of what they represent; often they are greatly distorted in form and proportions. But it is perhaps this that makes them more revealing of the spirit of the past places they represent, and they are certainly more revealing of the people who drew them and of the people for whom they were drawn.

For the Crusader period there are contemporary maps of the Holy Land and maps of the Kingdom of Cyprus. There are city maps, notably those of Jerusalem and Acre, but also of Nicosia and Famagusta, of Rhodes and Constantinople. Of the fourteen known medieval maps of Frankish Jerusalem, the earliest date to the first half of the twelfth century. Eleven of these maps are round and the remaining three are more or less quadrangular. The round maps were perhaps influenced by the medieval cartographic convention found in the mappae mundi (maps of the world) first appearing in the seventh century and known as T-O or O-T (orbis terrarum) maps. T-O maps present the world as a circle divided by a T-shape, the T being formed by the Don (Tanais) and Nile rivers and the Mediterranean Sea. The T divides the world into three land masses: Europe is on the lower left, Africa on the lower right and Asia is at the top, as was the custom in pre-compass days for maps to face east (this is the reason we still say that we are "oriented" in a certain direction, although, in modern usage not necessarily towards the east). In a similar fashion, on the Jerusalem maps the former Cardo Maximus and the Decumanis, which were still in the twelfth century and remain today the two main thoroughfares, divide the city, with the Temple Mount at the top (east). Perhaps, however, the distinctive form of the round maps of Jerusalem has its source in something earlier than the T-O maps. Most of the versions of the Jerusalem map are of a cross within a circle, a reflection perhaps of Jerusalem as the City of the Cross, but also harking back to pre-Christian imagery where the cross within a circle was a symbol for a city, the cross representing converging roads, the circle symbolising a city’s walls. Whatever the source of this design, the round maps of Jerusalem are a unique phenomenon, and the symbolism they embody reflects the importance of Jerusalem as the Holy City, itself a symbol of Christian sanctity.

Observing their simple and formal design, our initial impression might be that the round maps are not really maps at all, and that they contain little factual data, and consequently are of little use to us as sources of information on the form and features of the medieval city. But this would be quite an incorrect assumption. The information contained in them is in fact considerable and revealing. And although the eleven known round maps are probably all based on a single original, each of the individual maps contains information not found on the others. A compilation of features from the group is the most useful way to learn from them. The so-called Haag map is considered by some to be the original of the round maps, or at least the earliest of the surviving versions. It is also one of the most beautiful. The usual features common to almost all these maps are present here: the circular form of the city, the dissecting roads forming a cross, the four open city gates (and one more, closed, on the western side of the Temple Mount), the principal buildings and features inside the walls, and the convents, settlements and topographic features outside. There are also two roads from the west gate, balanced by the Kidron Valley which appears as a flowing stream in the east. The map has decoration in the form of gold leaf circles scattered in every open space among the images, almost like so many gold coins. Latin inscriptions identify the principal features. And there are a few exceptional elements unique to this map. There is a biblical scene on the left-hand side where a group of people are shown stoning St Stephen at the very place north of St Stephen’s Gate identified as the site of his martyrdom. At the base of the map is a large scene extending across the entire width and half the size of the map itself. It shows a mounted St George, identified by inscription, dressed as a Hospitaller knight and accompanied by another knight identified as St Demetrius of Thessaloniki, the two of them charging an unidentified, apparently Muslim group of knights and spearing one of them. This is a representation of a famed legend - the miraculously participation of celestial soldiers on white horses led by St George at the Battle of Antioch in 1098.

For an idea of how much these maps can enlighten us on the medieval reality of Jerusalem's cityscape, the Stuttgart map shows twenty-three different sites and named streets within the walls, another sixteen outside the walls in the immediate area of the city, and another seven more distant sites extending as far as Dan in the northern Galilee (some medieval maps being not only maps of the Holy City but indeed maps of the Holy Land). The elements depicted, both within and around Jerusalem include physical features (Montjoie, the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion, the Kidron Valley), fortifications, the main thoroughfares leading to, from and inside the city, the citadel, royal houses, public squares, markets, exchanges, the principal churches, hermits’ caves, pilgrimage sites, the Jerusalem hospital, hospices, taverns, stylized representation of private houses, water sources and burial sites. Among the most important of the medieval maps, and one might add, the closest to reality, is the mid-twelfth century Cambrai map, a rectangular representation in which the layout of the city and of some of its principal buildings are represented in a fairly reliable manner. It even has an attempt, remarkable at this early date, to show the physical topography of the city and its surroundings, albeit in a highly exaggerated manner. And it also provides us with the only known representations of some of Frankish Jerusalem’s most important structures, such as the new royal palace, the Templar stables, the cross that stood on the wall where the city had been entered in 1099 and several of the city’s churches, some of these drawn in a realistic manner, others largely imaginative images.

The Upsalla Map is my personal favourite, hence the choice of it for the cover of my book on Crusader Jerusalem. It too contains some features not found on any other version. It shows, for example, a royal hall “aula regis” near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, perhaps a temporary royal palace used after the former palace, the Templum Salomonis (al-Aqsa Mosque) had been handed over to the Templars, but before the new palace was built near the citadel in the west, probably in the 1160s. Such unique evidence would seem to suggest that this map was not based on information received second hand, but was almost certainly drawn by someone personally acquainted with the twelfth century city.

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