• Adrian J. Boas

On Setting Things Straight

Copy of the lost thirteenth century Ebstorfer World Map [own work (related to the stiching User:Kolossos) [Public domain]

As an expatriate who's "homing thoughts" (in the words of the song) fly to that now sadly blackened country, I dedicate this small piece to Australia, its people and its flora and fauna.

I have in my office a large modern map of the world. It is not the typical map. It differs from all the others in that the names printed on it are upside-down. In order to comprehend it the entire map needs to be reversed. Only then do the titles of lands and seas appear as they should. But something still seems not quite right with the continents and islands - Antarctica is at the top, Greenland, Russia and Canada at the bottom. And yet, for me this unusual map is very pleasing. Here, almost on its own, squat in the middle of the top third, is Australia, familiar, if oddly reversed, and for once in the respectful position that it should possess – smack in the centre.

Growing up in Melbourne, at the very south of Australia, I was always aware that this was the centre of the world. But our schoolbooks and those vast wall maps our geography teacher used to carry into class told us otherwise. They presented a distorted view, promoted by generations of misled and misleading Europeans, that had Australia buried away somewhere down at the bottom of the world in an ocean of emptiness. As if we didn't matter. It took an enterprising Queensland cartographer, of rare intelligence and audacity, and willing to face the backlash of small-minded northerners, to restore honour by giving a noble continent its rightful place in the world.

We might excuse the medieval mapmakers from getting this part of it wrong. The discovery of Australia was still far off in the distance. But at least, if some other place had to be given the honour of being at the centre of the world, they were astute enough to realise that it should be Jerusalem.

There was in fact one medieval cartographer who, despite the trend of having the east (not yet the north) at the top, realised that this need not necessarily be the case. I have mentioned him in the past, Muhammad al-Idrisi, the twelfth century Moroccan born geographer and traveller who gave us some important information on Frankish Jerusalem. He created the Tabula Rogeriana, a world map and accompanying text known in Arabic as the Kitab Rujar or the “Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands" (نزهة المشتاق في اختراق الآفاق)‎. Written in Arabic and Latin, it was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily around 1138. Al-Idrisi spent some fifteen years working on it at the king's court in Palermo, completing it in 1154. It is known today from ten surviving copies, the earliest dating to the fourteenth century (c. 1325). It seems then that the Queensland cartographer was not entirely original in his reversal of the world.

Copy of Al Idrisi's Tabula Rogeriana - Konrad Miller (copy and translitteration) [Public domain]