Cartography between Europe and the Islamic World

November 1, 2012

In the first of a new CEMS Works in Progress series on Maps and Exploration, Nick Millea, the Bodleian’s Map Librarian, and Jerry Brotton (Professor of English, Queen Mary, University of London; author most recently of author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps), discussed both practical and theoretical aspects of map research. Nick Millea pointed out that the Bodleian has one of the ten largest map collections with the world, greatly strengthened by the donation from Richard Gough in 1809. The sheer size of maps has long given difficulties for librarians, and as of now the Bodleian’s collection is still largely searchable only through the card index in the Map Room. This is now being transferred to SOLO, however, and there is a wide range of digital resources  on the map Room website. The remarkable digitization of the Gough Map can be freely searched.

Nick Millea noted that there is a division between western maps and those housed in the Oriental Collections (digitizations of Bodleian maps from the Islamic world can be seen here), and such divisions have long preoccupied Jerry Brotton. He recalled that he had begun work in this area under the influence of the ‘spatial turn’ in such writers as Bourdieu, Foucault and Lefebvre. The fact that medieval Islamic maps place the south at the top,  locating Mecca at the centre of the world, vividly illustrates the role of ideology and cultural identity in representing space; but Professor Brotton said that he had become increasingly aware of the complex interconnections that went beyond such oppositions, and that detailed archival research and collaboration between disciplines was needed to identify these with precision. In discussion, it was pointed out that some of the richness of the Bodleian’s holdings stemmed from the active role of seventeenth-century Oxford scholars in searching for Arabic manuscripts, as discussed by G. W. Toomer and others. How far there was true intellectual exchange back then, and how easy it is even today, were matters the discussion could open up though not resolve.

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