In today's world, where aerial photographs can show us the precise location of Manhattan's manholes and the Internet can inform us in seconds how to travel most efficiently from Tiananmen Square to the Champs Elysées, maps have become monotonously correct. Everyone can have them. Almost everyone can use them. But their precision and ubiquity have made them humdrum. They intrigue us only slightly more than garden shears and can openers.
The maps of our forebears, on the other hand, blended together all the marvels of painting, literature, religion and science. They were not mere tools, but objects of mystery and luxury, the treasures of Kings and the seducers of sailors. Yet these old maps now captivate us as much for their many errors as for what they got right. Thus Kenneth Nebenzahl's Mapping the Silk Road and Beyond: 2,000 Years of Exploring the East, an elegant compilation of many of history's finest—if arrestingly flawed—cartographic specimens, cannot help but enchant. Its dozens of plates offer fodder for hours of visual grazing.
As Nebenzahl's title somewhat misleadingly suggests, the parameters of this collection coincide roughly with those of Asia. The "silk road" here distends geographically and semantically to encompass any and all lands east of Western Europe. But the Orient is more than a geographic orientation for the collection—it is an evolving and affecting idea. Nebenzahl's mapmakers—with only two exceptions—are Westerners, and the pictures they drew of unknown lands reveal more about Europe's imagination than Asia's landscape.
After a brief glance at the 15th century rediscovery of the monumental 2nd century opus of Claudius Ptolemy (who was responsible for the idea that Africa and Asia were linked by a southern land bridge), Nebenzahl plunges into the world of fantasy and Christian ideology that dominated mapmaking between the fall of the Greeks and their rediscovery during the Renaissance. Many of the examples from this period scarcely look like maps at all. They are too beautiful, for one thing—they teem with castles and knights, thickets of blooming vines, schools of fish, piles of jewels. They blend fact and myth to produce visions of Asia that are both alluring and terrifying. In a stunning Arabesque world map from the 8th century, Beatus of Liébana, a Benedictine monk who tutored the Spanish royal family, describes India as "famous for gems and elephants," and adds that "there are men of all colors, huge elephants and dragons, the Monoceros beast, the parrot bird, ebony wood, cinnamon, pepper and aromatic reed. It sends forth ivory, precious stones, beryls, adamant burning carbuncles, and pearls." But, he warns, there are also "mountains of gold impossible to approach because of dragons and gryphons and monsters of enormous men."