Did you know?: Mapping and Compilation of the World Maps along the Silk Roads

We invite you to join us each week for Did you know? articles which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects helps to preserve, diffuse, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.

The Silk Roads are behind major cultural and trade exchanges between different parts of the world. Throughout their long history, all of this blending between different civilizations and people resulted in the sharing of various knowledge. These knowledge included philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, and cartography. In fact, cartography reveals the cultural activities and the vision of the world at these times.

Four major ancient maps display the depth of these exchanges: the Ptolemy World Map (150 AD), the Islamic World Map (1154 AD), the Catalan Atlas (1375), and the Korean World Map (1402).

The Greek-Roman World map, known as the Ptolemy World Map was the first map conceived in 150 AD, by Claudius Ptolemy an Alexandrian geographer. The Ptolemy map was representation not as precise as the maps we use today. For example, the Indian Ocean was represented as a vast inland sea, whereas the Indus and Ganges rivers were correctly located. However, for centuries, explorers based themselves on this map, and the Ptolemy map remained the most efficient tool of geographical information they had.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the geographic field did not greatly progress. Therefore, the Islamic world made the most of Ptolemy work, and finalised its own maps. Besides astronomy, some Muslims were also talented in this geography, such as al-Idrisi in the twelfth century. Indeed, he gave a better knowledge of the lands in the Far East. Moreover, the Muslim explorers and traders helped geographers. Due to their excellent sailing skills, they were able to assemble information and knowledge of the African continent, the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Thereby, based on their records, Muslim geographers could create accurate maps.

In the thirteenth century, Europe was coming out of its isolation. With the conquests towards East, the utilisation of compass, and especially Marco Polo’s journeys, a major progress in mapping and navigation was established. This development led to the creation, in the coastal cities of Italy, of the Portolan Chart that showed the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts accurately. However later on, Catalan cartographers started to make maps where the coastlines were stretched. They included Muslims knowledge in geography, thus resulting into the creation of the Catalan Atlas in 1375 by Abraham Cresques. In these new maps, Cresques pointed the cities and stations along the overland Silk Roads, and he indicated a more “southerly Silk Route”.

Few years later, in 1402, one of the major maps of history was created in the Korean Peninsula by Keun Kwon and Hoe Lee. The Korean World Map or Gangnido is well-known because it shows a precise shape of Africa, and of the Korean Peninsula. The Korean World Map also reveals the contacts between the East and the West.

Therefore, the maps and charts produced along centuries influenced each other. They led to a considerable development of the geographical field, and permitted encounters amongst diverse people. In this way, these maps are valuable testimonies of the cultural exchanges along the Silk Roads.


See also:

The Perception of Astrology

Astronomy along the Silk Roads

Muslim presence in the Korean Peninsula

Muslim Monopoly along the Silk Roads

The Interconnections between Portuguese and Malay languages

Oman region, a Hub on the Maritime Trade Routes

Interactions between Indian Subcontinent and Western Land during Roman Empire

Trade Routes in Himalayan India

Pakistan and the Silk Roads

The Anatolian Silk Roads

The Silk Routes of the Mongols

The Southern Silk Roads

The Great Silk Roads


This platform has been developed and maintained with the support of:


UNESCO Headquarters

7 Place de Fontenoy

75007 Paris, France

Social and Human Sciences Sector

Research, Policy and Foresight Section

Silk Roads Programme


Follow us