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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.