TITLE: The Catalan Atlas
Abraham Cresques

DESCRIPTION: This 'atlas' was the work of a family of Catalonian Jews who worked in Majorca at the end of the 14th century and was commissioned by Charles V of France at a time when the reputation of the Catalan chart makers was at its peak. King Charles requested this map from Peter of Aragon, patron of the best Majorcan mapmaker of the time: Abraham Cresques. The 'atlas' that resulted contained the latest information on Asia and China and has subsequently been called "the most complete picture of geographical knowledge as it stood in the later Middle Ages."

The title of the Atlas shows clearly the spirit in which it was executed and its content: Mappamundi, that is to say, image of the world and of the regions which are on the earth and of the various kinds of peoples which inhabit it. Originally the Catalan Atlas consisted of six large wooden panels that were covered with parchment on one side. This form later was transformed into a block-book, in which each sheet formed a double page, the parchment itself serving as a hinge between each of the two wooden panels. This arrangement led to the folds of the precious sheets becoming worn through with use, so that these sheets were divided into 12 half-sheets, mounted on boards to fold like a screen. Four half-sheets are occupied by cosmographical and navigational data, they describe the whole concept of the world, show astronomical and astrological representations, and provide information about the calendar, the sun, moon, planets, the signs of the zodiac and the tides. The remaining eight half-sheets form the body of the map itself. Each leaf is 69 X 49 cm, so that the whole is approximately 69 cm X 3.9 m. These proportions are of some significance, for they have undoubtedly restricted the cartographer in his portrayal of the extreme northern and southern regions. This was perhaps to some extent deliberate, for two years before the composition of this map, we hear of the Infant John (son of Peter of Aragon) demanding a map 'well executed and drawn with its East and West' and figuring 'all that could be shown of the West and of the Strait [of Gibraltar] leading to the West'. The Infant, in other words, was interested, not in northern Europe and Asia or in southern Africa, but in the Orient and the Western Ocean. The cartographer satisfied him by cutting out, as it were, an east-west rectangle from a circular world map which would cover the desired area. Later Catalan maps, i.e., the Catalan-Este map (#246) retained the circular form. The shape of the Catalan Atlas, therefore, must not be taken as evidence on questions such as the extent, form or knowledge of the African continent; nor does the change from a circular to a rectangular frame indicate specifically any change in ideas relating to the shape of the earth. As an astronomer, Cresques most assuredly accepted its sphericity.

Today the original Catalan Atlas can be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, and has now assumed the form of seven loose wooden panels of which five inside ones bear one half of a sheet of the Atlas on each side, while the two outer ones consist of one side that bears a half sheet of the Atlas and one half of the binding on the other side.
The first of the two preliminary sheets deals with the days of the month from the first to the thirtieth. To the right, from top to bottom, is a diagram of the tides; another lists the movable feasts, and a third drawing represents a blood-letting figure. The latter is accompanied by a long text describing the world; it deals with its creation, the four elements of which it is composed, its shape, dimensions, and divisions. Then come geographical accounts of countries, continents, oceans, and tides, as well as astronomical and meteorological information. The second sheet presents a spectacular diagram of a large astronomical and astrological wheel. The earth at its center is symbolized by an astronomer holding an astrolabe. The other elements (fire, air, water) are incorporated into the next three concentric circles; then come the seven planets, the band of the zodiac, and the various stations and phases of the moon. The next six rings are devoted to the lunar calendar and to an account of the effect of the moon when it is found in the different signs of the zodiac. Three more rings show, respectively, the division of the circle into degrees, while the last gives an account of the Golden Number. The four seasons, finally, are shown in the corners as personified figures bearing scrolls.
The sources of the Catalan Atlas fall into three groups: (1) elements derived from the typical circular world map of medieval times; (2) the outlines of the Black Sea, Mediterranean, and the coasts of western Europe based upon the “normal” portolan [nautical] chart; and (3) details drawn from the narratives of the 13th and 14th century travelers in Asia, which transformed the cartographic representation of that continent.
Often the question of the "correct" orientation of the sheets arose. George Grosjean, in his commentary on the 1977 facsimile edition of the Atlas, stresses that the orientation of this map must be understood from its essential part. The map was constructed in the portolano style, a type of medieval navigation chart which was intended to lie on the chart-table of a ship and always was oriented to the necessities of navigation, thus there is no 'orientation of priority' of such maps. Since the Atlas was not intended as a portolano for daily use but instead was a luxury edition for a princely library, it is useless to ask for correct orientation of the map-sheets. This fact notwithstanding, however, as the legends that are legible prevail in north-orientation, in the modern literature of the maps the north-orientation is now adopted.
A major impetus to the advancement of exploration in Western Europe during the later Middle Ages came through the evolution and use of this very kind of map, the nautical chart or portolano. Designed to assist mariners find their way at sea, it served a practical purpose akin to that of the future road map, but it answered this purpose by depicting not the route itself, but detailed coastlines and hazards to shipping. Mariners previously had to rely on written itineraries which can be traced back to the peripli or coastal pilots of the classical world. Following the introduction of the mariner's compass in Europe towards the end of the 13th century, nautical or portolan charts were made as an extension of the peripli, constructed on a framework of radiating compass lines, with north at the top. Places were located and marked around the coasts, while places located further inland and usually the entire interior of the continents were left blank. It should be emphasized that while the Atlas was drawn in the portolano style, it is not, strictly speaking, a portolan chart. The typical nautical chart, which some scholars believe had its origin with the Catalan mapmakers, had hitherto been cartographically the very opposite of the medieval theocratic or ecclesiastical maps. Portolan charts traditionally displayed only known, discovered coasts, precisely detailed harbors, river mouths, rocks, shallows, currents, etc. every coastal feature likely to be important to a pilot and normally limited to only regions frequented by European sailors, i.e. the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and northwestern Europe.

The Catalan Atlas is actually a world map built up around a portolan chart, thus combining aspects of the nautical chart by employing loxodromes and coastal detail with the medieval mappaemundi exemplified by its legends and illustrations. The result is that the Atlas represents a transitionary step towards the world maps developed later during the Renaissance, especially by its extensive application of contemporary geographical knowledge and ambitious scope. Though the Catalan Atlas is the earliest complete example of its kind which has survived, it was undoubtedly preceded by other similar attempts at extending the range of the portolan chart. The Laurentian/Medicean Sea Atlas of 1351 (#233) contains a 'world' map (extending eastwards as far as the west coast of India only) which resembles it in the outline of the coasts and in interior details. From the nomenclature, it is probably of Ligurian origin. An even earlier chart (probably covering the whole 'world' originally), that by Angelino Dulcert, of Majorca, dated 1339, also has points of resemblance to the Catalan Atlas. In view of the possible identity of Dulcert, and the Ligurian origin of the Medici Atlas, we may conclude that this type of world map, though developed by Catalans, originated early in the 14th century in northern Italy, where the narrative of Marco Polo, which, as will be seen, supplied many of the details embodied in the map, would be most readily available. The Catalan Atlas says: The circumference of the earth is 180,000 stadia, that is to say 20,052 miles (this is the same calculation as Ptolemy's, yet it was given a full thirty years prior to the first known Latin translation of his Geographia, #119 ).

In addition to the extension of the geographic scope, the Catalan Atlas is much more ornate than the functional nautical/pilot's chart, it features such items as banners, sceptered and stately potentates both historical and mythical, ships in full sail, camel caravans and pearl fishers. Although the sailors were used to plainer charts whose importance lay principally in their utility and accuracy, even ordinary marine charts begin to follow the Catalan tradition with regards to their use of standardized color patterns. Thus, pilots knew at a glance, for instance, that any port lettered in red offered revictualing and a safe harbor; dots and crosses, on the other hand, indicated underwater hazards.

We know in unusual detail the circumstances in which the Catalan Atlas of 1375 (the date of the calendar which accompanies it) was produced and the career of the cartographer who compiled it. When in 1381 the envoy of the French king asked King Peter of Aragon for a copy of the latest world map (proof in itself that the reputation of the Catalan school had been widely recognized) he was given this example, which has been preserved in Paris ever since. It is on record that it was the work of Cresques le juif. Abraham Cresques, a Jew of Palma on the island of Majorca, for many years was 'master of mappaemundi and compasses', i.e. cartographer and instrument maker, to the King of Aragon, from whom he received special privileges and protection. There are several references to world maps executed by him, though this is the only one now known. After his death in 1387, his work was carried on by his son, Jafuda, who eventually instructed the Portuguese under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator. But the day of the Jewish school of cartography at Majorca was already drawing to a close, owing to the wave of persecution which swept through the Aragon kingdom in the latter years of the century.

The patrons of Cresques, King Peter III of Aragon and his son, in addition to their scientific interests, were keenly interested in reports of Eastern lands, in relation to their forward economic policy, and were at special pains to secure manuscript copies of Marco Polo's Description of the World, the travels of Odoric of Pordenone Description of Eastern Regions and, what may surprise the modern reader, the Voiage of Sir John Mandeville. Though fabulous in part, Mandeville's book has a scientific background. He was quite sound, for example, on the sphericity of the earth; as he says:

. . . who so wold pursue them for to environ the earth who so had grace of God to hold the. waye, he mighte come right to the same countreys that he were come from and come of and so go about the earth . . . fewe men assay to go so,

As a response to this interest, Cresques extended his chart to include all that was then known of Asia, notably from Marco Polo's narrative. For the first time in medieval cartography this continent assumed a recognizable form, with one or two notable exceptions. Continental interiors are filled with detail, compass lines drawn, and decorative items are added to enhance the nearly up-to-date picture. From the Mar del Sarra [Caspian Sea] in the west, with a fairly accurate outline in the style of the portolan charts, the Mongol domains stretch away eastwards to the coasts of Catayo [China]. This country makes a sweep from east to south with an approach to its actual form, and along it's coast appear several of the great medieval ports and trading centers frequented by Arab merchants. It should be noted, however, that these coastal outlines of Asia take on a somewhat generalized appearance when compared with the relatively more familiar European/North African contours found in the Atlas.

In the interior the position, extent, chief divisions, towns and rivers of China and the Mongol Empire are approximately represented. From west to east, the main divisions of the Mongol territory include the Empire of Sarra [the Kipchak Khanate], the Empire of Medeia [the Chagtai Khanate of the middle], and the suzerain empire of the Great Khan, Catayo [China]. Its capital at Cambalucr or Chanbaleth [Beijing], the city of the Great Khan which so intrigued the chroniclers of the 14th century, receives due prominence, with a long legend describing its magnitude and grandeurs. In an account once more based on Marco Polo's text:

This town [Beijing] has an extent of 24 miles, is surrounded by a very thick outer wall and has a square ground plan. Each side has a length of six miles, the wall is 20 paces high and lo paces thick, has 12 gateways and a large tower, in which hangs a great bell, which rings at the hour of first sleep or earlier. When it has finished ringing, no one may pass through the town, and at each gate a thousand men are on guard, not out of fear but in honor of the sovereign.

The description emphasizes the richness and urbanity of the Chinese capital at the edge of the civilized world. This contrasts strongly with the people of the islands farther east who are described as savages living naked, eating raw fish, and drinking sea water. They are obviously to be identified with the Ichthyophagi, one of the fabulous races traditionally placed in Asia or in Africa. The city stands near the apex of a triangle formed by two rivers and the ocean; each of the two rivers divides into three before reaching the sea, a representation embodying a somewhat confused notion of the inter-linked natural and artificial waterways of China. Another one of the legends that can be found in this region (#235D+E) reads, in translation:

To the north is Catayo, the Great Khan and his capital of Chanbaleth; to the south Manji, with its great cities of Zayton and Cansay. The vertical waterway is the Grand Canal built by Kublai from Manji to Cambulac; below are the 7548 islands, rich in all manner of spicery, placed by Marco in the Sea of Chin.

The supreme ruler of Catayo is identified as Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan:

“The most powerful prince of all the Tartars is named Holubeim [i. e., Kublai Khan], which means Chief Khan. The emperor is far wealthier than any other monarch in the whole world. This emperor is guarded by 12,000 horsemen." The Catalan Atlas contains the names of various towns placed apparently at random, some of them mentioned twice; this reflects the fact that the map was evidently composed with the help of various sources.

Adoration of Christ the King, detail of the map of Asia

On the southern portion of the Cathay coast, the general uniformity of the coast is broken by three bays, and it is significant that these are associated with three great ports, Zayton [near Changchow], Cansay [Hangchow, better known in medieval records as Quinsay ] and Cincolam [Canton]. Of these, Canton is not mentioned by Marco Polo; it was, however, much frequented by Arab navigators and traders, upon whose reports the compiler was probably drawing. The attempt at representing the configuration of the coast suggests at least that his informants were interested from a maritime point of view. Some of the islands off Quinsay may stand for the Chusan archipelago, and further to the south is the large island of Caynam, [Hainan].

Sir H. Yule points out that Kao-li was the name given for Korea, and he therefore considers that the island Cresques depicts here represents confused notions about both the Korean peninsula and Japan; otherwise there is no obvious graphic reference or hint of Zipangu [Japan].

Further south is the island of Trapobana already found on maps attributed to Ptolemy. For Pliny and classical authors it was evidently Ceylon, but it was later associated with Sumatra, as it is here, described as "the last island towards the east" and is called by the Tartars Great Caulij. Altogether, as mentioned above, we are told there are 7,548 islands in the Indian Ocean; they are rich in gold, silver, spices, and precious stones, so much so that “great ships of many different nations” trade in their waters. Here again the information is from Marco Polo, who, however, spoke of 7,448 islands. There Cresques placed some of the fabulous and monstrous races legendary in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages: “On this island are people who are very different from the rest of mankind. In some of the mountain ranges. . . are people of great size, as much as 12 ells, like giants, with very dark skins and without intelligence. They eat white men and strangers, if they can catch them.” The reference is to giants familiar from the medieval Alexander legend, specifically defined here as Anthropophagi. To these far distant waters are also relegated mermaids, some of them probably the traditional half-woman and half-fish, the others more siren-like half-birds. The one illustrated has two fishtails, in accordance with one of the most common medieval conventions.

The delineation of the coastline of southern Asia has one major defect and one outstanding merit; the defect is the entire omission of the southeastern peninsula, the Malay archipelago; the merit is the portrayal for the first time of the Indian subcontinent in its peninsular form. The first is difficult to explain; to make up for it the cartographer has inserted a great island of Jana [Java], which however was probably intended for Sumatra. For the Indian peninsula, other sources are intermingled with Polo's account. The kingdoms of India as enumerated by Polo are absent from the map, and there are significant differences in the towns appearing in the two documents. Conspicuous on the map is the Christian Kingdom and city of Columbo, placed on the east coast. There is no doubt that this is Quilon, on the west coast. This form of the name (it is rendered Coilum by Polo), and other details, suggest that the compiler drew upon the writings of Friar Jordanus, who was a missionary in this area, and whose Book of Marvels was completed and in circulation by 1340. In the area around the Gulf of Cambay, several towns are shown which are mentioned by Jordanus but not by Polo, i.e., Baroche and Gogo. There are still other names which are not found in Jordanus either; but the commercial importance of Cambay (Canbetum, on the map) would account for the relatively detailed information about this region. There is, surprisingly, no indication of the river Indus, a striking omission also from Polo's narrative. This oversight probably arose from confusion that often can be found between the Indus and the river Ganges.
The Indian powers are represented on the Catalan Atlas by the Sultan of Delhi and the Hindu King of Vijayanagar, who is wrongly identified as a Christian. Farther north appear the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem and at the top (or bottom) of the map a caravan; all of the latter figures are drawn upside down, as the map was probably meant to be laid horizontally and viewed from both sides. Camels laden with goods are followed by their drivers; behind them various people, one of them asleep, are riding horses. Next to this group is a mass of fascinating information based once more on Marco Polo's travel account: "You must know that those who wish to cross this desert remain and lodge for one whole week in a town named Lop, where they and their beasts can rest. Then they lay in all the provisions they need for seven months." Farther on we read that "when it happens that a man falls asleep on his camel during a night-ride or wanders away and loses his companions for some other reason, it often happens that he hears the voices of devils which are like the voices of his companions and they call him by his name and lead him in all directions through the desert, so that he can never find his companions again. A thousand tales are told about this desert." The scene thus clearly refers to the Silk Road, the overland route to China. The caravan is crossing the Sinkiang desert through the Tarim Basin. The province and town of Lop mentioned by Marco Polo can be connected with the modern town of Ruoqiang (Charkhlik) south of Lop Nor.

Quite a number of harbors are indicated on the eastern coast of India, a few of them still identifiable, while a sailing junk testifies to trading activity, especially with the island of Iana (?), which is here associated with the legendary isle of the Amazons (regio femarum [sic]) and symbolized by its queen. The text describes the richness of the area: "on the island of Iana are many trees of aloe, camphor, sandalwood, fine spices, garenga, nutmeg, cinnamon trees, from which the most precious spice of all India comes, and here are also mace and leaves." The mention of a regio femarum and of two of its cities, Malao and Semescra, seem to refer to Marco Polo's Malaiur and Semenat [Sumatra]. The location of this land "in India" and its geographic position, however, suggest it is instead Sri Lanka.

In mainland India, King Stephen has been represented: the text beside him indicates that this Christian ruler is “looking towards the town of Butifilis,” Marco Polo's kingdom of Mutifilis. The notion that there were Christian rulers east of the Islamic world stems largely from the legend of Prester John; also important, however, were the real Christian minorities in India and the fact that the tomb of Saint Thomas was thought to be in Mailapore, a suburb of Madras, the Mirapore of the map. Farther north is the realm of Kebek Khan, a historical figure who reigned from 1309 to 1326: “Here reigns King Chabeh, ruler of the Kingdom of the Middle Horde. He resides in Emalech.” Next to him, between India and the Chinese empire, is a group of pygmies fighting cranes: “Here are born men who are so small that they do not grow to above five spans in height, and although they are so short and incapable of hard work, they are strong enough and in a position to weave and herd cattle. And know that these people marry at the age of about twelve years and generally live to be 40 years old. But they are happy and defend themselves valiantly against the cranes, which they hunt and eat.” The ancient writer Pliny had already described pygmies who lived in the remotest mountains of Asia, and he commented on their antagonism to cranes; they were later mentioned in the travel accounts of Odoric de Pordenone and Mandeville, but Marco Polo doubted their existence. They are, however, also shown on the Ebstorf Map of 1234 (#224).

The people of Gog and Magog following their monarch, bearing banners with the emblem of the devil, detail of the map of Asia.

Above, “upside down", is a curious scene of the cremation of an old man to the accompaniment of music: "Know that the men and women of this region, when they are dead, are carried away to be burnt, to the sound of instruments and in ecstasies of joy.... And it sometimes happens though rarely, that the widow of the dead man throws herself into the flames,” a practice that recalls widow-burning (sutti) of India. Here the text contains information from Marco Polo's account of how in the province of Malabar the death of criminals, who are compelled to commit suicide, is celebrated by their relatives with his observation on the custom of widows immolating themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands, mentioned a few lines later. Also upside down, as it is on the upper half of the map, are people seeking diamonds. Their rather peculiar method of doing so is explained at length: “As they cannot get between the mountains where the diamonds are, they ingeniously throw lumps of meat to the place where the stones are lying, and the stones adhere to the meat and come away from their original site: then the diamonds that are attached to the pieces of meat are carried away by the birds and thus obtained by the men.” Alexander the Great, we are told, was already familiar with this method: it is illustrated on the map by two men cutting off pieces of meat and a bird flying over the mountains of Baldasia [Badakhstan], from which flows the stream that marks the eastern border of India (finis indie). Abraham Cresques has shown snakes in the crevices of the rock: Marco Polo, after all, tells us that the diamonds are found in deep valleys with “so many serpents" that "he who should go down there would be devoured immediately.”

Alexander the Great is shown in the upper right half of the map. There we are told that Satan came to his aid and helped him to imprison the Tartars Gog and Magog. Alexander then had two bronze figures made by which to bind them with a spell. The reference is to the gate that Alexander is supposed to have built in the Caspian Mountains to exclude Gog and Magog, who are here equated with various Central Asian tribes. The text on the map specifically refers to the “various tribes who have no scruples about eating any kind of raw flesh..., the nation from which the Antichrist will come forth,” but which will ultimately be destroyed. There is a further allusion to Alexander having erected two trumpet-blowing figures in bronze; these, according to various medieval legends, resounded with the wind and frightened the Tartars until the instruments were blocked up by various nesting birds and animals. The text freely combines the medieval legend of Alexander with biblical traditions. This applies equally to the corresponding scene, where
the great lord and ruler over Gog and Magog is shown with his men, the devil painted on their banners: “He will march out with many followers at the time of the Antichrist” but will ultimately be defeated as predicted in the Book of Revelation (20: 7-10). To the south are those who will be sent to declare his glory among the Gentiles. The text here refers to Isaiah 66:19: “I shall send those who are saved to the peoples of the sea, to Africa and Lydia”; and further, “I will send to the isles afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles.” To this prophetic inscription is added a text about the Antichrist.

Sources other than those embodied in Polo have also been used for the portion of the Indian Ocean included in the map. The Persian Gulf, extending almost due west, has an outline similar to that on the Dulcert map, but is otherwise superior to any earlier map. In the Gulf, the island of Ormis [Hormuz] is shown, opposite the former settlement of the same name on the mainland. The Southern Arabian coast has names differing from those given by Polo, and in one of them, Adramant, we may recognize the modern Hadhramaut. The island of Scotra, an important stage on the trade route from Aden to India, is misplaced to the east, and appears to occupy the approximate position of the Kuria Muria Islands. For India and the ocean to the west, therefore, we may conclude that charts were used which differed in detail from Polo's account, though similar in general features. That such charts existed we know from Polo's own statements. Possibly additions were also made so that the map might serve as an illustration to his narrative.

If the map is stripped of its legends and drawings of the older tradition, it is apparent that the main interest of the compiler is concentrated in a central strip across Asia. Herein lies a succession of physical features: mountains, rivers, lakes and towns with corrupt but recognizable forms of their medieval names as given in the narratives of the great travelers of the 13th century. These are jumbled together in a manner sometimes difficult to understand, but with the help of Marco Polo's narrative, it is possible to disentangle the itineraries which the map was evidently intended to set out.

In the west is the Organci [Oxus] river shown, as on most contemporary maps, flowing into the Caspian, and alongside it the early stages of the traditionally used overland route, from Urganj [the medieval Khiva] through Bokhara and Samarcand to the sources of the river in the mountains of Amol, on the eastern limits of Persia. These are the highlands of Badakshan where the route crossed the Pamirs. East of this lies the lake, Yssikol [Issik Kul], and Emalech the seat of the Khan, the Armalec of other travelers, in the Kuldja region. The delineation is then confused by the repetition of the Badakshan uplands, the mountains of Baldassia, a mistake that probably arose from confusion over the river system of southern Asia.

This description, with several omissions, was in outline the route followed by Maffeo and Nicolo Polo (Marco Polo's father and uncle) on their journey to the Great Khan's court. It is also possible to discern traces of their second journey, accompanied by Marco, in which they employed the 'south road' of the silk route, and, except for a detour through Ormis at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, ran from Trebizond through Eri [Herat], Badakshan, and along the southern edge of the Tarim basin from Khotan to the city of Lop. The compiler, however, perhaps because he confused this desert area with the Gobi, has transferred this stretch to the north of the Issik Kul. In fact the section illustrated by #235B is thought to represent Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, with their Mongol envoys, crossing the Tien Shan mountains on their way through what is now China's Sinkiang Province, to Beijing (south is at the top). The legend above them reads, in translation: This caravan left the Empire of Sarra to go to Catayo, across a Great Desert (Sarai, on the Edil [Volga], was the capital of the Kipchak Tartars, from which the Polos had set out about 1262. A third route is indicated rather confusedly on the extreme northern edge of the map. It is marked by a line of towns up the valley of the Edil from Agitarchan [Astrakhan] through Sarra [Sarai], Borgar, and thence eastward through Pascherit [probably representing the territory of the Bashkirs east of the middle Volga], and Sebur, or Sibir, a medieval settlement whose site is unknown, but thought to be on the upper Irtish. In this quarter, the information upon which the map is based was not drawn from Marco Polo. To the south is a long east-west range, called the Mountains of Sebur, representing the northwestern face of the Tien Shan and Altai. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries there were Franciscan mission stations at these localities, and the details no doubt came originally from the friars.

The influence of the medieval world map may be seen in many features of the Catalan Atlas; Jerusalem, though not so strongly emphasized, is still approximately in the center of the map; a portion of the original coastline of northeast Asia, with the Caspian mountains still enclosing the tribes of Gog and Magog; the large island of Taprobane occupies approximately the same position as, for example, on the Hereford map (#226); the great west-east river beyond the Atlas Mountains resembles the traditional conception of the hydrography of North Africa, though contemporary names have been inserted. Clearly the contemporary additions are set in a much older framework.

Island of Trapobana (Sumatra) and a siren dwelling in the Indian Ocean

Scarcely less valuable, and certainly of special interest for the student of geographical theory, are the Catalan speculations concerning the unexplored territories of the earth. Unlike many classical and fellow medieval scholars, the draftsman of Majorca showed praiseworthy restraint in this respect. In addition to Asia, the narratives of contemporary travelers were also extensively used by Cresques in Africa. Here the special feature of interest on the Catalan Atlas is the inscription and picture of the vessel recording the departure of the Catalan, Jacome Ferrer, on a voyage to the 'river of gold' southwest of the new Finisterre of Bojador in 1346. This refers to the northwest coast of Africa which extends beyond Cape Bojador to a point just north of the Rio d'Oro. Here unfortunately the map ends; unlike the Medici Atlas, or some others, it makes no attempt at a representation, conjecture or otherwise, of the southern portion of this continent. But in the allotted space the map does show some knowledge by Cresques of the gold producing region of the middle Nile and of the regional name Ginuia [Guinea], the Kingdom of Melli, and stages on the routes from Morocco to the Niger, i.e., Sigilmessa, Tebelt, Tagaza, and Tenbuch [Timbuktu] are marked. Also its treatment of the Atlantic islands: the Azores, Canary, and Madeira groups, is more complete than any representation of earlier times.

Hardly any place on the west coast of Africa is identified only one name, perhaps a mythical spot, is found south of Cape Bojador in the former Spanish Sahara, but we are told that Africa, land of ivory, starts at this point and that by traveling due south one reaches Ethiopia. For here, as is often the case in other maps of the period, the cartographer compensated for the dearth of known geographical points by including historical facts. We are told, for example, that merchants bound for Guinea pass the Atlas mountain range, shown here in its typical form of a bird's leg with three claws at its eastern end, at Val de Durcha. More geographical information is given on the Maghreb, which, after all, is part of the Mediterranean. The Sahara, however, is shown with a lake in its center, a traditional medieval error. The text beside a Touareg riding on a camel and also a group of tents informs us that this land is inhabited by veiled people living in tents and riding camels. The crowned black man holding a golden disk is identified as Musse Melly, “lord of the negroes of Guinea” - in fact, Mansa Musa, of fabulous wealth. “The King,” we are told, “is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region, on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his land.” Mansa Musa, who reigned over the kingdom of Mali, probably from 1312 to 1337, is known for having encouraged the development of Islamic learning. His pilgrimage to Mecca, including a visit to Cairo, was famous for the enormous amount of gold he spent on that occasion. This is plausible enough, for he controlled a large part of Africa, from Gambia and Senegal to Gao on the Niger, and had access to some of its richest gold deposits. Reports of the fabulous wealth of this African ruler did much to encourage an interest in the exploration of Africa.

East of the Sultan of Mali appears the King of Organa, in turban and blue dress, holding an oriental sword and a shield. He is, we are told, “a Saracen who waged constant war against the Saracens of the coast and with the other Arabs.” Still farther to the east is the King of Nubia, “always at war and under arms against the Nubian Christians, who are under the rule of the Emperor of Ethiopia and belong to the realm of Prester John.” On the
Catalan Atlas, Africa is also symbolized by a nude black man with a camel and a turreted elephant. Camels were first used for the trans-Sahara trade sometime between the second and fifth century A.D., after being introduced from Arabia. Thanks to their notorious capacity to travel long distances without water, they completely transformed African trade, opening sub-Saharan areas to Islam. The elephant, which inhabits the area south of the Sahara, signifies the fact, as the text puts it, that Africa is the land of ivory “on account of the large numbers of elephants that live there.”

In northeast Africa, a knowledge of the Nile valley as far south as Dongala, where there was a Catholic mission early in the 14th century, is apparent. The delineation of the Nile river system is vitiated, however, by the conception that it flowed from a great lake in the Guinea region, Lacus Nili. This rare speculation on the part of Cresques contained at least some partial truth because the Lacus Nili, the Pactolus of Strabo, and the Palolus of later maps, which in the Catalan Atlas and subsequent works is located in the neighborhood of Timbuktu, may reasonably be identified with the flood region of the Niger.

On one matter, however, the mapmaker Cresques could hardly refrain from speculating, for the following reason: land exploration had, for a long time now, outrun oceanic discovery, and so, concerning Africa, much more was known of the Sudan by the end of the 14th century than was known of the oceanic fringe area in the same latitudes. As previously mentioned, the early draftsmen insisted upon cutting the continent short just beyond the limit of coastal knowledge, that is, in the vicinity of Cape Bojador. By so doing, however, they found themselves reducing the vast extent of the Sahara almost to a vanishing point. Thus in the map of 1375, Sigilmessa and the Rio del Oro [i.e., the Senegal-Niger system] are placed in closer proximity than Ceuta and Cape Non. Later draftsmen, in order to escape the embarrassment caused by indicating the great trans-Saharan caravan routes within these narrow limits, began to speculate on the course of the west African coast, south of Bojador. By general agreement it was made to trend south-southeast. Speculation of this sort did at least have the merit of enabling the mapmaker to draw the Sahara with greater accuracy. The gap in the snake-like Atlas Mountain chain of North Africa is meant to illustrate a pass that these Arab merchants commonly used (#235A).

In Asia the Red Sea stands out, being shown as red, a characteristic that derives, we are told less from the color of the water than from that of the sea bed. It is cut in two by a land passage, a conventional allusion to Moses' miraculous crossing (Exodus, 14:2122). The port of Quseir is clearly marked, and the accompanying text specifies that it is here that spices are taken on land and sent to Cairo and Alexandria. In Arabia, between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, is located the kingdom of Sheba; the queen, who came to visit King Solomon, is shown crowned and holding a golden disk as symbol of her wealth. Today, we are told, the area “belongs to Saracen Arabs and produces many aromatic substances, such as myrrh and frankincense; it has much gold, silver and many precious stones and, moreover, it is said that a bird called phoenix is found here.” This passage is altogether typical of the approach of late 14th century cartographers, who freely mix biblical information with later accounts of foreign countries, in this case based on Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae (#205, Book II).

Mecca and Medina are clearly marked, although they are placed too close to the coast. Between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea appears the King of Tauris [Tabriz] and north of him Jani-Beg, ruler of the kingdom of the Golden Horde, who died in 1357. The importance of Baghdad as a center of the spice trade is emphasized; from there, precious wares from India are sent throughout the Syrian land and especially to Damascus. Navigational information is also recorded: “From the mouth of the river of Baghdad, the Indian and Persian Oceans open out. Here they fish for pearls, which are supplied to the town of Baghdad.” We learn that “before they dive to the bottom of the sea, pearl fishers recite magic spells with which they frighten away the fish” a piece of information that comes straight from Marco Polo, who mentions that the pearl fishers on the Malabar coast are protected by the magic and spells of the Brahmins. Various trading stations are indicated on the shore of the Indian Ocean from Hormus, “where India begins,” to Quilon in Kerala. There, pearl fishers are mentioned again with reference to magic spells. So are boats (called nichi) with a length of keel of sixty ells (a unit of measurement that in England was equal to 45 inches) and a draft of thirty-four, with “at least four but sometimes as many as ten masts, and sails made of bamboo and palm leaves.” One of these boats is illustrated next to the text and another east of the Indian peninsula: with their transom bow and stern, rails on the stern galley, portholes, and as many as five masts with unmistakable mast and batten sails, they are undoubtedly Chinese junks such as Marco Polo had described.

In northeast Africa, a knowledge of the Nile valley as far south as Dongala, where there was a Catholic mission early in the 14th century, is apparent. The delineation of the Nile river system is vitiated, however, by the conception that it flowed from a great lake in the Guinea region, Lacus Nili. This rare speculation on the part of Cresques contained at least some partial truth because the Lacus Nili, the Pactolus of Strabo, and the Palolus of later maps, which in the Catalan Atlas and subsequent works is located in the neighborhood of Timbuktu, may reasonably be identified with the flood region of the Niger.

On one matter, however, the mapmaker Cresques could hardly refrain from speculating, for the following reason: land exploration had, for a long time now, outrun oceanic discovery, and so, concerning Africa, much more was known of the Sudan by the end of the 14th century than was known of the oceanic fringe area in the same latitudes. As previously mentioned, the early draftsmen insisted upon cutting the continent short just beyond the limit of coastal knowledge, that is, in the vicinity of Cape Bojador. By so doing, however, they found themselves reducing the vast extent of the Sahara almost to a vanishing point. Thus in the map of 1375, Sigilmessa and the Rio del Oro [i.e., the Senegal-Niger system] are placed in closer proximity than Ceuta and Cape Non. Later draftsmen, in order to escape the embarrassment caused by indicating the great trans-Saharan caravan routes within these narrow limits, began to speculate on the course of the west African coast, south of Bojador. By general agreement it was made to trend south-southeast. Speculation of this sort did at least have the merit of enabling the mapmaker to draw the Sahara with greater accuracy. The gap in the snake-like Atlas Mountain chain of North Africa is meant to illustrate a pass that these Arab merchants commonly used (#235A).

Moslem traders from cities along the Barbary Coast of North Africa began to cross the Sahara in the Middle Ages in an effort to bring back gold, rumored to be in great supply in the Sudan. Stories reached 14th century Europe of the splendor of Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali and lord of Guinea, one of the reputed richest of the 'Negro Kingdoms' of the Sudan, whose pilgrimage to Mecca created a sensation in 1324. This African prince appears in the Catalan Atlas in a stately fashion with crown, orb, and scepter, with the inscription: The richest and noblest King in the world.

Within the means of cartographic representations on this Atlas there appears to be no specialities, those symbols and other graphics used by Cresques correspond to those commonly used in the Middle Ages. However, there are great differences to be observed between what is labeled by some the “portolano section” (sheets 3 and 4, Europe and North Africa) and the rest of the map sheets. In this section the coastlines are greatly differentiated and the abundance of names is in great contrast with the quantity of information, literally and graphically, supplied in sheets 5 and 6 (Asia). The mountains in the European and African section are arranged in chains or chain-like symbols, in Asia they appear as regular humped garlands of rocks. The latter representation corresponds to the traditional medieval methods. With meticulous care the islands in the region of the portolan chart section are displayed, they are painted in color, some of them like Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica are shown in gold.

The compiler of the prototype used by Cresques for the Catalan Atlas had recourse to different, sometimes even contradictory sources. The legendary Insula de Brazil, for example, which is found on various medieval maps of the North Atlantic and later gave its name to Brazil, is shown here twice, once west of Ireland and a second time farther south. The Islands of the Blest, located in accordance with the specifications of Isidore of Seville in his great seventh century encyclopedia (#205), the Etymologiae, are called both iles Beneventurades and yles Fortunades:

The Islands of the Blest are in the Great Sea to the left. . . Isidore says in his 15th book [in fact the 14th] that these islands are so called because they possess a wealth of all goods.... The heathens believe that Paradise is situated there, because the islands have such a temperate climate and such a great fertility of the soil.

Here, too, the text informs us, is the island of Capraria, full of goats, and the Canary Isles called after the dogs (Latin: canes) that populated them. The text adds that, according to Pliny the Elder,

. . . there is one island on which all the gifts of the earth can be harvested without sowing and without planting.... For this reason the heathens of India believe that their souls are transported to these islands after death, where they live for ever on the scent of these fruits. Thus they believe that their Paradise is there. But in truth it is a fable.

In this case, classical and medieval tradition is not borne out by experience and is accordingly rejected by the mapmaker; the Canary Islands had been discovered in 1336 and appear on Angelino Dulcert's chart of three years later. Elsewhere, however, the weight of received opinion is still felt, as, for example, in the various islands with fabulous names; they cannot represent the Madeiran group, as these islands were discovered only in 1418-1419. Nor can they be the Azores, which are first mentioned in 1427, or the Cape Verde Islands discovered only in 1455-1456. The Catalan Atlas, in fact, marks the progress in the gradual discovery of the Atlantic and the west coast of Africa with an illustration of Jaime Ferrer’s ship, which, we are told, set sail on lo August 1346 bound for the fabulous Rio de Oro [River of Gold] in Africa.

Jaume Ferrer' vessel in search of “Riu del Or” (the River of Gold)
detail of the map of Western Europe and North Africa)

In summary, the merit of the Catalan Atlas lay in the skill with which Cresques employed the best available contemporary sources to modify the traditional world picture, never proceeding further than the evidence warranted. In the same spirit he removed from the map many of the traditional fables which had been accepted for centuries, and preferred to omit the northern and southern regions entirely, or to leave southern Africa blank rather than fill it with the anthropagi and other monsters which adorn the bulk of medieval maps. Though drawings of men and animals still figure on this map, they are in the main those for which there was some contemporary, or near contemporary warrant; e.g., Mansa Musa, the lord of Guinea, or Olub bein, the ruler of the Tartars. In this spirit of critical realism, Cresques and his fellow Catalan cartographers of the 14th century, threw off the bonds of tradition and anticipated the achievements of the Renaissance.

LOCATION: Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

235 Catalan Atlas (in entirety), 1977 facsimile.
235A detail, Europe and North Africa, from Divine.
235B detail, caravan of the Polo brothers.
235C detail, Asia.
235D detail, the calendar.
235E detail, Catayo [China]

Beazley, C., The Dawn of Modern Geography, vol. 3, pp. 525 - 526.
*Bricker, C., Landmarks in Mapmaking, p. 148.
*Crone, G.R., Maps and their Makers, pp. 39-50.
*Divine, D., The Opening of the New World, pp. 81, 152.
*Edson, Evelyn, The World Map, 1300-1492, pp. 55, 74-86

George, W., Animals and Maps, pp. 12, 13, 39.
*Grosjean, G., Facsimile Edition of the Catalan Atlas, 1977.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume I, pp. 314-15, 356, 358, 432, plates 17, 32
Kimble, G.H., Geography of the Middle Ages, pp. 191-195.
*Landström, B., Bold Voyages and Great Explorers, p. 158.
*Ludmer-Gliebe, S., “Golden Rhumb Lines of Connection”, Mercator’s World, Volume 4, Number 2, pp. 58-61.

*Massing, J.M., "Observations and Beliefs: The World of the Catalan Atlas", Circa 1492, pp. 27-33.
*Nebenzahl, K., Atlas of Columbus, pp. 6-8 plate 2.
*Nebenzahl, K., Maps of the Holy Land, pp. 10, 35, 47-49.
*Skelton, R.A., Explorers' Maps, p. 20.
Yule, H., Cathay and the Way Thither.
*Glorious Age of Exploration, pp. 306, 401.
Winsor, J., Narrative and Critical History of America, p. 55

* illustration

The Polo Caravan

Asia and Taprobane

India, Sri Lanka, Magi

Central Asia, Arabia, Caucasus, Queen of Sheba, caravan, Magi

Catalan Atlas detail: China

The Magi following the star, detail of the map of Asia

Map of South Asia, representing the Indian Ocean and "Illa Jana", the Amazon kingdom

Caravan crossing the Silk Road., detail of the map of Asia

Map of the Caucasus, The Spherical City, representing the purported birthplace of Ptolemy.
The Sea of Galilee. Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat

Map of the Caspian Sea. Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat.