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Explorers, Navigation & Mapmaking


Cartography (the study and practice of making maps). The earliest known map is a matter of some debate, both because the definition of "map" is not agreed upon, and because some artifacts that appear to be maps, might actually not be. A wall painting, which may depict the ancient Anatolian city of Çatalhöyük (previously known as Catal Huyuk or Çatal Hüyük in modern-day Turkey), has been dated to the late 7th millennium BCE. More...


Compass (navigation tool) A compass is a navigational instrument for determining direction relative to the earth's magnetic poles. The compass was invented in ancient China around 247 BCE, and was used for navigation by the 11th century. In addition to compasses and maps, medieval navigation tools included the astrolabe, quadrant, cross-staff, and sextant (items used to determine the altitude of the sun or other celestial bodies). It was not until the early 17th century that the telescope was first used for astronomical purposes.


Da Ming Hun Yi Tu is one of the oldest surviving world maps from East Asia (also known as "The Great Ming Amalgamated Map"). It is a world map produced in China during the Ming Dynasty. Some scholars believe that the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu was ultimately based on a world map named Shengjiao Guangbei Tu, which was created by Li Zemin during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (a map that is now lost). More...


Kangnido Map The Honil Gangni Yeokdae Gukdo Jido ("Map of Integrated Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals"), also known as Gangnido (Kangnido), is a map of the world made in Korea in 1402, the second year of the reign of Taejong of the newly founded Joseon Dynasty. It is 158.5 cm by 168.0 cm, painted on silk. The map was created under the supervision of two high Korean officials, Gim Sahyeong and Yi Hoe, and the Confucian scholar Gwon Geun. It is the second oldest surviving world map from East Asia, after the Chinese Da Ming Hun Yi Tu map (part of a Eurasian cartography tradition begun in the 1320s when geographical information about the West became available via Islamic geographers in the Mongol empire). The map depicts the general form of the Old World, from Africa and Europe in the west to Japan in the east. Although it is less geographically accurate than the early Chinese world map, it displays some improvements (particularly the depictions of Korea, Japan, and Africa). More...


Fra Mauro Map This map is one of the most important examples of medieval cartography, made around 1450 by the Venetian monk Fra Mauro. The period of the High Middle Ages in Europe saw major technological advances, including the adoption through the Silk Road of printing, gunpowder, the astrolabe, and the compass. Korean maps such as the Kangnido and Islamic mapmaking seem to have influenced the emergence of the first practical world maps, such as those of Albertinus De Virga (made between 1411 and 1415) or Fra Mauro. More...

Ramusio, a contemporary, states that Fra Mauro's map is "an improved copy of the one brought from Cathay by Marco Polo." The map made by De Virga presents locations described in Asia that are consistent with the period of Mongol rule: Medru, Calcar, Monza sede di sedre ("the Mangi of northern China"), and Bogar Tartarorum ("the Great Bulgarian" or "Golden Horde"). Regarding the location of Karakorum, fortifications are depicted, with the mention "M[on]gol." The names shown for Chinese rivers and cities are those used by Marco Polo. More...

See History of Navigation / Age of Exploration and Discovery


Christopher Columbus: The Quest for Asia from Genoa, to Lisbon, to Spain & the Americas
Having perfected the astrolabe and quadrant, and developed the lateen-rigged caravel, it was the Portuguese who led the way of maritime expansion as Europeans sought alternative routes to Asia. During the Mongol Empire (the so-called Pax Mongolica, or Mongol peace) Europeans had long enjoyed a safe land passage along the "Silk Road" to China and India, which were sources of valuable goods. The maritime expansion of Portugal was the result of the threat to Mediterranean commerce that had developed very rapidly after the crusades, especially the trade in spices. Spices traveled by various overland routes from Asia to the Levant, where they were loaded aboard Genoese and Venetian ships and brought to Europe. Portuguese navigators, under the leadership of King John II, sought to reach Asia by sailing around Africa. Major progress in this quest was achieved in 1488, when Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope, in what is now South Africa. Meanwhile, in the 1480s the Columbus brothers had developed a different plan to reach the Indies (then construed roughly as all of south and east Asia) by sailing west across the "Ocean Sea", i.e., the Atlantic. In his quest for Asia, Christopher Columbus read widely about astronomy, geography, and history, including the travels of Marco Polo. More...

Handwritten notes by Christopher Columbus on a Latin edition of Polo's book.

Historians have noted that Christopher Columbus was so inspired by the journeys of the Venetian traveler Marco Polo's description of the Far East, that he desired to visit those lands for himself. It can be said that the Silk Road indirectly inspired Columbus's voyages to the "New World," as there is evidence Columbus made handwritten annotations on a Latin edition of Marco Polo's book.


Henry "the Navigator" was a prince of the Kingdom of Portugal and an important figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire. He was responsible for the early development of European exploration and maritime trade with other continents. He sponsored expeditions of discovery in the Atlantic Ocean, and down the western coast of Africa. Prince Henry never actually sailed on any of the voyages of discovery he sponsored. Instead, he established a school for the study of the arts of navigation, mapmaking, and shipbuilding, which enabled improved designs and better guidance for ships. Prince Henry's goal was to find a route to the rich spice trade of the Indies, while exploring the west coast of Africa. The ships that sailed the Mediterranean were slow and too heavy to make these voyages. Under his direction, a new and lighter ship was developed, the caravel, which allowed sea captains to sail further and faster. More...


Piri Reis Map of the Americas Piri Reis was a 16th century Ottoman-Turkish admiral and cartographer. One of his famous maps is a pre-modern world map dated 1513, which depicts the Western Hemisphere -- the first surviving map that shows the Americas, including North America, South America, Greenland, Antarctica, as well as the western coast of Africa. The map is now preserved in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. He has been credited for depicting parts of the western coasts of Europe and North Africa with reasonable accuracy. Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis was born on the Gallipoli Peninsula c.1465, and is an important figure of Turkish naval history. In addition to creating maps of the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Dardanelles, in 1521 he also wrote a mariner's guide to the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean ("Book of the Mariner," or "The Naval Handbook"). As he dated his famous "Map of the Americas," he added this inscription from Gallipoli: "The author of this is the humble Piri ibn Haji Muhammad, known as the nephew of Kemal Reis, in the town of Gallipoli in the Holy Month of Muharram of the year 919 [A.D. 1513]." More...

Left fragment of the Piri Reis map showing Central and South America shores.
In his notes appended to it is written "the map of the western lands drawn by Columbus."


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