The Oldest Surviving Map of the Holy Land


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In 1884, in the city of Madaba, Jordan, an ancient floor mosaic was discovered in the ruins of a long-abandoned Byzantine church.  Containing millions of tiny tesserae, the mosaic depicted important locations of the Middle East, including Jerusalem, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, Mt. Sinai, and the Nile Delta.  Greek text fills the empty spaces, explaining the religious significance of various locations throughout the area.  Based on the buildings present in the map’s view of Jerusalem, it was determined that the mosaic was created some time between 542 and 570 A.D., which makes it the oldest surviving map of Jerusalem and the biblical Holy Land.

The mosaic was restored as well as it could be, but the original colors have faded and some of the pieces are missing.  There are, however, numerous colorful reproductions. Below is a section from one of these reproductions, which shows Jerusalem in a prominent central position, and the Jordan River flowing into the Dead Sea at the top.  This mosaic may have served as a guide for Christian pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem and other biblical sites during the early middle ages.

Photograph of a reproduction of the Madaba Mosaic Map.  Photograph taken by Lakshmi Sharath, via

Here is a reproduction of the full Madaba Mosaic:

Reproduction of the Madaba Mosiac Map, by Bernard Gagnon, via

The Madaba Mosaic can be a little disorienting at first.  The full view, shown above, has several large chunks missing, including most of the Mediterranean Sea.  In addition, we are used to maps having North at the top, but this mosaic, like so many from this era, has East at the top.  Even accounting for that, the orientation still does not quite make sense to me.  The Nile River delta is located in the bottom right corner of the mosaic, but Jerusalem is on the left side of the mosaic.  In real life, Jerusalem is East and a little North of the Nile River delta.  Shouldn’t the Nile be underneath Jerusalem on this mosaic?  Perhaps someone with more cartographic expertise could shed some light on this.

Today, the Madaba Mosaic is not useful for anything more than artistic appreciation.  When examining it, though, I do get the sense that it was a very impressive cartographic depiction at the time it was made. The locations included are rather extensive, and if I could read all the ancient Greek, I would probably be even more impressed with the biblical information cited.

The mosaic was not in use for very long, because Madaba was conquered by the Persians in 614 A.D., then the Muslims in the 8th century, and finally the city was destroyed in an earthquake and abandoned in 746 A.D.  But during the mosaic’s relatively brief life, I am sure that it helped many a traveler find his way to Jerusalem.


Wonderbook: Required Reading for Fantasy Writers


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I just finished reading “Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction” by Jeff Vandermeer, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Its 300 pages are filled with words and illustrations containing invaluable writing advice, as well as exercises, planning guides, and contributions from famous authors.  The book’s target audience is writers of genres like fantasy and science fiction, and it is clear that Vandermeer’s personal interests skew more towards the weird.  However, I think the lessons contained within are useful for every kind of fiction, because “Wonderbook” encourages the writer to think outside the box and develop full and meaningful characters and settings, whether those characters and settings are down to earth or completely off the wall.

From the front cover, I was immediately hooked by Vandermeer’s style.  The island city built on the back of a whale seems to say that nothing is quite as it seems in the fantasy world, and that sense of mystery and wonder is what a writer needs to harness in order to capture the reader.  From the illustrations and examples that Vandermeer employs, he seems to delight in the truly odd, often explaining a writing convention only to turn it on its head.  His first chapter, about inspiration fueling creativity, explains how the disparate identities and memories of the writer can combine in the writer’s mind to create the jolt of energy that gives rise to a creative idea.  The examples he offers confirm that stories can come from the most random and unexpected sources.

"Cognitive Transformation" by Ben Tolman, from page 26 of "Wonderbook" by Jeff Vandermeer.

“Cognitive Transformation” by Ben Tolman, from page 26 of “Wonderbook” by Jeff Vandermeer.

Vandermeer goes on to describe the process for outlining a story, using the analogy of a living, breathing creature.  The story-creature must be properly assembled (the muscles, bones, and organs need to be functioning together), much like a story is built on top of a plot which has an internal logic and consistency.  If the author nurtures and feeds the story-creature, it can become a healthy adult creature.  However, as Vandermeer, shows in the diagram below, this is far from the final step in the lifecycle of a story:

From page 70-71 of "Wonderbook"

From page 70-71 of “Wonderbook”

“Wonderbook” also extensively delves into character development, plotting, worldbuilding (and mapping!), and revision.  I especially enjoyed one section where Vandermeer produces a few different beginnings for one of his published novels, “Finch”, and explains why he decided to start the novel where he did.  This is very helpful, because the decision of which exact moment to use at the opening of a novel affects the level of tension that is infused in the first scene, which in turn sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Vandermeer also spends time talking about proper endings, and even middles, which is another topic that doesn’t usually receive much attention.  Here is one map from the book which depicts the perils that await in muddling through the middle:

Map of the Middle Zone, from page 118 of "Wonderbook"

Map of the Middle Zone, from page 118 of “Wonderbook”

Vandermeer’s “Wonderbook” is a rich and engaging guidebook for the creative writer.  Its advice is practical, its examples are colorful, and it is sure to inspire any aspiring author to start putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard).  You can pick it up from Amazon here:

Five Fantasy Worlds Recreated in Minecraft


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Minecraft is an open-world computer game that lets users build their own environments completely out of pixellated 3-D bricks.  There are multiple ways of playing, but the most intriguing part of the game, to me, is that fact that you can create an entire world and share it with other players.  I’ve never played Minecraft myself, but from the looks of it, the only limit to what you can create is your own imagination.  You can spend a lifetime browsing through Minecraft user-generated maps online and never run out of impressive creations.

Here are a few of the most striking Minecraft creations I found, depicting some of the most popular fantasy worlds from books, videogames, and film.  Enjoy!

Thunder Bluff, from World of Warcraft:

Thunder Bluff, recreated in Minecraft, created by the user Rumsey on (via

Koholint Island, from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening:

Koholint Island, recreated in Minecraft, created by DemiuM666 on (via

The Planet of Hoth, from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

The Battle of Hoth, recreated in Minecraft, created by user Aandolaf on (via

Hogwarts, from Harry Potter:

King’s Landing, from Game of Thrones.  This link has several more maps and videos of scenes from Westeros:

King’s Landing, recreated in Minecraft, WesterosCraft server (via

Connecting the World’s Most Interesting Places

Art comes from the most unexpected places sometimes.  For example, take a look at some of the urban maps below.  Upon a drab canvas of criss-crossing streets and empty spaces are a web of vibrant lines that resemble colored pencil marks, practically jumping off the page.  The deep red pathways are like the lifeblood of the city, pumping through its avenues as the city’s residents rush to work, or to dinner, or the theater.  We can see the cultural and economic activity of each city by these highlighted pathways, and we almost don’t need a tourist map.  These pathways are the ones we instinctively know we want to be on.

Manhattan (via

These maps were created by Eric Fischer over the past five years, and are assembled at his Geotaggers’ World Atlas site.  There, he explains how he used data to create such beautiful maps.  First, he scanned through Flickr to determine where people were taking interesting photos in the world’s cities.  If he saw a clusters of many photos in one place, that led him to believe that that place was worth seeing.  Then, he connected these popular sites, and colored the paths between them based on the speed. The red lines, for example, are faster than walking speed, and could be people on bikes or ferries.  You can zoom into the maps too, and see how what appear to be thick pencil lines are actually collections of many different smaller threads.

Here are a few more:

Los Angeles (via

Tokyo (via

Istanbul (via

Check out the Atlas yourself, there are a ton of cities from all over the world available on there:

Source: Gizmodo.

The Armenian Genocide, Explained by Maps


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April 24th marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide, the systematic killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.  It remains a controversial topic, since Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, has refused to acknowledge that genocide occurred, and many of Turkey’s allies (including the U.S.), will not recognize it either, for fear of offending Turkey.  It is a shame that politics has gotten in the way of widespread recognition of what really happened, because only through recognition can we heal the wounds of the past and prevent such massive tragedies from recurring.  That is why I would like to take on a more serious topic than usual this week, and present a few maps which help to explain the situation in Armenia before, during, and after the genocide.

The Armenian nation stretches back to antiquity, although the size of its reach has shifted greatly over the millennia.  From 83 to 69 B.C., the Armenian Empire held its largest swath of territory under Emperor Tigranes the Great.  As the map below shows, Armenia stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, including parts of modern-day Turkey and Syria.

Ancient Armenian Empire under Tigranes the Great (via Wikipedia, Robert H. Hewsen “Armenia: A Historical Atlas”. The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

However, the Armenian Empire soon lost territory to the expanding Roman Empire and never was able to regain it.  In later years, the Armenians were invaded by several other large empires, such as the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century.  Great numbers of Armenians fled their homeland and settled in other countries of Europe, although many did stay, even though they were often not in control of their own land.  On the eve of World War I, the the Armenian homeland was controlled by the Ottomans, but the Armenians had begun fighting for their independence, just as the Greeks before them.  The Ottomans would not let them go easily.

This map shows the extent of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia (orange), areas where Armenians were living before the Genocide (shaded), the current nation of Armenia (red), and parts of neighboring countries where significant populations of Armenians live today (lighter red).  As you can see, large parts of the then-Ottoman empire had high percentages of Armenians living there, although this is no longer the case.

Distribution of Armenians in the Caucasus (via Wikipedia)

An ethnic group does not suddenly vanish off the map by accident.  Although Turkey claims that these Armenians died from a civil war, the evidence is clear that an organized, coordinated genocidal plan was enacted on the part of the government.  In a similar fashion to the Holocaust, Armenians were deported along specified routes in order to be executed together in designated areas.

Map of Armenian Genocide (via Wikipedia)

As a result of the genocide, the Armenian presence in the area known as “Western Armenia” in Central Anatolia was terminated after over two thousand years.  After World War I, in 1918, Armenia declared itself an independent nation, which the Ottoman Empire, defeated and on the verge of collapse, accepted.  The new nation’s territory, however, only included the smaller, Eastern section of Armenia’s historical homeland.  The map below, presented by the Armenian National Delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, shows that Armenia was hoping to achieve much more.

A Map Presented by the Armenian National Delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris, 1919. (via Wikipedia; American Committee for the Independence of Armenia, New York, 1919)

Subsequent wars between Turkey, Armenia, and Soviet Russia changed the borders of the Armenian nation several more times during the 20th century.  Border disputes in the region are still ongoing, including one between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Most significantly, though, Armenia is still claiming the Western Armenia region of Turkey.  Armenian activists believe that achieving recognition of the Genocide is one important step towards achieving this.  However, as I explained earlier, Turkey’s many important allies around the world have made greater recognition difficult.

Millions of Armenians, faced with violence and uncertainty in their homeland over the centuries, have created strong communities in other countries.  Below is a map showing the extent of the Armenian diaspora around the world:

Armenian Diaspora (via Wikipedia,

The genocide suffered by the Armenians was one of the first in modern times, but it was far from the last.  Each time a tragedy on this level occurs, we hear the refrain of “never again!”, and yet, such ethnic extermination has been a recurrent evil over the past century.  Rather than ignore or downplay what has happened, it is better to acknowledge it and move forward through peace and reparations, lest the cycle of violence continue.  It has been 100 years without Turkey’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but it is still not too late.

Consonant Battles


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Europe is divided in many ways, but one thing that most countries share is the Latin alphabet.  Dozens of languages across the continent all use the same script, and even languages that don’t, such as Greek and Russian, share many of the same characters. The common script, however, diverges wildly from place to place when spoken aloud.   Each European language has undergone its own unique evolution which affects how its letters are spoken, and it is fascinating to see how and why they diverge.

This post from Dina Rickman on has 9 maps which show how selected consonants vary in sound across Europe, based on the research of post-doctoral researcher Alexander Young at the University of Washington.  Today I want to look at a few of the most interesting ones.


Map of the Letter “J” across Europe (via–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Anyone who has studied another European language has seen how odd the letter “j” is.  It did not even exist in Latin, and only became a letter later on, initially taking on the sound of “y” as a consonant.  In German, it still has this sound (think “ja”).  In French, “j” sounds like the “s” in “vision”, or in the French word “je”, for “I”.  Spanish treats “j” just like an English “h”.  It is odd to think that if you ask an Englishman, Spaniard, Frenchman, and German to read the letter “j”, you will hear four different sounds.  Each one sounds right to speaker but wrong to the other listeners.


The Letter “R” (via–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Who knew there was this much variation in how people say “r”?  There are three different “r”s, and the most popular, by far, is the rolled “r”, which is often a struggle for first-time Spanish students.  This is the first time that I’m learning about the “rough r” spoken in some areas of France and Germany, and I am curious to hear how it sounds.  Finally, there is the “r” that the English and Irish (but not the Welsh or Scottish) are most familiar with.


The Letter “G” (via–xJRqqkw2JZ)

G is a really odd letter, because even within one language, it can be pronounced multiple ways.  In English, we have a hard “h” and a soft “g”, depending (usually) on which vowel follows the “g”.  As the map above explains, the type of “g” used also depends on where the word came from.  French loan words have a softer “g” (like “gem”), whereas German loan words have the harder “g” (think “gift”).  Meanwhile, the French do not pronounce “g” the way the English pronounce “g” words that come from French, instead using the same sound they use for the French “j”.  Go to Spain, and they say a soft “g” like an “h”, in Swedish they say it like a “y”, and in Finnish, they don’t say it at all (“g” only appears as part of “ng”).  This map does not include Greek, but I can attest that the Greek version of “g”, gamma, is famously hard to pronounce for non-Speakers, being a guttural combination of a hard “g” and an English “y”.  This is why the “gyro”, the Greek pita bread wrap, is chronically mispronounced.

For even more maps of consonant sounds across Europe, check out this link:–xJRqqkw2JZ

Touring the Cities of Ice and Fire


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We have previously looked at maps of George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros from the Song of Ice and Fire series here and here.  But we haven’t looked closely at the cities of Westeros and Essos… until now.  In honor of the season 5 premiere of the Game of Thrones series on HBO, I compiled maps and illustrations for some of the most important locations from the series, including King’s Landing, Winterfell, and Braavos.   Some of these are official creations, earning the approval of Martin himself, while others were made by die-hard fans.

This map of King’s Landing is from “The Lands of Ice and Fire”, which is a collection of maps for locations from the Song of Ice and Fire series.  Martin paired up with illustrator Jonathan Roberts to create the maps and provide exhaustive, in-depth commentary about each location.

Map of King’s Landing (from The Lands of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, via

Although an official map of Braavos, the free city on the continent of Essos, does exist in the “Lands of Ice and Fire”, I found this fan-made one to be much more colorful:

Also from the continent of Essos, Meereen is the current home of Daenarys Targarean, who is consolidating her power and building her army before making her much-delayed invasion of Westeros for the Iron Throne.  Meereen’s distinctive feature is its giant pyramid, topped with a statue of a harpy.  This illustration of Meereen comes from the title credits of the HBO series. There are, unfortunately, not many better quality views of Meereen which are available.

The City of Meereen, from the HBO series Game of Thrones (via

Winterfell, although the seat of power for the North of Westeros, is much less a city and more like a castle with the surrounding environs.  One intrepid fan set out to recreate the city, based on its depiction in the opening credits of the TV show, using a CAD tool and a 3-D printer.  The shot of Winterfell in the opening credits is quick, and the only other map he had to go on was this floor plan from the Wiki of Ice and Fire.  Talk about dedication!

Depiction of Winterfell, created using a 3-D printer, by Daniel Ammann (via

Finally, I found a map of Dragonstone, seat of power for Stannis Baratheon, made entirely in Minecraft.  The several giant stone dragons are quite imposing, even if they are made up of tiny digital blocks.

Map of Dragonstone from Minecraft, Maruku 2012 (via Planet Minecraft,

Defining Scandinavia is Easier Said than Done


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When you hear the word “Scandinavia”, what do you think of?  Maybe you think about Vikings, fjords, and fish.  If you start to consider individual countries, you will probably think of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.  However, one of these countries is not technically a part of Scandinavia as it has traditionally been defined.  And it only gets weirder from there.

C.G.P. Grey, one of my favorite YouTube channels, explains why it is so difficult to delineate the borders of Scandinavia on the map in the following video.  As he explains, Scandinavia includes Denmark but not Finland, even though Finland is adjacent to Sweden and Norway.  If you want to refer to Norway, Sweden, and Finland together, you have to use the little-known term Fennoscandia.  Watch the whole video, it’s 4 minutes of fascinating fact nuggets on these Northern European nations that are sure to tickle any geography nerd.

Happy mapping!

If the Field of Physics Were a Continent, This Would Be its Map


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I just love when abstract concepts are reimagined as continents on a map.  We have already looked at the Map of the Internet and the Map of Fiction, but today I wanted to share something of a more scientific bent: the Map of Physics.

Map of Physics, by Bernard H. Porter, 1939 (via The Quantum Pontiff,

This map was created by Bernard H. Porter and was included in Kenyon College Professor Thomas B. Greenslade’s teaching materials.  The map dates to 1939, but it blends the older touches from the maps of the renaissance explorers with modern designs and concepts.  The continent of Physics is split up by rivers, so that each subsection of physics (such as magnetism or astronomy) is separate but adjacent.  Illustrations of scientific concepts and equipment populate the landscape in lieu of cities or states, similar to how old maps of the New World filled in the empty spaces with colorful drawings of the native flora, fauna, or peoples.

I am particularly interested in how the map acts as a historical background on the subfields of physics as well.  Each subfield contains the names of scientists in that subfield, going back to the founder of that field.  Porter playfully explains that the names of pioneer physicians represent villages on the continent of Physics, and the dates under the names are the dates that these villages were founded.  For example, Thales of Miletus founded the village that bears his name in the land of Magnetism in the year 640 B.C.

This map seems like a pretty novel way to introduce physics to students who may be more visual thinkers and have less of an interest in reading from dense textbooks.  Maps have been unquestionably useful for finding our way in the physical world.   But the Map of Physics shows that maps can give shape and form to anything unfamiliar, whether the subject is a foreign country or a foreign idea.

Happy mapping!

Mapping Post-Apocalyptic Chicago from the Divergent Series


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At first, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy appears to follow very closely in the footsteps of the Hunger Games trilogy.  Both are young-adult dystopian trilogies with strong female teenage protagonists.  In both sets of novels, order is maintained through a rigid social structure, by which the majority of people are denied freedom of choice in how they wish to live their lives, and the protagonist has to fight against this structure.  Although I have not read the Divergent series, I feel that I can pretty much guess how the story will play out, based on having read the Hunger Games series.

However, as I started to read more about Divergent, I became more curious about the world created by Roth, at least from a cartographical perspective.  What is most interesting to me is that the story is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago, many years in the future.  This is in contrast to the world of Panem, of The Hunger Games, which is ambiguously located in former United States, without any explicit points of reference to current-day states or cities.  Other novels, such as The Maze Runner or The Giver, provide even fewer clues about their locations.  Divergent is refreshing, at least, in providing a familiar setting for its characters.

Its version of Chicago, however, has changed considerably from the city we know today.  The highways are crumbling, bridges have collapsed, and many of the once-mighty skyscrapers have been reduced to skeletons.  Most shockingly of all, Lake Michigan has dried up and been replaced by a marsh.  Below is a shot from the film version of Divergent, which came out last year, showing the Chicago skyline from the view of the marshy Lake Michigan.

A view of Chicago from the Divergent series, (via Moviefone,

In Divergent, Chicago has been cut off from the rest of the world by a giant fence, purportedly for the safety of its residents.  Each person is assigned to one of five factions (abnegation, amity, candor, dauntless, and erudite), which control parts of the city, and one’s faction is chosen based on the results of an aptitude test.  It is basically like a personality test, classifying people as selfless, peaceful, honest, brave, or intellectual.  Want to opt out of this process altogether?  Then you will become factionless, and will be living homeless on the streets of Chicago.  The main character of the series, Tris, undergoes this exam at the beginning of the series, and finds that she is one of the rare “divergent” people who do not fit neatly into one of the five groups.  I do not know much more about the story, but from the looks of the movie trailers, action, adventure, and perhaps some romance, ensue.

One ambitious fan of the series, @Jillian, discovered that there were no adequate maps of the Chicago of Divergent, so she went ahead and created her own on Google Maps.  It is really quite impressive to see, as she has used her knowledge of the books to mark areas of Chicago which are the likely zones for the five factions.  In addition, she marks points on the map where major events in the novels occur, such as Gateway Park, the site of the city’s giant ferris wheel.  If you are wondering about her methodology for choosing her locations, she even provides citations and quotes from the books backing up her choices.  Talk about thorough!

Be warned, if you have not completed the whole series, that there are spoilers in the map below:

Jillian offers a further explanation on this map here.

Finally, the movie adaptation of Insurgent, the second novel in the series, opens in theaters this Friday, March 20.  I’m sure that the legions of Divergent fans will make it another box office hit.  But those who are curious about urban geography may want to check it out as well, if for no other reason than to see post-apocalyptic Chicago brought to life on the big screen.


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