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In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and Martin Behaim created the oldest surviving globe of the Earth.

Martin Behaim’s Globe (also called Erdapfel, or Earth Apple)

It’s a fascinating window into what Europeans generally assumed the world looked like before Columbus stumbled upon the Caribbean Islands. At the time, due to a miscalculation in the circumference of the Earth, Europeans thought that the distance to Japan and Mainland China was much less than it actually was. Columbus would insist until his death that he had in fact reached Asia, but it soon became clear that he was off his measurements by several thousand miles, enough space for two whole continents and an entire ocean to fit in the middle.

But if Columbus and his contemporaries were right, the world would look much like Martin Behaim’s globe. Instead of the Atlantic Ocean, Americas, and Pacific Ocean, there would be one ocean in between Europe and Asia, although a multitude of islands would be scattered throughout. Below is a reproduction of part of the globe, with Asia on the left and Europe and Africa on the right:

Reproduction of the globe of Martin Behaim, 1492.

On the eastern side, we see the islands which Europeans had already charted: The Azores, the Canaries, and Cape Verde. At the time of publication, this was as far as Europeans had gone to the west, though, and the rest is just speculation. To the west of Cabo Verde is “Sant Brandan”, or Saint Brendan’s Island, a mythical island that Saint Brendan supposedly visited in the middle ages. The island was placed on many medieval maps in various locations, always just out of reach of the explorer, but never found. Nearby are the similarly fictional Antilia islands.

Beyond that is the large rectangular island of Cipangu. This was the name given to Japan at the time, although Europeans knew little about it. Columbus thought any number of the Caribbean Islands he found could be Cipangu, indicating that China was not far off.

As for China itself, it was then known as Cathay (or Cathaja on this map), and it appears on the map to the northeast of Cipangu. Knowledge of China was primarily based on Marco Polo’s travels there two centuries earlier, and his description of China’s exotic riches was one of the primary motivations for Columbus and others to sail west in search of a faster, easier trade route. Other names on the map in this area include “Mangi”, which refers to a province in Southern China at the time. I’m not sure about some of these other names, such as “Moabar”, but I think it refers to part of India.

One could spend all day researching and discussing the names of places on this globe, but I’ll stop here. If you’re interested, this link provides a more in-depth explanation of all parts of the globe including pictures:    http://cartographic-images.net/Cartographic_Images/258_Behaim_Globe.html

Happy Mapping (and Globing)!

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