Asia: Mapping A Place To Know It

The journey from Europe to Asia was a long and arduous one, but it was a journey that was undertaken with some regularity by merchants, missionaries, and adventurers. Silk, wool, precious metals, porcelain, spices, and many other goods were exchanged between Europe and Asia along caravan routes that are sometimes oversimply called “the Silk Road.” Trade and communication between west and east partially collapsed between the 7th and 13th centuries as the Roman Empire failed and Middle Eastern empires took its place as Asia’s main western trading partner, but the east remained a place of fascination and opportunity for Europeans. When the Mongols came to power in China, they re-established large-scale trade by land and sea, inadvertently kickstarting European exploration to the west as well, where they sought for centuries to find a direct sea route to Asia.

Commodities were not the only thing that was exchanged between Europe and Asia. Ideas and information flowed in both directions as well. As trade routes became more common and more lucrative, Europeans began to draw more and more precise maps of Asia, both of the continent as a whole and of specific regions within it. Many of these maps were less about navigation and more about imagination: most Europeans would never go to Asia themselves but wanted to be able to visualize it. New maps corrected old impressions of the world’s largest continent, some of them based on misunderstandings by early travelers, and improved Europeans’ ability to understand the eastern lands from which the desired silks, porcelain, and spices came.

Two of the maps in this gallery represent different stages of knowledge about Asia: we can see a dramatic increase in precision between Speed’s map and Vaugondy’s map a century later. Complementing them is Goeree’s map of a portion of the Middle East which served not traders but religious scholars. As you look at these maps, think about how maps allow us to travel mentally as well as physically. How does a map enable you to visualize a place and why is that important?