Storytelling through Maps and Timelines

Creative Commons license: Nicholas Kenrick

Bagan today. Creative Commons license: Nicholas Kenrick

In the year 1100, the largest city, by far, was Kaifeng, which was twice the size of its nearest competitor, Constantinople, three times the size of the third city on the top five list, Marrakech, which was, at the time, about the size of Kalyan and Cairo. Never heard of Kaifeng or Kalyan? If today’s Kaifeng was located in today’s United States, it would be the nation’s second largest city; in China, where it has been a significant city for a very long while, it would be in the top forty or fifty cities. Kalyan is now part of Mumbai. A hundred years later, Bagan makes the list–it’s no longer an active city, but the site is as popular in Cambodia as Angkor Wat. Add another 100 years and the first of the European cities makes the top five list: Paris. By 1492, just as Europe is waking up to the possibility of its role as a global power, there are no European cities on the list. Instead, it’s Beijing with over a half-million people in the number slot followed by Vijayanagara, Cairo, Hangzhou, and from the Americas, Tenochtitlán.

In 1492, the world map is a fascinating place filled with vaguely familiar names. A large swath of what is now Russia was then the Khanate of Siber; the Mongols are firmly in control of the large area that is now Mongolia; the only people in Australia are Aborigines; and the Caribbean and much of South America are under the control of the Arawak people (who will be killed, in large numbers, by European invaders and their diseases, the first of whom is Columbus). You’ve probably heard of Catherine of Aragon, a Henry VIII wife (remember “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived?”–Catherine’s the one who Henry divorced, setting up a major tiff with the Pope). Anyway…Aragon occupies the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The Inca are all along the Pacific side of what becomes South America, and the Mayas and the Aztecs are all over what becomes Central America and Mexico. Japan is Japan, Korea is Korea, and remarkably, Poland is a large country–actually a kind of joint project, so the place is called Poland Lithuania.

How do I know all of this? Because I’m having a blast browsing through a new combination of world atlas and history book. It’s called The New Atlas of World History: Global Events at a Glance and it’s been put together by research fellow at England’s Lancaster University named John Haywood.

NewAtlas World HistoryQuite sensibly, Mr. Haywood has produced a book whose broad horizontal pages alternate between an atlas view of the world at various intervals, and a timeline of significant events that describe that time in greater detail.

His story begins around 100,000 when ice sheets covered much of today’s Canada, all of today’s United Kingdom, and the rest of northern Europe. From the ancestral starting place in eastern Africa, homo sapiens migrate first into Asia and China, then across two land bridges, one to what becomes North America and the other (who knew?) across present-day Indonesia and the Indian Ocean across to Australia (which is how the place become populated with Aboriginal peoples). In fact, Europe was settled, or, at least, visited in large numbers, about 5,000 years after Australia. It took even longer for the people who took the now-Alaska land bridge to make their way all the down through the current United States and Mexico, eventually finding themselves in what is now South America.

Looking way ahead to, say, 1900, it’s again a fascinating map and story: there is no Poland, for example, because it has been obscured by the giant Russian Empire, and also, if I’m reading the map correctly, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, too. On that map, Africa is a collection of colonies belonging to Belgium, Holland, Germany and other countries whose international colonization efforts were ended by a pair of wars that provided plenty of good reason to focus on life at home.

So here’s a rough look at the 1492 map of the world (click on it to see a full-screen PDF with far better detail):
Atlas_Map_Smaller

And, to accompany that layout, here’s a look at the adjacent page, this time providing a timeline view of events that mattered at the time (same story, click to see a PDF that’s easier to read):

Timeline

Of course, the book offers more than just these two layouts. One of my favorites shows the migration routes to the United States, mostly from Europe, circa 1900. The same map contains the sobering stories of indentured servants leaving India for British colonies in Africa. Subsequently, a young attorney and activist named Mohandas Gandhi will understand his power by correcting the situation in South Africa (then, the Cape Colony) before returning to his native India.

So: here’s the history of the world in just over 200 pages, full-color, filled with fascinating stories told in some text, but mainly, through descriptive maps and pictures. It’s a thoroughly modern way to tell our story, and, as you might imagine, it has become a favorite. You’ll get some flavor of the work’s value by clicking on some the links on the book’s catalog page, but there’s really nothing quite like having the whole of it in front of you on a hot Sunday afternoon in the cool shade, preferably with an equally cool drink from some far-off land close at hand.

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