Samarchand , shown on this 1575 map, was one of the greatest Central Asian cities on the Silk Road linking China with the Mediterranean. Through this ancient tradiing center passed caravans bearing spices, silks, and other longed for treasures of Asia.
Now it can be told…
The map—which vanished early in April—has reappeared.
Its tortured voyage through the backwaters of U.S. Customs, not to mention the "exes" (Fedex, Amex et al) is a saga of zealous agents, finger-pointing bureaucrats, and Interpol’s “stolen stuff” list. It ended not with the sound of trumpets, but with the unceremonious ringing of the doorbell.
“Do you want this ?” queried a bored Fedex guy when Serendipity opened the front door. He thrust a 22-inch mailing tube plastered with a big red “X-ray” sticker, one end unsealed, into her hands and bounded back into his truck.
And that was that.
Well, never mind. I’ve spent a blissful week poring over Asiae Nova Descriptio, magnifying glass in hand, marveling at the geography of the spice world as it was known in 1575. The prolific Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius based "a new description of Asia" on his own wall map, which incorporated earlier maps by Gastaldi and Albufeda, and published it in his bestselling atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.
The scope is vast.
The map purports to show all of Asia, bounded by Africa on the west and the Oceanus Eovs on the east. In the upper center is a vast land called Tartaria, sweeping from Tvrchestan and Samarchand across to Xanton and other parts now known as China and Korea.
There are helpful inscriptions for the armchair traveler. Under Tartaria is written HIC MAGNUS CHAM TARTARORVM ET CHATAIAE IMPERATOR LONGE LATE QVE DOMINATVR— “Here the great Cham who rules far and wide over the Tartars and the Chataiae…”
And another: Hic Rhabarbar tanta copia prouenit vt hinc ad omnes orbis partes vehatur: Here one finds medicinal rhubarb in such quantities that it is exported to all parts of the world. Always good to know.
Wandering through the map is like a trip through a topsy-turvy realm where some things are familiar and others are wondrous strange. I feel like Alice who swallowed the contents of the bottle labeled “Drink Me.” I haven’t changed—gotten bigger or smaller—but somehow the places seem weirdly different.
For instance, east of Africa, across the Mar Rosso (Red Sea) one encounters Arabia Felix. That was the Latin name for a group of ancient kingdoms now known as Yemen. These fabulously rich lands were the stuff of legend: They controlled the trade in cinnamon and were the source of myrrh, a dark resin used in incense, perfumes and embalming--hence, the name Felix, happy or fortuitous. (Arabia Deserta--you can guess what that means-- to the south has become what we know as Saudi Arabia).
On the other side of Asia there's an almost unrecognizable depiction of Iapan or Japan. The notoriously secretive Portuguese landed on Tanegashima Island south of Kyushu in 1543, but it would be decades before more exact maps of the islands could be drawn…
The wonder, though, is that so much is recognizable.
Here is the Malabar coast of India and the pepper port of Cochin. For millenia seafarers from Greece and Rome caught favorable winds across the Indian Ocean to the western shores of India where they stocked up on peppercorns and other spices before taking the reverse journey back to the Mediterranean. (Pliny once moaned that the Roman empire was spending all its gold on pepper.)
Off the tip of India is Zeilan, Dutch for Ceylon, home of soft, crumbling spice we know as true cinnamon…
The Indonesian archipelago and in particular the Moluccas, the Spice Islands, are drawn with an accuracy that suggests firsthand knowledge. They were the destination of so many voyages of exploration. Here are tiny Teranate and Tidore, once the world's sole producers of cloves, ruled by warring Islamic sultans, successively conquered by the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch. The island of Celebese is now Sulawesi, Gilolo is Halmahera in the North Moluku province of Indonesia..
But just when I think not much has changed in the last 400 odd years, there are the words terra incognita affixed to bit of land known as Australia...
There's always something new to discover.