This fine woodcut is an early Ptolemaic map of the Arabian Peninsula presented on a trapezoidal projection with parallels and meridians (the forerunners of lines of longitude and latitude) enumerated in the borders. The sea-bound cartouche includes the names of local tribes, and a fanciful mermaid is shown. This influential map provided the basis on which European cartography depicted the region for nearly a century.
The Arabian Peninsula covers more than 1 million square miles and comprises the modern states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It is one of the largest regions in the world with no navigable rivers, a circumstance that made exploring and mapping its interior problematic. The first map of the Arabian peninsula to be printed in Europe was in the 1477 edition of Ptolemy. Tibbetts notes that, like other early Greeks, Ptolemy exaggerated the length of Eurasia to the east. The distance between the Red Sea and Persia was too big, and thus Arabia was stretched to fill the gap, mainly because Ptolemy knew the entrance to the Red Sea was very narrow; thus, he had to make the shape fit.
By Ptolemy’s time, Greek sailors had sailed around the Arabian coast and were familiar with port towns. However, its interior remains largely unmapped until the 20th century. The northern part of the peninsula tended to be mapped more accurately because it was closer to populated lands and more frequently traveled, but the interior of Ptolemaic maps are almost entirely fanciful, including the mountain ranges, river systems, and lakes. The cartographic errors are a mix of depicting stories told to sailors about what lies inland and the desire to fill space common in pre-18th century cartography.
There is Latin text on verso.