Hand-colored example of Ruscelli’s map of the Arabia Peninsula, with details from the east coast of Africa, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the mouth of the Euphrates, and the southwestern coast of Persia.
The Arabian Peninsula covers more than 1 million square miles and is comprised of 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 a difficult endeavor. The first map of the Arabian peninsula to be printed in Europe was in the 1477 edition of Ptolemy. 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 completely fanciful, including the mountain ranges, river systems, and lakes. The cartographic errors are probably a mix of depicting stories told to sailors about what lies inland and the desire to fill space common in pre-18th century cartography.
This map is from Ruscelli’s translation of Ptolemy’s Geografia, which included enlarged maps from Giacomo Gastaldi’s 1548 edition of Ptolemy. Tibbetts calls Gastaldi 1548 the first modern map of Arabia. The shape and orientation is much improved over Ptolemy and coastal towns are represented more accurately. But the cartographic errors and inventions represented in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula are largely continued from Ptolemaic maps.
One especially persistent error (from Ptolemy until it is disproved in 17th century) is the depiction of a large lake (Stag Lago or Stygis Fons) between the Hadhramawt and the Empty Quarter. Tibbetts speculates that these could have been based on the waters of Yemen which flow east into the desert, or the reservoir of Marib (which was known to classical writers). Gastaldi actually plots a second lake for Marib in 1561. The myth of Stag Lago endures on later maps, drifting towards the sea over time, on some maps even becoming a bay.