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Rare old color Münster Ptolemaic woodcut map of Arabia.

Place/Date: Basel / ca. 1540
Title: Tabula Asiae VI. [Arabia Felix]
Woodblock printing
25.5 x 34.2 cm (10 x 13.5 in)
Old color
Condition Rating


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 map was influential and 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 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. 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, especially 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 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.

There is Latin text on verso.


Sebastian Münster

Sebastian Münster (1488 – 1552) was a German cartographer, cosmographer, and a Christian Hebraist scholar.

His Cosmographia of 1544 was the earliest German-language description of the world. It had numerous editions in different languages including Latin, French, Italian, English, and even Czech. The Cosmographia was one of the most successful and popular works of the 16th century. It passed through 24 editions in 100 years. This success was due to its excellent woodcuts (some by Hans Holbein the Younger, Urs Graf, Hans Rudolph Manuel Deutsch, and David Kandel), in addition to including the first to introduce separate maps for each of the four continents known then – America, Africa, Asia and Europe. It was most important in reviving geography in 16th-century Europe. The last German edition was published in 1628, long after his death.

Münster died in Basel of the plague in 1552.

Condition Description

Wide margins. Small repair to lower centerfold, and also some small discoloration to centerfold.


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