This is Abraham Ortelius’s image of classical Asia, centered on the Indian Ocean and depicting East Africa, Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia. It was published in the Parergon, a series of wonderful maps designed to supplement the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. It illustrates the text of a classical work, Periplus Maris Erythraei, the author of which is uncertain.
The map features three interesting insets. At center is an inset map of Greece and southern Italy that portrays the voyage of Odysseus, with important locations from Homer’s Odyssey, including: Ithaca, Ogygia, Scylla and Charybdis, and the island of the Cyclopes. At upper right is an inset of the Arctic titled Hyperborei. This inset serves the purpose, as Ortelius puts it “for better beautifying or proportioning of this map,” and to remind the reader that in spite of all their exertions, a passage to the Far East via the North Pole has not yet been found by the English or the Dutch.
Cartographica Neerlandica describes the inset map in the top left corner, which represents the Northwest coast of Africa:
King Hanno from Carthago is supposed to be the first who sailed around the continent of Africa to reach the Arabian sea, and incidentally also the first to tame a lion, as related by Plinius, Xenophon and Solinus, who base themselves on Hanno’s writings, as translated by Baptista Ramusio and Conradus Gesnerus.
The map’s presentation of Southeast Asia shows clear ties to the Ptolemaic view of the region, with Sumatra connected to the Golden Chersonese (Malay) by a narrow neck. Why Ortelius has given this region a “classical treatment,” so-to-speak, while Africa, Arabia, and India are all drawn with updated geography is uncertain.
The lines of text placed in Asia read:
“Arrianus, the author of this Periplus [coastal sea journey] is someone who is different from the person who has written about the expedition of Alexander the Great, as it seems to Baptist Ramusio, in his comments on him published in the Italian language because their style of writing is different and dissimilar. He also thinks that he must have lived in the time of Ptolemæus. With which I somehow agree, for he seems to address himself in his Periplus on the Euxine sea to Traianus the emperor. But the other [source] truly seems to be much older, because among others, he cites authors who are hardly more recent than Herodotus and Euripides. Whatever the case may be, the reader will easily gather from the various sources that one of these two from Nearchus at the river Indus navigated to the mouth of the river Tigris, and from that mouth back to the river Indus just mentioned, in fact called the river Sinthum, as you can read on the map, so that everyone understands why the places are named as they are.”
Classical antiquity as visualized by a Renaissance mapmaker – a really interesting map.