Will Geography Decide Our Destiny?

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/ Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting, circa 1666

When maps were introduced into Ottoman schools in the 1860s, conservative Muslims—people we would now call Salafists—were so outraged that they ripped them off classroom walls and threw them down the latrines. Though Muslim geographers such as Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099–1166) had produced serviceable maps, they were not widely available and for most of Ottoman history the spatial configuration of territory in two dimensions had been largely restricted to military specialists.

The images available to the sultan’s subjects and to others pondering his domains were for the most part verbal, with reference to imprecise formulas such as Memaliki Mahrusi Shahane—“divinely protected imperial possessions.” The imaginary—the different ways of conceiving the world—was human-centered rather than territorially based. Political power was not perceived as distributed spatially over a homogenous, two-dimensional field, but vertically through a hierarchy of human filters emanating from the sultan via his suzerains. As Albert Hourani pointed out in his History of the Arab Peoples, in the arid zones of North Africa and the Middle East where pastoralists ranged over frontierless deserts and steppes, power tended to radiate out of urban centers, weakening with distance.

For the most of the world, boundaries between states were not fixed until Europeans arranged treaties between themselves or with local rulers. From the late nineteenth century, however, the map was essential to this process. As Benedict Anderson noted in Imagined Communities, one of the map’s effects was to compel citizens to identify with a specific territorial entity. According to the historian Benjamin Fortna, the Ottoman rulers deliberately used schoolroom maps to promote loyalty to the state: “The map insists on the importance of the shape of the territory and this shape begins to assume tremendous political importance as emblematic for the territory in question.”1

Maps came to be used polemically to assert political sovereignty—or to deny political realities. Fortna notes that the “pink” of Ottoman sovereignty used in maps approved by the Ottoman ministry of education in 1906 showed Tunis—occupied by France since 1881—as still part of the Ottoman Empire while Bulgaria, independent from the 1870s, was still shown as an imperial province.

More recently, maps used throughout the Arab world routinely denied the existence of Israel, while Palestinian activists show the map of the whole of Palestine (to the exclusion of the Jewish state or “Zionist entity”) as their national logos. Yasser Arafat deliberately folded his headdress, or kaffiyeh, to resemble the whole of Palestine. In South Asia it would be hard to conceive of an Indian government ceding any part of the disputed territory of Kashmir (the only state with a Muslim majority) when every Indian schoolchild grows up with a diamond-shaped image of the country with its apex far in the Himalayan north. Maps have been agents of political homogenization, an essential part of what…

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