Secret Knowledge In Plain Sight: First Russian And European Maps

Ptolemy's Map, 1482
Ptolemy's Map, 1482

Over time, people's perception of the Earth changed, and this was clearly reflected in its "portraits", which did not always correspond to reality. However, the interests of the states required the most accurate representation of both their own territories and those of their neighbors. The further was the land the more actively people were searching for it. Slowly, the maps became the subject of hunting and espionage.

When the Earth was Flat

In the Middle Ages, the field of scientific knowledge was on the decline: the church reigned supreme, and all the forces of human thought were focused on theology. Other sciences were considered unnecessary at best, and even harmful. The church fathers relied on the statements of the saints. For example, the following reasoning is attributed to Saint Damian: "Saint Benedict was not famous for learnedness, Saint Andrew rejected Pilate for the sake of the Gospel. What can science give Christians?" Saint Francis expressed himself even more categorically: "Those of the brothers who are attracted by curiosity to science will find on the Day of Judgment that their hands are empty."

However, it was not very convenient to do without maps at all. States sought to develop new territories (sometimes foreign ones), and the church itself tried to spread its influence as far as possible. It was necessary to adapt the mapping technique to the interpretation of biblical texts, and the image of a round Earth was not suitable for this purpose: in this case, the existence of antipodes should be recognized, which led to theological contradictions. Therefore, in church cartography it was depicted as flat.


Pietro Vesconte's 1311 nautical chart from the eastern Mediterranean. Photo: Library of Congress,
Pietro Vesconte's 1311 nautical chart from the eastern Mediterranean. Photo: Library of Congress,

At the same time, the maps themselves were very popular: they were available not only in every monastery library, but also owned by most of the nobles. And it was most definitely the case for rulers – Charlemagne had a rich collection of maps, among which three were made on silver tablets: a plan of Rome, a plan of Constantinople, and a map of the world. Both maps of the Holy Land and nautical charts were made in those days. And church texts were often accompanied by cartographic illustrations. In particular, they could be found embedded in the Psalter or accompanying comments on the Apocalypse. It was impossible to completely prohibit a person from exploring the world – the species of Homo sapiens is famous for its irrepressible curiosity.

In maps of that period, the east is usually located on top (and not the north, as it is now). This side of the world has a special significance in theosophy – one just needs to remember that the altar part of temples is also always oriented to the east. Among the maps that have come down to us, the most are the so-called Isidoran maps, they are also called T-O maps. They looked like a round image of the world and were considered the maps of the sons of Noah, since each was divided into three parts: that's how many offspring the biblical character had.


T-O map from the encyclopedia by Isidore of Seville. Photo: University of Texas, Arlington
T-O map from the encyclopedia by Isidore of Seville. Photo: University of Texas, Arlington

The inhabited world was depicted as a wheel and divided into Europe, Africa and Asia, the latter being the same size as the first two. The letter T appeared due to the reservoirs that separated the parts from each other: the Mediterranean Sea was drawn between Europe and Asia; the Red or Nile River between Asia and Africa; the Aegean Sea, the Bosphorus, the Tigris, and Euphrates rivers  between Europe and Africa. In a circle, all this was framed by the world ocean, encircling the ecumene, and in the center of the map, as a rule, the "Navel of the Earth" was placed: Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Gradually, cartography developed. In the middle of the 15th century, the Venetian monk Fra Mauro, who, according to the documents, was a professional in this field, made a map with amazing detail for the Middle Ages. As a result, the number of nuances even caused some distortions: the monk tried to cram all available geographical data onto the map, while remaining within the framework of the traditional image, so Scandinavia, Africa, and Europe, inscribed in the circle, changed their shapes somewhat. At the same time, the Caspian Sea is drawn surprisingly accurately. The detailed descriptions of the areas with characteristics are impressive, as well as the numerous roads that, apparently, were mapped in accordance with the reports of travelers, in particular Marco Polo.

In 1569, the Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published a map of the world printed on 18 sheets. This is how the cylindrical projection appeared for the first time, in which the size and shape of large objects change from the equator to the poles. This was a real breakthrough for marine cartography – the meridians on the map were straight and perpendicular to the parallels, which made it possible to link the sailing course to the points marked on these straight lines and significantly facilitated navigation.


Russia on the Mercator’s map. Photo:
Russia on the Mercator’s map. Photo:

It's funny that for more than a hundred years, it was Mercator's map that was considered the most accurate map of Siberia, although it was pretty distorted on it. It was not so easy to get reliable information, and errors roamed from one map to another, right up to the book "The World of Universal Geography" published by Pierre Duval in 1676 in Paris. There was no sign of Lake Baikal, the Ob River flowed out of Lake Katai, and the Lukomorye region was marked next to it. By the way, the latter existed until the 19th century – in 1811, a dictionary by Hübner was published in Leipzig, where it was reported that this was "a province in the desert of Tartary, subject to the Russian tsar. It lies on the other side of the Ob River in Asia and extends to the Arctic Ocean."

Russian Charts

This is what maps were called in ancient times in Russia. They were given special attention since the 16th century. Vasily Tatishchev in his "History of Russia" pointed out that "Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich in 1552 ordered the earth to be measured and a chart of the state be made". That’s how a complete map of the Moscow Kingdom appeared. It has not reached us, but "Kniga Glagolemaya Bolshoj Chertezh" has been preserved. It contains detailed explanations of the map. But "Chart of the Siberian Land", compiled by order of the governor of Bryansk and Tobolsk Peter Godunov in 1667, has been preserved. However, "Godunov Map" has been preserved not in Russia, but in the National Archives in Stockholm.

Examples of Russian cartography can be seen, oddly enough, on icons. In particular, the icon of the Pskov-Pokrovskaya Virgin, painted at the turn of the 16th century for the Pokrovsky Monastery in Pskov, is based on the city plan during the siege of 1581-1592. The principles of geographical drawing are clearly used in iconography. There are other icons of this type, for example, "Vision of the Sexton Tarasius", which depicts Novgorod, or "Vision of the Elder Dorotheus" with a map of not only Pskov, but also its surroundings.

In 1698, "Large Chart of Siberia" by Semyon Remezov appeared, oriented to the south, with many clarifications about gold deposits, "samoets wintering grounds", apple trees, and carts left by unknown people. A year later, Remezov handed over to the head of the Siberian Order, Andrei Vinius, "Chart Book of Siberia" on 23 sheets. It was followed by "Service Book" and "Chorographic Book". The latter, like "Godunov Map", settled abroad – it is stored at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

In March 1720, Peter I signed an order on the cartographic survey of Russia, inviting foreign specialists for this: Frenchman Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, Englishman John Perry, Dutchman Adrien Schoonebeek, Norwegian Cornelius Kruis. The idea was to compile a complete atlas of Russian lands. The Senate entrusted the work to Chief Secretary Ivan Kirillov. In 1734, he released the first map of the entire Russian state, prepared the title page of the atlas, which promised three volumes of 120 sheets, and 30 maps, which he printed with his own money. Kirillov did not have time to finish the work – he died. The atlas was published in 1745, and it was printed in Latin and French and was called Atlas Russicus. It was published in France by Joseph-Nicolas Delisle.


It was Delisle who initiated the creation of a Geographical Department to lead mapping, he also became its first director in 1739-1740. Being one of the first 15 academicians of the newly minted Russian Academy of Sciences, Delisle simultaneously worked for his homeland, to where he managed to ship about 300 maps of Russia. All this came out in 1745, when it was time to hand over “Atlas of Russia” to the printing house. For his many services – and Delisle did manage to do a lot of things – he was not punished, but when the deadline for extending the contract came in 1747, it was not signed. The scientist returned to France with the status of an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and with a substantial pension of 200 rubles per year. However, a year later he was expelled from the academy – Delisle categorically refused to write and send scientific reports to Russia, although he was obliged to do so as a foreign member of the academy.

Delisle was far from the first to come to Russia to spy and steal maps. In 1673, a fortifier Erik Palmquist arrived as part of the Swedish embassy under the leadership of Count Gustav Oxenstierna. He left with the album "Notes on Russia", which contained 16 geographical maps and plans of cities: Novgorod, Torzhok, Tver, Pskov, the coast of the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean, the Volga, the Caspian Sea. During his stay in Russia, he even managed to copy Peter Godunov's chart of Siberia. In addition to maps, the album contained 53 drawings and detailed discussions about Russian life and national character. Actually, it was in order to collect information about the Russian armed forces that he was sent with the diplomatic mission.

Vinius, the head of the Siberian Order, also "messed up". He, unlike Delisle, was almost executed for trying to smuggle Remezov charts to Holland. He fled and subsequently even begged Peter I to re-enlist him, but of course they no longer allowed him to access geographical maps and the Siberian Order – this information was too valuable.

Cartography has made great strides now, but the old maps have not lost their value. It's just that now it lies rather in the field of history. And to this day, every now and then, one of the old Russian maps pops up abroad.

Interesting Facts

  • One map fooled famous scientists for more than half a century. In 1957, a 15th-century parchment fell into the hands of specialists from Yale University, which depicted a section of North America southwest of Greenland. The researchers got excited – it turned out that the Scandinavians had reached the New World long before Columbus. In 1960, a Viking settlement was discovered on the coast of Newfoundland, which confirmed the hypothesis, and the map was made public. The Library of Congress became interested in it and bought it for $10 million. In 1996, the map was insured for $25 million. And in 2021, spectroscopic analysis revealed a hoax : on the parchment of the 15th century, all drawings and notes were made in ink that appeared no earlier than the 20th century.
  • However, "visionary" cartographers still existed. Around 1505, the Genoese Nicolo Caveri released a world map depicting the coast of North America from Florida to Delaware and Hudson, although, according to historical data, these territories were discovered by the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon only in 1512-1513.
  • And the Piri Reis map, compiled in 1528 by the Ottoman navigator, shows Antarctica in addition to Africa and South America. How the Admiral found out about it is unknown.
  • Mercator also marked the southern continent on his map, which was officially discovered only in 1819. In addition, he drew the outlines of the northern continent of Hyperborea.

Olga Ladygina