The Evolution of Maps

By Babette Rijpkema - 17 May 2023

While you have been navigating towards this article, you might have come across the magnificent banner the Intermania has for this semester’s theme; Off the Map. It is a banner that has been designed by the famous Promocie, a committee of Intermate that designs posters, logos, and anything related to this. You can thus probably imagine that we are very fond of good design since it is essential to grab people’s attention and give them the necessary information in a clear manner. However, for maps, this is not always the case, and it can frustrate not only the Promocie but many others. You might have had so many problems when having to answer some type of geography question at school, where you had to navigate through the Bosatlas for hours to find a specific country in South America where the average temperature in January is the highest. Or when you navigate with Google Maps, you might think that due to maps becoming digital you would find the way easier, but still, you find going in the wrong direction more often than you would have thought. 

Taking this into account you can imagine how it would have been back in the day, when people did not know what the world exactly looked like, and maps would look like snippets of the world. In this article, I’ll show you how these maps have evolved, and that although maps still have confusing elements, we already made great steps in designing them and they are more user-friendly than ever. 

The earliest known maps were created by ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks. More specifically, the oldest known world map is the Imago Mundi, crafted by the Babylonians around 500 BC. As you can see, understanding this map is a great challenge, but I’ll provide you with some descriptions. At the center of the map, the city of Babylon is located. Many other civilizations did the same (e.g. Jerusalem or Athens) since it was the only perspective they had on the world, with them in the middle. Other elements located around it represent cities, islands, mountains, a swamp, and a canal. The bigger circles around these elements represent the salt sea. However, many of the displayed cities do not actually exist, they are a mythical representation of the connection between the earth and the heavens since the other side of the tablet has a picture of the stars and their according zodiac signs that we still use today.  


The Oldest Known Map of the World - Geography Realm 


As you can see, the Babylonian map is still very abstract. In the medieval period with emerging inventions and technologies, it was possible to make more detailed maps of the world. One of these maps is the Hereford Mappa Mundi which was created around 1300, and it is the largest medieval map known to still exist. Cities like Rome, Paris, Jerusalem, and Hereford itself are depicted here. If you compare this to the Babylonian map, you can see that already some great steps have been made towards a more understandable map (as it should, it took people 1800 years), having more decorative illustrations and better-defined borders. However, it is still far from how the real world looks like. Since it is a biblical map, Jerusalem is shown in the middle. Other myths are depicted here as well. For example, the columns of Hercules, the labyrinth containing the Minotaur, the camp of Alexander the Great, and the Golden Fleece are all shown on this map. If you want more details about the myths and where and how they were mapped, you should look at the according website (Mappa Mundi Exploration | Mappa Mundi Hereford (  


Mappa Mundi Exploration | Mappa Mundi Hereford ( 

The Mappa Mundi shows that some great steps were made in detailed maps, but still, myths and other unknown lands were depicted because we did not know what the entire world looked like. In the 15th and 16th centuries (also called the Age of Exploration), people started to travel to new lands, and because of this, more sophisticated maps were made. Gerardus Mercator was one of the people who made such maps. He created the Mercator projection, which aided people in their long voyages around the world. The Mercator projection is what you see back nowadays as a world map, representing north as up and south as down everywhere, using map projection for navigation. In this age, mapping became more sophisticated.