Timeless Crimea: Looking at the Peninsula on Maps from Different Epochs

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Egor Malgin

Geographic maps are largely created with the aim of having a better understanding of Earth’s surface or its separate pieces. However, in order to make a map in ancient times, authors needed some kind of “a vision of the world”, geographical descriptions of the oecumene, because there were no ideas of the round Earth, geolocation or satellite navigation. However, people have always been very creative. Even the ancient world experienced them making and using maps.

First Maps of the Crimea

The maps of the late Roman Empire were reprinted and used over the course of centuries due to the fact that Medieval Europe was unable to suggest any better alternatives. Nevertheless, today’s world has failed to see the originals of those ancient maps. We have a wide range of the latest re-editions at our disposal, with their authentic source impossible to identify.

Pietro Vesconte's Mappe Mundi, 1320
Pietro Vesconte’s Mappe Mundi, 1320

The author of the oldest and the most prominent chart was Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer, mathematician and physicist, who lived in the city of Alexandria in the second century AD. His map of the world known to Hellenistic society and largely designed on the descriptions of travelers and merchants was republished many times. One of Ptolemy’s edition (1513) depicts the regions of Northern, Central and Eastern Europe with the Crimea, as well as the northern part of the Black Sea. This map has grid lines. However, it remains to be discussed, whether they were present on the initial map.

Meanwhile, the earliest surviving maps, that it so called mappae mundi, refer to charts aimed at reflecting religious values and ideas of the Middle Ages rather than realities. They were really schematic. Interestingly, although it is very easy to find the recognized image of the Crimea and the Black Sea on such maps (consider, for instance, the world map of Pietro Vesconte which emerged in 1320), it is complicated to imagine that at that time travelers and merchants really made use of them.

More practical maps appeared on the cartographic stage following the decline of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. Portolan or portulan charts actively used by sailors may well be an illustration of those specific maps. They gained traction as early as in the 14th century and then their production reached its zenith during the 15th and 16th centuries. As the most accurate maps of that period, portolans remained relevant until the 18th century.

In effect, portolan charts show coastal details, such as bays and capes, with the distance between them gauged very exactly. Classical portolans often failed to illustrate the inland parts of the continent or depicted them very schematically, so that white spots did not draw one’s attention.

The Black Sea portolan, Venice, 1540
The Black Sea portolan, Venice, 1540

Portolans were being drawn when new ideas about the shape of the Earth emerged. Consequently, they do not have common grids. Instead, portolan maps all share the characteristic rhumbline networkd which emanate out from compass roses located at various points on the map. They helped sailors to navigate their way. As opposed to the previous maps, the technical advantage of portolans was linked to the fact that their makers had used magnet compasses, which, in its turn, ensured the orientation of maps, and that they enabled one to effectively measure distances.

The portolan chart of the Black Sea created in Venice (around 1540) shows us the Crimean peninsula having quite realistic outlines. However, for political and trade purposes one needed to receive a rather clear impression about the interior territories of Earth’s surface on the continent, and portolans failed to accomplish this task.

On the Outskirts of the Oecumene

The late 16th century marked a new epoch in cartography as the idea of the spherical Earth started to play a major role while creating maps. Shortly after that, map-makers faced difficulties with projecting the curved surface of the Earth onto a flat sheet without any distortions. Thus many charts from that period, including Abraham Ortelius’s map of the Black Sea (1590), and Gerardus Mercator’s map of Taurica Chersonesus or Gazara (1641), are seemingly less accurate than portolans. But one needs to understand that in fact it was a breakthrough in cartography. For centuries later map-makers have only been improving this method.

The Black Sea map by Abraham Ortelius, 1590

In 1615 geodesic triangulation was invented, which allows one to accurately calculate the unknown distance using the relationship between the triangle sides and angles. Ever since then the method has not undergone profound change and is actively employed nowadays.

However, look at the Crimea on the European maps published in the 17th and 18th centuries (for example, on the 1660 map showing the Mediterranean Sea and its parts and the 1740 map “The theater of war in Little Tartary, the Crimea, and the Black Sea”) and it may give you an impression that either people’s vision of the world has changed or cartography has profoundly degenerated.

Meanwhile, the distortion can be explained differently: precise land surveying on the ground was quite time-consuming and was not conducted in all the areas. By that time the Crimean Peninsula was not a key political and trade region any longer and was virtually located on the outskirts of the oecumene. Therefore, cartographers simply took the old data, such as an image from the portulan charts, and with the help of the Mercator projection made their maps. To properly fit the Crimean peninsula in the projection, they had to distort the image, which is visible on the contemporary maps printed in Europe.

«At Ochakov’s times and during the Crimean war»

The century saw the Russian-Turkish wars. The Russian Empire was in dire need of a reliable Crimean map as it was a key region in the North Black Sea region. One of the first Russian maps with the image of the peninsula – the 1745 map of Little Tartary with the bordering Kiev and Belgorod provinces – were merely European copies. Another one – the 1774 map of the Crimean peninsula with the bordering territories – may have seemed somewhat progressive, but by and large used the same copying method. Such maps could no longer meet the demands of the state.

In 1790 a much more accurate and relevant general map of the Crimea by Adjunct Fedor Cherny was published. It gave the precise outline of the peninsula, as well as it had an equidistant cylindrical projection with grids, which took into account the curves. Despite much inaccuracy, the map served its purpose while it reflected the new status of the Crimea as a strategically important region of the Russian Empire in the Black Sea.

The next stage in historical cartography, which can be traced through the Crimean maps, dates back to the 19th century. In 1817 there was a military topographic map of the Crimea, drawn with the cutting edge geodetic instruments. Its scale was 4 miles per inch. Mathematical methods were used to draw it. It also used hill-shading, a very popular form of relief depiction at that time.

A new stage in the mapmaking of the Crimean peninsula goes back to the late 19th century. A military topographic map of the Crimea was published in 1894, with the scale of 1 mile per inch. This map contains almost all the elements inherent in modern topographic maps. They include the division of the surface into narrow zones to minimize distortion, the special coordinate system still employed in national cartography, and the contour method.

This map was so accurate mathematically and factually that it was used until the 1930s. It was reprinted many times. Its coordinate system formed the basis of the 1932 “Index chart of the Crimean land maps” published in Leningrad. Only by 1950 the 1894 topographic map had become completely outdated and there arose a need to draw a new one. Despite the fact that nowadays geolocation and satellite navigation are extensively used and one’s location can be shown by clicking on the button of the receiver, we owe these achievements to geodesic triangulation and cartographic projections developed about 400 years ago.

The article first appeared in the “Istorik” journal

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