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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century

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Cairos, quae olim Babylon Aegypti maxima vrbs

Cairos, quae olim Babylon Aegypti maxima vrbs

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries CE, Europeans began to explore and document the rest of the world as they never had before. While rediscovering long-dormant connections with the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East, they also found whole continents that were unknown to them in the Americas and later in Australia and Antarctica. The engines of exploration were both economic and intellectual, both a need for long-distance trade in materials and products that were found on some continents and not others, and a conceptual framework in which natural history and natural sciences were inseparable from human history and human society. 

Geography was destiny. This outlook is reflected in maps of the kind illustrated here, where the layout of the streets of Cairo is rendered in three dimensions and also embedded in representations of vegetation, costume, transport, and topography. Other maps might include allegorical figures—winds, fantastic wildlife, stylized racial portrayals—that look silly or reprehensible to modern viewers. Contemporary viewers might have seen them as useful combinations of data, abstraction, and interpretation.

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