The Ebstorf mappamundi was drawn in 13th century Saxony and depicts the Christian worldview within the body of a crucified Christ. The map illustrates both the “known world” as well as significant landmarks and points of interest for the curious pilgrim.
Christ’s head is in the East, at the top of the map, the direction of Paradise. His hands mark the northern and southern limits of the known world, and his feet are at Gibraltar where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. In the middle of the map we see Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Christendom, located at Christ’s navel. Europe is in the bottom left quadrant of the map, Africa in the bottom right, and Asia dominates the upper half.
In the East, near Christ’s head, is the Garden of Eden surrounded by mountains. Just west are the Chinese (note the two figures bent to gather silk) and the Indians. In the Indus Valley we see opium eaters, people who stare at the sun all day (gymnosophists), as well as that strange tribe who subsists only on the scent of apples. Alexander the Great is consulting the Oracle of the Sun and the Moon.
At the center of the map, near the all-important Jersulaem, we can find the Tower of Babel, Bethlehem (marked with the Star of David), Sodom and Gomorrah, and Mt. Sinai.
Africa and northern Asia both are hinterlands illustrated with mythical creatures and legends. In Africa, a tribe of dwarfs rides crocodiles. In Asia, two Amazonian women guard their citadel.
Maps such as this may explain much of the surprise 15th and 16th century explorers felt as they sailed to the Americas and around the Cape of Good Hope. Africa was much bigger than this map indicates, and the invisible Americas were very much in the way of a direct sea route to India. We know that the ancient Greeks had discovered that the world was round, and circa 1400 AD Ptolemy had produced an accurate map of Europe and Asia based on a spherical Earth. But the Ebstorf map follows the Roman tradition of placing landmarks in relative positions, maintaining basic order and structure but not following rules for measurements or Cartesian accuracy. And the T-O structure of this map—the base of the T was the Mediterranean, the cross was at Jersualem; the O formed the surrounding oceans—was an idealized depiction of the world that was all too common in the late medieval era.
Despite its shortcomings as a navigational aid, the Ebstorf mappamundi is a beautiful map. It is both a sacred object glorifying the Body of Christ and also a tourist map of the strange and wonderful places that formed the background of medieval storytelling.