November 17, 2009


Editors: Images of two of the maps can be downloaded at

Rare maps of Gulf region make North American debut

Hamilton, Ont. November 17, 2009Rare and fascinating maps that chronicle the evolution of human knowledge about the countries in the Gulf region will go on display for the first time in North America at the McMaster Museum of Art.

The exhibit of 96 maps is from the collection of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, an avid collector and scholar of ancient Gulf maps. It comprises both nautical and geographic maps dating from the Renaissance—considered the golden age of exploration—to the mid-19th century.

In conjunction with the map exhibit, Ben Slot will deliver a lecture on the evolution of the cartography in the Gulf region between the 2nd and 19th centuries.  Open to the public, it will be held tomorrow (Nov. 18) in McMaster’s Convocation Hall at 2 p.m.

While the maps offer a glimpse of how the Middle East was perceived and charted by early adventurers, and how maps themselves became more decorative and fanciful, they also provide a clue to the social politics of the day: For two centuries, explorers frequently kept their new discoveries secret, leaving cartographers to reproduce obsolescent maps. Thus, errors were replicated, sources were intermingled, place names were fabricated, and artistic embellishments of mountains, rivers or vegetation were included simply to fill space or make the map look more attractive or fearsome. A map by Frederick de Wit of Amsterdam, circa 1675, shows ships being tossed on turbulent waves in the African Ocean, and frightening sea creatures in what is now the China Sea.

“We think of maps as being absolute, but cartographers were different from geographers” says Ihor Holubizky, senior curator, McMaster Museum of Art. “Like painters, they had their own style, and people could instantly recognize their work.”

New surveying devices and techniques as well as more open communication among explorers, spice merchants, sailors, and over-land adventurers gradually created truer renderings.

“It wasn’t until 1701 that a French cartographer introduced a new shape of the Gulf by combining information from travellers and from Portuguese nautical charts,” says Holubizky. “However, in that version an error was inserted—a large but non-existing river between Basra and Bahrain—and that caused considerable confusion for about 50 years.”

The exhibit continues at the McMaster Museum of Art until March 13, 2010. Details available at


 For more information contact: 

Jane Christmas

Manager, Public & Media Relations

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext. 27988

Michelle Donovan

Public Relations Manager: Broadcast Media

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext. 22869