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Isidore of Seville's tripartite world map,1472 (the first printed map in Europe) During Mughal Emperor Sultan Husayn Bayqara 1470–1506

Sultan Husayn Bayqara 1470–1506
Stacked Wooden Logs


This work was initially compiled in manuscript form on vellum, with drawings in red and black. Measuring about 25.4 X 15.2 cm, the Etymologiarum consists of 20 Books on 175 leaves, including a mappamundi, and was meant to be an encyclopedia that summed up the knowledge accumulated by early 7th century Europe. So significant was its impact that during the following centuries it served as a model of style and composition, as well as a primary source for many medieval writers. While the original manuscript has not survived, many copies of it have, reaching back to the 8th century. The title of Etymologiae, or simply Origines as it is also known, refers to the fact that the author always gives the etymology of everything that he describes or defines. Indeed, the Xth Book contains only the etymological definition of words alphabetically arranged. Of specific interest, however, are the XIIIth and XIVth Books which deal with geographical topics and where Isidore attempts a survey of the world in a brief, definitive and educational manner. The Xlllth Book discusses the earth as a whole - the oceans, the seas, both open and enclosed, the tides, rivers and winds - in other words, physical geography. In the XlVth Book Isidore enumerates and briefly describes the political divisions of the world.

The author, a 7th century Bishop of Seville (Spain), leaned heavily himself on classical writers, as well as the teachings of the Church Fathers. For the Xlllth and XlVth Books specifically, Isidore's sources were primarily the Spanish presbyter Orosius and, secondarily, Solinus, who is quoted some 200 times, and Pomponius Mela. However, this is not to imply that Origines is the compilation of a bestiary, or that his objects are those of the fabulist in any shape. Rather, this work by Isidore is a "compilation of compilations" that resulted in a major reference work of the Middle Ages.
In view of the extraordinary influence of this treatise, the following excepts (the translation is taken from Kimble) reflects some of Isidore's geographical concepts:

Concerning the earth we are told that it is named from its roundness (orbis) which is like a wheel; whence the small wheel is called "orbiculus". For the Ocean flows round it on all sides and encircles its boundaries.

As to size, Isidore accepts Eratosthenes' estimate (via Macrobius) of 252,000 stadia for the circumference of the earth. One stadia equalled 625 feet in Isidore's calculations, but by employing the more usual reckoning of 8 stadia to the mile and 87.5 miles to the degree, he obtained the grossly exaggerated figure of 31,500 miles for the circumference, vice 25,000 miles. With regards to the tripartite division of the world (Europe, Africa and Asia):

The Ancients did not divide these three parts of the world equally, for Asia stretches right from the south, through the east to the north, but Europe stretches from the north to the west and thence Africa from the west to the south. From this it is quite evident that the two parts, Europe and Africa, occupy half of the world and that Asia alone occupies the other half. The former were made into two parts because the Great Sea (called the Mediterranean) enters from the Ocean between them and cuts them apart . . .

By the way, Isidore was the first writer to clearly define the Mediterranean by that proper name. Proceeding to a systematic description of the countries of the world, of Asia Isidore says that it is bounded in the east by Lake Maeotis [Sea of Azov] and the river Tanais [the river Don] .

It contains many provinces and districts whose names and geographical situations I will briefly describe, beginning from Paradise . . . Paradise is a place Iying in the eastern parts whose name is translated out of the Greek into Latin as hortus [i.e., garden]. It is called in the Hebrew tongue Eden, which is translated as Delicate [i.e., place of luxury or delight]. Uniting these two gives us Garden of Delight; for it is planted with every kind of wood and fruit-bearing tree, having also the tree of life. There is neither cold nor heat but a continual spring temperature. From the middle of the Garden a spring gushes forth to water the whole grove and, dividing up, it provides the source of four rivers [see Slide #205C/Slide #205Q ]. Approach to this place was barred to man after his sin, for now it is hedged about on all sides by a sword-like flame [romphaea flamma], that is to say that it is surrounded by a wall of fire that reaches almost to the sky.

This obvious Biblical note coming so early in the topographical section of the treatise might lead the reader to expect its continuance in subsequent chapters; but apart from one or two entirely understandable references to Biblical lore - Scythia and Gothia also are said to have been named by Magog, son of Japhet and the River Ganges which sacred scripture calls Phison, flows down from Paradise to the realms of India - only the most sparing use of this source is made. By far the greatest percentage of Isidore's material is culled from pagan sources; indeed much of his geography might have been written by late classical writers such as Mela and Solinus. His treatment of the habitable earth enables one to arrive fairly easily at the scope of his knowledge.

In the extreme east of Asia the country of Seres is rich in fine leaves, from which are cut fleeces which the natives who decline the merchandise of other peoples sell for use as garments . . . beyond there is only the Scythian Ocean flowing from the Caspian Sea to the Eastern Sea. To the northward lies Scythia stretching from the Seric [i.e., Eastern] Ocean in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west. Several of the districts are rich in gold and precious stones but are rarely approached by man owing to the ferocity of the Griffens . . . The Griffens [or 'Gryphes'] are so called because they are winged quadrapeds. This kind of wild beast is found in the Hyperborean Mts. In every part of their body they are lions, and in wings and head are like eagles, and they are fierce enemies of horses. Moreover they tear men to pieces. . . The land of Hyrcania, bordering Scythia to the west, has many tribes wandering far afield on account of the unfruitfulness of their lands.

Europe, in the true classical fashion, is divided from Asia by the river Tanais [Don] and is bordered on the north by the Northern Ocean. Hard by it, and forming the ne plus ultra of the known world, is the land of Barbaria, so called on account of the wild tribes inhabiting it. Enumerated among these tribes are the Alani, the Dacians, the Goths and the Suevi. "Thule is the furthest island in the Ocean in the Northern and Western waters beyond Britain", according to Isidore, ". . . having its name from the sun, because there the sun makes its summer halt, and there is no day beyond it; whence the sea is there sluggish and frozen." The western limit of the world is furnished by the Fortunate Isles, so named because 'they are blessed with abundance of produce; their woods yield apples naturally, their ranges of hills are clad with unplanted vines and everywhere there are crops and vegetables in place of pasture. Hence the false opinions of pagans, and the poems of secular poets, claiming that these islands were Paradise. They are situated in the Ocean off the coast of Mauretania.'

Concerning Africa, Isidore says little that enables one to put bounds on it; 'it begins at the boundaries of Egypt, continuing to the south through Ethiopia to Mount Atlas.' As to Ethiopia in particular, he avers that 'the whole of it is under the southern pole [i.e., hemisphere]. Towards the west it is mountainous; in the middle it is sandy; to the east a desert . . . In the south it is bounded by the ocean, and in the north by the river Nile. It contains very many tribes of different aspects, with strange forbidding countenances.'

The southeastern horizons of the world are circumscribed by the coasts of India 'containing many tribes and towns,' the island of Taprobane [Ceylon], Chryse [Malay Peninsula ?], Argyra [ Cattigara ?], and Tyle, 'which is never without leaves on its trees.' Isidore states that Taprobane stretches 875 miles in length and 625 miles in width. It is separated from India by a river that flows between them. ' It is rich in pearls and precious stones; part of it is, however, infested with wild animals, but part is occupied by men. In this island they say that there are two summers and two winters in one year and that flowers bloom twice.'

Again, for a professed theologian, Isidore shows a noteworthy breadth of general ideas, even admitting the possible existence of Antipodean lands (roughly translated):

Moreover beyond [these] three parts of the world, on the other side of the ocean, is a fourth inland part in the south, which is unknown to us because of the heat of the sun, within the bounds of which the Antipodes are fabulously said to dwell.

This concession by Isidore as expressed in the brief quote above indicated that he more than half believed in the sphericity of the earth and quite fully in the doctrine of the Antipodes. While Isidore was not consistent in the affirmation of his adherence to the theory, this particular passage was repeated so often by his successors that it became the formula through which those of the Middle Ages who accepted the existence of the Antipodes or Antichthon expressed their belief. As can be seen in the many examples of Isidorean maps included herein, there is no attempt to depict this fourth continent graphically. However, the chief influence cartographically at least, in keeping the theory alive during this period was the Beatus group of maps (Slide #207). In this later map 'family' or group, there appears a statement on the strip of land located south of the Indian Ocean which is recognized as a quotation, with some curious errors, of the essential passage from the Etymologiarum just translated above.

As far as his own graphic expression of the world's geography, one of the map designs frequently associated with Isidore of Seville is actually a survival of the ancient Greek tripartite division of the world into Asia, Africa and Europe, surrounded by the Ocean Sea. As can be seen, this simple design by no means reflects the breadth of knowledge and ideas that can be found in the text. Probably conceived as early as the 5th century B.C. by Ionic philosophers, this popular scheme of dividing the world into the three known major land masses is effected by using a T-shaped partition, a T within an O. Variously labelled Imago Mundi Rotunda, Noachid maps, T-in-O [Orbis Terrarum ] and/or wheel-maps, this simplistic, diagrammatic plan formed the basis for one of the major design features of most subsequent "learned" medieval cartography and survived as a cartographic form long after more direct information made it difficult to accommodate such an artificial scheme.

The T within the O produced a world image divided into half (by the cross of the T) and two quarters. The half segment (east) at the top of the map represents Asia, the lower left Europe, and the lower right Africa. These segments also represented, according to Isidore, the divisions of the earth apportioned to the three sons of Noah: Shem, Japhet and Ham, respectively (hence the term Noachic maps). The T separating the boundaries between the three continents also represented three of the principal waterways of the world. The upright stem of the letter T running east and west, to the center of the world was the Mediterranean Sea. The northern (left) half of the cross bar represented the river Tanais [Don], and the southern (right) half of the cross bar represented the river Nile.

Place-names for the three continents varied considerably in the various editions and derivatives of Isidore; some maps bore the Biblical names only; others had explanatory inscriptions stating, for instance, that Asia was named after a Queen Asia, "of the posterity of Shem, and is inhabited by 27 peoples; that Africa is derived from Afer, a descendent of Abraham, and has 30 races in 360 towns"; and that Europe, named from the Europa of mythology, "is inhabited by the 15 tribes of the sons of Japhet and has 120 cities" (Slide #205B ). Other maps give definite localities for the Twelve Tribes of Isreal and the abiding places of the Twelve Apostles.

Regardless of experience and all knowledge to the contrary, the most important city regionally was located in the center of the habitable world. In ancient Greece, Ionic philosophers placed Greece in the center of their world map and Delphi in the middle of Greece. The Hindus had their Meru, the Persians their Kangdiz, the Arabs their Aryne [Aren, Arim, or Arin]. It was therefore inevitable that a Christian map maker like Isidore should place Jerusalem in the geographic center of the world: "This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her" (Ezekiel V:5 ). The Holy City, named or illustrated, and located at the intersection of the stem and cross bar of the T, appeared most regularly especially in the center of the world maps called Sallust maps (T-O designs from about 1110 A.D.). There it remained in the center of European world maps until about 1450 when many map makers were forced to shift the center to the east. The discoveries of Marco Polo and other explorers made it necessary to enlarge Asia, to move Jerusalem or to ignore the discoveries.

In addition to the usual tripartite circular map of the world, some manuscripts of the Etymologiarum feature other map designs as well. One rather similar diagrammatic design also associated with Isidore uses a square instead of a circle and a V instead of a T for partitioning the continents (Slides #205L and #205I ). Another map, attributed to Isidore, represents a combination of the T-O scheme and the climate-zone plan employed by writers like Macrobius (Slide #205M ). Being one of the earliest surviving Isidorean maps it also hints at the existence of the mysterious fourth continent with the legend Temperata incognita. Still others represent only a slight detour from the strict T-O pattern, adding the four sacred rivers, and/or more names, etc. (Slides #205C, Q, S and W ). Two of these, Slides #205W and #205AA, are sometimes labelled as Y-O designs.

Sallust Maps. The most closely related or influenced maps of the T-O's are those that accompany manuscripts of Sallust's works and may have originally been drawn to illustrate a passage from Sallust's De bello Jugurthino which, like Isidore's treatise, also attempted to briefly describe the countries of the world. While the T-O format is carefully followed, the Sallust maps add the legends and pictures or vignettes that increased their aesthetic appeal. The religious theme is predominant, Jerusalem being emphasized with the inclusion of an immense church or castle (see Slides #205F , H, and O ).

Another variation of the basic design was called the Byzantine-Oxford, or B-O T-O maps. These designs differed from the traditional divisions by showing political boundaries. As portrayed in Slide #205BB the domain of Europe is extended across the Mediterranean to the southern and eastern coasts where the Crusaders made inroads. Correspondingly, Kartago Magna [greater Carthage], an extension of Muslim North Africa, controls southern Spain.

More prominently than in any other example of the biblical school, the Holy Land dominates the center of the map. This area is divided first into the lands of Judea, Galilee, and Palestine, and further by the names of seven of the Twelve Tribes. The Jordan flows southward, starting southwest of Nazareth and passing east of Jerusalem. The dividing line between Asia and Europe-Africa is replaced by Jerusalem. The Holy City is flanked on the south by Jericho, and the site of the Crucifixion is identified just north of center. Mt. Zion is in the exact center.

Inscriptions confirm the idea that the map was composed in the Byzantine world. The directions of the compass are given in Greek as well as Latin. Several notes identify the regions in which various Disciples preached. Paul is located at Athens, John in Ephesus, Peter in Caesarea, and Andrew in Achaia. In Ephesus, the Byzantine emperor Justinian (482-565) built a temple to St. John the Divine, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter received his commission and the "keys" of the Church. Achaia is the Roman and Byzantine name for the Greek province where Andrew is said to have preached.

The map was brought back to England or Ireland after the First Crusade, which conquered Jerusalem in 1099. The copyist or a later hand has added Britannia, Hibernia, and the northern island Thule in the margin, but the remainder is apparently a faithful Latin version, dating from 1110, of the Greek original. Above all, the map applies the Crusaders' guiding doctrinal notion of Jerusalem as the most important place on earth.

Christian scholars adopted the T-O map for its simplicity, as had the classical writers who first employed it. The Byzantine-Oxford T-O map treats this expedient diagram as an emblem of conquest. Jerusalem was the focus of that Conquest for more than two centuries of Crusaders, and it would remain the center of attention on maps until the invention of printing and the publication of Ptolemy in the 1470's.

These T-O maps, whether actually contained in the Etymologiarum of Isidore, in later editions of the same, as modified derivatives thereof (Sallusts, B-O T-O), or as maps that were merely influenced by the basic design format (Hereford, Ebstorf,, were all very popular and numerous during the Middle Ages in Europe. This can be evidenced by the relatively large survival rate. At least eighty manuscripts, reaching from the 8th (the Albi map, Slide #206) to the 15th centuries, contain designs developed on the T-O pattern with surprisingly similar characteristics. In fact, so influential and popular was Isidore's treatise that it continued to be read right into the Renaissance period. Isidore is quoted time and time again by such 15th century writers as Pierre d'Ailly and even Christopher Columbus (Slide #238 ). In 1472 the Origines was printed in an edition published by Gunther Zainer who displayed Isidore's tripartite world-picture traditionally just as it had been handed down in the manuscripts; this being so even though more accurate geographical knowledge was obviously available at this time. Measuring just 2.5 inches in diameter, this little woodcut diagram map has the added distinction of being the first known map printed in Europe.

The T-O maps received their classical explanation in a 15th century poem by the Italian historian, Leonardo Dati (1365 - 1424), in his La Sfera (c.1420)

Un T denttro adun O monstra ildisegno
chome inttre partti fu diviso ilmondo
elasuperiore emagor rengno
chequasi pigla lameta delmondo

asia chiamatta elgrenbo ritto segno
chepartte iltterzo nome dalsechondo
africho dicho daleuropia elm
are mediteraneo traese imezzo apare.

[A T in an O gives us the division of the world into three parts.
The upper part and the greatest empire take nearly the half of the world.
It is Asia; the vertical bar is the limit dividing the third from the second, Africa,
I say, from Europe; between them appear the Mediterranean Sea. ]

The T-O map tradition did not die out as a cartographic form of expression until as late as the 17th century, as may be seen from a book such as the Variae Orbis Universi, by Petrus Bertius, 1628.


*Beazley, C., The Dawn of Modern Geography, volume II, pp. 577-578; 628-632.
*Bricker, C., Landmarks in Mapmaking, p. 45.
*Brown, L., The Story of Maps, pp. 96-97.
*Brown, L.A., TheWorld Encompassed, numbers 9, 10, and 11.
*Destombes, M., Mappemondes, A.D. 1200-1500, 29-34, 54-64.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 255, 301-303, 320, 343.
*Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps, Plate 16 (color).
*Kimble, G., Geography of the Middle Ages, p. 23.
*Nebenzahl, K., Maps of the Holy Land, p. 33, Plates 3, 8, 9, 10 (color).
*Needham, J., Science and Civilisation in China, volume 3, pp. 529-531.
*Wright, J., Geographical Lore at the Time of the Crusades, pp. 66-67; 123.

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