VI. Jerusalem: The Center of the World

This city of Jerusalem I have set in the midst of nations, with other countries round about her. [Ezekiel 5:5]

Since Jerusalem was located near the middle of the known world of antiquity, it naturally occupied a central position on early world maps. During the Middle Ages, strong religious influences caused some mapmakers to deliberately place Jerusalem at the exact center or “navel” of the world, in accordance with Biblical descriptions. This format was not widely adopted until the thirteenth century, following the Crusades and the consequent popular identification of Jerusalem as a primary spiritual center. With the advent of the Renaissance, new discoveries and improved geographic concepts changed the extent and shape of the known world and rendered Jerusalem-centered maps obsolete.

Die gantze Welt in ein Kleberblat ...

This curious map appeared in a late sixteenth-century rendition of the Bible in the form of an illustrated travel book. It reflects outmoded medieval theologic-geographic concepts, placing Jerusalem at the center of the world and at the intersection of three continents. The format of the map is an imaginative adaptation of the cloverleaf design taken from the coat of arms of Hannover, the author's native city. In a mixture of fantasy and geography, the continents of the Old World are compressed into the three petals, and England and Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden) are portrayed as islands in the northern ocean. The Red Sea separates Asia from Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea fills the angle between Africa and Europe. A glimpse of the New World is seen at the lower left. The all-encompassing ocean is embellished with a mermaid, a Triton, several sea monsters, and a ship.


German, 1545-1606
Die gantze Welt in ein Kleberblat ...
From: Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae ...
Magdeburg, Germany,1581
Woodcut, 25.8 x 36.5 cm
Osher Collection

Untitled world map ["the Ebstorf map"]

This is a reduced and retouched reproduction of the largest known medieval world map, made at or for the Benedictine abbey of Ebstorf in about 1235. The original, measuring almost 12 feet in diameter, was destroyed in an air-raid on Hannover, Germany, during World War II. It was a classic mappamundi, a type of medieval world map or map-painting whose chief purpose was to teach Christian history to the faithful. Such maps attempted to summarize and locate major events in religious and secular history and convey a wide variety of spiritual, ethical, and scholarly information including natural history, myth, and legend. They served as visual encyclopedias within a Christian framework set against a geographic backdrop; geographic accuracy was, accordingly, of secondary importance. The author's home territory was often disproportionately enlarged, and the size of other regions was dependent on their historical or religious importance and the amount of information to be inscribed on them. These maps were commonly circular in shape with east at the top, although other geometric forms and orientations were used. As noted earlier, Jerusalem was placed at the center of these large mappaemundi of the late Middle Ages. The religious purpose of the Ebstorf map is clearly evident: the world is depicted as the body of Christ. Christ's head is at the top (east) adjacent to Paradise. His arms embrace the world and its people; even the monstrous races of Africa are gathered in and saved by His left hand. Jerusalem is at the navel of the world, and is depicted as a square walled city enclosing an image of the risen Christ. A disproportionately large Middle East occupies the central portion of the map, with Asia above (east), Africa to the right (south), and Europe at the lower left (northwest). Places and episodes from the Old and New Testaments are prominently depicted. In addition, contemporary geographic features including roads and scenic areas are portrayed, indicating that the map was designed to meet secular as well as religious needs of travelers.


English ca. 1160-1235
Untitled world map ["the Ebstorf map"]
Ebstorf, Germany, ca. 1235
Modern reproduction: Terra Sancta Arts Ltd., Tel-Aviv, Israel
Kyram Collection

Descriptio Orosii de ornesta mundi sicut interius ostenditur

This is a reproduction of the Hereford map, so-called because it has served as an altarpiece in Hereford Cathedral for the past seven hundred years. It is the largest (5.4 x 4.4 feet) and most detailed of the surviving mappaemundi. Made about 50 years after the Ebstorf map, it is similar in concept though smaller than its now-destroyed precursor. Like the Ebstorf map, the Hereford map is circular in shape with east at the top and the walled city of Jerusalem at the center. Asia is at the top, Africa to the right, and Europe at the lower left; an apparent scribal error has transposed the names of Africa and Europe. The principal cities of Europe are depicted, along with the major trade and pilgrim routes. The Holy Land is greatly enlarged, occupying about one-sixth of the world's surface. Numerous Biblical sites and events are depicted, many of them also seen on the Ebstorf map; they include the Exodus, the wanderings of the Israelites, Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, the Tower of Babel, Noah's ark on Mount Ararat, the stable at Bethlehem, and the Crucifixion. At the very top, Christ sits in judgement, and angels conduct the saved to heaven and the sinners to hell. Monstrous races -- dog-headed men, headless men with facial features on their chests, men with single legs or four legs, and other strange humanoid beings -- are portrayed along the southern border of Africa. Described by such classical writers as Herodotus and Pliny, these bizarre creatures were entrenched in medieval lore as descendents of Adam and Noah and thus deserving of salvation. In the lower left corner Augustus Caesar is seen issuing an edict calling for a survey or registration of the entire world. This has been interpreted as referring to the census that caused Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. However, a border inscription refers to a world survey initiated by Julius Caesar shortly before his death. The scene of the three surveyors receiving the decree from Augustus is consistent with the recorded history of that monumental project, since it was largely completed during the reign of Augustus.


English, fl. ca. 1260-1305
Descriptio Orosii de ornesta mundi sicut interius ostenditur
Lincoln, England, ca. 1290
Original manuscript on vellum, 165 x 135 cm
Printed reproduction by Wychwood Editions, Oxfordshire, England
Osher Library Collection

Untitled circular world map

This map represents a transitional type between medieval and Renaissance maps. It is circular in form, but is oriented to the south rather than the east. More important, there is more emphasis on geographic accuracy and less on transmission of historical and religious information. An inscription at the bottom explains that the map was drawn according to Ptolemy's scientific principles, using a uniform scale and a framework of longitude and latitude. One consequence of this approach is that the map is not centered on Jerusalem, but on a nearby point in the interior of Asia Minor. Additional features of interest are the depiction of earthly Paradise as a large walled city at the eastern edge of Asia, the use of red color to indicate Christian cities and black for Islamic cities, and an inscription over the southern tip of Africa suggesting that monstrous races reside in the antarctic region.


Austrian, fl. 1448
Untitled circular world map
Constance (Konstanz), Germany, 1448
Facsimile of manuscript on vellum; map diameter 42.5 cm
Original in Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome
Osher Collection