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The Maps Portal

Political and physical world map from the end of 2005

A map is a symbolic depiction emphasizing relationships between elements of some space, such as objects, regions, or themes.

Many maps are static, fixed to paper or some other durable medium, while others are dynamic or interactive. Although most commonly used to depict geography, maps may represent any space, real or fictional, without regard to context or scale, such as in brain mapping, DNA mapping, or computer network topology mapping. The space being mapped may be two dimensional, such as the surface of the earth, three dimensional, such as the interior of the earth, or even more abstract spaces of any dimension, such as arise in modeling phenomena having many independent variables.

Although the earliest maps known are of the heavens, geographic maps of territory have a very long tradition and exist from ancient times. The word "map" comes from the medieval Latin Mappa mundi, wherein mappa meant napkin or cloth and mundi the world. Thus, "map" became the shortened term referring to a two-dimensional representation of the surface of the world.

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NASA World Wind
Credit: Ames Research Center (NASA)
NASA World Wind, an open-source virtual globe with stars and advanced atmosphere & sunlight effects

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Hereford mappa mundi

Mappa mundi is a general term used to describe Medieval European maps of the world. These maps ranged in size and complexity from simple schematic maps an inch or less across, to elaborate wall maps, the largest of which was 11 ft. (3.5 m.) in diameter. The term derives from the Medieval Latin words mappa (cloth or chart) and mundi (of the world). Approximately 1,100 mappae mundi are known to have survived from the Middle Ages. Of these, some 900 are found illustrating manuscripts and the remainder exist as stand-alone documents.

To modern eyes, mappae mundi can look superficially primitive and inaccurate. However, mappae mundi were never meant to be used as navigational charts and they make no pretense of showing land and water proportionately. Rather, mappae mundi were schematic and were meant to illustrate different principles. The simplest mappae mundi were diagrams meant to preserve and illustrate classical learning easily.

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A medieval T-O map

Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – April 4, 636) was Archbishop of Seville for more than three decades and has the reputation of being one of the great scholars of the early Middle Ages. All the later medieval history-writing of Hispania were based on his histories.

Isidore taught in the Etymologiae that the Earth was round. His meaning was ambiguous and some writers think he referred to a disc-shaped Earth; his other writings make it clear, however, that he considered the Earth to be globular. Isidore's disc-shaped analogy continued to be used through the Middle Ages by authors clearly favouring a spherical Earth, e.g. the 9th century bishop Rabanus Maurus who compared the habitable part of the northern hemisphere (Aristotle's northern temperate clime) with a wheel, imagined as a slice of the whole sphere.

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