Map Makers

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The first reference to a map is found in Ezekiel 4:1. The prophet is bidden to outline on an unburned brick, a plan of a city under siege, such as is found on Babylonian monuments. Nearer to real map making is a rudimentary map of the borders of Ereẓ Israel which Maimonides attached to one of his responsa (ed. Freimann, no. 346, 311).

The earliest examples of real maps known to have been designed by Jews belong to the so-called portolano maps, which are charts of the coastlines of the oceans, mostly of the Mediterranean, designed for the use of navigators. Portolanos are first mentioned in connection with reports on the second Crusade of Louis ix, king of France, in Tunisia in 1270. They were drawn with surprising precision and distances are also remarkably accurate. These maps, whose origin is still somewhat of a mystery, may preserve an ancient Greek and Byzantine tradition of sea charts, with Jews serving, as in other branches of science, as intermediaries between antiquity and the Middle Ages. Jews on the Spanish island of Majorca, as well as from Alexandria and Safed, have signed their names as makers of portolanos.

The 14th and 15th Centuries

Abraham *Cresques, cartographer and maker of portolanos, worked at Palma in Majorca, then part of the kingdom of Aragon. As the "master of maps and compasses" to the king of Aragon, he is said to have produced in 1376–77, together with his son, the six large leaves of the "Catalan Atlas," which were presented by his sovereign to Charles vi of France. His son Judah, also a geographer and cartographer, was forcibly baptized in 1391 and christened Jaime (or Jacome) Ribes de Majorca; he became director of the nautical observatory at Sagres. Another Jewish cartographer of Majorca – who is conjectured to have belonged to Abraham Crescas' family – was Ḥayyim ibn Rich. He, too, was converted at the time of the persecutions in 1391, adopting the name Juan de Vallsecha. He was probably the father of the Gabriel de Vallsecha who made another famous mappa mundi in 1439 – now one of the treasures of the Institute of Catalan Studies in Barcelona; it belonged to Amerigo Vespucci – in which the meridian of the Azores is used for the first time in the history of cartography. Another Majorcan cartographer of Jewish birth was Mecia de Viladestes, a map of whose (dated 1413) is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Other Jewish Map Makers

Judah Abenzara (or ibn Zara) is known as the maker of three portolano maps (Alexandria, 1497, in the Vatican College Library, Cincinnati; and the third with his signature followed by the words "Safed in Galilee, October 1505"). Gerard de Jode (de Judeis; 1509–1591), a maker of maps and publisher in Antwerp, was apparently of Jewish origin. A not very successful competitor of Abraham Ortelius, he published single maps and atlases. His work was based on sound geographical knowledge and was executed with elegance and technical perfection. His son Cornelius de Judeis (1558–1600) was his partner and successor. Abraham b. Jacob was an engraver at the end of the 18th century in Amsterdam. He engraved the map of Palestine in the Passover Haggadah which was printed by Moses Wesel in Amsterdam in 1696. It was the first map with Hebrew lettering. Aaron b. Ḥayyim of Grodno's map of Palestine appeared in his Moreh Derekh (Grodno, 18392), which was printed by Meir Isaac Bajarski. Ḥayyim Solomon Pinia of Safed made a pictorial map of the Holy Land, which was edited by Joshua Alter b. Moses b. Phinehas Feinkind of Turek and lithographed by S. Litmanowitz in Turek (near Kalisz, Poland) in 1875; the text is in Hebrew. Another edition with a supplementary German text is lithographed on fabric.


E.G. Ravenstein, in: eb, 17 (191111), 633–53; G. Hoelscher, Drei Erdkarten… (1949); H.M.Z. Meyer, in: M. Avi-Yonah et al., Jerusalem: the Saga of the Holy City (1954), 59–76 (incl. bibl.); C. Roth, Jewish Contribution to Civilization (19563), 59–61; G. Grosjean and R. Kinauer, Kartenkunst und Kartentechnik (1970), 29ff.

[Herrmann M.Z. Meyer]