Before satellites and GPS, Waze and Google Earth, people relied on physical maps to navigate to parts unknown. Maps offered a bird’s eye view of towns and cities and showed us how big (or small) our location was in relation to what was out there. Maps grounded us, but they also inspired us to go west—or east, farther north or south, and points in between.
Now that maps have gone digital, old-fashioned physical maps have become a fascination for collectors. Ancient cartography is prized for the way it revealed the literal world view of the time, with continents shrinking or expanding, countries being pulled apart or drawn closer together, depending on the science of the day or society’s prevailing conceits.
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Historians have documented clay tablet maps from Babylonia dating back to more than 2,000 years before the Common Era began. These maps were made to scale and indicated the cardinal directions: North, South, East, and West. As the science developed, so did the accuracy of the maps. The invention of navigational tools like the compass provided more detailed renderings.
The advent of the early printing machines in the fifteenth century enabled faithful reproductions of valuable hand-drawn originals— leading to a new age of exploration. While technology has turned old maps obsolete, the appeal of ancient maps remains.
Collecting antique maps requires research, a good deal of resourcefulness, and quite a bit of luck. The late senator Edgardo J. Angara grew up in the coastal municipality of Baler in Aurora and, at a very young age, developed a curiosity about what lays beyond the sea. Later, while studying in Manila, he would happen upon an old, wonderfully illustrated map—igniting what would become a lifelong obsession.
Angara had nearly 200 rare maps of the Philippines and Asia, making his private collection one of the most extensive. In fact, pieces of his collection have spent time on loan to museums and in exhibits. Angara himself has become a resource for historians, having produced several books on the subject of Philippine maps and the galleon trade.
“I want to see how our geography evolved over the years,” he explained in an interview with Vault magazine four years ago. “Every time I travel I’m sure to bring home an antique map.”
When Angara traveled, he would scour flea markets, his first stop in every place he visits. This has led him to some of his most serendipitous finds. He relied on a few trusted sellers, who alert him to pieces that turn up that he might be interested in. He acquired quite a number from the UK and Spain.
Though it could take years to acquire an especially coveted map, collectors will usually have other items on their shopping list to tide them over. But even the most varied collection will never really seem complete, as there is always a certain map out there that is always worth the chase.
Angara’s collection of maps of the Philippines and Asia made him him a leading figure in the study of cartography in the Philippines. Here are some of the most interesting ones from his estate:
Mapa De Las Isalas Philipinas Pedro Murillo Velarde
Known as the mother of all Philippine maps, the Mapa De Las Yslas Philipinas was the first comprehensive depiction of the country. A Jesuit priest who had entered the Spanish missions to local shores, Pedo Murillo Velarde took it upon himself to illustrate the geography of the Philippines using scientific methods while also penning books about its people. Velarde’s illustration became the standard for later maps, and many other cartographers made use of his work when creating their own maps of the world. The figure at the bottom left is St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order and labeled here as the Prince of the Sea.
Karte Von Den Philippinischen Inseln
Jacques Nicolas-Bellin was a French cartographer who studied geography and hydrography (the measurement of bodies of water), and was the official hydrogapher to the King of France. With a career that spanned 50 years, Bellin was responsible for creating some of the most important maps used by the Ministere de la Marine, the department of the French government that presided over its colony Canada. In this map of the Philippines, Bellin credits Pedro Murillo Velarde as a resource for his own rendering.
Carta Itineraria De La Isla De Luzon
In the age of seafaring and exploration, large maps and charts were essential simply because their size meant waterways and land masses could be illustrated in greater detail. Drawn in a scale of 1:500,000 the Carta Itineraria de la Isla de Luzon shows the geographical features and borders be-tween regions. This particular map is part of a set showing Visayas and Mindanao, and was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum for display.
(1) A Chart of the Channel in the Philippine Islands Through Which the Manila Galleon Passes
The Galleon Trade (1565-1815) was responsible for establishing the economic independence of the Philippines during Spanish times. Once or twice a year, galleons laden with goods plied the Manila-Acapulco and Acapulco-Manila routes. The trade was so successful that the merchants of Seville in Andalusia became concerned about its dominance. A decree was then passed by King Philip II of Spain limiting the number of ships to two—one from Manila and another from Acapulco. The Galleon Trade made the Philippines the center of commerce in the East, the country prospering with the flow of goods from around the world. The map traces the ships’ route throughout the country, and shows the port on which they anchored.
(2) La Persqu’Isle De L’Inde
Rigobert Bonne succeeded Jacques-Nicolas Bellin’s office as the hydrographer to the King of France. Like his predecessor, Bonne was an accurate map maker. Unlike other eighteenth-century cartographers, however, he did away with the decorative techniques of the time, such as coloring and highly stylized cardinal directions. As such, his work was distinctly more technical in appearance. This map is his interpretation of the Indies.
A Map of the East India Islands Thomas Kitchin
Before Westerners explored Asia in full, they referred to this part of the world as the East Indies, or lands that lay east of India. Kitchin (also known as Kitchen in some of his work) was prodigious, reportedly creating 170 illustrations for London Magazine, though he is also said to have repeatedly borrowed from the works of other cartographers.
The tale of the lost kingdom
When fantastical creatures roamed Central Asia
While detailed maps have been created for mythical places like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s Westeros from the series A Song of Ice and Fire, they are by no means a recent notion. Some of the early maps of fictional lands include the island of Atlantis (1669) and the mist-shrouded, unreachable island of Hy-Brasil (1325). Interestingly, these imaginary places were once thought to be real and found their way to actual maps.
Another such mythical location was said to be lost somewhere in Central Asia, a lone Christian state amongst pagans and Muslims. Ruled by Prester John, the kingdom was said to be inhabited by unusual creatures like one-legged men, people with faces on their torsos, and one-eyed humanoids. The story traveled far and wide, made more fascinating in the retelling and fed into medieval notions in Europe of what was then called the Orient. Kings and priests believed John could be a valuable ally in the Crusades. A hunt for him soon began, encouraging explorers, treasure seekers, and kings to join in. In 1165, a letter supposedly from Prester John himself to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, told of his kingdom. But the kingdom was never found and it was eventually expunged from official maps.
Photographs by Ian Castañares
This piece originally came out in Issue 19, 2015 of Vault.