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Striking View of the City of Cairo, from Sebastian Münster 's Influential Cosmographia

Fine, early birds-eye view of the city of Cairo, illustrated in great detail. The view offers a wonderful sense of Cairo’s architectural layout during the Ottoman Turk Era. It appeared in Münster’s monumental Cosmographia universalis.

The view shows Cairo with an eastern orientation. The Nile River runs across the bottom of the map, while sailboats drift along the water. The right, or south, side of the view shows pyramids and ruins in a mountainous region that lies outside of the city streets. At the city’s edge are also examples of horticulture and irrigation.

Throughout the view there are scenes of people trading, facing off for battle, and traveling along the city’s perimeter. The interior of the city is densely packed with dwellings along winding streets. At the top of the view, the reader can catch a glimpse of the Citadel and the city’s gates, as well as lush rolling hills.

The view’s title and blocks of text run across the top and bottom of the pages in ornate Gothic lettering.

Ottoman Turk Era of Cairo (1517-1798)

During the period when this view was made, the city was led by a distant Ottoman governor and Ottoman militia. Cairo functioned as a vital trading site within the Ottoman Empire and served as an important link with the east. The Ottoman period included the construction of new monuments in the city. They are representative of the Ottoman style of architecture, but also show an interesting blend with the previous Mamluk style.

Münster ’s Cosmographia

This view featured in later editions of Sebastian Münster ’s Cosmographia universalis, the first German-language description of the world. The Cosmographia was first published in 1544 and released in at least 35 editions by 1628. The compendium was central in the revitalization of geography across Europe in the sixteenth century.

Much of the work’s success was due to the notable woodcuts, including some by Hans Holbein the Younger, Urs Graf, Hans Rudolph Manuel Deutsch, and David Kandel. It contained 471 woodcuts and 26 maps over six volumes.

Across its editions, the Cosmographia grew with more views, maps, and text. At first, these additions where overseen by Münster himself and, after 1552, by his son-in-law, Heinrich Petri. This view of Cairo dates to ca. 1575.                                                                                  

This is the earliest German-language view of the city. It shows a snapshot of a continually growing metropolis during a key period in its history.

Jim Antoniou, Historic Cairo: A Walk through the Islamic City. (Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2013); MEJ
Sebastian Munster Biography

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a cosmographer and professor of Hebrew who taught at Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Basel. He settled in the latter in 1529 and died there, of plague, in 1552. Münster made himself the center of a large network of scholars from whom he obtained geographic descriptions, maps, and directions.

As a young man, Münster joined the Franciscan order, in which he became a priest. He then studied geography at Tübingen, graduating in 1518. He moved to Basel, where he published a Hebrew grammar, one of the first books in Hebrew published in Germany. In 1521 Münster moved again, to Heidelberg, where he continued to publish Hebrew texts and the first German-produced books in Aramaic. After converting to Protestantism in 1529, he took over the chair of Hebrew at Basel, where he published his main Hebrew work, a two-volume Old Testament with a Latin translation.

Münster published his first known map, a map of Germany, in 1525. Three years later, he released a treatise on sundials. In 1540, he published Geographia universalis vetus et nova, an updated edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. In addition to the Ptolemaic maps, Münster added 21 modern maps. One of Münster’s innovations was to include one map for each continent, a concept that would influence Ortelius and other early atlas makers. The Geographia was reprinted in 1542, 1545, and 1552.  

He is best known for his Cosmographia universalis, first published in 1544 and released in at least 35 editions by 1628. It was the first German-language description of the world and contained 471 woodcuts and 26 maps over six volumes. Many of the maps were taken from the Geographia and modified over time. The Cosmographia was widely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The text, woodcuts, and maps all influenced geographical thought for generations.