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Ortelius’ Notable and Detailed Two-Sheet Map of Ancient Egypt

Ortelius's impressive two-sheet map of the Nile River Valley, the most important river in the world to sixteenth-century Europeans. Its biblical significance and ancient sites made Egypt of special interest to geographers and savants.

Ortelius shows the river and its environs in impressive detail, marking settlements and the sites of events and burials. The two sheets show the track of the river from Ethiopia in the south and follows it as it meanders north. Then the river splits into the fertile Nile River Delta. An inset to the left focuses on Alexandria, home of Ptolemy. Below the inset is an extensive list of place names.

The map was based on an earlier two-sheet Ortelius map of the region, part of Ortelius’ lifelong interest in maps of the Ancient World. In various places on the map, Ortelius cites his sources including Diodor, Herodotus, Strabo, and Plinius.

At top is a decorative title cartouche. The strap work on this cartouche and on the inset and list of place names to the left are typical of Ortelius’ style. There is also a strip scale next to the place names. In the Mediterranean Sea, two ships follow the winds. The border, which is an Egyptian design, is interrupted at times by extensions of the map, a charming and unusual feature for an Ortelius map.  

In the lower-left corner are two pyramids with a seal in front of them. The monument behind them includes a similar seal. Two palm trees stand sentinel behind the vignette. The Latin text on the vignette translates to, “A land that of itself is rich enough, needs no foreign aid, Iove's help it scorns, relying as it does on the bounty of the Nile.”

The cartography of Central Africa and the source of the Nile

Here, Ortelius is focused on the geography of the upper Nile. However, in his larger map of the African continent, he showed the source of the Nile as well. Based on a 1563 map of Africa by Giacomo Gastaldi, Ortelius’ Nile geography is notable for its divergence from previous models and for its importance as a model for future mapmakers.

Typically, mapmakers thought the Nile River rose from twin lakes south of the equator, which were near the Mountains of the Moon. Streams from the mountains fed the lakes. Ptolemy describes such a lakes-an -mountains layout in his works, although the precise identification of the Mountains of the Moon may have been a fourth-century addition to his text.

Most sixteenth-century mapmakers, including Martin Waldseemuller, chose to follow the Ptolemaic model. Gastaldi, most likely thanks to sources he read via the travel editor Ramusio, chose to abandon the Mountains of the Moon entirely. Instead, he drew a massive central lake from which flows the Nile, Zaire (Congo), Cuama (Zambezi), and Spirito Sancto (Limpopo) Rivers. To the east is another, smaller lake at roughly the same latitude, which also feeds part of the Nile.

Ortelius, on his own map of the African continent, also included a large central lake, called Cafates. He rejected the name of Zaire-Zembere used by Gastaldi. To the east and just slightly north be put another, smaller lake. Rivers from the north of both lakes wend northward and join to form the Nile. This map shows a smaller scale depiction of the river after the two streams have joined. Although focused on ancient geography, this map also alludes to this larger geographic debate about this most famous of African rivers. It also underlines the importance of the Nile and explains the intense interest in learning more about its history and geography.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and the states of the “Aegyptus Antiqua”

In 1570, Ortelius published the first modern atlas; that is, a set of uniform maps with supporting text gathered in book form. Previously, there were other bound map collections, specifically, the Italian Lafreri atlases, but these were sets of maps—not necessarily uniform—selected and bound together on demand.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ortelius’ atlas, outperformed competing atlases from other cartographic luminaries like the Mercator family. Between 1570 and 1612, 31 editions of the atlas were published in seven languages. At the time of its publication, it was the most expensive book ever produced.

This map first appeared in 1584 and was prepared by Ortelius himself. It was intended as part of the Parergon, or the supplement of the atlas containing ancient maps. This two-sheet map first appeared in two 1584 Latin editions of the atlas, as well as a 1592 Latin edition. It also ran in a 1584 Greek edition, and 1585 and 1587 French editions. It was later reduced to a one-sheet version in 1595.

By comparison with the later, one-sheet version, which had roughly 3475 copies printed, this two-sheet version only ran in 1775 copies. This makes the first, two-sheet example considerably rarer than the one-sheet version. It would make a fine addition to any Ortelius collection or a collection focused on Egypt and/or the Nile.

Condition Description
Two sheets, unjoined. Upper sheet printed with no lower neatline, as issued. Substantial centerfold toning. 1584L text setting on verso. Second printing.
Marcel P. R. van den Broecke, Ortelius Atlas Maps: An illustrated Guide (Amsterdam: HES, 1996), maps 219, 220.
Abraham Ortelius Biography

Abraham Ortelius is perhaps the best known and most frequently collected of all sixteenth-century mapmakers. Ortelius started his career as a map colorist. In 1547 he entered the Antwerp guild of St Luke as afsetter van Karten. His early career was as a business man, and most of his journeys before 1560, were for commercial purposes. In 1560, while traveling with Gerard Mercator to Trier, Lorraine, and Poitiers, he seems to have been attracted, largely by Mercator’s influence, towards a career as a scientific geographer. From that point forward, he devoted himself to the compilation of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), which would become the first modern atlas.

In 1564 he completed his “mappemonde", an eight-sheet map of the world. The only extant copy of this great map is in the library of the University of Basel. Ortelius also published a map of Egypt in 1565, a plan of Brittenburg Castle on the coast of the Netherlands, and a map of Asia, prior to 1570.

On May 20, 1570, Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum first appeared in an edition of 70 maps. By the time of his death in 1598, a total of 25 editions were published including editions in Latin, Italian, German, French, and Dutch. Later editions would also be issued in Spanish and English by Ortelius’ successors, Vrients and Plantin, the former adding a number of maps to the atlas, the final edition of which was issued in 1612. Most of the maps in Ortelius' Theatrum were drawn from the works of a number of other mapmakers from around the world; a list of 87 authors is given by Ortelius himself

In 1573, Ortelius published seventeen supplementary maps under the title of Additamentum Theatri Orbis Terrarum. In 1575 he was appointed geographer to the king of Spain, Philip II, on the recommendation of Arias Montanus, who vouched for his orthodoxy (his family, as early as 1535, had fallen under suspicion of Protestantism). In 1578 he laid the basis of a critical treatment of ancient geography with his Synonymia geographica (issued by the Plantin press at Antwerp and republished as Thesaurus geographicus in 1596). In 1584 he issued his Nomenclator Ptolemaicus, a Parergon (a series of maps illustrating ancient history, sacred and secular). Late in life, he also aided Welser in his edition of the Peutinger Table (1598).