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Fine Ortelius Map of the Indian Ocean Linking Mythical, Ancient, and Contemporary Exploration. Separately Published Example.

Striking historical map of the Indian Ocean and contiguous regions of the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia, published by Ortelius in his Parergon. This map was created based on the Periplus Maris Erythraei, whose author is unknown. It directly links explorers contemporary to Ortelius to ancient and famed voyagers such as King Hanno of Carthage and Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey.

Oriented northward, this ornate map shows regions around the Indian Ocean (Erythraeum Sive Rubrum Mare). The map stretches from Egypt (Aegyptus) and the eastern coast of Africa (Barbaria and Azania) across the Arabian Peninsula (Arabia Eudaemon), India (Mambari regnum), and to Southeast Asia (Aurea Regio). The Equator (Aequinoctialis circulus) and the Tropic of Cancer (Circulus Cancri) are notable. There is also an inset map of the north-central Mediterranean.

Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India are shown in essentially their modern configurations, while Southeast Asia is a bit more abstract, speaking to the lack of knowledge of this area when Ortelius was making maps. Ortelius based this map off of the writings of Ptolemy, who based his own work on records of Alexander the Great’s travels.

The map contains few mountain ranges or rivers, only including those that are large and well-known, such as the Nile (Nilus) and the Ganges Rivers. This gives the viewer a sense of the geography of the areas without distracting from the cities, inset maps, or text. The water bodies are filled in with basic stippling, but contain a number of small, decorative elements. For example, four sea serpents can be found off the west coast of India. Cities are represented as miniature views, in typical Ortelius style.

The largest cartouche on the map is also an inset map of Greece and southern Italy. It portrays the voyage of Odysseus (Latinized to Ulysses), and the water bodies are decorated with a number of ships, some half sunk. Though not heavily labeled, many of the important locations from Homer’s Odyssey can be found on this inset map, including Ithaca, Ogygia, Scylla and Charybdis, and the island of the Cyclopes.

Another large strapwork cartouche contains the map’s title. The title indicates that the map represents a sailing voyage along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean recounted in the Periplus (a log of coastal ports and landmarks, and this one being the Periplus Maris Erythraei) by Arrian.

Two more inset maps adorn the upper corners of the map. One is called Annonis Periplus, showing the west coast of Africa as it was traveled by King Hanno from Carthage. He is said to be the first to sail around the African continent to reach the Arabian Sea (interestingly, he is also said to be the first person to tame a lion).

The other small inset map shows the Arctic region, which Ortelius calls Hyperborei. This inset is included to increase the aesthetic appeal of the map, and to remind the reader that despite the best efforts of modern explorers, a passage to the Far East via the North Pole had not yet been found by the English or the Dutch. In this way, Ortelius engages with the reader and compares the journeys of Odysseus and King Hanno to contemporary explorers of the 1500s.

Though Ortelius cites Arrian as the author of the Periplus in the title, a body of text on the map questions Arrian’s authorship. He notes a number of dissimilarities between this Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and one that Arrian wrote of the Black Sea, including differences in style and sources.


Although best known for his world atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the Parergon was a project of personal interest and the work that Ortelius himself considered his greatest achievement. He had a deep curiosity about classical antiquity which spurred him to create the Parergon maps, and the amount of time and detail he put into each map is clearly evident. Ortelius hand drew each map of the Parergon, which required considerable skill and knowledge of the area’s history and geography. It is considered the first historical atlas.

Parergon means supplementary and, accordingly, the first three Parergon maps were published as supplements to the 1579 edition of the Theatrum, which had already been in print for nine years. Over time, successive editions of the Theatrum were supplemented with more Parergon maps, and there are 55 known plates overall. The Parergon was also published as its own atlas separate from the Theatrum on two occasions, once in 1595 and again in 1624.

The Parergon was highly successful both as a supplement to the Theatrum and on its own. It was variously translated into French, German, Italian, and English and regularly printed until 1612. Further editions were more sporadic but still popular, such as the 1624 edition which was published twenty-six years after Ortelius’ death in 1598.

This map appeared in 1601. After 1612 and before 1624, the plate was touched up, with the major change being a shift from a two-line title into a four-line title. The title remained the same, however. Several new places names were also added.  

This beautifully decorated map is an interesting look into Ortelius’ thoughts, as he gives his opinion on the author of the Periplus Maris Erythraei and the voyages of famous explorers. It intentionally blends history and myth, and it would certainly stand out in a collection of South Asian maps, Ortelius maps, or maps of the ancient world.

Marcel P. Van den Broecke, "Cartographica Neerlandica Topographical Names for Ortelius Map No. 224," Cartographica Neerlandica, accessed July 14, 2019, JE
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).