Artefact of the Month

The Hajji Ahmad World Map

September, 2018



Of all original prints of the Hajji Ahmad World Map, only ten are known to survive – nine in libraries and collections in Venice, London, Washington, New York, Chicago, Vienna, and Paris, and one among the holdings of the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest.  Regarding the Budapest copy, nothing is known beyond that it was inventoried – with no accompanying information – by the contemporary curator of the collection in 1961, along with a second Turkish-language map of Anatolia.  One possibility is that it was brought by István Györffy from his expedition to Turkey in 1919 or, perhaps, by scholar Tagan Galimjan from his trip to Anatolia.

The six print blocks used in making the map were carved in a workshop in Venice between 1559 and 1560, though no known prints survive from that period.  The blocks were rediscovered at the Archives of the Council of Ten much later, in 1795, and 24 prints made, including the one seen here.  The pear-wood blocks are currently housed in the Saint Mark Library in Venice, though in such decayed condition as to render them unusable.  Restoration efforts are, at present, still incomplete.

The international literature offers a variety of hypotheses and opinions as to the maker of the map.  A claim that stems from information written on the map itself is that it was produced in Tunis by Hajji Ahmad, who studied in Fez, then turned up as a prisoner in Europe, where he served as a Turkish translator to the Venetians.  Other analyses hold that the true maker of the map was Michele Membré, another Venetian translator who died in 1594.  Membré is said to have created the map’s print blocks with the collaboration of his assistant, Nicolò Cambi, and a Venetian printer and publisher by the name of Marcantonio Giustiniani.  According to this latter supposition, Membré used the name Hajji Ahmad as a pseudonym, adding the various labels and explanatory text in Turkish himself, as evidenced by the orthographic errors the texts contain.  

Whether Hajji was the maker or merely the translator, the map is one of the most important cartographic achievements of the modern age, encompassing the most advanced geographic and astronomical knowledge of its time and offering a much more complete view of 16th-century geography than other, more poorly preserved contemporary maps.  The Hajji map incorporates not only previous global cartographic achievements, but also a measure of new information.  For one thing, it depicts the world as spherical, or – according to the convention of the time – heart-shaped.  It additionally shows the contours of the North and South American coasts with modern technical precision and indicates the Bering Strait as a swath of dry land.

Summer Sky and Constellations, detail of the Hajji Ahmad World Map
Summer Sky and Constellations, detail of the Hajji Ahmad World Map
The map’s 16th-century Turkish annotations consist partly in autobiographical information about the maker of the map, and partly in descriptions of continents, countries, and the world’s greatest powers and rulers.  Included among the latter are overviews of Africa, Europe, Asia, and the New World, which describe Europe as Christian land, provide detailed information on newly discovered territories, and construct a hierarchic world order centred about the Ottoman Empire, with the Sultan Suleiman, its greatest leader, ruling in a manner comparable to that of Alexander the Great.  The map furthermore pairs each of the world’s twelve great powers with the signs of the zodiac.  Featured in the lower half of the map are three spheres:  the central sphere depicts the heavenly bodies surrounding the Earth,  and those to the left and right the winter and summer skies and constellations.  The floral ornamentation adorning the portions of the frame found on the left, right, and bottom of the map correspond to the classic designs of Iznik pottery.

Summer Sky and Constellations, detail of the Hajji Ahmad World Map
Summer Sky and Constellations, detail of the Hajji Ahmad World Map

South America, detail of the Hajji Ahmad World Map
South America, detail of the Hajji Ahmad World Map

Scholars unanimously hold that the unusually composed and arranged Hajji Ahmad map stands as an apt representation of 16th-century politics, geography, economics, and power relations, while additionally demonstrating how the business-savvy Venetians were able to employ a map designed for an elite Ottoman audience to strengthen political relations between Venice and Turkey.

Zsuzsanna Tasnádi

Hajji Ahmad Woodblock Print World Map,
October 1559 – August 1560, Venice, paper, wood block print
108x114 cm
Museum of Ethnography Map Collection; inv. no. 2784
Photo credit:  Krisztina Sarnyai
Restored by:  Csilla Csikós


Related databases