American scholar sheds light on mediaeval Islamic maps

November 15, 2019

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Karen C. Pinto speaks at the Mohatta Palace Museum on Thursday.—White Star
Karen C. Pinto speaks at the Mohatta Palace Museum on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: When you make a map, you have to make choices what to put in and what not to put in. This was one of the points made by Karen C. Pinto in her lecture on ‘Mediaeval Islamic maps — Sindh and the influence of Pakistan’ at the Mohatta Palace Museum on Thursday evening.

Ms Pinto, associate research professor, Boise State University, started off her presentation by going down memory lane and sharing some heart-warming pictures with the audience of her time in Karachi when she was a young student at Karachi Grammar School. She said it’s after 30 years that she’s returned to the city of her birth. Calling herself an intrepid person, she said she has over the years acquired between 3,000 and 4,000 map images, 150 of which have been published in her book — and has many more to publish. “I’m constantly collecting and looking for more stuff.”

The scholar credited Pakistan with her success because here she travelled within the country a lot. From the age of four until nine she suffered from a disease, nephrotic syndrome. “I was gone every year for about three months to hospital and continued my work from hospital bed” because of which she got to focus on books and jigsaws. Like jigsaw missing pieces, in mediaeval maps there are a lot of places that are missing, and “trying to figure it out is part of the challenge”. She also took the name of one of her (geography) teachers, the number one thing for whom was maps.

Ms Pinto went to Columbia University for higher studies where she took a class with Richard Bulliet, a famous mediaeval Islamicist. Her dissertation topic ended up as an accident when she looked at curious looking things in the library which made her develop an interest in maps. At this point the scholar touched upon the dilemma that maps have between being “mimetic and symbolic … now with GPS, maps are not very mimetic; they go with solid forms because it’s easier to navigate.”

‘The Muslim world cared more about Africa, not Europe’

The quest to find the originals took Ms Pinto to Topkapi Saray in Istanbul, and she described it as a place where “wonders of working in manuscript libraries where you forget the whole world and you are just sitting there looking at incredibly beautiful objects”.

She became fluent in Turkish, crediting Urdu for it which gave her a bilingual base. She visited Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul as well. “The reason Turkey is so crucial is because they’re the last major empire. After major battles they [empires] get these beautiful manuscripts.” The Topkapi Saray acquired some of the best manuscripts, which she had to photograph.

These days, she told the audience, she is into 3D and part of what she wants to do with the Sindh maps, about which she spoke later, is to create “VR possibility”.

Ms Pinto, informing the guests on the earliest known atlas in the world, showed lovely images of the series called Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik that has details of the Muslim world. There are 21 maps in it –– a world map and 20 regional maps, and one of them is the Sindh map. They are beautifully done. “One of the downsides or challenges of working with maps is that there are missing copies. You have to figure out what’s missing.”

Showing the translation of the world map, Ms Pinto highlighted the outlines of the head of a bird, the encircling ocean and stressed (pointing at the map) that the Muslim world cared more about Africa, not Europe.

Describing her work process, Ms Pinto remarked: “When you make a map, you have to make choices about what you put in and don’t put in. Those choices are made for a reason.” It led her to refer to a place called the Buja, which is also in her book.

After that Ms Pinto shifted her focus to the Mamluk Egyptian map (1285), and in the latter part of her presentation she discussed the Sindh map showing the audience the Indus river, Makran coast and a place called Mansoora. At the bottom of the map, she said, there was Multan. She expressed her desire to do a 3D and VR project on the subject.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2019