On the vault shelves of the Geography and Map Division between John Arrowsmith’s London Atlas of Universal Geography (1858) and a 19th century French jigsaw-puzzle map of the world made of wood, Atlas geographique, lies a 50 x 31 centimeter nondescript atlas in green binding. The hunter green lusterless cover may seem unremarkable, but open the oblong cover from right-to-left to discover a cartographic treasure—Aṭlas, ay majmūʻ khārīṭat rasm al-arḍ (An atlas or group of map sketches of the earth)—a rare second edition of the first world atlas printed in Arabic script (1835). The Geography and Map Division holds one of five documented copies of this ground-breaking atlas. Other copies of the 1835 atlas are held in the Rex Nan Kivell map collection at the National Library of Australia, the Map Division of the Austrian National Library, the Special Collections of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the Heritage Library at the National Library of Qatar.
The first edition of the atlas was printed in June 1833 and included eight maps. A second edition with three additional maps was printed two years later. Both editions were drawn and engraved by Frederico Brocktorff (1811–77) and printed at the Church Missionary Society (present-day Church Mission Society, CMS) Press in Malta. The 1833 edition is considered unobtainable—only two copies have been documented. There is one in the Albert Ganado map collection in Muzew Nazzjonali tal-Arti (MUZA, Malta National Community Art Museum) in Valletta, Malta, and a second at the British Museum in London, England.
This 1835 edition includes eleven lithographs depicting the Eastern Hemisphere, the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Asia (identified as Russia in other sources), Africa, the Americas, Australia, North Africa, Egypt and the Land of al-Sham, East India, and Turkey in Europe and Rome. CMS Press printed the atlases in Malta for distribution in the Ottoman Empire. It also had outposts in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and Canada. The Anglican Church founded CMS in London on April 12, 1799—then as the Society for Missions in Africa and the East. However, CMS was not formally recognized until 1815.
In 1815, the CMS headquarters of the Middle East was established in Malta, and with a printing press, Arabic type-settings, many translators, binders, printers, lithographers, and missionaries, were together tasked with translating Scripture into Arabic and Persian vernacular to export to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. (Note that the CMS Press also printed in many other languages, e.g., Hebrew, Italian, Armenian, Greek and other languages in Perso-Arabic script.) The Press worked closely with Christian communities throughout the Arab World, especially communities in Egypt and Syria to promulgate the gospel. Malta was geographically and politically ideal for the CMS distribution hub—it was located in the Mediterranean between Egypt, the Land of al-Sham, and Southern Europe, and it was under British rule.
The atlas was intended to accompany a geography textbook titled, Kitāb al-Kanz al-mukhtār fī kashf al-arāḍī wa-al-biḥār” by Rifaʻah Rafiʻ Tahtawi (1801-73), a leading intellectual and a pioneer of the 19th century Egyptian enlightenment. Both the atlas and textbook were reprinted in Egypt for use in schools.
Geoffrey Roper, a historian of printing in the Islamic world, stated in his 1988 Durham University thesis, Arabic printing in Malta 1825-45:
[T]he Malta atlases of 1833 and 1835 also broke new ground. In Egypt regular map printing did not start until 1870, although…copies of the Malta atlas were made there at a much earlier date; in Tunisia the first atlas was printed in 1860…This in turn is likely to have played some part in developing national and political self-awareness.
To view the atlas in its entirety, and make your own observations, come visit us in the Geography and Map Reading Room.
- Ganado, Albert, Joseph Schirò, and Claude Micallef Attard. The Brocktorff Mapmakers. San Gwann: BDL Publishing, 2012.
- Roper, Geoffrey. Arabic printing in Malta 1825-1845: Its history and its place in the development of print culture in the Arab Middle East. North Carolina: Durham University, 1988.