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Lecture: The Mapping of Persia

A lecture by Cyrus Alai surveying the history of the mapping of Persia up to the early parts of the 20th century.

8 November 2006, 7pm
Khalili Lecture Theatre, School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London, Russell Square, London

Organised by

Iran Heritage Foundation & London Middle East Institute at SOAS


Since ancient times Iran, or Persia as it was known in the West, has been mapped extensively. The world's oldest known topographical map is a clay tablet from 2300 BC, showing a part of western Persia. Persian geographers, like Balkhi, Estakhri, Zakariya Qazvini and others, were the main contributors to the thriving field of cartography throughout the early Islamic period (eighth to fourteenth centuries). Ptolemy's fifth map of Asia, which depicts Persia, appeared in all the 59 editions of Geographia, published between 1477 and 1730. Gastaldi produced the first post-Ptolemaic map of Persia in 1559 in Venice, which served as the basis of many later maps for about a century. The first notable innovation in this field came to light when Olearius in his New Map of Persia (1646) changed the Ptolemaic oval shape of the Caspian Sea to an upright rectangle, correcting the latitude of the northern provinces. His map influenced the cartography of Persia for seven decades, until a full Russian survey of the Caspian was carried out in 1720. Dutch, French and German cartographers were all active in mapping Persia. However, it was their British counterparts who succeeded during the nineteenth century to improve the mapping of Persia considerably, based on new surveys, including those carried out by the Survey of India. Some of these maps were politically motivated, showing Baluchistan as a separate state until 1872, when the Goldsmid Commission settled the eastern boundaries of the country. The Pahlavis established several new cartographic institutions in Iran, as a result of which numerous modern maps of the country and its provinces were produced locally from 1930s until the present time. The absence of a good cartobibliography has often deterred scholars from making use of the many detailed maps that were produced. For the period of 1477-1925 the newly published General Maps of Persia (2005) by this author has made such a required work available.

Cyrus Alai was born in Iran and received his PhD degree (Dr.-Ing.) from the Technische Universitaet, Berlin-Charlottenburg. He completed the Executive Controls Program -- a management course -- at the University of Syracuse, USA, and lectured at the University of Tehran for eight years. Dr Alai founded a group of engineering companies in Iran, which he directed for twenty years. He settled later in the United Kingdom, working as a consulting engineer and studying the history of cartography in his free time. He served nine years as the honorary treasurer of the International Map Collector's Society and wrote numerous articles on the cartography of Persia and the traditional cartography of classical Islamic societies. His articles (in English and Persian) appeared in several prestigious cartographic and cultural periodicals, such as: Map Collector, IMCoS Journal, Mercator's World, Portolan, Journal of the Iran Society, Iranshenasi (Persian), etc. The entry 'Geography iv, Cartography of Persia' in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, has been written by him. He also collects old maps of Persia and owns perhaps the largest personal collection of such maps. Dr Alai has recognised that Persia has been mapped extensively for centuries but the absence of a good carto-bibliography has often deterred scholars from making use of such maps. Therefore, he embarked on a lengthy investigation into the old maps of Persia and visited major map collections and libraries in many countries, producing General Maps of Persia, 1477-1925 (2005).

Admission free


The Iran Heritage Foundation, 5 Stanhope Gate, London W1K 1AH. T +44 (20) 74934766, F +44 (20) 74999293,


... Payvand News - 10/30/06 ... --

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