The Great Jewish Cartographers of the 14th Century

April 10, 2019 | Ushi Derman
About the author:

Born in 1325 on the island of Majorca to a rabbinic family, Abraham Cresques created a Catalan-language atlas that was one of the most important geographical texts of his day. Ushi Derman writes:

From a young age, Abraham. . . was considered an artist among watchmakers and crafters of compasses and other navigational tools. But he invested most of his efforts in the field of cartography and stood out among the members of the trailblazing Majorcan School of Cartography. Documents from that period refer to Abraham as “Cresques the Jew.” [He] passed on his passion for mapping to his son Jehuda. . . .

Their place in history was sealed in 1375, when King Juan I of Aragon commissioned them to create a number of navigation maps of the world that would include greater detail than [existing] maps. The king’s command was simple: include all “the East and the West” and add “everything in existence west of the Gibraltar Straits.” The remuneration: 150 gold coins of Aragon and 60 Majorcan pounds. . . . Hunkered down in their home in the Jewish Quarter of Palma de Majorca, they completed the work a year later. The result was a masterpiece. . . .

The strikingly beautiful Catalan Atlas was made up of six, narrow, long, side-by-side maps packed with lovely illuminations, depicting Marco Polo riding a camel to China and other events and wonders of the world. The six maps mounted on wooden boards bound in leather included texts that enriched the reader with vast knowledge of cosmography, astronomy, and astrology. . . . The maps also gave sailors vital information about the ebb and flow of tides and how to [navigate] after dark.

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