Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.27

Ségolène​ Débarre​, Cartographier l'Asie Mineure: L'orientalisme allemand à l'épreuve du terrain (1835-1895). Collection Turcica Vol. 21​.   Paris:  Louvain, 2016.  Pp. xviii, 406.  ISBN 9789042931855.  €78.00.  

Reviewed by Richard J. A. Talbert, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (

Table of Contents

Do not be deterred by the nineteenth-century focus: this remarkable revised dissertation offers plenty to engage scholars who study ancient Asia Minor. Débarre's overall aim is to modify the claim advanced by Edward Said that German Orientalism conveyed a less real and tangible "Orient" than did its British or French counterparts. To demonstrate otherwise in one important sphere, she presents an original and absorbing investigation of German efforts to map Asia Minor. In the book's six chapters these emerge as a succession of increasingly intense initiatives over a sixty-year period. This runs from 1835, when Helmuth von Moltke embarked upon the novel enterprise of a Prussian military mission to Constantinople (the subject of chapter 1), to 1895, when Colmar von der Goltz's decade-long leadership of a second such mission ended and the map division of the Ottoman General Staff was initiating the first extensive trigonometrical surveys in Asia Minor (p. 313). The period encompasses the publication of two of Carl Ritter's projected three massive volumes on Asia Minor—in 1858-1859, just before his death—which formed the sixth and final part of his monumental Die Erdkunde (p. 145). In Ritter's view (p. 99), Asia Minor was a "transitional" region (Uebergangswelt) between the Asiatic and European worlds, and his perspective (the subject of chapter 4) boosted the conviction that there was a mission for Germany to accomplish in the decadent Orient.

The figure, however, who features as a unifying presence from chapter 2 onwards is Heinrich Kiepert (1818-1899). Ritter's precocious pupil, he matured into an icon of German cartographic expertise at its finest, as a scene in Pierre Benoit's 1918 novel Koenigsmark nicely reflects (p. 1). 1 Kiepert's first exposure to Asia Minor in 1841-1842—joining as a student, at his own expense (p. 74), the expedition headed by the antiquary August Schönborn and the naturalist Friedrich Löw—receives close attention in chapter 2. Débarre can re-evaluate this entire disappointing venture in unprecedented depth thanks to her discovery of 42 letters relating to it (p. 70). Kiepert's journeys back to Asia Minor much later are treated in chapter 6, together with his other involvements in its mapping towards the end of the century, culminating in the Specialkarte vom Westlichen Kleinasien which appeared in 1890-1891 (15 sheets at 1:250,000).

The business of nineteenth-century mapmaking with special reference to Kiepert and Asia Minor fills the remaining two chapters. Chapter 3 tackles the aims and intellectual context of this cartography as "le travail de cabinet" (p. 107), the fundamental difficulties of acquiring physical, cultural and demographic data and assessing its accuracy, the problem of representing elevation changes in a landscape, and the enterprising strategies pursued by Kiepert's successive publishers —Simon Schropp in the 1840s, thereafter Dietrich Reimer—to disseminate his mapping of Asia Minor. Chapter 5 takes a step backward to consider travelers' collection of data on the ground—the multiple challenges posed by rudimentary means of transport through punishing terrain, as well as by climate, ill-health, unpalatable diet, uncooperative local authorities and peasantry, and the inability to communicate with either except through an interpreter (drogman) and escort (kavas). In these latter circumstances it was no wonder that geographical names were misunderstood or the existence of several variant names for the same feature overlooked. The potential for confusion was only compounded by differing conventions among European languages for the transcription of Turkish names. To be sure, by the late nineteenth century there was greater success in surmounting this host of obstacles. More active diplomatic and consular assistance was now available, and increasing numbers of Germans were recruited into Ottoman service, both civil and military. In addition, data from surveys now undertaken for railroad construction was invaluable to mapmakers.

To hope for more from this already wide-ranging study—lucidly presented, amply illustrated, and ably researched (the exploitation of Kiepert's Nachlass is outstanding)—could indeed appear unreasonable. Even so, colleagues whose interest lies in the Asia Minor of antiquity rather than the nineteenth century might fairly wish that Débarre had raised further the profile of the numerous German antiquaries, archaeologists, and epigraphers whose cumulative contribution to comprehending the landscape in all its aspects surely deserves fuller recognition. This is not to deny her acknowledgment of Kiepert's unwavering devotion to classical antiquity, although it does seem wide of the mark to reckon that his 1878 Lehrbuch der alten Geographie "marquait l'apogée de son oeuvre de géographie historique, imprégnée de philologie classique" (p. 305 n. 940). 2 It is more unfortunate that, despite her awareness (p. 84 n. 274) of the Roberts' La Carie II (1954), she neglects to tap its scholarship on travelers in search of antiquities, and evidently overlooks Louis Robert's A Travers l'Asie Mineure (1980), chapter 2.

Most unsatisfying, however, is the absence of methodical evaluation of the cartography for which Kiepert became so revered. His meticulous instructions for gathering data in the field are reviewed at length (pp. 249-59), and his maps were no doubt among those which so provoked the Turkish geographer İsmail Hakkı in 1914:

De fait, ils occupant notre pays avec la carte. Les Allemands, les Français et les Grecs se meuvent à Istanbul et Izmir comme dans leurs pays d'origine, voire comme dans leurs propres maisons. Ils peuvent faire ce qui'ils veulent car ils ont des armes en main: le savoir géographique et la carte. 3

Even so, we should ask, did Kiepert's maps truly merit such fearful renown? Reasons to suspect not can readily be found. Meantime, as Débarre does explain in chapter 6, by the late nineteenth century there is sound cause to rate Ottoman cartography more highly than Kiepert and other racially prejudiced westerners were prepared to concede (pp. 276-81, 309). In relation to the vastness of Asia Minor, Kiepert's own fieldwork there was only ever minimal, and his instructions just mentioned frequently seem utopian. In a set of fifteen letters sent to him by von der Goltz between 1887 and 1897—another discovery splendidly exploited by Débarre (p. 286)—it is touching to hear of the general's struggles to adhere most assiduously to Kiepert's prescriptions on a return trip between Constantinople and Angora in summer 1889 (fifteen days in the saddle, covering 920 km, plus three rest days, p. 295). But alas, he pleads, "Wenn man wie ein Tartar reist, kann man nicht viel und genau zeichnen"; en route his jolted instruments ceased to furnish reliable readings (p. 296).

Back in 1841 it had been young Kiepert's unavoidably slow gathering of data that led Schönborn and Löw to press on to Lycia without him (p. 81). Years later he would deplore the tendency of travelers to limit the data they provided to the line of the route followed, without elaboration upon the wider landscape (p. 112). In this connection Débarre might have noted that when Kiepert himself risked such elaboration in the Troad in January 1842, the result was to sow confusion for decades. As John Cook explains:

…. the misfortune of the survey was that H. Kiepert mapped the very difficult interior in January when the weather seems to have been bad and he must have had to rely on guesswork for the areas that he could not see; and he and his successors never realized how conjectural this survey was. 4

A uniquely incisive review of mapping that originates with Heinrich Kiepert, although produced after his death by his son Richard, proves instructive. These maps form a set of 24 sheets at 1:400,000, Karte von Kleinasien, published by Reimer between 1901 and 1907, then repeatedly revised (1908-1916), and later reissued in 1929 (mentioned by Débarre p. 312, but outside her timeframe). The reviewer in La Géographie 19 (1909) 367-76, Guillaume de Jerphanion, resident since 1903 at Tokat in Pontus, was himself both a traveler, able to comment on ten of the sheets from firsthand knowledge, and a mapmaker. 5 His dissection of multiple slips in the itineraries of travelers who had no means to measure distances or elevations on their route accurately, let alone to encompass the wider landscape, confirms in sobering detail how flawed much of the Kieperts' mapping inevitably is, despite its authoritative appearance. At the same time we should recall—as İsmail Hakkı perhaps never knew—that the decisive impetus for Richard Kiepert even to attempt the first mapping of Asia Minor in its entirety at the ambitious scale of 1:400,000 stemmed from his surprise acquisition of an unpublished Ottoman Ministry of Commerce map series at 1:300,000. 6

Finally, although Débarre recognizes that the Kieperts' maps were considered indispensable far into the twentieth century pending the delayed completion of better ones (pp. 312-13), the point merits reinforcement with reference to this material's intensive exploitation by both the Ottoman and British General Staffs. Débarre mentions (p. 301) only that, as soon as Heinrich's Specialkarte appeared, von der Goltz and the Ottoman staff at once collaborated on producing a Turkish (Arabic script) enlargement at 1:210,000 (to match Russian maps at this scale, p. 297). But later, between about 1908 and 1916, the Ottomans made a rapidly revised version of the Karte von Kleinasien sheets covering central and eastern Asia Minor (maintaining Richard's 1:400,000 scale), as well as enlargements at 1:200,000 of all its sheets and (again) of Heinrich's Specialkarte. 7 The British, having boldly begun an Eastern Turkey series at 1:250,000 in 1901 (IDWO 1522), revised and completed it during World War I, incorporating data both from Karte von Kleinasien and from Turkish staff maps captured in 1915. By contrast, the entire corresponding Western Turkey series at this scale (GSGS 2097) was barely begun before the outbreak of the War; it amounts to an enlargement of Karte von Kleinasien with Turkish names now transliterated English-style. These are the most important among the few maps recommended in the so-called Admiralty Handbooks of 1918-1919 for Asia Minor, and they are again listed in the 1942 handbook, although now with the caution "of very little use today" (Turkey vol. 1, 442). Also derived from Karte von Kleinasien are the relevant sheets of one British map series at 1:1,000,000 (GSGS 2555) and two at 1:500,000 (Asia Minor and Ottoman Empire).

These comments are by no means intended to diminish the perception of Débarre's achievement as an impressive one. The range of approaches to history, in both Europe and Asia, that her study links and enriches is exceptional: cartographic, cultural, economic, imperial, military, social. For classical colleagues, the insight gained into conditions in Asia Minor during the nineteenth century invites comparison and contrast with ancient communication, mapping, worldview, and more.


1.   Compare William Ramsay's failure to convince his cartographers that a Kiepert map could be improved: Studies in the History and Art of the Eastern Provinces of the Roman Empire (1906) 254.
2.   Formae Orbis Antiqui was envisaged as a chef d'oeuvre, but Kiepert delayed starting on it for too long: see R. J. A. Talbert, "Mapping the classical world: major atlases and map series 1872-1990," JRA 5 (1992) 5-38.
3.   p. 318, but with mistaken attribution and date; see the article by Klaus Kreiser cited there.
4.   The Troad: An Archaeological and Topographical Study (1973) 49.
5.   Carte du Bassin Moyen du Yéchil Irmaq, 1:200,000 (4 sheets, Paris, [1913]).
6.   See Richard's brochure dated October 1901.
7.   See Mehemmed Scevki, "Il servizio topografico nell'impero Ottomano e la moderna cartografia turca," L'Universo 1:2 (1920) 127-36, with a sample of the Turkish version (1:400,000) of Karte von Kleinasien DIII Ermenek; my research into these maps is ongoing. On the General Staff's mapping activity, see further Üç Denizin Arasında: Osmanlı ve Fransız Boğaz Haritaları / Entre Trois Mers: Cartographie ottomane et française des Dardanelles et du Bosphore (Izmir, 2016) 161-71 (by Feza Günergun and Kaan Üçsu, with French translation by Eylem Alp and Ségolène Débarre). ​

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