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The Atlas Portal

Political and physical world map from the end of 2005

An atlas is a collection of maps, traditionally bound into book form, but now found in multimedia formats. As well as geographic features and political boundaries, many often feature geopolitical, social, religious and economic statistics.

The first book that could be called an atlas was constructed from the calculations of Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek geographer working in Alexandria circa A.D. 150. The first edition was published in Bologna in 1477 and was illustrated with a set of 27 maps, though scholars say that it is not known whether the printed maps were engraved versions of original maps made by Ptolemy, or whether they were constructed by medieval Greek scholars from Ptolemy's text.

Atlas of Greek mythology

The origin of the term atlas is a common source of misconception, perhaps because two different mythical figures named 'Atlas' are associated with mapmaking. King Atlas, a mythical King of Mauretania, was, according to legend, a wise philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who supposedly made the first celestial globe. However, the more widely known Atlas is a figure from Greek mythology.

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Featured map

Carta marina
Credit: Olaus Magnus
The carta marina is the earliest detailed map of the Nordic countries. It took twelve years to finish and the first copies were printed in 1539 in Venice. Its existence had long been considered apocryphal, until a copy was discovered in Munich in 1886. The map is divided in 3×3 sheets with the dimension 55x40 cm (22x16 in), each made from a separate woodcut block. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555) is a much larger commentary on the map.

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Topographic map of Europe

Topography is the study of Earth's surface features or those of planets, moons, and asteroids. In a broader sense, topography is concerned with local detail in general, including not only relief but also vegetative and human-made features, and even local history and culture. This meaning is less common in America, where topographic maps with elevation contours have made "topography" synonymous with relief. The older sense of Topography as the study of place still has currency in Europe.

For the purposes of this article, topography specifically involves the recording of relief or terrain, the three-dimensional quality of the surface, and the identification of specific landforms. This is also known as geomorphometry. In modern usage, this involves generation of elevation data in electronic form. It is often considered to include the graphic representation of the landform on a map by a variety of techniques, including contour lines, Hypsometric tints, and relief shading.

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Selected biography

Reconstruction of Hecataeus' map

Hecataeus (c. 550 BC–c. 476 BC), named after goddess Hecate, was a Greek philosopher, and a native of Miletus. He flourished during the time of the Persian invasion. After having travelled extensively, he settled in his native city, where he occupied a high position, and devoted his time to the composition of geographical and historical works. Hecataeus is the first known Greek historian, and was one of the first classical writers to mention the Celtic people.

Some have credited Hecataeus with a work entitled Ges Periodos ("Travels round the Earth" or "World Survey"), a point-to-point coastal survey. One on Europe, is essentially a periplus of the Mediterranean, reaching as far north as Scythia. The other book, on Asia, is arranged similarly to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea of which a version of the 1st century CE survives. The descriptive matter was accompanied by a map, based upon Anaximander’s map of the earth.

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And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!

President William McKinley


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