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Earth. The blue planet, home of gentle water and thriving life. A rare jewel hurtling through a cold, ancient explosion of dust and gas. Our home. But what the heck does it look like? Satellite imagery has gifted us with an objective view of our planet, and it truly is beautiful. We are indeed unique among the stars. Thank you, science (and, ahem, the cold war space race).

But I’m speaking about our mental understanding of where we live. The shape of the Earth within us. How continents and countries, oceans and seas, exist in our mind’s eye, influencing our affections and prejudices. Our identities depend very much on how we imagine our literal place on Earth. Who we are is where our feet touch.

Try as we might, we’re not great at doing this. The good news, as usual, is we’ve made some extraordinary art in the attempt to know our place.

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The above is a world map created by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al Istakhri in the year 1193. Not much is known about Al-Istakhri apart from this map and a book with the Tolkienesque title Kitab al-masalik wa-al-mamalik (Book of Routes and Realms). But Al-Istakhri was hardly alone. The 10th century was full of ambitious Islamic mapmakers and world-definers, curious people unafraid of the wider world; a sad contrast to the cringing tribalism so common across the globe today. While I can’t make heads or tails of this map as a piece of cartography, I would be proud to have it painted on the hull of my spaceship. If I had one.

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No, this isn’t a wrinkled stretch of petrified rhino hide. It is actually a 14,000 year old map! Discovered in a cave in Abuantz, Spain, the stone engraving has mountains, streams, large rivers, and shows choice spots for hunting and foraging.  There are even ibex herds marked in the stone, their 14,000 year old grazing habits recorded for all time.

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This is the world as seen by the medieval Christians living in the 1300s. It figures then, that it was drawn using biblical time as its guiding geological principal, instead of the more typical concept of physical space. This more of a spiritual map than an Earthly one. Beginning at the top with Christ looking down upon the Earth, the viewer takes a descending journey from the Garden of Eden all the way down to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules. In the center: Jerusalem. To the right: Africa. Note (if you can on these tiny images) the hideous beasts and frightening monsters lurking along the coasts and at the margins, ready to devour any pilgrim foolhardy enough to venture beyond the watchful eye of the Christian God.

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Lastly, the most “accurate map in the world”. I don’t understand the science of how this was achieved, but you can find it here: http://www.authagraph.com/projects/description.

If you’re anything like me, this map is almost as alien and confusing as the others. My eye doesn’t know where to go! My brain rejects what it sees! My red-blooded American heart is shocked and offended! Look at Africa. Now look at Europe. King Leopold would’ve had an aneurism looking at this map. Shame he didn’t, the bastard. How can we be decent––or merely responsible––tenants when we don’t understand the rooms of the house?

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