I have loved and collected maps since I was a kid. I tried collecting baseball cards like my friends, but they just did not hold my interest. Maps, on the other hand, fascinated me. While my friends were memorizing stats on the back of baseball cards, I was the nerdy kid memorizing places on maps. Fortunately, I had access to lots of maps when I was growing up. My grandfather had a map of the United States on the wall of his home office as well as years of National Geographic magazines stuffed with awesome maps. In our home, I often perused the atlas that my Dad had used while serving overseas in the military. Mom and Dad also bought me a globe of the earth and a smaller one of the moon. And, as a member of Commander Whitehall’s Explorers Club in elementary school, I received a different map in the mail every month.
My map collection really took off when I learned that I could get free maps by writing to Chambers of Commerce around the country. I wrote lots of letters and received lots of maps completely free of charge. I reserved the top drawer of the wide dresser in my room as the place to keep my maps. When I joined the Boy Scouts I was exposed to topographical maps and started adding these to my collection. On a few occasions, I have drawn my own maps in my journals while traveling through remote regions in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan. And, I still purchase maps. Although I bought my first GPS before traveling to Darfur in 2005, I still prefer to hold a good map in my hands.
Earlier this year, I visited Madaba, Jordan — known as the City of Mosaics. When my friend Jamal Hashweh, the director of the Global Hope Network, told me that one of the oldest maps in the world was at the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George, I had to go and see it. The map, which dates back to the 6th century AD, is a mosaic made up of thousands of small square-cut stones carefully laid onto the floor of the church. It is regarded as the oldest surviving original cartographical depiction of the Holy Land. What impressed me the most was the care and accuracy that the unknown cartographers used in depicting the Holy Land and Mediterranean world. It’s important that maps be as accurate as possible — something that is much easier to do in our technologically enriched world than it was when the Madaba map-makers laid out their map on the floor of the church one tiny square at a time.
When you think about it, we all owe a debt of gratitude to map-makers. Maps help us to understand how big the world is, how small we are, and the importance of understanding the context in which people live. Maps can also beckon us to go beyond the places that are familiar to us to discover what and who lies beyond the horizon. That’s important if we are to understand the world in which we live and how people are shaped by the particular places on the map that they call home. The next time that you look at a map, remember that our world is still full of interesting places and people waiting to be discovered. Make it a point to visit places both near and far and to meet the people who call those places home. Doing so will make looking at maps even more meaningful.