On mapping


“Maps are not territory; they are spaces, spaces to be crossed and recrossed and experienced from every angle. The only way to understand a map is to get down into it, to play at the edges, to jump into the center and back out again. We need to trace and retrace its lines by eye and by hand and question it’s every dot until the liminal palimpsest below the surface reveals itself to yield clues of the elusive social mentality within which the map was born. We must lay bare the ideograph in order to grasp the key that it holds. Only then can we use maps as alternate doorways into history.” (Karen Pinto, Medieval Islamic Maps: An Exploration, 280)

Of late, I have been thinking about mapping. Or, more specifically, I have been in the process of mapping.

To “map” is to make a representation of a place, of a space. It is to delineate and to demarcate space, to establish borders, and to trace relationships. Maps contribute to the making of realities; they generate what Roland Barthes has observed in literary depictions as “the reality effect” (1969).

As the scholar of medieval Islamic cartography Karen Pinto has noted, maps are iconographic representations or “carto-ideographs.” In attending to their play of space, we are better able to understand how historical figures perceived and chose to depict their world (2016). 

I have been trying to hold the tension of demarcating and representing in my own work, in my own mapping. As a complement to my dissertation, I have been working on a map of the female saints of Fez. This map draws on the sacred biographies or hagiographies of female saints buried in the imperial city of Fez, Morocco. The burial locations of female saints are recorded in Moroccan hagiographic text composed in the late 19th-century by Muḥammad ibn Ja‘far al-Kattānī. Al-Kattānī was interested in mapping. Or, to be more precise, he was interested in the consecration of spiritual authority in physical space through a historical and literary text. His text, Salwāt al-Anfās, creates a taxonomy of spiritual authority located in the city of Fez. It is a map that links Fez to scholarly and spiritual networks spanning Morocco, extending across the strait into Spain, toward Egypt in the east, and Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal in the south. His map places Fez as the spiritual center of the western Islamic world and the seat of scholarly and political power at a time when the Moroccan sultanate was consolidated in the center and south of the country.

The place of female saints is curious within this map. They are simultaneously included yet subdued. They are counted among the composite dynamic of spiritual authority (Dennerlein 2006) yet remain a small fraction of it. Their place within this space is further complicated by the fact that many are unknown. Their burial places are no longer visited or the knowledge about them has gradually been effaced. How does one represent a place that no longer exists? How do you fix the space of the unknown?

These questions have guided my work. In navigating them, I have decided to create a multi-layered and interactive map in a website. The website allows viewers to navigate through three layers of maps in order to walk through and experience the differing relationships and arguments made about space and gendered spiritual authority. The viewer passes through differing configurations of gendered spiritual authority, of known and unknown saints, and of geographic imaginaries. The use of digital technologies thus further enables the play of space engendered by a map and suggested by al-Kattānī’s text. It further calls the viewer to follow alternate pathways of understanding historical places and their connections to spatial imaginaries.


Image Courtesy of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Pococke 375: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/ced0d8bd-1019-4af2-9086-e41111…