The first map available to Europeans showing overland trade routes in central Asia

The six-sheet map of Asia, printed by Nicolas Witsen in Amsterdam in 1687, was the first map available to Europeans showing overland trade routes in central Asia, including the overland Silk Road from Beijing (Peking) in China to Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

This six-sheet map was the result of Witsen’s extensive travels in Asia in the 1660s while in the employment of Peter the Great. Although he had his map engraved and printed, it was not intended to be sold. Witsen had only a small number printed that he gave to his friends and associates, and the map is consequently very rare.

The map caused a sensation when it first appeared as it allowed European eyes to see another “New World”. Witsen was careful to show the territories of each ruler, representations of different styles of building and the established caravan routes. Along the routes he named were the great caravanserai of the East-West Silk Road and he indicated pictorially the relative size of each settlement and marked territory in which it was to be found.

The eastern side of the map shows the Great Wall of China in considerable detail, and Witsen is careful to indicate the gates in the Great Wall that were open to travellers to continue on to Peking, and the roads which terminated at gates, closed to foreign travellers although they could conduct trade at the gates.

The western side of the map shows the Silk Road converging on Astrakhan, the great Caspian Sea port that also provided access to the Volga river system, the Black Sea and Constantinople to the west, European Russia via the river Volga to the north, and a route from India via the southern Caspian ports for the transshipment of Persian goods, among others.

Our European understanding of the Silk Road is often based on Marco Polo, and we see it as an east-west highway from Venice to Peking. The Witsen map shows clearly that the Silk Road was one of many important trade routes linking the peoples of Central Asia into a complex and interrelated society.

Nieuwe Lantkaarte van het Noorder en Ooster deel van Asia en Europe strekkende van Nova Zemla tot China Aldus getekent, beschreven, in kaart gebragt en uytgegeven sedert een Nauwkeurig ondersoek van meer als twintig Jaaren – By Nicolas Witsen, Amsterdam, 1687, 210 x 180 cm over six sheets.