How do we understand the size of Syria?


This inset appears on a CIA map of Syria from 2004. We can assume it’s meant to give the map reader a sense of the size of Syria by comparing it to a region that he or she is familiar with.

I’m fascinated, first, by the assumption that the decision-maker reading the map is located in the mid-Atlantic states, (Washington, presumably). This kind of regionality runs throughout American politics, a geography of where important people live, and where they don’t, that one carries in the memory and consults without even knowing it. 

This is an attempt to make the map *personal* but I almost think it should be captioned, “This might be helpful to you if you happen to live in the northeast.”

The second thing I’m fascinated by is, assuming we have to stick to the northeast USA, would it have been a smarter decision  to have aligned Damascus with Washington, DC? These are the two national capitals. Such a juxtaposition would, in the context of the Syrian Civil War, allow the President to imagine New York no longer doing his bidding, and Providence functioning like an independent state.

CIA inset Washington and Damascus aligned

Perhaps this juxtaposition puts too much of Syria out to sea, but it does put New York City more or less where Raqqa, the ISIS capital, was.

Of course one must always be careful when constructing these comparison maps. In GIS software a polygon (Syria) whose coordinates are in degrees, dragged to another latitude, will be the wrong size. The safer method, which I have used here, is to make separate maps at the same scale of both Syria and the northeast US, and then juxtapose them in a photo editing program (the GIMP, in my case).  Syria is about 780 km from end to end on its long axis, about the distance from Boston to Richmond, Virginia.

This brings up the question of what it means to understand distance. In the original map, what does the distance from, say, Philadelphia to the eastern tip of Tennessee, mean to people living in Washington? I suspect they rarely go very far to the southwest from the city, and when they do they experience slow, twisting roads that have difficulty passing through the Appalachian mountains. So if the Washington-dweller says “It would take me six hours to drive to the tip of Tennessee!” is there anything meaningful at all there for his understanding of Syria?

I kind of prefer this juxtaposition, both for the similarity of desert landscape, and the sense of distance.

CIA inset LA and Damascus aligned

Los Angeles stands in for Damascus here, and Las Vegas finds itself somewhere up on the Euphrates. (“Las Vegas on the Euphrates” is not yet, but may someday be, the tourism slogan of Deir Ez-Zur or Raqqa.) If you are familiar with the distances and deserts of the American southwest, it is remarkable how much smaller Syria looks when shown like this.

Of course, as Appalachian Trail hikers know, there happens to be a town in Virginia called Damascus. It’s actually right there, just across the border from that eastern tip of Tennessee. So perhaps the best juxtaposition of all aligns Damascus, Virginia, with Damascus, Syria.

CIA inset Damascus and Damascus aligned



Eight Maps of Tbilisi

Last month I went to Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. Before I went, the only map I had of the city was this inset on the 2007 (third) edition of ITMB’s Georgia. It covers the downtown area that most visitors are interested in: on the right bank of the Mtkvari river from the Metekhis Khidi (Metekhi Bridge) at the downstream end to Respublikis Moedani (Republic Square) at the upstream end.

ITMB Georgia inset of Tbilisi_small

There are many things I like about this map. It has a basic visual hierarchy: Rustaveli avenue is given extra width to show its importance, and the high-traffic roads are in yellow. Also, they’ve made an effort to use Georgian words (moedani, khidi, gamziri, kuča) for common features (square, bridge, avenue, street) — even though the transcription scheme is not what is recommended today (kuča would be written kucha). This is surprisingly rare: most maps, in fact every other map I encountered on this trip, translated those terms. But if you think about it, leaving them in Georgian, with a handy little table of geographical equivalents in the legend, has a distinct advantage. It immediately gets you started with a few words of vocabulary.

Now, this map is not detailed enough for finding your way around the old town, which is the tangle of curved streets near the Metekhis Khidi. For example, if you look near “Blue Bath,” you see a lot of generalized, unnamed streets.

ITMB Georgia inset of Tbilisi_old_town

Before I went then, I made myself a paper map from Open Street Map. I cruised around in OSM at zoom level 17, stamping out PDFs. I printed these out and then cut-and-taped them together. Besides being fun, it was an excellent way to familiarize myself with the city’s geography, and I highly recommend this exercise.

OSM 2018_detail

(Ignore the yellow highlighter on the map. That was just my way of keeping track of where I’d been.)

One thing that’s good about OSM is that it is generally in the local language. In the case of Tbilisi, the streets are mostly labelled in Georgian, and this gives you a reason to learn the Georgian alphabet – which in turn makes reading street signs easier. (If you would like the Georgian alphabet at hand while reading this post, the Wikipedia page on Georgian scripts is quite helpful. This is the mkhedruli script.)

But if you look closely there are also a surprising number of features labelled in other languages: there is some English, like “SIXT rent-a-car” or “The Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali.” There’s also some Russian (Храм Метехи). I guess this is the nature of volunteered geographic information. On the positive side, from this kind of thing you can deduce some things about who visits Tbilisi, and who’s interested in mapping it. Actually, in my two-week experience, Russian-speaking tourists in Georgia outnumbered those speaking English.

OSM 2018_detail2

According to the OSM wiki, zoom level 17 is roughly equivalent to 1:4,000 scale, making this the most detailed paper map you are likely to find. I found it very accurate, even the pedestrian streets (blue tinged) and the incredibly valuable pedestrian underpasses. It’s also quite up-to-date. For example, where ITMB had Leselidzis Kuča in 2007, the street has now been renamed to K’ot’e Apkhazis Kucha.

However, OSM can be quirky. The major Tavisuplebis Moedani (თავისუფლების მოედანი), or “Freedom Square,” is not labelled at all, although the monument in the middle of it (Tavisuphlebis Monumenti/თავისუფლების მონუმენტი) was labelled on my screen as I was looking at OSM. And that label disappeared in the export to PDF. A bit weird.

OSM screenshot and PDF compared, zoom level 17
The area around Tavisuphlebis Moedani/Freedom Square in OSM, zoom level 17, as seen in my browser (left, a screenshot) and in the PDF generated with Share>Image (right)

Once I had arrived in Tbilisi. I began hoovering up maps. The first one I got, since I was staying at the Envoy Hostel, was the Envoy hostel’s branded map. (“Envoy Hostel Tbilisi City Map”) I imagine this map turns up in many Tbilisi locations under different branding. It’s dated 2017 and a tiny note in the corner says it is made by “Saniday.”

Tbilisi Envoy hostel map Saniday detail_small

There are lots of good things to say about this free map. The streets are clean and mostly labelled. Points of interest are flagged, although many of these are just the establishments for eating, drinking and shopping that have sponsored the map. Most notably, they’ve picked up a couple of widenings in the streets which catch the eye as landmarks, and have named them, , like “Jerusalem Square” and “Meidan Square.”

Tbilisi Envoy hostel map Saniday detail2_small

I proceeded to Prospero’s Books on Rustaveli Avenue (a delightful bookstore) and bought three maps. I bought the Tbilisi City Miniguide and Map (undated with no publisher mentioned)…

Tbilisi City Miniguide and Map_small

the GeoLand Tbilisi City Map 2015…

GeoLand Tbilisi_small

and Tbilisi: A Walk Around Old City, by Idea Design Group (undated)….

Tbilisi, A Walk Around Old City_small

Let’s start with the Tbilisi City Miniguide and Map. If you look at the area between the Metekhi Bridge and the Peace (Mshvidobis) Bridge it’s apparent that this piece of cartography is a disaster.

Tbilisi City Miniguide and Map_detail

It’s just a spaghetti tangle of unlabelled streets. So we’re going to set this one aside as a scary map that you probably shouldn’t buy.

The next thing you might notice is that there’s a surprising similarity between OSM and Tbilisi: A Walk Around Old City. One might almost suspect they were made with the same geodata. The shapes of blocks are the same; building outlines are the same. (As a digression, can I just say that building outlines on city maps don’t really help us? They prove useful only when pedestrian walkways go between them. Otherwise they create clutter.)

OSM Guide Old City compared
OSM (left) and Tbilisi: A Walk Around Old City (right) compared.

I have to credit GeoLand for resisting the urge to put little 3D rendering of buildings on their map. These are great for helping you recognize which building is the opera house, but they obscure too many streets beneath them. (GeoLand, I should note, are the masters of mapping in Georgia. They have produced the regional maps you are likely to pick up at visitors centres, and it is some very nice cartography.) I also like GeoLand’s visual hierarchy, with major streets being yellow. But I find GeoLand’s fattened streets pushing between building outlines less intuitive than Idea Design’s narrower streets.


GeoLand Tbilisi_detail

Around Betlemi St (which they, confusing, have translated — “Bethlehem” — rather than tranliterated — Betlemis) it’s a bit of a tangled tube-fest.

Unfortunately on both the Geoland and the Walk Around Old City, little icons overlie important information. Does “G. Khandzteli St.” (shown as “Gr. Khandzteli St.” on Walk Around Old City and გრიგოლ ხანძთელის ქუჩა on OSM) intersect K. Aphkhazi St. (K. Abkhazi St./კოტე აფხაზის ქუჩა)? No! But we can see this only on OSM because of church symbols on the other two maps. And on GeoLand, Tavisuphleba Sq. seems to read Visuphleba Sq. because of the unfortunate placement of a hotel icon.

Both GeoLand and Idea Design’s maps have the same scale, near 1:50,000, and both come with a metro map. But Tbilisi: A Walk Around Old City also comes with a street index and a nice “Description of Architecture of the Main Avenue,” explaining eighteen buildings along Rustaveli. On the downside, the marking of the “Grand Tour” (clear dashes on grey) and the “Short Tour” (red dashes on pink) both follow the overhead cable car line from Rike Park up to the Narikala Fortress, and their lines not only obliterate lower Gomi Street (does it connect with Betlem?) but also make it look like there are two bridges (or is it one bridge and a shadow?) across the river between the fanciful Peace bridge and the Metekhi bridge.


Tbilisi, A Walk Around Old City_detail

Two other maps of Tbilisi are worth mentioning. One is the map in the Lonely Planet 2016 Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Lonely Planet Georgia 2016 Tbilisi Old Town map_small

It’s the familiar styling of Lonely Planet maps, but now that we’ve looked so closely at these other maps, we can appreciate the good, bad and downright weird things LP has done here. On the good side, this is a really clean map. It’s also the only map we’ve seen that labels Kote Abkhazis with “Leselidzis” in brackets so we know the old name of the street. On the bad side, many streets are not labelled, leaving you mystified as you wander around old town looking for a street sign. (Although I’m open to considering that this actually may make for a better exploratory experience.) As for downright weird, they’ve transliterated the Georgian letter ქ as ‘q,’ so the familiar word for street, ‘kucha,’ appears as qucha. Yes, it’s true that when typing with a Georgian keyboard you do strike the q to get ქ, but this letter is always transliterated as k, or k’, or the IPA /k⁽ʰ⁾/ — not Q.

Last but not least is this hand-drawn map from Mark Elliott’s 4th Edition (2010) Azerbaijan with excursions to Georgia. I know it seems weird to look in a guide to Azerbaijan for a map to Tbilisi, but there it is.

Elliott ed4 small

This is an absolutely amazing map. Mark Elliott’s guidebook is filled with these hand-drawn maps — it is officially it my favourite guide book in the world! Naturally most of the maps are of towns in Azerbaijan. But here too (taking into account that the book is eight years old – a new edition is out this year) he has done a model job. Notice how the street widths flow and change naturally, widening into little openings. The impression is of a map someone has carefully drawn for you and you alone. Notice how none of the labels run into each other or obscure important information. Even though before I praised a map that used Georgian terms like “kucha” instead of street, I like here how he has omitted “street,” “avenue,” etc. Without colour he has still shown us where all the parks are, the river, the important landmarks. This, in my mind, is where the future of mapping is going: carefully curated, hand-drawn maps.

Kote Aphkhazi kucha
კოტე აფხაზის ქუჩა/K’ot’e Apkhazis Kucha/Abkhazi St.

With all of this to choose from, what did I use? In the end, the map I carried around and pulled out the most often was the OSM map that I had printed at home. It had all the alleys. It had the pedestrian underpasses. It had Georgian on it, so I didn’t have to wonder if it was Betlemi, Bethlehem or Betlemis St: it was just ბეთლემის ქუჩა. I was happy to have all these other maps (except the weird Tbilisi City Miniguide and Map) and I absorbed important landmarks from them. I just didn’t tend to pull them out as often. When I did pull out a second map, it was GeoLand.

შავთელის ქუჩა/Shavtelis kucha/Shavteli St.

If you want to print your own OSM map as I did, it’s a relatively simple process. I understand that there are sites that claim to make this easy, however I never encountered one that would work at zoom level 17, so here’s what you do.

OSM has a handy export as PDF function under the “Share” button.

OSM share function

(Not sure how that’s sharing, but whatever). The important thing to do first is to re-size your browser to approximately the aspect ratio of the paper you are going to print on (letter-size, in my case). Then, simply pan around, saving PDFs that overlap slightly. They should all come out at the same scale. Print them. Cut and tape.



Maps for Θεσσαλονικη/Thessaloniki

On a recent trip to Thessaloniki I acquired quite a few maps of the city. It turns out that finding a really good one is not trivial. Here’s the one I kept going back to:

Fraport map

This is the Fraport map which is available for free at the airport. (I found a display of them in the baggage claim area.) I’ve written in the bus routes on the major avenues myself. The cover looks like this:

Fraport map cover

But I was not able to get a hold of this map before arriving. The map that I printed out at home was this one:


You can download this as a PDF from   It’s good but a bit hard to read.

Some of the other maps you can acquire in Thessaloniki itself are worth looking at. The next three I picked up at the tourist information point at the bottom of Aristolelous. Here is their Thessaloniki City Map:

city map

As you can see, not all streets are labelled. Its cover looks like this:

city map cover


And there is the even more spare Thessaloniki Museums’ Map:

museums map

and its cover…

museums map cover

And the Thessaloniki Monuments Map:

monuments map

with its cover (this is the Greek edition):

monuments map cover

I have to say the Museums’ and Monuments Maps are so skeletal as to be useless for navigation in the city. Also, there’s some inconsistency.  The Museums’ map and the Monuments map both identify the street that leads south from Antigonidon Square to Egnatia as “Παπαζωλη/Papazoli,” whereas the other maps agree that it is called “Antigonidon.”

A map that I bought in a bookstore was this “Best of” map:

best of map

Its cover:

best of map cover

It’s pretty good, but the lamination actually caused me not to use it. Too hard to draw on.

Last but not least, that all-important bus route map. You can get this at the tourist info point as well.

bus map

Its cover:

bus map cover

This is a tiny map, and not quite as detailed as you might like, but oh-so-valuable. You don’t use it for finding your way around on foot, only for figuring out where bus routes go and which one you want.

Mapping Gottfried Merzbacher’s “The Central Tian-Shan Mountains 1902-1903”

In 1905 Gottfried Merzbacher, a geologist, published an account of two years exploring the Tian-Shan.  The Central Tian-Shan Mountains, 1902-1903 (John Murray, London) is an engaging read, partly because of Merzbacher’s insights about the landscape, and descriptions of the people he meets, but also because it is an account of his efforts to solve the puzzle of where the prominent mountain of Khan Tengri actually was. This 7000m peak was readily visible from lowlands outside the Tian-Shan, but previous mappers had merely been able to theorize about how one might get to its base.

Merzbacher’s book originally came with a map, but, as is so commonly the case, the map was not properly scanned for the digital copies of the book that one can download today from You get a fragment like this:


It’s a shame. Hopefully someone who owns the book will post a good scan of the complete map one day.

Update: Someone has! At the Gunnar Jarring Digital Library in Sweden they have a beautiful scan of Merzbacher’s complete map (published in 1904).

Link to Merzbacher, 1904 Overview map of the Central Tian Shan

What fascinates me about these exploration accounts is the question How would we follow his route today? To that end I’ve begun mapping Merzbacher’s travels as described in The Central Tian-Shan Mountains. So far I’ve mapped Chapter 1.


(Download as PDF)

The key decision in this kind of mapping is what base map to use. Use a period base map (something from around 1900) and you may not be able to follow it today: place names change, roads move, and mountains get mapped more precisely. (See my previous post on the yet-moving location of Khan Tengri.) Use a modern map and you lose the sense of travel in an era of inaccurate mapping.

I tend more to the modern map. To me, the question Where did he go? means Where was his route relative to modern landmarks? But many modern base maps are unsuitable. Most online mapping services do not label rivers or mountain ranges. A modern road map (like Freytag+Berndt’s Central Asia) is too small-scale (1:1,750,000) to see what’s going on. So in this case I settled for a 1980s aeronautical chart (Tactical Pilotage Chart F-6C) which gives shaded relief at a reasonable scale (1:500,000) plus the added benefit of named rivers and mountain ranges. It ain’t that pretty though.