Maps aren’t handy tools of how our ancestors got from here to there, they’re not cold scientifically objective tools; maps are profoundly political. They're the foundation of state-building, and the first thing an occupying force erases and creates. In the Middle East, where contested histories still drive conflict today, it's especially true; maps hold stories of the movement of people, of wars waged and lost, of displacement and nation-building.

What started with a modest purchase of three 19th-century maps of Palestine quickly ballooned into American Middle East Studies scholar Zachary Foster’s collection of thousands of historical maps of the Middle East, which together tell the story of the formation of the Middle East. Foster has now created an online archive featuring some of his historical collection, including maps of Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Below are a selection of seven maps from Foster's online collection that we think are particularly interesting.

This 1934 map, labelled 'A Map of Palestine for Cars' shows an extensive road network covering both metropolitan centres and smaller cities and villages, as well as miniature maps of the cities of Haifa, Jerusalem, and Jaffa & Tel Aviv, both here combined into one. The road network also transcended the state boundaries we know today, connecting east to Amman and north to what would be Beirut. Also of note: modern-day Lebanon is labelled as Syria. Both countries were under French mandate at the time.

A 1952 map, titled 'Occupied Palestine' shows the division of land in the aftermath of the 1948 war. The region is divided between Israeli control, Syrian control, Egyptian control, land ceded by Jordan to Israel in the Rhodes Agreement (the 1949 Armistice Agreement), land annexed by Jordan (the West Bank), and sacred land.

This beautiful topographic map of Egypt goes all the way back to 1884, only 3 years after the start of the British occupation. It's interesting that the map is labelled 'The Lands of Egypt and Sinai.' Incredibly detailed, in addition to its meticulous cataloguing of the natural geography, the map labels every city, major village, and even heritage sites and monasteries. Some of the antiquated labels are very interesting, including the veritable poetry in the name 'the Sea without Water,' used to label the valley in the then-named 'Libyan Desert', to the west of Fayoum (30°N, 30°E), an area which - fun fact - did in fact used to be covered by ocean 40 million years ago, producing the world's most important collection of whale fossils, present today.  

This 1926 map shows Egypt and West Asia, and though in Arabic, is very interesting in its naming. In addition to the glaring 'Land of the Arabs' label over the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia was still six years away from its establishment in 1932), the labels over Egypt are also very interesting, with Coptic and Pharaonic names alongside the Arabic. To name a few: to the slight south of Cairo lies the Ancient Egyptian capital of 'Memphis', to its Northeast is 'Heliopolis', Fayoum is labelled for its Ptolemaic capital 'Arsenoy', and Assiut is labelled with its ancient name 'Lycopolis'.

Undoubtedly beautiful, this city map of Jerusalem from a 1908 Guide to Syria and Palestine hammers home the central point: maps are not politically neutral. In addition to the fact that it divides Jerusalem into the Jewish, Armenian, Christian, and Muslim Quarters (distinctions that Arabic maps of the same time do not make), it does not even use the term 'Muslim,' but the historically derogatory term 'Mohameddan'. 

This 1912 map of the ancient city of Aleppo is also likely from a guide for the casual European tourist, interesting in its choice of what to itemise: mosques, churches, and European consulates. Most of the heritage sites indicated in this map have been either completely destroyed or heavily damaged in the Syrian Civil War.

This 1909 simplified map of Beirut, from a British 'New Guide to the Holy Land,' is one of a very small number in English. Though under Ottoman control at the time, French influence would take progressive hold, with a zenith in the establishment of the French mandate in 1923.

You can check out the rest of Zachary Foster's collection here.