A reference librarian at the National Library of Norway came across an old Ottoman atlas in the collections there that seemed perfect for a Reddit board devoted to the appreciation of maps. Weeks later, he figured out that the map in question was a previously-unknown copy of one of the rarest atlases in the world: the Cedid Atlas.
The librarian, Anders Kvernberg, otherwise known as Reddit user PisseGuri82, posted an image from the atlas to r/mapporn a couple of weeks ago. He simply identified the map — which he pieced together from scans of different pages from the atlas — as an Ottoman world map from 1803.
At first, it appeared the atlas he found was just one of many of the dusty, untouched maps hiding out in their collection. “Of about 150,000 maps and atlases, I would guess a couple of thousand are used during a year,” he wrote in a Reddit post explaining the whole situation. The atlas wasn’t digitally cataloged, and the librarian doesn’t read Ottoman Turkish, so he didn’t have much more information on it at the time.
The atlas went back into the library’s collections, where it would have stayed, ignored, had Kvernberg not seen a post two weeks later from another r/mapporn user who posted an Ottoman map of Africa from the same year. It was easily identified as a scan from the Library of Congress’s copy of the Cedid Atlas, which can be seen online:
Kvernberg hadn’t yet made the connection to his own find, but he was intrigued by the Cedid Atlas, and began reading about its rarity.
The “Cedid Atlas Tercümesi” was the first atlas based on western cartographic techniques and geographic research to be published by Muslims, according to the Library of Congress‘s 1998 announcement of its acquisition of its copy of the atlas. The Ottoman Military Engineering School Press published it as an educational and strategic resource for the military. There were only 50 total copies printed.
As Kvernberg learned more about the rare book, the Library of Congress’s page scans started to look very familiar. “Then I realized this was the very same atlas I had held in my hands a few weeks earlier,” Kvernberg wrote on Reddit.
“I ran off to tell our expert on maps, Benedicte Gamborg Briså, that I had something I thought she should take a look at,” Kvernberg told The Post in an email. “She was excited, of course, and we started leafing through the old card catalog, researching the names scribbled by previous owners, and so on.”
“At first, we just assumed we had a later edition or a common reprint,” Benedicte Gamborg Briså, the National Library of Norway’s maps expert, said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post. But there was only one edition of the atlas ever printed, and the atlas in their collection was “clearly genuine old paper and leather binding.”
“We compared every single page with online scans from the Library of Congress. Every page, as well at the title and printing year, was identical,” she wrote. “Also, there was only one edition ever printed, and as far as we know there are no known reprints. That’s when we realized this was the real thing.”
Here, for comparison, is a page from the atlas Kvernberg found:
Briså told The Post that the National Library of Norway’s copy of the Cedid Atlas is the 15th known surviving copy — 14 others are held by various libraries around the world.
Her research indicates that about 20 copies total of the atlas may still exist.
“Even modern libraries’ collections, dating centuries back, rely heavily on physical catalog cards, not searchable on the net. This means looking through the shelves can sometimes turn into a serendipitous treasure hunt,” Briså wrote.
The book is still being cataloged, but Briså shared some of the information that she and Kvernberg were able to find on how the rare book may have ended up in Norway, although its exact path from its publication in Istanbul in 1803 to its rediscovery in 2016 remains a “mystery.”
“The previous owner, an Oslo textile importer, is known to have travelled in the Balkans during the late 1930s,” Briså wrote. “He may have purchased the atlas there, just years before the devastating German invasion during WWII. He might just have saved it from destruction.”
“Luckily,” she added, “it has been kept in air-, light- and humidity controlled environment the past 60 years.” After it’s cataloged, the map will be examined by paper conservation experts to ensure that it lasts even longer.
This piece by Abby Ohlheiser originally appeared in The Washington Post.