'Mappa mundi' joins elite of world treasures

By Arifa Akbar

LONDON - The Mappa Mundi has been added to a list of the world's most important historical documents.

The 13th century map, regarded as an outstanding treasure of the medieval world and the largest surviving example of its kind, has been added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's Memory of the World International Register, where it will be cited alongside the Bayeux Tapestry, The Endeavour Journal of James Cook and the correspondence of Hans Christian Andersen.

It is kept at Hereford Cathedral.

Unesco said the historical significance of the map, which places Jerusalem at the centre of the world with the figure of Jesus depicted above, merited its inclusion in the register.

"The map is pivotal in our understanding of medieval cartography and sense of place and still has relevance to all peoples in helping them to understand their sense of humanity and self," said a spokesman for Unesco.

Five hundred drawings of scenes in history and the marvels of the natural world are superimposed on the continents of the world.

They include 420 cities and towns, 15 biblical events, 33 plants, animals, birds and strange creatures as well as pictures from classical mythology.

Drawn on a single piece of vellum, the artwork bears the name of its author, Richard of Haldingham and Lafford.

Christopher de Hamel, a leading authority on medieval manuscripts, has hailed the map as "the most remarkable illustrated English manuscript of any kind, and certainly the greatest extant 13th-century pictorial manuscript".

Dominic Harbour, director of communications at Hereford Cathedral, said the map was typical of its day in placing the known, physical world alongside religious thoughts and beliefs.

"It represents the sum total of these scholars' knowledge of the world, distilled on to one sheet.

It has Europe, Africa and Asia drawn on it with Jerusalem at its centre and nothing going past the equator, with Christ in majesty and the Day of Judgement illustrated on top of the world.

This move means that it is recognised as an object of international significance and importance to be preserved for the future of our civilisation," he said.

The Mappa Mundi is believed to have been commissioned after the death of the then Bishop of Hereford Thomas Cantilupe, later St Thomas, as an attraction for future pilgrims visiting his shrine.

By the late 13th century, St Thomas's shrine was one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims, second only to St Thomas ecket's shrine in Canterbury.

"To have a saint's shrine in town was to bring in tourism and pilgrims and this one in Hereford was based on the same model as Canterbury," said Mr Harbour.

The map was nearly lost to the nation in 1988 when the diocese considered selling it to solve a �A3;1m financial crisis, but plans were later dropped after the Government and benefactors offered funding.

The scare highlighted the need for the funding of arts and cultural projects, and indirectly led to the creation of the nation lottery system.

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