Tag: Religion

The Character of Canadian Cartographers

The Character of Canadian Cartographers

Alpine flowers, the Kane Lakes, B.C. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

In many of my map posts I’ve written of the unusual people who led the map making ventures, whether mystical Frau Mauro of Venice, the ancient Chinese voyager General Zheng He, or the dedicated native British East India Company surveyors who surveyed the Himalayas. Of course Europe and Britain and America have their own cartographic heroes, so I thought I’d take a few moments to mention a couple of religious cartographers who played a huge role in mapping Canada.

Jesuit Father Frencesco Bressani came to New France (Lower Canada) in 1641 as a missionary and with the express plan to measure astronomical eclipses in order to calculate longitude. At age 32, only a few years in-country, he was captured by Iroquois just outside Trois-Rivieres and was tortured, burned, beaten and mutilated for two months. Somehow he survived and was ransomed to the Dutch and returned to France. Regardless of his ordeal, he came back to New France the next year for four years before returning to Italy where, in 1657 he published his map, the Novae Franciae Accurata Delineatro.

This map, considered the rarest of Canadian maps, not only shows Native territory, but is most valued for its many illustrations. These give an astounding view of Native life as well as vivid drawings of the martyrdom of many missionaries, including being slashed with glowing bark, being placed in boiling water and being cut up alive. Dangerous work, cartography.  Of course the map comes with controversy. Was Bressani even able to draw, when his own letters indicate that his hands were so badly mutilated that he could no longer do mass properly? (One hand had only one finger left.) Historians believe the map was drawn by one Giovanni Frederico Pesca, in Italian engraver, working on Bressani’s insightful information.

Kane Lakes, (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The Jesuits like Bressani were responsible for much of the early mapping of Canada, but in the 1800’s the missions and religious mapping was assumed by the Religious Institute of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This order was founded in 1816 in Paris with the motto that meant Right to the ends of the Earth! and they lived up to this when they established their first mission in Canada in 1841 with a focus on Canada’s north along the Mackenzie River Valley. Long-bearded and black robed, the Oblate fathers became well known to the Natives, but none more so than Father Emile Petitot.

Petitot came to the Mackenzie River in 1862 only two weeks after he was ordained. He stayed for twelve years, most of the time travelling with Native companions through the uncharted north from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean and between the Mackenzie and Laird rivers. He made detailed observations of the Native communities, down to the condition of their teeth and the level of stammerers in specific populations. He learned much of the Native means of living including the guiding marks they placed on river channels to show which were open and which were dead ends. He made maps that set out geographic data of the interior of the northern basin, and discovered the Riviere a Ronciere-Le Noury—a river that geographers denied existed for eighty years, until aerial photography proved Petitot was right.

Quebec churchyard. (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Petitot’s maps made him something of a celebrity in Paris, Ottawa and London, but he was also watched closely by his superiors. Historians describe Petitot as something of an absent-minded dreamer who longed for long voyages, but who also was apt to freeze his fingers because he’d forget to wear his mittens. As well, his missionary duties went something by the wayside. He spoke native dialects fluently and was accepted by the Native groups he met, but he had some unfortunate predilections towards young native men and was excommunicated at one point. Mental illness also plagued him. He variously predicted the end of the world,  proclaimed his superior had murdered Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and could become erratic and violent. During these dark spells he would be tied down and placed under guard to stop him from running naked in the snow. It was not until 1882 that he was quietly placed in a Montreal mental hospital after which he returned to France for good.

Petitot’s departure ushered in an era where the religious orders were no longer so prominent in Canadian cartography. But their memory lives on in the ranks of Canada’s memorable cartographers: the devout, the brave, the mad.



Powell’s Books: A glimpse inside the cartographer’s mind

Powell’s Books: A glimpse inside the cartographer’s mind

Gondolas, Venice (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The other day at Powell’s Books (Portland), I came across a wonderful little book called “The Mapmaker’s Dream” by James Cowan. The book is the translation of the diary of Fra Mauro, a sixteenth century Venetian monk and cartographer who set out to make a perfect mappamundi (map of the world) though he had never stepped outside the confines of his cloisters. Instead he gathered travelers’ tales through exchanges of letters or interviews of missionaries, merchants and soldiers travelling through Venice. His task became well known and he received envoys from as far afield as the court of the Chinese Emperor. Not only was this book astounding for the fact that word of his venture travelled so far in the 16th century, but the information he collected and the workings of his mind fascinated me.

Yes, his travelers brought stories of the Cyclopedes, beings in the southern hemisphere with only one huge foot that they used for hopping and also for shade when the sun in the antipodes became too fierce, but envoys also brought other tales that caused good Fra Mauro much reflection. This was what captured my attention for they showed a keenness of mind and a shifting view of the world much like new age philosophers. This seemed strange for his time; given Fra Mauro was a devout Catholic.

His encounters left him pondering whether the soul could possibly transmigrate into another person upon the death of the body and whether we are ‘all drifting towards a more complete life in someone else’. The visit of an old Jewish merchant from Rhodes left him contemplating how the loss of place (in the holy land) ‘condemned the man to inhabit his loss forever’ and how the rootless person came to inhabit a region of his own mind instead.

Schwedigon pagoda
Holy Schwedigon pagoda at sunset, Yangon, Myanmar (Photo (C) Karen Abrahamson)

Visits from others left him considering how venerated holy relics become something more because of that veneration, and how those objects take on their own life because they unite an idea that men aspire to. They left him wondering at cultures that worshiped Satan and yet were not evil, and others that determined their actions and their future through the calls of seven forest birds.

But most of all he wrote of the minds of travelers. He was struck by the notion that travelers not only travelled with their bodies, but also that they travelled in their minds and were transformed by that travel or, alternatively, transformed the place they had been. He wrote of the journeys of envoys sent to find the mythic kingdom of Prestor John and looked at the evidence of such a kingdom – the long letter still held in the Vatican archives that describes a kingdom so perfect it could not possibly exist. Fra Mauro concluded that the reason the search for Prestor John’s kingdom became all consuming, was not just the desire for aid against the Moslem hordes, but the desire to know that it was possible for paradise to exist on earth. Travelers longed to become ‘slaves’ to Prestor John’s perfection and bounty. But the country of Prestor John would never be found because it was only built on dreams.

Buddha face, Sukhothai
Buddha face, ruins of the ancient capital of Sukhothai (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ultimately, Fra Mauro realized the challenge of creating a perfect map arose because each man’s perceptions of place were different and any ‘perfect’ map must capture not only the land forms, but also the forms of the world created by men’s minds.

The lowly monk of Venice completed his life’s work, but today no trace of his perfect mappamundi exists, except in references in the pages of his journal. Perhaps, like the worlds he described, it faded away to become the world as we know it today, but more importantly what his journal shows is a man of deep thought who’s Sixteenth Century perspectives still resonate with readers today.

Thank you, Powell’s, for this gift.

Seeking Prestor John: We’re All Looking for Rescue

Seeking Prestor John: We’re All Looking for Rescue

Last week I talked about the legend of paradise contained in Saint Brendan’s Island and how that legend persisted through 1200 years of exploration. Explorers and Kings were looking for safety, and a way to return to the promised land. Perhaps, like a lot of us, they were looking for a return to a simpler time and hoped for someone to help in a time of dire need. This gave rise to another long-lasting legend – that of Prestor John.

Prestor (short for Presbyter) John was rumored to be a Christian King whose kingdom existed far to the east in Asia – or maybe it was Africa. That was sort of the trouble. The kingdom shifted and moved around the landscape, eluding the best explorers sent out by Popes and kings. But the myth of Prestor John held sway for many years with embellishments and details that included Prestor John’s Pedigree- right back to none other than King David.

Rumors of Prestor John’s kingdom began in 1150 – right about the middle of the Crusades and the Catholic Church’s intent to spread Christianity across the world. The legendary king was apparently a Christian King who had risen up and battled and beaten the Musselmen ( or the Moors, as the people of the Moslem east were then known) and become a powerful emperor. His presence became a symbol of hope in a time when the Christian west was at war with the ‘infidel’ in the holy land and the specter of infidel invasion disturbed the sleep of many western nobility and religious leaders.

The sudden hope and the belief in these rumors led to multiple dispatches of faithful retainers to find the mythic kingdom. Many never returned, but some traveled far to the east and actually met with the Mogul Khan, dispelling the myth that the Christian Kingdom existed in Asia.

But it also led to maps.

Yes, adventurers like Marco Polo gave detailed descriptions and maps of the places they had been (including the location of Prestor John’s Kingdom somewhere in China). More importantly, maps gained in value as European leaders sought to move people across the continent to the battles in the holy land. This led to the creation of pilgrim’s guidebooks, a type of map. The need to move such large numbers of men and equipment resulted in the enlisting of Venetian and Genoese merchants. The needs of such merchants for shipping ports, and the wealth of groups like the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaler led to the Holy Land becoming a mercantile centre for the movement of trade from Asia to Europe. The European hunger for spice and ‘things eastern’ involved Europeans in trade both in overland missions across the Asian continent and on coastal journeys along the southern Asian coast. Which led, by the 1300s to a renaissance of awareness of Asia and its wealth and the resulting creation of new maps.

But in the meantime it meant that Prestor John’s Kingdom shifted to the darkness of what was then called Abyssinia – a belief that still held sway as Europe began its shift towards the Age of Exploration. Figures central to the dawn of the exploration age still hoped that Africa might contain Prestor John’s Christians who could help against the Moors. Which makes me wonder if the enduring cold war of the 1950s, 60s and 70s might have influenced the rise of the SETI project. Perhaps we were looking for help ‘out there’ like the hope Prestor John provided to those long ago Christians.

Which begs the question: where are we going to be looking next?

Cuzco Conversion

Cuzco Conversion

I’ve now been in Cuzco for three days and I have to say I really like this city. People are friendly. The scenery is beautiful with red-tile roofs swirling across and up the sides of the valley like a terra cotta wine in a glass. There are 16th Century churches, camposinos on the corners, wild and wooly local markets and beautiful, quiet parks where I can sit in the shade and think. There are lovely old mansions surrounding the Plaza des Armas, that have their second floors converted to restaurants so you can sit in a screened alcove and peer out old carved windows at the colorful crowds in the plaza. I guess, that’s the theme for Cuzco – conversion.

Old Camposino Woman. She shows such strength. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Old Camposino Woman. She shows such strength. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Today is Sunday and election day, but the city has been magnificently quiet all things considered. Stores were open (at least tourist ones were), and there were none of the rallies and rousing music I’ve come to associate with this election. I spent the morning climbing out of Cuzco proper to the ancient site of Sacsaywaman – one of the last strongholds of the Inca before the Spanish finally triumphed – and, in the ancient city plan (where streets formed a puma), Sacsaywaman was the part that formed the head.

It’s a long climb: first up steep, cobbled streets that are slippery enough cars must take a run to reach the top. Then follow the road until a cobbled path leads you into a pass between two of the hills surrounding the city. I kept telling myself that if I couldn’t do this then I had no business even contemplating Machu Picchu. The old heart was pumping and I was gulping in air, but I made it and, sweating, handed in my entry ticket.

A ruined wall at Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
A ruined wall at Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

There was virtually no one there at 8:30 in the morning. A few alpaca grazed the green grass between the two sets of ruins. The great stone towers are gone, but the zigzag line of battlements that form the teeth of the Puma of ancient Cuzco, still jut into the ancient field. Instead of ritual sacrifice or battle cries, there were birds and butterflies and horses grazing in the next field over.

I climbed to the top of the exposed rocks and sat there in the sun. A friend had asked me to soak up the feel of the place and I have to say all I felt was silence, just as yesterday, when I travelled out to the Sacred Valley and Pisac fortress, there was just the wind through the fallen stone.

The terraces of Pisac with the ruins of the fortress on the bluff behind (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
The terraces of Pisac with the ruins of the fortress on the bluff behind (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

This was a great civilization, but it lasted only through a hundred years of expansion, before being blasted into oblivion by Pizzaro’s conquest. The Inca way was to take over a territory and subsume the local belief system into their own. Walking around Cuzco today I was more aware than ever of the thievery of conquest. Every cathedral, church and convent in this city is built on the remains of an ancient Incan palace or temple and they are built of stones robbed from said palaces and Sacsaywaman.

As I drove out to Pisac yesterday, my driver started talking about this. He is born of Spanish and Quechua (local Indian)-speaking parents, and I could hear the anger in his voice, which came back to me as I toured the great Cathedral of Cuzco. Every blasted surface of the place is gilded with gold or silver plate – probably robbed from the ancient temples. (Did you know that crazy old Puno was once called the City of Silver because during Incan times one street was actualy paved with it?) But most of all I was struck by the stark contrast to the ruins I’ve seen. Clean stone and narrow ways that give onto vistas. Perched on the heights, the ruins were automatically closer to Incan Apus and the sun.

The churches, however are encrusted with treasure and filled to the brim with figures of Christ and Mary of the mountains (an attempt to convert people from their worship of Pachamama- the earth mother), and I swear every other saint or maybe-saint known to man, as if said cathedral was looking for safety in numbers from what lurked beyond its doors. There is figure after figure in niche after niche, and altar after altar in chapel after cloister until I felt almost sick with the panoply and actually longed for the clean lines of the ruins.

I realized then that what the Spanish did in Peru, wasn’t really a matter of civilizing the people, but, like the Incas before them, was instead a matter of trading one form of Idolatry for another.

Cuzco's Plaza des Armas and the red roofs of the city from Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Cuzco's Plaza des Armas and the red roofs of the city from Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Zen and the Art of Travel

Zen and the Art of Travel

This topic came to mind as I was running around through the frantic holiday seasons. Too many people, packed too close together and all of them trying to get too much done too fast under too much pressure. No wonder there were so many unhappy faces. I’ve seen the same look of tension on my face when I’m in the midst of a novel and things don’t feel like they’re working well. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called writing colleagues and gained their help to talk me through days of angst and despondency.

The same sort of tension can be experienced when you travel.

Ranakpur - old temple worker and the Zen of repetitive work (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Ranakpur - old temple worker and the Zen of repetitive work (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

You’re in a strange place, with a strange language so you can’t express yourself and as a writer that’s something you need to do. You don’t understand the logic or the cultural norms of the place and the people and that alone is frustrating. The fact you don’t necessarily know where you are, or how to get to the place you want to go, all add to the tension and vulnerability a traveler feels. This not knowing how to get from point A to point B (or even what point B should be) are both anxieties a writer feels, too.

So how do you react?

I know that both at home and abroad, when I’ve felt vulnerable and tense I’ve barked at people—and usually felt bad about it afterwards. The trouble is, we North Americans feel quite comfortable showing our displeasure at something. Often it’s a matter of blaming someone else for how we are feeling, but that’s not the way it is in most parts of the world. In many parts of the world just showing such negative emotion is considered rude—or worse.

My lesson in this came travelling in Burma. There I was, all 6 foot 1+ of me about to travel by local bus from Yangon to fabled Mandalay. I was careful. I did the right things. I made sure I was on an air-conditioned vehicle, had a seat by the window, and that I wasn’t at the rear of the bus. Well the best laid plans oft go awry, they say, and so it was for me. The first clue was when I arrived at the bus. Sure I had a window seat and I wasn’t at the rear. Nope. I was seated over the left front wheel well which meant that all the foot room in the seat was gone.

Okay, tension there.

Then it turned out my seat partner was a stout little man who was wide enough (or I was – it’s all a matter of perspective) that it was impossible for us both to lean back in our seat at the same time.

Okay, frosted now.

So we leave Yangon with me fuming and travel north into the dry lands south of Pagan and the air conditioning broke down. (Did I mention that NOTHING works in Burma?) And then the bus overheated so we had to keep stopping to cool the engine. And on. And on. And on. For hours.

I was furious. I was fuming.

Until I noticed something.

That stout little man never once leaned back and he never once stopped smiling.

 He shared his foot space with me and every time we came to a stop, he made sure I got off the bus, got food and found my way around. The entire group of passengers took me under their wing, laughing when I doused my head under a water tap, being gracious when I shared my snacks (Good old M and Ms travel exceedingly well) and making sure I got back on the bus in time.  What I learned from those people was patience. When my legs cramped up from their position or the heat became unbearable, I just had to look at my Buddha-shaped travel companion to remind myself that the Buddhist philosophy is that all things pass away, and so, too, would this bus ride.

Offering bowl and flame, Wat Phra Keaw, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok (1997) Photo (c) Karen AbrahamsonAnd really, in the whole scheme of things, how bad was a twelve hour bus ride anyway? I made friends, I saw the country and I learned a vital skill that helps me to this day in my writing and travel.


For every bad day, for every time that the words have to be pulled like hot coals from my brain or my wrists burn with pain, or I’m lost in another country, this too will pass. And when it’s over I’ll have learned so much along the way.

You’re Going Where?

You’re Going Where?

Okay, so I’m going to Peru. I’m going to follow the Gringo Loop and hike the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

 Or at least that’s the plan. If food poisoning and altitude sickness don’t get me first.

But then neither of them has ever stopped me before. You see, I like to travel. I like to travel just as much as I like to write fiction and so I thought I’d combine my two passions in a blog as I get ready for the trip and as I hike (uphill both ways) to Machu Picchu.

A lot of people ask me how I decide where I want to go. Yes, I’ve been to ‘normal places’ in Europe, but mostly I travel a bit off the beaten path. I’ve traveled through East and West Africa by truck. I’ve spent three months in northern India travelling by train, bus, jeep and, dare I say, camel.  I spent two months travelling the Silk Road through China and made side journeys to the Tibetan highlands. I’ve travelled in Egypt, Burma, and Cambodia and lived in Thailand. A good friend described my travel as going to all the weird places in the world. Of course he followed it up with the question “Why don’t you go someplace normal? Like Palm Springs? Like Florida?”

Answering that question is a lot like answering a best-selling author who, when I told her I was writing a suspense novel with romantic overtones set in Afghanistan,  asked to me why in god’s name I would write something like that.

The answer?

Why not?

Besides, it was something I was interested in. It was something far away and foreign that I wanted to understand. That inspiration became Ashes and Light, it was just after the invasion of Afghanistan and I wanted to understand what was happening in that country. I’d enjoyed Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, but I wanted to write something that was more mainstream, that would reach into the hearts of readers who wouldn’t read The Kite Runner and provide them with insights that might explain – even a little bit – the misunderstandings that were brewing between Islam and the rest of the world. My travels to northwest India and far western China—areas that enjoy similarities of people, religion, culture and landscape with Afghanistan—all helped me with the book.

While the Afghan story arose from a cerebral process, sometimes the idea for a story or destination arises from something far simpler. Sometimes it’s another traveler’s tale. Sometimes it’s a photo. In the case of Peru, it was two postcards: One was a framed postcard in my doctor’s office of a traditionally dressed Peruvian girl peeking out from behind a brightly striped blanket. There was something so fresh and lovely in her face that it made me want to meet people like her. The other post card was of Machu Picchu and was from my parents who were on a world cruise. Unfortunately, they couldn’t visit the ancient Inca site because they are 83 years old and if the altitude sickness didn’t get them, the uneven ground would have. 

So part of my reason for going to Peru is to bring the feel of Peru back to my folks. And that’s what I see travel as being—one part inspiration, one part imagination, and a whole lot of hard work and a magnificent gift—when it works. A lot like writing a book.

So I leave for Peru on March 25, 2011. Come on along, if you like, and I’ll try to get us through without the food poisoning and altitude sickness.

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