Knowledge of the topography south of the Dead Sea was virtually nonexistent among the western scholars and mapmakers until the 19th century. It was the travels of people like Ulrich Jasper Seetzen and John Lewis Burckhardt that brought awareness of the huge rift that divided the east and the west. Before the 19th century the topography south of the Dead Sea was filled in on the maps according to the more or less educated guesses of the cartographers, who based themselves mainly on the Biblical descriptions of the Exodus.
Below is a selection of maps from the past centuries, showing some of the solutions that the different cartographers came up with, for the elusive area south of the Dead Sea.

The Tabula Peutingeriana

The Peutinger table is the oldest existing map that shows the region between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. It was named after Konrad Peutinger, who inherited it in 1508. It was a 13th century copy, on vellum, of a 4th century Roman military map depicting roads, towns and general geography of the Empire. Segmentum IX shows the eastern road that leads from Philadelphia, via Raba Batora, Thornia (Tuwana), Negla (Shobak), Petris, Zadagatta (Sadaqa), Hauarra (Humayma), Praesidio (Kh. al-Khalde, in W. Yutm), to Hayla (Aila). Another road runs west of the Wadi, through the Negev, and the roads are connected by a crossroad through the Wadi Arabah from Zoar through Thamaro (either En Hazeva or Mezad Tamar).


The Turkish Empire - John Speed, London 1626

This detail of a copperplate map by John Speed shows that the existence of the Wadi Arabah was unknown to 17th century cartographers. In fact, everything south of the Dead Sea was terra incognita, and both geographical features and sites were put in more or less randomly. Note especially the position of Mount Sinai and St. Catharine's Monastery, both east of the Red Sea.


Totius Terrae Sanctae Delineatio

A map dated to 1686, designed by the German historical geographer Philipp Cluver (1580-1622), and published in his Introductio in universam geographiam. Engraved by the Flemish cartographer Petrus Bertius in 1686. Cluver's geography is based on the wanderings of the Israelites through the desert. The dotted line on the map is his interpretation of these wanderings, and he has included a number of places and geographical features along the route: Montana Seir is found opposite Desertum Zin; Elath, Phunon and Oboth are placed along the route. The Wadi Arabah as such, however, does not feature on the map, and it is obvious that cartographers in general were unaware of its existence.


The Red Sea or Arabic Gulf - Niebuhr 1762

Carsten Niebuhr's map of the Red Sea, taken from personal observations by him, mainly along the coast, lines out the Sinai desert in considerable detail, but shows a complete blank for the region of the Wadi Arabah. Niebuhr himself states in his diary: "We made too much of a haste of our journey to ever come to know the inner parts of the country".


Map of Judaea by Peter Schenk

Map designed by the Dutch cartographer Peter Schenk in the beginning of the 18th century, and copper-printed by Schleijer in Amsterdam in 1792. The border between Judah and Seir, or 'Steenagtig Arabie' (a literal translation of 'Arabia Petraea') runs due west from the south end of the Dead Sea. Schenk's uncertainty about the topography in this region is expressed by a remark he put in the south part of the Dead Sea: "According to D’Anrillen and Bachiene the Dead Sea runs east here, but according to Busching and others it runs west. This is still uncertain.”


Johann Ludwig Burckhardt: Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, 1822

After his discovery of Petra, Burckhardt travelled to Egypt, crossing the Wadi Arabah. He was not the first western traveller to describe the Wadi, because Ulrich Jasper Seetzen had preceded him by a few years. But Seetzen had died, and his work was not published until the 1850's, so Burckhardt's map is actually the first map that shows the Wadi Arabah. Burckhardt himself observed: “The existence of the valley El Araba appears to have been unknown both to ancient and modern geographers, although it forms a prominent feature in the topography of Syria and Arabia Petræa. It deserves to be thoroughly investigated.”