My holiday reading has been almost as lacklustre as the UK summer weather, with a few notable exceptions.
Atlas of Vanishing Places (Travis Elborough, Aurum, 2022) is an interesting collection of exploration, research and anecdotes relating to forgotten lands and ancient cities, such as Xanadu, Petra, Alexandria, London’s River Fleet, Timbuktu, Venice, The Dead Sea, The Great Wall and many other lost sites. It is an account of the complex threats, historical, ecological, cultural, human, that exist to our global heritage including the pilfering of stones from The Great Wall of China by souvenir hunters! The work is an atlas as described, with different entries for each place, and therefore quite difficult to read from front to back, especially on kindle. In fact my complaints are not about content at all but about production qualities, none of which I imagine would have applied to the original hard copy. This is definitely not a book that translates to an e-reader.
“For as long as anyone could remember, there’d been a small island lying roughly 5400m off the coast from Sarufutsu villiage on the northern tip of Hokkaido. It wasn’t much to write home about and was less uninhabited than almost entirely uninhabitable by humans; a truly unwelcoming, frigid, wind- and snow-lashed piece of rock.”
This hostile piece of rock known as Esanbehanakitakojima, floating in the chilly waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, was nevertheless considered important to Japan as part of the definition of its territorial waters.
I say ‘was’ because the island has vanished.
The authors write: “It’s possible that it was eroded over time, or that it’s surface area gradually sunk beneath the sea.”
A stark reminder of land masses that have disappeared throughout time, and will continue to do so as the oceans rise. The world’s oceans are currently warming much faster than previously thought.
The story of Xanadu is like the game of Chinese Whispers, the author says, an ever changing story which becomes more and more distorted as it passes from hand to hand. Coleridge’s famous poem
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
was inspired by reading an account of the travels of Marco Polo contained in a seventeenth century travel book by one Samuel Purchas.
“It was a volume filled with wild accounts of voyages to far flung and exotic lands… .Among them was something taken from Marco Polo’s reminiscences…”
Kubla Khan was the grandson of Genghis, fearsome leader of the mongol empire and subject of many a Disney movie. In Kubla Khan’s time (1260) the city of Xanadu he had built was used as his capital on the plains in Northern China. It was laid out over 96 square miles but later fell into ruin and disrepair. It seemed odd to me that this section of the book made no mention of the work of William Dalrymple who travelled to Xanadu in the footsteps of Marco Polo and published his book In Xanadu in 1990.
I did enjoy reading sections of Atlas of Vanishing Places although I did wonder if it tried to do too much. Also the text can feel a little clinical. As I mentioned, many of the maps and photographs were poorly reproduced on kindle. A great deal of research, travel and effort must have gone into the making of this book and I felt it would be more enjoyable in hardback coffee table edition with colour maps and photographs. And maybe that is how the book was originally produced. I hope so. Although there is a selected bibliography, there is little reference in the text of the massive corpus of writings that already exist on these vanished lands.
I am grateful to the publisher and to Netgalley for allowing me a review copy.