Prisoners of Geography – Maps that Matter (Part 2)

Maps that matter: Asia
Credits: Fernando Vicente

Part 1 of Prisoners of Geography here.

The Middle of What? East of Where?

The Middle East had few country borders, after the first world war.

The area was subdivided and governed according to ethnicity and religion, but there were no real attempts to create nation-states.

Then the Europeans came.

Because they had done such a “great” job in Africa, and they were used to draw lines on maps. Again, these were lines that did not exist in reality, and their sudden existence created some of the most artificial borders in the world.
An attempt is unfortunately now made to redraw them in blood

The so-called Middle East is home to the largest continuous sand desert in the world, an area the size of France.

I learned a bit about how Islam has been separated in Sunni and Shia since year 633, which created huge doctrinal disputes that continue to this day.. and hit all the more close to home.

The radicals from IS which murdered people and captured territory, also seized on an area important in the internet age: psychological space

They became generation jackass jihadi.

Tim talks a lot about the implications of the artificial borders drawn up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, whose consequences are still reverberating throughout the Middle East and beyond.

India and Pakistan

Mountains may ensure peaceful coexistence between India and China but not with India and Pakistan. The two countries can agree on one thing: neither wants the other one around – which is all the more difficult given the fact that they share a quite sizable border.

Read it. You’ll learn a lot. (as always, with Tim’s book)

How do you Solve a Problem like Korea?

The geography of the peninsula is fairly uncomplicated and serves as a real reminder of how artificial the division is between North and South.

How do you Solve a Problem like Korea?

You don’t, you just manage it. Although looking at the recent fire & fury Trump sputters, even that’s been made increasingly difficult lately. We’re living in times where history is being written. I only hope it draws from the past and avoids irreparable mistakes.


Latin America

South America is proof that even if you bring the Old World’s knowledge and technology to the new world, if geography is against you – then you will have limited success. Especially if you get the politics wrong.

Just as the geography of the USA helped the country become a great power, Tim Marshall believes it’s geography that’s holding the South American continent behind. With no individual country to challenge the North American giant alone, nor come together to do so collectively.

Take for example Brazil, and the River Amazon. It may be navigable in parts, but its banks are muddy and the surrounding land makes it difficult to build on. This also seriously limits the profitable land available around it, and no matter how many forests the farmers will burn to plant their crops, the land will eventually turn against them.

To be seen if humanity will eventually place more value on our lungs or our bellies. 

If you’re curious why Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, or how… well, you’ll have to read the book.

A Chilling Thought of a Melting Arctic

The chapter on the Arctic is chilling… There’s a lot going on up north! It was a good touch, rounding the book with the last chapter covering the Arctic.

The Arctic Ocean is 5.4 million square miles; and while it is the world’s smallest ocean, it’s still almost as big as Russia, and one and a half times the size of the USA.

Because its geography is changing rapidly, it’s in the process of undergoing a real struggle for influence, which other regions have been going through for centuries.

The effects of global warming are now showing more than ever: the ice is melting, allowing easier access, coinciding with the discovery of natural resources and the development of technology to get at them…

There currently are at least nine legal disputes and claims over sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean, all legally complicated. One of the most brazen comes from the Russians: Moscow has already put a marker down – a long way down. In 2007 it sent two manned submersibles 13,980 feet below the waves to the seabed of the North Pole and planted a rust-proof titanium Russian flag as a statement of ambition.

Not much of a surprise there, is it?


“Geography has always been a prison of sorts, one that defines what a nation is & can be”

In the words of New York Times, Tim Marshall’s insistence on seeing the world through the lens of geography compels a fresh way of looking at maps — not just as objects for orientation or works of art, but as guideposts to the often thorny relations between nations. 

Although all chapters could become books in themselves, it would be difficult to find a similar book able to cover worldwide geopolitics so well.

My take: Read it! You’ll be a far more educated global citizen 😉

Part 1 of Prisoners of Geography here.


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