Excuse me, but there’s something wrong with your map, I was told the other day.
Well, first of all: it wasn’t my map. I was speaking about the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s with a group of students, and had “borrowed” the 1976 map accessible via the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry Castaneda online map collection – a tremendous resource for any map nerd.
This is the map I was using (and yes, I fully credited UT Austin):
Back to my corrector.
What do you see that looks wrong? I asked, thinking: he must have seen the “U.S.S.R.” and missed the whole “The Middle East in 1976” caption. Annoying, but at least an easier question to address than, for example, What’s that diamond-shaped “Neutral Zone” between Iraq and Saudi Arabia? which to be quite frank is a mystery to me as well.
But my questioner wasn’t vexed by the lingering presence of godless Communism. Nor was he troubled by small diamonds, neutral or otherwise.
This map shows two Yemens, my corrector said.
There were two Yemens, I said, but they have been united since 1990.
There were two Yemens? another student asked. Really? asked a third.
A roomful of eyes looked at me, shocked. And I looked back.
I should have been happy that at least they all knew of Yemen, and could find it on a map. Instead, I just felt that it was time to stock up on a more powerful anti-wrinkle cream.
Oscar Williamson, at Queen Mary University of London, wrote in with a much-appreciated explanation of the map’s little diamond:
The diamond was the Iraq – Saudi Arabia Neutral Zone. Historically the main political unit in the area was based on tribe, rather than territory. Since the tribes moved about, fixed borders were impractical. However, the British really liked maps and in 1922 insisted that Ibn Saud define his northern border. He didn’t want casual inter tribe conflict to be interpreted as acts of war, so the Neutral Zone was created, with enough cartographical significance to satisfy the British and the practical irrelevance to prevent the unnecessary formalities of interstate wars over tribal slights.
In 1981 Saudi and Iraq signed a treaty to divide the NZ between them, but the legality of this treaty is debatable. Treaties have to be lodged at a public depository, such as the United Nations Secretary General, but neither party did this, or indeed informed anyone of this change to their territories. The NZ officially ceased to exist when Saudi Arabia deposited this and other treaties with the UN in 1991, partly to stop CNN referring to bits of KSA as Iraq.
Fascinating. And who knew that we would have CNN to thank for clearing up a messy little border issue?