Ok, you know I love history. And even more, geography. No book brings the two together like a good world history atlas. 
Not a book full of maps that were made hundreds of years ago. Those are cool, too, but a real world history atlas is a book of maps made today that look backward through time, reflecting the latest understanding of and research on the past.
So you want to know the extent of the Inca empire, and what were its major cities? What was the capital of the Ottoman Empire? Where were its borders? What were the major cities of Europe in the 1300s? What were the nations or empires? How had things changed since 1200? Which cities had the main cathedrals? What were the centers of trade? During the colonial era, how did England and France and the others divide up most of Africa and the rest of the world? When did Islam arrive in Indonesia and by what route did it get there? Where were the major battles of the Civil War – or the Peloponnesian War? What was the Mughal Empire – when and where? How much land did the Hapsburgs control? (Lots!)
Only a good historical atlas can quickly answer all these questions and more. The best ones contain large numbers of beautiful, detailed, full-color maps. I can stare at these maps and let my imagination run wild – picturing the kings and queens, palaces and battlefields of the past. Visualizing Constantinople or Rome – or Teotihuacan – at their peak. Or even New Amsterdam (New York).
Many historical atlases also have text and tabular information that enlightens the student of history.
So you can understand that these are among my very favorite titles. I think – I hope – I have a copy of every historical atlas created in the last 30 or 40 years. Picking a fave is not easy. So I won’t even try. Instead I will just direct you to a few good picks. 
Some of the ones shown at the right are out of print, but you can find plenty of used copies. (www.abebooks.com is always an excellent source for out of print books.) Being a bit older doesn’t affect these books too much, because you don’t really buy them just to have a map of the Iraq war. The good thing about history is that most of it happened some time ago. So a 1990 historical atlas is about 99.9% as good as a 2009 one. As a result, publishers tend not to update them very frequently, and unfortunately let them go out of print. 
This also means that you might get lucky and find these books, which are sometimes huge volumes, on the bargain book table. Presently, Barnes & Noble stores and their website are offering a good historical atlas for about $18; look for the Atlas of World History by John Haywood with an introduction by Barry Cunliffe, or go to this link (I am not yet set up with B&N to show their book covers on my website): http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Atlas-of-World-History/John-Haywood/e/9781435115484/?itm=1&USRI=world+history+atlas+cunliffe.  
Another favorite, a larger and more comprehensive book, is DK’s (Dorling Kindersley’s) World History Atlas: Mapping the Human Journey, shown at the right. This book is exceptional, as are The Times’ and Oxford’s big books, also shown. 
Get any of these books, and go time-travelling in style. Make sure and go slow – don’t try to digest these books in 15 minutes!



  1. Hi Gary –

    World History Atlases are my favorite books too. The DK World History Atlas is my favorite nonfiction book I own. It packs a concentrated shot of education in the pictures and terse text.

    The ones you recommend are tops. Many books titled “world history atlas” are real stinkers. You have to poke around inside to gauge quality.

    I suggest DK’s Battle book too. Since so much history results from war, this book graphically shows how civilizations came into conflict, and how the battles were fought and won.

    DK should come out with a “Commerce” book as well. Similar to the Battle book, but how goods and services have influnced the human journey.

    – Sean Mast

  2. Why am I not surprised, Sean?

    Great minds think alike … at least once in a while. If I recall correctly, John Mackey of Whole Foods Market fame also likes historical atlases. They have so much information packed so tightly and beautifully!

    I also have the DK Battle book and was considering recommending it on hooversworld.

    And just last weekend I was thinking about a “commerce” like DK book — my thought was a 1 or 2 page spread on the top 200 business people (or their companies) and entrepreneurs of US history. I have already started the list! Many are already written in the Ingham business biography reference book which I recently recommended.

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