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A Historical Atlas of Tibet

Cradled among the world’s highest mountains—and sheltering one of its most devout religious communities—Tibet is, for many of us, an ultimate destination, a place that touches the heavens, a place only barely in our world, at its very end. In recent decades Western fascination with Tibet has soared, from the rise of Tibetan studies in academia to the rock concerts aimed at supporting its independence to the simple fact that most of us—far from any base camp—know exactly what a sherpa is. And yet any sustained look into Tibet as a place, any attempt to find one’s way around its high plateaus and through its deep history, will yield this surprising fact: we have barely mapped it. With this atlas, Karl E. Ryavec rights that wrong, sweeping aside the image of Tibet as Shangri-La and putting in its place a comprehensive vision of the region as it really is, a civilization in its own right. And the results are absolutely stunning.

The product of twelve years of research and eight more of mapmaking, A Historical Atlas of Tibet documents cultural and religious sites across the Tibetan Plateau and its bordering regions from the Paleolithic and Neolithic times all the way up to today. It ranges through the five main periods in Tibetan history, offering introductory maps of each followed by details of western, central, and eastern regions. It beautifully visualizes the history of Tibetan Buddhism, tracing its spread throughout Asia, with thousands of temples mapped, both within Tibet and across North China and Mongolia, all the way to Beijing. There are maps of major polities and their territorial administrations, as well as of the kingdoms of Guge and Purang in western Tibet, and of Derge and Nangchen in Kham. There are town plans of Lhasa and maps that focus on history and language, on population, natural resources, and contemporary politics.

Extraordinarily comprehensive and absolutely gorgeous, this overdue volume will be a cornerstone in cartography, Asian studies, Buddhist studies, and in the libraries or on the coffee tables of anyone who has ever felt the draw of the landscapes, people, and cultures of the highest place on Earth. 

216 pages | 121 color plates, 36 halftones, 2 tables | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2015

Geography: Cartography, Cultural and Historical Geography, Geography--Reference

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


“Following two decades of research, Ryavec expertly presents the historical and cultural transformations of Tibet since the Palaeolithic period through a series of forty-nine maps supplemented by detailed keys, essays, and accompanying photographs. The first work of its kind, A Historical Atlas of Tibet is a beautiful reference book of value to a range of scholars and students including historians, anthropologists, historical geographers, and digital cartographers.”

Tim Chamberlain | LSE Review of Books

“Ryavec, an American academic and trained geographer, spent over a decade on this ambitious project, laboring to capture Tibet’s full majesty in cartographic form. Through his forty-nine gorgeous maps, plus many vivid photographs and illustrations, Ryavec presents us Tibet from the prehistoric to the imperial to the modern eras, delving into the languages, natural resources, administration, and religion of the entire region. . . . Will enchant and inform any lover of maps.”

Dan Zigmond | Tricycle

“With the proliferation of high-quality online cartographic resources, it sometimes becomes necessary to defend, or at least explain, the value of printed atlases. A Historical Atlas of Tibet is a wonderful answer for doubters. Ryavec offers a well-researched, beautifully executed work with a useful introduction showing maps of major regions, current political boundaries, and natural features. The material provides context for readers (especially those with limited knowledge of the region) and illuminates material covered in later chapters. One especially interesting map is ‘Travel Time from Lhasa in Weekly Increments.’ The simple concentric circles of this graphic and the text describing it efficiently and effectively convey the limitations of travel in this mountainous area. Four chapters, each covering a specific time period, make up the bulk of the atlas. Maps within shed light on the history of Tibet through changes in territorial administration, distribution of cultural and religious sites, and other spatial phenomena. Text accompanying maps guides readers through the information presented. Ample photographs of cultural sites, landscapes, and historical artifacts enliven the book. This terrific example of the synthesis of historical research and cartography is well cited throughout, providing an excellent introduction to the region's history and a companion to related textual works. . . . Highly recommended.”


“A rich and informative reference work, an essential addition to the shelves of any Tibetologist, historical scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, or indeed historian of China, and the rewarding focus of many hours of study.”

Mountain Research and Development

"Ryavec’s book not only provides geospatial coordinates for religious and cultural sites in Inner and East Asia; it also employs the full mapmaker’s toolbox to spatialize and temporalize population, language, and natural resources. In the richly illustrated pages of this unique and overdue contribution, readers see Buddhist life as just one component part of an entire physical, cultural, political, and economic topography."

Religious Studies Review

“With technical knowledge and skill in his field of geography, Professor Ryavec presents a coherent description of the spatial expanse of Tibetan culture. The explanatory representations of maps and graphs reveal new aspects of the region, often obscured by a lack of exact knowledge. This volume brings Tibet to the surface of the earth and in doing so gives us a clearer picture of its uniqueness and its long term influence across the Eastern reaches of Eurasia.”

Lewis Lancaster, University of California, Berkeley

“This may well be the best historical atlas of our time. Combining a hard-won mastery of Tibetan history and geography with an equally impressive command of digital cartography, Ryavec has revealed the contours of Tibet in unprecedented, radiant detail. Some forty-nine meticulous maps—ranging widely over time, space, and theme—are supplemented with reader-friendly keys, succinct essays, well-chosen photos, and extensive scholarly notes. The result is a landmark work in every way. Pore over these pages for a new understanding of how livelihood, sovereignty, ethnicity, and belief have intersected to shape one of the most complex and celebrated landscapes on the globe. A must-have for every serious library.”

Kären Wigen, coeditor of Cartographic Japan

“This is, quite simply, an incredible advance for Tibetan studies and Asian studies in general. Nothing of the kind exists elsewhere—these easily readable, beautiful maps are a tremendous contribution, for their scope and ambition, and for the innovative approach their maker has taken with them, such as the fascinating incorporation of long-scale timeframes. The result is one of the most up-to-date overviews of Tibetan history, grounded by a deep familiarity with primary and secondary data and distilled into a gorgeous format.” 

Gray Tuttle, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Table of Contents

Notes on Gazetteer: Phonetic and Literary Romanization
A Note on Sources


Map 1. Tibet and the Tibetan culture region
Map 2. Tibet and surrounding civilizations
Map 3. Major regions and natural features of Tibet
Map 4. Tibetan macroregions
Map 5. The structure of Tibetan history: Core regions, peripheries, and trade networks circa 1900
Graph of the growth of Buddhist temples and monasteries in core regions ca. 600–1950
Map 6. The historical Tibetan world: Travel time and main trade patterns circa 1900
Table 1. Long-distance trade items listed in the Yushu Diaocha Ji (Yushu investigation record), 1919
A brief overview of the use and production of money in Tibet
Map 7. The Tibetic languages
Table 2. The Tibetic languages
Map 8. How to use this atlas: Map coverage and cartographic conventions

Part 1: The prehistorical and ancient periods, circa 30,000 BCE to 600 CE

Map 9. Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures on the Tibetan Plateau, circa 30,000–2000 BCE
Map 10. The ancient Tibetan world, circa 2000 BCE to 600 CE
Forts and royal residences listed in Bonpo literary sources
Ancient principalities (rGyal phran) according to circa 9th-century Dunhuang documents

Part 2: The Imperial Period, circa 600–900

Map 11. Territorial administration system and important religious sites of the Imperial Period, circa 600–842
Territories of the administrative chiefs (mKhos dpon)
Garrisons (Khrom chen po)
The one thousand  household districts (sTong sde) of Upper Zhangzhung, Lower Zhangzhung, and Sumpa Horn
The Horn (Ru), Border Subduing (mTha’ ’dul), and Frontier (Yang ’dul) Temples
Map 12. Central Tibet circa 600–842: The imperial territorial administration system
The Eighteen Shares of Power (dBang ris bco brgyad)
The Four Horns of Tibet (Bod ru bzhi)
The one thousand  household districts (sTong sde) and administrative districts (Yul dpon tshan / Yul sde) of Central Horn, Right Horn, Left Horn, and Branch Horn
Map 13. Central Tibet circa 600–900: Religious and cultural sites of the Imperial Period
Lhasa town plan
The thirty-seven holy/assembly places of the Bonpo
Map 14. Central Tibet 650–764: Annual sites of the royal court and council
Annual sites of the Tibetan Royal Court (Pho brang) and council (’Dun ma)
Chronology of the Tibetan emperors (bTsan po)

Part 3: The Period of Disunion, circa 900–1642

Map 15. Major polities and important religious sites during the aftermath of empire and the Second Diffusion of Buddhism, circa 842–1240
The Kagyu schools
Map 16. Central Tibet circa 900–1240: Aftermath of empire and religious sites founded during the Second Diffusion of Buddhism
Lhasa Valley plan
Lhasa town plan
The regional principalities (rJe dpon tshan)
Map 17. Ngari circa 900–1100: The kingdoms of Ngari Khorsum
Map 18. Religious and cultural sites founded in the core region of the Guge Kingdom, circa 10th–14th centuries
The twenty-one minor foundations of Rinchen Zanpo
Chronology of the kings of Guge, part 1
Map 19. Religious and cultural sites founded in Purang and the Kailash region, circa 10th–17th centuries
Map 20. Ngari circa 1100–1250: Guge divided and the rise of Yatse
Map 21. Amdo circa 900–1240: The Tsongkha Kingdom, and religious sites founded during the Second Diffusion of Buddhism
Map 22. Major polities and important religious sites of the Mongol Empire Period, circa 1240–1354
Mongol administrative system for Tibet
Map 23. Central Tibet circa 1240–1354: Symbolic Sakya rule and religious sites founded during the Mongol Empire Period
The ten thousand household districts (Khri skor / Wanhu)
Map 24. Ngari circa 1250–1365: Yatse-Gungtang rivalry during the Mongol Empire Period
Map 25. Amdo circa 1240–1368: The Mongol conquest and religious sites founded during the Mongol Empire Period
Map 26. Important Tibeto-Mongol Buddhist monasteries founded during the 12th–16th centuries
Map 27. Important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of Beijing founded during the Yuan and Ming Periods, circa 13th–16th centuries
Map 28. Major polities and important religious sites of the Pakmodrupa Period, circa 1354–1642
Chinese Ming Dynasty titles bestowed on important Tibetan religious hierarchs
Birthplaces of the First through Fifth Dalai Lamas
Birthplaces of the First through Fourth Panchen Lamas
Map 29. Central Tibet circa 1354–1642: Rival powers and religious sites founded during the Pakmodrupa Period
Lhasa Valley plan
Lhasa town plan
Fortresses (rDzong) established circa 1350–60 by the Pakmodrupa
Principal fiefs and estates of the Pakmodrupa, circa 1300s
Map 30. Ngari circa 1365–1630: The resurgence of Guge
Map 31. Religious and cultural sites in the core region of the Guge Kingdom, circa 15th–17th centuries
Tsaparang Fort plan
Toling Monastery plan
Chronology of the kings of Guge, part 2
Map 32. Amdo circa 1368–1644: Local monastic powers in relation to China’s Ming Dynasty

Part 4: The Ganden Podrang Period (Kingdom of the Dalai Lamas)

Map 33. Major polities of the Ganden Podrang Period, circa 1642–1900
Map 34. Important religious and cultural sites of the Ganden Podrang Period, circa 1642–1951
Main annual Tibetan trade fairs
Birthplaces of the Sixth through Fourteenth Dalai Lamas
Birthplaces of the Fifth through Eleventh Panchen Lamas
Map 35. Central Tibet circa 1642–1951: Religious and cultural sites of the Ganden Podrang Period
Lhasa Valley plan
Lhasa town plan
Fortresses (rDzong) of the Ganden Podrang government’s territorial administration system circa 1830
Fortresses and estates supervised by the Tashi Lhunpo Monastic Corporation (bLa brang) until 1923
Map 36. Frontiers and forts of the Ganden Podrang Period, circa 1900–1951
Fortresses (rDzong) and estates (gZhis ka) staffed by lay or ecclesiastic governors
Boundaries of the Simla Convention signed by Great Britain and Tibet in 1914
Map 37. Central Tibet circa 1912–1951: The territorial administration system of the Ganden Podrang government
Fortresses (rDzong) and estates (gZhis ka) staffed by lay or ecclesiastic governors
Map 38. Ngari circa 1630–1959: Incorporation into Tibet’s Ganden Podrang administrative system
Map 39. Amdo circa 1644–1911: Local monastic powers in relation to China’s Qing Dynasty
Map 40. Kham circa 1642–1911: The Khampa polities in relation to Central Tibet and China
Main polities of Eastern Kham and Gyelrong
The thirty-nine Hor tribes
Map 41. The Derge Kingdom: Territorial administration system, circa 1630–1909
Forts and palaces of the Derge Kingdom
Map 42. The Nangchen Kingdom: Territorial administration system, circa 1725–1951
The one hundred household districts (Be hu / Baihu)
The twenty-five tribes of Yushu
Major annual trade fairs frequented by long-distance traders
Map 43. Important Tibeto-Mongol Buddhist monasteries founded during the Qing Period, 1644–1911
Map 44. Important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of Beijing during the Qing Period, 1644–1911
Map 45. Important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of the Greater Beijing area during the Qing Period, 1644–1911


Map 46. Natural resources of the Tibetan Plateau
Map 47. Main land cover patterns of the Tibetan Plateau, circa 2000
Map 48. The Tibetan population, circa 2000
Map 49. Tibet in the People’s Republic of China, circa 2000: The territorial administration system

Historical Photograph Sources


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals: Information Services Group Reference Award
Honorable Mention

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