American academic Zachary Foster really likes maps. But not just any maps, particularly maps of the Middle East. He has collected them all his life, and has thousands of them.
Foster, who lives in San Francisco, has launched a website to share all of these maps with the wider public – from ancient geographic charts of Syria to a city plan of Beirut from 1909.
Though he is not entirely sure when the genesis of his map fascination can be traced back to, Foster believes it is something he has harboured since he was a child growing up in Detroit.
"Since we were kids, my brother always knew everything about geography," he tells The National.
“He had memorised every country and every capital in the world by age 8. I think I’ve always been trying to play catch up.”
Foster recalls his upbringing being driven by his faith, attending Jewish schools, camps and youth groups. In high school, he travelled to Israel with a youth group, and he studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem during his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, where he studied political science and sociology.
"That was really an awakening for me, when my Hebrew class was half Palestinian, and I started learning the historian's version of history, rather than the version I was raised with," he says.
"Everything spiralled from there ... I grew more and more interested in not just [Arab-Israeli] history, but the history of the whole region, and I ended up doing a PhD in it."
He completed his doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University in New Jersey.
But the collection of of maps only began when Foster started doing "serious historical research", as a graduate student in Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
"I was so drawn to them because they were both beautiful and informative and apparently I could use them to also tell a story about the past."
Foster's first batch was from a maps dealer in Washington DC; three 19th-century maps of Palestine. He remembers exactly when and where they were purchased: "One Sunday morning in a street fair in Burleith, just north of Georgetown".
That collection ballooned to include thousands, though he does not have an exact count. They are mostly sourced from historic books or old Atlases.
“During my PhD years I would scour old books for maps and scan them. Then, I started buying up old atlases and scanning them.
But when it comes to choosing a favourite, Foster finds it “very difficult”. However, if he was pressed to choose, it is probably an Ottoman map of Palestine from 1915.
“It is a real beauty. So unique as well. The colour profile is rich and saturated. It was also made during such a momentous moment in history – just two years before the Ottoman Empire was to retreat from Palestine, they printed this incredible map. Nothing was ever made quite like that one,” he says.
And perhaps best of all, this is a dynamic collection that he will keep adding to.
Foster is particularly proud of a recent acquisition: an old Ottoman atlas found on a recent trip to Istanbul and purchased for 200 Turkish lira (Dh106). It includes about 50 "beautiful" Ottoman maps, which he has not yet scanned and uploaded – but promises to do so soon.
Making knowledge freely available to the public is also part of Foster's day job as a product manager at Academia.edu, a US networking website for people in academia. The platform hosts about 25 million PDFs of research papers to download for free.
"I'm a huge advocate for sharing resources and making everything free and open and easy to access. Nothing was more enraging when I was a PhD student than not being able to get access to something. So now, I share everything I ever got my hands on."