Hyborian Geography: Gaps, Inconsistencies, and the Turanian Empire

An essay by Jim Lindner. It has been slightly edited to remove a few typos.

"Now the Lemurians enter history again, as Hyrkanians. Pushing westward, one tribe establishes the kingdom of Turan on the Southwestern shore of the inland Vilayet Sea. Later, other Hyrkanian clans push westward around that sea's northern extremity." -- Robert E. Howard: "The Hyborian Age"

The Hyborian Age was an age of fabulous wealth, which manifested itself in its cities and empires. Indeed, cities, kingdoms, and empires dominated the landscape, and in each usually resided some despot, wizard, or wizard's loosened demon. Every Conan book from the "original twelve" to the latter efforts contains some type of map of the Hyborian world that assists the reader. Since Conan sooner or later found his way into nearly every city, kingdom, or empire of his day, a map is necessary to keep his journeys in perspective.

But for all of Robert E. Howard's efforts to describe Conan's physical world, the Hyborian world remains a geographical mystery. It is difficult to piece the many cities, counties, dukedoms, and baronies together. L. Sprague de Camp wrote an early gazetteer, printed most recently in Conan the Swordsman, and with the advent of website technology, several home pages have developed an exchange of geographical information. Furthermore, the GURPS Conan Source Book (which this author has not seen save for extracts published on the Internet primarily at Stale Gismervik's "The Conan Website") has developed a rich listing of Hyborian place names. There are several map sources available, each Conan volume contains a map, and at least two websites provide detailed maps of Hyborian geography. In particular, the map Stale Gismervik attributes to Jans W. Carton, and the Norwegian map by Bladkompaniet A.S. (Note: I possess no knowledge of Norse, so I am probably misquoting the source) found on "Imhotep's Hyborian Home Page" provide good overviews of the Hyborian landscape, but details and comprehensiveness remain missing. There is no atlas of "Rand McNally" or National Geographic caliber to enlighten the Conan reader. The references cited above provide varying degrees of information, but each has its shortfalls and in some cases contradictions.

The Turanian Empire serves as an example. The map common to the original twelve Conan volumes (published by Ace Books) shows Turan as a hump-shaped strip of land hugging the western shore of the Vilayet Sea. The boundary according to the map was "later extended to (the) Zamorian border," but this map does not change to reflect Turanian expansion. Only three cities, Akif, Aghrapur, and Khawarism, and the military outpost at Fort Ghori appear on the map. The Island of Iron Statues, Xapur, and the Ilbars and Zaporaska Rivers are the only listed physical features. The more recent Conan volumes published by Tor Books contain a map credited to an illustrator known only as Chazaud. This map expands the details of the earlier map by adding the cities of Samara (which has disappeared from the maps provided by websites), Shangara (though I've encountered no written reference to this city), and Sultanapur, as well as adding physical features like the Ilbars Mountains and other unidentified ranges to the north and south. Turan's boundary remains the same on each map.

The most detailed maps to date are those of Jans W. Carton and Bladkompaniet A.S. Whereas earlier maps simply used arrows to show directions to Iranistan, Vendhya, and Khitai, Carton's and Bladkompaniet's works reveal nearly the entire Thurian continent (only the northernmost reaches are omitted). Carton's map uses numbers (which when viewed at the website "The Official Site of Conan MUD" allows the user to click the number for detailed information) and thereby adds the Nezvaya River, the Colchian Mountains, the Mountains of the Gray Apes, and the Misty Mountains to the Turanian landscape. Bladkompaniet's map further adds some remote outposts (i.e., Vezek) as well as cities visited by Conan (i.e., Yaralet), and those mentioned only in passing (i.e., Rhamdan, Onagrul, and Khoraf).

But readers of Conan who review de Camp's gazetteer and the GURPS Conan Source Book will encounter more place names than are reflected on any of the listed maps. Two cities missing completely from any map are Kherdpur and Yukkub, from Conan the Avenger. Both play tertiary roles in the story, but are used in such a context that indicates they are sizable enough to produce caravan traffic (Conan the Avenger, p. 63). The caravan mentioned takes refuge at Fort Wakla, an outpost appearing on Bladkompaniet's map, which the reader assumes is somewhere between the two cities. Yukkub is not cited anywhere but in the story. The GURPS Conan Source Book does list Kherdpur as a city in northern Turan, which would place Yukkub somewhere south of Fort Wakla, perhaps on the way to Zamboula. Kherdpur might easily have been a fortified city on the steppe between Turan and Zamora.

The city of Shahpur is found on both Carton's and Bladkompaniet's maps, but in conflicting locations. Both agree it is on Vilayet's western shore, but Carton's map appears to be more accurate as related by other sources. Bladkompaniet places Shahpur between Sultanapur and Khorosun though de Camp's gazetteer states that it is the furthest port where Turanian ships put in. If this statement is believed, then beyond Shahpur is the realm of pirates. Carton's map supports this claim. Additionally, the Mountains of the Gray Apes lay not too far beyond Shahpur. Aside from these beasts, the terrain is more desolate and less hospitable to settlement. Unfortunately, these mountains are omitted from Bladkompaniet's map.

Other cities appear on either Carton's or Bladkompaniet's maps, but not both. Khorosun lies on the coast of Vilayet on Bladkompaniet's map, but this locale is occupied by Maypur on Carton's. Carton's location for Maypur is supported by the reference of Conan's kozak band storming "the walled city of Khorosun, slaying and burning" (Conan the Avenger, p. 57). A walled city on a coast is not uncommon, but the powerful Turanian army would presumably have had ample time to confront the desert raiders had their march been so far inland. Khorosun is introduced briefly in "The Devil in Iron" (Conan the Wanderer, p. 90) but no detail is provided. The GURPS Conan Source Book cites Khorosun as a city of goldsmiths in western Turan, but Howard's story "The People of the Black Circle" suggests the city is somewhere to the south. A reference is made that an invading Turanian army entered the Himelian Mountains, but was ambushed by hillmen and few returned to their forward post at Secunderam, and few ever saw Khorosun again (Conan the Adventurer, p. 21). Why would this reference be made if Khorosun was in the distant west?

Not all of Carton's references make it the more accurate of the two maps. The city of Maypur is an example. Maypur does not appear on Bladkompaniet's map, and there is no indication in Conan the Adventurer of its location, but as mentioned, Carton's map does place it on the Vilayet coast, where the Nezvaya enteres the sea. The GURPS Conan Source Book states Maypur is in "western Turan, north of Fort Wakla." Maypur is north of Fort Wakla, but if Carton is to be believed, it would be so far removed from the fort that any reference to Wakla would be pointless.

Similarly, eastern Turan is difficult to map. Bladkompaniet situates the pirate shelter of Onagul on the southeast coast of Vilayet, but there is a problem with specifics. It lies between Rhamdan and Khoraf, which wouldn't make it much of a shelter. A more likely location would be closer to the Zaporaska River, and two arguments support this. First, the Zaporaska region was very hostile to the Turanian navy, and any ship pursuing pirates would have been targetted in this vicinity. Second is the reference in Conan the Avenger of the incomplete Turanian charts that showed no soundings in the waters of the Zhuraza Archipelago (Conan the Avenger, pp. 106-7). A pirate base, therefore, would make more sense if it were sheltered with natural barriers.

One shortcoming of all maps involves the political border of Turan. The city of Rhamdan illustrates this point. The GURPS Conan Source Book states this city is "a port on the eastern shore of the Vilayet Sea, where the great caravan route from Turan to Khitai begins." The GURPS Conan Source Book adds that Rhamdan "lies approximately directly east from Aghrapur." However, all maps show Turan as hugging Vilayet's western shore. Rhamdan defies this. The GURPS Conan Source Book states that "Turan occupies a hilly strip of land surrounding the southern edge of the Vilayet Sea, and the desert lands to east and west." This means Turan extends eastward to the Hykanian steppe. Bladkompaniet's placement of Khoraf directly south of Rhamdan supports an extended eastern boundary. Both cities probably were important to the empire as ports, but nearly every city controls at least part of the surrounding hinterland. Surely as well at least one road connected the two which would have then extended south to supply military installations along the Ghulistani frontier. The unmapped town of Khorbul would also substantiate the presence of roads to the frontier. This city is mentioned in "The People of the Black Circle" (Conan the Adventurer, p. 28) and in the GURPS Conan Source Book as being in southern Turan, most likely beyond Khawarism. The question remains, then, why no map shows an extended eastern boundary of Turan along the Vilayet.

Finally, details of Turan's western frontier are also sketchy. Both Carton and Bladkompaniet place Turan's westernmost outpost, Zamboula, in a location contradictory to the earlier maps. The map from the original twelve and that of Chazaud, reverses the position of Zamboula and the ruins of Kuthchemes. In this case the newer (and flashier) maps are not necessarily better. True, Zamboula, as depicted in "Shadows in Zamboula," has a mixed population of Shemites, Stygians, and slaves from Kush (Conan the Wanderer, p. 49) and Darfar (ibid., p. 55), with a Turanian ruler, but the distance between Zamboula and the remainder of Turan (regardless of Yukkub's presumed location) would have made for logistical nightmares with regards to communication and supply. Zamboula's spot on the earlier maps makes more geo-political sense.

Each of these examples illustrates an empire that grew in all directions. This is consistent with real life empires. Turan was second only to Aquilonia in terms of military might, unfortunately the supporting maps do not always reflect this growth. But Turan is only the case study of this essay; Aquilonia, Zingara, Nemedia, and other Hyborian kingdoms all have similar problems. Many authors have gone to great lengths to fill in gaps in Conan's career. There remains work to be done with respect to Hyborian geographic gaps as well.