Seas of blue silk, mountains of sand, strongholds of wood. Legions of surveyors and sculptors traveling hundreds of miles on horseback or foot. This was how the rulers of France, from Louis XIV to Napoleon III, mapped out their military conquests in the days before Google Earth.

These 3-D mock-ups of France’s fortified towns—reconstituting every building, river, and hill in 1/600 scale—were for decades hidden away in the attic of the Invalides veterans' complex. Now, but only through February 17, you can catch a rare glimpse of these topographical treasures at the Grand Palais in Paris, during its France in Miniature exhibit.

While they may have lost their military value, these models remain an enlightening testament to the evolution of landscape, urbanism, and architecture, notes Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s Minister of Culture and Communication. They tell us about history as much as geography, tracing the shifting borders of lands won and lands lost. Some of the maquettes bear testimony to towns that no longer exist: finished in 1811, the mock-up of Brest shows the “Old Brest,” which disappeared forever under the bombs of the Second World War. Yet others are surprisingly current: some modern edifices have cropped up, but the relief, the mountains, the fortifications are much the same.

In the age of Google Earth, it is easy to forget how awesome and significant an undertaking such mapmaking was. These models represent a stunning achievement of our ambition to understand, map out, comprehend, and control the land we live on—a land that molds us as much as we mold it.

Gabriella Fuller is a research assistant at Travel + Leisure.