TITLE:  World Maps of al-Idrisi

DATE:  1154-1192

AUTHOR:  Abu Abdullah Mohammed Ibn al-Sharif al-Idrisi [Edrisi]

DESCRIPTION: During the Middle Ages the Greek tradition of disinterested research was stifled in Western Europe by a theological dictatorship which bade fair, for a time, to destroy all hope of a genuine intellectual revival.  Further, socio-economically and politically the Latin West had gradually drifted apart from the Greek and Muslim East, thereby widening the already present cultural cleavage.  Meanwhile the Muslims were slowly unearthing and exploring the treasures of Greek and Persian wisdom, fired with enthusiasm to study them.  Aided by their own native genius, by the keenest inter-regional competition - for Muslim culture radiated from a number of centers distributed all the way from Samarkand to Seville - and the stimulus of the classical models, they succeeded in advancing the cause of every known science before being overtaken by a tyrannical obscuranticism.  For example, the Muslims of the Eastern Caliphate had become familiar with Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest and Geographia (#119 in Book I) through Syriac translations and through versions of the original Greek text.  A manuscript of the Kitab al-Majisti, or Almagest (meaning ‘the greatest’), was translated into Arabic in the days of Harun ar-Rashid by that caliph’s vizier, Yahya, and other translations appeared during the middle part of the ninth century. Study of the Almagest stimulated Arab scholars and incited them to write such original treatises of their own as Al-Farghani’s On the Elements of Astronomy, Al-Battani’s On the Movements of the Stars, or Astronomy, and Ibn Yunus’ Hakimi Tables.  Furthermore, Ptolemy’s Geographia was certainly known to the Muslims in Syriac translations and probably also in copies of the original Greek text.  With the Geographia as a model, a number of Arabic treatises, usually entitled Kitab surat al-ard, [Book of the Description of the Earth], were composed at an early period of Islam and served as bases on which later geographical writers built more complex systems.  One of the most significant was the Kitab surat al-ard of Al-Khwarizmi, composed about the time of Al-Ma’mun (813-833 A.D.).  From another book of the same sort and title Al-Battani derived the geographical details included in his Astronomy.  The latter was translated into Latin during the 12th century; the former was known in Europe only through second-hand sources.

Most Arab cartographers also used Ptolemy’s instructions in the construction of their own maps. With this basis the Muslims combined the accumulated knowledge gained through exploration and travel.  Muslim trade between the seventh and ninth centuries reached China by sea and by land; southward it tapped the more distant coasts of Africa, including Zanzibar; northward it penetrated Russia; and westward Mohammedan navigators saw the unknown and dreaded waters of the Atlantic.  Their own enlarged knowledge of the explored-world helped to broaden their cartographic outlook, and contemporaries soon acknowledged the preeminence of their civilization.  Arab astronomers continued the observations that had been discontinued in Greece; they measured an arc of the meridian by observations made in Baghdad and Damascus; they constructed improved astronomical instruments and set up observatories.  As a general rule, however, the Arabs were very stylized cartographers; they were apt to use the compass and ruler far too often so that land contours became stereotyped and rather arbitrary, as can be seen in maps by al-Istakhri, al-Kashgari, and Ibn Said (#211, #214 and #221).

Over the years, these enlightened Arabs injected new life and a storehouse of knowledge into the relatively backward science of Western Europe, and, for centuries, Arab culture actually dominated the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily.   However, in the 11th century the Norman conquerors were beginning their advance westward and southward, overrunning the littoral of Western Europe, reaching the Mediterranean and establishing themselves in Southern Italy between 1066 and 1071.  These new rulers preserved much of what was best of this Arabic tradition and culture, and Muslim scholars played a brilliant part in the intellectual life of the court. 

In the year 1138, the royal palace at Palermo, Sicily was the scene of a long-awaited meeting between an unusual Christian king and a distinguished Muslim scholar. As his visitor entered the hall, the king rose, took his hand and led him across the carpeted marble to a place of honor beside the throne. Almost at once the two men began to discuss the project for which the scholar had been asked to come from North Africa: the creation of the first accurate—and scientific—map of the entire known world.

The monarch was Roger II, King of Sicily; his distinguished guest the Arab geographer Abu Abdullah Mohammed Ibn al-Sharif al-Idrisi [Edrisi]. Born in Ceuta, Morocco, across the strait from Spain, al-Idrisi was then in his late 30’s. After studying in Cordoba, in Muslim Spain, he had spent some years in travel, covering the length of the Mediterranean, from Lisbon to Damascus. As a young man with poetic pretensions he had written student verse celebrating wine and good company, but in the course of his journeys he had discovered his real passion: geography.

Al-Idrisi’s writings tell us less about his own character and personality than about those of the man who became his host and patron. Roger II, son of a Norman-French soldier of fortune who had conquered Sicily at the beginning of the 12th century, was an anomaly among Christian monarchs of his time. His co-religionists, commenting on his oriental life-style, complete with harem and eunuchs, disparagingly referred to him as the “half-heathen king” and “the baptized Sultan of Sicily.” Educated by Greek and Arab tutors, he was an intellectual with a taste for scientific inquiry, and relished the company of Muslim scholars, of whom al-Idrisi was one of the most celebrated.

Sicily in particular was an ideal meeting ground for the two civilizations – Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East. Captured by the Arabs in 831, the island had remained in Muslim control until the end of the 11th century. Like Muslim Spain, it was a beacon of prosperity to a Europe caught in the economic slow-down we call the Dark Ages. The occupying Arabs had built dams, irrigation systems, reservoirs and water towers, introduced new crops—oranges and lemons, cotton, date palms, rice—and exploited the island’s mines and fishing grounds.

Early in the 11th century a band of Norman adventurers, the Hautevilles, had ridden into southern Italy to wrest it from the Byzantine Greeks and the Muslims, and in 1101 Count Roger d’Hauteville capped his career by conquering Sicily. Four years later, he passed the territory on to his son, Roger, who in 1130 was crowned king as Roger II.

Tall, dark-haired, bearded and corpulent, Roger, from a magnificent palace in Palermo, ruled his kingdom with a balanced mixture of diplomacy, ruthlessness, wisdom and skill that has led many historians to term his kingdom the best-governed European state of the Middle Ages. His energy was a legend—one commentator remarked that Roger accomplished more asleep than other sovereigns did awake—and his court boasted a collection of philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, geographers and poets who had no superior in Europe—and in whose company he spent much of his time. In mathematics, as in the political sphere, al-Idrisi wrote of his patron, the extent of his learning cannot be described. Nor is there any limit to his knowledge of the sciences, so deeply and wisely has he studied them in every particular. He is responsible for singular innovations and for marvelous inventions, such as no prince has ever before realized.

Detail of Sicily from Idrisi’s world map

Roger’s interest in geography was the expression of a scientific curiosity just awakening in Europe, but inevitably he turned to a Muslim for help. Christian Europe’s approach to map-making was still symbolic and fanciful, based on tradition and myth rather than scientific investigation, and used to illustrate books of pilgrimage, Biblical exegesis and other works. Picturesque and colorful, European maps showed a circular earth composed of three continents equal in size—Asia, Africa and Europe—separated by narrow bands of water. The Garden of Eden and Paradise were at the top and Jerusalem at the center, while fabulous monsters occupied the unexplored regions—Sirens, dragons, men with dogs’ heads, men with feet shaped like umbrellas with which they protected themselves from the sun while lying down (see #205, #207, #224, #226).

A few practical maps did exist—mariners’ charts showing coastlines, capes, bays, shallows, ports of call and watering and provisioning places—but in a typical medieval divorce of science and technology, these remained in the hands of navigators. Information from travelers, too, filtered only very slowly onto Christian maps. What King Roger had in mind, therefore, was something as factual as the mariners’ charts (charts or from books of sailing instructions the Greeks called Periploi these charts dated back to a mariner named Scylax, who kept a periplus, or record, of his voyage around the Mediterranean in about 350 B.C.), but encompassing the whole known world. The mission he entrusted to al-Idrisi was intellectually Herculean: to collect and evaluate all available geographical knowledge—from books and from on-the-spot observers—and to organize it into an accurate and meaningful representation of the world. His purpose was partly practical, but mostly scientific: to produce a work that would sum up all the contemporary knowledge of the physical world.

To carry out the project, Roger established an academy of geographers, with himself as director and al-Idrisi as permanent secretary, to gather and analyze information. He wanted to know the precise conditions of every area under his rule, and of the world outside—its boundaries, climate, roads, the rivers that watered its lands, and the seas that bathed its coasts.

The academy began by studying and comparing the works of previous geographers—principal among them 12 scholars, 10 of them from the Muslim world. The reason behind the Muslim domination of the field of geography was simple: economics. While medieval Europe had become fragmented and parochial, both politically and commercially, the Muslim world was unified by a flourishing long-distance commerce as well as by religion and culture. Muslim merchants, pilgrims and officials used so-called “road books”, itineraries that described routes, traveling conditions and cities along the way. Some of the early authors of road books were on al-Idrisi’s list: Ibn Khurdadhbih, an eighth century Persian who was director of the postal and intelligence service in Iran; al-Yaqubi, an Armenian who in the ninth century wrote a Book of Countries; Qudamah, a 10th century Christian who had embraced Islam, served as a tax accountant at Baghdad and had written a book discussing the postal and tax systems of the Abbasid Caliphate. Others belonged to a later tradition of systematic geography, like the 10th century scholars Ibn Hawqal (#213) and al-Mas’udi (#212), who produced books intended as something more than practical guides for the tax collector or the postman: as additions to the fund of human knowledge.

Al-Idrisi’s two geographers from the pre-Islamic era were Paulus Orosius, a Spaniard whose popular History, written in the fifth century, included a volume of descriptive geography; and Ptolemy, the greatest of the classical geographers, whose Geography, written in the second century, had been entirely lost to Europe, but preserved in the Muslim world in an Arabic translation.

After examining at length the geographical works they had collected, the king and the geographer observed that they were full of discrepancies and omissions, and decided to embark on original research. Sicily’s busy and cosmopolitan ports provided an ideal place for such an inquiry, and for years hardly a ship docked at Palermo, Messina, Catania or Syracuse without its crew and passengers being interrogated about the places they had visited. The commission’s agents haunted the ports, and if they discovered a traveler who had visited any particularly exotic region, he was conducted to the palace at Palermo to be questioned by al-Idrisi or even by Roger. What was the climate of the country, its rivers and lakes, mountains, coastal configurations and soil? What of its roads, buildings, monuments, crops, crafts, imports, exports and marvels? What, finally, were its culture, religion, customs and language? In addition, scientific expeditions were dispatched to areas on which information was lacking. Draftsmen and cartographers accompanied these expeditions so that a visual record of the country could be made.

During this research, al-Idrisi and Roger compared data, keeping the facts on which travelers agreed and eliminating conflicting information. This process of collecting and assessing material took 15 years, during which, according to al-Idrisi, hardly a day passed when the king did not confer personally with the geographers, studying accounts that disagreed, examining astronomical coordinates, tables and itineraries, poring over books and weighing divergent opinions.

Finally, however, the long 15-year geographical study was finished and the task of map making began. First, under al-Idrisi’s direction, a working copy was produced on a drawing board, with places sited on the map with compasses, following the tables that had already been prepared. Then a great disk almost 80 inches in diameter and weighing over 300 pounds was fabricated out of silver, chosen for its malleability and permanence.

Al-Idrisi explained that the disk merely symbolized the shape of the world: The earth is round like a sphere, and the waters adhere to it and are maintained on it through natural equilibrium which suffers no variation. It remained stable in space like the yolk in an egg. Air surrounds it on all sides.... All creatures are stable on the surface of the earth, the air attracting what is light, the earth what is heavy, as the magnet attracts iron. As his comment suggests, al-Idrisi thought that the world was round. Nor was he alone. Contrary to a still popular misconception that up to the time of Columbus everyone believed the world was flat, many scholars and astronomers since at least the fifth century B.C. had believed that the earth was a globe. In the third century B.C. the Alexandrian astronomer Eratosthenes (Book I, #112) measured a degree of the earth’s circumference with amazing accuracy, arriving at a figure with an error of either 1.7 or 3.1 percent. (The variation in the amount of his error is due to modern uncertainty as to the exact length of the measurement he used.) Ptolemy, four centuries later, estimated the circumference with much less success—at almost 30 percent less than its true extent. And in the ninth century, 70 Muslim scholars, working under the patronage of Caliph al-Ma’mun, gathered in the Syrian Desert to determine the length of a degree of latitude. Rather than rely on travelers’ guesses of distance, as previous astronomers had done, they used wooden rods to measure the road they traveled until they saw a change of one degree in the elevation of the polestar. Their calculation resulted in a figure for the earth’s circumference equivalent to 22,422 miles, an error of 3.6 percent, almost as accurate as Eratosthenes’ estimate and a considerable improvement over Ptolemy’s.

By al-Idrisi’s time, Muslim astronomers had made great strides in methods of reckoning latitude. Longitude would remain a problem until the 17th century. Arab geographers had corrected some of the errors of Ptolemy and other Greek scientists. The mathematician al-Khwarizmi reduced Ptolemy’s estimate of the length of the Mediterranean Sea from 62 to 52 degrees; the Spanish Muslim astronomer al-Zarqali further adjusted the figure to the correct 42 degrees. Other Muslim scholars, like the Iraqi astronomer al-Battani and the Persian al-Biruni (#214.3), composed tables giving the latitudes of leading cities.

Al-Idrisi himself gave three figures for the earth’s circumference, without deciding among them: Eratosthenes’ approximately correct estimate, a slightly smaller figure arrived at by Indian astronomers, and a still smaller number—though larger than Ptolemy’s—which was apparently agreed on by Sicilian scholars.

Cartography, nevertheless, remained in a primitive state. Although Ptolemy had discussed several kinds of projection (Book I, #119), the problem of flattening out the surface of a sphere so that it could be represented on a flat map would not be solved until the 16th and 17th centuries—the Age of Exploration—and none too satisfactorily even then. The great geographer Gerardus Mercator commented, If you wish to sail from one port to another, here is a chart . . . and if you follow it carefully you will certainly arrive at your port of destination . . . You may get there sooner or you may not get there as soon as you expected, but you will certainly get there. Al-Idrisi’s silver disk, or planisphere, was a form of projection considerably in advance of others of its time.

Without citing his authority, Freyheer F.v. Zach states in 1806 that “the oldest terrestrial globe that is known was made for King Roger II of Sicily in the 12th century, and is especially remarkable for the value of the metal which was used in its construction, this being 400 pounds of silver. A knowledge of this globe would not have come down to our day had not Idrisi, a famous geographer of that time, given an especial description of the same, under the title Nothatol mostak [Pleasure of the Soul].” According to other scholars it is more probable that the reference here is to a circular disc or planisphere made by Idrisi, or an armillary sphere, but not to a terrestrial globe.

On the disk, according to al-Idrisi’s own account, were incised “by skillful workers” lines marking the limits of the seven climates of the habitable world, arbitrary divisions established by Ptolemy running east and west and bounded by parallels of latitude, from the Arctic to the Equator. Below the Equator, an unexplored southern temperate zone was thought to be separated from the familiar northern one by an impassable area of deadly heat. Following the rough sketch prepared by al-Idrisi, the silversmiths transferred the outlines of countries, oceans, rivers, gulfs, peninsulas and islands to the planisphere.

Idrisi’s map of 1154 took the form of a silver tablet, probably measuring 3.5 x 1.5 meters (12 x 5 feet); later, in 1160, this tablet fell into the hands of a mob and was smashed to pieces.  In 1154, a few weeks before Roger’s death, manuscripts of the book in Latin and Arabic were completed, together with the rectangular map, which was drawn on 70 sheets, along with a small circular world map. Roger named this book Nuzhat al-Mushtak, however the author named it Kitab Rudjar, i.e., The Book of Roger, and the map, Tabula Rogeriana. The text was accompanied by 71 part maps, a world map and 70 sectional itinerary maps, representing the seven climates each divided longitudinally into 10 sections. The book that accompanied the great silver planisphere was remarkable because the plan of this treatise is simple, though somewhat artificial.  After a brief description of the earth as a globe, which he computed to be 22,900 miles in circumference and judged to remain stable in space like the yolk in an egg, and of the hemispheres, climates, seas and gulfs, Idrisi launches into a long and detailed account of the regions of the earth’s surface.  He takes up the seven climates i
n order, dividing each climate into ten longitudinal sections, an artificial arrangement started earlier by Islamic astronomers. These seventy sections are described minutely, illustrating each section with a separate map. When put together, these maps constitute a rectangular world map similar to the Ptolemaic design. It was the first medieval “general geography,” and the most elaborate description of the world produced in the Middle Ages. Roger’s Book undertook a stupendous task, that of systematically describing the habitable world, beginning with the first section of the first climate at Ptolemy’s prime meridian, the Canary Islands. It proceeded from west to east and from south to north through each of the 10 sections of the seven climates. Each section opened with a general description of the region, then a list of the principal cities, then a detailed account of each city, with distances between cities: From Fez to Ceuta, on the Strait of Gibraltar, heading north, seven days. From Fez to Tlemcen, nine days, following this itinerary: from Fez turn toward the great river of Sebou . . .

The map, written in Arabic, shows the Eurasian continent in its entirety, but only shows the northern part of the African continent. The map is actually oriented with the North at the bottom. It remained the most accurate world map for the next three centuries. Roger II of Sicily had his world map drawn on a six-foot diameter circle of silver weighing about 450 pounds. The works of Al-Idrisi include Nozhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq - a compendium of the geographic and sociological knowledge of his time as well as descriptions of his own travels illustrated with over seventy maps; Kharitat al-`alam al-ma`mour min al-ard [Map of the inhabited regions of the earth] wherein he divided the world into seven regions, the first extending from the equator to 23 degrees latitude, and the seventh being from 54 to 63 degrees followed by a region uninhabitable due to cold and snow.

Ten manuscript copies of The Book of Roger currently survive. Two are in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, including the oldest, dated to about 1300 (MS Arabe 2221). Another copy, made in Cairo in 1456, is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Mss. Pococke 375).

The resulting book and associated maps which took 15 years to amass are, for this and the above reasons, unquestionably among the most interesting monuments of Arabian geography.  In addition, the book is the most voluminous and detailed geographical work written during the entire 12th century in Europe.

Modern geographers have attempted to reconstruct the features of the silver planisphere by using a combination of the maps of Roger’s Book, which has survived in several texts, and its tables of longitudes and latitudes. From this reconstruction it is evident that, like Ptolemy, al-Idrisi pictured the habitable world as occupying 180 of the 360 degrees of the world’s longitude, from the Atlantic in the West to China in the East, and 64 degrees of its latitude, from the Arctic Ocean to the Equator. The planisphere showed the sources of the Nile—not explored by Europeans until the 19th century, but evidently known to 12th century Muslim travelers—and the cities of central Sudan. The Baltic area and Poland were represented much more precisely than on Ptolemy’s maps, showing the fruit of the geographers’ investigations. The British Isles also were treated with a surprising insight, probably due to contacts between Norman England and Norman Sicily. An element of subjectivity entered into the fact that southern Italy was represented as larger than the north, and that Sicily occupied a substantial part of the Western Mediterranean, in contrast to Sardinia and Corsica, which shrank in scale. Not surprisingly, the best part of both map and text, accurate and detailed, dealt with Sicily itself.

Distortions, omissions, and misconceptions notwithstanding, the superiority of al-Idrisi’s map over the world maps of medieval Europe is striking. Contrasted with the quaint and picturesque, but almost totally uninformative maps of the Christian scholars, the features of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are easily recognizable in al-Idrisi’s representation—Britain, Ireland, Spain, Italy, the Red Sea and the Nile.

The first division of the first climate commences to the west of the Western Sea, which Idrisi called the Sea of Darkness“In this sea are two islands named Al-Khalibat [Fortunate Isles] where Ptolemy began to count longitudes and latitudes (sic) .... nobody knows of habitable land beyond that. ” In this southern most section he places a number of important towns including the problematical Oulil [Cape Timiris?] that, he tells us, “ is situated in the sea not far from the shore and is renowned for salt”.  Much of the trade in this commodity with the Sudan was done with the help of ships that carried it from the town of Oulil

. . . a days journey to the mouth of the Nile [i.e., Senegal River, or Nile of the Negroes] and mounted the river as far as Silla, Tacrour, Barisa, Ghana . . . [and] to all the Sudanese towns. The greater part of the country is only habitable on the borders of the Nile for the rest of the country . . . is desert and uninhabited. There are arid wastes where one must walk two, four, five, or twelve days before finding water . . . The people of Barisa, Silla, Tacrour and Ghana make excursions into Lamlam [probably identified with the hinterland of the Ivory/Liberian coasts] bringing natives into captivity, transporting them to their own country and selling them to merchants.

In the second section of this first climate, Idrisi describes, among others, the lost city of Ghana, farther to the east,

... the most considerable, the most densely peopled and the largest trading center of the Negro countries. . . From the town of Ghana, the borders of Wangara are eight day’s journey. This country is renowned for the quantity and the abundance of the gold it produces. It forms an island 300 miles long by 150 miles wide: this is surrounded by the Nile on all sides and at all seasons . . . The greater part [of the gold] is bought by the people of Wargalan [i.e., Wargla] and by those of Western Maghrib [i.e., Morocco].

Following the Nile, still eastward, we find the nomadic Berbers who pasture their flock on the borders of a river flowing from the east, debouching into the Nile stream. Beyond, in the fourth section of his first climate, we come to

. . . the place where the two Niles separate, that is to say, first, the Nile of Egypt which crosses the country from the north to south, and second, the branch which flows from the east towards the western extremity of the continent. It is on this branch of the Nile that most of the large towns of the Sudan are situated.

It is clear that the part of southern Africa which is extended far to the east is a legacy from Ptolemy, but Arabian seafarers had taught Idrisi that the sea was open in the east, and in his own commentaries he writes: “The Sea of Sin [China] is an arm of the ocean which is called the Dark Sea [the Atlantic]”.

These few extracts are characteristic of Idrisi’s method and his content.  From them we see, for instance, that Ptolemy’s authority no longer commanded unreserved adherence; Ptolemy placed the Nile River’s source south of the Equator, in the Mountains of the Moon, and had no sympathy with the idea of a dual Nile.  We see further that there was already, by the 12th century, a regular commercial exchange between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sudan, and that reliable information concerning these southern lands was beginning to filter through to the European centers of learning.  When we recall that exact hydrography of the land of the Western Nile was not discovered until the 19th century, Idrisi’s narrative assumes a profound importance.  The authenticity of many of the places that he mentions is indisputable.  Thus Ghana (situated near Timbuktu), Silla [possibly Ysilgam of the Valseccha portolan chart of 1434] and Tacrour [Tekrour on the Senegal] were, for a time, flourishing centers of Muslim culture.  The reference to Wangara implies a knowledge of the flood region of the Niger, above Timbuktu; and the mention of the salt trade of Oulil suggests that there were, in Europe, faint glimmerings of knowledge about the Senegalese coast, even as early as the mid-12th century.

To the south al-Idrisi pictured a great river, the Nile of the Negroes, a composite of the Senegal and the Niger Rivers that flowed from Central Africa west to the Atlantic. Via this river the salt trade was carried on with the Sudan. Al-Idrisi described the lost city of Ghana (near Timbuktu, on the Niger) as the most considerable, the most densely peopled, and the largest trading center of the Negro countries. In the fourth section of the first climate, al-Idrisi located the sources of the Nile in their approximately correct position, though he pictured the Nile of the Negroes as joining the Egyptian Nile at that point.

Al-Idrisi gave a detailed description of Spain, where he had spent his student days. He praised Toledo, with its defensible site, fine walls and well-fortified citadel. Few cities are comparable in the solidity and height of buildings, the beauty of the surrounding country, and the fertility of the lands watered by the Tagus. The gardens of Toledo are laced with canals on which are erected water wheels used in irrigating the orchards, which produce in prodigious quantity fruits of inexpressible beauty and quality. On every side are fine estates and well fortified castles.

Sicily, naturally, came in for special praise; it was a pearl of the age, and al-Idrisi told the story of the Norman conquest of the island by Roger d’Hauteville, the greatest of Frankish princes, followed by the succession of the great king who bears the same name and who follows in his footsteps.

Idrisi was not, however, able to put the countries around the Baltic into proper shape, even though his notes show him to have been familiar with a great many places there, as in the rest of Europe. He had no doubt met travelers and merchants from Scandinavia at the court of King Roger and received important information from them, but we know that the Arabs too had connections with the Baltic peoples and also those in Russia at that time.  Idrisi knows of Danu [the Danube], Arin [the Rhine] and Albe [the Elbe].  He mentions Denmark and Snislua [Schleswig], and describes Norway as if it were an island.  Curiously, Idrisi notes that in the Baltic there is an Isle of Amazons.

Every area had its fascinations. In Russia, winter daylight periods were so short that there was hardly time for Muslim travelers to perform all five obligatory daily prayers. The Norwegians had to harvest their grain when it was still green and dry it at their hearths since the sun shines very rarely upon them. As for Britain, it is set in the Sea of Darkness. It is a considerable island, whose shape is that of the head of an ostrich, and where there are flourishing towns, high mountains, great rivers and plains. This country is most fertile; its inhabitants are brave, active and enterprising, but all is in the grip of perpetual winter. Al-Idrisi gave the names of many English towns, principally ports, with the distances between them. Hastings was a considerable town, densely populated, with many buildings, markets, much industry and commerce; Dover, to the east, was an equally important town not far from the mouth of the river of London, the broad and swiftly flowing Thames. London, however, was mentioned only as a city of the interior.

Towns of France were also described, again with emphasis on the ports, particularly those of Brittany and Normandy; but cities of the interior were also listed: Tours, then, as now, a wine center surrounded by numerous vineyards; Chartres, an agricultural market (its famous cathedral had not yet been built); Meaux, the center of the land of France; Bayeux, Dijon, Troyes, Orleans, Le Mans and many others. Paris (Abariz) earned a condescending reference as a town of mediocre size, surrounded by vineyards and forests, situated on an island in the Seine, which surrounds it on all sides; however, it is extremely agreeable, strong, and susceptible of defense.

The impressive assemblage of facts from travelers’ accounts and geographical writings was interrupted now and then by fables, some taken directly from Ptolemy, some from popular folklore. The Strait of Gibraltar, according to Roger’s Book, did not exist when Alexander the Great—as medieval legend had it—invaded Spain. Because the inhabitants of Africa and Europe waged continual warfare, Alexander decided to separate them by a canal, which he cut between Tangier and al-Andalus (southern Spain). The Atlantic rushed in, inundating the land and raising the level of the Mediterranean.

Al-Idrisi’s Rome had an oriental magnificence; ships with their freight sailed up the Tiber to be drawn thus loaded right up to the very shops of the merchants. There were 1,200 churches; the streets were paved with blue and white marble; in a magnificent church encrusted with emeralds stood an altar supported by 12 statues of pure gold, with ruby eyes. And the city’s “prince”, he wrote, is called the Pope.

The Canaries are a classic example of how ancient discoveries were made and then lost. Discovered by Hanno in the fifth century BC, they were explored and colonized in 25 BC by Juba II, erudite king of Mauretania and husband of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Antony and Cleopatra. A passionate art collector, Juba was also interested in science and technology, inventing a new method of making purple dye from the orchil plant - and the export of orchil from the Atlantic islands was of economic importance until early this century. Juba populated the Canaries with Berber-speaking colonists, perhaps the ancestors of the Guanches. Gradually, knowledge of the location of the Canaries was lost, even though Lanzarote, the island nearest the North African coast, lies less than 100 kilometers [60 miles] west of the mainland. The Greeks called the Canary Islands Tōn Makarōn Nēsoi [The Islands of the Blessed], and they were regarded as the furthest known land to the west. Ptolemy drew his 0° longitude line, or prime meridian, through the Canaries; the French continued to do so until the 19th century.The Canary Islands were rediscovered in the 13th century by a French or Genoese ship blown off course. In 1402 the Normans partially conquered them, meeting stiff resistance from the indigenous Guanches. In the mid-15th century, the Spanish took control of the Canaries and continued the conquest. Fighting was still going on when Columbus used the islands as the first stop on all four of his voyages to the Caribbean. The Guanches were not finally subdued until the end of the 16th century, when they and their language virtually disappeared. From the few words of Guanche preserved in the Spanish chronicles, we know they spoke a form of Berber, and were therefore probably descended from Juba’s colonists. Yet when Europeans encountered them, they had no memory of the mainland; having no boats, they were unaware that the other islands in the group were inhabited.

The Arabs knew these islands through Ptolemy, and called them Jaza’ir al-Khalidat [The Eternal Isles], presumably a version of the Greek name. Some sources speak of these islands as if they were legendary, telling us for example that on each of the six islands - there are in fact seven - there was a bronze statue, like the one in Cádiz, warning voyagers to turn back. But al-Idrisi tells of an attempted expedition to the Canaries in the late 12th century, during the reign of the Almoravid amir Yusuf ibn Tashafin. The admiral in charge of the expedition died just as it was about to set out, so the venture came to nothing. Al-ldrisi says the admiral’s curiosity was aroused by smoke rising from the sea in the west, probably the result of volcanic activity.

After telling us that the Canaries had been visited by Alexander the Great and that the tomb of a pre-Islamic South Arabian king, made of marble and colored glass, can be seen on one of them, al-Idrisi gives the names of two of the islands. The island with a “circular mountain” in the center is called Masfahan. This is probably Tenerife, and the round mountain would be the 3,600-meter-high (12,000-foot) volcano called Pico de Teide. The other island is called Laghus and is probably Gran Canaria. Neither name is Arabic, nor do they appear to be transcriptions of Greek, Latin or Romance - but the fact that these two islands had names at all means mariners must have visited them, and the names are either native designations or hark back to some lost, perhaps oral, source.

Even more interesting is al-Idrisi’s account of an actual voyage of exploration into the western Atlantic, undertaken by 80 brave men from Lisbon whom he calls the mugharrirun, best rendered as “intrepid explorers.” The expedition must have taken place before 1147 - the date Lisbon fell to the Christians - but it is impossible to be more precise. The mugharrirun were so famous for their exploit that a street in Lisbon was named after them. The story is worth giving in full, for its mixture of fact and legend is characteristic of early accounts of Atlantic voyaging:

It was from the city of Lisbon that the mugharrirun set out to sail the Sea of Darkness in order to discover what was in it and where it ended, as we have mentioned before. A street in Lisbon, near the hot springs, is still known as “The Street of the Intrepid Explorers”; it is named after them. Eighty men, all ordinary people, got together and built a large ship and stocked it with enough food and water for several months. Then they set sail with the first gentle easterly and sailed for about eleven day’s, until they came to a sea with heavy waves, evil-smelling, ridden with reefs and with very little light. They were sure they were about to perish, so they changed course to the south and sailed for twelve days, until they came to Sheep Island, There were so many sheep it was impossible to count them, and they ranged freely, with no one to watch them. They landed and found a spring of flowing water and a wild fig tree beside it. They caught some of the sheep and slaughtered them, but the flesh was so bitter they could not eat it. They took some sheepskins and sailed on to the south for another twelve days until they sighted an island. They could see it was inhabited and under cultivation. They headed toward it in order to explore and when they were not far offshore, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by boats, which forced their ship to land beside a city on the shore. They saw the men who lived there; they were light-complexioned, with very little facial hair. The hair on their heads was lank. They were tall, and their womenfolk were very beautiful. They were confined to a house for three days. On the fourth day a man who spoke Arabic entered and asked them who they were and where they were going and what was the name of their country. They told him everything and he said not to worry, and that he was the king’s interpreter. The next day they were taken into the king’s presence and he asked the same questions they had been asked by the interpreter. They told him what they had told the interpreter the day before, of how they had embarked upon the ocean in order to find out about it and see the wonders it contained, and how they had come to this place. When the king heard this, he laughed and told the interpreter to tell them the following: “My father ordered some of his slaves to sail this sea and they sailed across it for a month until there was no more light; they came back having found nothing of any use at all.” Then the king ordered the interpreter to treat them well so they would have a good impression of the kingdom, and he did so. They were then taken back to their place of confinement until the west wind began to blow. A boat was prepared for them, their eyes were bound, and they were at sea for some time. They said: “We were at sea about three days and nights. Then we came to the mainland and they put us ashore. They tied us up and left us there. When dawn broke and the sun rose, we found we were in great pain because we had been so tightly bound. Then we heard noises and the sound of people and we all cried out. Some people approached and, seeing our difficulty, released us. They asked us what had happened and we told them the whole story. They were Berbers. One of them asked us: ‘Do you know how far you are from your country?’ ‘No,’ we answered. ‘Two months journey!’ he replied. Our leader said, ‘Wa asafi!’ (Woe is me!) and to this day the place is known as Asfi.”

Asfi, a port on the southern coast of Morocco, is now called Safi. It is hard to escape the impression that we owe the preservation of this account largely to the folk etymology in the last line. But it is also obvious that this is a report of an actual Atlantic voyage. The “sea with heavy waves, evil-smelling, ridden with reefs and with very little light” can probably be ignored, for the passage is influenced by the “land of darkness” thought to exist in the farthest West, and the reefs may echo a passage in Plato’s Timeus which speaks of the shallows in the Atlantic marking the site where Atlantis sank. But Sheep Island [Jazirat al-Ghanam] has the ring of truth. In another passage al-Idrisi gives more details of this island - incidentally showing that a longer account of the voyage of the mugharrirun must have existed. He says Sheep Island is large, shrouded in shadows, and filled with small sheep whose flesh is bitter and inedible. Nearby is another island, called Raqa, which is the home of a red bird the size of an eagle, which catches fish in its claws and never flies far from the island. A fruit like a large fig grows there; if eaten, it is the antidote to any known poison. A king of the Franks heard of this, al-Idrisi adds, and sent a ship to the island to bring him that fruit and some of the birds, but the ship was lost and never returned.

Sheep Island and Raqa are most probably two of the islands in the Azores. The Azores are named after a kind of goshawk - in Portuguese, açor - prevalent there at the time of discovery. The sheep are a problem, for the Azores were uninhabited when settled in the 15th century, and even if we slightly stretch the meaning of the word ghanam, which can also mean “goats,” we are still left with the problem of the origin of the creatures. No large mammals are indigenous to the Azores, and sheep or goats could only have been brought to the island by previous mariners. The Azores lie almost 1,300 kilometers (about 800 miles) west of the coast of Portugal - one-third of the way to America. In the 19th century, Carthaginian coins were found on the most westerly of the islands, Corvo - 31° west longitude - and although the find has been questioned, the origin of the coins has never been satisfactorily explained. Corvo is marked on the Canterino map of 1351, where the name occurs as Corvini - considerably before its official discovery.

Al-Idrisi mentions a number of other islands in the western Atlantic: Sawa is “near the Sea of Darkness.” Alexander the Great spent the night there just before entering the western darkness. The inhabitants threw stones at the travelers and hurt several of Alexander’s companions.

The inhabitants of the island of al-Su’ali are shaped like women and their canine teeth protrude. Their eyes flash like lightning and their thighs are like logs. They fight against the monsters of the sea. Men and women are not sexually differentiated, and the men have no beards. They dress in the leaves of trees.

A large, high mountain crowns the island of Hasran. A small fresh-water river runs down from the foot of the mountain, where the inhabitants live. They are short, brown people with broad faces and big ears. The men’s beards reach their ankles. They eat grass and other plants.

Al-Ghawr is long and broad. Many herbs and plants grow on the island. There are many rivers and pools, and thickets where donkeys and long-horned cattle take refuge.

Al-Mustashkin is said to be inhabited. It has mountains, rivers, fruit trees, cultivated fields and a town, with high walls. There used to be a dragon in the area, and the people were forced to feed it with bulls, donkeys or even humans, according to the legend; when Alexander arrived, the people complained to him of the dragon’s depredations. Alexander fed the creature a volatile mixture and blew it to pieces.

The island of Qalhan is inhabited by animal-headed people who swim in the sea to catch their food.

Then there is the Island of the Two Brothers, Shirham and Shiram. God changed them to stone for practicing piracy, the legend has it. This island is near Asfi [Safi], and on a clear day smoke can be seen rising from it. It was this smoke that led to the abortive expedition by Yusuf ibn Tashafin’s admiral.

Some of the names of these islands make sense in Arabic, others do not. Sawa has no meaning. Al-S’ali is a word that refers to a kind of female demon or vampire; judging by al-Idrisi’s description of the female inhabitants of the island, it is apt. Hasran means “regretful” - Island of Regret? - but if the variant Khusran is chosen, it means “loss” - perhaps Island of Loss, or Lost Island. But if the word is Arabic, one would expect it to be preceded by the definite article “al”.

Al-Ghawr makes sense; it means a depression surrounded by higher land, and occurs elsewhere in the Arab world as a place name. Al-Mustashkin is probably a corruption of al-mushtakin, meaning “the complainers” - appropriate enough for a population in thrall to a dragon. This story of Alexander and the dragon echoes the Eleventh Labor of Hercules, the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the dragon Ladon. In the Arabic-speaking world, popular legend transferred a number of the heroic deeds of Hercules to Alexander - including the building of a land bridge across the Pillars of Hercules. Some Greek mythographers thought the Islands of the Hesperides lay off the coast of North Africa, and we have already seen how al-Idrisi associates Alexander with two of the Atlantic islands.

Qalhan’s “animal-headed people” might well be seals. The Two Brothers could be the two small islands off Lanzarote in the Canaries, Alegranza and Graciosa, or indeed, any two prominent rocks off their coasts.

al-Idrisi’s world map, oriented with South at the top, 21 x 30 cm (23 cm diameter), 1154
Bodleian Library, MS Pococke 375, dated 1553/960 H

A last island in the western Atlantic is Laqa. Al-Idrisi says aloe trees grow there, but their wood has no scent. As soon as they are taken away, however, the scent becomes perceptible. The wood is deep black, and merchants come to the island to harvest it and then sell it to the kings of the farthest West. The island is said to have been inhabited in the past, but it fell to ruin and serpents infested the land. For this reason, no one can land there. Could Laqa be Madeira? Madeira was heavily wooded when first settled in the 15th century - hence its name. The settlers quickly burned down all the forests, so it is now hard to know for certain, but some sort of scented wood may have once grown there.

Al-Idrisi gives the names of 13 islands in the western Atlantic; a 14th, visited by the mugharrirun, is nameless. This unnamed island, together with Masfahan, Laghus, The Two Brothers and possibly Sawa, are almost certainly islands in the Canary group. Laqa might be Madeira, and Sheep Island and Raqa part of the Azores group. Where al-Su'ali, Hasran, al-Ghawr, Qalhan and al-Mustashkin lay is anybody’s guess. Al-Su’ali and al-Mustashkin both sound completely legendary, but there is nothing legendary about Hasran and Qalhan, which sound as if they might belong together. Since the only inhabited islands in the western Atlantic just before the coming of the Europeans were the Canaries, Hasran may belong to that group—unless, of course, it is to be sought in the Caribbean!

On his map, Idrisi shows a long string of islands in the Western Ocean reaching north from the equator to Brittany. Unfortunately, none of them are labeled. It could be argued that the first six islands, spread over three entire climate zones between the equator and the Strait of Gibraltar, represent the six known Canary Islands, forced into this north-south alignment by the physical constraints of the circular map with its narrow band of the Surrounding Ocean. The same linear arrangement of islands appears on 14th century maps such as the 1351Laurentian portolano (Book III, #233), and, a full century later, on the Bartolomeo Pareto map (1455), since it was still impossible to determine longitude.

However, Arab geographers and astronomers were much too accurate in their latitude calculations to mistakenly spread the Canary Islands so widely over the ocean. I believe another identification is more likely. The first two islands are the Canary Islands, properly shown in the first climate zone and carried forward from Ptolemy’s map as the Fortunate Islands or Islands of the Blest. The sixth island, shown opposite the entrance to the Mediterranean, would be al-Ghanam [Island of Sheep], Madeira.

The three intermediate islands in the chain may be the first cartographic representation of the Azores. After describing the Canary Islands, Idrisi refers to an island in the Western Sea named Raqa, which is the Isle of the Birds, Djazirato’t-Toyour. “It is reported that a species of birds resembling eagles is found there, red and armed with fangs; they hunt marine animals upon which they feed, and never leave these parts.” Mas’udi, too, mentions the island of Raqa, and says, “The King of France sent a ship to find the Isle of Raka, but it never returned.” William Babcock, who has written extensively on legendary islands of the Atlantic, supposes these birds to be cormorants — sea-crows (corvi marinis) — from which later maps derive the name Corvo for one of the Azores, although he admits that cormorants do not exactly fit Idrisi’s description. I think that Babcock comes close, but, rather than the cormorant, the bird referred to is the goshawk [Afar], a species of hawk that closely resembles an eagle and abounds in the Azores, and from which the entire archipelago gets its name. During the period of rediscovery of the Azores under Prince Henry the Navigator, these birds were supposedly responsible for guiding the sailors to these distant islands. If the isle of Raqa is indeed one of the Azores, then the discovery of these islands occurred as early as the 10th century.

Idrisi’s description of other islands in the Atlantic appear to have more to do with fanciful legends than with reality. Distinct from the Canary Islands were the Isle of Female Devils, the Isle of Illusion, the Island of Two Sorcerers, and the Isle of Lamentation [Gazirat al-Mustashkin], which was inhabited and fertile, with tilled fields, but controlled by a terrible dragon. This story may be a borrowing from Greek mythology, where a dragon guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides. On the Island of Two Heathen Brothers, two pirates lived until they were turned into rocks, and the inhabitants of the Island of Kalhan had the bodies of men and the heads of animals.

Some of these islands resemble the islands of Irish legend, and the Arabs may have incorporated parts of the Celtic tradition into their own legends. An exchange of ideas and reciprocal influences between the two cultures certainly took place. In 844, Norman Vikings invaded Spain and attacked and occupied Seville. The Arabs called the Vikings Magus. According to one historian, friendly relations were established between the Sultan of Spain and the invaders. A later writer (c. 1235) adds that the Sultan of Spain even sent an ambassador to the land of the Magus. Certain adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, from Tales of the Arabian Nights, are almost identical to those of Saint Brendan. But whether the Irish borrowed these myths from the Arabs, or vice versa, or if they both obtained them from an earlier common source is a matter of conjecture.

The Kitab al-Isti bar [Book of Observations], written by an anonymous author and dated 1192, says:

At the latitude of Tangier, in the Grand Sea, there are situated islands named “The Fortunate Islands.” These are spread in the sea, not far away from the west coast [of Africa], the Barbary Coast. That is what the inhabitants of the Maghrib say.

Islands of the Atlantic off the coast of northern Europe that were known by Idrisi:

1. Khalie [Empty Isles];

2. Ghazirat Birlanda [Ireland];

3. Kharab [Desert];

4. Gals or Vals [Wales];

5. Ghazirat Angiltara [England];

6. Ghazirat Squosia [Scotland];

7. Al-bahral muslimashshamalil;

8. Ghazirat Islanda [Iceland];

9. Ghazirat Danamarkha [Denmark].

And who knew what lay beyond the Canaries, or the Azores? After all, al-Idrisi, who repeatedly says that nothing lies beyond the Eternal Isles, splendidly contradicts himself by telling us in another passage, quoting no less an authority than Ptolemy himself: There are 27,000 islands in this sea, some inhabited, others not; we have mentioned only those closest to the mainland, and which are inhabited. As for the others, there is no need to mention them here.

Al-Idrisi presented the planisphere, a silver celestial sphere and the book to his patron in 1154, just a few weeks before Roger died at 58, probably of a heart attack; he went on to compose another geographical work for William I, Roger’s successor. This work is said to have been even more extensive than his earlier one, but only a few extracts have survived.

According to Arab sources, Idrisi composed yet another more detailed text and map in 1161 for Roger’s son William II.  While the first book was sometimes entitled The Amusements of him who desires to traverse the Earth, the second bore the title The Gardens of Humanity and the Amusement of the Soul.  Although his second work is not extant, a shortened version with the title Garden of Joys (1192), has survived; this work consists of 73 maps in the form of an atlas, and is now known as the Little Idrisi.  There is a substantial difference between the two versions of 1154 and 1192.  The latter map is smaller and contains fewer names.  The maps are of the kind divided into climatic zones, although al-Idrisi did not stick slavishly to the Greek models, since he had at his disposal entirely new material.  It is unfortunate that he tried to follow the classical arrangement of zones, since the quantity of material he had collected made the seven parallel belts overcrowded and the general picture distorted.  He appended to his text a small circular world map that marked a definite advance on its predecessors, although its shape and small size limited the accuracy of his portrayal of the hemisphere.  Further, decipherment is made very difficult by the Arab method of omitting the vowels when writing names, which were, in any case, garbled by al-Idrisi’s copyists.  Consequently a large number of place-names cannot be localized accurately. The text of the accompanying book is a great help in this respect, since it describes some features of places and details the routes and distances between various points.

In 1160, however, Sicilian barons rose in rebellion against William and during the disorders looted the palace; in a great fire in the courtyard, they burned government records, books and documents—including a new Latin edition of Roger’s Book which al-Idrisi had presented to William. At the same time, the silver planisphere and celestial sphere disappeared, apparently cut up and melted down.

Since the barons had attacked the Muslims of Sicily with particular ferocity—killing, among many others, a famous poet named Yahya ibn al-Tifashi—al-Idrisi fled to North Africa where, six years later, he died.

As he had brought the Arabic text with him, however, his great work lived on, winning widespread fame, serving as a model for Muslim geographers and historians for centuries and providing the great Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, with practically all his geographical knowledge.

It was not, however, available in Europe. Although the Arabic text of Roger’s Book was published in Rome by the Medici press in 1592, it was not again available to Europeans in Latin until the 17th century. In the 1400’s, therefore, Christopher Columbus had to rely on other sources of information. Using a globe prepared by a German cartographer named Martin Behaim (Book III, #258), based on Ptolemy’s miscalculations, Columbus also added in Marco Polo’s equally misleading estimates of distances and concluded, incorrectly, that by sailing west from Spain he could reach Japan or India after no more than a 4,000 mile voyage.

It is a curious thought that had Columbus been aware of the true distance—from al-Idrisi’s estimates—he might have hesitated to undertake his epoch-making voyage and might never have discovered that new world which came to light one morning on the far side of the Sea of Darkness.

Idrisi’s works are of exceptional quality when considered in comparison with other geographical writings of their period, partly by reason of their richness of detail, but mainly because of the afore mentioned ‘scientific method’ that was employed, a procedure which was indeed unlike that adopted by most Latin scholars of that era. 

There is, however, a markedly retrograde character to certain portions of his work, such as East Africa and South Asia; despite his narrative of the Lisbon Wanderers (see above and Beazely, vol. III, p. 532) he fully shares the common Muslim dread of the Atlantic.  Thus, at the beginning of the first, fourth, and sixth climates Idrisi dwells upon “. . . the thick and perpetual darkness brooding over the Western Ocean, and adding to the terrors of these black, viscous, stormy, and wind swept waters, whose western limits no one knew”.  His rigid climatic system, treating the Terra Habitabilis under seven zones, from equatorial to polar regions (the description proceeds section by section, from West to East, through each zone, beginning with the most southerly and finishing in the extreme north), and ignoring all divisions whether physical, political, linguistic, or religious, which did not harmonize with these of latitude, is unfortunate and confusing.

In view of its modernity and high intrinsic worth, it is difficult to understand why Idrisi’s work, composed as it was at the chronological and geographical point of contact between the Islamic and Christian civilizations, remained so long un-utilized by Christian scholars in Sicily, Italy, or other Christian countries, until we remember that the primary - we might even say the sole - interest of the Latin West in Arabic literature centered on the preparation of calendars, star tables and horoscopes, and, to some extent, the recovery of ancient lore. Certainly the influence of Idrisi’s Geography could not have been great in the world of letters or else traces of it would more easily be detected in Western literature. Unlike a multitude of Arabic writings of far less intrinsic value, the Rogerian Description found no Gerard of Cremona (translator of Ptolemy into Latin) to put it into Latin, and the authoritative geographical knowledge of the Western world was destined to develop unenriched by the treasures which Roger and Idrisi together had amassed.

Al-Idrisi’s map places Gog and Magog in northern China, behind a great wall with a tower and a door; at the wall is an inscription, translated as “belongs to the Kufaya mountain range which encloses Gog and Magog”. An explicit reference to Dul-Karnai’in (an Arabic name for Alexander, among others) by the gate, leaves no doubt as to Idrisi’s source. Gog and Magog appeared on Arabian maps as Yajoj wa Majoj from the 10th century; they appear on Al-Idrisi’s map of 1154 under the same names. What direct influence Arabic maps had on later western cartography is hard to tell.

The first translation known of Idrisi’s work was published in Rome only in 1619, and then in a very much shortened form (the translator did not even know the author’s name).   While in the world maps of Marino Sanudo and Pietro Vesconte (#228 in Book III) we find Idrisi’s influence very apparent here and there, and although his record of the Deceived Men of Lisbon and their explorations in the Western Ocean may have had a certain effect in stimulating the later Atlantic enterprises of Christian mariners, the Geography of Idrisi never seems to have become a European textbook.

World Map detail: Gog and Magog enclosed behind the wall or mountains in Northeast Asia

On the other hand, there is no question but that the Sicilo-Norman enthusiasm for geography exerted an indirect influence on the evolution of geographical knowledge, an influence that was to make itself felt more especially after the close of the Crusades period.  This enthusiasm was the product of a mingling of Arabic scientific and scholarly traditions with Norman maritime enterprise in an island that occupied a central position in relation to the world of its day.  It was an enthusiasm that arose partly from pure love of knowledge but also in very large degree from the practical necessities of a sea-faring people, and it was early applied to the solution of the problems of navigation.  As late as the 16th century, at Sfax in Tunisia, seven or eight generations of a family of cartographers called Sharfi, produced world maps based, at least as far as the eastern parts are concerned, on al-Idrisi maps, although they also show the later influence of European sea-charts.  In 1551 a cartographer of the Sharfi family drew a sea atlas accompanied by a small, round synoptic map that is similar to the al-Idrisi maps.  The view that Arab cartography turned the clock back when it broke away from the Greek traditions, represented by Ptolemy, is unfounded.  Compared with medieval monastic maps, the Arab maps show a considerable advance in design and geographical content; in fact, as we said, al-Idrisi’s adherence to one of the basic principles of Greek cartography - the division into zones had a deleterious effect on his work.  What other sources could al-Idrisi have used?  Had the Ptolemaic maps, found in Byzantine manuscripts of Ptolemy’s Geography, been in existence at that time, would they not found their way to the court of Roger II?  And would al-Idrisi, knowing of them, have chosen to ignore them?  It must be assumed that no such maps were available to al-Idrisi, although there seem to have been some lists of positions from which a map could be constructed.  Al-Idrisi, having no good maps at his disposal, based his own on routes and distances between places, which he distorted by forcing them in to the conformity of zones.  In spite of this error, his maps are undoubtedly the expression of a new spirit in medieval cartography.

LOCATION: Oxford Pococke Manuscript, Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS. Pococke 375)

British Library, Maps 856(6)

Al-Idrisi - Bibliotheque nationale de France (MSO Arabe 2221)

Konrad Miller “Weltkarte des Idrisi vom Jahr 1154”, 1928 Stuttgart. British Library, London. Ref. Maps 856.(11)


*Bagrow, L., The History of Cartography, pp. 57-58.

  Beazley, C. R., The Dawn of Modern Geography, volume III; pp. 532 -533.

*Brotton, J., Great Maps, pp. 46-49

*Bricker, C., Landmarks of Mapmaking, pp. 23, 149.

*Galichian, R., Countries South of the Caucasus in Medieval Maps: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, p.114.

*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume Two, pp. 154-74, Figures 7.1-7.22, Plates 11 and 12.

*Johnson, D.S., Phantom Islands of the Atlantic, pp. 40-45.

Kimble, G. H. T., Geography of the Middle Ages, pp. 57-59.

*Glorious Age of Exploration, p. 160.

  Landström, B., Bold Voyages and Great Explorers, pp. 87-88.

*Miller, Konrad, Mappae arabicae: Arabische Welt- und Landkarten des 9.-13. Jahrhunderts

*Park, H., Mapping Chinese and Islamic Worlds, pp. 82-86.

*Pinto, K., “The Maps Are the Message: Mehmet II’s Patronage of an ‘Ottoman Cluster’”, 

Imago Mundi, 63:2 20l, pp. 157-176.

Stevenson, E.L., Terrestrial and Celestial Globes, pp. 26; 33.

Wright, J. K., Geographical Lore at the Time of the Crusades, pp. 78-81.


Al-Idrisi World Map, Bodleian Library, Oxford Greaves MS, 42, fols. 1v-2r,
14th century, 33 cm diameter

A modern copy of Al-Idrisi world map from the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi'khtirāq al-āfāq,
a.k.a Tabula Rogeriana, oriented with South at the top, 1154,
Bibliotheque nationale de France (MSO Arabe 2221) as reconstructed by the German cartographer Konrad Miller in 1927 and published in Stuttgart in 1928,

better known as “The large Idrisi Map”,  Size 195 x 92 cm.

Detail of the “The large Idrisi Map” showing Europe and North Africa,
re-oriented with North at the top.

as reconstructed by the German cartographer Konrad Miller in 1927

Index of the sectional maps in the Nuzhat Al-Mushtaq.
This line drawing is a simplification of Konrad Miller’s composite map showing what the sectional maps (which are interspersed throughout the text in al-ldrisi’s Nuzbat al-tnushtaq) would look like if joined together. The climate numbers are given along the vertical axis, and the ten longitudinal divisions are given across the top. The consecutive numbers sometimes used to refer to the sectional maps are shown in the upper right corner of each section. Note that these delineations follow most closely the Paris (MS. Arabe 2221) and Oxford (MS. Pococke 372) manuscripts. The exact depictions of coastlines, islands, and so forth, differ in other manuscripts.

After Konrad Miller, Mappae arabicae: Arabische Welt- und Landerkarten des 9.-13. jahrhunderts, 6 vols. (Stuttgart, 1926-31), Band 1, Heft 2

World map of al-Sifaqsi, 1551 manuscript, 25 x 20 cm

Oriented with South at the top

Al-Idrisi world map from the Cairo manuscript, dated 1348. This world map and the one from Sofia are the only versions without climate boundaries. Dãr al-Kutub, Cairo (Jurãfiyã 150)

Reproduction and re-orientation of a map of the world adapted from the Muqaddimah [Introduction] to Ibn Khaldun’s monumental work, The History of the World, 1381; derived from the 1154 al-Idrisi map. Displays a Ptolemaic construction with an arrangement of horizontal divisions into seven parallel climate zones, originally oriented with South at the top.

Place names removed from Ibn KhaldUn's map: Lamlam Country; Maghzawah Country; Kanem; Zaghay; Gawgaw; Bornu; Nubia; at-Tajuwin; Abyssinia; Ghanah; Lamtah; as-Sils; Morocco; Tangier; Sinhajah; Dartah; Ifriqiyah; Desert of Berenice; Inner Oases; Fezzan; Jarid; Kawar; Beja; Hijaz; Syria; Yemen; Yamamah (Alamaniyah); Mukran; al-Basrah; Iraq; ash-Shihr; Oman; Kirman; Fars; al-BahlUs; Azerbaijan; Desert; Khuwarizm; Khurasan; Eastern India; Tashkent; Soghd; Tughuzghuz; Gascogne; Calabria; Venice; Germany; Macedonia; Bohemia; Jathnliyah; Jarmaniyah; al-Baylaqan; Armenia; Tabaristan; Alans; Bashqirs; Bulgars; Pechenegs; Stinking Land; Waste Country; Ghuzz; Turgish; Adhkish; Khallukh; Kimak.

Idrisi world map re-oriented with North at the top and labeled

World diagram from Lokman’s Zübdetü‘t-tevarih, 1595 manuscript, 39.5 x 25 cm

Oriented with South at the top

Tousi Salmâni, 'Adjâyeb al-makhlouqât (Merveilles de la création). Copié à Bagdad en 1388. 

    BNF, Manuscrits (Suppl. Persan 332 f° 58) 

Al-Istakhrî, Masâlik al-mamâlik (Livre des routes et des royaumes) 10th century. Khurasan. 15th century. Manuscript (25 x 30 cm). 

    BNF, Manuscrits (Suppl. Persan 1614 f° 86v°-87)