Slide #219

TITLE: World Maps of al-Idrisi
Abu Abdullah Mohammed Ibn al-Sharif al-Idrisi [Edrisi]
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 Moslem East, thereby widening the already present cultural cleavage. Meanwhile the Moslems were slowly unearthing the treasures of Greek and Persian wisdom, and in so doing they became fired with enthusiasm to study them. Aided by their own native genius, by the keenest inter-regional competition - for Moslem 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 Moslems of the Eastern Caliphate had become familiar with Claudius Ptolemy's Almagest and Geographia (Slide #119) 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 9th 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 Moslems 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 Moslems combined the accumulated knowledge gained through exploration and travel. Moslem trade between the 7th and 9th 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 the preeminence of their civilization was soon acknowledged by contemporaries. 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 (Slides #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 Moslem scholars played a brilliant part in the intellectual life of the court. The Norman king was Roger II Guiscard of Sicily (1097-1154) who was active in encouraging science and learning of all areas, but was himself a devotee of geography, occupying much of his spare time in collecting Arabic geographical treatises and in questioning travelers about distant lands. Palermo was one of the great meeting places for sailors, merchants, pilgrims, crusaders, and scholars from all nations. Their accounts of distant lands could be heard, and it is not surprising that at the court of King Roger the idea was conceived of compiling a book and a map from all of these diverse reports.

It was, therefore, at Roger's instigation and patronage that Abu Abdullah Ibn Idrisi (born 1099 at Ceuta) was summoned to his court to collaborate with him in the compilation of a book containing all available data on the latitude and longitude of towns, the distances between them, and their distribution in climate zones. Furthermore, we are told that Roger provided Idrisi with special facilities for the construction of maps to accompany the resulting treatise, usually known as his Geography, or, to cite the translation of its Arabic title, The Recreation for Him Who Wishes to Travel Through the Countries. Idrisi was much traveled himself and, unlike many other Arabs of his time, had been to France and England as well as Central Asia and Constantinople. Also, as a student at the University of Cordova, he had access to the rich repository of information on various countries collected there.

In addition to Idrisi's personal travel and scholarship, it appears that the king and Idrisi together selected "certain intelligent men", who were despatched on travels and were accompanied by draftsmen. Just as soon as these men returned Idrisi inserted in his treatise the information which was thus communicated to him. Therefore, on the basis of these observations made 'in the field', and from data derived from such sources as Ptolemy and earlier Arabic and Greek geographers, geographical information was critically compiled, correlated, and brought up to date. The resulting book and associated maps took 15 years to amass and 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 12th century in Europe.

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 in 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.

Idrisi fused elements from East and West with Arab knowledge to produce a world-picture. He was critical of traditional sources (even though he squeezed his map into a climate-zone framework) and he gathered much of the data for his map not only from contemporary lore and explorers' reports, but also from 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.). 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.

According to Arab sources, Idrisi composed 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 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 which 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 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.

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. An examination of Idrisi's knowledge of Africa will show by way of example, the extent of quality found in this treatise.

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 ?] which, 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 which 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'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 Moslem 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.

From a modern point of view, Idrisi's Ptolemaic leanings give 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 Beazely, vol. III, p. 532) he fully shares the common Moslem 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.

On the shape of the earth (remaining 'stable in space like the yolk in an egg'), he is perfectly satisfied with the "opinions of most philosophers", and believes it to be unquestionably spherical. "Some object that waters could not remain upon a curved surface, but it is certain that they do so remain, maintained by an equilibrium which experiences no variation."

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 travellers 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.

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. 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 known the author's name). While in the world maps of Marino Sanudo and Pietro Vesconte we find Idrisi's influence very apparent here and there (Slide #228), 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.

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 which 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 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 which is similar to the 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, 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 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 Idrisi, knowing of them, have chosen to ignore them ? It must be assumed that no such maps were available to Idrisi, although there seem to have been some lists of positions from which a map could be constructed. 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, fols. 3c-4r)


*Bagrow, L., The History of Cartography, pp. 57-58 .
Beazley, C.R., The Dawn of Modern Geography, volume III; pp. 532 -533.
*Bricker, C., Landmarks of Mapmaking, pp. 23, 149.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume Two, pp. 154-74, Figures 7.1-7.22, Plates 11 and 12 (color).
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.
Wright, J. K., Geographical Lore at the Time of the Crusades, pp. 78-81.


Index of Early Medieval Maps