TITLE: World Maps of al-Idrisi
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 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
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
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
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.