The World Map That Introduced Scientific Mapmaking to the Medieval Islamic World (1154 AD)

Cast your mind, if you will, to the city of Ceu­ta. If you’ve nev­er heard of it, or can’t quite recall its loca­tion, you can eas­i­ly find out by search­ing for it on your map appli­ca­tion of choice. Back in the twelfth cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, you might have had to con­sult an image of the known world engraved on a 300-pound, six-and-a-half-foot wide sil­ver disk — but then, if you had access to that disk, you’d know full well where Ceu­ta was in the first place. For it belonged to King Roger II of Sici­ly, who’d com­mis­sioned it from the geo­g­ra­ph­er, trav­el­er, and schol­ar Abū Abdal­lāh Muham­mad ibn Muham­mad ibn Abdal­lāh ibn Idrīs al-sharif al-Idrīsī — more suc­cinct­ly known as Muham­mad al-Idrisi — per­haps Ceu­ta’s most accom­plished son.

“Al-Idrisi stud­ied in Cor­do­ba and trav­eled wide­ly as a young man, vis­it­ing Asia Minor, Hun­gary, the French Atlantic coast, and even as far north as York, Eng­land,” writes Big Think’s Frank Jacobs. In 1138, Roger II “invit­ed al-Idrisi to his court at Paler­mo, pos­si­bly to explore whether he could install the Mus­lim noble­man as a pup­pet ruler in the bits of North Africa under his domin­ion, or in Spain, which he hoped to con­quer.” The project that result­ed from this meet­ing, fif­teen years of work lat­er, was “a new and accu­rate map of the world.” In addi­tion to knowl­edge gained on his own exten­sive trav­els, Al-Isidiri con­sult­ed ancient sources like Ptolemy’s Geog­ra­phy and “inter­viewed ship’s crews and oth­er sea­soned trav­el­ers, but retained only those sto­ries on which all were in agree­ment,” leav­ing out the myth­i­cal tribes and fan­tas­ti­cal crea­tures.

In addi­tion to the grand disk, Al-Idrisi cre­at­ed an atlas con­sist­ing of 70 detailed, anno­tat­ed maps called Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq āl-āfāq. That Ara­bic title has been var­i­ous­ly trans­lat­ed — “the book of pleas­ant jour­neys into far­away lands,” “the excur­sion of the one who yearns to pen­e­trate the hori­zons,” “the excur­sion of one who is eager to tra­verse the regions of the world” — but in Latin, the book was sim­ply called the Tab­u­la Roge­ri­ana. Alas, writes Jacobs, “the orig­i­nal Latin ver­sion of the atlas (and the sil­ver disk) were destroyed in 1160 in the chaos of a coup against William the Wicked, Roger’s unpop­u­lar son and suc­ces­sor.” Still, Al-Idrisi did man­age to bring the Ara­bic ver­sion back with him to North Africa, where it became an influ­en­tial exam­ple of sci­en­tif­ic car­tog­ra­phy for the Islam­ic world.

A glance at the Library of Con­gress’ Ger­man fac­sim­i­le from 1928 at the top of the post reveals that Al-Idrisi’s world map looks quite unlike the ones we know today. He put south, not north, at the top, the bet­ter for Islam­ic con­verts to ori­ent them­selves toward Mec­ca. “His Europe is sketchy, his Asia amor­phous, and his Africa man­ages to be both par­tial and over­sized,” Jacobs notes, but nev­er­the­less, he got a lot right, includ­ing such lit­tle-known regions as the king­dom of Sil­la (locat­ed in mod­ern-day Korea) and cal­cu­lat­ing — approx­i­mate­ly, but still impres­sive­ly — the cir­cum­fer­ence of the entire Earth. We might con­sid­er pay­ing trib­ute to Al-Idrisi’s achieve­ments by mak­ing a trip to his home­town (a Span­ish-held city, for the record, at the very tip of Africa north-east of Moroc­co), which seems like a pleas­ant place to spend a few weeks — and a promis­ing start­ing point from which to pen­e­trate a few hori­zons of our own.

via Big Think

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, “the Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

How Did Car­tog­ra­phers Cre­ate World Maps before Air­planes and Satel­lites? An Intro­duc­tion

The Evo­lu­tion of the World Map: An Inven­tive Info­graph­ic Shows How Our Pic­ture of the World Changed Over 1,800 Years

40,000 Ear­ly Mod­ern Maps Are Now Freely Avail­able Online (Cour­tesy of the British Library)

500+ Beau­ti­ful Man­u­scripts from the Islam­ic World Now Dig­i­tized & Free to Down­load

The Birth and Rapid Rise of Islam, Ani­mat­ed (622‑1453)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (6) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (6)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • BobA says:

    Islam­ic maps of that peri­od are typ­i­cal­ly cre­at­ed with south “up”… north at the top did­n’t real­ly become “nor­mal” until the 1800s. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly upside down.

    The Bodleian Libray at Oxford also has an Ara­bic copy with col­or plates.

  • Moorish says:

    Idriss 1 is also the founder of the first Moroc­can state in 789.

    All maps were upside-down because dur­ing that peri­od, the south­ern hemi­sphere host­ed the advanced civ­i­liza­tions of the world.

    You’ll notice sig­nif­i­cant map and intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty shifts after the Renais­sance “more like an intel­lec­tu­al robery”.

  • Lynn says:

    I have often won­dered how a per­son or per­sons not present at the time of a cre­ative work con­sid­ers them­selves an expert when not present at the time of cre­ation.

  • Dr.S.K.Pachauri IAS Retd says:

    Rome & Greece knew about the impor­tance of India. Alexan­der the Great marched from Greece to India in 323–327BC.
    Strange­ly the map is all con­fused about the world — East of Europe.!!
    Regards to All, Dr.S.K.Pachauri IAS Retd

  • Tyler says:

    Moor­ish, there were no advanced civ­i­liza­tions in the south­ern hemi­sphere at the time this map was made. Al Idrisi was­n’t com­mit­ting intel­lec­tu­al theft when he used Ptole­mys Geog­ra­phy or any­one else work in antiq­ui­ty. Oh sor­ry, you were incen­u­at­ing that intel­lec­tu­al work from the Renais­sance was pla­gia­rized or stolen from Ara­bic intel­lec­tu­al work. Actu­al­ly the Arabs were con­tin­u­ing work from Roman, who were con­tin­u­ing work from Greeks. We should all be glad they kept build­ing on eachother. If I was you I would study up on your his­to­ry instead of regur­gi­tat­ing false “Woke” his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.