Most Arab cartographers 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.
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.
||Al Idrisi's 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
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Copyright ©2002-2005 Encyclopaedia Mauritiana
World Maps of Al-Idrisi
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.