Al-Idrīsī's Map

Al-Idrīsī's Map

What has Sicily and a Norman dynasty got to do with one of the most amazing maps produced by a Muslim intellectual in medieval world history?

The story of Muḥammad al-Idrīsī (d. 1165 CE) is fascinating, and worthy of an entire lecture. He was from a royal dynastic family that was forced to flee Andalus (hence he was born in Morocco), and studied in Cordoba. As a young man, he traveled to many parts of the world, including what is now France, England, Portugal, Hungary and other regions.

He had an insatiable appetite for knowledge of the world, and so wherever he went, he interviewed travelers who had gone to lands even further than his own travels. In this manner, he acquired an immense amount of knowledge of geography, culture and cartography.

During this era, the Muslim-ruled island of Sicily had fallen into Norman hands (yes, Muslims ruled over this Italian land for over two hundred years, and there are still many remnants of Arab culture and civilization in their lands, language, culture and heritage).

The Norman Kingdom that took over after the Muslims were initially extremely respectful of Islamic culture, knowledge and civilization. The first few kings allowed the Muslims full freedoms, and wanted them to remain in Sicily. As well, they adopted Arab dress and culture, and used Arabic as a main language (imagine that: a European Italian Kingdom that was Arabesque in nature!).

As a manifestation of this respect, King Roger II (d. 1154) asked al-Idrīsī to join his Royal Court, and sponsored him to write a detailed work on the geography of the world. And this is what led al-Idrīsī to move to Palermo (in Sicily), and spend the next 15 years writing his famous and legendary work entitled نزهة المشتاق في اختراق الآفاق‎ or: “The Excursion of One Who is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World”.

The map that he produced, based solely on his own travels and speaking with other travelers and sailors (with help from King Roger in procuring these travelers), is one of the most historic maps of medieval history (see picture).

Since standard conventions for maps hadn't yet been finalized, he drew it with South being upwards, hence for this image I've shown the original map turned upside-down so that we can understand it better. One can easily recognize the Middle East, Europe and North Africa on the map. And because it was sponsored by King Roger, it was commonly called Kitāb Rujār, or Tabula Rogeriana' in Latin.

In this work, he divides the world into seven regions, and describes many lands and cultures, and even accurately calculates the circumference of the earth (well, accurate enough: he calculated 37,000 km, whereas it's closer to 40k - pretty impressive for someone of that era!)

Oh, and the book was written in Arabic of course. Why wouldn't it be, when King Roger and all of the noblemen and elite of Sicily spoke and read Arabic, and it was the lingua franca of intellectual discourse at the time?

This work made a lasting contribution to humanity's knowledge of the world, and allowed further discoveries to be made.

And now you know !
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