Maps are graphic two-dimensional representations of geographical knowledge. Since ancient times, they have served as devices for communicating not only spatial and geographic reality but also mythological and religious information.

In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once described the world as a small “global village” that is interconnected thanks to modern communication and transportation technologies. Today, it’s widely accepted that the earth is just a tiny rock orbiting infinite space.

The earth was long conceived as a vast, enigmatic, and mysterious planet.

However, the earth was long conceived as a vast, enigmatic, and mysterious planet. Before exploration expeditions, people of the inhabited world considered all of what lay beyond their reach as the perilous unknown, prompting uncanny stories to circulate.

Medieval European mapmakers usually illustrated their maps with monsters, sea serpents, ogres, and ogresses, giving reign to a proliferation of various superstitious and credulous beliefs. Despite their exaggerated – and sometimes irrational – assumptions, humans have always sought to understand the world around them and make sense of the universe. Written and archaeological records attest to the fact that mapmaking is as old as man’s first prehistoric petroglyphs (cave carvings).

According to antiquarians and cartography historians, there is much evidence of mapmaking in ancient civilizations, such as Babylon and Greece, and by medieval Muslims and Europeans. Every civilization has built upon the legacy that preceded it, bridging the knowledge of geography throughout human history. Moroccan medieval cartographer al-Sharīf aI-Idrīsī and renowned traveler Ibn Battuta played a pivotal role in advancing this science and, thus, the understanding of the world.

Al-Idrisi consecrated his early life to the pursuit of knowledge in Islamic Cordova.

Born in the northern city of Ceuta (now a Spanish enclave) in 1100, Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Idrīs al-Ḥammūdī al-Ḥasanī al-Idrīsī known in the West as Al-Sharif al-Idrisi – consecrated his early life to the pursuit of knowledge in Islamic Cordova.

Cordova was a hub for learning and innovation where al-Idrissi studied philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and botany. According to I.Y. Kratchkovsky[1], aI-Idrīsī began his extensive travels with a visit to Asia Minor (Anatolia), then France, England, Spain, and North Africa.

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Taking great interest in what he calls “seas and gulfs, countries and regions,”[2]  and rigorously studying the descriptive travelogues of Muslim and non-Muslim travelers who came before him, al-Idrisi spread his erudition far and wide. As a result, in 1138, the Norman King of Sicily Roger II (1097-1154) summoned him to his court in Palermo where he was assigned to create a world map (mappae mundi) with detailed commentary on the different regions, cultures, climates, geographies, races, seas, itineraries, distances, and wonders.[3]

In his ambitious scientific endeavor, aI-Idrīsī followed the Ptolemy method, referenced his own travel experiences, and reviewed the writings of travelers, traders, and explorers such as al-Mas’ūdī, Abu Nasr Sa’id al-Jihani, Abu al-Qasim Muhammad Abdullah ibn Khurdadhba, Ahmad ibn ‘Umr al-‘Udhri, Abu al-Qasim Muhammad al-Hawqali al-Baghdadi, Khanaj ibn Khaqan al-Kaymaki, and Ahmad ibn Ya’qub,[4]. However, it appears from aI-Idrisi’s book that neither he, nor King Roger II, was satisfied with the accounts of these travelers and writers, hence describing their findings as simpleminded.[5]

AI-Idrisi would play an essential role in building the map with great precision to meet the expectations of King Roger II.

Therefore, aI-Idrisi would play an essential role in building the map with great precision to meet the expectations of King Roger II, who assiduously supervised the project. The scholar used all his resources to ultimately produce the most accurate map of his time, featuring an outline of the seven climates zones and “their nations and regions, coastlines and seashores, their bays, seas, rivers, and the mouths of rivers, the populated regions and the unpopulated, and the well-traveled internal roads of each nation and those between nations with the distance figured and recorded in miles, as well as the best-known anchorages.”[6]

Map publisher Peter Whitfield[7] considers aI-Idrisi’s maps superior to contemporary European maps, especially his Tabula Rogeriana map, which is far more than a graphic representation of geographical areas. The map is well-researched and exhaustively illustrated with physical features, ethnic and socio-cultural information on the populated areas, economic resources, and other characteristics of each individual region.

Upon the request of King Roger II, aI-Idrisi also wrote an extensive description of his map and its 70 sections in a book he entitled Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Khtiraq al-Afaq “The Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands.” It is also called “The Book of Roger,” and is translated into several European languages. Both the book and the map were used as indispensable geographical references in Europe for centuries thereafter, influencing even Renaissance-era European cartographers.

AI-Idrisi’s influence can also be found in a number of works by later Muslim authors such as Musa ibn Said al-Maghribi’s book Kitab Bast al-Ard fi Tuliha wa-al-A’ard “Exposition of the Earth in Length and Breadth,” where he repeatedly quotes aI-Idrisi and builds on his conclusions.

Many historians and geographers acknowledged aI-Idrisi’s direct or indirect influence

Ibn Khaldun, the renowned historian and father of modern sociology, also greatly admired aI-Idrisi and used his book as a reference for his geography section in the “Book of Lessons: (Kitāb al-ʿibar). In addition to the aforementioned examples, Ḥāfiẓ-i Abrū, Abu al-QasIm ibn Ahmad ibn Ali al-Zayyani, and many other historians and geographers acknowledged aI-Idrisi’s direct or indirect influence in their writings.

Besides the position that al-Idrisi held and was admired for in the fields of geography, cartography and travel, the scholar had other interests that demonstrated his multifaceted and encyclopedic knowledge. He wrote books on botany, such as “The Complete Book of the Characteristics of Plants,” where he propounds his seminal study of plants, trees, fruits, and flowers of all kinds.

His book “The Book of Medicines,” whose manuscript was found in Istanbul, Turkey, in the second half of the 20th century, is written much like a glossary, with an alphabetical classification of medicines and a thorough explanation of their names and uses in Syriac, Greek, Persian, Latin, Berber and, sometimes, Coptic.

Russian Orientalist I.Y. Kratchkovsky surmises that aI-Idrisi’s knowledge of pharmacy and medicine grew considerably during his residence in Sicily, where he scooped up as much knowledge as he could from his Greek and Byzantine predecessors, such as the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides.

The multidisciplinary contributions and the truly admirable legacy of this Moroccan scholar are valued by many Orientalists who praised him for his ingenuity and groundbreaking achievements. Without al-Idrisi’s great intellect and broad scholarship, the Norman King of Sicily Roger II would not have invited him to his court and entrusted him – and him only – with the heavy responsibility of constructing an accurate world map. As a cartographer, aI-Idrisi’ exceeded the expectations of his patron, producing the first accurate map of its day that clearly shows Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

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[1] I.Y. Kratchkovsky, Istoria Arabskoi Geograficheskoip Literatury/ Tarikh al-Adab al-Joghrafi al-Arabi [History of Arabic Geographic Literature], trans., Salah Eddine Othman Hachim, (Alexandria: 1971), p. 280.

[2] Al-Charif al-Idrisi, Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi khtiraq al-afaq [The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands], Vol. 1, (Maktabat al-thaqafa al-Dinya: Cairo, 2002), p.P. 5.

[3] Ibid., p. 8.

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] De Karla Mallette, The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100-1250: A Literary History (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Press, 2011), p., 146.

[6] Ibid., p. 147.

[7] Peter Whitfield, New Found Lands: Maps in the History of Exploration (New York: Routledge: 1998), p.13.