Explore the medieval world map of Muhammad al-Idrisi

Explore the medieval world map of Muhammad al-Idrisi

Explore the highly accurate map of the world drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi in the Middle Ages

A 1920s replica of a world map from the collections of the Library of Congress. (Photo: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.)

Cartographers – or map makers – shape how we perceive our world. Most people are not lucky enough to travel every continent and observe every sea. Even those lucky travelers who were able to accomplish such a feat would find that their perspective was limited by being tied to the ground, and would only be able to see the horizon in front of them. For centuries before GPS and air travel, before advanced mapping technologies and easy travel, mapmakers had to do their best to cope with the constraints of their time. However, there is one scholar who has managed to outdo his predecessors and create an impressively accurate presentation of the world as he knew it, and that is Muhammad al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi was an intrepid 12th-century North African Islamic scholar and traveler who was commissioned by the King of Sicily to create a magnificent engraved silver map (now lost) and printed works that remained the most accurate reference points for three centuries.

Al-Idrisi was born around 1100 in Ceuta, a medieval city that is now the autonomous Spanish city of Ceuta in North Africa, next to Morocco. He was educated in Cordoba, a city in Andalusia, on mainland Spain. During his adulthood he traveled much more extensively than many medieval nobles, venturing into Asia, visiting Hungary, York in England, and parts of France. His experience of the ways of the world inspired the Norman King Roger II of Sicily to commission work for his court. There, Al-Idrisi worked alongside other scholars and the king to compile a map of the world.

After 15 years of work, the final project was completed, a map engraved on a six-foot-wide silver disc. Al-Idrisi also wrote an accompanying book with texts and maps, known as Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaqI In Arabic, which roughly translates to “The Book of Pleasant Journeys to Distant Lands.” The map was based on ancient Greek and Roman lore preserved during the Islamic Golden Age, and specifically rejected the fictional creatures and places often found on other medieval maps such as Mapa Mundi.

Al-Idrisi Map, also known as Rogerian table In Latin, it shows the world upside down compared to our modern versions. In this case, the south points up, which is similar to other Islamic maps of that period. Although the silver disc map and the original paperwork in Latin were lost for centuries, the Arabic version survived long enough to be copied throughout the medieval period. Today, this historical piece still exists in the form of ten manuscripts scattered in collections around the world. These maps are partial, depicting the Balkans or Sicily for example. It was not until the 1920s that a German historian named Conrad Miller reconstructed the pieces to produce the complete map as it would appear on the silver disc.

Although the geographical formations are not completely accurate – like most ancient maps – Al-Idrisi’s work remained authoritative throughout the medieval period. It did not include southern Africa, nor the Americas, but it was a broader and more accurate view of Europe and Asia than most scholars of the time could have seen. It was also a major step in the history of scientific cartography, demonstrating the skill of scholars of the Islamic Golden Age.

Medieval Islamic cartographer and scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi created a map of the world in the 12th century that remained the most accurate for three centuries.

Explore the highly accurate map of the world drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi in the Middle Ages

A circular map found in later editions of Al-Idrisi’s work, from a copy by Ali bin Hasan al-Hawfi al-Qasimi in 1456. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The map was originally engraved on a silver disc and was accompanied by a paper summary.

Explore the highly accurate map of the world drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi in the Middle Ages

The Balkans as depicted by Al-Idrisi. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

h/t: (Open Culture, Library of Congress)

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