The medieval cartographer had remembered the wrong map

The medieval cartographer had remembered the wrong map

If you know one thing about the 12th-century Arab cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, it’s that he is the author of this wonky world map, which is often included in modern atlases as a prime example of medieval cartographic skills.

This invites comparisons that do him no favors. Among the high-resolution maps found in atlases today, Al-Idrisi’s image looks like a child’s drawing. For him, Europe is unclear, Asia is amorphous, and Africa is capable of being partial and exaggerated. In addition, the map is a planisphere – the projection of a sphere onto a flat (and usually circular) plane – creating the false impression that Al-Idrisi was a flatland of the Discworld set.

World map with a boat on it.

Arabic maps were oriented south, so this copy of Al-Idrisi’s map, although easily recognizable, is in the wrong direction. (Image source: World History Archive/Getty Images)

That’s not all that’s wrong with this map. For starters, you see it upside down. As did most Arabic maps of the time, the south is at the top on this map. This was to help new converts to Islam, most of whom lived in northern Arabia, orient towards Mecca. Moreover, this map is not by Al-Idrisi himself. It is a small image that appears only in some copied manuscripts and is not mentioned in the original text of the atlas. This text describes Al-Idrisi’s own maps, which are much larger and considerably more detailed.

A poor summary of a tremendous talent

So, this little map is a poor summary of an enormous talent. Al-Idrisi’s main achievement is the huge atlas known as Roger’s bookIt will remain in power for hundreds of years. His concept of the upper course of the Nile was essentially confirmed by the year 19y– European explorers of the century. The man’s biography is as exceptional as his work. Born in 1100 AD in the North African coastal city of Ceuta, Al-Idrisi was the descendant of a noble family descended from Imam Ali, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, and thus had a right to claim the caliphate. His ancestors ruled Malaga in Muslim Spain.

Al-Idrisi studied in Cordoba and traveled extensively as a young man, visiting Asia Minor, Hungary, the French Atlantic coast, and even as far north as York, England. In 1138, Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, invited Al-Idrisi to his court in Palermo, perhaps to explore whether he could install the Muslim nobleman as a puppet ruler in the parts of North Africa under his control, or in Spain. Which he was hoping to conquer.

Open book with sea map.

Map of the Indian Ocean, drawn by Al-Idrisi Roger’s book. There are no monsters, but it’s still somewhat inaccurate. (Credit: Public Domain)

As it turned out, Al-Idrisi was more valuable as a scholar. Roger commissioned him to produce a new, accurate map of the world. This has proven to be a massive project and will take 15 years to complete.

With the king’s help, the cartographer interviewed the ship’s crew and other experienced travellers, but kept only those stories on which everyone agreed, excluding improbable reports. Therefore, there is no sciapods (a mythical one-legged tribe) or other imaginary monsters found on the Al-Idrisi map.

When in doubt, send out scouts

Al-Idrisi also consulted ancient geographical compendia, especially Ptolemy’s book geographyAs well as Islamic works. If all that still left things in doubt, he could always ask the king to send scouts to verify or supplement the available information.

The task was completed in 1154. Al-Idrisi created a map of the world engraved on a silver disc weighing 300 pounds and 6.5 feet (2 m) wide. He also transferred the information on this part of the globe into rectangular maps, each of which is comprehensively explained. This atlas is known in Arabic as: Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq āl-āfāq (variably translated as “The Book of Pleasant Journeys to Distant Lands” or “The Journey of the Longing to Breakthrough the Horizons”), and in Latin usually as “The Journey of the Longing to Breakthrough the Horizons”. Rogerian table (“Roger’s Book”).

Uniquely, it combined the geographical insights of the Greeks, Arabs and Vikings, three widely traveled civilizations, and produced a map of the world more expansive and, thanks to Al-Idrisi’s rigorous methodology, more accurate than any previous map.

World map with yellow background.

Al-Idrisi’s world map, reconstructed from 70 maps in the volume Roger’s book. It is much more detailed than a globe chart, although the latter is more popular. Note that this map, with North at the top, is upside down, as can be seen from the Roman numerals at the bottom. The correct version is directed towards the south. (Image source: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

One of the most interesting signals in Roger’s book who is he Ireland-al-Kabirah (“Great Ireland”), one day sailing from Iceland. Given the Viking input he had, it is very likely that this is a reference to Greenland.

Al-Idrisi’s atlas consists of 70 sectional maps covering the entire known world, ten for each of the Earth’s seven climatic zones (a concept borrowed from Ptolemy). Accompanying each map was a description of that region’s topography, culture, politics, and economy—descriptions that became more concise the further the maps moved away from Sicily.

When put together, these 70 maps form a massive, detailed map of the known world more than 9 feet (2.7 m) long. This is Al-Idrisi’s greatest achievement. The circular world map was only added to later versions of the atlas, and exists in several editions. Illustrated here (and most often used) is from the so-called Istanbul Codex, a copy of Roger’s book Made in 1469 by Ali ibn Hasan al-Ajami.

Within 10% of the actual circumference

Despite the standard presentation of Al-Idrisi’s view of the world as a flat disk, the cartographer knew full well that the world was round, and in fact, the introduction calculated its circumference as 22,900 miles (37,000 km), within 10% of the actual length (24,901 km). Mile; 40.075 km).

Roger II was only able to enjoy the fruits of Al-Idrisi’s labor for a short time. He died within weeks of its completion. The original Latin version of the atlas (and silver tablet) was destroyed in 1160 in the chaos of the coup against William the Wicked, Roger’s unpopular son and successor. Al-Idrisi fled to North Africa with the Arabic version, ensuring that Roger’s book He will remain influential in the Islamic world, by demonstrating the benefits of the scientific method in cartography, based on observation and accuracy.

Yellow and blue world map.

Map of the world as Al-Idrisi wanted it, with the south at the top. (Image source: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Just one example of Al-Idrisi’s influence: as one of the first Arab cartographers to mention the Silla dynasty in Korea, he helped cement that kingdom in the imagination of generations of Arab merchants as an attractive, rich, and exotic destination for trade.

On the other hand, Al-Idrisi’s influence on European map making was very limited. It had the original Latin version of Roger’s book Europe’s history of mapping and exploration might have ended differently. The first new translation of the Atlas into Latin, by the Maronite scholar Gabriel Syonetta, known as Geography of Nubia It was published in Paris in late 1619. It was not until the nineteenth century, with the advent of academic Oriental studies, that Europeans realized that Al-Idrisi had produced one of the most detailed and accurate maps of the world in the Middle Ages.

Only ten copies exist

There are only ten manuscript copies of this book Roger’s book In existence, only five have the full text. Eight have maps, and six do not have the circular map mentioned in the text itself. The Istanbul Codex is considered the most complete, containing all seventy maps.

Statue of a man holding a piece of paper.

Al-Idrisi statue in Ceuta, showing his map of the world – the proper version this time, rectangular and “upside down”. (Credit: Vardolia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Al-Idrisi was also called al-Sharif, or “nobleman,” but despite his noble lineage he exercised no political or spiritual authority. The other honor he received, “Father of Geography,” is a joint award at best. The people of Ceuta know that their native son deserves better and should be remembered for more than just that simplistic globe.

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That is why his statue in that city, now a Spanish enclave in Morocco, bears the largest and most impressive version of his world map, reconstructed from the seventy individual maps that make up his atlas.

Strange Maps No. 1218

For an in-depth treatment of Al-Idrisi’s work, see Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi’s Cartography, by S. Maqbool Ahmed, Chapter Seven on the History of Cartography, Vol. 2, Book I: Cartography in Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies.

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