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World Map of Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi

Map of the World by Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi

Another fascinating map of the medieval era was produced by the brilliant Muslim Arab scholar Muhammad Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi. This remarkable work comes from his geographical book entitled Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq, loosely translated as ‘The Book of Pleasant Journeys to Faraway Lands’, or ‘For He Who Longs to Travel the World’, also known as the Tabula Rogeriana, as it was produced for Sicilian King Roger II, himself an eager traveller who wanted to produce a new and credible world map.

By 1145 Al-Idrisi had become an advisor to King Roger II of Sicily, at whose behest the map project was undertaken. The project was exceedingly well funded and within a short time Al-Idrisi had sent explorers and voyagers around the world to gather information for a map that would be the most complete and up-to-date of its time. The work was completed in 1154, a few short weeks before the death of the king. It consisted of text illustrating geographic findings, a magnificent collection of 70 maps, and a 300 pound silver disc with a map engraved upon it. The work was soon after translated into Latin and used as a standard source of geographic and topographic information for decades. 

As the map is centered on Mecca and oriented south, at first glance the image is not readily recognizable, but by rotating it to orient north we easily recognize the shapes. We see Europe, Africa and Asia, with the Adriatic,  Mediterranean, and Black Seas at the centre while the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean are depicted in the south. The Bosporus, linking the Mediterranean and Black Seas via the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles Strait is clearly delineated. Italy's boot shape is clearly depicted. We see rivers flowing from mountain ranges and climatic zones marked according to Ptolemy’s Geography. Understandably, the margins are less distinct with northern Europe ending in small islands and sub-Saharan Africa extending to the edge of the ocean which is shown to encircle the entire world. This world map was followed by 70 regional maps and texts which visualize and describe the world known to the cultures around the Mediterranean Sea.

 Al-Idrisi himself created a map intended to 'explain' his world map, which he called 'An Explanation to the Proof of the Map of the World’, pictured below.  This image is also rotated to orient the map north to facilitate recognition, as Al-Idrisi’s original was oriented south. Here we see a remarkably accurate map dating to the mid-twelfth century, with continents and myriad topographical features easily recognizable. 

Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani as-Sabti (1100-1165) who is commonly referred to simply as Al-Idrisi, was a remarkable medieval scholar who was born during the ‘Golden Age of Islam’, an era known for the promotion by Islamic intelligentsia of learning in the arts, sciences, philosophy and mathematics; an era which resulted in significant progress in all these fields. Born and educated in Islamic Morocco, his noble family's lineage included princes, caliphs and holy men. Al-Idrisi's family’s dynasty is believed to have descended directly from the Islamic prophet Muhammed through the prophet’s eldest grandson, Al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAli. 

Thus Al-Idrisi had the means from an early age to travel extensively in the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastal regions, visiting North Africa, Spain, the northwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, the coastlines of France, and even Anatolia, acquiring voluminous knowledge and information about these regions. It is known that he furthered his formal education in Cordoba for a number of years. It was this experience along with his acumen, his works and writing, which had caught the attention of King Roger II when he invited Al-Idrisi to his court. 

By the time Al-Idrisi was active, Ptolemy’s great work Geography had been translated into Arabic.Its influence can be seen in the cartographic works done by Al-Idrisi and his colleagues at the royal court, where they collected and compared data, interviewed and documented reports from travelers, and eliminated conflicting information. 

The contributions to cartography by Al-Idrisi and his colleagues paved the way for future great thinkers and mapmakers around the world. One result of their collaboration was the Nuzhat al-mushtaq, a compendium of the physical, cultural, socioeconomic and political conditions of the time, with 70 maps of population centers. It was the most important geographical work completed in twelfth century Europe. Fortunately for the world, ten manuscript copies of this remarkable work have survived to this day, with many maps intact.

Sicily by Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi


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