Muhammad al-Idrisi (c. 1100-1165), an Arab geographer, wrote the “Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World” (1154), known as “Tabula Rogeriana” in Latin. In it he maps and describes the whole world as known to him in Palermo, Sicily in the month of Shawwal in the year A.H. 548 (January 1154).
He inspired Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Piri Reis, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.
He was a Moor, most likely born in Ceuta, Morocco. He studied in Cordoba, then a great seat of learning. He travelled throughout what is now Morocco, Spain, France, Britain and Turkey.
In the early 1140s he was hired by King Roger II, Norman king of Sicily, to make a world map based on the latest knowledge. Sicily in the 1140s was a wonderful place for that: a crossroads of merchants, pilgrims and scholars, of Greek, Latin and Arabic books, a place where the Christian and Muslim worlds met – and still lived in peace.
Al-Idrisi used the best Greek, Latin and Arabic books on geography of his day:
- Ptolemy: Geography (Greek, c. 150)
- Orosius: History against the Pagans (Latin, 417)
- ibn Khurradadhbih: Book of Routes and Provinces (Arabic, c. 846)
- ibn Hawqal: Picture of the Earth (Arabic, 977)
In the West he would have had only the second book.
On top of that, the king sent out travellers to find out yet more.
Al-Idrisi assembled all these bits and pieces and put them together to make a silver map of the world in the form of a circle. Africa took up the top half of the world – because south was “up”.
The map is lost, but we still have the handbook that went with it:
The “Entertainment” (1154) divides the part of the world al-Idrisi knew into a 7 x 10 grid, making 70 rectangular regions, 10 for each of the seven climatic zones. For each region, he drew a map and then wrote about what was there – its towns, cities, roads, distances, miracles, marvels, trade, people, dress, etc. Even a bit of history and politics. The map for Alexandria’s region is pictured at top.
He never meant for the 70 regional maps to be put together into a world map – he knew the Earth was round and therefore the projection would be way off – but that has not stopped people from trying:
He gave the circumference of the Earth as 37,000 km. Not bad – the true value is 40,075 km. Much better than Ptolemy’s 28,985 km, which Columbus used.
He knew about Europe, Asia, and Africa as far south as the present-day countries of Senegal, Mali and, on the east coast, Tanzania.
He reports that some sailors from Lisbon got lost out in the Atlantic and came across:
“people with red skin; there was not much hair on their body, the hair of their head was straight, and they were of high stature.”
He divided the world and its people by climate, not race. He said people of the tropics had furrowed feet, stinking sweat, a “lack of knowledge”, and “defective minds” – and yet somehow made the best iron!
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: mainly “A History of the World in Twelve Maps” (2012) by Jerry Brotton; “Race and Slavery in the Middle East” (1990) by Bernard Lewis; Wikipedia (2016).
- Greek predecessors:
- Racism before 1400
- Arab racism against blacks
- Peters projection
- Swahili civilization: 700 to 1500 – among the things in al-Idrisi’s geography.