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Al-Idrisi’s Masterpiece of Medieval Geography

This is a guest post by Carissa Pastuch, a reference librarian in the Geography and Map Division. 

German archeologist and historian Konrad Miller’s 1928 recreation of Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi’s (also al-Sharif al-Idrisi; circa 1100–66) Tabula Rogeriana, titled Weltkarte des Idrisi vom Jahr, Charta Rogeriana, has been explored in previous blog posts by both my colleague and section head. In this post, I highlight the oldest known copy of al-Idrisi’s original geographical work Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The excursion of the one who yearns to penetrate the horizons). Held by the National Library of France, the digital scans of this manuscript are now available on the Library of Congress website through the World Digital Library project.

Map of the world” in Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The excursion of the one who yearns to penetrate the horizons). Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi, circa 1325. World Digital Library. Original manuscript held at the National Library of France, digital scans available on the Library of Congress website through World Digital Library project.

The Golden Age of Islam occurred under the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), whose leaders encouraged scientific inquiry and commissioned the translation of scientific and medical texts from Greek, Syriac, Pahlavia, and Sanskrit into Arabic for scholarly study. The translated texts provided a common intellectual foundation for scholars by bringing previously-siloed knowledge into one common language, which fostered integration of Greco-Roman and Indo-Iranian scientific knowledge into the Arab-Islamic scholarly community for the first time. Arab-Islamic geography and cartography emerged and flourished under Caliph MaŹ¼mun (786–833), and eventually led to the formation of the Balkhi School of Geography in Baghdad during the first half of the 10th century. The school was founded by Persian philosopher, geographer, mathematician, astronomer, and scholar of Sunnism, Ahmad Ibn Sahl al-Balkhi (850–934), who emphasized the global centricity of Muslim-controlled lands and the Holy City of Mecca. (See al-Balkhi’s seminal work Kitab al-madkhal al-kabir here)

Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi (circa 1100–66) was a 12th century geographer from al-Maghrib (North Africa). Born of noble lineage in Sabtah (the present-day Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Morocco), he studied in Cordoba. Al-Idrisi traveled extensively in the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastal regions, including North Africa, Spain, Anatolia, the northwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, and the coastline of France. Al-Idrisi gained the attention of Norman King Roger II (reigned 1130–54) of Sicily, who commissioned al-Idrisi to produce his masterpiece Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq, known as Tabula Rogeriana–the first descriptive geography of the world’s major population centers.

Map of Sicily” in Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The excursion of the one who yearns to penetrate the horizons). Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi, circa 1325.

Al-Idrisi was influenced by Ptolemy’s (active 2nd century) Geography, which had been translated into Arabic by Muhammad al-Khuwarizmi (active 813–46) and al-Battani (961). Al-Idrisi worked for 15 years in consultation with King Roger II, as well as other geographers and scholars of the court, to complete a map on a six-foot silver disc with accompanying text and additional maps of Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaqI. Al-Idrisi and his court compared data, interviewed and documented consistent reports from travelers, and eliminated conflicting information. The result, Nuzhat al-mushtaq, was a compendium of the socioeconomic, physical, cultural, and political conditions of the time, with 70 maps of population centers. It was the most important geographical work completed in 12th century Europe.

Map of the Mediterranean coast and Red Sea” in Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The excursion of the one who yearns to penetrate the horizons). Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi, circa 1325.

Al-Idrisi divided the Northern Hemisphere into 70 sections—seven latitudinal sections further divided into ten longitudinal sections. The maps show complete (if still disproportionate) continents of Europe and Asia, but they only show the northern part of Africa. Following the Balkhi School of Geography, the maps are oriented with the South at the top and Mecca at the center. Al-Idrisi’s work remained the most accurate world map for the next three centuries.

The work has been translated into Latin and French. There is also a complete French translation of the work by Pierre-Amédée Jaubert (1779–1847) in two-volumes Géographie d’Édrisi.

Map of southwestern coast of Iberian Peninsula” in Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The excursion of the one who yearns to penetrate the horizons). Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi, circa 1325.

Of ten extant manuscript copies, the one shown here is the oldest. Two maps are missing in this copy: the first and the second section of the seventh latitudinal section. The last folio, representing the tenth section of the seventh latitudinal section, is also missing. This copy includes a world map and 68 additional maps.

For more reading on al-Idrisi’s Nuzhat al-mushtaq:

Alfred Hiatt. “Geography at the Crossroads” in Cartography between Christian Europe and the Arabic-Islamic World, 1100–1500. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021.

Maqbul Ahmad. A History of Arab-Islamic Geography: 9th–16th Century A.D. Mafraq, Jordan: Al al-Bayt University, 1995.

One Comment

  1. Allen Fromherz
    June 9, 2022 at 11:45 am

    Thank you so much for this wonderful resource! I have recommended it to my university students and hope to recommend for use in curriculum guides for k-12. However, I wonder if there might be a project to adapt this for younger students?

    Allen Fromherz

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