Master of Geography: Al-Idrisi Changed How The World Was Perceived

Once upon a time in history, a lot of people were interested in putting their efforts in studying and discovering the earth, the natural ecosystems, climates, migration pattern, the ethnicities of earthlings and other aspects of human-environment interaction. We call them geographers. The Middles Ages were the Golden Ages for them to discover and explore the “undiscovered world”. One of them is considered as “the Father of Geography”, because of his important contributions in this field. His name is Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi, better known as al-Sharif al-Idrisi, the most brilliant geographer and cartographer of all times.

Al-Sharif al-Idrisi was born in 1100 in Sabta (Ceuta) and died in 1165/1166 in Sicily or Sabta. He was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad after a long line of very important princes, caliphs and pious Muslim men. His closest forefathers, the Hammudids, were descendants of the Idrisids, a Moroccan dynastie who claimed to be a dynasty descended from al-Hasan ibn Ali, the eldest grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Sharif al-Idrisi earned his title “al-Sharif”, which means “ The noble man” because of his lineage. Unfortunately, there is not enough information about his childhood in Sabta. The only thing we know is that he accomplished his religious education there.

In his early adolescence, Al-Idrisi visited a lot of places in North Africa and Andalusia. He collected accurate information on both regions. Al-Idrisi chose to stay in Cordoba to study the different sciences, more specific: geography. After finishing his studies, he decided to leave Cordoba and traveled to many parts of Western Europe, Northern Spain, Portugal, the French Atlantic coast, Southern England and Asia Minor when he was only 16 years old. Later in life, he took more extensive travels in different parts of the world. Every time he traveled, he took 2 important things with him: his pen and his papers, to write about everything he saw and heard about in all the places that he visited.

Al-Idrisi in service of King Roger II

His career took a turning point in 1145 and changed completely when he got invited by the Norman king of Sicily, King Roger II. King Roger II is known as an intellectual king who financed the translation of Arabic and Greek scientific and philosophical works into Latin. When he heard about Al-Idrisi and his magnificent travels and geographical works, he sent him a letter where he invited him to visit and to stay in Sicily. Al-Idrisi met King Roger II and agreed to stay in Sicily. Al-Idrisi explained to him the position of the earth in space using the egg to represent the earth. Al-Idrisi compared the earth to the white-coated egg, just as the earth in the sky was surrounded by galaxies. At that moment, King Roger II asked him to make a map of the world for him and promised him to give him everything he needs to fulfill this great project. Al-Idrisi accepted the challenge and started with realizing this huge task. He worked step by step and very attentive to achieve his goal.

al-Idrisi’s world map, oriented with South at the top, 21 x 30 cm (23 cm diameter), 1154 Bodleian Library, MS Pococke 375, dated 1553/960 H – cartographic-images.net

The first thing al-Idrisi did was setting up a team (consisting of 12 men) that would assist him in fulfilling his task. He choose the best ones who had knowledge of the new navigation technology, mathematics and cartography. Under his careful supervision, the 12 men read everything about the new navigation technology, they documented it, made calculations and collected data.

The second thing he did besides collecting his information from his travels, was collecting information from the interviews that he made with the sailors who visited the areas he wrote about. But that wasn’t enough for King Roger II. He wanted more than that. King Roger II decided to sent his own ships to the unexplored areas. Al-Idrisi brought courageous and hardened sailors and the best draughts men together to fulfill this mission. Those sailors and draughts men were sent to different areas in the world. When they came back from the Middle-East, the Far East, Eurasia, Africa and from “a winter land where the snow falls from the sky and the sun never shines” (it could be Iceland or Greenland), they described him what they saw in details and gave him their drawings. Everything is recorded by his 12 assistants. Al-Idrisi’s work began to take shape.

Detail of the “The large Idrisi Map” showing Europe and North Africa, re-oriented with North at the top. as reconstructed by the German cartographer Konrad Miller in 1927. – cartographic-images.net

A truly admirable legacy

Al-Idrisi started with compiling a world map and a geographic book like the world has never seen before. His service in Sicily resulted in the realization of 3 major geographic works during 15 years: A silver planisphere on which was drawn a world map, a world map consisting of 70 sections, formed by dividing the earth north of the Equator into 7 climatic zones of equal width, each of which was subdivided into 10 equal parts by lines of longitude and lastly a geographic text intended as a key to the planisphere.

Al-Idrisi’s great work of descriptive geography is known as Kitāb Rujār, or Al-Kitāb ar-Rujārī (“The Book of Roger” or in Latin: “Tabula Rogeriana”) .The silver planisphere has been lost, but the maps and book have survived. He also tried to combine descriptive and astronomical geography. To pay tribute to this great geographer and cartographer, the NASA gave the well-known Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum on Pluto the name “ Al-Idrisi Mountains”.

Written by Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.