Detail of Sicily from al-Idrisi's Tabula Rogeriana. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3200.ct001903/

This is Part VIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.


Relevant xkcd. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of www.xkcd.com/977

Everyone loves maps (or at least they should!). Most of us at least appreciate them for what they do (thank you, Google Maps, blessed among apps, for helping me get to work this morning). But you have to admit, from the humblest world map hanging in an elementary school classroom to the intricate and bizarre Waterman Butterfly, maps are not just functional. They help us better understand our world, inspire us to look beyond our limitations, and see ourselves as part of something bigger.

To be a good cartographer, especially in the eras before aerial photography and GPS, you had to be a mathematician, a geographer, and an artist rolled into one. One of the greatest mapmakers of all time added to that list scholar, traveller, and, in a manner of speaking, journalist. He was a Muslim. He was a refugee. And he was a genius. His work went unequalled for the better part of three hundred years. His full name was Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Idris al-‘Ala bi-Amr Alla. But we know him, simply, as al-Idrisi. His magnum opus is a book of maps called the Tabula Rogeriana or—as it is in Arabic, the Kitab Rujjar. He made it in Sicily in the twelfth century, and it depicts the world from Iceland to China, and many, many places in-between.

A Man on the Edge(s)

Al-Idrisi always seemed to live at the intersection of worlds. He was born at the turn of the 12th century (ca 1100 CE) in the North African city of Sabta (now Ceuta, Spain), right along the coasts of the straits of Gibraltar that divide Africa and Europe. He was then educated in Córdoba, the heart of Islamic Spain, and subsequently traveled extensively through North Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe—including trips through Christian Spain, France, and England.

But al-Idrisi had enemies due to his birthright. He had been born into the house of the nobles of the city of Málaga (in the map below, to the upper right). These nobles had a claim on the Caliphate that had, at least until recently, ruled the entirety of Muslim Spain.  But the Caliphate had collapsed into infighting. Thus, al-Idrisi’s very existence as an heir to the Caliphate brought along with it some very powerful enemies in a country rocked by civil war.

Al-Idrisi found refuge in the court of Roger II, the greatest of the Norman kings of Sicily. Rewinding just a bit, in the two hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, Danish and Norse armies invaded and conquered the North of France. There, they quickly set up colonies that mixed the local population with settlers from their homelands and drew immigrants from the Danelaw (Danish-controlled North England). But these colonies quickly adopted local customs and languages, and, for all intents and purposes, integrated into the local populations.  Thus, the Normans came into being—their name not taken from their origins in the North of France, but from places far north of that.

These Normans were clearly adept at conquest, and so, over the hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, they managed to sail from northern France, through the Mediterranean, to conquer the southern half of Italy. And thus, we are given a Sicilian King with French-Norse ancestry and the unlikely name of ‘Roger’, ruling over a kingdom largely populated with Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs.

Thus—returning to al-Idrisi, when he came to the court of Roger II, he found himself somewhere extraordinary. Sicily was (and remains) sandwiched between the Latin-Christian world to the north and west, the Byzantine-Greek world to the north and east, and the Muslim world to the south. It is at the periphery of each, which places it at the very center of all. Norman Sicily was a vibrant hub of trade, travel, and commerce, and Roger II was wise enough to encourage this through a policy of religious tolerance that encouraged multicultural exchange—both literal and metaphorical.

Scholars disagree on Roger’s exact motivation for inviting al-Idrisi to his court; he may have initially simply wanted another bargaining chip in his efforts to gain control over more Muslim-held territory. But Roger quickly learned that al-Idrisi was no mere bargaining chip, but a man of extraordinary abilities. Roger commissioned al-Idrisi to create maps for him of the entire known world.

Making a World

Setting to work, al-Idrisi consulted all the books and travel reports he could find, synthesizing knowledge from Arabic, Latin and Classical sources on the subject. He extensively interviewed the travelers and traders who came to the island about the places they had come from and the places they had seen.

Al-Idrisi’s work fundamentally reveals the amount of cooperation and collaboration between people of different faiths, colors, and cultures present even in the twelfth century. Al-Idrisi reported the stories of people who had been to China, and which city produced the best silks (apparently, Quanzhou). He reported a tantalizing tale of a group of Muslim explorers who, blown vastly off-course, may have found themselves in the Americas, and who struggled to return (though from their confused reports they could have been several other places in the Atlantic). He met Norse traders who told him of the Northern Island colonies (Iceland or Greenland), and Africans who helped him map both the east and west coasts of that continent.

And though his maps were flat, he was very well aware that the Earth was a sphere, and calculated its circumference to within 10% of its real size.

Roger asked al-Idrisi to inscribe this map of the world onto a huge six-foot disc of solid silver to be displayed in his court. This, apparently, was accomplished—but as you might expect of a giant piece of precious metal, it did not survive the centuries. What we do have of al-Idrisi’s extraordinary works are several books of regional maps—Atlases—and extensive geographical commentaries in both Latin and Arabic. Scholars have subsequently combined these regional maps into a grand map of the world, seen here (click the image for an ultra-high resolution version).

The Tabula Rogeriana of al-Idrisi. Modern copy, with the complete world reassembled by modern scholars from the individual pages of al-Idrisi’s atlas.

For those unaccustomed to medieval maps (and even some who are), it may look a bit odd. On the left edge (west) you see the Iberian peninsula where it reaches towards North Africa; the Italian peninsula is to its right, on its side. Each brown dot represents a city; Italy and Sicily are covered in them. It is clear that this is a sea trading map, intimately familiar with, and interested in, cities along the coast. Great Britain is, perhaps appropriately, shaped a bit like a teapot above France at the top—you can see “Londra” labelled if you look carefully.

But as you look east, that is where things get interesting. The Persian Gulf is depicted, as is Sri Lanka and India. A staggering number of cities are labeled in central Asia, as are several islands off the Southeast Asian coasts. While the shapes may be distorted, this is not a mapmaker living in a particularly “dark” age.

…’Cause It’s Freaking Me Out

For those of you who are fans of The West Wing, there is a fun extra wrinkle. In Season 2, Episode 16 of the show, White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg meets with the fictitious group “Cartographers for Social Equality”, who explain to her that the commonly known Mercator projection world map is both vastly inaccurate and reflective of imperialist values.

C.J.’s world is turned upside down when they show her how the world she has been shown on maps is not the world as it is. This is only exacerbated when the cartographers show her, in a piece de resistance, a map with south at the top; her worldview is literally turned upside-down.

The Cartographers for Social Equality would have been very pleased with al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, not just because it was a work of extraordinary ability that reflected an encompassing worldview. They would have also appreciated it because al-Idrisi oriented all of his maps in that book, too, with South at the top. Thus, the proper way to view his work is like this.

The Tabula Rogeriana, right-side up. See the original at the Library of Congress website.

A Wonder of the World

As we have discussed in three of the previous articles in this series, the white supremacist viewpoint argues—even requires—that the greatest works of humankind were, and are, produced by white people. And more, their views insist that multiculturalism has a debasing effect on a people, and that immigrants and refugees are a drain on society. Al-Idrisi’s map is a work of genius that was wrought not just within a multicultural society, but as a direct product of multiculturalism. It is one of the wonders of the multicultural world.


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© Copyright 2017 Paul B. Sturtevant, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Public Medievalist
Paul B. Sturtevant

The author Paul B. Sturtevant

Dr. Paul B. Sturtevant is a public historian and a medieval historian, and an expert in the way that medieval history is presented to the public through popular culture, heritage, museums and education.