Book of the Journey for He Who Longs to penetrate the Horizon[s]

Al-Sharīf Al-Idrīsī Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq

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Transliterating toponyms and extracting relevant information

Recorded at the Bodleian Library (Oxford) in 2017
An ongoing research project by Aliaa Ismail from Factum Foundation

The map of the world created by the Muslim-Arab scholar Al-Sharīf Al-Idrīsī for King Roger in 1154 is an extraordinary example of medieval cartography. There is a detailed account of the map in Al-Idrīsī's legendary book, the Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq, which directly translates to the Book of the Journey for He Who Longs to penetrate the Horizon[s] – a poetic name, evocative of the medieval Arabic language.

The round world map illustrated at the beginning of Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq

The book - which in the Middle Ages was the most accurate account of the world in existence – was produced in Sicily under the patronage of the Norman King Roger II. In the introduction, Al-Idrīsī often mentions King Roger and it is apparent from the text that there was a strong friendship between them.

Al-Idrīsī studied in the great Muslim university in Córdoba, Spain and is thought to have travelled around Europe before joining Roger's courth in Sicily for three decades of his life.

The research project

The aim of the current project is to cross-reference the toponyms in the map with the text written by Al-Idrīsī for the Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq. By closely analysing the map together with Al-Idrīsī´s writings, we are able to better understand and visualize the scholar's medieval world, with its superstitions and at times extraordinary tales.

One striking tale is that of the Sea of Herkend, which today is known as the Bay of Bengal. The Sea of Herkend is not referenced in the map but it is very important in the text of the Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq. According to Al-Idrīsī, the Sea of Herkend was said to contain many mysteries as well as fish in a multitude of different colours. There was apparently a type of fish "100 arms" in length and white in colour. This fish was called Al-Waly (الوالي) meaning "the Ruler" and it was always followed by a smaller kind of fish – a Lashnak (شنك). The story goes that if Al-Waly went wild and started attacking other fish in the sea, the Lashnak would stick to its ear until the Al-Waly was dead. Al-Idrīsī describes other strange fish, such as those that when cut open are found to have another fish in their belly; if the second fish were cut open one would find as many as four fish. Turtles "twenty arms" long with a thousand eggs in their stomachs are also said to have swum in the Sea of Herkend.

Through the study of strange elements that form this account and countless others, we are able to feel the vast imagination that guided Al-Idrīsī in the construction of the world map.

This is the sea of Herkend where we hear about some wonders from Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq.

Working progress on the different sections of Al-Idrīsī’s world map

Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq
[Book of the Journey for He Who Longs to penetrate the Horizons]

نزهة المشتاق في إختراق الآفاق

في الكتب المؤلفة في هذا الفن من علم ذلك كله مثل كتاب العجائب للمسعودي وكتاب أبي نصر سعيد الجيهاني وكتاب أبي القاسم عبيد الله بن خرداذبه وكتاب أحمد بن عمر العذري وكتاب أبي القاسم محمد الحوقلي البغدادي وكتاب خاناخ بن خاقان الكمياكي وكتاب موسى بن قاسم القدردي وكتاب أحمد بن يعقوب المعروف باليعقوبي وكتاب إسحق بن الحسن المنجم وكتاب قدامة البصري وكتاب بطليموس الأقلودي وكتاب أرسيوس الأنطاكي.

(Page 5)…Of the books that were written in the art of this science: the Book of Mysteries by Massoudy, the Book of Abi Nasr Saeed Al-Jynany, the Book of Abu Al-Qasmem Abeed Allah bn Qasm Al-Qdredy, Book of Ahmed bn Yaqob Al-Maarouf B- (Known as) Al-Yaqoby, Book of Ishaq bn Al-Hussien Al-monajem (the astrologer), Book of Qdamah Albasery, Book of Claudius Ptolemy and the Book of Arsious Al-Antaki (of Antioch.)

فلم يجد ذلك فيها مشروحا مستوعبا مفصلا بل وجده فيها مغفلا فأحضر لديه العارفين
بهذا الشان فباحثهم عليه وأخذ معهم فيه فلم يجد عندهم علما أكثر مما الكتب المذكورة فلما رآهم على مثل هذه الحال بعث إلى سائر بلاده فأحضر العارفين بها المتجولين فيها فسألهم عنها بواسطة جمعا وأفرادا فما اتفق فيه قولهم وصح في جمعه نقلهم أثبته وأبقاه وما اختلفوا فيه أرجاه وألغاه وأقام على ذلك نحوا من خمس عشرة سنة لا يخلي نفسه في كل وقت من النظر في هذا الفن والكشف عنه والبحث عن حقيقته إلى أن تم له فيه ما يريده ثم أراد أن يستعلم يقينا صحة ما اتفق عليه القوم المشار إليهم في ذكر أطوال مسافات البلاد وعروضها فأحضر إليه لوح الترسيم وأقبل يختبرها بمقاييس من حديد شيئا فشيئا مع نظره في الكتب المقدم ذكرها وترجيحه بين أقوال مؤلفيها
وأمعن النظر في جميعها حتى وقف على الحقيقة فيها فأمر عند ذلك بأن تفرغ له من الفضة الخالصة دائرة مفصلة عظيمة الجرم ضخمة الجسم في وزن أربع مائة رطل بالرومي في كل رطل منها مائة درهم واثنا عشر درهما فلما كملت أمر الفعلة أن ينقشوا فيها صور الأقاليم السبعة ببلادها وأقطارها وسيفها وريفها وخلجانها وبحارها ومجاري مياهها ومواقع أنهارها وعامرها وغامرها وما بين كل بلد منها وبين غيره من الطرقات المطروقة والأميال المحدودة والمسافات المشهوده والمراسي المعروفة على نص ما يخرج إليهم ممثلا في لوح الترسيم ولا يغادروا منه شيئا ويأتوا به على هيئته وشكله كما يرسم لهم فيه وأن يؤلفوا كتابا مطابقا

(Page 6)…When he (Roger) went through the books; he did not find much useful information for the intended research, so he called for all the known scholars in this area of knowledge but he did not find that their knowledge was any better than that in the books. So he set out by getting all known travelers to ask for their knowledge. He asked them alone and in groups, retaining what they agreed upon and discarding the discrepancies. He continued with this research for 15 years, always freeing his time to pursue and look into this art and research the truth within it. He checked all the measurements himself when the map was drafted, comparing the map with the book.

He thoroughly checked all the details until he agreed on the truth and then ordered that a large circle (disk) of silver be made. The disk weighed 400 pounds and each pound cost 112 dirhams of Roman currency. When the disk was ready, it was engraved with the 7 regions of the earth (Latitudes) with their cities, villages, countryside, bays, gulfs, seas, streams, rivers, buildings, riches, poverties, distances between the different cities, the routes taken (by travelers), the miles, the witnessed distances, the known ports and who travels to them; all was engraved in the circular disk and represented in the printed book.

The image above shows the latitude and longitude divisions produced by Al-Idrīsī. Note: Al-Idrīsī was drawing the map from right to left and this is how he goes about describing it in nuzhat al-mushtaq (the numbers on the top and right sides show the order by which Al-Idrīsī was progressing with the map).

The image above shows Africa, which is in the upper part of the map of the world drafted by Al-Idrīsī. The scholar placed south at the top and north at the bottom of the map, most likely in accordance with his religious beliefs. As a Muslim, Al-Idrīsī prayed in the direction of Mecca and as such wanted to place Mecca in the centre of the map, as dictated by one of the verses in the Quran says. Since Mecca is further south than Sicily, where Al-Idrīsī lived for 30 years, it makes sense for him to have drawn the map with south at the top and north below. In fact, this is a common feature in Islamic world maps of the period, as many communities that converted to Islam during 7th and 8th centuries lived north of Mecca.

Looking at map and text, it is evident that Al-Idrīsī thought of Africa as an immense and mysterious continent with as yet many undiscovered places. In the map, we see that he draws in well known places in Africa but leaves blank a vast area of arid deserts, a land where no one lives and nothing grows.

According to Al-Idrīsī the Nile was split in to two major parts, the Nile of Egypt going from South to North and the Nile of Sudan going from East to west as shown on the image above, both coming out of the Mountain of the Moon as their main source.

“...The Egypt Nile and the Sudan Nile both come from the Mountain of the Moon which is located 10 degrees above the equator. There is a big waterfall at the Mountain of the Moon, then a bigger waterfall and the water is deposited into a lake which is then divided into the Nile of Egypt and the Nile of Sudan...”
“...Beneath the Mountain of the Moon in the Northern direction after the 10 streams and the grand waterfall. There are said to be three mountains going from East to West. The Egyptian priests named the first الصور هيكل جبل Gabel Haykal Al Sour (Fence Structure Mountain) then the second الذهب جبل Gabel AlZahab (Gold Mountain) (As Gold could be mined from the mountain) and the third الحيات جبل Gabel Alhaayat (Mountain of Serpents) It is said that the serpents on this mountain could kill by looking at you...” (Summarized and translated from Al-Idrīsī’s book)

This image shows the "Mountain of the Moon" – the presumed source of the Nile – and the surrounding geography. In this area, it is possible to locate a mountain that cuts through the large lake beneath the grand waterfall that comes after the "Mountain of the Moon". This mountain is labelled Al-Qsem (القسم) on the map, which means the division / separation and it is at this point that the water was believed to separate into two rivers – the Nile of Egypt and the Nile of Sudan.

Further east in the first region (as Al-Idrīsī refers to the first of seven longitude divisions) we meet the "Island of the Moon". It is fascinating to see how the poet in Al-Idrīsī romanticises some of the toponyms he chooses for the map - labelling many elements on his map with mystic names such as with the recurring reference to the moon.

“...This Island is very long, it is said that it starts in the eastern direction near the Islands of Dabyhat and goes 4 months into the east, south of the islands of China. The king of this island lives in the city of Malaay ملاي مدينة. Only gay men serve the king of this island, they are dressed in lavish cloths of Chinese and Iraqi silks and they wear gold bracelets on their right wrists which are called Alelakenko اللكنكو in their language. These men are married to other men; they serve the king during the day and go back to their husbands during the night. On this Island there are various plantations, of coconut trees, sugar cane and betel plant. This island has a very high mountain; its people say that Adam peace be upon him came down to earth on it. The sailors can see gold at the peak of this mountain and its name is Mountain of Rahoon الرهون جبل. The believers of Brahmanism (a religion that emerged in post-Vedic India and is the early stages of Hinduism) note that on this mountain there is an impression of the foot of Adam peace be upon him on the stone. Its length is 70 arms and over this impression there is a permanent light similar to lightening. The story goes on stating that the second foot came into the sea which is 2 to 3 days journey of the mountain. On this mountain there are all kinds of Sapphires and many types of stones and in its valley there are diamonds...”

To be continued...

To learn more about the digitisation of The Book of Roger at the Bodleian library, click here.

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