1154 Muhammad Al-Idrisi’s World Map

Just after the Second Crusade, in 1154, a Muslim cartographer named Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099–1165/66 CE)(1) drew a planisphere that allows us to see how familiar Christian and Muslim cartographers and navigators were with the geography of the ecumene during that period. The Tabula Rogeriana, as it has become known, was the most accurate map of the known inhabited world for three hundred years.

Muhammad Al-Idrisi, Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154 [inverted to place north at the top.](2)

The image of Al-Idrisi’s planisphere shown above is a compilation of seventy separate pages that were created for The Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands [Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi'khtirāq al-āfāq in Arabic]. If you look closely, you can see the splicing. Like Ptolemy’s Geographia, the book contained written stories and descriptions about various parts of the world as well as maps. We have turned the planisphere upside down because early cartographers, particularly in the Arab world, placed north at the bottom of their charts and south at the top. Our rotated view is more familiar to the western reader.

Al-Idrisi’s planisphere was named after his patron Roger II, King of Sicily (1095-1154). King Roger was the grandson of a Norman petty lord from France. Roger died the year the planisphere was completed. By that time, he had united all the Norman tribes of Southern Italy from Naples south into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Sicily. The kingdom was larger and in a more strategic geographical location regarding international relations and trade than Portugal.

Roger’s wife, Elvira of Castile, was closely related to most of the monarchs on the Iberian peninsula. Elvira was the much younger half-sister of Queen Urraca of Galicia, Leon, and Castile, as well Countess Teresa of Portugal. That means Elvira was the aunt of King Afonso I of Portugal [and nine years younger]. She was also the aunt of King Alfonso VII of Galicia, León, and Castile [and five years younger]. Therefore, the court cartographers in Galicia, Leon, Castile, and Portugal knew about Al-Idrisi’s map.

Muhammad Al-Idrisi

Al-Idrisi was one year younger than his patron, Elvira. He was born in Ceuta, an important trading port that, as we will discuss later, culminated the western end of the silk roads in North Africa. Ceuta was north of Safi, another terminal for the trade caravans after their trek through the Sahara Desert. You can see the trail route on Al-Idrisi’s map on this close-up of the Mediterranean. [Note how large Al-Idrisi made the boot of Italy, his patroness’ Kingdom of Sicily.]

Mohammad Al-Idrisi, close-up of the Mediterranean Sea on the Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154.(3)

After traveling extensively, al-Idrisi set up residence on the island of Sicily in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.. Over a period of sixteen years, he gathered information from Arab traders and mariners and combined it with information obtained from Roman and Persian gazetteers. From this data he drew his planisphere. Since he followed the “Ptolemais system,” we know he was familiar with Ptolemy’s Geographia. The major difference between al-Idrisi’s ecumene and Ptolemy’s ecumene was that Al-Idrisi drew an eastern coastline on Asia. Take a look at the two maps – one over the other.

Ptolemy, World Map, Geographia, Alexandria, 150 CE.(4)

Like in Ptolemy’s World Map, al-Idrisi connected Africa to a landmass at the bottom of the earth. That probably perpetuated the belief during the 1200s and 1300s that there was no passageway under Africa to India.

Al-Idrisi stated that he included only information on his map that came from the people he interviewed who were in “complete agreement” with each other. He excluded “contradictory information.” As a Muslim, he would have had access to Muslim libraries. As a representative of King Roger, he probably had access to Christian Byzantine and Roman libraries, too.

An island in the upper left-hand corner [of the inverted map] has confused historians. He labeled the island Irlandah al Kabirah [Ireland the Greater or The Larger Ireland]. Historians suspect the island is Greenland, which the Norwegians settled a century and a half earlier, not Ireland.

Significant to our tale of exploration, al-Idrisi included a story on his map that revealed how Muslims were already exploring the western Atlantic while they occupied the Iberian Peninsula – hundreds of years before the Portuguese and Genoese ventured west from Iberian shores. The Arabs called the sea west of the Strait of Gibraltar [the Atlantic] the Ocean of Darkness. We will paraphrase:

The Legend of the Eight Adventurers

From Lisbon, when the port was still under Muslim control, and where there still existed in 1154 a street named after the heroes of this story, Street of the Adventures, eight cousins built a ship, supplied it with food and water for many months, and set sail to the west. The adventurers hoped to explore the Ocean of Darkness, see what it contained, and find out where its boundaries lay.

After eleven days at sea, the eight adventurers came to an ocean where the “waves exhaled a fetid odor and hid numerous reefs that were difficult to see.” Fearing for their lives, they turned south. They sailed twelve more days until they came to an island where lived countless sheep, where there was fresh water, and where figs grew. However, there was no sign of human habitation.

The eight adventurers moved on, sailing another twelve days until they arrived at an inhabited and well-cultivated island. They were greeted by boatloads of men of great stature who had skin of a reddish color. The islanders surrounded the adventurers and took them as prisoners. After being held captive for three days, the adventurers were visited by an islander who spoke Arabic and claimed to be the interpreter for the island’s king. The king wanted to know what the men from Lisbon were doing on his island and what they wanted.

The adventurers told the interpreter they were simply exploring the Ocean of Darkness, whereupon the interpreter took them to see his king. The king told the adventurers his own story. He said his own father had sailed west in a ship, rowed by many slaves, looking for the same information the adventurers were seeking. The father of the king had sailed for a month before “all light faded out of the sky,” [fog or mist] causing him to turn back.

After telling the men of Lisbon his father’s tale, the king sent the adventurers back to prison to wait for a westerly wind. The king assured his captives that they would come to no harm, but that he did not want them wandering around his island.

The wind from the west finally rose. Before allowing the adventurers to depart, the king ordered their hands bound behind their backs and their eyes covered. The king’s men lead the visitors to a ship and it departed. The ship traveled for three days to an unknown shore, where, still bound and blindfolded, the adventurers were deposited on a beach.

After a fright-filled night, the adventurers woke to laughter. Berbers(5) living on the island had heard their cries and come to cut them loose. The Berbers informed the adventurers that their island was the farthest place west in all the world. The Arabic name for their island was Asafi, which meant Alas. Two months later, the adventurers were home in Lisbon again.


  1. Al-Idrisi’s full name was Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani al-Sabti.
  2. Al-Idrisi, Mohammad. Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154. {{PD-old}} Public Domain in the USA and Italy, Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/
  3. ibid
  4. Ptolemy’s World Map, redrawn in the fifteenth century. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain, The British Library Harley MS 7182, ff 58v-59, Alexandria, Egypt, 150. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_(Ptolemy)
  5. Berbers were the indigenous people of today’s Algeria and Morocco in western North Africa. As we will see when we discuss the islands of the Atlantic, Europeans found only the Canary Islands inhabited. Islands where the Berbers lived were very close to the mainland. Maybe the word Berber was being used to mean indigenous people in the same way skraelings was used by the Norsemen.

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