Contributions of Ancient Arabian and Egyptian Scientists on Geography

Contributions of Ancient Arabian and Egyptian Scientists on Geography

Md. Wasim Aktar

Deptt. of Agril. Chemicals, Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Mohanpur, Nadia, West Bengal, India.

The Muslims had to travel to distant lands across plains and cities, deserts and mountains, rivers and seas in connection with trade, jihad and the administration of their vast empire and other purposes. Within one hundred years after
the advent of Islam, their empire stretched from Arabia to India in the East, Morocco and Spain in the West and the River Oxus in the North. In the 10th century, the Muslim empire comprised the following territories: Arabia, Egypt with the entire, Northern coast of Africa, (including the Atlantic coast as far as Anti-Atlas), nearly the whole of Spain, the islands of Sicily, Greece, some Italian towns, Syria, Armenia, the South East of the Caucasus, Mesopotamia including Iraq, the whole of modern Persia, Afghanistan, Transoxania including the delta region of Khawarizm, the valley and the mountains of Farghana and the territories of the lower course of the Indus with Sind. (1) Travels in these vast lands and their administration necessitated the accumulation of information on them.

The science of geography is somewhat allied to astronomy. Therefore, the study of geography was also motivated by the same incentive with which the study of astronomy was made. That incentive was the need for the determination
of the direction of the Ka’bah for the orientation of the mosque and for turning faces towards it at he time of the prayer. This determination depended on the knowledge of the latitudes and longitudes of the places where the Muslims lived.

A great factor in the promotion of the geographical study was the Hajj, (the pilgrimage to Makkah). Before leaving for Hajj, the Hujjaj (pilgrims) generally collected information on the territories which lay on the way to Makkah. To provide such information many itineraries were compiled, in which stations and the stages of the roads leading from different countries to Makkah were shown. In the early days of Islam, information on various lands and the peoples was supplied chiefly by the traders and travelers. Muslim traders were very active in those days. They reached as far as China, Russia, Zanzibar and the southern tip of Africa.

At the time bf the Hajj, the Muslims of different countries have a chance of meeting one another, discussing their mutual needs and problems, and getting knowledge of one another’s territories. Thus the Hajj is an important factor in disseminating knowledge of the world among Muslims, promoting Muslim unity and strengthening the ties of commerce and trade among them.

The Muslims used to travel to far off lands in order to seek scholars and books for acquiring knowledge. They also developed a taste for travel in order to gain the knowledge of the world through direct experience. With their keen sense of observation and passionate curiosity they made a study of the religious, social, political, historical, geographical, economic and agricultural conditions of the lands they passed through, and recorded their observations in their travelogues, in which they also supplied information on the scholars of their time.

A large number of books on geography were produced by Muslim geographers and travelers, which were widely studied. The translation of these books was made into many European languages, and for centuries the Europeans acquired the knowledge of the world through these books. Until modern times they depended for their knowledge of Africa on the work of the Moroccan Hasan al-Wazzari (Leo Africanos) who wrote an account of his travels at the end of the 16th century. For two centuries this work was occasionally published in many European languages. (2)

The idea of the sphericity of the earth, denied and opposed by Christian theologians, had been transmitted long before Christopher Columbus to Europe through the works of Muslim astronomers and geographers. On the basis of this idea Columbus thought that by sailing towards the West he could reach the East. (3) The Ephemeredes which had made the voyage of Columbus possible were constructed by Regiomontanus from Al-Battãni’s tables. (4) This ultimately led to the discovery of America.

Vasco Da Gama’s sea journey to India was made with the help of a Muslim Arab pilot, Shihab al-Din Ahmad Ibn Májid who was called ‘The Lion of the Sea‘. This pilot indicated to Vasco Da Gama the way to India, and even took him there
from the east coast of Africa. Ibn Májid is the author of several manuals on navigation and oceanography. (5)

Prince Henry of Portugal set up under Muslim and Jewish teachers (trained in Muslim lands) his great nautical academy at Cape St.Vincent, which prepared the way for Vasco Da Gama, and for the expansion of Europe to the uttermost ends of the earth. (6)

The Muslims opened up the land-routes to India, to China, Malacca, and Timbuktu, the emporium of Central African trade; and sent their caravans to the rich lands beyond the Sahara long before the Portuguese doubled Cape Verde. They held the monopoly of the sea-routes to India, and the Emosaids founded along the eastern coast of Africa a line of trading colonies from the Sudan coast and Socotra to Mombassa,. Mozambique, Zanzibar and Madagascar. (7)

The seventh ‘Abbasi Caliph Al-Ma’mun took a keen interest in geography. He appointed seventy scholars to draw a large map of the world. One of these scholars was Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwãrizmi. He compiled a geographical work called Rasm al-Ma’mur min al-Bilad (the description of the inhabited lands) which contains the results of the researches of these scholars. He made improvement on Ptolemy’s geographical work, both in the text and in the maps. He followed Ptolemy in giving the latitudes and longitudes of various places. He also gave the geographical positions of the places which originated after the rise of Islam. (8)

In 851 A.C. appeared the narrative of a Muslim merchant named Suleiman who undertook travels to China and to many coast lands of the Indian Ocean. It is the first description of these lands in Arabic. It throws light on the commercial relations between the Chinese and Muslims in the first half of the tenth century. Another description of such a journey was written by Abu Zaid. This journey was made to China by Ibn Wahb in 870. (9)

In the ninth century A.C. several descriptions of roads and countries came into existence. One such description entitled the Kitäb al-Masalik wa’l-MamaIik was composed by Ibn Khurdadhbih, a geographer of Persian origin, who was the director of posts. The book, which is the author’s main work, also contains brief narrations of journeys in distant lands. It is an important source for the study of the topography of the Muslim empire. It was translated into French. The author of this work was born in about 825, and died in 912. (10)

Another such description of the same period entitled Kitäb al-Masalik wa’l-MamaIik was written in 891—92 by Ahmad Ibn Abi ya’qüb, a historian and geographer, usually known as Al-Ya’qübi. This book is the masterpiece of the author. The author himself traveled in various lands in the East and West. He visited Persia, India, Arabia, Syria, Maghrib (Tunis, Algiers and Morocco) and Spain. He collected information on the habits, customs, the governments of the inhabitants of these lands, and the distances between various places in their countries. He also described whatever he knew about the conquest of lands by the caliphs and other rulers, and mentioned the amount of Khiräj (land tax) collected by the governments. This book is one of the earliest and authentic sources of geographical knowledge. The description of Baghdad is particularly interesting. (11)

An important geographer and traveler of the tenth century was Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn Muhammad al-Istakhri. He traveled in Arabia and some of the Indian territories, and reached the Atlantic regions. He wrote two geographical works. One of them is the Suwar -al-Aqalim (figures of climates) which is a revision of Al-Balkhi’s work bearing the same title. The other is the Masalik al-Mamalik. It contains a colored map for each country. Both of these works or one of them was utilized by Al-Yaqut in his Mu’jam al-Buldän (dictionary of the countries). (12)

Another traveler and geographer of this time was Abu’l Qãsim Muhammad Ibn Hawqal. He was a merchant by profession; He began his journey from Baghdad in 943, and came to Maghrib and Sicily. He also traveled in Spain and other countries. He revised the maps and the text of his geographical work at the request of the geographer Al-Istakhri. Then he wrote a work of his own called Kitäb al-Masalik wa’l Mamalik which contains a map for each country. (13)

Another well-known Muslim geographer and traveler was Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Abu Bakr al-Maqdisi who at first traveled extensively in connection with business. The travels provided him detailed information of various lands. Later he gave up the profession of business, and began to travel just to gain the knowledge of the world. These travels offered him the opportunity of making close and intimate observation and provided him detailed knowledge of various lands. Al-Maqdisi wrote his travelogue entitled Ahsan al-Taqãsim fi Ma’rifat al-Aqalim (best division for knowledge of the climates). It contains much original information, and has been translated into English. The part of the book dealing with Syria and Palestine has been translated into German. The author spent some time in India, wrote a number of geographical works, and discussed the question of the rotation of the earth round its axis. He regarded the Indus Valley to be originally a sea basin which was then filled with alluvial soil. He determined accurately the latitudes and longitudes, and made geodetic measurements. (14)

Another important geographer of the 11th century was ‘Abd Allah Ibn ‘Abd al-‚Aziz al- Bikri. He was also a botanist, lexicographer and historian. He was well-versed in literature and genealogy. He was born in Saltes, and migrated to Cordova where he died at a very old age in 1094. He wrote valuable books on many subjects. The Kings of the Spanish territories used to send his books to one another as a gift. One of these books is a geographical work called Kitäb al Masalik wa’l Mamalik. It is in the form of an itinerary. It also contains historical and ethnographical information. He also composed a geographical dictionary, chiefly, of Arabia. (15)

Another traveler of the 11th century was Näsir Khusrau who was also a philosopher and a poet. He was born in 1003, and died in 1088. He traveled from 1045 to 1052 in Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Persia, and gave an account of his travels in a book written in Persian, It is entitled Safarnamah. It contains geographical, ethnographical and archaeological information. (16)

A geographer of the 12th century who also wrote in Persian was known as Ibn al-Balkhi. In the beginning of the 12th century Ibn al-Balkhi wrote in Persian a description of the province of Fars which corresponds to the south-west part of modern Persia along the Persian Gulf. This description is entitled Farsnamah. It has been translated into English. (17)

One of the travelers, geographers and cartographers of the same period was Abu ‘Abd Allah Ibn ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Gharnati who was born in 1080, in Granada, and died in 1169 in Damascus. He traveled from Spain towards the East. In 1117 he sailed from Spain to Egypt, via Sardinia and Sicily. He went to Baghdad, Abhar, Jibäl, Sakhsin (or Saqain) on the upper Volga. In the latter region he spent many years. He also traveled in Balghar (near Kazan on the Volga), Bashgird, and Hungary. In 1160 he was in Baghdad. Later he lived at various places in Khurasan and Syria. He is the author of many geographical works. His descriptions of the foreign countries are largely anecdotic. One of his works is entitled Tuhfat al-Albab wa Nukhbat al-‚Ajä’ib. It is divided into many sections as follows:—
Introduction (1); General description of the world and its inhabitants including Jinn (2); Singularities of various countries (3); Seas, islands, and the strange animals living in them (4); Caravans, fossils, etc.

Al-Gharnati gives an account of the fossil bones. In 1136, while he was in Bulghar, he found that trade in bones was being carried out there. They were exported as far as Khawarizm. (18)

Another illustrious scholar of this age and the greatest geographer of the Middle Ages was Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd Allah, usually called Al-Sharif al-Idrisi. He was also a historian, botanist, traveler, litterateur and poet. He was born in 1099. He was brought up at Cordova where he received his education. Then he undertook long travels in the Mediterranean region until at last he reached Sicily. He settled down in Palermo where he became the courtier of Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily. For this reason he is also called Al-Siqali.

At Palermo Al-Idrisi began to compile his monumental work on world geography entitled Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq or Kitäb al-Rujuri which was completed in 1154. It is the most comprehensive work ever written on medieval history and geography. It is the best Arabic work on the description of Europe. The later Muslim geographers derived information on Europe from this celebrated work.

Nuzhat al-Mushtaq contains seventy one maps. Of these, a round world map is given in the beginning of the book, and the remaining seventy in the middle of it. Each map represents a tenth part of one of the seven climes in which the world was divided by Ptolemy. These climes are the latitudinal lands which lie to the north of the Equator, and are divided by lines of longitude into ten parts. In his text Al-Indrisi gathers, in an orderly fashion, the historical, geographical and miscellaneous material relating to the areas covered by these maps. Each section of the book is devoted to the description of one of these seventy maps. Al-Idrisi got a map engraved by the artisans on a round base made of silver. It was the result of the co-operative efforts of the scholars who worked for about fifteen years on collecting material on the then known world. This material was collected from the envoys of the king, from all the available geographical treatises, and from other sources of information.

The maps given in the book show that the author accepted the sphericity of the earth. Among the remarkable features of these maps is the location of the exact sources of the Nile, which is wrongly considered to be a discovery of the 19th century.

The whole Arabic text of Al-Idrisi’s work has not been critically studied as yet. It has never been published in full. Many scholars undertook the task of editing it, but due to the difficulties involved they either gave up this task or remained contented with the editing of one or two sections only. The section dealing with India and the neighboring territories was published in India in 1954. The book was translated into Latin, English, French and German. (19)

A famous scholar, traveler and geographer of this century was Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubair al-Kan’ãni al-Andalüsi. He was born in 1144 in Valencia or in Shatiba, lived in Granada and died in 1217 in Alexandria. He had knowledge of literature, poetry, Fiqh and Hadith. He received his education from a number of teachers living in different lands.

Ibn Jubair’s writings were based on his travelogue and poetry. He composed some of the verses mourning the death of his wife, and some others as a satire on the age he lived in. Ibn Jubair made travels to the East thrice, starting each travel from Spain and performing the Hajj each time.

He started his first travel from Granada in 1182 after which he wrote his famous travelogue. He went on his second journey on hearing the news of the conquest of Jerusalem. He left for that city from Granada in 1189, and returned in 1197. On return he first lived in Granada, then in Malaga and later in Sabta, and finally in Fas devoting himself to lecturing on Hadith and Sufism and reporting the Hadith his knew. He started his third travel after the death of his wife. First of all he went to Makkah where he stayed for a long time. From there he went to Jerusalem and from there to Egypt and Alexandria where he engaged himself in reporting the Hadith until his death.

Ibn Jubair‘s first travel continued for two years and three and a half months. It was begun in 1182, and ended in 1185. In the course of this travel he visited Egypt, Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Sicily. At the end of this travel he wrote a travelogue in which he gave an account of the places where he stayed or through which he passed. He gave particular emphasis on the description of the mosques, the graves of the Prophet’s (SAS) Companions and of other well-known people, hospitals and famous monuments. He mentioned particularly some of the social and economic aspects of Egypt, religious aspects of the Arab cities, the activities of the religious preachers in Iraq, the political and economic conditions of Syria, the wars between the Muslims and the Crusaders, and the state of Muslims of Sicily, living under the suzerainty of King Guillaume. Giving an account of various places he attached importance to the things for which those places were well-known, such as the Light House of Alexandria, the Pyramids and Sphinx of Cairo, the size of the Rhodes Island, the Temple of Dandara, the holy Islamic places of Makkah, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, the mosque of Kufah, the inflammable oil of Mosul, the fort of Aleppo, and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus.

Ibn Jubair’s travelogue contains some information which is indispensable for geographers, historians and littérateurs interested in this important period of Islamic history. The author depicts Salah al-Din al-Ayyübi as a great personality, and gives an account of the high position that this hero had got in the hearts of the Muslims of his age. The author also gives a description of the relations between Muslims and Crusaders in war and peace, which is not available in most of the books on history. He fully describes the conditions of Muslims living in Sicily and in the territories where the Crusaders reached from Syria. He also makes some referenc to the life and manners of the Easterners, most of which can still be seen.

This travelogue is very important and interesting. Many Orientalists took a keen interest in its study, and wrote useful commentaries on it. The part of the travelogue concerning Sicily was translated into French and Italian. (20)

An important Muslim traveler and geographer of the early 13th century was Abu ‘Abd Allah Yaqut Ibn ‘Abd Allah Shihab al-Din al-Hamawi al-Rumi. He was also a reliable historian, lexicographer and philologist. He was born in a Greek family in 1179, and died in 1229. He started his travel when he was still young. He was enslaved in Baghdad by a merchant who patronized him, helped him to be educated, and employed him to carry on his business. Then he was set free. Yaqut earned his livelihood by copying books. He remained with his master until the latter’s death. Then he carried on his trade independently. He traveled extensively until he reached Marw (Khurasan), and carried on his trade there. He also traveled to Syria and Egypt. His journeys were full of adventures.

Yaqut wrote a geographical dictionary called Mu’jam al-Buldän. It is the author’s main work, and is one of the most important works of Arabic literature. It is a mine of information on geography and other subjects like history, ethnography and natural history. It is arranged in alphabetical order. The introduction deals with mathematical, physical and political geography, the seven climes, the size of the earth and similar topics. The dictionary gives information on the structure and proper pronunciation of the names of the places mentioned therein. It also contains a great deal of historical notes, biographical sketches of learned people, and discussions on grammar and so on.

Yaqut is the author of various other works including biographical dictionaries of the poets and literati. (21)

A Muslim geographer of the 13th century was Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Müsã Ibn Muhammad al-Maghribi. He was also a historian and poet, and had a good knowledge of the Arabic literature. He was born in 1208 near Granada and died in 1274 or in 1286. He traveled extensively and visited Egypt, Syria and Iraq. He was the guest of Hulagu, (II-Khan of Persia from 1256 to 1265).

In 1251 during his stay at Baghdad ‘Ali Ibn Musa visited 36 libraries in that city. He had the knowledge of the mouth of the river Senegal. He gave an account of the northern countries of Europe where white bears are found. He mentioned that Iceland is called the island of white falcons and that the true falcons are found in Denmark.

‘Ali Ibn Musa is the author of many works on different subjects. His main work is a geographical treatise entitled Kitäb Bast aI-Ard-fi’l-Tul wa’l-Ard. It is also called Kitäb al -jughrafiyah. It is based on the geographical works of Ptolemy and Al-Idrisi, but also gives information on the facts discovered after the latter’s time. It also contains the geographical co-ordinates of every important place, which were not mentioned by Al-Idrisi. He also wrote a history of pre-Islamic Arabia and two other works, one dealing with the West and the other with the East. (22)

A traveler of the late 13th century was Abu Muhammad, Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ali, al-‘Abdari. He is called Al-‚Abdari because he was the descendant of ‘Abd al-Dar. He was born at a village in Valencia. This village contained hot mineral waters in it. In 1289 he left for Makkah for the performance of the Hajj. He made his journey both ways by land. In the course of his journey he visited Baja, Tunis and Qairawan, and passed through Alexandria. Thus he crossed the whole, of North Africa twice. He wrote a travelogue in which he gave a description of the North African countries. This travelogue contains topographical data, and throws light on the Muslim life and the scholarship of that time. (23)
Another traveler of the same city who belongs to the eastern Muslim empire was ‘Ali Ibn Abi Bakr Ibn ‘Ali al-Harawi. He was a historian as well. He was born in Mosul, and died in 1214 in Aleppo where he had a stable. He traveled in many lands. In 1173—74 he visited Jerusalem which was then under Christian control. He witnessed an eruption of Etna. He was in contact with Manuel I Comnenos (Emperor from 1143 to 1180) in Constantinople. In 1191 he was caught at sea by the fleet which was carrying Richard, Coeur-de-Lion to the siege of Acre. He wrote a book which served as a guide for pilgrims. This guide book is called Kitäb fi Ma’rifat al-Ziyarat. In this book he deals with Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the Byzantine Empire, Mesopotamia, India, Arabia, the Maghrib, and Abyssinia, giving brief but first hand information about all these countries excluding the last two. He also wrote a travelogue and several other works on different subjects. It is said that he used to write on the walls of nearly every famous place he passed through. Some sea warrior, chief’s state that while traveling on sea they found a piece of land having a wall on which there was his writing. (24)

Under Tughril II who was the last Saljuq ruler of Iraq and Kurdistan (1177—1194) there flourished a Persian cosmographer, Muhammad Ibn Mahmud Ibn Ahmad al-Tusi al-Salmani who wrote in Persian a cosmography entitled Aja’ib al-Makhluqat. It contains at the beginning six maps which represent the Caspian sea, the Mediterranean sea, Jibäl, Sind, the Arabian sea and Arabia. (25)


1. Arnold and Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam, Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 79.
2. Landau, Rom, Islam and the Arabs, Unwin Brothers Ltd., Woking and London, 1958, p. 173.
3. Ibid.
4. Brifault, Dr. Robert, The Making of Humanity, Islamic Book Foundation, Lahore, 1980, p. 202.
5. Landau, op. cit., p. 174.
6. Brifault, op. cit., p. 202.
7. Ibid., p. 204.
8. Arnold and Guillaume, op. cit., p. 84.
9. Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science, Washington, 1927, Vol. I, p. 571.
10. Muhsin Ibn Khurdadhbih, Kitäb al-Masalik wa’l- Mamalik, Leiden Press, Leiden, 1306 A.H.
11. Ahmad Ibn Abi Ya’qüb, Kitäb al-Buldän, Matba’ah Haydariyyah, Najaf, pp. a-d.
12. A1-Istakhari, Kitäb al-Masalik wa’l-Mamalik, Leiden Press, Leiden, 1927.
13. Sarton, op. cit., p. 674.
14. Isma’il Bãshã al-Baghdadi, Nodiyyat al-‚Arifiu, Istanbul Vol II, 1951, p. 62.
15. Sarton, op. cit., p. 768.

16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., vol. II, Part I, p. 221.
18. Ibid, p.412
19. ‘Umar Rida Kahhalah, Mu’jam al-Mua’llifin, Matha’ah Tarraqj, Damascus, Vol. XI, 1960, p. 236.
Sarton, op. cit. p. 410.

20. Näsr, Dr. Hussein, Preface of Rihlat Ibn al-Jubair, Cairo, 1955, pp. 1—9.
21. Sarton, op. cit., Part II, p. 642.
22. Ibid., p. 1065.
23. Ibid., p. 1065.
24. Ibid. Part I, p. 413.
25. Haji Khalifah, Kashf al-Zunün, Istanbul, 1943, Vol. II, p. 1128.

Source by Md. Wasim Aktar