Geography: Islamic views of Earth

Published online 11 March 2011

This article first appeared in Nature on 09 March 2011.

Şengör Celâl

A magisterial series revolutionizes our understanding of Arabic geography, finds Celâl Şengör.

Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums, Band XIV. Anthropogeographie Teil I: Gesamt- und Ländergeographie; Stadt- und Regionalgeographie Fuat Sezgin J. W. Goethe Univ.: 2010. 553 pp. 124. (In German.)

Scientific geography was invented by the Greeks in the sixth century BC and reached its apogee in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe. In this five-volume work, Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums (History of Arabic Literature) — the last two of which were published in 2010 — science historian Fuat Sezgin shows that Muslim scholars played an integral part in developing Greek ideas about the planet, and explains how influential their work was in the West.

By reviewing and analysing a vast corpus of Arabic geographical writings from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries, Sezgin revolutionizes our view of the history of geography. The first three volumes, plus an atlas, cover the development of mathematical geography and cartography. The latter two volumes span a range of topics, from the history of general and regional geography, through topography and cosmology to the history of Arabic–Islamic travel reports. He brackets these as 'anthropogeography' to underline their relevance to human existence.

In the first three books, Sezgin establishes that Muslim scholars — starting with geographers during the reign of al-Ma'mun (786–833 AD), a caliph of Abbasid — inherited and developed the geographical and cartographical tradition of the Persian Sassanids and Greeks, from Eratosthenes to Ptolemy. The Muslims improved on Ptolemy's database of longitudes and latitudes of features such as cities, mountain ranges, rivers and continental coastlines.

They initiated geodetic work in the ninth century AD by re-measuring the length of a degree of meridian in the plains of Mosul and Damascus and at Mount Casius, or Jebel Aqra, near Hatay (ancient Antioch) in present-day Turkey, and by fixing the positions of geographical features on the basis of astronomical observations. In the eleventh century, this culminated in Turkish scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni's (973–1048) great work Measurement of Distances Between Known Places on Earth.

The many maps produced as a result of these activities by Muslim scholars eventually reached Europe. Beginning with portolan maps in the fourteenth century — predecessors of accurate navigational charts showing coastlines and harbours — they influenced the European cartography of Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean until well into the nineteenth century.

Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums, Band XV. Anthropogeographie Teil II: Topographie, Geographische Lexika, Kosmographie, Kosmologie, Reiseberichte Fuat Sezgin J. W. Goethe Univ.: 2010. 470 pp. 117. (In German.)

Sezgin's two most recent volumes go beyond cartography. Arabic geographical activity started before the seventh century AD, he explains. Much geographical information was included in poetry — the names of places, oases and other watering sites. So the first geographical publications in Islamic culture were penned by philologists in the second century of Islam, following the expansion of the Arabic empire under the Umayyads and then the Abbasids. The first map by a Muslim author — a remarkable map of the world in the form of a bird — was made in the seventh century by a young friend of the prophet Mohammad, 'Abdallah b.'Amr b. al-Āş.

The demand for broader Muslim geographies grew as European interests expanded beyond its borders from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Travellers hunted for works on geography as well as those on the economics, vegetation, fauna and statistics of regions, countries and cities. Interest in archaeology and the study of ancient inscriptions also increased in Europe because those subjects were widely covered by Muslim authors.

The first Muslim book of general geography to be published in Arabic in Europe (in Rome in 1585) was Garden of Strange Things of the Earth and Lands by a previously unknown Ottoman author called Sālāmis b. Gündoğdi aş-Şālihī. Its influence on European knowledge cannot have been great, because it was never translated. The second such book, by contrast, had an immense influence. Translated into Latin in abridged form in 1619 under the misleading title of Geographia Nubiensis, the book was al-Idrīsī's famous Journey of Those who are Amazed, written for the Norman king Roger II in Sicily in the twelfth century. It accompanied al-Idrīsī's world map, the Tabula Rogeriana, showing a dagger-shaped Africa and the confluence of the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans.

Sezgin ends his review in the seventeenth century, when European geographical activities began to overtake the Muslim effort. He singles out for praise the huge efforts of the European orientalists. From the late eighteenth century onwards, they unearthed huge amounts of material from the libraries and book shops of Islamic countries, transporting it to European libraries for study. This was despite the devastation of the Crusades that began in the eleventh century, the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century and subsequent years of neglect. Sezgin's eulogy stands in contrast to the attack on the orientalists by Palestinian–American cultural critic Edward Said, who called them sinister servants of imperial powers.

The importance of Sezgin's series cannot be overestimated. It opens up a little-known world, much of which was forgotten even in Muslim countries. And it contains some unexpected gems, including the best assessment of German geographer Carl Ritter's 20-volume work on comparative geography (1822–59), often misrepresented as a book of history with a teleological bent. Sezgin's books also confirm the intellectual place of seventeenth-century Turkish travel writer Evliya Çelebi as an original thinker and observer in the Ottoman world, a fact that is under-appreciated.

The first two volumes of Sezgin's series are translated into English; I hope that the rest will soon follow. Sezgin's immense scholarship deserves a wide readership.

This article is reproduced with permission from Nature 471, 162–163 (10 March 2011) doi:10.1038/471162a Published online 09 March 2011