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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Vol. XIV
p289
Idrisi

Idrisi, or Edrisi [Abu Abdallah Mahommed Ibn Mahommed Ibn Abdallah Ibn Idrisi, c. A.D. 1099‑1154], Arabic geographer. Very little is known of his life. Having left Islamic lands and become the courtier and panegyrist of a Christian prince, though himself a descendant of the Prophet, he was probably regarded by strict Moslems as a scandal, whose name should not, if possible, be mentioned. His great-grandfather, Idrisi II, "Biamrillah," a member of the great princely house which had reigned for a time as caliphs in north-west Africa, was prince of Malaga, and likewise laid claim to the supreme title (Commander of the Faithful). After his death in 1055, Malaga was seized by Granada (1057), and the Idrisi family then probably migrated to Ceuta, where a freedman of theirs held power. Here the geographer appears to have been born in A.H. 493 (A.D. 1099). He is said to have studied at Cordova, and this tradition is confirmed by his elaborate and enthusiastic description of that city in his geography. From this work we know that he had visited, at some period of his life before A.D. 1154, both Lisbon and the mines of Andalusia. He had also once resided near Morocco city, and once was at (Algerian) Constantine. More precisely, he tells us that in A.D. 1117 he went to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers at Ephesus; he probably travelled extensively in Asia Minor. From doubtful readings in his text some have inferred that he had seen part of the coasts of France and England. We do not know when Roger II of Sicily (1101‑1154) invited him to his court, but it must have been between 1125 and 1150. Idrisi made for the Norman king a celestial sphere and a disk representing the known world of his day — both in silver. These only absorbed one-third of the metal that had been given him for the work, but Roger bestowed on him the remaining two-thirds as a present, adding to this 100,000 pieces of money and the cargo of a richly-laden ship from Barcelona. Roger next enlisted Idrisi's services in the compilation of a fresh description of the "inhabited earth" from observation, and not merely from books. The king and his geographer chose emissaries whom they sent out into various countries to observe, record and design; as they returned, Idrisi inserted in the new geography the information they brought. Thus was gradually completed (by the month of Shawwal, A.H. 548 — mid-January, A.D. 1154), the famous work, best known, from its patron and originator, as Al Rojari, but whose fullest title seems to have been, The going out of a Curious Man to explore the Regions of the Globe, its Provinces, Islands, Cities and their Dimensions and Situation. This has been abbreviated to The Amusement of him who desires to traverse the Earth, or The Relaxation of a Curious Mind. The title of Nubian Geography, based upon Sionita and Hezronita's misreading of a passage relating to Nubia and the Nile, is entirely unwarranted and misleading. The Rogerian Treatise contains a full description of the world as far as it was known to the author. The "inhabited earth" is divided into seven "climates," beginning at the equinoctial line, and extending northwards to the limit at which the earth was supposed to be rendered uninhabitable by cold. Each climate is then divided by perpendicular lines into eleven equal parts, beginning with the western coast of Africa and ending with the eastern coast of Asia. The whole world is thus formed into seventy-seven equal square compartments. The geographer begins with the first part of the first climate, including the westernmost part of the Sahara and a small (north-westerly) section of the Sudan (of which a vague knowledge had now been acquired by the Moslems of Barbary), and thence proceeds eastward through the different divisions of this climate till he finds its termination in the Sea of China. He then returns to the first part of the second climate, and so proceeds till he reaches the eleventh part of the seventh climate, which terminates in north-east Asia, as he conceives that continent. The inconveniences of the arrangement (ignoring all divisions, physical, political, linguistic or religious, which did not coincide with those of his "climates") are obvious.

Though Idrisi was in such close relations with one of the most civilized of Christian courts and states, we find few traces of his influence on European thought and knowledge. The chief exception is perhaps in the delineation of Africa in the world-maps of Marino Sanuto (q.v.) and Pietro Vesconte. His account of the voyage of the Maghrurin or "Deceived Men" of Lisbon in the Atlantic (a voyage on which they seem to have visited Madeira and one of the Canaries) may have had some effect in stimulating the later ocean enterprise of Christian mariners; but we have no direct evidence of this. Idrisi's Ptolemaic leanings give a distinctly retrograde character to certain parts of his work, such as east Africa and south Asia; and, in spite of the record of the Lisbon Wanderers, he fully shares the common Moslem dread of the black, viscous, stormy and wind-swept waters of the western ocean, whose limits no one knew, and over which thick and perpetual darkness brooded. At the same time his breadth of view, his clear recognition of scientific truths (such as the roundness of the world) and his wide knowledge and intelligent application of preceding work (such as that of Ptolemy, Masudi and Al Jayhani) must not be forgotten. He also preserves and embodies a considerable amount of private and special information — especially as to Scandinavia (in whose delineation he far surpasses his predecessors), portions of the African coast, the river Niger (whose name is perhaps first to be found, after Ptolemy's doubtful Nigeir, in Idrisi), portions of the African coast, Egypt, Syria, Italy, France, the Adriatic shore-lands, Germany and the Atlantic islands. No other Arabic work contains a larger assortment of valuable geographical facts; unfortunately the place-names are often illegible or hopelessly corrupted in the manuscripts. Idrisi's world-map, with all its shortcomings, is perhaps the best product of that strangely feeble thing — the Mahommedan cartography of the middle ages.

Besides the Rojari, Idrisi wrote another work, largely geographical, cited by Abulfida as The Book of Kingdoms, but apparently entitled by its author The Gardens of Humanity and the Amusement of the Soul. This was composed for William the Bad (1154‑1166), son and successor of Roger II, but is now lost. He likewise wrote, according to Ibn Said, on Medicaments, and composed verses, which are referred to by the Sicilian Mahommedan poet Ibn Bashrun.

Two manuscripts of Idrisi exist in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and other two in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. One of the English MSS., brought from Egypt by Greaves, is illustrated by a map of the known world, and by thirty-three sectional maps (for each part of the first three climates). The second manuscript, brought by Pococke from Syria, bears the date of A.H. 906, or A.D. 1500. It consists of 320 leaves, and is illustrated by one general and seventy-seven particular maps, the latter consequently including all parts of every climate. The general map was published by Dr Vincent in his Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. A copy of Idrisi's work in the Escorial was destroyed by the fire of 1671.

An epitome of Idrisi's geography, in the original Arabic, was printed, with many errors, in 1592 at the Medicean press in Rome, from a MS. preserved in the Grand Ducal library at Florence (De geographia universali. Hortulus cultissimus . . .). Even the description of Mecca is here omitted. Pococke supplied it from p290his MS. In many bibliographical works this impression has been wrongly characterized as one of the rarest of books. In 1619 two Maronite scholars, Gabriel Sionita and Joannes Hezronita, published at Paris a Latin translation of this epitome (Geographia Nubiensis, id est, accuratissima totius orbis in VII climata divisi descriptio). Besides its many inaccuracies of detail, this edition, by its unlucky title of Nubian Geography, started a fresh and fundamental error as to Idrisi's origin; this was founded on a misreading of a passage where Idrisi describes the Nile passing into Egypt through Nubia — not "terram nostram," as this version gives, but "terram illius" is here the true translation. George Hieronymus Velschius, a German scholar, had prepared a copy of the Arabic original, with a Latin translation, which he purposed to have illustrated with notes; but death interrupted this design, and his manuscript remains in the university library of Jena. Casiri (Bib. Ar. Hisp. II.13) mentions that he had determined to re-edit this work, but he appears never to have executed his intention. The part relating to Africa was ably edited by Johann Melchior Hartmann (Commentatio de geographia Africae Edrisiana, Göttingen, 1791, and Edrisii Africa, Göttingen, 1796). Here are collected the notices of each region in other Moslem writers, so as to form, for the time, a fairly complete body of Arabic geography as to Africa. Hartmann afterwards published Idrisi's Spain (Hispania, Marburg, 3 vols., 1802‑1818).

An (indifferent) French translation of the whole of Idrisi's geography (the only complete version which has yet appeared, based on one of the MSS. of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, was published by Amédée Jaubert in 1836‑1840, and forms volumes V and VI of the Recueil de voyages issued by the Paris Société de Géographie; but a good and complete edition of the original text is still a desideratum. A number of Oriental scholars at Leiden determined in 1861 to undertake the task. Spain and western Europe were assigned to Dozy; eastern Europe and western Asia to Engelmann; central and eastern Asia to Defrémery; and Africa to de Goeje. The first portion of the work appeared in 1866, under the title of Description de l'Afrique et de l'Espagne par Edrisi, texte arabe, publié avec une traduction, des notes et un glossaire par R. Dozy et M. J. de Goeje (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1866);a but the other collaborators did not furnish their quota. Other parts of Idrisi's work have been separately edited; e.g. "Spain" (Descripcion de España de . . . Aledris), by J. A. Condé, in Arabic and Spanish (Madrid, 1799); "Sicily" (Descrizione della Sicilia . . . di Elidris), by P. D. Magri and F. Tardia (Palermo, 1764); "Italy" (Italia descritta nel "libro del Re Ruggiero," compilato da Edrisi), by M. Amari and C. Schiaparelli, in Arabic and Italian (Rome, 1883); "Syria" (Syria descripta a . . . El Edrisio . . .), by E. F. C. Rosenmüller, in Arabic and Latin, 1825, and (Idrisii . . . Syria), by J. Gildemeister (Bonn, 1885) (the last a Beilage to vol. VIII of the Zeitschrift d. deutsch. Palästina-Vereins). See also M. Casiri, Bibliotheca Arabico-Hispana Escurialensis (2 vols., Madrid, 1760‑1770); V. Lagus, "Idrisii notitiam terrarum balticarum ex commerciis Scandinavorum et Italorum . . . ortam esse" in Atti del IVo Congresso internaz. degli orientalisti in Firenze, p395 (Florence, 1880); R. A. Brandel "Om och ur den arabiske geografen Idrisi," Akad. afhand. (Upsala, 1894)

[C. R. B.]


Thayer's Note:

a Dozy and de Goeje's French translation is onsite, q.v.


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