Observations regarding some problems with classical geographical writings

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Ibrahim Chabbouh

In our Arab Islamic culture, classical geographical writings are an important basis for cultural and anthropological studies. They often serve as the starting point to reconstruct a view of old societies with their environment, energy, potentials, production, transactions, relations, settlement centres, and the channels connecting their cities and villages as well as their surroundings.

The unadulterated material offered in these writings – albeit often brief, and sometimes containing obscure references – is not to be found in most of the general or strictly historical references books that have come down to us. As these geographical writings constituted, at their time, a material that depicts the earth’s surface and the things on it, they are recognised in modern research to degrees that vary according to the documented testimony available to the writer.

Pure geographical research was interrupted in Arab and Islamic countries, and in recent centuries, Muslims have had no opportunity to add new, significant writings. It is possible to say that Islamic contributions to this discipline stopped in the eight century hijrī (the fourteenth century CE), and no pioneering endeavours have been embarked on, since that date. Since the sixteenth century CE, Arabists have embraced the firm principles of geography established by Muslim scholars. This started with a 1592 publication, in Rome, of an abridged version of al-Idrīsī’s Kitāb Nuzhat al-Mushtāq (An Outing for  the Eager), with its listing of countries, regions, cities, towns, islands, and remote parts. In 1619, a Latin translation of al-Idrīsī’s book by two Maronite scholars, Jibrāʾil Ṣahyūnī and Ḥannā al-Ḥaṣrūnī, was published in Paris.[1] Since then, the documents of this important category of human knowledge are continuously approached by Oriental Arabists for purposes of study, research, and editing. The utmost attention has been paid to this category, and original manuscripts, translations, and studies have been produced in editions that fully observe the methods of publishing classical texts. However, despite the extreme accuracy, errors in checking and verification were found into these texts as a result of confusion and the limited number of original documents.

During the nineteenth century, great anthologies of this geographic heritage were produced. This was probably connected to colonialist expansion and to the more profound exploration of the Arab and Islamic world. In Paris, the publication of a work on geography, Taqwīm al-Buldān (The Description of Countries), in 1840, supervised by M. Rēnaud and Le Baron de Slane, and the efforts of Silvestre de Sacy, a French Arabist, proved fruitful, when he highlighted Egypt’s description by Abd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī.

Wüstenfeld published, in Leipzig, in 1866, the most extensive, inclusive and best organised geography collections: Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī’s Muʿjam al-Buldān (A Gazetteer of Countries) and later Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī’s Muʿjam mā Istaʿjam (A Gazetteer of Unknown Places) (Gotta, 1876 CE).

In Holland, the A. J. Brill Library sponsored the efforts of the great Arabist Michael Jean de Joé and published his description of Africa and Andalusia, which he extracted from al-Idrīsī’s Nuzhat al-Mushtāq. R. Dozy worked as a co-editor of the text. The library continued its efforts and, with the dedication of de Goeje, a Library of Arab Geographers was established. De Goeje’s work is an example in its precision, faithfulness, and conformity to his method of noting all the differences in the various versions, regardless of how minor they are. He produced editions of al-Iṣṭakhrī’s Masālik al-Mamālik (The Routes of Kingdoms) (1870), ibn Ḥawqal’s al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik (Routes and kingdoms) (1873), al-Maqdisī’s Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm (Best Classifications) (1877), ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamadānī’s Kitāb al-Buldān (The Book of Countries) (1885), and ibn Khurdādhbih’s al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik (1873), as well as excerpts from Qudāmah ibn Jaʿfar’s al-Kharāj (The Innovation) (1889), ibn Rustah’s al-Aʿlāq al-Nafīsah (Precious Pouches), al-Yaʿqūbī’s Kitāb al-Buldān (The Book of Countries) (1892) and al-Masʿūdī’s al-Tanbīh wa al-Ishrāf (Notification and Supervision) (1894).

The tradition established by these efforts continued into the twentieth century; orientalists published new editions or facsimiles of the works published during the previous century, such as the geographical literature of al-Maqdisī, Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm (1906), one part of ibn Duqmāq’s Kitāb al-Intiṣār li-Wasiṭt ʿIqd al-Amṣār (Book of Triumph for the Vehicles of Country Clustering) (Cairo, c. 1897), and ibn Ḥawqal’s Ṣūrat al ʿArḍ (Layout of the Earth) (1939). these efforts were characterized by a collective publication achievement, as Arab scholars participated for the first time with specialists, who belonged to schools orientalism. Sponsored by the Italian Near and Far East Institute in Rome, the outcome was an edition of al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī’s Kitāb Nuzhat al-Mushtāq fī Ikhtirāq al-ʾAfāq (An Outing for the Eager in Horizon Exploration), a work of twelfth century CE. It was published in nine small volumes from 1970-84. This publication sequence of major geographic reference works, was completed with the production of the full text of Abū ʿUbayd ʿAbdallāh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Bakrī’s al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik (487 hijrī). An edition by Baron de Slane of that part of the book, covering al-Maghrib (Northwest Africa), had already been published in 1857. Later, that part was re-published after being collated with newly discovered manuscripts in 1911. The new, full publication of the book was undertaken by Adrian Van Leewen and André Vyre and published in two volumes in Tunis, in 1992.

While these recognised reference works are studied and used mostly in orientalist research and studies, and while they serve as an enormous asset, with their influence clearly observed in the first edition of Encyclopedia of Islam, they are nonetheless hardly benefited by Arab researchers. This is because of the originals’ scarcity and these works’ virtual non-existence in Arab book markets.

When, in the 1960s, these rare sources became available and gained popularity among knowledge seekers in Arab countries, thanks to the contribution of al-Muthannā Library in Baghdad, a variation of their general value has been observed, according to how easy their content was and how clear and direct their usefulness. In contemporary Arab research, for example, there is hardly a major reference to the mathematical geography related to the Greek heritage, or to astronomical ephemeris tables or zīj, despite their utmost importance. Nor is there a frequent mention in such research of al-Khawārizmī or Suhrāb, who, in al-Aqālīm al-Sabʿah (The Seven Regions) (the ninth or tenth century CE) followed the former’s steps, although his book included extensive additions, dealing, particularly, with Baghdad’s canals and the description of the rural areas of Iraq and the Nile Delta.[2] We cannot find any trace of al-Battānī’s and his similar geographers’ works, probably because of the close link between this branch of mathematical geography and astronomy, involving all the special skills in the discipline - monitoring, analysis, deduction, and effort - for which Muslim geographers are given credit. One of the people who excelled in this field, was Abū al-Rayḥān al-Bairūnī (973-1084 CE), who is universally recognised as one of the greatest scientists in history.[3] In fact, mathematical geography came to a pause with the later generation of geographers, such as ibn Saʿīd al-Maghribī, who wrote Basṭ al-Arḍ (The Earth Outspread), and Abū al-Fidāʾ, who did not go beyond, but gave the length and width of countries.

In addition to the absence of mathematical geography in the scholars’ research, another absent branch was geography of routes, despite its importance in understanding communication and human and economic interrelations within the same country and between people of different countries, and in understanding the security of countries and their roads. This is probably due to the obscurity of some names, the fact that some locations had been obliterated, and the constant alterations effected by incidental phenomena, such as winds, floods, and wars. Alternatively, it could be because collation with contemporary, accurate maps involved much diligence and hard work and that time that was not feasible. Thus, researchers made no effort to study this available field, despite its importance, since routes served as the arteries that support the great Islamic world and whatever is related to it.

The study of routes is the best documented branch of geography. During the ʿAbbāsid period, a bureau was established for this study under the title ‘Bureau of Mail, Traits, and Roads to Eastern and Western Parts’. Routes were government sponsored and secured,[4] and they were marked with milestones to reassure travellers. As described by Yāqūt, these milestones “were roughly ten arms in height, with proportionate thickness”[5]. Old Ummayyad milestones, with inscriptions in Kufic, have been discovered along the route between Damascus and Makkah. They bear the name of Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān, who ordered them to be erected.[6]

The wide and positive leeway, allowed by a geographical text, is beyond any doubt, whether it has a universal nature, dealing with the layout of the earth or it focuses on the old Islamic world at the time or constitutes just a text of a country’s geography. This is attributed to the fact that such texts, abundant as they are, are limited in their accounts and can not answer all the questions, raised in research. For example, al-Baghdādī’s work on the city of Baghdad is the essential source of information, regarding the ʿAbbāsid capital and its detailed maps. Yet, al-Baghdādī was more interested in culture and learning, and he devoted about 90 per cent of his work to biographies of prominent scientitst, living in the city during its flourishing period. Ibn ʿAsākir, who was more substantial, vague and mythical in nature, followed al-Baghdādī’s example. Belonging to a later age, he failed to find sources that allowed him to describe Damascus under the Umayyads and recapture its old designs and architectural changes. Nor did he illustrate its religious, academic, and social institutions, as later done by Aḥmad al-Maqrīzī, an outstanding documenter of Egyptian architecture, in his al-Mawāʿidh wa al-Iʿtibār (Sermons and leaning from example).

Old scholars were aware of the serious gaps that are common in the oldest and most popular and dependable writings. In the introduction of his comprehensive gazetteer that classifies countries, Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī, by apologying for the characteristics of Muslim scholars in terms of modesty, self denial, and effort to avoid conceit, praises the efforts of earlier Greek geographers who studied urban geography, like Pythagoras and Ptolemy, and acknowledges them as the sources for several of his compilations, pointing out that many of the locations they mentioned are obscure and unknown to him, due to the passage of time.

He adds that a group of Muslim scholars had been following a somehow similar approach, citing the names of countries, kingdoms, roads and route distances. He names these, one by one, and then comments that: “This group - although carefully written, original copies of their works may be found, and are written and annotated by the scholars themselves - is poorly organized and, because of its excessive brevity and lack of elaboration, gives no real satisfaction. The purpose of its members is to cite correct pronunciations and nothing else without exploring any raised subject”.[7]

Such criticism suggests a good understanding of the meaning of geography and the things that should be covered in its works. Thus, Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī used an approach characterised by what he regarded as being coherent, good organised, and useful. It was based on the resources available to him, which he followed closely, adding nothing other than what he observed with his alert and perceptive eyes.

It is pertinent to point out here that of our geographical heritage, most books that have survived are only available to us as partial copies, either singularly or in greater numbers and, hence, there are no full, organised versions available. For example, of Yāqūt’s Muʿjam al-Buldān and al-Idrīsī’s Nuzhat al-Mushtāq, only the separate parts of copies, made at divergent times, and with varied reliability, have survived and it is from these that the published text has been compiled. While al- Idrīsī is fortunate enough to have a complete version of his work compiled, al-Bakrī’s Masālik has come down to us with an amputated head; his introduction is missing in the published copy. This signifies that Arabs stopped paying attention to this grand discipline a long time ago. No copies of the available books were made or circulated, and the works almost disappeared altogether. Clearly, these people were no longer interested in these books and, within the Islamic nation, the spirit of learning, research, and informed venture had become subdued.

Let us now proceed to make some observations regarding geographical works in the Islamic heritage. The first observation concerns the layers of written material. As with archaeological findings, in the works of historical geography, in general, and descriptive country’s geography in particular, time has its effects; it adds layers, one over the other, and leaves residues stored in a heap and indicates the age to which they belong. This kind of descriptive, originally human geography is a report that defines locations; it takes a certain city, village, or historical site and discusses its construction and population, mentions its progress, prosperity, prices, and local resources, as well as resources supplied from its outskirts. It cites living examples, either seen personally or learned about, through other people’s accounts. It lists the routes that connect the place with its surroundings. Through such descriptions a site’s sketch is formed and its life, related to the time the report has been written. However, when we undertake strict textual criticism based on a thorough examination of some of the common, familiar writings, we discover that the additions made in later periods and incorporated into the text, seem to be a part of the original version. For example, Abū al-Qāsim ibn Ḥawqal al-Naṣībī was aware that earlier geographers’ tradition “differed in their methods and approaches and in the extent to which that difference influenced their endeavours and drawings, knowledge and learning, and particular and general interests”. Furthermore, in all routes’ account he had read, he did not find “a satisfactory book, nor a standard method of drawing”.[8]

A good illustration of textual layers can be found in the published version of Ṣūrat al-ʿArḍ that describes the city of al-Mahdiyah al-Fāṭimiyah, visited by ibn Ḥawqal in 336 hijrī:[9]

AI arrived there in the year thirty six, when its kings were courageous, its armies protective, and its merchants flexible.
BConditions in it had changed, its activities had become confused, and its men have left, with the departure of its kings, to remote places. Its first misfortune came with Abū Yazīd Mikhlad ibn Kaydād, who attacked its population at sunset. Further misfortunes have befallen it, since then, but still it retains signs of life.
CIts men left when al-Manṣūr, peace upon him, moved out and kept away, dwelling in al-Manṣūriah, adjacent to al-Qairawān. that was because of what he was exposed to by Abū Yazīd Mikhlad ibn Kaydād, and because of the latter s intention.

The discordant B passage is additionally inserted among the lines of the original after fifth century hijrī, i.e. some 200 years after ibn Ḥawqal’s writing if the original text. In his account ibn Ḥawqal, who was a Shiite living in the Fatimid state, spoke with admiration of al-Mahdiyah caliphs, armies, and merchants. Suddenly, however, the text takes a different direction, declaring that, “misfortunes have befallen it since then, but still it retains signs of life”. This depressing image of the city is indeed described, during the last days of al-Sahnāja s reign, in the sixth century hijrī. At that time, the city was under the threat of the Normans of Sicily. They had laid siege to it several times, the most famous of which was the siege of al-Dīmās, a battle that its strategy was described by al-Idrīsī[10] due to the fortifications and places of Moravides on the coast. The battle is described in detail, day by day, by the well-known traveller al-Tijānī,[11] and a splendid account of it is given by the Sicilian poet ibn Ḥamdīs.

The inserted passage, as I see it, constitutes a comment, made by someone who had witnessed the changes in the capital. He must have read ibn Ḥawqal’s account and have written his own in the footnotes. A later scribe, copying from that copy, took the comment to be an original addition to the text and so inserted it. In the process, he had not noticed that the subject dealt with the city’s prosperity and that the writer was a contemporary of that period, and that the details concerning Abū Yazīd in the passage that followed, were in a context that indicates how exposed al-Mahdiyah’s location was. It narrates how the state’s capital was isolated by the siege and was unable to receive supplies, had it not been for a naval reinforcement coming in the nick of time. It seems that the second Fatimid caliph, al-Qāʾim ibn al-Mahdī, was concerned about the capital’s isolation and siege and so examined many locations with a view to building a new seat of government for his state.[12] Hence, his son, Caliph al-Manṣūr, built Ṣabrat al-Manṣūriyah and moved there. However, the state’s treasury continued to be in alMahdiyah under the supervision of Master Jawthar.[13] The city survived the Fatimid dynasty, and later the rulers of Ṣanhājah moved in, from Ṣabrah and al-Qayrawān, when the advance of the Hilāl tribes threatened stability in Africa.

About one century after, Ibn Ḥawqal, Muḥammad Ibn Aḥmad al-Muqaddasī al-Bashārī provided us with another description of al-Mahdiyah,[14] stating that it remained the same as when built. He said “It is the treasury of al-Qayrawān and the seat of Sicily and Egypt. It is populous and prosperous. A person can look at it, if he desires to find out how Constantinople looks, sparing himself the trouble of travelling to the Roman city”.

The same type of incorporation and superimposition is found in the text of a book by ibn Ḥawqal. Aware of this, the publisher has drawn attention to these additions by using smaller type. The same is the case in the book’s description of Taflīs, an excellent, albeit, brief description of the city whereby it states: “Now it is held by the Georgians, who took hold of it in the last decade of the 500s. Although he is a non-Muslim, the Georgian king respects the wishes of its people”. Ibn Ḥawqal, however, died around 367 hijrī.

Another example can be found in the main text of al-Idrīsī’s Nuzhat al-Mushtāq,[15] which states that there are, “from Cartagena to Majjānah City two real stages”, yet next to this is the phrase: “Nay, one extensive stage”. The editors say nothing about this external phrasal addition to the original text.

While some of these inserted texts are flagrantly obvious by virtue of the cited dates or through the use of phrases indicative of amendments or corrections, concealed additions need to be detected by a very careful and alerted reading.

Another observation concerns old misconceptions with regard to place names. A student of geography is called upon to deconstruct a geographic text; not an easy task. Misconceptions arise from name errors, common in these old writings, which result in misreading the approved copies of the original or of further copying. In this way, misread and miscopied names became frequent and people accepted them, trusting their sources, which are otherwise reliable.

One criterion for disputing the given names of locations is to know the roots of the names prior to Islam, if there are any. Modern studies covered large areas of the old world and its kingdoms, and Muslims are known to be impartial in their writings, never claiming to have founded a location when they did not. Often we find in their accounts of cities phrases like, “It is a city that belongs to earlier cultures”, or “It is a pre Islamic city”, or “It is ancient and enternal”.[16]

An example of an old and deliberate alteration, common in books of geography and history, is that of the city of Tunis. It was originally called Tarshīsh and only after Muslim settlement did it acquire the name Tunis,[17] derived from the Arabic word uns, meaning geniality or friendliness.

The same type of misreading or distortion occurs when al-Bakrī lists the gates of the city of Tunis. He mentions ‘Bāb (the gate of) Arṭah’,[18] which is unknown. Most often, gates are called after the settled cities they face; this particular name remains a mystery, and its significance has not as yet been determined

In my opinion, these two important names result from an error made at the outset of geographic compilations. The city of Tunis was originally a populous village at the last side of the lake to the southeast of Cartagena. It was known in Byzantine times as Tawnīs. Undoubtedly, that was the written name, but it was not written carefully and no dots were used to distinguish the letters, as noticed in the published, illustrated manuscript by al-Isṭakhrī. A scribe making a copy, misread the letters and substituted the wa sound for a ra sound after the initial ta. Then, he added dots and modified and added to the notches of the letters. This scribe may have been an Arab Christian from the East and read the word as Tarshīsh, drawing on the store of names he was familiar with; Tarshīsh being a Biblical name recurring in the Old Testament. Hence, how this name was circulated and subsequently established as if it were the real name.

As for the Bab Arṭah, we find that Arṭah is a modification of the name of a Roman town to the southwest of mount Zaghwān. The town is called Athanah, and the dhāl sound was misread as . In a similar way, the sound is sometimes changed into wa, or vice versa, as when al-Bakrī refers to the guard post Buṭriyah close to Sfax as Buṭwiyah.

The same kind of misreading and distortion occurs in M. J. De Goeje’s reading of a text by ibn Khurdādhdhbih, [19] where he says that, “Al-Qayrawān is the city of al-Makhālī”, and “it is an African city”. He reads it this way in good faith. Had he, however, looked into similar, published geographer compilations, he would have discovered that al-Yaʿqūbī mentions that, “The water that the residents of al-Qairawān drink, is the rain water that collects in wadis. When winter comes and rain starts to fall, the water gets through the wadis into great reservoirs called al-mawājelʾ.[20] Both al-Bakrī and al-Idrīsī give a detailed description of a great mājel (the singular of mawājel) and assert that the population drank such water.[21] The distortion of al-mawājel in ibn Khurdādhdhbih’s text began by giving the word mājel the wrong plural form of majāli, instead of mawājel, and then misreading it as makhālī.

Another example of misreading and distortion, causing a change in the intended meaning, is the statement derived from the main text of al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik,[22] whereby from Jalūlah “to Aḥra is one stage”. Al-Bakrī[23] delivers the statement correctly in all his works: “from al-Qairawān to Jalūlah, and then on to Ajjar (spelled Aggar in its Latin form) is a rough road ... [and it is] a lion dwelling, which has lions at all times and is characterised by constant storms. That is why it is said: ‘When you arrive at Ajjar, speed up, because it has settled lions, sharp stones, and a blowing wind’.”

Another distorted name concerns the location of the ruler’s palace (Dār al-Imārah) in al-Qairawān, which, after being filled with earth, served as a yard to store wheat in large holes. I excavated most of these at the site (Dār al-Imārah), in 1975. The yard was known as raḥbat al-ṭamr (the yard of underground storage). Historian Ibrahīm al-Raqqīq al-Qayrawānī,[24] however, changed the name to raḥbat al-tamr (the yard of dates). In the modern edition of al-Bakrī’s (Jughrāfiyā) geography work, it became raḥbat al-thamr (the place of fruit’).[25] The historical benefit received from such substitution varies, as evident, from one name to another. The list of this type of changes is endless.

A third observation that draws the scholar’s attention and prompts him to reconsider his conclusions, and either generalise or restrict them, are those details in the works of geographers, who ventured and went around the world with open eyes, “…they reflect on heaven’s and earth’s creation”, (Surah Āl-Imrān:191), and observed all that this Qurānic verse covers. Thus, they wrote after they had observed, scrutinised, and examined, and in offering their view, they followed the method described by Yāqūt[26] when first-hand observation is made. When speaking of a certain town he said: “I saw its outskirts and beheld its mountains. You must tolerate a long chapter of detailed, objective observations, for that is what I offer from the benefit I have gained through observation and conversation”. Hence, we learn how these geographers only documented their findings after scrutinising and synthesising the outcome of learned information. For example, Ab ū al-Raiḥān al-Bairūnī,[27] observed:

The sea turns into land and land into sea at times which, if occurring before the existence of human beings, are unknown or, if later, are not recorded. With the passage of time, reports cease to be transmitted, particularly in parts where distances increase from one part to another and when only the elite recognise the phenomenon. There is, for instance, the Arabian desert. It was a sea and became compressed. Traces of that are clear when people dig wells or pools there. Layers of undulating soil and sand appear, and in addition, there is so much pottery, glass, and bones underground that cannot possibly be intentionally buried. In fact, stones are excavated when discovered, or have been broken, as they contain shells, cowries, and what is known as fish-ears. They either retain their original form or have dissipated and left, in their places, cavities that have their shapes. The same exists in Bāb al-Abwāb (The Gate of Gates) on the shore of the Caspian Sea. No definite period or date for that development is given at all.

This is very advanced and perceptive thinking by Abu al Raihān al-Bairūnī, but it is not so surprising coming from him and other scholars of mathematical and astronomical geography, observations related to it.

There is also another class that consists of geography; plagiarists who copied each other, without ever having left their home countries. Thus, they are supported neither by observation, reflection nor by meditation. They only copy from their predecessors, with little modification, addition, or summing up. Therefore, their statements are deficient, satisfy no purpose, and add nothing new to human knowledge. In addition to al- Yaʿqūbī, ibn Ḥawqal, and al-Muqaddasī, there were a few geographers on the western side of Andalusia and in Sicily and al-Qairawān, while the geography of the Islamic West took a pallid and confused form in the works of Eastern scholars. Ibn Khurdādhdhbih,[28] for instance, makes an incredible jump when he said: “Tunis and the Andalusian land are separated by the sea, which at that point is six parasangs wide, and then to Cordova, the seat of Andalusia, there is a five day distance”. Within a short period of no more than 30 years, ibn al-Faqīh,[29] copying this same statement with a slight modification, skips the sea as if it did not exist. He stated:

“Tunis and Andalusia are six parasangs apart, and then to Cordova, the seat of Andalusia, there is a five-day distance”. If we apply Yaqūt’s definition of a parasang as the equivalent of three miles, this means that the width of the Mediterranean is 18 miles (6 x 3). How can this be explained?

Actually, ibn al-Faqīh’s Mukhtaṣar Kitāb al-Buldān (A Summary of the Book of Countries) is, like its predecessor, a work in which the description of the Maghreb countries shrinks. Most of the information it gives is cut short, poor, and even misleading. The author is criticised by al-Muqaddasī[30] for having “introduced in his book information that does not fit.” He considers the book as a collection of reports and stories rather than of geographic compilation[31] and says it follows no specific plan.

Another observation calls for pause when discussing most geographers: this whereby they use stages in figuring distances. A stage is the distance covered in travelling for one day until noon, when a traveller usually dismounts. In most compilations, the stage is obscure and ambiguous. Ibn Khurdādhdhbih[32] says that the distance “between Tunis and Africa is two stages for travellers on mules”. Ibn al-Faqīh copies this statement.[33] Meanwhile, al-Idrīsī[34] speaks of ‘light stages’ and ‘large stages’. Travel books, however, give a clearer meaning of the term stage, for when it is used, the route followed is also mentioned, allowing the coordinates to be defined when the route is known. This is done by al-Tījāni.[35] A fellow archeologist[36]has made a study of the meaning of stage by calculating the distances on the basis of the texts that use them. He came to the conclusion that this is not a fixed measure; it is rather a matter of ability and probability, one dependent on location’s nature and access to it. It might signify twenty miles or only one mile of wild country, mountain passes, or land with high tree density. Qudāma ibn Jaʿfar[37] refers to a straightforward road, but when the Arabic verb is used in a sentence like, “The road straightened towards such and such a location”, it suggests that it leads to that location. Furthermore, when deviation of the road is mentioned, it is said to “straighten at such point”.[38] So these are terms that, so far as I know, have not been looked into.

One more observation comes to surface every time we apply proved geographic facts to a geographic text for comparison.

When a geographic text deals with human settlements in cities and villages and includes a definite historic site that has survived, we can follow data’s conformity to the place described after excluding incidental changes and additions, during the period from the time of writing to our own time. This, in most cases, allows us to determine with certainty:

  • Technical description’s deficiency in most texts, which fails to go beyond generalisations that are far from being a precise description of the object in question, a description that allows its image to be reconstructed through a reading of the text that is brief and devoid of important details.
  • Confusion in the descriptive texts under comparison, results either because of a memory failure from listener’s part, who heard the description related by someone else or because a copyist skips a paragraph or a sentence and later adds it in the margin but at the wrong place. An example of this occurs in a description given by al-Idrīsī,[39] which is otherwise clear and accurate. He says that: “The people of al-Qairawån drink out of the huge mājel (reservoir) in the city. This mājel is a wondrous structure, being built on a square base with a silo-like structure in the middle, each side of which is two hundred cubits in width”. When compared to the real object, it turns out that the mājel has a round, rather than a square base and that the description and measurements of the silo-like structure are inaccurate. Probably, al-Idrīsī heard this description given orally by someone who did not pay much attention to accuracy in detail. Had this great mājel not survived, at Idrīsī’s description would have been the only document available that describes it.

A more important example is mentioned in the published version of al-Bakrī’s al-Masālik,[40] which describes the city of Sūsah as “surrounded by the sea on three sides, the Northern, Southern, and Eastern…It has a strong rock wall … battered by the sea”. Al-Waṭwāṭ[41] also quotes this description. The fact is, however, that Sūsah is located on the coast of a gulf connected to the sea on its eastern side only. What al-Bakrī actually describes, is al-Mahdiyah, located at a close distance to the south of Sūsah. It is open to the sea on three sides and its wall is right next to sea water.[42] One can assume that this error caused by a scribe, unintentionally skipping the description of al-Mahdiyah and then inserting it in the margin. When a new copy was made, the copyist mistakenly placed the description within the discussion of Sūsah, and it remained there.

When Muḥammad Ibn Abū Bakr Al-Zahrī[43] speaks about Al-Zaitūnah Mosque in Tunis, he says; “It has a great white courtyard, and to its eastern side, there is another courtyard

with three domes made of marble with grains representing rain water. At the mosque’s eastern side is the courtyard tiled with white marble”. These details provide an image different from the actual one. Probably, this resulted from the copyist’s lack of focus while writing or a digression in his thoughts, which made his eyes jump from one line to another, picking out words without thinking and failing to collate his copy with the original.

Geographical writings in our own heritage are not the only source from which we can reconstruct the image of settlements, cities, routes, and human life. In fact, physical, human, and regional geography is covered to a great extent by travel books on the Maghreb and Andalusia. These works pay great attention to cultural aspects; they also include biographies of scholars and refer to their contributions to human knowledge. In this way, they provide a lively description of these scholars within the cultures they lived in and were influenced by. Furthermore, those segments that deal with routes, stages, and city descriptions and connect them to the people’s lives offer valuable accounts for studying human life and its relation to the environment. Travel books offer and support with evidence eye-witness geography and give a first-hand account of routes and stages, as well as the time needed to cover these. They also describe the lands and the waters they contain, and relate this to human settlement, following the rule set by al-Bairūnī,[44] who says: “The settlement of people keeps moving with the way water moves, because people follow it”. Travellers such as ibn Jubair, ibn Baṭṭūṭah, and al-ʿAbdarī give excellent accounts of cities, describing the lifestyle of their populations, their resources, and the nature of their architecture. Indeed such books often solve the mystery created by geography works, giving detailed accounts of what geographers speak of in general terms, or filling in the parts they have neglected. In this respect, the travels of al-Tajībī,[45] who describes in great detail Egyptian cities and villages that he visited in Upper Egypt, such as Minyat ibn Khasseb, Asyūṭ, Ikhmīm, and Qaws, are invaluable. it is him, who provides the most accurate description of the rough road between Qaws and ʿAithāb, which is part of one of the two routes followed by Maghreb pilgrims. He cites by name the points on that road and mentions the available facilities. Al-Tajībī has also enabled a solution to the mystery and controversy surrounding the Kārem trade, which is mentioned in Yemeni sources, such as Zubaid’s History and ibn al Mujāwer’s al-Mustabṣir (The Reflective Onlooker). The latter focuses on the marine guard protecting the shipping route between Aden and ʿAithāb. Reports of these ships are included in al-Janīzah documents, which mention their trading in Indian and Far Eastern. Al-Tajībī refers to these traders as al-akārim (the generous), which is a term of esteem for an element of the Yemeni and Indian populations who engaged in overseas trade.The Term originated in the Fatimid era and continues to be used today. In Yemen, for example, the title al-makārimah is still applied to the Ismaelis of Ḥarāz.

Al-Tajībī,[46] when speaking about the city of ʿAithāb on the Red Sea, says that it has “plastered houses, built by traders known as al-akārim, to live in when they arrive there from Aden, Qaws, or elsewhere”. When he comes to Qaws, al-Tajībī[47] says that travellers stay “in the big khān, known as the Honored Hotel, in which traders know as al-akārim stay … I have never seen a larger khan; it is a kind of a fort, and every dwelling in it is separate and independent, with no need for the others”.

I have made these seemingly unrelated observations so as to point out, first, that European Orientalism has appreciated, from the beginning, the merits of Islamic Arabic geographic literature and undertaken to edit and study it. Orientalists published the works of that literature in the best form allowed by their manuscripts, which are rare and few in number. They studied these works very diligently and produced a small library of texts and research works. From works and studies made in different languages, the material of that library was collected by the Institute of the History of Islamic Arabic Sciences in Frankfurt and sponsored by a diligent scholar, Dr. Fuat Sezgin. That material was published in hundreds of volumes, proving that orientalists have paid great attention to this discipline, which, with all its rarities, is now acclaimed by researchers.

However, in spite of their geographic, ethnographic, regional, and literary importance, many edited and published works have disseminated the errors and distortions of the original copies. These works are duplicated, except when the originals are sought. In light of the long period that has passed since their early publication, these works need to be re-examined with the tools of modern research and in light of newly discovered manuscripts and the detailed and accurate maps that have been published.

We are entitled to ask whether there has been any research effort in Arab countries to record and define the locations and historical names mentioned in Arabic geographic sources. If so, then all this data, the names and locations should be compiled into a comprehensive and accurate historical atlas. Such an atlas should incorporate the total outcome of these geographical sources and of any other, forgotten resources. A distinction should also be made between original texts and texts that blindly copy and duplicate. Such an effort would also provide the opportunity for new publications, with advanced versions of the original texts in which all ambiguities are resolved.

Such an approach in historical geographical research has not made great progress except in certain places of the Arab world. Probably, the most remarkable effort is that by Prince Yūsuf Kamāl, a well-known traveller, who collected the geographic texts dealing with Egypt from the oldest to the most recent. He organised this material, arranging it by cities and highlighting the proper nouns in red colour. His work is enormous and elegant, but it has had restricted circulation, due to its classy nature, which is rare in published books. Therefore, with only a few copies in circulation, it fails to have the desired influence on later studies in spite of its outstanding plan. Next, I would like to commend the attention Arabia has received due to the efforts of my teacher and friend, the great scholar Hamad al-Jasir, in his books and his journal al-ʿArab (Arabs), through which he established a school for Arabian geography, genealogies, and history, and also in the excellent original texts he published and the geographic gazetteers he compiled on the basis of observing, scrutinising, challenging texts in verse and prose, and transforming them into meaningful accounts. This is by no means an effort that others can easily match.

I also refer to the efforts of my fellow scholar Dr. Abdullah al-Ghunaim, who established, at Kuwait University, and the journal published by its Faculty of Literature and Language, a dynamic nucleus and a solid base for historical geography.

Next, I acknowledge the contributions in Yemen of the late Muhammad Ali al-Akwaʿ, who edited and published significant regional geography texts. Similar contributions have been made by his brother and my friend, the honourable scholar judge Ismaʿil ibn Ali al-Akwaʿ. Some regional texts of Masālik al-Abṣār (Routes for the Eyesight) have been published. An excellent version of al-Maqrīzī s al-Mawāʿiḍ wa al-Iʿtibār fī al-Khiṭaṭ wa al-ʾAthār (Sermons and learning from Example in Charts and Ruins) has been published, carefully edited by Dr. Ayman Fuād Sayyid, who exhibits an extensive knowledge of the city of Cairo and its charts that has enabled him to present this important work in the best possible manner. Moreover, Muʿjam al-Rawḍ al-Miʿṭār (The Fragrant Meadow Gazetteer) was published by Professor Ihsan Abbas, and is, in spite of the reservations he makes, a useful work.

These successful, individual efforts constitute an indication that would be possible to work on planned historical geography projects in groups that combine Arab and Arabist scholars of complementary specialisations. Such groups could determine their approaches, prepare the material and documents they need, and reach conclusions with the help of all research technologies, including old maps with names still clearly rendered; ancient toponymy as defined by old writings on Islam, and the oldest aerial photography missions, undertaken before modern construction obliterated the features of the land and human traces thereon. The cooperation of a serious team affiliated by two or more research institutions would most likely advance a model, set the course of studies towards useful approaches, and carry on its plan, supported by the facilities placed at its disposal by academic institutions and international organisations.


[1] Sarkis, Muʿjam al-Maṭbūʿāt al-ʿArabīyah [Lexicon of Arabic Publications], vol. I, p.415. 1619.

[2] Karatchkovsky, The History of Geographical Literature, Cairo, 1965, Vol. I, p. 104.

[3] Nafisi Ahmad, Juhūd al-Muslimīn fī al-Jughrāfīyah, p.64 (al-Alf Kitab, Book Series, no 272)

[4] Qudāmah ibn Jaʿfar, al-Kharāj wa Ṣināʿat al-Kitābah (Taxes and the Clerical Trade), with a commentary by Muhammad Hassan Al-Zubaidi, (Baghdad: Al-Rasheed Publishing House, 1981), pp 77-129.

[5] Muʿjam al-Buldān (A Gazetteer of Countries), vol. I, p.6.

[6] An illustration of these milestones is published in Creswell’s Early Muslim Architecture as figure 35. Landmarks continued to be used until recent periods. In Māʾ al-Mawāʾid (Banquet Water) (Fes), Traveller ʿAbdullah al-ʿIyāshī says that he set out of ʿAjrūd heading to al-Nābighah, and followed the pilgrim road, which has al-Maṣāniʿ on its right side. He says that “al-Maṣāniʿ are forts built on marshes, where no road tracks can be seen. Therefore, landmarks are built to guide travellers along the road. At the top of each of these structures, a rectangular stone pointed to the road, so that night travellers might be guided by them. Sometimes lanterns are suspended from these stones at night. Milestones are separated by distances of one parasang (a farsakh) or less each, and they continue until wādī al-Raml. This is the route all Egyptian and Maghreb pilgrims follow, except in hot seasons or when they are afraid of falling short of water. At such times, they head towards Al-Nābighah on al-Maṣānʿ road until the sea is in view and they get very close to Suez City, almost discerning the people moving outside the city”.

[7] Muʿjam al-Buldān, vol. I, p.11.

[8] Ṣūrat al-ʿArḍ (Layout if the Earth), p. 3.

[9] Ibid., p. 71.

[10] Nuzhat al-Mushtāq, vol. I, p. 303.

[11] See the details of al-Dīmās Battle in the year 517 hijrī, in the fleet of Roger the Sicilian fought against al-Ḥsan ibn ʿAlī Yaḥyā al-Ṣinhājī, in Riḥlat (Journey of) al-Tijānī, 335 (Tunis, 1958). Also see the description of the Battle in ʿAbd al-Jabār ibn Ḥamdīs’s poem, in which he eulogizes Prince al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī, in hiw Diwān (Collection), 252, published by Ihsan Abbas (Beirut, Dar Sader, 1960).

[12] Al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān ibn Muḥammad, al-Majālis wa al-Musāyarāt, (Gatherings and Narrative Exchanges), I. Chabbouh, ed. (Tunis, 1978), p. 323.

[13] Manṣūr alʿAzīzī, Sīrat al-Ustādh Jawthar, ed. Muhammad Kamil Husain, Abd al-Hadi Shaʿirah (Egypt, 1954), pp. 39, 52 and 53.

[14] Al-Muqaddasī, Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm fī Maʿrifat al-Aqālīm (The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions), p. 226.

[15] Ibid., Vol. I : p.293.

[16] Al-Muqaddasī, p. 228; Al-Idrīsī, Vol. I: p. 285.

[17] Al-Bakrī, Vol II : pp. 693, 995, 698; Al-Idrīsī, ibid.

[18] Al-Bakrī, Vol II: p 697.

[19] Ibn Khurdādhbih, AL-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, p.87, (1873).

[20] Ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamadānī, Kitāb al-Buldān (The Book of Countries), p.348.

[21] Al-Idrīsī, Nuzhat al-Mushtāq, Vol 1: p. 284; Al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, Vol. 2: p. 677 (1133).

[22] Al-Idrīsī, Vol I: p. 195. It is listed this way in the book’s indices.

[23] Al-Bakrī, al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, Vol II: p. 716.

[24] Tārīkh Ifrīqiyah wa al-Maghrib (History of Africa and Maghreb) (Tunis: Al-Manji Al-Kaʿbi, 1968).

[25] Al-Bakrī, Al-Masālik, Vol II: p. 174.

[26] Yāqūt al-Ḥamwī, Muʿjam Al-Buldān, Vol IV: p. 13.

[27] Taḥdīd Nihāyat al-Amākin Litaṣḥīḥ Masāfāt al-Masākin (Determining the End of Locations to Correct the Distances between Settlements), P. Yoljacov, ed., revised by Ibrahim Ahmad, The Journal of the Institute of Arabic Manuscripts, Vol. VIII, Parts 1 and 2 (May-Nov., 1962), pp. 24 - 25.

[28] Ibn Khurdādhdhbih, Al-Masālik, p. 87.

[29] Ibn al-Faqīh Mukhtasar Kitāb Al-Buldān (A Summary of the Book of Countries) p. 79.

[30] Al-Muqaddasī, Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm.

[31] Kratchkovsky, The History of Geographical Literature, Cairo, 1965, Vol I: p. 163.

[32] Ibn Khurdādhdhbih, Al-Masālik, p. 87.

[33] Ibid., p. 79.

[34] Ibid., Vol I : p. 293.

[35] Al-Riḥlah (The Journey), H. H. Abd Al-Wahāb, ed. (Tunis: Ministry of Education, 1958).

[36] A.Gragueb, Notes sur le voyage de Tijānī dans le sud Tunisien, Cahiers de Tunisie TXXiV (1976), pp. 25-44

[37] Zxcept from al-Kharāj wa Sināʿat al-Kitābah, Qudāma ibn Jaʿfar, pp. 227-29.

[38] Ibn Sidah, Al-Mukhaṣṣaṣ (The Specified Book), Vol XII: p. 46.

[39] Ibid., Vol I: p. 284.

[40] Al-Bakrī’s al-Masālik? Vol II: p.688.

[41] Al-Waṭwāṭ, Manāhij al-Fikar wa Mabāhij al-ʿIbar (Methods of Thought and Pleasures of Moral Lessons), a photographed manuscript published by Fuat Sezgin (Frankfurt: The Institute of Science History, 1990), Vol. I, p. 371.

[42] Al-Bakrī, al-Masālik, Vol II: p. 286.

[43] Kitāb Al-Jughrāfīā (The Book of Geography), Muhammad Haj Sadeq, ed. (Damascus, 1968), p. 108.

[44] Al-Bairūnī, Taḥdīd Nijhāyat al-Amākin Litaṣḥīḥ Masāfāt al-Masākin, p. 5.

[45] Al-Qāsim ibn Yūsuf Al-Tajībī (730 hijrī / 1329 CE), Mustafād al-Riḥlah wa al-Ightirāb (The Benefit Received from Travel and Expatriation), a part of a manuscript, No. 10, 503, the Tunisian of Books. For information see: Ibrahim Chabbouh, MS 56 (published) (Tunis, 1989).

[46] Manuscript of Mustafād al-Riḥlah, p. 89B.

[47] Ibid., p. 75B.

Source note:
This was published in:
The Earth and its Sciences in Islamic Manuscripts: proceedings of the fifth conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation – English version, 2011, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK., p 31-68.

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