The unpublished works of Arabic geography an overview and a classification

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Ayman Fuad Sayyid

Article contents:
Books of mathematical geography
The geographical dictionary
Geography books about the Maghrib and Andalusia
Urban descriptions and local topography
Books of travel accounts
The geographical encyclopaedia
Books of administrative regional geography
Books of the wonderous and the strange
The literature of sea pilots
Map of Persia by al-Istakhri from folio 40b of the Khalili Collection manuscript of "Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik" by al-Istakhri. The 10th-century Persian geographer al-Istakhri was one of the key figures in the development of Arabic cartography. He traveled extensively, but his description of the Arabian Peninsula (Hejaz, Yemen, etc.) remained incomplete. See the full description on the website.
Date: Dated 706 AH (1306-1307 AD)
Collection: Khalili Collection
Accession Number: MSS 972 (Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art)

Islamic geographical texts are not only valuable in terms of geographical research, but they also constitute an essential resource in the study of Arab-Islamic civilisation – its literature, history, learning and economics. This chapter will attempt a classification of the major achievements of Arabic geography, introducing the reader to the principal protagonists in each field and summarising their works, many of which would benefit for further study based on the original manuscripts.

Arabic geography can be said to have its infancy with the works on geography and astronomy that appeared in the second half of the second/eighth century, when Muslim scholars translated Greek works on these subjects into Arabic. Descriptive geography, a form of writing which was closely linked to travel literature, developed in the Muslim world around the third/ninth century. From this time onwards and through the fourth century hijrī, there was a creative flowering of Arabic geography though this development alone does not explain why such an abundance of authors left their mark in the annals of Arabic literature. These writers composed works of such a consistency of form and fluency that Kratchovsky has classified them as the ‘classical school of Arabic geography’ though they were also known as the school of al-masālik wa al-mamālik (routes and kingdoms). This development in descriptive geography was accompanied by the development of illustrative geography or mapmaking1.

The period from the sixth/twelfth to the tenth/sixteenth centuries has also witnessed a proliferation of Arabic geographical literature. However, apart from a few exceptional works such as the writings of Sharīf al-Idrīsī, Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī and Abū al-Fidāʾ, the level of geographical achievement in this period was considerably lower than that of the classical period. Possessed with sounder knowledge and a higher level of criticism than their predecessor, they did not, however, produce any remarkable revelations. Essentially, these new writers’ achievement was in abridging the abundance of detailed knowledge found in the earlier literature. The period, though, is distinguished by the large numbers of geographers who emerged and, through their studies of the works of fellow historians and geographers, they were able to broaden the scope of regional geography.

Furthermore, during this period, the centre of geographical activity changed: Egypt and Syria replaced Iraq as the centre of activities for geographic literature. There was also a great flourishing in the production of lexicons and in the development of mapmaking skills.

Books of mathematical geography

Mathematical geography essentially consists of representing the inhabited world by means of a grid, based on lines of latitude and longitude that have been defined by astronomical measurements. This science reached the Arab world following the translation, from Greek into Arabic, of Ptolemy’s works as well as others, in particular, the Zīj (astonomical almanac) of Thaeon of Alexandria, the book alMijisãí, which was translated between 175 and 180 hijrī, and the work al-Jūghrāfīyā, which was translated once by Ibn Khurdādhdhbih and either twice or three times by both Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kindī and Thābit ibn Qurrah al-Harrānī2.

During the rule of the ʿAbāssid Caliph al-Maʾmūn (d. 218/833), an astronomical observatory was founded in the Shamāshīyah quarter in Baghdad. Al-Maʾmūn ordered the astronomers working in the observatory to devote themselves to testing the claims made in Ptolemy’s Zīj and in al-Mijisṭī about the movements of the sun and other celestial bodies. As a result, numerous astronomical tables, or Zīj, were published which acquired the suffix, mumtaḥin, or ‘approved’. The scientists associated with this movement were known as the ‘masters of approval’3. All of these Zīj have since been lost, except for the material which was appropriated from them by later authors for use in their own work; writers such as al-Masʿūdī4 and Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr al-Zuharī (sixth century hijrí)5.

There is, however, an example of such zīj to be found in the Escorial Library in Spain, the only remaining achievement of this period’s astronomers that survived until the present day. This can be found under reference 924 by a writer of Persian origin, Yaḥyā ibn Abī Manṣūr (d. c. 215/830). In 1986, Fuat Sezgin produced a facsimile edition of this work under the title al-Zīj al-Maʾmūnī al-Mumtaḥin.

One important outcome of this enterprise was the image of the world that al-Ma’mūn ordered to be created for him by 70 astronomers, an image which constitutes one of the greatest Muslim achievements in the history of science. The one surviving copy of the book, Masālik al-Abṣār fī Mamālik al-Amṣār by Ibn Faḍlallāh al-ʿUmarī, kept in the Ahmet III Library in Istanbul (cat. no. 1/2797), contains an illustration of the al-Ma’mūn map of the world dated 740/1340 (pp. 293-294).

One of the most important sources of mathematical geography, which had a profound influence on subsequent developments in the science, is Ṣūrat al-Arḍ by al-Khwārizmī6. Furthermore, no work on astronomy or mathematical geography that combines a scientific approach with a detailed commentary has had such a triumphant impact as al-Zīj al-Ṣābī, which was published between 1899 and 1907 by Carlo Alfonso Nallino7.

The zíj completed by Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Yūnus al-Ṣadafī in Cairo was based on work began in 380/990, in the observatory on the Muqattam hills, later called Dār al-Ḥikmah (House of Wisdom) founded in 395/1005 by the Fatimid Caliph al-Ḥākim. This work was always associated with Ḥākim’s name and became known as al-Zīj al-Ḥākimī al-Kabīr. Today, only a number of the work’s incomplete manuscripts is available. Indeed, only a few short fragments of it have been published, though part of it was also translated into French by Caussin de Percival in 1803-1804.

Arabic geographical works written around the third and fourth centuries hijrī can be divided into two broad categories. The first comprises work by scholars who wrote about the geography of the world and included detailed descriptions of the Islamic realm, dār al-Islām. There were also works on astronomical, physical, human and economic geography by writers such as Ibn Khurdādhdhbih, al-Yaqʿūbī, Ibn al-Faqīh and Qudāmah ibn Jaʿfar al-Masʿūdī. This group is often known as the ‘Iraqi School’ since most of the works were produced in Iraq and the majority of the geographers were Iraqi.

The second category comprises work by writers such as Abū Zayd al-Balkhī, al-Iṣṭakhrī, Ibn Ḥawqal and al-Muqaddasī al Bashshārī, dealing with the Islamic territory alone and describing every region individually. No countries outside the Islamic world appear in these works, unless they are adjacent to Islamic areas8. The literature of this ‘classical school of Islamic geography’ provides us with the most favourable description of the Islamic world, since it relies on material that was either a first-hand account of the author’s travels throughout many different areas and regions, or was based on what could be gathered from people who hailed from the places described. Commentaries were added to these accounts to provide further information - on populations, systems of transport and life in general - to provide an overall picture of political, social and economic life. The works of this school are linked to a series of maps to which Kratchkovsky has given the name ‘the Islamic Atlas’, maps which represent a high point of achievement in the art of mapmaking or cartography by Arabs and Muslims9.

This ‘Atlas’ always contains 21 maps, produced in the same order, beginning with the circular map of the world otherwise known as the ‘al-Ma’mūn map’. The main intention of the atlas is to depict the ‘Islamic world’, in accordance with the work of al-Iṣṭakhrī and Ibn Ḥawqal in their specific way10.

Abū Zayd al-Balkhī (d. 322/934) was the pioneer of this school. His book, Ṣuar al-Aqālīm, wa written in 308/920 or shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, there is no surviving copy of al-Balkhī’s book available for us today, or of any manuscripts belonging to the period dominated by al-Iṣṭakhrī. De Goeje’s (1836-1909) belief that al-Iṣṭakhrī’s book - which was finished between 318/930 and 321/933, and therefore during al-Balkhī’s lifetime - resembles an extended copy of al-Balkhī s book does, moreover, seem reasonable11.

The classical school placed a great deal of importance on producing an accurate representation of the Islamic realm, the dār al-Islām, but writings were more approximate about areas far from the centre, such as Iran and the Maghrib. The work of Ibn Ḥawqal was an exception, however, since he was the first to provide geographical accounts of the countries of the western Islamic world, the Maghrib, as can be seen from his book, Ṣūrat al-Arḍ. Editions of the latter have been prepared by both de Goeje and Kramers and a comparison of the two is valuable. There is a detailed description of the Beja region and its history, and of Eritrea which includes the names of over 200 Berber tribes, as well as a detailed description of Sicily12. Ibn Ḥawqal’s book, moreover, provides us with one of the most detailed accounts of Andalusia during the Umayyad period. This has led a good number of researchers to speculate that Ibn Ḥawqal was a spy for the Fatimids. In addition, Ibn Ḥawqal’s description of Isfahan represents the most important contribution to this literature on the eastern part of the Islamic world.

The Dutch orientalist Michael de Goeje (1836-1909) was in charge of directing the Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum project, which between 1870 and 1894 published volumes of works by the most important writers of the classical school: al-Iṣṭakhrī, al-Muqaddasī al-Bashshārī, Ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamdānī, Ibn Khurdādhdhbih, Qudāmah ibn Jaʿfar, Ibn Rustah, al-Yaʿqūbī and al-Masʿūdī. In 1906, he also published Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm, by al-Muqaddasī al-Bashshārī, based on a new manuscript.

To edit the texts he published in the Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum, de Goeje relied on the manuscripts available at the time, although they were limited in number. The years following de Goeje’s death, however, witnessed the discovery of a large number of manuscripts produced by the classical school including 12 works discovered in the libraries of Istanbul alone, some of which are very old. The discovery of all these, makes a compelling argument for the publication of a new edition of the first parts of the Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum, which would take into account the sources used and would also compare the extracts copied into later works with the original sources now available in the newly discovered manuscripts. To this end, in 1938, J.H. Kramers produced a second edition of Ibn Ḥawqal’s al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik with the title Ṣūrat al-ʿArḍ, which was based on a manuscript from the Topkapi Palace Library, in Istanbul (ref. 3346). This is an early manuscript dated 479/1086. Another edition of al-Iṣṭakhrī’s al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik was published by Muḥammad Jābir al-Ḥīnī in 1961.

Among the books published by de Goeje was Mukhtaṣar Kitāb al-Buldān by Ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamadānī. The text studied, was an abridgement made in 413/1022 by Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Jaʿfar al-Shīrāzī, who may have been the same copyist who transcribed the copy of Iṣlāh al-Manṭiq by Ibn al-Sikkīt, which is kept in the Kubrili Library, and the Diwān al-Buḥturī, which can also be found there. Ibn al-Nadīm mentions Ibn al-Faqīh’s book, Kitāb al-Buldān, which is described as comprising about one thousand pages, and it is mentioned that he extracted the book from al-Nas and passed it on to al-Jihānī13. When a copy of the work came into the hands of al-Muqaddasí al-Bashshārī it was said to consist of five volumes14. Ibn al-Faqīh probably wrote the book in about 290/903, but subsequently it seems to have disappeared for some time. During the beginning of the seventh century hijrī, Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī came across the original rough draft of the book from which he transcribed extensive extracts. In 1924, the Turkish scholar Zakī Walīdī Tughān found the second part of the original draft, covering Iraq and the regions of Central Asia, in a geographic collection (ref. 5229) in the scientific library of Mashhad, Iran. When this collection was published in facsimile form, by Fuat Sezgin, in 1987, it also included an incomplete copy of the travels of Ibn Faḍlān and two texts by Abū Dulaf Masʿar ibn Muhalhil al-Khazrajī al-Yunbūī describing his journey to China and the travels he made in Azerbaijan and Persia in 331/941. It is assumed, therefore, that the version of Ibn Khurdādhdhbih’s al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, which was published by Goeje, contains only the first draft of the original book.

In addition to these literary works from the classical school that have survived and been published in the present day, there are also geography books from this period which originals have been lost and which remain in a fragmentary form only, while extracts from them have been copied by later writers. Ibn al-Nadīm recalls that, “the first person to publish a book in the al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik and which he did not finish was Abū Abbās Ja far ibn Aõmad al-Marwazī15”. Ibn al-Nadīm adds that his writing was very good but the author passed away in al-Ahwāz and he took the book to Baghdad and sold it to someone in the physician al-Ḥarrānī’s circle in the year 284/89716. This date coincides with the time that Ibn Khurdādhdhbih’s finished the first, and perhaps even the second, draft of his book under the same title.

Al-Marwazī’s book disappeared after it was sold into al- Ḥarrānī circle. History does not provide us with any additional information on his work other than meagre signs and excerpts, preserved for us by Ibn Faqīh al-Hamadānī and Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī, that comment on Turkish tribes and a downpour of stones17. From these bits and pieces, Kratchkovsky has concluded that al-Marwazī made a valuable contribution and left his mark on Central Asia’s geography!

A prominent practitioner of this period, who left a deep impression on the growth and development of Arab geography, was the writer Abū ʿAbdallāh Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Naṣr al-Jihānī was the wazīr of Naṣr ibn Aḥmad al-Thānī al-Sāmānī, the ruler of Khorasan and, according to Ibn al-Nadīm published the series al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, probably before 310/922.18 Al-Muqaddasī mentioned that he saw this work, in seven bound volumes, in the ruler’s archives19 but unfortunately it is no longer available. Since al-Jihāní was a government official, employed in Bukhara, when he wrote his work he was able to extend his area of research into Central Asia and the Far East. Al-Jihānī’s book has been used by a large number of Arab geographers and, according to al-Masʿūdī, it was: “a description of the world and information of what it contains in terms of wonders, cities, civilizations, seas, rivers the states and their populations and, apart from this, strange news and fabulous stories20”. The information that al-Jihānī provided on the regions, cities and towns of Central Asia, was al-Idrīsī’s prime source for his description of the area in his book, Nuzhat al-Mushtāq21.

While all the al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik books mentioned above, were written in Iraq and Iran, another geographer living in Egypt during the early part of the Fatimid era, al-Ḥasan ibn Aḥmad (Muḥammad) al-Mahallabī, wrote a book of al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik for the Fatimid Caliph al-ʿAzīz bi-Allāh, which was later known simply as ‘al-ʿAzīz’. Al-Muhallabī’s book proved to be the most important source upon which Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī relied, when writing about Sudan; he quoted from it on more than 60 subjects. Al-Muhallabī did not, however, confine himself to the subject of Africa alone and Yāqūt had to return to his work again in order to check a vast array of issues22. Yāqūt also visited al-Muhhallabī informally and recorded the personal details of their meetings for posterity23.

The loss of al-Muhallabī’s work is something negative.  Yāqūt did not preserve it for us, though he mentions it 60 times, nor did Abū al-Fidāʾ, who mentions it on 135 occasions, though he did use a number of excerpts from it ranging from the extremely short to the very long. It is evident that these two writers considered al-Muhallabī to be among the greatest of geographers. While Abū al-Fidāʾ referred to al-Muhallabī only in terms of his commentaries on the countries of the Islamic world, from the excerpts which appear in Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī’s work, we can ascertain that in his book, al-Muhallabī crossed the borders of the Islamic world and ventured into neighbouring lands24.

In the summer of 1957, Ṣalāh al-Dīn al-Munajjid found a part of this lost book in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan, where it was discovered within a collection of Yemeni material. It had been transcribed by Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Kalāʿī (d. 404/1013 or later) and begins: “Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Kalāʿī: Taken from a book of the ʿAzīz al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, a work by the writer al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Muhallabī”. Al-Kalāʿī had transcribed sections on Jerusalem, the state of Egypt and a description of Damascus25. Al-Muhallabī’s book is important for its direct knowledge on the Tamurlanes’ rule and was widely used at the beginning of the ninth century hijrī, but it provided also relevant material of geographical nature.

While al-Muhallabī was one of the first geographers to provide a description of Sudan, another account is found in the work of the Egyptian, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ibn Aḥmad ibn Sulīm al-Aswānī; Akhbār al-Nūbah wa al-Maqūrah wa ʿAlwah wa al-Bujah wa al-Nīl wa Min ʿAlayh wa Qurb Minh. Al-Aswānī lived around the middle of the fourth/tenth century and was dispatched by (and on written order of) the Fatimid ruler, Jawhar al-Saqlabī, to the Nubian King Qibirqī. He was entrusted with the tasks of explaining Islam to King Qibirqī and of improving the settlement of the tribute that the kings of Nubia were expected to pay annually to the rulers of Egypt. Al-Aswānī’s mission to Nubia appears to have taken place in the period between 358 hijrī (the date of Jawhar’s arrival in Egypt) and 363 hijrī (the arrival in Egypt of his successor, al-Muʿaz). Al-Maqrīzí records that al-Aswānī dedicated his book to the second Fatimid caliph, al-ʿAzīz bi Allāh, who ruled between 365 and 386 hijrī26. The book itself contains a brief account of all the places that he visited and the people who inhabited them. His description of the Nile constitutes a unique contribution to the literature of early Arab geography, since it extended Arab knowledge on the upper boundaries of the river. It would appear that this work, which is also now lost, is not known outside Egypt, although al-Idrīsī’s description of the course of the upper Nile is clearly indebted to a transcription of these sources; clearly then, al-Idrīsī must have had it close at hand. Yet today, we only know about al-Aswānī’s work from the citations transcribed from it by three Egyptian writers: al-Maqrīzī, Ibn Iyyās and al-Manūfī27.

The geographical dictionary

This genre of geographical literature developed from the efforts of Arab linguists - whom Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī described as ‘the founding fathers of the literature’ - in the second century hijrī28. In seeking to record all Arabic and Bedouin placenames, they founded a literature that continued to develop over time leading to the appearance of Muʿjam ma Istʿajam by Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī in the fifth century hijrī and Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī’s, Muʿjam al-Buldān in the seventh century hijrī, In his introduction, Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī mentions the most important writers published in this tradition; Abū Saʿīd al-Aṣmaʿī, Abū ʿUbayd al-Sukūnī, Al-Ḥasan ibn Aḥmad al-Hamadānī, Abū al-Ashʿath al-Kindī, Abū Saʿīd al-Sīrāfī, Abū Muḥammad al-Aswad al-Ghundujānī, Abū Ziyād al-Kalābī, Abū Muḥammad ibn Idrīs ibn Abī Ḥafṣah, Abū al-Qāsim al-Zamakhsharī and his student, Abū al-Ḥasan al-ʿAmrānī, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Ḥāzimī, Abū Mūsā Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar al-Iṣfahānī and Abū al-Fatḥ Naṣr ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Iskandarī29.

Copies of works, by other writers ,whose efforts were not republished after their first appearance, also exist: Kitāb al-Amkinah wa al-Miyāh wa al-Jibāl by Abū al-Fatḥ Naṣr ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Iskandarī (d. 561/1165), a copy which can be found in the British Library (ref. 23603), and Ma ittafaqa Lafaḍuhu wa iftaraqa Musammāh fī al-Amākin waal-Buldān al-Mushtabihah fī al-Khaṭṭ by Abū Bakr Muḥammed ibn Mūsā ibn ʿUthmān al-Ḥāzimī (d. 684/1188). These were published in facsimile form by Fuat Sezgin in 1986 and 1990 respectively.

Muʿjam al-Buldān by Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī (d. 626/1229) was completed in 621/1224 and provides a compilation of contemporary geographical knowledge, replete with information of historical, geographical and social nature. It is a priceless resource for anyone studying Arab historical geography. A basic edition of Muʿjam al-Buldān was published in a book by Wüstenfeld between 1866 and 1873. It is considered one of the most distinguished pieces of European Orientalism on Arabic literature. Unfortunately, however, the book did not really receive the treatment that it deserved in terms of scientific rigour, as the original text was not published alongside the edited version. A new edition would be valuable, therefore, if it also included the text of Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī’s work, Al-Mushtariq Waḍʿan wa al-Muftariq Ṣaqʿan. This would constitute a true compendium of the subjects included, restoring all those that were mentioned by name only and were removed to make the text easier for revision. The geographical dictionaries published after al-Ḥamawī’s, include some excellent examples such as al-Rawḍ al-Miʿṭār fī Khabar al-Aqṭār by ʿAbd al-Munʿim al-Ḥimiarī and Marāṣid al-Iṭṭilāʿ by Ibn ʿAbd al-Muʾmin, which is an abridgement of Muʿjam al-Buldān.

Geography books about the Maghrib and Andalusia

With the exception of the works of al-Idrīsī, there isn’t any complete book, published in Arabic, in Muslim Spain, on the area’s geography, that has survived intact to the present day. For example, of the geographical introduction written by Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Rāzī (d. 334/946) for his book Akhbār Mulūk al-Andalus, all that remains are basic literal translations in Portuguese and Spanish and a few scattered excerpts in other books, particularly in al-Maqqarī’s work, Nafḥ al-Ṭīb30. Nor do we have a copy of al-Jughrāfiyah by Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr al-Zuhrī (d. 545/1151), except for small fragments that appear to be part of an abridgement of the original work, based either on the book itself or on the al-Maʾmūn map of the world, created by 70 philosophers on the orders of Caliph al-Maʾmūn in Iraq31. Similarly, there is no extant copy of Niẓām al-Marjān fī al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik by Aḥmad ibn ʿUmar ibn Anas al-Uḍrī al-Dalāʾī (d. 476/1083 or 478/1085 at Valencia). The exception to this, is a collection of papers, disordered and unnumbered, some of which deal with Muslim Spain. These were published by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ahwānī under the title Tarṣīʿ al-Akhbār wa Tanwīʿ al-Āthār wa al-Bustān fī Gharāʾib al-Buldān wa al-Masālik ilā Jāmīʿ al-Mamālik in Madrid, in 1965.

Nothing remains of the works of Muḥammad ibn Yūsuf al-Warrāq (d. 363/973) other than excerpts preserved partially by Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī and Ibn Adhārī. Yūsuf al-Warrāq published a thick volume on the kings of Africa and their followers for the victorious ruler, which was subsequently selected by Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī for his book al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik. While al-Bakrī attributes some quotations to al-Warrāq, at other times there appears to be no clear distinction made between what belongs to al-Warrāq and what to al-Bakrī. Al-Bakrī – as Ḥussein Muʾnis indicates – was not a mere copyist but an accomplished, though disregarded, geographer who improved what he was transcribing, by both enriching and editing the material32. Muḥammad ibn Yūsuf al-Warrāq was the first in the western Islamic sphere to write a book with the title al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik. From the excerpts transcribed in al Bakrī’s work, it is apparent that he was the first to invent the idea of mixing geography and history. An entry on any subject would be accompanied by its historical context and a detailed description of events33.

Acoording to Dozy, Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī, ʿAbdallāh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn Muḥammad (d. 487/1094) was “undoubtedly the greatest Andalusian geographer”34. He was a wide-ranging writer, whose works were among a number of founding literary compositions dealing with etymology and literature. This is why Kratchkovsky considered his book Muʿjam ma Istaʿjam to be not so much a text on geography as a work on language. By this comment, he implied that the book’s widespread circulation, because of its subject matter, contributed to a misconception of what the book actually about35. Abdallah al-Ghunaim classified it as geographical book. Its position was, therefore, the pivot around which al-Bakr ’s lexicon revolved36.

Al-Bakrī published his book Muʿjam ma Istaʿjam during the early part of his scientific life and it was the very first lexicon to be compiled in such as a way. Two editions of the book have been published. The first was by the German Wüstenfeld in Gottingen between 1870 and 1877 and was based on manuscripts from Cambridge, London, Leiden and Milan. The second edition was printed by Muṣṭafā al-Saqqā in Cairo, between 1945 and 1951, and was largely based on a copy from Cairo’s al-Azhar Library. The latter is an early, but incomplete copy transcribed in 596 hijrī in beautiful Andalusī script, described by al-Saqqā as being, “superior to all the originals which exist of this book as far as this edition’s condition, precision and clarity are concerned. Furthermore, the margins of the manuscript contained notes added to the original in the handwriting of the author”. As al-Saqqā noted, the outer edges of this copy do contain marginalia, which comprise a large number of additions and corrections. The most important of these additions are transcribed in the book al-Taʿlīqāt wa al-Nawādir by Abū ʿAlī al-Hajarī, although he draws no benefit from them and even manages to obscure some. By examining the al-Azhar copy, úAbdallah al-Ghunaim discovered that these additional notes, of which there are around 80, are concerned with new subjects in addition to those included in the book and are annotated in the margins alongside their entries in the order in which they appear in the lexicon37.

Ibn Saʿid al-Magharibī relied on Al-Mushib fī Faḍāʾil (or Gharāʾib) al-Maghrib by ʿAbdallāh ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Wazmar al-Ḥajjārī (d. 550/1155) as the main sources for his extensive study, al-Mughrib fī Ḥulāy al-Maghrib, which he called Jāḥiẓ al-Maghrib38. It is rare to come across any Andalusian writer after al-Ḥajjārī who does not refer to him; an indication that his book was both reliable and thorough. Unfortunately, Ibn Saʿīd mixed up his own words with those of al-Ḥajjārī. He made extensive changes and replacements and although there are over 250 extracts, we do not know if these are faithful transcripts or whether they include additions and deletions39. For this reason, al-Maqqarī refers to it in a chapter devoted to Andalusian geography at the beginning of his Nafḥ al-Ṭīb: this contains 20 long citations that form the core of that chapter. throughout the rest of Nafḥ al-Ṭīb, al-Maqqarī includes extensive passages from al-Ḥajjārī’s al-Mushib. Some of these cover Andalusia’s general geography, while others deal with descriptions of the cities and particularities of the regions40. As far as general geography is concerned, al-Maqqarī distinguishes himself but, as far as the regions are concerned, we find out that every thought on a particular subject, is present in the same order as it appears in Ibn Saʿīd’s al-Maghrib41.

Hussein Muʾnis claims that the passages dealing with the general descriptive geography of Andalusia were to be found in the chapter missing from Ibn Saʿīd’s al-Maghrib manuscript that was published under the title Washʾy al-Ṭarash fī Ḥulay Jazīrat al-Andalus.42 The fact that al-Maqqarī (d. 1041/1641) was able to make use of al-Hajjårí’s book indicates that it must have been written around this time and disappeared shortly thereafter. This is the case with many of the copies referred here, which were once available but now lost, for example parts of Tārīkh Ibn Khaldūn and al-Iḥāṭah fī Akhbār Gharnāṭah by Lisn al-Dīn ibn al-Khaṭīb43.

With reference to Ibn Saʿīd, another valuable book which has been lost, is the work of the geographer Ibn Fāṭmah who lived during the sixth/twelfth century. Unfortunately, we do not even know the full name of this man whose work is considered to be some of the best ever written by a Muslim about the regions that lie to southern Sahara44. Both Ibn Saʿīd and Ibn Khaldūn confirmed that they had drawn heavily on this work and copied extensive passages from it. These transcriptions clearly indicate that his writing contained quite detailed information about Africa and its inhabitants in southern Sahara. Ibn Fāṭimah himself hailed from western Sudan and made extensive journeys along the African coast, travelling as far as Somalia and Ethiopia. He then penetrated deep into the continent and saw the source of the Nile. His account and observations provide a very clear guide to the region45.

The most important of the geographers in the western part of the Muslim world, was undoubtedly the great al-Idrīsī, Abū ʿAbdallah Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Idrīs, who died in his birthplace, Ceuta, in 560/1160. His book, Nuzhat al-Mushtāq fī Ikhtirāq al-Āfāq, is the most well-known work on Arab geography in Europe, in general, and among orientalists in particular. Indeed, there is no finer book on Arab geography. Its fame is derived from the fact that al-Idrīsī was an Arab geographer who spent most of his life in Sicily. Sicily was, by a wide margin, the place in Europe most strongly influenced by the Islamic civilisation. It follows, therefore, that an abundance of documentation was to be found in Sicily in its day. Al-Idrīsī published his book there, in response to a request by Roger II, King of Sicily. For a long time, al-Idrīsī was the only representative of Arab geographical literature in European scientific circles and he was considered to be the greatest of all geographers, without exception, within the general framework of Arab geography46.

While al-Idrīsī’s Nuzhat al-Mushtāq has been published numerous times, the most important edition is the one printed by the Institute of Eastern Studies at the University of Naples (1970-1984). Al-Idrīsī’s last book, Uns al-Muhaj wa Rawḍ al-Furaj, was published by Roger II’s son, Guillaume I, King of Sicily (1154 1166)47. A copy of this work was discovered in the Hakim Uglay Ali Pasha Library in Istanbul by the orientalist Joseph Horowitz (ref. 688), but it has still not been published. In the introduction, the author describes his satisfaction with “the abbreviations and omissions of the prattle and excesses”, being based on the same sources that are used in Nuzhat al-Mushtāq. Horowitz also found a reference to another copy stored in the Hasan Hasanu Library in Istanbul (ref. 1289). The copy in the Hakim Uglay Ali Library includes an atlas of 73 maps, which was published by Müller, in 1926, under the title Pocket Atlas. To date, no one has studied the link between al-Idrīsī’s manuscript and the edition published by Fuat Sezgin in facsimile form, in 1984.

Urban descriptions and local topography

One of the most important sources provided by the introductions of books, dealing with the history of the larger Islamic cities, is their descriptions of the cities’ topography. The majority of topographical descriptions, such as those which appear in the foreword to Tārīkh Baghdād by al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī or the foreword to TārīKH Madīnat Dimashq by Ḥāfiẓ ibn Asākir, were subjected to special study. Whether by intention or not, those histories that are accompanied by a description of the city’s topography throw light on the subject for the reader, as though it were being explained by a teacher of antiquity.

Egyptian authors alone were particularly distinguished by their specialism in topography, a skill that had been developed during the Fatimid period and reached its zenith in the ninth/ fifteenth century with the work of the well-known historian and topographer, Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn ʿAlī al-Maqrīzī48. The first published book to provide a plan of Egypt was by Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad ibn Zūlāq (d. 386/996), during the early part of the Fatimid period; no copy of this has survived to the present day. This was followed by ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Salāmah ibn Jaʿfar al-Quḍāʿī’s (d. 454/1062) al-Mukhtār fī Dhikr al-Khiṭaṭ wa al-Āthār. Al-Quḍāʿī wrote this book prior to the years of the so-called al-Shiddah al-mustanṣirīyah, or anti-Christian violence, in the middle of the fifth century hijrī, which greatly changed the situation for scholars in Fusṭāṭ Egypt. thus al-Maqrīzī writes: ‘More were wiped out than they say and it will not be cleared up until light is thrown on the issue of what happened in Egypt in the year od the violence’49. Al-Quḍāʿī’s book did not disappear, like so many other sources from the Fatimid period, since later extensive passages were transcribed both from al-Qalqashandī and al-Maqrīzī in the ninth/fifteenth century. He was considered current up to the first decade of the tenth century hijrī when  al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505) used an of the conquest of Egypt in his Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍarah referring to a copy of al-Quḍāʿī’s book, which was transcribed in al-Quḍāʿī’s own handwriting50.

Egyptian books of graphic description that have not managed to survive to the present day include Khiṭaṭ Miṣr by Muḥammad ibn Barakāt ibn Hilāl al-Naḥwī al-Miṣrī who died in 520/1126 at the age of almost one hundred. Al-Maqrīzī came across a copy of book transcribed by al-Sharíf Muõammad ibn As ad al-Jawwānī (d. 588/1092)51. Al-Jawwānī himself published his own book on the subject under the title Al-Nuqaṭ bi ʿUjm ma Ushkil min al-Khiṭaṭ. There are no extant copies of this work although al-Maqrīzī did transcribe a number of extracts from a copy handwritten by the author himself52.

The first person to complete a book giving a graphic description of Cairo was Qāḍī Muḥyī al-Dīn Abū al-Faḍl ʿAbdallāh ʿAbd al-Ẓāhir (d. 694/1293). The title was al-Rawḍah al-Bahīyah al-Zāhirah fī Khiṭaṭ al-Muʿizīyah al Qāhirah. Until recently, Ibn ʿAbd al-Ẓāhir’s book was thought to have been lost but it was mentioned that a copy had been found in the British Library by Abdallah Yusuf al-Ghunaim53. This copy was published in Cairo, in 1996.

Qāḍī Tāj al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahāb ibn al-Mutawwaj (d. 730/1330) wrote a graphic description of Fusṭāṭ in Egypt under the title Īqādh al-Mutaghaffil wa Ittiʿādh al-Mutaʾammil. Al-Maqrīzī dscribed this as a large book compiled in 725 hijrī54.

Ṣārim al-Dīn Ibrāhīm ibn Muḥammad ibn Aidumur al-ʿAlāʾī, known as Ibn Duqmāq (d. 809/1407), wrote a book entitled al-Intiṣār Liwāsiṭat ʿAqd al-Amṣār. From the whole book, only the fourth and fifth parts have survived in the form a rough draft written by the author himself. These two surviving parts include descriptions of Fusṭāṭ and Cairo. For this G. Salmon considers it to be, possibly, the best guide of the topographical construction of Fusṭāṭ, the camps and the part of Islamic Egypt which later became Cairo55. This draft is now stored at the Egyptian National Library (ref. 1244, History). It was published by Vollers, in 1893, in a rather poor edition - a good argument for republishing it in the same way, is that many of the books that were printed in the nineteenth century should be reissued, in accordance with the current scientific standards adopted when publishing heritage works.

These authors led the way for later achievements in this branch of Arab geographical literature, as exemplified by the writings of the master historian of Islamic Egypt, Taqī al-Dīn Amad bin ʿAlī al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442), in his Al-Mawāʿiz wa al-Iʿtibār fī Dhikr al-Khiṭaṭ wa al-Āthār. Al-Maqrīzī certainly made a great impression with his scientific endeavours, covering both history and historical geography on a wide front. There are a number of studies devoted to him and, in 1995, al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation published a draft of the book that had been handwritten by al-Maqrīzī himself.

One of the most important sources of Egyptian graphical description is a book attributed to Abū Ṣālah al-Armānī, a part of which was published in Oxford, in 1895, by the orientalist Evetts, based on a copy stored in the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Paris (ref. 357). The book comprises a topographic description of churches and important places in Egypt and its material is divided into subjects according to geographic distribution. In 1984, the monk Ṣamuwīl al-Suryānī published a new edition of the work, including the part published by Evetts in the second half of his volume. The first part contains material published for the first time on churches and provides information on the coastal regions as well as a district in Cairo. The second part comprises descriptions of churches, a part of Cairo and the southern regions of Egypt.

Ṣamuwīl al-Suryānī copied the text out by hand, and supplemented it with material taken from a new manuscript, though he failed to provide any catalogue description of this source. What was new about this rather humble edition, was the detection of the work’s actual author, who turned out to be the previously unknown al-Shaykh al-Muʾtaman Abū al-Makāram Saʿd Allāh ibn Jirjis ibn Masʿūd. Abū Ṣālah al-Armanī, to whom the book had previously belonged, was only responsible for the second part of the copy, now stored in the Paris library.

The main part of the book was written by Abū al-Makāram between 555-583/1160-1187.56 The manuscript on which Ṣamuwīl al-Siryāní worked is currently stored in Munich, at the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek (ref. 2570). Prior to that, it was in the possession of a Copt, in Tanta, called Jirjis Faltāʾus ʿAwaḍ. ʿAlī Bāshā Mubārak heared of the manuscript’s existence and managed to gain access to it, drawing on it greatly for the sixth part of his book al-Khiṭaṭ al-Tawfīqīyah al-Jadīdah57. Hence too, there is a good argument for republishing this book, by applying the correct scientific procedures in order to ensure the manuscript’s accuracy, because of its rarity and the importance of its subject matter.

Some of the books of graphic description that emerged in Cairo, after al-Maqrīzī, have never been published. Al-Tuḥfah al-Fākhirah fī Dhikr Rusūm Khiṭaṭ al-Qāhirah, written by someone called Uqbughā al-Khāṣikī, and which was written for the honourable Sultan Qānṣūh al-Ghūrī, is an example of these. The Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris keeps a copy of this (ref. 2265), which appears to be nothing more than the second part of al-Maqrīzī’s book, beginning with an account of Herat, and containing only some slight changes to al-Maqrīzī’s approach.

Qaṭf al-Azhār min al-Khiṭaṭ wa al-Āthār, by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Abī al-Surūr al-Bakrī al-Ṣiddīqī (d. 1060/1650), in an abridgement of al-Maqrīzī’s work, but with additions in terms of subject matter and information from the Ottoman period. A copy of this is to be found in the Egyptian National Library (ref. 457 Geography and ref. 53 Tamurlane).

Books of travel accounts

From the distinguished ranks of this period there are a number of writers, whose subjects were the cities and holy places, travellers were required to visit. Strictly speaking, they did not write about geography so much, but they did cover Islamic holy sites, the early tombs, local inhabitants and Sufi orders, as well as provided chapters on language or the history and the origins of placenames. The aim of these writers was to provide a guide to instruct the devout and pious in the manner of visiting holy places. Two of the most important examples of this kind of geographic literature are al-Ishārt ilā Maʿrifat al-Ziyārāt by ʿAlī al-Harawī (d. 611/1214) and al-Dāris fī Tārīkh al-Madāris by ʿAbd al-Qādir ibn Muḥammad al-Nuʿaymi (d. 648/1250).

This genre of writing first emerged within Shiʿī circles. However, the most important of these ‘travel’ books – the majority of which exhibit developments both in the way they were written as well as in their subject - were those dedicated to Cairo and its outlying areas. Here, I should mention the researcher Yūsuf Rāghib who wrote an article, published in 1973, about the books which were specifically devoted to travel in Cairo and Egypt’s remote regions. Of the 21 writers included this genre, the work of one group has been lost58. Another group was published in poor-quality editions and deserve reprinting, such as al-Kawākib al-Sayyārah fī Tartīb al-Ziyārah fī al-Qarāfatayn al-Kubrā wa al-Ṣughrā by Ibn al-Zayyāt (d. 814/1412) and Tuḥfat al-Iḥbāb wa Bughyat al-Ṭulāb fī al-Khiṭaṭ wa al-Mazārāt by Nūr al-Dīn Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī al-Shakhāwī, a scholar from the tenth/sixteenth century. We can add to this list Miṣbāh al-Diyājī wa Ghawth al-Rājī wa Kahaf al-Lājī, written by Ibn ʿAin al-Fuḍalāʾ (d. 696/1297), two copies of which are to be found in the Egyptian National Library (ref. 1461 History and ref. 87 Tamurlane). One of the books which has been published is Murshid al-Zūwār ilā Qubūr al-Ibrār by the successful Ibn ʿUthmān (d. 615/1218), with a verification by Muḥammad Fathī Abū Bakr, in Cairo, in 1995.

The geographical encyclopaedia

This genre of literature flourished during the age of the Mamluks as a response to the state of Arab Islamic culture, following the Mongol invasion and the fall of theʿAbbāsid dynasty in Baghdad. While the previous age was dominated by writers such as al-Jāḥiẓ, Ibn Qutaybah and Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, who represented the old style of writing, the kind of lexicon which emerged during the Mamluk era – beginning with that of Ibn al-ʿAṭwāṭ al-Kutabī and ending with al-Qalqashandī – was one of the greater achievements of the period and can always be clearly distinguished from other forms of geography. Muslim scientists working in this tradition made strenuous efforts over a period of several centuries and published a large number of books on every field of knowledge. Such scientists had to make constant attempts to keep up with everything that was being published in their particular field, rendering that an exhausting study. Their work led to an increase on the demand for abridged books about the world59, as Ibn Khaldūn demonstrated with his Muqaddimah or Prolegomena60.

It appears that all these lexicons were produced in Egypt, written by the scholars and scientists of the Mamluk government, who aimed to provide books that, could be used in the courts. As it happens, the work actually benefited ordinary citizens more than intellectuals because it solved general problems and covered a wider range of subjects – across a number of branches of science - than those the specialist writer needed to know about.

In general, the writers of these works did not consider themselves to be scientists, but rather as writers of eminence in the body of the Mamluk court. They gained great prestige from their work and their inner circle, thus, became assimilated into the Mamluk establishment. However, despite their status, writers occasionally found themselves opposed to the system of order imposed by the harsh regime in court matters61. This is, for example, very evident in the writings of al-Qalqashandī, especially in Ṣubh al-Aʿshā.

The first encyclopedia appeared during this era, was Mabāhij al-Fikar wa Manāhij al-ʿIbar, published by Jamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Yaḥyā al-Kutubī, a well-known writer, under the supervision of al-Waṭwāṭ (d. 718/1318). He was not one of the official governmental writers, who frequented the Sultan’s court but, rather like Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī, he was engaged in the business of publishing and trading books – which explains his nickname: the bat. Al-Ṣafadī wrote; “He had knowledge of books and their worth”, “and he acquired a handwritten book of the history of Ibn al-Athīr, known as al-Kāmil, and when he wrote out all the literary work, he corrected and revised it62”.

Mabāhij al-Fikar deals with matters of natural science and geography. It is written in a literary style and dotted with poetical asides. The book is divided into four main areas: astronomy; geography; ethnology and biography; the most important being geography. Information about the usage of chemicals in farming, are included. There is also a special section devoted to the geography of Egypt.

Al-Waṭwāṭ’s work played an important role in encyclopedia’s development. Many of al-Nuwayrī’s contemporaries relied heavily on his work for the transcription of extracts. A trail can be traced to this text through later works, both in the approach of dividing material into separate groupings of ‘arts’, or specific fields of interest articulated within the book. This particularly applies to the special section on plants. Unfortunately, none of this valuable work has been published, except for a short section devoted to the geography of Egypt, which was published in Kuwait, in 1981, by ʿAbd al-ʿĀl ʿAbd al-Munʿim al-Shāmī.

Manuscripts of the work are to be found in the Maronite Library in Aleppo, including a photostat copy in the Egyptian National Library (ref. 359) and another edition based on a transcription of this, under reference 323f. Other fragments of the book are also to be found in the Egyptian National Library under the references 324 and 420; at the Taymouriyya Collection of the Egyptian National Library and in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, under reference March 560. Under reference 4116 of the Fateh Library in Istanbul, there is a complete copy of the book in two parts, which was probably transcribed during the author’s lifetime. This was published in facsimile form by Fuat Sezgin in 1990.

The most important encyclopaedia emerged, during the age of the Mamluks, was Masālik al-Abṣār wa Mamālik al-Amṣār, written by Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī (d. 749/1349). The book did not, however, receive the treatment that it deserved, being described by al-Ṣafadī, a contemporary of al-ʿUmarī’s, as “a book replete with what can be learned from one such as him63”.

Al-ʿUmarī divided his book into two large parts, the first consisting of “an account of the world and the lands and seas which it contains” and the second, “the inhabitants of the world and their main groups”. Each of the two parts is further divided, and al-ʿUmarī labelled them with typographical terms. These were the same terms of classification that his contemporaries, al-Waṭwāṭ and al-Nuwayrī used. The first part of this encyclopeadia is devoted to the world and its variations: ‘routes’ and ‘kingdoms’. It is a first-class source for studies of the age of the Mamluks, and it contains very specific information about the countries that were linked diplomatically to the Mamluks including all the countries they ruled.

In the introduction, which is included in the geography section of his book, al-ʿUmarī explains that he:

“shall not be content with merely mentioning in my account the kingdoms and the details concerning their geography, in the order of first, second or third, and nor shall I simply provide their names, such as Iraq, Khorasan and Azerbaijan, but rather I shall describe what each kingdom of the sultanate comprises as a whole and not in parts, and of the city in which the king resides … or where it is necessary to make some mention of this, and the majority of the kingdoms in all their humility, and most of the customs of their inhabitants64”. “I did not endeavour to visit the entire world, save for the great kingdoms … and I was satisfied with what I attained from this and I fulfilled the word of Islam with the sweetest grace and did not exceed its bounds, and I did not go one step beyond it … and the mind was at ease and the body healthy … and this work does not extend into the lands of the infidel.”

Nothing from the geography section of al-Masālik has been published, except for the first part edited by the Egyptian academic Aḥmad Zakī Bāshā, which was published in Cairo in 1924. The remainder of the geography section certainly deserves to be published and there are manuscripts available in a number of libraries. The two most important of these are in Istanbul. One is in the Ayasofya Library in Istanbul, a copy in 24 leather bindings from two different manuscripts, the first part of which is missing (ref. 3415 to 3439). There is also a copy in the Ahmed III Library (ref. 2797), which contains a drawing of that quarter of the inhabited world, between pages 342 and 343 in the first part of this manuscript. This constitutes the earliest available piece of the al-Maʾmūn world map and it is still in existence. The copy is in the author’s handwriting and was transcribed in 740/1340. This copy was published in facsimile form, in 1988, by Fuat Sezgin.

Books of administrative regional geography

During the Mamluk period, great attention was paid to publishing books about administrative regional geography; those working in the service of the Mamluks made great strides in this respect. Such works were basically a form of administrative and economic review based on official books of accounts. One example is al-Minhāj fī Aḥkām ʿIlm Kharāj Miṣr, which was written at the end of the Fatimid period by Qadi ʿAli ibn ʿUthmān ibn Yūsuf al-Makhzūmī (d. 585/1189). Two editions of this book exist. The first was published at the end of the Fatimid period, around 565/1169. It was then revised (as a second edition), supplemented with additions, in 581/1185, or shortly thereafter. This followed a long period of rule by the Ayyubids, when numerous improvements were made. Al-Makhzūmī’s book, thus, constitutes an excellent source of information about the administrative, agricultural and economic systems in Egypt during the sixth/twelfth century. In 1986, Claude Kahane published selections from the sole copy of the book, now kept in the British Library (Add. 23483), but the work really demands an accurate publication that adheres to the scientific rigours of verification in accordance with the available literature.

The remaining books published in this genre, include Quwānīn al-Dawāwīn by Ibn Mammātī (d. 606 /1209) and Lumaʿ al-Quwānīn al-Maḍīyah fī Dawāwīn al-Diyyār al-Miṣrīyah by ʿUthmān ibn Ibrāhīm al-Nābulsī (d. 632/1234). There are also two further works that were of utmost importance in establishing this new science: namely Tārīkh al Fayūm wa Bilādihi, also by al-Nābulsī and al-Tuḥfah al Saniyah bi Asmāʾ al-Bilād al-Miṣrīyah by Shaykh Sharaf al-Dīn Yaḥyā ibn al-Maqraban al-Jayʾān (d. 885/1480). This type of literature developed in Egypt because it was based on land surveys; it varied from rather basic, straightforward texts to those replete with information. This is particularly notable with the emergence of the form known as al-Rūk, the aim of which was the measurement and public administration of cultivated land. The first work of its kind was al-Rūk al-Afḍālī, which appeared in 501/1107, followed by al-Rūk al-Hussāmī in 696/1296 and lastly al-Rūk al-Nāṣirī in 714/1314.

An edition of Al-Rūk al-Afḍālī was published by Bernard Moritz in Cairo, in 1899, and was based on a manuscript in the Egyptian National Library dated 851/1447. Moritz’s edition was published at the peak of the editor’s illness and, hence, he did not consult a second manuscript, dated 691/1292, entitled Iḍhār Ṣanʿat al-Ḥayy al-Qayyūm fī Tartīb Bilād al-Fayyūm, which is kept in the Ayasofya Library in Istanbul (ref. 2960). The book is one of the earliest sources on the collection of taxes during the Ayyubid period and provides us with very detailed information on social and economic life in certain regions of Egypt during the seventh/thirteenth century.

Al-Rūk Hussāmī was also published by Moritz, in Cairo. This edition does not differ very much from that published by al-Nāblusī. In his introduction to the work, the author writes: “In this book, I describe the regional lands of Egypt, which I traversed thoroughly. First, I describe the regions in their entirety, and I mention the crucial elements of the regions based on what did happen in the days of the honourable Shaʿbān. The importance of these lands has changed and subsequently our account of them now”. The leading survey of this type was the work Taqwīm al-Buldān al-Miṣrīyah fī al-Aʿmāl al-Sulṭānīyah, published by the sultanate court around 777/1375, during the days of the Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf Shaʿbān.

There is also an additional and very precious copy of this book, which again Moritz did not consult. This is a stored copy, probably belonging to Prince Yashbak al-Sīfī al-Dūdār in the days of the Sultan Ashraf Qāyit Bay in Shaʿbān 883 hijrī, and kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (ref. 697 Huntingdon): it is demanded to be republished.

To this gallery of authors another name should be added: that of Ibn Shāhīn al-Ẓāhirī (d. 872/1468) whose Zubdat Kashf al-Mamālik includes a section devoted to the postal system. This volume provides valuable knowledge about the Mamluks in general terms and more specifically about the stations and housing of the postal system. It, therefore, gives us details of great importance65. Paul Ravsasse published an abridgement of the text, in Paris, in 1894. By good fortune, the original copy of a book by Ibn Shāhīn was recently discovered in Iran. Entitled Kashf al-Mamālik wa Bayān al-Ṭuruq wa al-Masālik, the work is in two volumes divided into 40 chapters, of which 12 chapters are of great substance. Soheil Zakar of the University of Damascus is currently preparing this work for publication.  

Books of the wonderous and the strange

The most important books in this category - which have never been published before - are the writings of Ibrāhīm ibn Wajaf Shāh, an Egyptian writer who distinguished himself in his depiction of the age in which he lived. However, Al-ʿAjāʾib al-Kabīr, which is the most reliable source on his work, is stored in St Petersburg and dated 607 hijrī - which is actually after the writer’s death. A number of books are attributed to Ibn Wajaf Shāh: Al-ʿAjāʾib al-Kabīr and the abridged version of this work entitled Al-ʿAjāʾib al-Dunyā, Akhbār Madīnat al-Sūs, Jawāhir al-Buḥūr wa Waqāʾiʿ al-Duhūr fī Akhbār al-Diyyār al-Miṣrīyah66, which appears to be the same as Tārīkh Miṣr, and deals with the history of the Pharonic period. Both al-Maqrīzī67 and Ibn Iyyās68 copied extracts from this.

From the transcriptions made by Ibn Iyyās from Ibn Wajaf Shāh’s writings, it appears that he devoted one chapter in Tārīkh Miṣr to every significant town in Egypt, tracing its history to ancient times. The book testifies to Ibn Wajaf Shāh’s tendency to record curious information, particularly regarding the discovery of treasure after the arrival of Islam in the country. It is, furthermore, difficult to draw a firm conclusion on the material contained in this book –  of which no intact copy has survived – in the light of the amount of information we currently have. Manuscripts of his other works can also be found: in particular, Kitāb al-ʿAjāʾib al-Kabīr, in St Petersburg (ref. 740) and ʿAjāʾib al-Dunyā in the British Museum (ref. 1526). While the Egyptian writers, who looked up to him with reverence and respect, called him Ibn Wajaf Shāh, the Andalusian writers - Ibn Saʿīd and Umayyah ibn Abī al-Ṣalt – who also knew his work, referred to him as al-Waṣīfī69.

The literature of sea pilots

Kratchkovsky observed that the literature of Arab geography had dwindled considerably by around the ninth/fifteenth century. Nothing remained except limited examples of regional geography and descriptions of journeys. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese succeeded in circumnavigating the African continent and Columbus discovered the route to America. Although the Arabs were far from any of these achievements, or were not concerned with such achievements, Vasco da Gama, nonetheless, would not have been able to make his discovery of the route to India without the benefit of Arab scientific enterprises, especially in terms of the availability of the compass and sea charts. It was also a Muslim from Gujarat, known as Kānā al-Muʿallim, who guided him from Milindi to Calicut70.

The area of enquiry with which Arab geographic literature of the period concerned itself, can be termed as ‘navigation geography’. Exponents of this art could be found in the region surrounding the Indian Ocean, the seas and gulfs beyond. This navigational geography did not emerge from a historical void but rather had its roots in the collections of stories and sea journeys dating back to the fourth/tenth and to the fifth/eleventh centuries, such as those by the merchant Sulaymān and Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī. This literary genre was known as ‘the literature of sea pilots’ (al-rāhnāmaj). It comprises the reports of sea captains whose guidance to sea routes answered most questions about navigation71.

The homes of these rāhnāmajāt were Siraf and Oman. What has been passed down to us has its origins in the ninth/tenth centuries hijrī or fifteenth/sixteenth centuries CE. Two of the writers in question were Ibn Mājid and Sulaymān al-Mahrī. None of the original Arabic manuscripts of Rabān Aḥmad ibn Mājid al-Saʿadī al-Banjadī were, however, known until 1912. Today, the known writings of Ibn Måjid, reach 40 drafted texts, the majority of them in verse. None have been published, except for al-Fawāʾid fī Uṣūl ʿIlm al-Baḥr wa al-Qawāʿid, Thalāthat Azhār fī Maʿrifat al-Biḥar and Ḥāwīyat al-Ikhtiṣār fī Uṣūl ʿIlm al-Biḥār.

Few of the writings of Sulaymān al-Mahrī have survived to the present day except the five books, preserved in manuscript form, in Paris (ref. 2559). Their content repeats to a large extent Ibn Mājid’s material. The following works have been published: Tuḥfat al-Fuḥl fī Tamhīd al-Uṣūl wa Shzrḥuhā, Al-ʿUmdah al-Mahrīyah fī Ḍabṭ al-ʿUlūm al-Baḥrīyah, Qilādat al-Shumūs wa Istikhrāj Qawāʿid al-Usūand Al-Manhāj al-Fākhir fī ʿIlm al-Baḥr al-Zākhir72.


From the above, it is clear that the original sources for the central works of Arab geography found their way into print and academic study, thanks to the efforts of orientalists in / about the middle of the nineteenth century. Arab scholars have only begun to make their presence felt in the last few decades, as though there were no Arab geographers involved in this field, only innumerable researchers. Arab historians and geographers seem to view the matter of the scientific publication of source works as being of no great importance in itself, despite knowing that it is the principal means of access to true learning about the involvement of Arab geographers in the universal history of geography.

Most of the sources published during the nineteenth century should now be assessed as to whether or not they require re-editing. Any new editions should conform to the guidelines of scientific publication and the verification of texts based on more recently discovered manuscripts and should, furthermore, consider the emergence of more specialised studies dealing with the subject and its writers. Special attention here should be given to the work done in this field by Gabriel Ferran, Kratchkovsky, Andrea Michael, Maqbul Muḥammad, Hussein Munis and Fuat Sezgin.

Orientalists working during the nineteenth century selected the most important sources for their study, using material that had been copied by later geographers. By adopting this methodology, they altogether excluded other authors in the field, whose absence is indicative in the contents of the work they published. The work begun by orientalists, and so, needs to be completed. In this respect, we need to go back to the original sources and try to reassess the information that is available in them with respect to the actual eras to which they refer.

The loss of numerous written sources of geographic heritage makes it difficult for us to access the development of this legacy accurately, unless the sources that have been separated from their origins can be restored. All that remains from them, are extensive transcriptions found in the works of later writers.

Moreover, numerous geography source texts remain unpublished, and manuscripts exist - distributed around the various libraries of the world - which are available for study. In the majority of cases, the publication of transcribed sources does not necessarily improve our geographical knowledge. However, although Nashq al-Azhār fī ʿAjaʾib al-Aqṭār by Ibn Iyyās (d. 930/1524) is a text of at least secondary transcription, and includes mistakes, in places it nonetheless does go back to sources that are now lost, such as Akhbār al-Nūbah by Ibn Sulaym al-Aswānī and even an hitherto unknown draft by al-Idrīsī (from a copy in the Egyptian National Library, ref. 439 National Geography in Paris 2207, 2208, 2209, 2210, 2211, 2213; British Library 7503).

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., pp. 175-220.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.

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