Muhammad al-Idrisi and the Tabula Rogeriana


The seventy assembled plates of the Kitab Rujar (Tabula Rogeriana), 1154. Note: South is at top, north at bottom. Click on the image to expand to full size (4135 x 1875).

While clearing out my papers from my long-ago lab TA days, I came across the section of the course mentioning the GIS/remote sensing program IDRISI, which in turn got me thinking about the man the program was named after, the 12th-century Almoravid Moroccan cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi’s took a Ptolemaic base for his maps and expanded upon it via his extensive travels. Today, al-Idrisi is considered to have been the preeminent medieval Islamic geographer; a preserver of Greco-Roman mapping traditions and part of the Islamic world’s preservation and enhancement of scientific research and thought during the Middle Ages when such processes were comparatively lacking in Europe. Indeed, through his travels, al-Idrisi was one of the main intellectual connections between the Western and Islamic worlds during the High Middle Ages.


Al-Idrisi was born in Ceuta in 1099 to parents descended from a noble Andalusian family. At an early age, he was already travelling around the western Islamic world of Spain (where he received most of his education, primarily in Cordoba) and North Africa. In his teenage years, he was already travelling to France, England and Andalusia. Eventually, he would join other Islamic, Arab, and Greek/Byzantine scholars in the court of the Norman king Roger II in Sicily. Roger surrounded himself with some of the great intellectuals of his day, looking to amass as much knowledge of the world as possible to serve and govern his expanding kingdom (and allies; al-Idrisi’s noble background and sterling education made him a handy ally to have in North Africa and may have lent hope to him been given a large chunk of territory as a puppet ruler under Roger. Sicily became a crossroads for various cultures, and it is via this interaction and transmission of knowledge through which we know the works of al-Idrisi.

Eventually, al-Idrisi travelled the breadth of Europe. Commissioned by Roger to produce a world map based upon his travels, al-Idrisi taught himself the art of cartography and assembled a 70-plate atlas known to modern scholars as the Tabula Rogeriana (‘The Book of Roger’). As well, he also created a version of the map engraved on a silver disc two metres in diameter. The versions were copied down through the years, and the manuscripts we know today were produced in 1469 (you can view a zoomable version of the map transliterated into Latin characters in 1928 by Konrad Miller here; remember, south is at the top). Al-Idrisi also produced a compendium whose title is translated as The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands. It was one of the first books ever printed in Arabic, and contained descriptions of the lands and cities known to Western and Islamic civilisation at the time. One of the anecdotes in the book may be an indication that Arabic explorers had travelled as far west as the Sargasso Sea.

Al-Idrisi’s works were the basic for much of the geographic and historic works produced in the Islamic world during the three centuries following. By preserving Ptolemaic traditions and carrying them through to the Middle Ages, al-Idrisi in turn allowed those following him to take his work into the Renaissance era and thus influence the rebirth of European cartography in the 15th and 16th centuries during the Age of Exploration.

Further Reading

Ahmad, S.M. (1992). Cartography of al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī. In J.B. Harley and D. Woodward (eds), The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Book One: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies, 156-174. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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