Today we salute you, Muhammad Al-Idrisi, a cartographic rockstar from the 12th century.
Al-Idrisi was a prolific geographer and traveler, so King Roger II of Sicily invited him to his court to create an updated world map. Al-Idrisi didn’t just rely on his own personal knowledge, but also interviewed countless other experienced travelers. Completed in 1154, it was called the Tabula Rogeriana, but its Arabic name means “the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands.”
It remained the most accurate map of the world for the next three hundred years.
Just take a moment to really look at it. He uses an impeccable amount of detail, especially in naming cities and drawing the course of rivers.
But this map is also a beautiful mess.
The most accurate parts of the map are Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, where Al-Idrisi lived and traveled. But look at the lands beyond Al-Idrisi’s vicinity, and things get hazier. England is completely misshapen. Norway looks like an island. Italy does look like a boot, albeit one which has sat out in the rain for a few days.
The biggest problems come with the most far-flung areas of the world. Africa doesn’t go much beyond Ethiopia before morphing into a strip of land stretching the entire length of the map. The Indian subcontinent is smaller than Sri Lanka (called Taprobane at the time), and Japan doesn’t appear at all beyond China’s wavy coastline.
Nevertheless, Al-Idrisi is a rockstar when you consider the time period. Imagine the difficulties of trying to map such an extensive mass of land without the help of satellites, cameras, or a printing press, relying on conflicting reports from various sources around the world.
But he succeeded, and with an impressive degree of accuracy. His map blows away any other world map made in Europe during this same time period. Most European maps squeezed the whole known world into a crowded circle that barely resembles our current image of the world. A typical one is the Hereford Map (made in England in 1285). Going from the Tabula Rogeriana to the Hereford Map is like going from Filet Mignon to White Castle. The Nile delta, for example, is ludicrously large.
The Tabula succeeded because the author strove to be objective and faithful to the details. He didn’t place Jerusalem at the center (like the Hereford map) and try to fit in everything else around it. He used a wide range of geographical reports from other parts of the world to create the most extensive picture of the world that he possibly could.
Sure, the lands at the edge of Al-Idrisi’s knowledge are fuzzy, inaccurate, and out of proportion. But to tell you truth, the fuzzy edges are my favorite part of old maps. We no longer really have them. They are a hint into what was unknown or elusive at that point in time. And they motivated us to go out, discover, and unfuzzy those lines.
What does the cartographer do when the whole world is perfectly mapped and there are no more fuzzy edges? Is there nothing new for him to discover?
Here’s what I think: There are always fuzzy edges. They’re just no longer on maps.