ROGER’S BOOK | TABULA ROGERIANA
In the year 1138, a distinguished geographer from Ceuta in Morocco, across the strait from Spain, was invited by the Norman King Roger II to the royal palace at Palermo, Sicily. His name was Muhammad Ben AL Idrisi, and he is a direct descendent of the Idrisid dynasty - the founders of the first Moroccan state. The purpose of the visit of AL Idrisi to King Roger was to discuss the possibility of creating the first scientifically accurate map in the medieval world. The mission entrusted to AL Idrisi was intellectually onerous. He was asked to collect and evaluate all available geographical knowledge already documented in scientific manuscripts, while interviewing travellers and intellectuals arriving in Sicily to build a realistic representation of the medieval world. In producing a work which would sum up all the contemporary knowledge of the physical world present, the King’s ambition was fundamentally to build a notable scientific base in Sicily, while raising its profile as a European centre for education. At the time, AL Idrisi was in his 30s, had studied in Cordoba, and had spent a few years travelling the length of the Mediterranean, from Lisbon to Damascus. During this journey the young man discovered a real passion for geography. King Roger II was educated by Greek and Moorish tutors, he was hence an intellectual with a passion for scientific inquiry, and relished the company of Arab scholars, of whom AL Idrisi was one of the most celebrated. Roger was, therefore, nicknamed “the baptised Sultan of Sicily." Such cross-cultural communications at a time when Crusaders and Muslims were battling in the Holy Land, and while Mediterranean pirates of both faiths plundered each other's ships and ports, may seem surprising. But medieval merchants did shift goods across the frontiers of religion, and inevitably ideas and books were exchanged as well as products.
Sicily was a meeting ground for the two civilisations. Captured by the Moors in 831, the island had remained in their control until the end of the 11th century. Like Andalusia, it was a beacon of prosperity to a Europe caught in the economic recession of what we term the Dark Ages. The occupying Moors had built dams, irrigation systems, reservoirs and water towers. They also introduced new crops ranging from oranges and lemons, to cotton, date palms and rice. In return, they exploited the island's stock of natural resources such as mines and fishery. And when the Normans finally took Sicily back in the early 11th century, they inherited a balanced cultural mix, which they persevered.
King Roger II was an accomplished diplomat and his court hosted a collection of philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, geographers and poets. His rule is likened to the rule of the wise Greek Ptolemy who is credited for building the Royal Library of Alexandria in the 4th century BC. “In mathematics, as in the political sphere,” AL Idrisi wrote of his patron. “The extent of his learning cannot be described. Nor is there any limit to his knowledge of the sciences, so deeply and wisely has he studied them in every area. He is responsible for singular innovations and for marvellous inventions, such as no prince has ever before realised." Hence, Roger’s interest in geography was a natural extension of a curiosity he developed as a young child. But during the King’s years, map-making in Europe was confusingly simplistic. Picturesque and colourful, European maps showed a circular earth composed of three continents equal in size - Asia, Africa and Europe - separated by narrow bands of water. The Garden of Eden and Paradise were at the top and Jerusalem at the centre, while mystical monsters occupied the unexplored regions like Sirens, dragons, men with dogs' heads, men with feet shaped like umbrellas, which they used to protect themselves from the blistering sun. What King Roger had in mind, therefore, was scientifically factual and encompassing of the whole known world, as it is.
The reason why the Moors excelled in geography was because of the trade flourishing across the Silk Route. Travellers from the east were famous for carrying so-called road books. These were itineraries that described routes, traveling conditions and cities along the trade route. Some of the early Arab authors of road books were already on AL Idrisi's reading list. Also, in addition he had vast knowledge of pre-Islamic geographers like Paulus Orosius, a Spaniard whose popular History, written in the 5th century, included a volume of descriptive geography. And Ptolemy, the greatest of the classical geographers, whose Geography, written in the second century, had been entirely lost to Europe, but preserved in the East and rediscovered through Arabic translation. So, after studying the bulk of the work they had collected, the Norman King and AL Idrisi decided it was full of discrepancies and omissions, and their hope of accurately completing the project relied on original research. Thus, they established a geography academy and deployed scientific expeditions, which were accompanied by draftsmen and cartographers whose mission was to visually record the physical terrain, people, language, religion, traditions, economy and any other details of unknown places. This process of diligently accessing material arriving at the academy, took the scholar and his patron 15 years.
Finally, however, the arduous preliminary study was completed and the task of drawing the long-awaited map began. To accompany a silver disk, weighing over 300 pounds, AL Idrisi prepared for Roger a book containing the information gathered by the geographers. It is titled: The Delight of One Who Wishes to Traverse the Regions of the World. More simply, it is referred to as Roger's Book, or Tabula Rogeriana. The text contained 71 geographical maps, a complete world map and 70 sectional itinerary maps, representing the seven climates each divided longitudinally into 10 sections. The map’s superiority was a striking contradiction to any map produced in medieval Europe. Even the habitual descriptions in the accompanying book proved to be extraordinary. It has been stated that only five copies of the Tabula Rogeriana has ever been produced. One of the copies produced in Cairo in 1553, is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which can only be viewed by special appointment.
(1) Top Painting Credit: Lighting The Oil Lantern | Artist: Giuseppe Signorini, Italian (1857-1932).
(2) Middle Painting: The Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo | Artist: Arthur von Ramberg, Vienna (1819-1875).
(3) Bottom Painting: Arab Horsemen in the Desert | Artist: Giulio Rosati, Italian (1858-1917).
Dedicated to the Memory of My Beloved Grandmother Saphia Bint Mahmoud Bint Abu Ghalib AL Idrisi.