The Rise of Knowledge about Western European Geography

Latin-Christian expansionism led to the diffusion of information about medieval Western Europe in all parts of the Islamic world bordering on the Mediterranean. Geographers of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries in Sicily, al-Andalus, the Maghreb, Ifriqiya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq did not simply reproduce the geographic and ethnic categories used by their predecessors of earlier centuries but kept track of important geopolitical changes in the lands of the northern Christians. Even Mongol Persia produced a respectable history of the Franks in Persian that deals with events up to the early fourteenth century.w

In the ninth century, the Persian geographer Ibn Khurdadhbah described Europe (Urufa), a geographical entity reaching down to Tangier and the frontiers of Egypt (ila hadd Misr), in the following way: al-Andalus, formerly ruled by a people named Asban’ under the king ‘Ludhriq’, bordered on the Frankish lands (Faranja), which extended around a 1,000 miles (alf mil) in diameter. In the north of al-Andalus, he located the city of Rome (Rumiyya), a people called ‘Burjan’ as well as the lands of the Slavs (buldan al-Saqalib). Then followed the island of Thule (Tuliyya) and, in another part of the encompassing ocean (Luqyanus), twelve islands called the British Isles (jazair Baratanya).20

This can be contrasted to the geography of al-Idrlsl (d. c.560/1165), which provides a detailed overview on the various regions of Europe. Written under the auspices of the Norman court in Sicily, its geographic vision ranges from the Muslim and Christian parts of the Iberian Peninsula via the Mediterranean islands, various madhhabahum al-istislam wa-tark al-qital wa-l-intisar, wa-adam mudafaat al-kuffar wa-tark al-akhdh bi-l-tha r, li-ma fi l-injil: man latamak ala khaddika fa-hawwil lahu al-akhar. wa-qad taqaddama hadha al-fasl mustawiban, wa-fihi: ahibbu mubghidikum wa-sallu ala lainlkum wa-kafiya bi-hadha. wa-yaquluna: law arada al-masih (alayhi al-salam) al-hurub lam yastaslim, wa-qad qala Bulus fi l-risala al-hadiya ashar: ihrab min jamf al-shahawat wa-isa li-l-rabb wa-l-iman wa-l-widd wa-l-taslim, wa-utruk al-munazaat fa-innaha turith al-qital, wa-laysa yahill li- abd an yuqatil. wa-hadha qawl Bulus wa-maa dhalika fa-hum al-yawm ashadd al-nas qitalan wa-hirsan ala safk al-dima, wa-ittiba al-ahwa, wa-hum muwafiqun ala l-faslayn, fa-hum hinaidhin mutarifun bi-kufrihim bi-l-sharaT wa-ittiba al-tabai.’

  • 18 Usama b. Munqidh, al-i'tibar, ed. Hitti, pp. 132—41.
  • 19 Rashid al-Din (d. 718/1318), Frankengeschichte, trans. Jahn.
  • 20 Ibn Khurdadhbah, al-masalik, ed. de Goeje, pp. 90, 92—3, 155—7, 231.

locations in Italy, France, and the British Isles including Ireland, central and eastern Europe, to the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea.21

The geography of Ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi (d. 685/1286) from al-Andalus, copied in great parts by his later Syrian colleague Abu l-Fida (d. 732/1331), contains ample information about the regions bordering the Mediterranean. He mentions the Iberian Peninsula—i.e. the remains of Muslim al-Andalus, Galicia with its capital at Zamora, and the cities of Leon and Santiago de Compostela, Portugal, Navarre, Castile, and Catalonia.22 He deals with the islands of the western Mediterranean—i.e. the Balearics, Corsica, Sardinia, and SicilyTh and characterizes several locations in southern France—i.e. the powerful region of Toulouse, Narbonne as an important reloading point for ores and minerals from England and Ireland, as well as the rich merchants of Montpellier and Marseille.24 On the Apennine Peninsula, he mentions Calabria with Naples and Salerno, Rome, Pisa, and Genoa, Lombardy with its centre in Milan, Apulia with the Muslim colony of Lucera, Venice, a city ruled by a doge (al-duj) with its wooden buildings, waterways, and money market, finally the coastal towns of Hungary on the Adriatic Sea.25 Ibn Sa'ld also deals with central and Western Europe, i.e. the mountains of Croatia, the lands of Germany ruled by the emperor with its unidentifiable capital ‘Baysah’,26 as well as France with its royal capital in Paris, the Gulf of Brittany, and the Poitou.27 In the northern seas, he locates Ireland, an important exporter of tin, and curiously distinguishes between the island of Britain with its capital in Bristol, and the island of England with its capital in London and many citiesZ8 A passage is dedicated to economic exchange between the rulers of England and France, the former paying precious metals in exchange for wine from the latter.29 In the cold northern regions, he makes note of several islands inhabited by swimming and fish-eating white bears with soft fur as well as precious gyrfalcons that are imported by the sultan of Egypt for a very high price.30 Although surplus information thins out the further one goes north, Ibn Sa'id mentions the most important Western and central European regions relevant to the medieval Mediterranean.

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