Ancient Geographers were Surprisingly Smart

Ancient Geographers were Surprisingly Smart

During the Middle Ages, Europeans’ knowledge of the world greatly increased. The Crusades gave many Europeans a firsthand introduction to a world with which they had previously had little or no contact. In the East, at this same time, geography was becoming one of the greatest of the Muslim sciences. A number of Arab travelers and geographers distinguished themselves with their detailed observations and mapmaking skills. Ibn Hawqal, an early Arab traveler, explored some of the most remote parts of Africa and Asia in the mid-900s. On one of his voyages along the east coast of Africa, he reached a point just 20 degrees north of the equator. He noted that thousands of people lived in that latitude.

This finding disproved Aristotle’s theory that areas near the equator would be totally uninhabitable. Other Arab geographers also made important discoveries about the climates of the world. In fact, Arabs published the world’s first climatic atlas in the 900s. This climatic atlas included observations about temperature patterns from places south of the equator and proved emphatically that Aristotle’s uninhabitable zone did not exist. Then in 985 a geographer named Al-Mugaddasi drew a map showing 14 world climatic regions in place of the three identified by Aristotle.

Al-Mugaddasi included this map in his geographic encyclopedia, which is also distinguished by a broad view of geography. In this work, Al-Muqaddasi discusses not only land features and climates but also many other aspects of the places covered. For example, he addresses religious and social factors, commerce, agriculture, and even those things he found curious or interesting, such as monuments and local legends. Al-Muqaddasi was also the first geographer to produce maps in natural colors so that people could better understand them. During the mid-1100s, al-Idrisi, who was a Muslim who lived in Palermo, Sicily, began to compile the huge volume of data accumulated by Arab travelers. The preface to his work states that he spent 15 years compiling it. When al-Idrisi doubted the accuracy or precision of information about the location of a mountain, river, or coastline, he sent out trained geographers to make careful observations.

With this fund of accurate information, al-Idrisi wrote what he called a “new geography.” Completed in 1154, it bears the interesting title Amusement for Him Who Desires to Travel Around the World. Al-Idrisi’s book corrected a number of mistaken notions. For example, in it he refuted the idea that land completely encircled the Indian Ocean. Al-Idrisi is also credited with creating the world’s first globe.

Asking for a ball of silver weighing more than 1,000 pounds, he etched on the surface of the ball the continents, land and water features, and major trade routes. Although have survived, al-Idrisi’s his written works have survived, his globe over the centuries melted down, no doubt to enrich a treasury rather than the store of geographical knowledge.




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