|D. M. DUNLOP
at 63 degrees north. This is the farthest habitable
point. It is an island called Tuli (Thule) in the land of Europe
(Uriba), and is north of the land of the Greeks. The Ta'rikh is
dated to about 260/873-4.
6. In 266/879 an augmented Atlantic fleet received
orders to sail to Galicia (north-west Spain), where the enemies
of the Umayyad Muhammad I were causing him trouble, but was almost
annihilated by a storm."1"
7. Ibn Rustah has the following on Britain,"2"
with Harun b. Yahya (fl. A.D. 890-900) as source. Harun b. Yahya
was a prisoner of war in Constantinople, and may have travelled
to Rome later."3" `From this
city (sc. Rome) you sail the sea and journey for three months,
till you reach the land of the king of the Burjan (here Burgundians).
You journey hence through mountains and ravines for a month, till
you reach the land of the Franks. From here you go forth and journey
for four months, till you reach the city (capital) of Bartiniyah
(Britain). It is a great city on the shore of the Western Ocean,
ruled by seven kings. At the gate of its city (capital) is an
idol (sanam). When the stranger wishes to enter it, he sleeps
and cannot enter it, until the people of the city take him, to
examine his intention and purpose in entering the city. They are
Christians. They are the last of the lands of the Greeks, and
there is no civilization beyond them.' Here at least we appear
to have London "4" and the
Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy (till A.D. 827), the latter already an anachronism.
In the opinion of Harun b. Yahya the capital is guarded by a talisman,
which has a magical effect on those who would enter without authorization.
It is quite clear from this detail and the fantastic distances
that Harun b. Yahya got his information about Britain at second-
or third-hand, perhaps as far away as Byzantium, as the last sentence
of his notice might suggest.
8. Thabit b. Qurrah (died 288/901) made an improved
translation of Ptolemy's Geography,"5"
which is usually considered to have been lost (cf. --> 25).
Al-Mas'udi had evidently seen a copy of Ptolemy's Geography,"6"
which Nallino considered to have been Thabit's translation."7"
Al-Mas'udi indeed says that the names in this book were difficult
to understand, because they were in Greek.
9. Al-Battani in his astronomical work Ilm al falak,
published according to the editor, Nallino, some time before 289/902,"8"
has an important geographical expose, recognized as such by Reinaud,"9"
as well as by the numerous medieval Muslim authors who made use
of it, as we shall see. This expose includes the following passage
bearing on our subject:"10"
`As for the Western Ocean which is called the Encircling, nothing
is known of it but the region west and north of the farthest point
of the land of the Abyssinians towards Britain. It is a sea in
which ships do not sail. The six islands in it opposite the land
of the Abyssinians are the Fortunate Islands, and they are also
called the Islands of the Blest. Another island opposite Spain
is called Ghadirah (haSapa = Cadiz) in the Strait. This strait
goes out from (the Western Ocean). The breadth of the place where
it goes out is seven miles, between Spain and Tangier, called
Sabta (Ceuta). It goes out into the Sea of the Greeks. In (the
Western Ocean) also to the northward are the islands of Bartdniyah
(Britain), twelve in number. Then it extends far away from the
inhabited land, and no one knows its character, nor what is in
For our purpose the most important observation here is doubtless
that Britain consists of twelve islands. What is the source of
this detail? It will meet us again where other authors have borrowed
from al-Battani. The source is unlikely to be other than classical,
given al-Battani's scant appreciation of his Muslim predecessors.
Yet it is not in Ptolemy,"11"
and in all probability not to be regarded as a crude simplification
of Ptolemy's map. We see in fact from Ghadirah for Cadiz that
it must be Greek. The suggestion may be advanced hypothetically
that the source of the statement that Britain consists of twelve
islands, as mentioned, for example, by Ibn Rustah ( --> i o)
and al-Mas'udi ( --> 13) as well as al-Battani, is the Geography
of Marinus of Tyre (middle of the 2nd century B.C.), whose work,
lost in Greek, appears to have been translated into Arabic. At
all events, as already noted by De Sacy and others, al-Mas'udi
claims to have seen a copy of the Jaghrafiya of Marinus,"12"
which work we assume as the source of al-Battani's statement.
It is not to be thought of as deriving from some traveller of
approximately al-Battani's time, any more than his other statements
"13" that in the island of
Thule, which is in Britain, the length of the longest day is twenty
hours (cf. --> 5) .
10. Ibn Rustah's account of the British Isles follows
al-Battani's al-most verbatim "14"
and is doubtless derived from it. The date is between 290/903
11. Abd ar-Rahman b. Harun al-Maghribi, speaking
in the majlis of al jumani of his adventures in the Western Sea
(which is here said to take its rise in the Encircling Ocean and
to extend eastwards, passing the north of Spain and the land of
the Franks) related, according to a citation in al-Qazwini, "15"
`I sailed the sea in the year 288/goo, I mean the Western Sea,
and we came to a place called al-Bartun. With us was a lad from
Sicily, who cast a fish-hook into the sea, and brought out a fish,
the size of a span. We looked, and saw behind one ear in writing
"There is no god but God", on its head "Muhammad",
and behind the other ear "the Apostle of God".' Unfortunately
no information seems to be available about either `Abd ar-Rahman
b. Harun al-Maghribi or al jumani. Al-Bartun could be Britain
or Brittany. (One notes that the possibility of confusion between
the two arises only in accounts emanating from later informants.
In classical times Brittany was not yet so called.) It appears
possible that `Abd ar-Rahman b. Harun al-Maghribi was one of those
whose adventures in the Atlantic were recounted by al-Mas'udi
12. The author of a Kitdb al-Kharaj, Qudamah (died
31 o/g22), followed al-Battani's account (see --> g) and mentions
the twelve islands of Britain. "16"
-->13. Al-Mas'udi in the Muruj adh-Dhahab (a work begun
in 332/943) cites al-Battani in one place verbatim, speaking of
`the island of Thule, which is in Britain'. "17"
In the Tanbih (345/956) he has a reminiscence of the longer al-Battani
passage: `In this sea (sc. the Encircling Ocean) near its western
part are the so-called Eternal Isles, and near its northern part
are the so-called Isles of Britain, twelve in number.' "18"
More important is another passage in the Muruj adh-Dhahab: "19"
`No ship sails therein (Atlantic), nor is any habitable land there,
nor any reasonable creature dwelling therein. Neither its extent
nor end is known. It is the Sea of Darkness, the Green Sea, "20"
the Encircling Ocean .... Marvellous things are told concerning
it, which we have reported in our Chronicle (Akhbdr az-Zamdn)
and in the accounts of those who ventured forth and risked their
lives, including both those who escaped and those who perished.
One of them was a Spaniard called Khashkhash (cf. --> 3), a
young man of Cordova, who collected a company of other young men
of the same place, and embarked with them upon this Encircling
Ocean in ships which they had equipped. He was absent for a time,
then returned with rich booty. His story is well known among the
Spaniards.' Nothing is here said of Britain, but clearly some
remarkable voyage into the Atlantic at a date earlier than 332/943
is to be understood.
-->14. About the same time the celebrated
Ahmad b. Muhammad b. ~.l;s. ar-Razi (died 344/955) wrote his Description
of Spain. From al-Nlaqqari ( --> 22) we have a long quotation
from this work which mentions - that the northwest angle of Spain
looks towards the land of Birtdniyah."21"
This is presumably Brittany, perhaps first mentioned here in Arabic
-->15. In 355/966 there was an attack of Danish vikings
on the Atlantic coast of Muslim Spain, at Lisbon and at Qasr Abi
Danis farther to the south. The invaders were attacked and defeated
at Silves by the Umayyad fleet."22"
Another Danish expedition in 36o/971 was even less successful."23"
-->16. We are concerned here with medieval Arabic writers,
but it may
"-e noticed that in the Hudud al-`Alam, an anonymous Persian
geography,composed in 372/982-983 and based to a great extent
on earlier Arabic works, Britain is mentioned more than once.
`In the northern direction of the same sea there are twelve islands
called Britaniya, of which some are cultivated and some desolate.
On them are numerous mountains, risers, villages, and different
mines."24" North of the islands
of `Britaniya' is another island called Tuwas or Tus, for Tuliyah,
Thule."25" In another passage
we read that Britain is the last land of the Greeks on the shore
of the Ocean. It is an emporium (bdrgdh) of the Greeks and Spain."26"
Barthold noted, this information is apparently not found in any
-->17. In 387/997 the fleet brought al-Mansur's infantry
from the Atlantic port of Qasr Abi Danis already mentioned (now
Alcacer do Sal) to Burtuqal (Oporto) by sea."27"
-->18. The Spanish geographer al-`Udhri was the author
of a Nizdm al-marjdn fi'l-masdlik wa't-mamdlik, written about
450/1058."28" It is quoted
by al-Qazwini (d. 682/1283) as Al-masdlik wa'l-mamdlik al-Andalusyah.
From this book doubtless the following remarkable account of whaling
in the vicinity of Ireland was taken."29"
`Al-`Udhri said: `The Norsemen have no capital (qd'idah) save
this island in all the world. Its circumference is a thousand
miles. Its people have the customs and dress of the Norse-men.
They wear rich mantles, one of which is worth 100 dinars. Their
nobles wear mantles ornamented with pearls. He related that on
their coasts they hunt the young of the whale (ablanah), which
is an exceeding great fish. They hunt its calves, regarding them
as a delicacy. They have mentioned that these calves are born
in the month of September, and are hunted in the four months October
to January. After this their flesh is hard and no longer good
for eating. As to the manner of hunting them, al-`Udhri mentioned
that the hunters assemble in ships, having with them a great iron
blade with sharp spikes. In the blade is a great strong ring,
and in the ring a strong cable. When they find a calf, they clap
their hands and shout. The calf is delighted by the clapping and
approaches the ships, wanting to be friendly with them. A sailor
specially appointed for the task rubs the calf's forehead briskly,
and the calf finds pleasure therein. Then he places the blade
in the middle of its head and, taking a powerful iron mallet,
he strikes with it upon the blade with all his force three times.
It does not feel the first blow, but at the second and third it
struggles violently. Sometimes it hits part of the ships with
its tail, and destroys them. It does not cease struggling till
weariness overtakes it. Then the crews of the ships take turns
to drag it, till it is brought to the shore. Sometimes the mother
of tile whale-calf sees the struggle and follows them. They prepare
much powdered garlic, which they scatter on the water. When the
whale smells the garlic, she lets (the calf) go, and turns backwards
in her tracks. Then they cut up the meat of the calf and salt
it. Its meat is white like snow, and its skin black as ink.'
Here al-`Udhri specifically mentions the Norsemen in Ireland,
though it cannot be shown that he is dependent on the narrative
of Yahya al-Ghazal (Cf. --> 2). The account here reads almost
as if it were some whale-boat-man's humorous version of how to
catch a whale. It is very unlikely that Jacob's suggestion (Irlandah
for Izlandah = Iceland) is right."30",
Ice-land would appear to be effectively out of the range of Muslim
geo-graphers (and sailors presumably). This conclusion is supported
by the word here used for `whale', ablinah, clearly a Romance
form, cf. Latin balaena, from Greek OaAatva; hence Italian balena,
Spanish ballena, French baleine. It is from one of these, and
not from a northern language such as Danish, English, &c.,
that this word for `whale' has passed into Arabic. It is of interest,
however, to note that another Arabic word for `whale', uwdl, evidently
of northern origin, occurs elsewhere for the animal as existing
in the Indian Ocean. "31"
* -->19. Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi in his geographical work
Nuzhat al-Mushtdq, written for the Norman King Roger of Sicily
c. i 154, has a substantial account of the British Isles, which
represents on the descriptive side an entirely original departure,
and is undoubtedly the best account of Britain afforded by any
medieval Arabic author. This has recently been the object of some
and to avoid repetition, we shall not discuss it here."33"
There is general agreement that al-ldrisi's information was gathered
from a variety of sources, oral as well as written, while he %.v
as in Sicily, and does not correspond to what he had himself seen.
Where the British Isles are concerned, he appears to have had
some French or Flemish informant."34"
- Levi-Provencal, Hist. de l'Espagne, p.224.
- Ed. De Goeje (B.G.A. vii), p. 130.
- V. Minorsky, Hudud al-Alam, pp. 419, 424.
- Rather than Winchester, the official capital.
- Fihrist, p. 268.
- Muruj, i 183-5.
- Op. cit., p. 20, n.2..
- Al-Battani sive Albatenii opus Astronomicum, i (Milan, 1993),
- J-T Reinaud, Geographie d'Aboulfeda, i, (Paris, 1848), p. cclxxxii.
- Nallino, text, p. 26; Reinaud, p. cdlxii..
- As already noted by Barthold, Hudud, p.8.
- Tanbih, p.33.
- Nallino, text, p.25.
- Ed. De Goeje, p. 85 (but with al-Bartiniyah, cf. --> 7).
- Op. cit., i-125, cf.123
- Ed. De Goeje (B.G.A), p. 231.
- Muruj, i. 180 Cf. the whole passage with the Battani passage
mentioned at the end of --> 9.
- Tanbih, p. 68. Cf. the original passage --> 9.
- Elsewhere this term (al-Bahr al-Akhdar) is applied to the Pacific
(cf. Hudud, pp. 32, 51).
- Nafh at-Tib (Leiden ed., i. 84); cf. Levi-Provencal, Description,
- Levi-Provencal, Histoire, p. 393.
- Ibid., pp. 393-4
- Hudud, p. 59
- So Minorsky, Hudud, p. 191.
- Hudud, p. 158, cf. p. 425.
- Levi-Provencal, Histoire, p. 441.
- Pons Boigues, No. 120, cf. al-Qazwini, ii. 373.
- Al-Qazwini, ii. 388
- Arbishe Berichte, p. 26, n.2.
- Muruj, i. 234.
- Cf. D.M. Dunlop, Scotland according to al-Idrisi, Scotish Historical
Review, vol. xxvi (1947), pp. 114-18, WB. Stevenson, Idrisi's
Map of Scotland, ibid, vol xxvii (1948), pp. 202-4, A.F.L. Beeston,
'Idrisi's Account of the British Isles, B.S.O.A.S., vol xiii (1950),
- An English translation of al-Idrisi's main account of the British
Isles will be found in Professor Beeston's article, mentioned
in the previous note.
- Professor Muhammad al-Fasi is surely in error when he says that
al-Idrisi visited England. See his article 'Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi
akbar ulama l-jaghrafiyah inda'l-Arab, Al-Adwatane, vol. i (Tangier,
The Islamic Quarterly, London