The British Isles According To Medieval Arabic Authors – Part Four


Apart from his main account, there are a few other passages bearing on Britain scattered through al-Idrisi’s great work. Such, for example, is a short passage at the end of the 2nd Section of the 6th Clime, where he rehearses the information about England, especially its towns, which he is going to give in the 7th Clime (the main account). A new detail is the statement that the passage from the Continent to England was made from Sanqulah, i.e. apparently St. Nicholas. The place is described elsewhere in the same section as a town near the sea, on the banks of a river and at the head of the gulf of Sanqulah, i.e. apparently St. Nicholas on the Escaut.”1″

Again, at the end of the 1st Section of the 6th Clime, after describing Brittany, al-ldrisi continues:”2″ `These countries being bathed on the west by the Sea of Darkness, there come continually from that direction mists and rain, and the sky is always overcast, particularly on the coast. The waters of this sea are covered with cloud and dark in colour. The waves are enormous, and the sea is deep. Darkness reigns continually, and navigation is difficult. The winds are violent and towards the west its limits are unknown. In this sea are a number of inhabited islands, but few sailors dare to risk their lives therein. Those who do, though they have knowledge and bravery, sail only along the coast without going far from land.”3″ The time for these expeditions is restricted to the months of August and September. The principal sailors of this sea are those who are called the English (al-Inklisn), or inhabitants of England (Inkirtarah), a large island, which contains many towns and inhabited places, fertile fields and rivers, and which we shall treat of in more detail later, if God will. In spite of all that is terrifying in this sea and in spite of its cloud-covered waves, it contains many excellent fish, and fishing goes on in various places. There are also sea-animals of such size that the inhabitants of the inner isles employ their bones and vertebrae instead of wood for building houses. They also make from them clubs, lances, spears, daggers, seats, ladders, and other things which elsewhere are made of wood.”4″
Al-Idrisi has another passage on similar lines at the beginning of the
1st Section of the 4th Clime,”5″ where he is less explicit about the English sailors and the extensive use of whalebone, apparently, in the `inner isles’.

`The greatest width of (Spain) is about 17 days’ journey, starting from a promontory in the extreme west, ‘vvhere ends the inhabited portion of the land surrounded by the Ocean. _ No one knows what exists beyond this sea, no one has been able to learn anything for certain, because of the difficulty of crossing it, its profound darkness, the height of its waves, the frequency of its storms, the prevalence of its animals (? whales) and the violence of its winds. There is, however, in this Ocean a large number
of islands, inhabited or desert, but no ship’s captain ventures to cross it or to travel under full sail. They are limited to coasting, without losing sight of land.”6″ The waves of this sea are as high as mountains, and al- though they are in violent commotion, remain none the less whole, not breaking in pieces. If it were otherwise, to cross them would be impossible.’

Elsewhere al-Idrisi actually identifies the Sea of Darkness and the Sea of the English (here bahr al-Inqlishin).”7″

Relevant also to our subject, it would seem, is al-Idrisi’s account of the so-called Adventurers (al-Mugharrirun),”8″ who sailed from Lisbon into the Atlantic at an unspecified date on a voyage of discovery.”9″ There were eight of them belonging to one family (literally `cousins’), and they built a transport ship, on which they put aboard water and provisions for several months. Setting sail `when the East wind begins to blow’, they reached, after `about eleven days’, `a sea with huge waves and thick clouds, with numerous reefs scarcely illumined by a feeble light’. 

Realizing their peril, they changed direction and ran with the sea towards the south. The older translation of jaubert,”10″ retained by Dozy and De Goeje, conceals the fact that this is evidently a description, real or imaginary, of some northern shore. More than this one would not care to say, but it could be that the Adventurers reached some dangerous point on the Irish or English coast. Their voyage southwards, which does not concern us here, is represented as more rewarding. Whatever the details amount the fact of this expedition seems vouched for. Al-ldrisi states the existence at Lisbon of a street called after the Adventurers Darb al-Mugharririn. As to dating, the expedition must have taken place before 543/1148, when Lisbon was captured by the Christians”11″, For Khashkhash (§§ 3, 13) as the leader of the Adventurers see next §.

§ 20. Ibn `Abd al-Mun’im al-Himyari in ar-Raud al-Mi’tdr, a work which in its final form was completed as late as 866/1461,”12″ but which was drafted in a version already in the seventh or beginning of the eighth century A.H., has a passage on the Ocean, as follows:”13″ `Ocean is the name of the Sea of Darkness, and it is called the Green Sea and the Encircling Ocean, whose end and extent are not known. There is no creature therein . . . . There risked his life Khashkhash of Spain, who was a young man of Cordova, with a company of other young men of the same place. They embarked in ships which they had equipped and entered this Ocean. They were absent in it for a time, then came back with rich booty and well-known stories sic].

‘All that is sailed of this sea is near the west and the north (cf. n. 6, Z~. 2 I), and that is from the farthest point of the land of the Blacks to Britain, which is the great island in the farthest north. And in (the Ocean) are six islands opposite the land of the Blacks, called the Eternal Islands. Then no one knows what is after that. Hereafter, if God will, another story will be given concerning those who entered this sea, longer than This, at its place in the notice of Lisbon.’

This presents a cento, in which the first part is evidently al-Mas’udi (cf. the long passage cited § 13) and the second al-Battani (cf § g). The story of Khashkhash is from al-Mas’udi, as the wording shows, unless we are to assume a common source. The `other story’ is that of the Adventurers, given by Ibn ‘Abd al-Mun’im in al-Idrisi’s words, practically verbatim.”14″The last sentence of course is Ibn ‘Abd al-Mun’im speaking sua persona.

Levi-Proven~al believed that this Khashkllash, said to be of Cordova, could be identified not only with Khashkhash b. Said b. Aswad of Pechina (southeast Spain) who formed part of a deputation of sailors in 276/889-90″15″ and Khashkhash who shared the command of the Umay-yad fleet against the Norsemen in 245/859″16″ (see § 3), but also with the anonymous leader of the Adventurers”17″ mentioned by al-Idrisi. This construction seems very difficult, though perhaps possible.”18″ It makes a man who had held part command of a fleet, act with his father on an embassy thirty years later. Another difficulty seems to be to connect Khashkhash with Lisbon. It is not very likely that a street in Lisbon should commemorate the Adventurers,”19″ unless they were natives of that city. But if so, they had nothing to do with Khashkhash, allegedly of Cordova, but perhaps really of Pechina. Ibn `Abd-al–\Mun’m appears not to connect the two stories. Perhaps we should reckon the voyages of Khashkhash and the Adventurers, with that of ` Abd ar-Rahman b. Harun already mentioned (§ II), as having been related separately in one of the lost works of al-Mas’udi (cf. § 13).

§ 21. Abu’1-Fida’ in his Geography (finished 721 j 1321) has the following :”20″ `In the Sea of Burdil (Bordeaux) is the island of Britain.’ Elsewhere he gives a longer account:? “21″Of the islands of the seas which branch off from the Encircling Ocean is the island of Britain (Bartdniyah) in the Sea of Burdil (Bordeaux), which is a sea going out in the north of Spain. In this island there is no water except from the rains, and depending upon this they sow their seed.’ It would appear that the `island of Britain’ is here Brittany, distinguished rather insufficiently, since the proper name is the same, from the `islands of Britain’ (also Bartanyah), which are now eleven in number, i.e. evidently twelve as before”22″ less Brittany. The passage continues: `And the islands of Britain are eleven islands. Of the famous islands is the island of England (Inkiltarah). Ibn Said said: And the ruler of this island is called al-Inkitdr in the History of Saldh ad-Din (Saladin) in the wars of ‘Akkd (Acre).”23″ His capital in this island is the city of Lundras (London). He continued: And the length of this island from south to north, with a slight inclination, is 430 miles. Its width in the middle is about 200 miles. He continued: And in this island are mines of gold, silver, copper, and tin. There are no vines because of the sharpness of the frost. Its inhabitants bring the precious metals of these mines to the of France, and exchange them for wine. The ruler of France has plentiful gold and silver from that source. In their country (sc. England) is made the fine scarlet cloth from the wool of their sheep, which is fine like silk. They place coverings over the animals, to protect them from rain, sun, and dust. In spite of the wealth of al-Inkitdr and the extent of his kingdom, he admits the sovereignty of al-Faransis (the French king), and when there is an assembly, he performs his service by presenting before (the ruler of France) a vessel of food, by ancient custom. In the north of island of England and somewhat north of Britain is the island of England and somewhat north of Britain is the island of Ireland (Irlandah). The extent of its length is about twelve days, and its breadth in the middle is about four days. It is well known for its numerous disturbances (fitan). Its people were Norsemen before they became Christians, following their neighbours. From it is exported much copper and tin. . . . And among the islands of the Encircling Ocean is the Island of Tuli (Thule), which is in the North Encircling Ocean. It is the extremity of habitation in the North.’

Another passage”24″ confirms what has been here said about the export :petals to France. `Ibn Said said: And to the east of Bordeaux is the city of Toulouse…. The river (sc. Garonne) is south of it, and ships from the Encircling Ocean ascend it, with tin and copper, which they bring from the island of England and the island of Ireland. It is carried on pack-animals to Narbonne, and taken from there on the ships of the Franks to Alexandria.’
Abu’l-Fidd’ is clearly under heavy obligations here to Ibn Said al-
‘Maghribi (c. 610/i214-673/i274), who evidently had new and somewhat accurate information about the British Isles. Al-Inkitar (parallel, apparently, to al-Faransis for the king of France) may be due to a mistake. The historian Baha’ ad-Din b. Shaddad, whose work is here quoted, spoke of malik al-Inkitar, so that al-Inkitdr is simply `England’ (though indeed the :form may have been current as Ibn Said used it).”25″

The account of Ireland is curious. The statement of Ireland’s late conversion to Christianity is of course the reverse of true.

§22. Having admitted the notices of Britain in the Persian Hudud al-‘ allam (§ 16), we may also include here “26″ a notice from the Jami` at-tawarikh of the celebrated Persian historian Rashid ad-Din “27″ especially since it qualifies for admission as having appeared in Arabic as well as Persian.”28″ The passage has been taken over practically as it stands by Banakati,”29″ whose Raudat uli’L-albdb, usually simply Ta’rikh-i Banakati, appeared in 717/1317, i.e. a few years after the,Jami` at-tawarikh itself (completed by Rashid ad-Din in 7I0/1310-11). It runs as follows: `Opposite this land (Spain) in the midst of the Encircling Ocean are two islands, of which one is Ireland (Ibarniya). From the special nature of the earth of that country poisonous reptiles die, and mice are not born there (tawallud na-mikunad). The men there are long-lived, red-complexioned, of tall stature and powerful frame, and brave. In this country is a spring of water, in which if one places a piece of wood, in a week its surface becomes petrified. The name of the larger island is Anglater (England). In this country are many remarkable mountains, innumerable mines of gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron, and different kinds of fruit. Among the marvels of that land is a tree which produces a bird as fruit, in the following manner. In the time of blossom a bag like an apple forms, within which is a thing shaped like a bird. When it grows big, it becomes alive and comes out. They keep it and eat the fruit, till it is the size of a large duck. The meat of the people of that land is mostly from that bird. They relate that among the Christians, who at the time of the fast eat no animals, there is a disagreement in regard to eating it. Some consider it as one of the plants, since it is the fruit of a tree, while others regard it as an animal, since blood comes from it. In those two islands there are sheep from whose fleece come “Jerusalem wool” (suf Q,udsi ) and exceedingly fine scarlet cloth. The ruler of both islands has the name Squtlandyah (Scotland) [sic], and they pay tribute to Anglater.”30″ . . . The ruler of that land (France) they call Riddfrans (Rol de France) and Anglater, the ruler of the isles, is tributary to him.’

There is not much that is new here (Cf. § z I ) . But Rashid ad-Din had access, presumably not directly, to medieval Latin legends. Thus we find here the old story that there are no snakes in Ireland, alongside of the barnacle goose in a disguised form. It is yet more remarkable that Rashid ad-Din knew about Merlin, if not by name.”31″

§ 23. Ibn Khaldun (732/1332-808/1406), who, as is well known, took over an extensive amount of al-Idrisi into his Muqaddimat, mentions England once or twice,”32″ but does not reproduce al-Idrisi’s full text.

§ 24.. Al-Maqqari in his celebrated work .Nafh at-lib (completed 1039/1638) has a passage as follows.”33″ `And in the Encircling (Ocean) are the Eternal Isles, seven islands west of the city of Sala. They appear to the observer on a clear day, when the air is free from thick vapours. On them are seven idols of the likeness of men, which point out that there is no passage and no way beyond them. In (the Ocean) in a northerly direction the Islands of the Blest, where are cities and villages uncountable.
From them come forth (in the I 7th century!) a nation called Norsemen,
who are Christians. The first of them (sc. the islands in question) is the
island of Britain (sc. Brittany, Cf. § 21). It is in the midst of the Encircling Ocean, far to the north of Spain. No mountains or springs are there. They drink rain-water, and sow their seed depending upon it.’
This presents a farrago of ancient and modern lore. The basis in al-Battani is not hard to discern (cf. § 9). The Eternal Isles, which are mentioned here with talismans strongly reminiscent of the `Pillars of Hercules’ (cf. above, ad init.), are distinguished from the Isles of the Blest. The Norsemen appear from these last. At the end is an echo of Abu’1-Fida’, T rather Ibn Said (cf. § 2I). It is somewhat remarkable that al-Maqqari quotes this from the Egyptian author Ibn Iyas “34″ who on his own subject, the history of Egypt, is a very respectable author.

A passage from the Spaniard ar-Razi with a brief mention of Brittany
(see § 14) is also quoted by al-Maqqari.

§ 25. Reserved to the last place in this survey because its date is un-
:certain is an Arabic translation of the Geography of Ptolemy which was published in facsimile by Prince Youssouf Kamal in 1929 “35″. The manuscript from which the facsimile was taken is Aya Sofya 2610, but the origin of the translation remains something of a mystery. It is presumably of a copy of the translation of Ptolemy’s Geograpjy made by Thabit b. Qurrah in the 3rd/9th century.”36″ Prince Youssouf Kamal tentatively advanced his opinion that the Arabic is a translation of a Greek manuscript f Ptolemy’s Geography, which is believed to date from the end of the four-:teenth or the beginning of the fifteenth century A.D., and was actually the work of the person who had previously copied the Greek manuscripts “37″ The Arabic manuscript bears the seal of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II (1481-1512), according to Prince Youssouf Kamal. A longish preamble to the translation mentions no names, but the recipient was perhaps an Ottoman ruler (al-malik al-a’la wa’s-sultan al-jalil), so called by some client of his who had been specially selected for the task (`abduhu al-maghrus bi-aidi al jud wa’l-karam li-hadhihi l-khidmah). The translation appears to be a good one, e.g. the passage about the famous `Caledonian wood’ in Britain (o KaAqBovcos Epuuos) comes out distinctly: zoa-min al-khalij al-Lamanun yus [sic] Q,aladhun yun wa fauquhum ghab Qaladhuni ilkh. The suggestion of the work having been specially made for an Ottoman Sultan is probably confirmed by the statement of Hajji Khalifah (died z o68/ r 658) that no copy of the Arabic translation of Ptolemy’s Geography was now known to exist.”37″

This completes our survey of passages in the medieval Arabic authors bearing on the British Isles. It will have been seen that Ptolemy’s ‘Albion’ and ‘Hibernia’ are soon replaced by Britain and Ireland, and ultimately England and even Scotland (both in al-Idrisi for the first time) have dis-tinct identities. The best accounts in Arabic which we have of the British Isles-apart from Ptolemy in translation-are given by al-Idrisi and Ibn Said al-Maghribi,iAbu’1-Fida’ (§§ 19 and 21) . As the Middle Ages proceed, the tendency to garble the older data is on the increase. This is very obvious in the passage from Ibn Iyas (§ 24), and more extreme cases could be cited. At the end of the Middle Ages less was known, it would seem, at least theoretically, about the British Isles than at the beginning.
This result, however, is incidental. The purpose of the inquiry has been to establish, if possible, the existence of records in Arabic of direct contact with Britain. The result, as will have been seen, is almost entirely negative. Possible contacts with the south or west coast of Ireland are as much as can be affirmed (§§ 2, 11, 18, 19). A similar contact with the coast of England is not excluded (§ 19).

It may be asked, Is there anything in English or Irish historical notices which would support the view that such contacts may occasionally have occurred? What there is amounts to very little. We find indeed an unconfirmed mention of the Moors in Domesday Book, as sojourners or settlers in London,”38″ i.e. in 478/1085. It has also been claimed that Arabic characters were to be seen on tombstones at Peel in the Isle of Man in the eighteenth century.”39″ Since the stones in question appear now to have been cleared away, it is no longer possible to examine the evidence on which this statement was based. But it would certainly seem that until some evidence is produced, the claim can safely be neglected.


A. Jaubert, Geographie, d’Edrisi, ii, Recueil de voyages et memoires, t. 6 (Paris, 1840), p. 374, cf.p.366

Ibid, pp. 355-6. The passage is lacking in the so-called Geographia Nubiensis (Rome, 1592) and in Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimat, ed. Bulaq-Beirut, p. 77.

Apart from al-Idrisi here and below (n.3,p.22), a similar expression is found once only, so far as I know, viz. in Levi-Provencal, La Peninsule iberique au Moyen age d’apres le Kitab al-Rawd al-mitar, &c.,p.36,… on ne parcourt couramment de l’Ocean que la partie qui longe la terre, a l’Occident et au Nord, c’est-a-dire, depuis les confins extremes du pays des Noirs jusqu’a la Bretagne, la grande ile qui se trouve a l’extreme Nord. But it is there a question of translation. The Arabic text (p.28) has simply: wa-innama yurkabu min hadha ‘l-bahr mimma yali ‘l-maghrib wa’sh-shimal, wa-dhalika min aqasi bilad as-Sudan ilka.

For whaling in British waters cf. §18.

Jaubert, op. cite, p. 2; text in Geographia Nubiensis (unpaginated).

Al-Idrisi appears to say the same thing as before (cf. n. p.21)

Jaubert op. cit. p. 231

Apparently the correct form and not al-Maghrurun (=the Deluded). Cf. al-Mas’udi, Muruj, i. 258: qad ataina ala dhikriha fi kitabina fi akhbar az-zaman wa-fi akhbar man gharrara wa-khatara binafsihi ilkh.

Jaubert op. cit. pp. 26-27, cf. i.200

instead of a sea with huge waves, &c. -Levi- Provencal’s translation, Peninsule iberique, p. 23, cf. §20 – Jaubert gave une mer dont les ondes epaisses exhalaient une odeur fetide, cachaient de nombreux recifs, et n’etaient eclairees que faiblement, op. cit. p. 27; cf. Description de l’Afrique et l’Espagne par Edrisi (Leiden, 1866), p.223.

Al-Qazwini, ii. 373.

E. Levi-Provencal, La Peninsule iberique au Moyen age d’apres le Kitab al-Rawd al-mitar d’Ibn Abd al-Mun’im al-Himayari, Publication de la Fondation de Goeje, No. XII (Leiden, 1938), p. xv.

Op. cit, text, pp. 28-29, transl., p.36.

Peninsule, text, p. 16; cf. §19

Levi-Provencal, Peninsule, transl., p.36, n.3 quoting Ibn Haiyan, Muqtabis, ed. Antuna, p. 88; cf. Histoire de l’Espagne (1944), p. 249, n.I.

Levi-Provencal, Histoire de l’Espagne, iii (Paris, 1953), p. 342, n. I, quoting an unpublished part of Ibn Haiyan’s Muqtabis.

This was suggested by Levi-Provencal in 1953 (see previous note)

There are some minor inaccuracies in the various passages where Levi-Provencal discusses Khashkhash. The deputation of which Khashkhash b. Sa’id b. Aswad of Pechina formed a member was not sent by Sawwar b. Hamdun (Peninsule, p.36, n.3), but to him. The story of Khashkhash, as is clear from the Mas’udi passage in which he is mentioned, is older than al-Bakri, twice mentioned (in Histoire de l’Espagne, ed. I, p. 249, n. I, and again in vol. iii, p. 342, n. I) as the source. (Al-Bakri is 5th/11th century)

Cf. §19, end.

Reinaud, Geographie d’Aboulfeda, text, p. 35.

Ibid, text, p. 187

§§9, 13, &c.

Cf. Recueil des historiens des Croisades, Historiens Orientaux, vol. iii (Paris, 1884), an-Nawadir as-Sullaniyah by Baha ad-Din b. Shaddad, pp. 214, 220.

Reinaud, op. cit., text, p. 219.

Cf. another possible example in §22.

After and not before Abu ‘l-Fida, as might seem more correct. But Rashid ad-Din was apparently dependent on Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi, cited by Abu’l-Fida.

Recently edited by K. Jahn, Histoire universelle de Rasid al-Din, &c. i, Histoire des Francs (Leiden, 1951), pp. 4-5. Professor A.J. Arberry of Cambridge University kindly drew my attention to the account of Rashid ad-Din, which is referred to briefly in E.G. Browne’s Literary History of Persia, iii. 43-44.

It is well known that Rashid ad-Din took measures within his lifetime to have his Persian works put into Arabic and vice versa (Browne, op. cit., p. 77)

See a French translation of the passage from Banakati in D’Ohsson, Des peuples du Caucase (Paris, 1828), pp. 262-’75 (not mentioned in C. A. Storey, Persian Literature, ii. i. 80)

i.e. the king of England, cf. immediately below Anglater, the ruler of the isles’, and similarly Squtlandiyah for the king of Scotland. It is somewhat striking that the usage is the same apparently in Abu’1-Fida’ (Ibn Said al-Maghribi) (see § 21), though there al-inkitar, cf. also al-Faransis.

Jahn, txt, p. 25; transl., p. 41 and n. I.

Muqaddimat, ed. Bulaq-Beirut, pp. 77, 80.

Ed. Leiden, i. 104

Cf. Gayangos, op. cit. i. 378, n. 4. The work in question is Nashq al-azhar fi aja’ib al-aqtar (Brockelmann, G.A.L. ii. 295), which doubtless made use of Ibn Said al-Maghribi.

As a special supplement to the series Monumenta Cartographica Africae et Aegypti.

Cf. §8

Youssouf Kamal, Quelques eclaircissements epars, &c. (Leiden, 1935), p.30.

The effective part of Hajji Khalifah’s notice (Kashf az-zunun, ed. Flugel, ii. 602) is wa-qad arrabuhu fi ahd al-Ma’mun wa-lam yujad alana ta ribuhu.

A note to chapter iv of Lord Lytton’s Harold.

So Waldron’s Description of the Isle of Man, fol. 1731 (reprinted by the Manx Society, vol. xi (1865), p.11)

The Islamic Quarterly, London 
April- July1957