The British Isles According To Medieval Arabic Authors – Part One


THAT the Atlantic coast of Spain was well known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages goes almost without saying, and requires no elaborate proof. There was indeed a formidable crop of legends about the outlandish character of the Ocean which lay beyond the Strait (az-Zuqaq, Strait of Gibraltar). The most familiar of these (given by al­Mas’udi and others) speaks of the talismanic warning to traveler at the `Pillars of Hercules’: `Beyond me is no route nor way for those who would enter yon sea from the Sea of the Greeks (Mediterranean).”1″ I Another legend names the Atlantic west and north of Spain the Sea of Darkness, and says that its colour is black like ink, yet, when you take it in a vessel, the blackness cannot be seen“2” Such stories doubtless arose in the East, or at a very early date in the West, before the facts were known. They are not likely to mislead anyone. It is certain that Muslim towns lay on the Atlantic seaboard, doubtless with sea-borne connexions between them­selves. Muslim fleets at least upon occasion cruised in Atlantic waters.“3” The amber, or rather ambergris, of the Atlantic, gathered on the beaches of Portugal and marketed at Santarem and Sidona (Jerez), was a regular article of export to foreign countries (Egypt, &c.;) as well as to Cordova.“4”The existence of the traffic points to the reality of the Arab hold on the Atlantic provinces.

But when it comes to evidence for Arab voyaging at large in the Atlantic, especially northwards to the Channel and to the British Isles, with which we are here specially concerned, the situation is quite different. Reliable evidence for this is extremely difficult to come by. On the other hand, the Arabs from an early date (not later than the ninth century A.D.) knew about Britain and other parts of north-west Europe from Greek geographers,“5” especially Ptolemy. In the present inquiry material of both these kinds, so far as it is available, will have to be adduced.“6” It has seemed best to present it more or less chronologically, according to the authors, together with some other notices which do not come under either head, referring to movements of the Umayyad Atlantic fleet, in its home waters.“7” § I.

Muhammad b. Musa al-Khwarizmi in his Surat al-Ard, written according to Nallino shortly after 201 /817,“8” mentions a number of places in Britain. This work was intended, it seems, to illustrate a series of maps based on Ptolemy’s,“9” which had been prepared by a group of savants, presumably including al-Khwarizmi himself, for the Caliph Ma’mun, as mentioned by al-Mas’udi: as-surah al-Ma’muniyah allati `umilat li’l­Ma’mun ~tama’a `ald san’atihd `iddah hukamd’ ahl asrihi suwwira fihd al-`clam bi-afldkihi wa-nujumihi zva-barrihi zva-bahrihi wa-`dmirihi wa-ghdmirihi wa­masdkin al-umam wa’l-mudun wa-ghair dhdlika wa-hiya ahsan mimmd taqadda­mahd min jaghrdfiyd Ibtulamayus wa jaghrdfyd Mdrinds wa-ghairihimd.“10” A number of places mentioned in the Surat al-Ard were identified by Nallino:“11” thus Britain (Greek AAovlwv, Albion), Arabic Aluya; Ireland (Greek ‘IouEpvt’a, Hibernia), Arabic Tubdrniyd; London (Greek AoAlMov), Arabic Lundinun; York (Greek ‘EpdpaKOV), Arabic lburaqun, or strictly perhaps Iburiqi.“12” In the edition of the work published by H. von Mzik“13” from the Strassburg MS. it is possible to identify these and other places in the British Isles mentioned by Ptolemy. The co-ordinates for latitude and longitude as given by al-Khwarizmi differ more or less from Ptolemy’s. This Nallino explained as owing to his working from maps based on Ptolemy and not Ptolemy directly.“14”Nallino assumed that the Greek text of Ptolemy was used for al-Ma’mun’s maps.“15” No Arabic translation of Ptolemy’s Geography appears indeed to be recorded thus early. See § 4. *§ 2.

In 229/844 the Norsemen made a dangerous descent on the Atlantic coast of Spain. For a moment they occupied Cadiz, and sacked Seville before being defeated by Umayyad forces.“16” Following upon this, according to an apparently contemporary document preserved by Ibn Dihyah“17” (7th/13th century), the Umayyad ruler of Spain `Abd ar-Rahman II sent Yahya b. Hakam al-Bakri, known as al-Ghazal, accom­panied by a certain Yahya b. Habib, to arrange terms of peace with the anonymous `King of the Norsemen’ in his own country. These ambassa­dors sailed from Silves, then the chief town and port of the province of Algarve (south-west Spain) in a ship specially built for them, and were accompanied by the ambassador of the `King of the Norsemen’ in a ship of his own.“18” Unfortunately neither the route followed by the expedition nor its destination is clear. According to the narrative, `When they came opposite the great promontory which enters the sea, the boundary of Spain in the extreme west, i.e. the mountain known as Aluwiyah, the sea swelled up against them and a violent storm descended upon them.’ Yahya al-Ghazal recited verses appropriate to their situation. After the storm abated, they reached their goal, the land of the Norsemen,“19” but how or where is not mentioned. First, they put in at an unnamed island, to refit and refresh themselves. Then they were summoned by the king, who lived elsewhere, on what is described as `a great island in the En­circling Ocean, in which are flowing waters and gardens, three days’ sailing, or 300 miles, from the mainland’. In this island was a great number of Norsemen, and nearby were many other islands, large and small, inhabited by Norsemen. A considerable part of the mainland for several days’ journey also belonged to them. `These Norsemen are today tempore Yahya al-Ghazal) Christians, having abandoned their old religion.’ Only the inhabitants of certain isolated islands were still pagan, worshipping fire and practising heathen abominations. The other Norse­men were at war with them, and made prisoners of them. It is inviting to take this as the account of a journey to Ireland,“20” where in the ninth century A.D. there were certainly Norse settlements. If Ireland is the destination, the absence of place-names in the narrative after Aluwiyah, presumably Cape Finisterre,“21” is understandable. Though the poetry ascribed to Yahya al-Ghazal at this juncture refers to the fury of the winds from the west and north, it could be supposed that the two ships ran for Ireland after the storm was over. Several critics have placed the

1) Al-Mas’udi, Muruj, i. 257. Cf. also Tanbih, ed. De Goeje (B.G.A. viii), pp. 68-69; al-Qazwini, ed. Wustenfeld, i. 124 1’Abrege des merueilles, transl. Carra de Vaux (Paris, 1898), p. 32; &c. 
2) Al-Qazwini, i. 123.
3) See §§ 3, 6, 15, 17.
4) Al-Mas’udi, Muruj, i. 366. Cf. E. Levi-Pro­vencal, `La “Description de 1’Espagne” de Razi’, Al-Andalus, vol. xviii (1953), pp. 91, 97.
5) Cf. § g (Marinus of Tyre).
6) Sections marked with an asterisk contain the evidence for direct contacts, viz. §§ 2, I I, 18, ig, 20.
7) 1These are the sections already listed in n. 3, p. 11 (marked with a dagger).
8) C. A. Nallino, ‘Al-Huwarizmi e il suo rifacimento della Geografia di Tolomeo’ R. Accad. d. Lincei, Ser. quint., vol. II. i (Rome, 1896), p. 22. Barthold, however, thought the work was more recent by at least twenty years (Huddd al-‘Alam, transl. V. Minorsky, G.M.S., N.s. Xi. i t).
9) Nallino, ibid., p. 21.
10) Tanbih, p. 33.
11) OP, Cit-, PP- 45 ff-
12) Ed. Von M~ik, p. 35.
13) Bibliothek arabischer Histoiker u. Geographen, iii (Leipzig 1926)
14) Cf. n. 3.
15) Op. Cit., pp. 21-22.
16) E. Levi-Provencal, Hist. de l’Espagne musulmane, ed. I (Cairo, 1944), pp. 1,52 ff.
17) In his anthology Mutrib min ash’ar ahl al­Maghrib (British Museum Ar. MS. 1631 = Or. 77), quoting Tamim b. ‘Alqamah (Pons Boigues, No. 5; d. 283/896). Arabic text and translation by Dozy, Recherches sur l’histoire et la littirature de l’Espagne pendant le tMoyen dge, ed. 3 (Leiden, 1881), T. 2, lxxxi ff. and 269 fl: Other references in Brockel­mann, G.A.L., Supp. i. 148. See also Husain Munis, ‘Contribution a 1’etude des invasions des Normands
18) The indication is that some little time has elapsed since the descent of the Norsemen.
19) Text: bilad al-Majus. See below for a discussion of where this may have been. It is well known that the term al-Majus is standard for the Vikings in Western Arabic sources. (The confusion with ‘Magians’, strictly the priestly caste among the Zorastrians, but in general for Zoroastrians, arises from the fact that the pagan Vikings also burned their dead.) Al-Mas’udi conjectured that they were same as the Rus, i.e. the Vikings, mainly Swedish who followed the `Eastern route’ [G. M. Trevelyan] and and were well known to the Arabs. See § 3.
20) So Allen Mawer, Cambridge Med. Hist. iii. 317.
21) According to the Spanish ar-Razi (cf. § 14) the north-west corner of Spain was a mountain, like Aluwiyah here (al-Maqqari, Nafh at-Tib, i. 84; cf. E. Levi-Provencal, La “Description de 1’Espagne” de Razi’, Al-Andalus, vol. xviii (1953), p. 6o. On the other hand, Dozy’s identification of Aluwiyah with Cape St. Vincent is perhaps confirmed by the passage cited from the 1st Section of the 4th Clime of al-Idrisi in § 19. At all events the `promontory in the extreme west’ there unnamed should be Aluwiyah.

The Islamic Quarterly, London 
April- July1957