The British Isles According To Medieval Arabic Authors – Part Three


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 it.’

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 and 300/913.

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 (cf. 1:3).

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″ As Barthold noted, this information is apparently not found in any other source.

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 special investigations,”32″ 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), p. xxxii..

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, p. 60.

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), pp. 265-80

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, 1952), p.9. The Islamic Quarterly, London 
April- July1957