Arab Geographer and Cartographer
Al-Idrisi (also known by his short name Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi) was one of the most renowned Arab geographers of his day. Under the service of King Roger II of Sicily, he dispatched draftsmen around the world and used the information they returned to compile the most up-to-date world maps of his time.
Al-Idrisi was born in Sabtah, which is now the Spanish port city of Ceuta in Morocco. He is believed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammed's eldest grandson. Al-Idrisi graduated from the University of Cordova and spent many years traveling extensively throughout Europe and North Africa. Over the course of his many journeys, he gathered detailed information on each region and soon gained international prominence as a geographer.
King Roger II of Sicily (1097-1154) heard of al-Idrisi's cartographic expertise, and summoned him to the court in Palermo in 1145. The king wanted to compile an updated world map, and hired the Arab geographer to assist him with the task. In his research, al-Idrisi drew upon contemporary world maps drawn up by other Muslim geographers, as well as works by ancient Greek geographers such as Ptolemy. He brought the ancient material up-to-date by dispatching travelers and draftsmen to various points around the world, instructing them to make careful records of what they saw. The result was a silver planisphere on which was etched a map of the world, complete with major world cities, lakes and rivers, and mountains and trade routes.
As well as the planisphere, Al-Idrisi also made a world map which divided Earth north of the equator into 70 sections and wrote a book titled Kita Rujar ("The Book of Roger" or "Roger's Book"). The book was completed shortly before King Roger's death.
Al-Idrisi later wrote two comprehensive geographical texts, apparently for Roger's son William II. The first was titled Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The delight of him who desires to journey through the climates), which contained detailed information on Europe, Africa, and Asia. Later he compiled another volume, titled Rawd-Unnas wa-Nuzhat al-Nafs (Pleasure of men and delight of souls). Al-Idrisi's works contained remarkably precise depictions of Africa and the Nile River; for example, this description of the lost city of Ghana:
From the town of Ghana, the borders of Wangara are eight day's journey. This country is renowned for the quantity and abundance of gold it produces. It forms an island 300 miles long by 150 miles wide: this is surrounded by the Nile on all sides and at all seasons.
Many of his books were translated into Latin and circulated throughout Europe, where they gained great popularity. His works continued to be studied in the East and the West for several centuries.
Al-Idrisi also made numerous contributions to the science of botany. He wrote many books on medicinal plants, the most well known titled Kitab al-Jami-li-Sifat Ashtat al-Nabatat. In his works, he combined the written knowledge of the day with research he gathered on his journeys. The names of drugs he included were translated into several languages, including Persian, Hindi, Greek, Latin, and Berber.
Very few details are known about the last years of al-Idrisi's life, possibly because Arab scholars regarded him as a traitor for having served in the court of a Christian king. The exact date of his death is not certain, but he is believed to have died around 1165 or 1166.