Over a series of journeys that lasted some 30 years, Ibn Hawkal saw almost the entire Muslim world, from Spain to Central Asia, from the cool mountains of Afghanistan to the hot sands of West Africa. He set down an account of his travels in On the Shape of the World, a text noted for its accuracy, its scientific approach, and the author's attention to detail.
Abu al-Kasim ibn Ali al-Nasibi ibn Hawkal was born in the city of Nisibis in upper Mesopotamia (now Iraq). As with many other premodern figures, virtually nothing is known about his life other than the circumstances surrounding his greatest achievement. In Ibn Hawkal's case, he was able to cite not only the date—7 Ramadan, A.H. 331. (May 15, 943, by the Christian calendar)—but even the day, Thursday, when he set out from Baghdad.
Baghdad was then the leading city of the Islamic world, capital of the Abbasid caliphate that ruled most Arab countries. But other forces were at work in the once-united Muslim realm. In the farthest western corner of North Africa, and in Spain, the Umayyad dynasty, which had controlled the caliphate until the Abbasids seized power in 750, held sway. In Egypt, the Fatimid sect of Shi'ite Muslims were growing in power and influence, and in fact certain aspects of Ibn Hawkal's narrative have led some scholars to speculate that he was traveling as a spy for the Fatimids.
On the first leg of his travels, Ibn Hawkal made his way westward across Tunisia to Morocco, then in 948 sailed across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain. Later he would write with obvious admiration about the great city of Cordoba. He noted the intellectual achievements and wealth of the Spanish Arabs—but also, in a move that helped fuel speculation regarding his role as a secret agent, observed how vulnerable the Umayyads were to attack by a foreign power.
Returning to North Africa, Ibn Hawkal moved southward through Morocco, and by 951 had arrived in the African kingdom of Ghana. He was one of the first outsiders to visit this extraordinarily wealthy realm, a land where gold was plentiful and the king ruled as a god, and certainly he was the first to write about it. He was also the first to describe the country's capital at Kumbi (later Kumbi-Saleh), and probably the first to write about the Niger River. Because the latter flowed to the east, he incorrectly surmised that it served as the headwaters of the Nile.
In time Ibn Hawkal would reach the real Nile, having crossed the Sahara and made his way to Egypt. It so happened that at the time he arrived in Egypt, the Fatimids were in the process of invading, another fact that has encouraged the belief that Ibn Hawkal was more than a merely curious traveler. By 969, at which point Ibn Hawkal had finished his journeys, the Fatimids completed their decades-long conquest of Egypt, and would maintain control there for two centuries.
By 955, Ibn Hawkal was in Armenia and Azerbaijan, thousands of miles to the northeast of Egypt. In the years that followed, he covered much of western Asia, first moving back to Syria, then making his way to Iraq and Iran before crossing the Oxus River into Central Asia. Among the most memorable parts of his account is his recollection of Samarkand, the legendary city located in what is now Uzbekistan. There he watched as gardeners trimmed bushes and trees to look like animals, observed local methods of irrigation, and provided an inside look at the city's bureaucracy.
The final leg of Ibn Hawkal's journeys took him in 973 to Sicily. (The latter had been an Arab possession since 825, and would remain under Muslim control until 1061.) Already in 967 he had written an account of his travels called Of Ways and Provinces, and in 977 when he returned to Baghdad, he produced a second edition. With time to reflect, he created an entirely new work, On the Shape of the World, which has remained the definitive version of his travelogue.
Scholars have long noted the care with which Ibn Hawkal discussed the specifics of each place he visited, and he is remembered as the first Arab geographer to systematically provide such details. Whether he was a spy or simply a traveler with an eye for pivotal facts, he contributed greatly to knowledge of the medieval Muslim world.