Abu Dhabi’s fest shows a silver disk with Al-Idrisi’s map - GulfToday

Abu Dhabi’s fest shows a silver disk with Al-Idrisi’s map

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Light and dark shades enhance the aura of the disk.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

One of the highlights of the first ever Hay Festival Abu Dhabi (Feb. 25 – 28) was the mediaeval Muslim Map of the World presented there. It was a ground-breaking re-creation of a lost 12th century map, on a giant silver disc, which merged historical research, digital conservation technologies and high levels of craftsmanship..

Commissioned by Sicily’s ruler King Roger II and created by Islamic cartographer al-Sharīf Al-Idrīsī in 1153 CE, the map is renowned for its great scientific accuracy and technical sophistication. It was re-created by Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation with new, digital techniques and traditional skills. It was the first time it was presented in the Arab world.


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Al-Idrisi was a Moroccan Arab Muslim geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist who, for some time, lived in Palermo, Sicily, at the court of King Roger II. He spent much of his early life travelling through North Africa and Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain of the times) and seems to have acquired detailed information on both regions. He visited Anatolia (Turkey) when he was barely 16.

His travels took him to many parts of Europe, including Portugal, the Pyrenees, the French Atlantic coast, Hungary and Jorvik (now known as York). He incorporated the knowledge of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East gathered by Islamic merchants and explorers and recorded on Islamic maps with the information brought by the Norman voyagers, to create the most accurate map of the world in pre-modern times.

It is one of the achievements of mediaeval cartography, being a world map of remarkable accuracy. It’s re-creation now is no less a matter of wonder, as it has been inscribed in total detail onto a huge disc of solid silver, two metres wide.

Al-Idrisi drew on several centuries of Islamic cartographic research and produced a book of 70 regional maps covering the surface of the known world, and a single, round map engraved onto a silver disk and set into a wooden table, with Makkah at its centre.

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The silver disk re-creates history.

The book remained the most technically sophisticated world-map for three centuries after its production. Drawing on Greek, Islamic and Christian knowledge, it created one of the greatest medieval compendiums of geographical knowledge.

The book with this exquisite circular world map, was oriented with south at the top. Most early Islamic world maps were oriented this way because many of the communities that first converted to Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries lived directly north of Makkah, leading them to regard south as the correct direction of prayer. The earth is encircled by sea and surrounded by fire, an idea taken from the Koran. Particularly noticeable is the vast African continent, dominated by the mountains believed to be the Nile’s source, a sketchy Europe (though with an unsurprisingly large Sicily) and the Arabian Peninsula, right in the middle.

Factum Foundation redid Al-Idrīsī’s silver map based on one of the best-preserved copies of the book, which is held by the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University.

On the geographical work of Al-Idrisi, American attorney, banker and scholar S P Scott wrote in 1904 that “the compilation of Edrisi marks an era in the history of science.

“Not only is its historical information most interesting and valuable, but its descriptions of many parts of the earth are still authoritative. For three centuries geographers copied his maps without alteration.

“The relative position of the lakes which form the Nile, as delineated in his work, does not differ greatly from that established by Baker and Stanley (British explorers) more than seven hundred years afterwards, and their number is the same.

“The mechanical genius of the author was not inferior to his erudition. The celestial and terrestrial planisphere of silver which he constructed for his royal patron was nearly six feet in diameter, and weighed four hundred and fifty pounds; upon the one side the zodiac and the constellations, upon the other - divided for convenience into segments - the bodies of land and water, with the respective situations of the various countries, were engraved”.

Al-Idrisi inspired Islamic geographers such as Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun and Piri Reis. His map also influenced Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama.

Al-Idrīsī’s map was introduced at Hay Festival by British historian Jerry Brotton, author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps. Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, a television and radio presenter and a curator.

His 2016 book, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, was serialised on BBC Radio 4 and won the Historical Writers Association Non-Fiction Crown (2017).

Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation is a not-for profit organisation founded in 2009 in Madrid by Adam Lowe. It works alongside its sister company, Factum Arte, a multidisciplinary workshop in Madrid, dedicated to digital mediation and physical transformation in contemporary art and the production of facsimiles.

Hay Festival is an independent, mission-led and non-profit organisation that also explores local literary traditions, old and new, and supports the next generation of writers by publishing anthologies of new writing from around the world.

Since its first edition in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, in 1987, Hay Festival has programmed 125 sustainable festivals globally, attracting more than 4.5 million people to events in 30 locations.

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