Yossef Rapoport, Islamic Maps (Bodleian Library Publishing, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Yossef Rapoport (YR): While there has been much more interest in Islamic maps over the past decade, they are still commonly deployed as decoration, adorning book covers and illustrating general surveys of Islamic history. I felt there was a need for an accessible introduction that would place these maps within the social and political context in which they were produced, and allow scholars from other disciplines of Islamic studies, as well as a wider public, to engage with these maps in a meaningful way.

In order to understand the maps produced in pre-modern Islamic societies, we must first shed some of our modern expectations of maps. Part of the problem is that the study of Islamic maps has largely been taken up by historians of science, whose main focus has been mathematical precision and methods of projection. Yet we miss much of what these maps have to say if we judge them solely by their accurate representation of physical space. That is only one facet of Islamic mapping, not always the most exciting one and often not the prevailing consideration of the map-makers themselves. It is historically false to romanticize the extent of the mathematical precision of Islamic maps, taking them out of their historical context and utilizing them as part of a futile competition with the West in which Islam always has to come first.

This book tries to avoid these pitfalls by viewing Islamic maps as “a serious of ingenious arguments,” a term used by my colleague, the map historian Jerry Brotton. Muslims mapped themselves and others as a way of making sense of the world: of its physical space, of its political boundaries and of its religious, communal, and regional identities. Their maps not only reflected the world they lived in, but they also shaped the way in which they and others saw the world. They are ultimately acts of interpretation.

Maps interpret space and create new ones; maps select what to highlight and what to suppress. Muslim map-makers brought together that geographical knowledge, science and beauty, and added to it novel cartographical approaches and concepts. The results could be aesthetically stunning, mathematically sophisticated, and politically charged, as well as a celebration of human diversity. I really believe that no other type of artefact captures so many dimensions of Islamic civilization, no other object is a better window into the worldviews of Islamic societies.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

YR: This book examines Islamic visual interpretations of the world in their historical context and in their own terms, from the ninth to the seventeenth centuries. The focus here is on the map-makers themselves. What was the purpose of their maps? What choices did they make? What was the argument they were trying to convey? Beginning in ninth-century Baghdad and ending in nineteenth-century Iran, each of the six chapters of the book follows an individual map-maker, such al-Khwārazmī or al-Idrīsī, or a map genre, such as urban plans or maps for finding the direction of prayer.

I chose map-makers that reflect the diversity of the Islamic world. Most are Sunnis, but some are distinctly Shi‘a; some worked for caliphs, sultans, and shahs, while others produced their maps for a market of merchants, scholars, and sailors. They hail from Isfahan in the east to Palermo in the west, from Istanbul in the north to Cairo and Aden in the south.

All map-makers discussed in the book constructed their maps with reference to traditions of learning and repositories of knowledge that circulated in the cultural world of Islam, and that included maps made by earlier generations of Muslim map-makers. Their intended audiences were also almost always Muslims, although the most famous Muslim map-maker, al-Idrīsī, produced his maps in the Norman Christian court of Sicily.

This book emphasizes that Islamic maps were not, generally speaking, religious artefacts. They were guides to this world, not to salvation. Even maps showing the prayer direction towards Mecca, the subject of the final chapter of my book, do not generally carry theological statements. Maps are rarely, if ever, found in overtly religious texts, such as commentaries on the Quran or legal texts.

Despite common wisdom, the southern orientation of many Islamic maps has nothing to do with Mecca’s sanctity. There is in fact no uniform orientation to Islamic maps; south is at the top of most medieval Islamic world maps, but this is most probably simply a convention. This common misconception regarding the orientation of Islamic maps is a reminder that it is neither necessary nor desirable to reduce Islamic maps to the religious beliefs of their makers.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

YR: My research has evolved around social, cultural, and intellectual aspects of Islamic history in the pre-modern period, particularly in the middle period of 1100 to 1500. I have written a history of family life (Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society: Cambridge University Press, 2005), and co-edited, together with the late Shahab Ahmed,  a volume on the thought and legacy of Ibn Taymiyya (Ibn Taymiyya and His TimesKarachi: Oxford University Press, 2010). I started working on medieval Islamic maps in 2002, when Professor Emilie Savage-Smith of Oxford chose me to join her project on a medieval illustrated cosmological manuscript she discovered a few years earlier, the Fatimid Book of Curiosities. Our work on that unique treatise now culminated with Lost Maps of the Caliphs: Drawing the World in Eleventh-Century Cairo (University of Chicago Press, June 2018).

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

YR: There are many map aficionados out there, who like not only to look at historical maps but also to understand what they mean. The vast majority of the output in the history of cartography is about European maps. I hope that some of these map aficionados will use this book as a window into the world of Islamic maps, as means of viewing the world from a different perspective, so to speak.

At the same time, I also hope this book will have an impact within Islamic studies. Many scholars and students in Islamic studies realize the importance of maps as an intellectual endeavor, but do not have at the moment an accessible, comprehensive introduction to the field of the history of Islamic cartography. I hope this book and its maps will give them an orientation, a framework within which they will be able to relate the period they are studying to the maps produced in that period.

Finally, there are over sixty map images in this volume, and some of them are simply very beautiful. The production by the Bodleian Publishing House has been so exquisite, it is just a feast to the eyes. While I hope many will read this book, I also hope many more will enjoy it.

J: There has been a surge of interest in Islamic maps over the past decade. Why do you think this happened? 

YR: In recent decades, and in particular since the onset of the digital age, Islamic maps have attracted much more attention than before, as seen in at least five specialized monographs that come out in the last five years. Partly, this is a consequence of a sea change in their visibility and accessibility. Online resources now allow scholars and the general public to view, compare, and analyze a previously unimaginable range of maps, which until not long ago were buried in library archives and seen only by a select group of determined and well-funded academics. The increasing fascination with Islamic maps is also part of a growing interest in the history of maps more widely, fuelled by new mobile technologies that have revolutionized the way in which we locate ourselves and find our way in the world. But, of course, it is also a time in which our notions of Islam itself are being contested. Against a one-dimensional view of Islam that is derived solely from legal texts, the study of material objects brings to the fore a more complex, more pluralistic image of Islamic societies, one that is more faithful to realities of the past. In this struggle over the future direction of Islam, maps have a major part to play.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

YR: I am currently at the start of three-year Leverhulme-funded research project on the late medieval transformation of Christian villages into Muslim tribal communities that claimed Arabian origins. Medieval and modern historians explain this shift by continued tribal migrations from the Arabian Peninsula. I argue that mass conversion of Christian village communities in twelfth- and thirteen-century Egypt and Syria was followed by adoption of Arabian tribal genealogies. The imagining of tribal identities was closely linked to the sudden emergence of a corpus of popular, oral epics, and was validated by a novel genre of late-medieval genealogical literature. I think this project is of paramount significance today, as it poses a fundamental challenge to prevailing conceptions of Arab national identity.

My current project builds on my research on a unique thirteenth-century fiscal survey of the Fayyum, which now resulted in an annotated edition and translation, published as The Villages of the Fayyum: A Thirteenth-Century Register of Rural, Islamic Egypt (Brepols, July 2018; with Ido Shahar), and a monograph, Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt (Brepols, late 2018). Rural Economy and Tribal Society is a detailed micro-study of the Fayyum as described in the thirteenth-century survey, utilizing quantitative methods and spatial GIS analysis to provide a thick account of crops, trade, and taxation, the tribal organization of the village communities, their religious institutions, and their rights and duties in relation to military landholders.


Excerpt from the book

The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean, bringing European hegemony to an end. The Ottoman sultans found themselves ruling over a global empire, and heir to Byzantium’s maritime glory. As part of this new imperial outlook, Sultan Mehmed II assembled any map of the world he could get hold of, including copies of al-Istakhrī’s maps (discussed in Chapter 2), maps based on Ptolemy produced by Greek scholars, and a couple of fifteenth-century North African portolan charts, which are still preserved in the Ottoman palaces of Istanbul. His successor, Bayezid II (1481–1512), actively pursued an ambitious expansion of the Ottoman navy by approaching Turkish corsairs known to be operating in the Mediterranean and offering them positions in the Ottoman navy. Co-opting the pirates paid off: within a couple of decades, Ottoman vessels were setting out to capture Venetian strongholds all along the Peloponnesus.

Pīrī Reʾis, born around 1470, was one of the pirates recruited in this way to the Ottoman navy. Since 1487 he had accompanied his uncle, Kemal Reʾis, a successful pirate, along the North African coast. Kemal Reʾis operated from a base in the inaccessible island of Jerba, off the coast of Tunisia, from whence he travelled far and wide in the western Mediterranean. His main target was the rich pickings to be had from commercial vessels crossing the Tunisia–Sicily bottleneck in the central Mediterranean. He also raided the Balearic Islands and Corsica, raids in which the young Pīrī participated. In 1495 Kemal Reʾis was summoned to Istanbul, and offered a commanding position in the Ottoman navy by Bayezid himself. Pīrī and his uncle were now based at the naval headquarters in Gallipoli. By 1499 Pīrī was a reʾis, a captain, in command of his own ship, as part of an Ottoman force that captured Lepanto from the Venetians. Kemal probably died in 1510 or 1511, when his ship was wrecked by a storm on his way to capture Rhodes, where the Knights of the Order of St John were to hold out against the Ottoman navy for another decade.

Beyond the horizons of Venetian–Ottoman squabbles in the Aegean, however, the world was expanding at astonishing pace. Pīrī was still operating as a pirate in the western Mediterranean when news arrived of Columbus’s voyages and the discovery of the New World. By 1499 Vasco da Gama had circumnavigated Africa, and within a decade the Portuguese were becoming a threat to the Indian Ocean trade, a major source of revenue for several Muslim dynasties, most prominently the Mamluks of Cairo. Another Portuguese sailor, Pedro Álvares Cabral, encountered the coast of Brazil in 1500. This vast new geographical knowledge was almost immediately translated into maps, and the greatest and fastest advances were made by the Portuguese. As can be seen in the 1502 world map known as the Cantino planisphere, Portuguese map-makers extended and applied the rhumb lines and wind roses used in creating the portolan charts of the Mediterranean. Even when these were applied to the mapping of the world’s oceans, the results were remarkably accurate.

Back in Gallipoli, Pīrī took notice. In the spring of 1513, only two decades after the voyages of Columbus, Pīrī completed a world map of his own, one of the most famous and intriguing maps in the history of cartography. Drawn on several pieces of parchment, this was a massive object, probably measuring 140 by 165 centimetres. Of this original, only the central and southern parts of the western third have survived on a fragment of 87 by 63 centimetres. The Atlantic is at the centre of the map. In the east, the fragment covers the Atlantic coasts of France, the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. In the west, the fragment shows the Caribbean, Cuba and the Bahamas. The Brazilian land mass is most prominent and easily recognizable. It is joined to a land mass to the south, presumably the Terra Australis, as was common in early modern European world maps.

Pīrī’s world map is among the most valuable and well-accomplished works of the age of discovery. The technique used by Pīrī is clearly that of the men of the sea, not that of armchair landlubbers. The map has all the typical characteristics of portolan charts, such as the two thirty-two-point compass roses, the network of rhumb lines and the prominent length scales sloped around the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Navigational markings are visible along the shores: crosses for reefs, red for shallows and black dots for ledges. It clearly draws on Portuguese charts, such as the 1502 Cantino planisphere. But, compared to the Cantino map, it is also much richer. The surviving fragment alone has 114 place names, 35 longer inscriptions and a wide array of iconography.

Luckily for us, Pīrī’s signature is found on the surviving fragment of the map, to the left of centre, written perpendicularly above the line of the equator and next to the image of a dog and a monkey holding hands. The signature is in Arabic, while all the other inscriptions are in Ottoman Turkish. It is also in a different hand from that of most of the other labels on the map, which suggests that Pīrī employed professional chart-makers as assistants. But in the label Pīrī claims sole credit, stating that ‘Pīr, son of Hacı Mehmed, also known as the nephew of Kemal Reʾis, made this map in Gallipoli, on the month of Muḥarram of the year 919 [9 March–7 April 1513]’.

Pīrī was keen not only to chart the seas of the world, but also to tell the story of their exploration. Visually, the iconography on Pīrī’s world map is striking: it is not only richer than European world maps of the time but also marked a complete break from medieval Islamic map-making. There are some 58 images on this fragment of people, beasts, vessels, mountains and plants. The rulers of Guinea, Marrakech and Portugal are individually shown, each with distinctive regalia and ethnic markers. An elephant dominates the African interior. The Americas, in particular, are replete with wonders. There are oxen with six horns, also shown in Portuguese maps, as well as monstrous snakes in the Terra Australis at the bottom of the map. A headless Blemmye is shown with hairy arms and a beard, a mouth on its chest and eyes on its shoulders. A monkey is depicted joining hands with a baboon-like animal that has the face of a dog. The most frequent image is of parrots: there are twelve different varieties of them on the map, all found on islands and all, according to the inscriptions, edible.

It is, however, the sailing vessels that are depicted with the utmost care, revealing the maritime sensibilities of a man of the sea. There are ten ships shown on the Atlantic, from triple-sailed galleasses to single-sailed caravels, their type usually easily identifiable through details in the image and the accompanying inscriptions. Each of the ships tells a story of a discovery or an adventure at sea. In the northern Atlantic the three-sailed ship is a Genoese galleass that has drifted off course en route from Flandres and landed in the Azores. The elaborate image in the north-west of the Atlantic illustrates the journey of St Brendan the priest, whose crew lit a fire on the back of a whale, mistaking it for an island. Pīrī specifically points out that this information is not taken from the Portuguese charts but from an ancient mappamondo, presumably a mappa mundi. The vessel shown off the west coast of Africa is apparently one of four vessels – others must have been drawn on the missing parts of the map – that are going to circumnavigate Africa under the command of Vasco da Gama.

After completing his world map in 1513, Pīrī waited for the right moment to present it to the new sultan, Selim, who had acceded to the throne in 1512. His chance came in 1517, following Selim’s swift defeat of the Mamluk empire and the addition of Egypt and Syria to the Ottoman domains. In his Book on Seafaring, Pīrī tells us that he presented his world map to Selim in Cairo, shortly after it was taken by the Ottomans. For the Ottomans, the conquest of Egypt opened up new opportunities in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and perhaps the depiction of these areas in Pīrī’s world map was considered to be of strategic value. Someone at the Ottoman court then tore the map up, and only the Atlantic portion was placed in the palace libraries, where it remained unnoticed for four centuries. It was rediscovered only in 1929, when scholars began to mine the Topkapı Palace libraries in Istanbul following the abolition of the office of the Ottoman caliph by Republican Turkey.