Muslim Travelers and Mapmakers during the Middle Ages

Introduction: Muslim civilization always has been mobile (moving). Both the Arabs and the conquerors from Central Asia were originally nomadic (able to move or travel around) and inherited a tradition of travel. Large armies were constantly on the move. Students and scholars went on long journeys to sit at the feet of famous teachers, for the Prophet Muhammad himself encouraged travel even “as far as China” for learning. The wealth of cities depended upon trade. And the Faith of Islam asked of the Faithful the most powerful of all reasons for travel — the Pilgrimage. So Muslims traveled the length and breadth (width) of the vast (large, extensive, widespread) Islamic Empires and beyond, especially for trade purposes. Muslims traveled by land and by sea and through their trips they began an Age of Travel and Exploration far beyond their homelands.

Part I: Travelers & Map Makers

A. Ibn Battuta (1305 – 1369?)

Ibn Battuta was perhaps the greatest traveler of the Middle Ages, having traveled about 75,000 miles in 29 years! He is especially important to history because of his written accounts (reports) of his travels. From these records we can learn about the cultures that he visited. The book about his travels is the only historical source of information about many of the places he visited which included the East African coast, the Empire of Mali in West Africa, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, India, China, Spain, and many, many more! As a Muslim, he took advantage of the generosity shown to pilgrims and travelers in the Empire. He was often given gifts (of horses, gold, and even slaves) and stayed for free in dormitories, private homes, and even in the palaces of Muslim rulers. For seven years he worked for the Sultan in Delhi, India. On his travels he met several Sultans who welcomed him into their company. His descriptions are filled with adventures – he almost died several times. He survived robbers, shipwrecks, pirates, wars, and the Black Death (or Bubonic Plague).
Can you name some of the countries in which he traveled?






From the Catalan Atlas, National Library of France, Paris. It was completed in 1375.




B. Al-Idrisi (Dreses) 1099-1166

Idrisi’s map of the known world – Note: North is at the bottom of the map. Can you see the Mediterranean Sea? Arabia? The Indian Ocean?


Al-Idrisi is best known in the West as a geographer, who made a globe or sphere of silver weighing 400 kilograms for the Christian King Roger II of Sicily. Some scholars regard him as the greatest geographer and cartographer (mapmaker) of the Middle Ages. He put together a geographical encyclopedia with many maps.

See another short biography of Al-Idrisi . A copy of the map of Al-Idrisi is displayed in the Sharjah Islamic Museum in the United Arab Emirates.

C. Leo Africanus (Hasan a-Wazan) was a traveler and mapmaker who lived from 1485-1554. He was captured by Christian pirates and presented to the Pope as a slave. He later was commissioned to write about and make maps of his travels in West Africa. His description of Timbuktu (now in the country of Mali) tells of the city famous for trade of African products and for scholarship with a thriving trade in books. (From “Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu” Washington State University.) Read another biography of “Leo Africanus: Moorish Man of Learning.”

D. The Famous Pilgrimage of Mansa Musa


(Mansa means “king” and Musa is the Arabic name for Moses) – Mansa Musa was an extremely rich ruler of the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa was either the grandson or the grandnephew of Sundiata, the founder of his dynasty. He became “Mansa” or king in 1307. In 1324, he began his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. It was this pilgrimage that awakened the world to the incredible wealth of Mali, or “put Mali on the map.” He traveled from his capital of Niani on the Upper Niger River to Walata (Oualâta, Mauritania) and on to Tuat (now in Algeria) before making his way to Cairo. Then he continued on to Medina and Mecca. Accounts vary, and some may be exaggerated, but according to some: Mansa Musa was accompanied in his caravan by 60,000 men including of 12,000 personal slaves finely dressed in silk. The emperor himself rode on horseback and was preceded by 500 slaves, each carrying a gold-decorated staff. In addition, Mansa Musa had a baggage train of 80 camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold. He generously gave away or spent so much gold that Cairo’s gold market didn’t recover for several decades. Mansa Musa was able to impress the rest of the Islamic world by his wealth and by his commitment to Islam. As a result he was able to bring Islamic scholars and other Arab settlers to Timbuktu and other towns in Mali and bring it more firmly and with respect into the World of Islamic Nations, or “Dar al-Islam”.

(See information at “Islamic Legacy of Timbuktu” . There is more information from “Carmen Sandiego” (from Encyclopedia Britanica). See an image of Mansa Musa (or his brother and successor, Suleyman) from the Catalan Atlas; see “Maps websites”, below. For more information about Mansa Musa, see “West Africa – what was it like before Slavery and Colonization?

E. Islamic Journeys to the Americas?

Muslims in the Americas Before Columbus“. This site summarizes the theories and evidence that Muslim explorers from Andalusia (Muslim Spain) made trips to the Americas in 889 and 999; from Targay (South Morocco) in 1291; and two trips from West Africa (Mali Kingdom) with the second voyage in 1311 led by the elder brother of Mansa Musa named Abu Bakari. Read a description of a play of the story of Abu Bakari’s trip (about 1307) who traveled from Mali with 2,000 ships. This story is based on oral tradition and was performed by Ballet D’Afrique Noire, a touring dance company of Senegal.

Learn more about it:See “Muslim Legacy in Early Americas” and a brief presentation at: “Columbus Came Late: The African Presence in Early America“, and a short article with good photographs at KAM Africans in Pre-Columbian America and more citing of evidence of African trips to the Americas.

These trips to the Americas are not completely proven and the evidence is disputed. Therefore, these trips are not found in most textbooks at the present time. But both Columbus and Cortes told of hearing about or witnessing Africans during their voyages. According to one Italian Church document of Columbus’ voyage, it is recounted, “…and he (Columbus) wanted to find out what the Indians of Hispaniola had told him, that there had come to it from the south and southeast Negro people, who brought those spear points made of a metal which they called guanin…which was found to have thirty-two parts, eighteen of gold, six of silver, and eight of copper.” This was similar to how spear points were made in Mali!


F. Zheng He [or Cheng Ho], a Chinese Muslim under the authority of Ming Emperor made several trips of exploration and diplomacy from 1405 – 1433. He even made a hajj to Mecca! Learn more about his travels and the huge size of his ships at “Chinese Mariner Zheng He“. More about his life and adventures is found at “Cheng Ho and Suzhou – History Comes Full Circle” For a teacher’s lesson plan from AskAsia, see “Should the Ming End the Treasure Ship Voyages?”.



About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
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2 Responses to Muslim Travelers and Mapmakers during the Middle Ages

  1. Pingback: Human Settlement Development,Highways and India | Rashid's Blog

  2. Pingback: Defining Map and Different Types of Maps | Rashid's Blog: An Educational Portal

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