5 Apr 2020

The Missing Lions

This week we were led to wonder about the earliest Arab nautical texts. That Ibn Mājid was not the first author is evident, for he himself mentions three earlier authors famously known as the “three lions of the sea.” Were they the first to write about navigation? How far back does this tradition go?

We have been looking at Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-aqālīm (The Best Division for Acquaintance with the Lands), by al-Maqdisī (=al-Muqaddasī). According to this 10th century geographer, there are only two seas in the polity of Islam: the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It is remarkable that the Red Sea, instead of being perceived as a separate entity, is considered part of a unity with the North Indian Ocean. This is in perfect continuity with the Ancient Greek notion of the “Red Sea” (Eruthre Thalassa), practically from Suez to at least the west coast of India.

This 11th century map shows the two seas (south is up!):
the Mediterranean on the right and the “Indian Ocean” on the left.
Even more interesting for our research, al-Maqdisī speaks with admiration of the seamen he met: captains, navigators and merchants, “… and I saw they have notebooks (dafātir) from which they learn, and on which they rely and act.” In other words, al-Maqdisī alerts us as clearly as possible to the existence of a widespread nautical literature, already in the 10th century. From then to the earliest texts known today (15th century), we have five centuries of lost navigational texts! We wonder about the physical format of those notebooks, their resilience, their destinies… and we keep on the lookout, hopeful for bibliographical surprises. [IB]

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