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In the Royal Palace of Palermo, in Sicily, now a popular tourist spot, a large silver circular map of spectacular beauty shines within the city walls. Engraved on pure silver and weighed 450 Roman pounds, this truly magnifcent object is about 2 meters in diameter. It is divided in parts with the regions, the countries, the inhabited and uninhabited marine areas, the roads with the measurements in miles, and the maritime distances between the ports, all the result of the collective stories of the historical routes of early adventurers and explorers during the twelth century. Although not the original masterpiece, it is a perfect replica of the Tabula Rogeriana made by the Arab geographer Prince al-Idrīsī around 1154 painted in color on silk paper. The first Tabula has since been made into many copies, and the most complete one made in Cairo in 1553, remains at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Mss.
The Tabula Rogeriana is a large map composed of 70 small maps built and drawn from written and oral sources commisioned by King Roger II of Sicily. Reconstructed entirely by Konrad Miller, a little known German Naturalist, consulting and photographing the remaining copies, like all Arabic maps, this one is oriented with the North at the bottom and in order to read it accurately it must be flipped upside down. The map is divided into seven parallel bands, from the Equator to the Arctic Circle, numbered from South to North; each band is divided into 10 sections from West to East. Although ancient, it has the properties of a modern map with distances from place to place marked, making it very practical and useful. The novelty, in addition to the travel experiences already written and the rejection of myths and legends, was to collect the current stories of travelers who came to Sicily from distant lands. These explorers were questioned by the Arab Prince and also by King Roger himself. They gave wonderous accounts about the shape of the lands, the height of the mountains, the features of the coasts, the climate, the rivers, the inhabitants of those lands, the products and the wonders of those countries that they had seen. Everything they heard was catalogued and compared until a realistic and accurate portait of these landscapes became unified. Thus was born, in Palermo, the first royal school of scientific geography of the modern era, based in Sicily which was at the center of three continents with its very active, and cosmopolitan port cities.
To describe the places represented in each individual card, al-Idrīsī wrote a guide entitled The Pleasure for Those Who Strongly Wish to Travel the Different Regions of the World, also known as The Book of Roger. It was a guide full of news of all kinds about all the countries then known, and the Touring Club guide of the Middle Ages printed it for the first time in Arabic in Rome in 1592, and then in Latin in Paris in 1619. Wonderful things were told such as that of the Queen of Merida (Spain), to whom meals were served floating on the water, or curious news about Norwegians who collected grains when they were still green, ripening them near a fire because they almost never saw the sun in their countries with long, brutal winters. It told of the superior quality wild saffron that came from China, with tales about the civet, a cat-like animal, with glands that produced very valuable odorous substances for use in perfumery. The guide did not lack incredible and wild information about a population located in a new land, reached starting from Lisbon (Portugal) beyond the sea of mists (Atlantic Ocean). In addition to the rich vegetable gardens found there, were stories of tall, red-skinned men, with little hair on the body, with high hair (probably bands with eagle feathers) and women of extraordinary beauty. In the 12th century, therefore, both China as far as Kanfù (Canton) and even the Indies (America) were already discovered before Christopher Columbus made his landing!
Looking at the original map, through an Arabic lense, in the Western area there are the territories from India to China, North East Asia, the Indian Ocean with the island of Taprobane (Cylon = Sri Lanka) and the islands of Indonesia. In the central part, is the representation of Egypt with the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Eastern Mediterranean with the Greek islands, the Red Sea, the Black Sea, Arabia, Central Asia with the Caspian Sea, the Indian Ocean and part of Africa. In the last part, is the representation of Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean with Italy and Sicily in the center, and on the right the Iberian Peninsula.
But who was al-Idrīsī? He was the most famous of the Arab geographers of Western Islam, prince al-Idrīsī, born in Ceuta, Morocco in 1099. After studying in the best schools of Córdoba (now Spain) he traveled extensively to the borders of Asia Minor (now Turkey) and from 1138 was in the service of King Roger in Palermo. But how did the idea and realization of this fantastic map and its guide come about? The idea stems from a need of King Roger, to know in detail, his entire empire that included Sicily, all the islands of Malta and Gozo and also North Africa that were around it. He was a powerful, intelligent king with a dominant personality, who aspired to obtain the imperial throne of Constantinople. According to Arab and Byzantine tradition, the glory of a great ruler was expressed through knowledge. A king's ultimate mission was to be a servant and populariser of knowledge, of all knowledge and therefore also of geography, as geography was seen as the key to the intellectual control of the world. Al-Idrīsī worked 15 years on the commission of the Tabula Rogeriana for King Roger, with great commitment and considerable economic expense. This magnificent artifact was to be the record that detailed the centuries of of glory of the Sicilian Kingdom, and consecrating King Roger the II, mission forever in the archives of history.
The Tabula Rogeriana
Rogerian Charta, Palermo, 1154, by Konra
Upside down Italy and Sicily
From Egypt to Indian Ocean
On top north Africa, from Iberian penins
From India to China
Upside down Rogerian Charta
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