1902 Encyclopedia > Geography > Mohammedan Travellers. Mongol Tables.

(Part 7)

Mohammedan Travellers. Mongol Tables.

From the 9th to the 13th century intelligent Mahometan travelers wrote accounts of what they had seen and heard in distant lands, which have been handed down to us; while the caliphs of Baghdad encouraged the study of geographical science.

The caliph Al-Mamûn, the worthy son and successor of Hârûn er-Rashîd, caused an Arabic version of Ptolemy’s great astronomical work Syntaxis megiste to be made, which is known as the Almagest, the word being nothing more than the Greek megiste ("great") with the Arabic article of prefixed. The geography of Ptolemy is also constantly refferd to by Arab writers. The learned men under Al-Mamûn began to apply themselves to astronomy in 813 A.D., following the system of Ptolemy; and the first observations that are properly their own were made by El-Báthany in Mesopotamia, of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, in 882 A.D. The Arab astronomers also measured a degree on the plains of Mesopotamia, and Ibn Yûnus observed three eclipses at Cairo. The caliph’s librarian, Abu Jafar Muhammad Ben Musa, wrote a geographical work, now unfortunately lost, entitled Rasm el Arsi ("A Description of the World"), which is often referred to by subsequent writers as having been composed on the model of that of Ptolemy.

The earliest Arabian traveler whose observations have come down to us is the merchant Sulaiman, who embarked in the Persian Gulf and made several voyages to India and China, in the middle of the 9th century. Sulaiman’s information was supplemented by that collected by another writer named Abu Zaid; and, so far as India is concerned, this work is the most important that we possess before the grand epoch of the discoveries of Macro Polo. Next to Sulaiman followed the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, whose narrative, though inserted in the Arabian Nights, also forms a distinct and separate work, which was translated into French by M. Langlés in 1814. Baron Walckenaer ascribes to the voyages of Sindbad a date about coincident with those of Sulaiman. Ibn Khurdadra, a fire-worshipper converted to Islam, who died in 912 A.D., also wrote an account of India. Al Masudi, a great traveler who knew all the countries between Spain and China, described the plains, mountains, and seas, the dynasties and peoples, in his Murúju-Zahab ("Meadows of Gold"). He died in 956. His contemporaries were Al Istakhri, who traveled through all the Mahometan countries, and wrote his Book of Climates in 950, and Ibn haukal, whose Book of Roads and Kingdoms was written in 976. Al Idrisi was born at Ceuta, and after traveling far and wide, settled in Sicily, where he was induced by Roger II., the Norman king, to write his book on geography, the full title of which is The Delight of those who seek to wander through the Regions of the World. Finally Al Kazwini, who was a compiler from the works of Istakhri and Ibn haukal in about 1263, brings us down to the times when the Italian explorers began to make a known the vast realms of Asia to the people of Europe.

The Mongol and Turkish dynasties, which succeeded each other after the fall of the Arabian caliphs, also produced rulers who encouraged geographical science. Philosophers assembled at the court of Hulaku Khan (1253-1264) at Maraghah in the north of Persia; and his friend Nâsiru-‘d-Dîn was the most famous astronomer of the age. He constructed the tables known as the Tables of the Ilkhany, which corrected some important errors in the former mode of adjusting the commencement of the new year. Nearly two centuries later, in 1446, Ulugh Begh, of the house of Timur, succeeded to the throne of Samarkand, and under his auspices the famous tables called "Zij Ulugh Begh" were composed. They continued to be authorities for long afterwards, and even Kinneir, in determining the latitudes of places in Persia, often quotes the tables of Ulugh Begh.

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