Abu Saleh Home


History zone - Islam in Britain

The British Isles According To Medieval Arabic Authors

D. M. Dunlop

THAT the Atlantic coast of Spain was well known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages goes almost without saying, and requires no elaborate proof. There was indeed a formidable crop of legends about the outlandish character of the Ocean which lay beyond the Strait (az-Zuqaq, Strait of Gibraltar). The most familiar of these (given by al­Mas'udi and others) speaks of the talismanic warning to traveler at the `Pillars of Hercules': `Beyond me is no route nor way for those who would enter yon sea from the Sea of the Greeks (Mediterranean). I Another legend names the Atlantic west and north of Spain the Sea of Darkness, and says that its colour is black like ink, yet, when you take it in a vessel, the blackness cannot be seen. Such stories doubtless arose in the East, or at a very early date in the West, before the facts were known. They are not likely to mislead anyone. It is certain that Muslim towns lay on the Atlantic seaboard, doubtless with sea-borne connexions between them­selves. Muslim fleets at least upon occasion cruised in Atlantic waters. The amber, or rather ambergris, of the Atlantic, gathered on the beaches of Portugal and marketed at Santarem and Sidona (Jerez), was a regular article of export to foreign countries (Egypt, &c.) as well as to Cordova. The existence of the traffic points to the reality of the Arab hold on the Atlantic provinces.

But when it comes to evidence for Arab voyaging at large in the Atlantic, especially northwards to the Channel and to the British Isles, with which we are here specially concerned, the situation is quite different. Reliable evidence for this is extremely difficult to come by. On the other hand, the Arabs from an early date (not later than the ninth century A.D.) knew about Britain and other parts of north-west Europe from Greek geographers, especially Ptolemy. In the present inquiry material of both these kinds, so far as it is available, will have to be adduced. It has seemed best to present it more or less chronologically, according to the authors, together with some other notices which do not come under either head, referring to movements of the Umayyad Atlantic fleet, in its home waters.

Muhammad b. Musa al-Khwarizmi in his Surat al-Ard, written according to Nallino shortly after 201 /817, mentions a number of places in Britain. This work was intended, it seems, to illustrate a series of maps based on Ptolemy's, which had been prepared by a group of savants, presumably including al-Khwarizmi himself, for the Caliph Ma'mun, as mentioned by al-Mas'udi: as-surah al-Ma'muniyah allati `umilat li'l­Ma'mun ~tama'a `ald san'atihd `iddah hukamd' ahl asrihi suwwira fihd al-`clam bi-afldkihi wa-nujumihi zva-barrihi zva-bahrihi wa-`dmirihi wa-ghdmirihi wa­masdkin al-umam wa'l-mudun wa-ghair dhdlika wa-hiya ahsan mimmd taqadda­mahd min jaghrdfiyd Ibtulamayus wa jaghrdfyd Mdrinds wa-ghairihimd. A number of places mentioned in the Surat al-Ard were identified by Nallino: thus Britain (Greek AAovlwv, Albion), Arabic Aluya; Ireland (Greek 'IouEpvt'a, Hibernia), Arabic Tubdrniyd; London (Greek AoAlMov), Arabic Lundinun; York (Greek 'EpdpaKOV), Arabic lburaqun, or strictly perhaps Iburiqi." In the edition of the work published by H. von Mzik from the Strassburg MS. it is possible to identify these and other places in the British Isles mentioned by Ptolemy. The co-ordinates for latitude and longitude as given by al-Khwarizmi differ more or less from Ptolemy's. This Nallino explained as owing to his working from maps based on Ptolemy and not Ptolemy directly. Nallino assumed that the Greek text of Ptolemy was used for al-Ma'mun's maps. No Arabic translation of Ptolemy's Geography appears indeed to be recorded thus early.

In 229/844 the Norsemen made a dangerous descent on the Atlantic coast of Spain. For a moment they occupied Cadiz, and sacked Seville before being defeated by Umayyad forces. Following upon this, according to an apparently contemporary document preserved by Ibn Dihyah (7th/13th century), the Umayyad ruler of Spain `Abd ar-Rahman II sent Yahya b. Hakam al-Bakri, known as al-Ghazal, accom­panied by a certain Yahya b. Habib, to arrange terms of peace with the anonymous `King of the Norsemen' in his own country. These ambassa­dors sailed from Silves, then the chief town and port of the province of Algarve (south-west Spain) in a ship specially built for them, and were accompanied by the ambassador of the `King of the Norsemen' in a ship of his own. Unfortunately neither the route followed by the expedition nor its destination is clear. According to the narrative, `When they came opposite the great promontory which enters the sea, the boundary of Spain in the extreme west, i.e. the mountain known as Aluwiyah, the sea swelled up against them and a violent storm descended upon them.' Yahya al-Ghazal recited verses appropriate to their situation. After the storm abated, they reached their goal, the land of the Norsemen, but how or where is not mentioned. First, they put in at an unnamed island, to refit and refresh themselves. Then they were summoned by the king, who lived elsewhere, on what is described as `a great island in the En­circling Ocean, in which are flowing waters and gardens, three days' sailing, or 300 miles, from the mainland'. In this island was a great number of Norsemen, and nearby were many other islands, large and small, inhabited by Norsemen. A considerable part of the mainland for several days' journey also belonged to them. `These Norsemen are today tempore Yahya al-Ghazal) Christians, having abandoned their old religion.' Only the inhabitants of certain isolated islands were still pagan, worshipping fire and practising heathen abominations. The other Norse­men were at war with them, and made prisoners of them. It is inviting to take this as the account of a journey to Ireland, where in the ninth century A.D. there were certainly Norse settlements. If Ireland is the destination, the absence of place-names in the narrative after Aluwiyah, presumably Cape Finisterre, is understandable. Though the poetry ascribed to Yahya al-Ghazal at this juncture refers to the fury of the winds from the west and north, it could be supposed that the two ships ran for Ireland after the storm was over. Several critics have placed the court of the `King of the Norsemen' in Jutland (Denmark). The late Professor Levi-Provencal, a high authority in all matters connected with Muslim Spain, expressed the opinion in more than one place that the narrative was unhistorical, in fact `imagined in the 12th or 13th century' i.e. in the time of Ibn Dihyah (544/1149-633/1235).

The rest of the narrative gives an account of the reception of the ambassadors. Yahya al-Ghazal, speaking through an interpreter, informed the `King of the Norsemen' of the contents of a letter from `Abd ar­Rahman. Then bales from Spain were opened, and the `King of the Norsemen' is represented as well satisfied with the presents (rich garments and vessels), which they contained. Much of the narrative purports to recount conversations between Yahya al-Ghazal and the consort of the `King of the Norsemen', called in the text Nud, perhaps for Thud, Theuda, who is represented as taking a sympathetic interest in the stranger. Finally, his mission (very indistinctly indicated) accomplished or not, Yahya al-Ghazal left his hosts and sailed back to St. James of Compostella in the Asturias (north-west Spain). After travelling overland through Christian Spain, he reached Cordova, according to the account, after an absence of twenty months.

There appears to be nothing here decisive for or against the authenticity. Two further points may be made. A poem attributed to Yahya al-Ghazal, incorporated in the narrative like the verses on the storm already mentioned, speaks of shining buttons (azrdr) as part of the dress of the queen. It is somewhat remarkable that a few decades later the traveller Ibn Fadlan also speaks of the gold buttons (azrur dhahab) on the khaftdn of a Germanic chief, whose funeral he had witnessed on the Volga. If, on the other hand, `the mountain known as Aluwiyah'-not apparently mentioned elsewhere, and nowhere explained-is the same name as Aluya above, then `mount Albion' would evidently be imaginary, and we should have a strong argument against the authenticity. In any case, this narrative clearly cannot be regarded as an unexceptionable account of a visit to the British Isles by Arabs from Spain in the ninth century, but it has not yet been proved not to be such.

Measures taken after the descent of the Norsemen in 229/844, which was scarcely the first of its kind, appear to have included the patrolling of the Atlantic coast of Spain by Umayyad squadrons, as far even as the Bay of Biscay. The Norsemen appeared again in 245/859, first in Galicia, then farther south, also in Africa and on the east coast of Spain. It is apparently to this raid that al-Mas'udi refers in the following passage.`Before the year 300 A.H. there came to Spain certain ships by sea in which were thousands of people, and they raided their coasts. The people of Spain supposed that they were a nation of Norsemen, who appear against them every two hundred years, and that they come to z heir land from a gulf of the Ocean, which is not that on which is the watch-tower of brass (SC. Strait of Cadiz or Gibraltar). I think, and God knows better, that the strait from which they came is connected with the Sea of Maeotis and Nitas (i.e. modern Sea of Azov and Black Sea, or Pontus), and that this nation are the Rus, whom we previously mentioned (as having recently descended the Volga to the Caspian) in an earlier art of this book, since none but they traverse these seas which are connected with the Ocean.' Al-Mas'udi was wrong about direct communication between the Atlantic and the Black Sea, but he has grasped the general connexion between Viking raids in the extreme west and the extreme east of Europe. One of the commanders of the Muslim fleet which operated in the Atlantic against the invaders was a certain Khash­kash, a name which will meet us later.

Al-Kindi, who died c. A.D. 87o, knew Ptolemy's Geography in a translation specially made for him, as mentioned in the Fihrist, which characterizes the translation as a poor one. Al-Mas`udi says that he had seen in the books ascribed to al-Kindi and his pupil as-Sarakhsi the statement that at the extremity of the inhabited land in the north is a great lake under the North Pole (taht qutb ash-shimal), and that in its vicinity is city beyond which is no habitation, called Tuliyah (Thule, usually taken = the Shetlands). He had seen also that the Banu’l- Munajjim, i.e. the Banu Musa b. Shakir in one of their treatises, had mentioned this lake.

Another reference to Thule about the same time is in the Ta'rikh al-ya'qubi, who analyses the Kitab fi dhdt al-halaq (On the Armillary Sphere) attributed to Ptolemy, chapter by chapter. Chapter 25 deals with the shortest day and longest day-four hours and twenty hours respectively- at 63 degrees north. This is the farthest habitable point. It is an island called Tuli (Thule) in the land of Europe (Uriba), and is north of the land of the Greeks. The Ta'rikh is dated to about 260/873-4.

In 266/879 an augmented Atlantic fleet received orders to sail to Galicia (north-west Spain), where the enemies of the Umayyad Muhammad I were causing him trouble, but was almost annihilated by a storm.

Ibn Rustah has the following on Britain, with Harun b. Yahya (fl. A.D. 890-900) as source. Harun b. Yahya was a prisoner of war in Constantinople, and may have travelled to Rome later. `From this city (sc. Rome) you sail the sea and journey for three months, till you reach the land of the king of the Burjan (here Burgundians). You journey hence through mountains and ravines for a month, till you reach the land of the Franks. From here you go forth and journey for four months, till you reach the city (capital) of Bartiniyah (Britain). It is a great city on the shore of the Western Ocean, ruled by seven kings. At the gate of its city (capital) is an idol (sanam). When the stranger wishes to enter it, he sleeps and cannot enter it, until the people of the city take him, to examine his intention and purpose in entering the city. They are Christians. They are the last of the lands of the Greeks, and there is no civilization beyond them.' Here at least we appear to have London and the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy (till A.D. 827), the latter already an anachronism. In the opinion of Harun b. Yahya the capital is guarded by a talisman, which has a magical effect on those who would enter without authorization. It is quite clear from this detail and the fantastic distances that Harun b. Yahya got his information about Britain at second- or third-hand, perhaps as far away as Byzantium, as the last sentence of his notice might suggest.

Thabit b. Qurrah (died 288/901) made an improved translation of Ptolemy's Geography, which is usually considered to have been lost. Al-Mas'udi had evidently seen a copy of Ptolemy's Geography, which Nallino considered to have been Thabit's translation. Al-Mas'udi indeed says that the names in this book were difficult to understand, because they were in Greek.

Al-Battani in his astronomical work Ilm al falak, published according to the editor, Nallino, some time before 289/902, has an important geographical expose, recognized as such by Reinaud, as well as by the numerous medieval Muslim authors who made use of it, as we shall see. This expose includes the following passage bearing on our subject: `As for the Western Ocean which is called the Encircling, nothing is known of it but the region west and north of the farthest point of the land of the Abyssinians towards Britain. It is a sea in which ships do not sail. The six islands in it opposite the land of the Abyssinians are the Fortunate Islands, and they are also called the Islands of the Blest. Another island opposite Spain is called Ghadirah (haSapa = Cadiz) in the Strait. This strait goes out from (the Western Ocean). The breadth of the place where it goes out is seven miles, between Spain and Tangier, called Sabta (Ceuta). It goes out into the Sea of the Greeks. In (the Western Ocean) also to the northward are the islands of Bartdniyah (Britain), twelve in number. Then it extends far away from the inhabited land, and no one knows its character, nor what is in it.'

For our purpose the most important observation here is doubtless that Britain consists of twelve islands. What is the source of this detail? It will meet us again where other authors have borrowed from al-Battani. The source is unlikely to be other than classical, given al-Battani's scant appreciation of his Muslim predecessors. Yet it is not in Ptolemy, and in all probability not to be regarded as a crude simplification of Ptolemy's map. We see in fact from Ghadirah for Cadiz that it must be Greek. The suggestion may be advanced hypothetically that the source of the statement that Britain consists of twelve islands, as mentioned, for example, by Ibn Rustah and al-Mas'udi as well as al-Battani, is the Geography of Marinus of Tyre (middle of the 2nd century B.C.), whose work, lost in Greek, appears to have been translated into Arabic. At all events, as already noted by De Sacy and others, al-Mas'udi claims to have seen a copy of the Jaghrafiya of Marinus, which work we assume as the source of al-Battani's statement. It is not to be thought of as deriving from some traveller of approximately al-Battani's time, any more than his other statements that in the island of Thule, which is in Britain, the length of the longest day is twenty hours .

Ibn Rustah's account of the British Isles follows al-Battani's al-most verbatim and is doubtless derived from it. The date is between 290/903 and 300/913.

Abd ar-Rahman b. Harun al-Maghribi, speaking in the majlis of al jumani of his adventures in the Western Sea (which is here said to take its rise in the Encircling Ocean and to extend eastwards, passing the north of Spain and the land of the Franks) related, according to a citation in al-Qazwini, `I sailed the sea in the year 288/goo, I mean the Western Sea, and we came to a place called al-Bartun. With us was a lad from Sicily, who cast a fish-hook into the sea, and brought out a fish, the size of a span. We looked, and saw behind one ear in writing "There is no god but God", on its head "Muhammad", and behind the other ear "the Apostle of God".' Unfortunately no information seems to be available about either `Abd ar-Rahman b. Harun al-Maghribi or al jumani. Al-Bartun could be Britain or Brittany. (One notes that the possibility of confusion between the two arises only in accounts emanating from later informants. In classical times Brittany was not yet so called.) It appears possible that `Abd ar-Rahman b. Harun al-Maghribi was one of those whose adventures in the Atlantic were recounted by al-Mas'udi. The author of a Kitdb al-Kharaj, Qudamah (died 31 o/g22), followed al-Battani's account and mentions the twelve islands of Britain.

Al-Mas'udi in the Muruj adh-Dhahab (a work begun in 332/943) cites al-Battani in one place verbatim, speaking of `the island of Thule, which is in Britain'. In the Tanbih (345/956) he has a reminiscence of the longer al-Battani passage: `In this sea (sc. the Encircling Ocean) near its western part are the so-called Eternal Isles, and near its northern part are the so-called Isles of Britain, twelve in number.'

More important is another passage in the Muruj adh-Dhahab: `No ship sails therein (Atlantic), nor is any habitable land there, nor any reasonable creature dwelling therein. Neither its extent nor end is known. It is the Sea of Darkness, the Green Sea, the Encircling Ocean .... Marvellous things are told concerning it, which we have reported in our Chronicle (Akhbdr az-Zamdn) and in the accounts of those who ventured forth and risked their lives, including both those who escaped and those who perished. One of them was a Spaniard called Khashkhash, a young man of Cordova, who collected a company of other young men of the same place, and embarked with them upon this Encircling Ocean in ships which they had equipped. He was absent for a time, then returned with rich booty. His story is well known among the Spaniards.' Nothing is here said of Britain, but clearly some remarkable voyage into the Atlantic at a date earlier than 332/943 is to be understood.

About the same time the celebrated Ahmad b. Muhammad b. ~.l;s. ar-Razi (died 344/955) wrote his Description of Spain. From al-Nlaqqari (§ 22) we have a long quotation from this work which mentions - that the northwest angle of Spain looks towards the land of Birtdniyah. This is presumably Brittany, perhaps first mentioned here in Arabic

In 355/966 there was an attack of Danish vikings on the Atlantic coast of Muslim Spain, at Lisbon and at Qasr Abi Danis farther to the south. The invaders were attacked and defeated at Silves by the Umayyad fleet. Another Danish expedition in 36o/971 was even less successful.

We are concerned here with medieval Arabic writers, but it may be noticed that in the Hudud al-`Alam, an anonymous Persian geography,composed in 372/982-983 and based to a great extent on earlier Arabic works, Britain is mentioned more than once. `In the northern direction of the same sea there are twelve islands called Britaniya, of which some are cultivated and some desolate. On them are numerous mountains, risers, villages, and different mines. North of the islands of `Britaniya' is another island called Tuwas or Tus, for Tuliyah, Thule. In another passage we read that Britain is the last land of the Greeks on the shore of the Ocean. It is an emporium of the Greeks and Spain. As Barthold noted, this information is apparently not found in any other source.

In 387/997 the fleet brought al-Mansur's infantry from the Atlantic port of Qasr Abi Danis already mentioned (now Alcacer do Sal) to Burtuqal (Oporto) by sea.

The Spanish geographer al-`Udhri was the author of a Nizdm al-marjdn fi'l-masdlik wa't-mamdlik, written about 450/1058. It is quoted by al-Qazwini (d. 682/1283) as Al-masdlik wa'l-mamdlik al-Andalusyah. From this book doubtless the following remarkable account of whaling in the vicinity of Ireland was taken. `Al-`Udhri said: `The Norsemen have no capital (qd'idah) save this island in all the world. Its circumference is a thousand miles. Its people have the customs and dress of the Norse-men. They wear rich mantles, one of which is worth 100 dinars. Their nobles wear mantles ornamented with pearls. He related that on their coasts they hunt the young of the whale (ablanah), which is an exceeding great fish. They hunt its calves, regarding them as a delicacy. They have mentioned that these calves are born in the month of September, and are hunted in the four months October to January. After this their flesh is hard and no longer good for eating. As to the manner of hunting them, al-`Udhri mentioned that the hunters assemble in ships, having with them a great iron blade with sharp spikes. In the blade is a great strong ring, and in the ring a strong cable. When they find a calf, they clap their hands and shout. The calf is delighted by the clapping and approaches the ships, wanting to be friendly with them. A sailor specially appointed for the task rubs the calf's forehead briskly, and the calf finds pleasure therein. Then he places the blade in the middle of its head and, taking a powerful iron mallet, he strikes with it upon the blade with all his force three times. It does not feel the first blow, but at the second and third it struggles violently. Sometimes it hits part of the ships with its tail, and destroys them. It does not cease struggling till weariness overtakes it. Then the crews of the ships take turns to drag it, till it is brought to the shore. Sometimes the mother of tile whale-calf sees the struggle and follows them. They prepare much powdered garlic, which they scatter on the water. When the whale smells the garlic, she lets (the calf) go, and turns backwards in her tracks. Then they cut up the meat of the calf and salt it. Its meat is white like snow, and its skin black as ink.'

Here al-`Udhri specifically mentions the Norsemen in Ireland, though it cannot be shown that he is dependent on the narrative of Yahya al-Ghazal. The account here reads almost as if it were some whale-boat-man's humorous version of how to catch a whale. It is very unlikely that Jacob's suggestion (Irlandah for Izlandah = Iceland) is right. Ice-land would appear to be effectively out of the range of Muslim geo-graphers (and sailors presumably). This conclusion is supported by the word here used for `whale', ablinah, clearly a Romance form, cf. Latin balaena, from Greek OaAatva; hence Italian balena, Spanish ballena, French baleine. It is from one of these, and not from a northern language such as Danish, English, &c., that this word for `whale' has passed into Arabic. It is of interest, however, to note that another Arabic word for `whale', uwdl, evidently of northern origin, occurs elsewhere for the animal as existing in the Indian Ocean.

Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi in his geographical work Nuzhat al-Mushtdq, written for the Norman King Roger of Sicily c. i 154, has a substantial account of the British Isles, which represents on the descriptive side an entirely original departure, and is undoubtedly the best account of Britain afforded by any medieval Arabic author. This has recently been the object of some special investigations, and to avoid repetition, we shall not discuss it here. There is general agreement that al-ldrisi's information was gathered from a variety of sources, oral as well as written, while he was in Sicily, and does not correspond to what he had himself seen. Where the British Isles are concerned, he appears to have had some French or Flemish informant.

Apart from his main account, there are a few other passages bearing on Britain scattered through al-Idrisi's great work. Such, for example, is a short passage at the end of the 2nd Section of the 6th Clime, where he rehearses the information about England, especially its towns, which he is going to give in the 7th Clime (the main account). A new detail is the statement that the passage from the Continent to England was made from Sanqulah, i.e. apparently St. Nicholas. The place is described elsewhere in the same section as a town near the sea, on the banks of a river and at the head of the gulf of Sanqulah, i.e. apparently St. Nicholas on the Escaut.

Again, at the end of the 1st Section of the 6th Clime, after describing Brittany, al-ldrisi continues: `These countries being bathed on the west by the Sea of Darkness, there come continually from that direction mists and rain, and the sky is always overcast, particularly on the coast. The waters of this sea are covered with cloud and dark in colour. The waves are enormous, and the sea is deep. Darkness reigns continually, and navigation is difficult. The winds are violent and towards the west its limits are unknown. In this sea are a number of inhabited islands, but few sailors dare to risk their lives therein. Those who do, though they have knowledge and bravery, sail only along the coast without going far from land. The time for these expeditions is restricted to the months of August and September. The principal sailors of this sea are those who are called the English (al-Inklisn), or inhabitants of England (Inkirtarah), a large island, which contains many towns and inhabited places, fertile fields and rivers, and which we shall treat of in more detail later, if God will. In spite of all that is terrifying in this sea and in spite of its cloud-covered waves, it contains many excellent fish, and fishing goes on in various places. There are also sea-animals of such size that the inhabitants of the inner isles employ their bones and vertebrae instead of wood for building houses. They also make from them clubs, lances, spears, daggers, seats, ladders, and other things which elsewhere are made of wood.

Al-Idrisi has another passage on similar lines at the beginning of the
1st Section of the 4th Clime, where he is less explicit about the English sailors and the extensive use of whalebone, apparently, in the `inner isles'.

`The greatest width of (Spain) is about 17 days' journey, starting from a
promontory in the extreme west, 'vvhere ends the inhabited portion of the land surrounded by the Ocean. No one knows what exists beyond this sea, no one has been able to learn anything for certain, because of the difficulty of crossing it, its profound darkness, the height of its waves, the frequency of its storms, the prevalence of its animals (? whales) and the violence of its winds. There is, however, in this Ocean a large number of islands, inhabited or desert, but no ship's captain ventures to cross it or to travel under full sail. They are limited to coasting, without losing sight of land. The waves of this sea are as high as mountains, and al- though they are in violent commotion, remain none the less whole, not breaking in pieces. If it were otherwise, to cross them would be impossible.'

Elsewhere al-Idrisi actually identifies the Sea of Darkness and the Sea of the English (here bahr al-Inqlishin). Relevant also to our subject, it would seem, is al-Idrisi's account of the so-called Adventurers (al-Mugharrirun), who sailed from Lisbon into the Atlantic at an unspecified date on a voyage of discovery. There were eight of them belonging to one family (literally `cousins'), and they built a transport ship, on which they put aboard water and provisions for several months. Setting sail `when the East wind begins to blow', they reached, after `about eleven days', `a sea with huge waves and thick clouds, with numerous reefs scarcely illumined by a feeble light'.

Realizing their peril, they changed direction and ran with the sea towards the south. The older translation of jaubert, retained by Dozy and De Goeje, conceals the fact that this is evidently a description, real or imaginary, of some northern shore. More than this one would not care to say, but it could be that the Adventurers reached some dangerous point on the Irish or English coast. Their voyage southwards, which does not concern us here, is represented as more rewarding. Whatever the details amount the fact of this expedition seems vouched for. Al-ldrisi states the existence at Lisbon of a street called after the Adventurers Darb al-Mugharririn. As to dating, the expedition must have taken place before 543/1148, when Lisbon was captured by the Christians, For Khashkhash was the leader of the Adventurers.

Ibn `Abd al-Mun'im al-Himyari in ar-Raud al-Mi'tdr, a work which in its final form was completed as late as 866/1461, but which was drafted in a version already in the seventh or beginning of the eighth century A.H., has a passage on the Ocean, as follows: `Ocean is the name of the Sea of Darkness, and it is called the Green Sea and the Encircling Ocean, whose end and extent are not known. There is no creature therein . . . . There risked his life Khashkhash of Spain, who was a young man of Cordova, with a company of other young men of the same place. They embarked in ships which they had equipped and entered this Ocean. They were absent in it for a time, then came back with rich booty and well-known stories sic].

'All that is sailed of this sea is near the west and the north (cf. n. 6, Z~. 2 I), and that is from the farthest point of the land of the Blacks to Britain, which is the great island in the farthest north. And in (the Ocean) are six islands opposite the land of the Blacks, called the Eternal Islands. Then no one knows what is after that. Hereafter, if God will, another story will be given concerning those who entered this sea, longer than This, at its place in the notice of Lisbon.'

This presents a cento, in which the first part is evidently al-Mas'udi and the second al-Battani. The story of Khashkhash is from al-Mas'udi, as the wording shows, unless we are to assume a common source. The `other story' is that of the Adventurers, given by Ibn 'Abd al-Mun'im in al-Idrisi's words, practically verbatim. The last sentence of course is Ibn 'Abd al-Mun'im speaking sua persona.

Levi-Proven~al believed that this Khashkllash, said to be of Cordova, could be identified not only with Khashkhash b. Said b. Aswad of Pechina (southeast Spain) who formed part of a deputation of sailors in 276/889-90 and Khashkhash who shared the command of the Umay-yad fleet against the Norsemen in 245/859, but also with the anonymous leader of the Adventurers mentioned by al-Idrisi. This construction seems very difficult, though perhaps possible. It makes a man who had held part command of a fleet, act with his father on an embassy thirty years later. Another difficulty seems to be to connect Khashkhash with Lisbon. It is not very likely that a street in Lisbon should commemorate the Adventurers, unless they were natives of that city. But if so, they had nothing to do with Khashkhash, allegedly of Cordova, but perhaps really of Pechina. Ibn `Abd-al--Mun'm appears not to connect the two stories. Perhaps we should reckon the voyages of Khashkhash and the Adventurers, with that of ` Abd ar-Rahman b. Harun already mentioned, as having been related separately in one of the lost works of al-Mas'udi.
Abu'1-Fida' in his Geography (finished 721 j 1321) has the following :`In the Sea of Burdil (Bordeaux) is the island of Britain.' Elsewhere he gives a longer account:? Of the islands of the seas which branch off from the Encircling Ocean is the island of Britain (Bartdniyah) in the Sea of Burdil (Bordeaux), which is a sea going out in the north of Spain. In this island there is no water except from the rains, and depending upon this they sow their seed.' It would appear that the `island of Britain' is here Brittany, distinguished rather insufficiently, since the proper name is the same, from the `islands of Britain' (also Bartanyah), which are now eleven in number, i.e. evidently twelve as before less Brittany. The passage continues: `And the islands of Britain are eleven islands. Of the famous islands is the island of England (Inkiltarah). Ibn Said said: And the ruler of this island is called al-Inkitdr in the History of Saldh ad-Din (Saladin) in the wars of 'Akkd (Acre). His capital in this island is the city of Lundras (London). He continued: And the length of this island from south to north, with a slight inclination, is 430 miles. Its width in the middle is about 200 miles. He continued: And in this island are mines of gold, silver, copper, and tin. There are no vines because of the sharpness of the frost. Its inhabitants bring the precious metals of these mines to the of France, and exchange them for wine. The ruler of France has plentiful gold and silver from that source. In their country (sc. England) is made the fine scarlet cloth from the wool of their sheep, which is fine like silk. They place coverings over the animals, to protect them from rain, sun, and dust. In spite of the wealth of al-Inkitdr and the extent of his kingdom, he admits the sovereignty of al-Faransis (the French king), and when there is an assembly, he performs his service by presenting before (the ruler of France) a vessel of food, by ancient custom. In the north of island of England and somewhat north of Britain is the island of England and somewhat north of Britain is the island of Ireland (Irlandah). The extent of its length is about twelve days, and its breadth in the middle is about four days. It is well known for its numerous disturbances (fitan). Its people were Norsemen before they became Christians, following their neighbours. From it is exported much copper and tin. . . . And among the islands of the Encircling Ocean is the Island of Tuli (Thule), which is in the North Encircling Ocean. It is the extremity of habitation in the North.'

Another passage confirms what has been here said about the export :petals to France. `Ibn Said said: And to the east of Bordeaux is the city of Toulouse.... The river (sc. Garonne) is south of it, and ships from the Encircling Ocean ascend it, with tin and copper, which they bring from the island of England and the island of Ireland. It is carried on pack-animals to Narbonne, and taken from there on the ships of the Franks to Alexandria.'

Abu'l-Fidd' is clearly under heavy obligations here to Ibn Said al-
'Maghribi (c. 610/i214-673/i274), who evidently had new and somewhat accurate information about the British Isles. Al-Inkitar (parallel, apparently, to al-Faransis for the king of France) may be due to a mistake. The historian Baha' ad-Din b. Shaddad, whose work is here quoted, spoke of malik al-Inkitar, so that al-Inkitdr is simply `England' (though indeed the :form may have been current as Ibn Said used it).
The account of Ireland is curious. The statement of Ireland's late
conversion to Christianity is of course the reverse of true.
Having admitted the notices of Britain in the Persian Hudud al-' allam, we may also include here a notice from the Jami` at-tawarikh of the celebrated Persian historian Rashid ad-Din especially since it qualifies for admission as having appeared in Arabic as well as Persian. The passage has been taken over practically as it stands by Banakati, whose Raudat uli'L-albdb, usually simply Ta'rikh-i Banakati, appeared in 717/1317, i.e. a few years after the,Jami` at-tawarikh itself (completed by Rashid ad-Din in 7I0/1310-11). It runs as follows: `Opposite this land (Spain) in the midst of the Encircling Ocean are two islands, of which one is Ireland (Ibarniya). From the special nature of the earth of that country poisonous reptiles die, and mice are not born there (tawallud na-mikunad). The men there are long-lived, red-complexioned, of tall stature and powerful frame, and brave. In this country is a spring of water, in which if one places a piece of wood, in a week its surface becomes petrified. The name of the larger island is Anglater (England). In this country are many remarkable mountains, innumerable mines of gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron, and different kinds of fruit. Among the marvels of that land is a tree which produces a bird as fruit, in the following manner. In the time of blossom a bag like an apple forms, within which is a thing shaped like a bird. When it grows big, it becomes alive and comes out. They keep it and eat the fruit, till it is the size of a large duck. The meat of the people of that land is mostly from that bird. They relate that among the Christians, who at the time of the fast eat no animals, there is a disagreement in regard to eating it. Some consider it as one of the plants, since it is the fruit of a tree, while others regard it as an animal, since blood comes from it. In those two islands there are sheep from whose fleece come "Jerusalem wool" (suf Q,udsi ) and exceedingly fine scarlet cloth. The ruler of both islands has the name Squtlandyah (Scotland) [sic], and they pay tribute to Anglater. . . . The ruler of that land (France) they call Riddfrans (Rol de France) and Anglater, the ruler of the isles, is tributary to him.'

There is not much that is new here. But Rashid ad-Din had access, presumably not directly, to medieval Latin legends. Thus we find here the old story that there are no snakes in Ireland, alongside of the barnacle goose in a disguised form. It is yet more remarkable that Rashid ad-Din knew about Merlin, if not by name.
Ibn Khaldun (732/1332-808/1406), who, as is well known, took over an extensive amount of al-Idrisi into his Muqaddimat, mentions England once or twice, but does not reproduce al-Idrisi's full text.
Al-Maqqari in his celebrated work .Nafh at-lib (completed 1039/1638) has a passage as follows.`And in the Encircling (Ocean) are the Eternal Isles, seven islands west of the city of Sala. They appear to the observer on a clear day, when the air is free from thick vapours. On them are seven idols of the likeness of men, which point out that there is no passage and no way beyond them. In (the Ocean) in a northerly direction the Islands of the Blest, where are cities and villages uncountable.
From them come forth (in the I 7th century!) a nation called Norsemen,
who are Christians. The first of them (sc. the islands in question) is the
island of Britain. It is in the midst of the Encircling Ocean, far to the north of Spain. No mountains or springs are there. They drink rain-water, and sow their seed depending upon it.'

This presents a farrago of ancient and modern lore. The basis in al-Battani is not hard to discern. The Eternal Isles, which are mentioned here with talismans strongly reminiscent of the `Pillars of Hercules' (cf. above, ad init.), are distinguished from the Isles of the Blest. The Norsemen appear from these last. At the end is an echo of Abu'1-Fida', T rather Ibn Said. It is somewhat remarkable that al-Maqqari quotes this from the Egyptian author Ibn Iyas who on his own subject, the history of Egypt, is a very respectable author.

A passage from the Spaniard ar-Razi with a brief mention of Brittany
is also quoted by al-Maqqari.

Reserved to the last place in this survey because its date is un-
:certain is an Arabic translation of the Geography of Ptolemy which was published in facsimile by Prince Youssouf Kamal in 1929. The manuscript from which the facsimile was taken is Aya Sofya 2610, but the origin of the translation remains something of a mystery. It is presumably of a copy of the translation of Ptolemy's Geograpjy made by Thabit b. Qurrah in the 3rd/9th century. Prince Youssouf Kamal tentatively advanced his opinion that the Arabic is a translation of a Greek manuscript f Ptolemy's Geography, which is believed to date from the end of the four-:teenth or the beginning of the fifteenth century A.D., and was actually the work of the person who had previously copied the Greek manuscripts. The Arabic manuscript bears the seal of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II (1481-1512), according to Prince Youssouf Kamal. A longish preamble to the translation mentions no names, but the recipient was perhaps an Ottoman ruler (al-malik al-a'la wa's-sultan al-jalil), so called by some client of his who had been specially selected for the task (`abduhu al-maghrus bi-aidi al jud wa'l-karam li-hadhihi l-khidmah). The translation appears to be a good one, e.g. the passage about the famous `Caledonian wood' in Britain (o KaAqBovcos Epuuos) comes out distinctly: zoa-min al-khalij al-Lamanun yus [sic] Q,aladhun yun wa fauquhum ghab Qaladhuni ilkh. The suggestion of the work having been specially made for an Ottoman Sultan is probably confirmed by the statement of Hajji Khalifah (died z o68/ r 658) that no copy of the Arabic translation of Ptolemy's Geography was now known to exist.

This completes our survey of passages in the medieval Arabic authors bearing on the British Isles. It will have been seen that Ptolemy's 'Albion' and 'Hibernia' are soon replaced by Britain and Ireland, and ultimately England and even Scotland (both in al-Idrisi for the first time) have dis-tinct identities. The best accounts in Arabic which we have of the British Isles-apart from Ptolemy in translation-are given by al-Idrisi and Ibn Said al-Maghribi,iAbu'1-Fida' . As the Middle Ages proceed, the tendency to garble the older data is on the increase. This is very obvious in the passage from Ibn Iyas, and more extreme cases could be cited. At the end of the Middle Ages less was known, it would seem, at least theoretically, about the British Isles than at the beginning.

This result, however, is incidental. The purpose of the inquiry has been to establish, if possible, the existence of records in Arabic of direct contact with Britain. The result, as will have been seen, is almost entirely negative. Possible contacts with the south or west coast of Ireland are as much as can be affirmed. A similar contact with the coast of England is not excluded.

It may be asked, Is there anything in English or Irish historical notices which would support the view that such contacts may occasionally have occurred? What there is amounts to very little. We find indeed an unconfirmed mention of the Moors in Domesday Book, as sojourners or settlers in London, i.e. in 478/1085. It has also been claimed that Arabic characters were to be seen on tombstones at Peel in the Isle of Man in the eighteenth century. Since the stones in question appear now to have been cleared away, it is no longer possible to examine the evidence on which this statement was based. But it would certainly seem that until some evidence is produced, the claim can safely be neglected.

Hosted by uCoz