When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

We tend to take many things for granted. Today, we are equipped with numerous means of communication and transport over land, sea and air. We have such freedom to swiftly travel around the globe, so much so that we tend to travel far and wide without ever considering the immense contributions others have made for our convenience. Great scholars from Muslim Civilisation, indeed, turned the world upside down with their maps; not just metaphorically but world maps once were literally upside down (with south dipicted at the top).

Figure 1. Article Image Banner


Note of the Editor

This article was first composed by Cem Nizamoglu in the 1001 Inventions website. It has been later edited and updated by Cem Nizamoglu and Khaleel Shaikh.


A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.” Reif Larsen[1]

In today’s digital world, it appears as if every square inch of our planet has been mapped and recorded. Due to significant progressions in communication and travel, we tend to take much for granted. We would only have to look back to a time before the 20th century, when the cartographic tradition represented countless possibilities and inspired a curiosity of the unknown. Although many animals can mark and identify their territory, humans are the only species capable of cognitive mapping.[2] It is for this reason that cartography represents more than a means of location, but also a sense of human existence.[3]

People began to significantly explore the world 1000 years ago for reasons of commerce, exploration and for religion. As a result, the demand for increasingly accurate maps and locations of unknown continents arose. It is from this period of exploration, in our shared history, that some of the world’s most precious maps were created by scholars, cartographers, geographers and travellers. It is due to this curiosity, of the unknown, that detailed mathematical analysis was conducted to measure our land and seas, constructing what we now consider to be the early roots of cartography in Muslim Civilisation. Interestingly cartographers from the Muslim Civilisation often portrayed the world upside down, with south positioned at the top.

Figure 2. The Tabula Rogeriana, by Al-Idrisi in 1154, is one of the most detailed maps of the ancient world. This map has been rotated to show its similarity with modern maps (Source)

Across the Mediterranean Sea, both Muslims and Christians were making portolan charts, navigational maps with no agenda other than ensuring a safe voyage. Usually unadorned and concentrating on drawing and naming coastlines, these maps were used by merchants and pilots whose livelihoods and future prosperity depended on them getting from one place to another quickly and safely.” Jerry Brotton[4]

Much later, with the New World discoveries on the rise by the end of the 15th Century, maps from the Muslim Civilisation began to follow the modern cartographic traditions, of which we are familiar with today. There is no definitive reason why the old maps placed south on the top, but from a spatial perspective, what is traditionally seen as north or south is all relative. Nick Danforth states that “Europeans made the maps [because] they wanted to be on top”.[5]  This may be due to similar reasons why the Muslims placed themselves at the top of maps. Jerry Brotton implies “It can be assumed that Muslim cartographers living south of Mecca wished the Kaaba to be at the top”.[6] Another plausible reason could be that Muslims were simply following a previous ancient cartographic tradition. There is no exact evidence to suggest any of this, but the Muslims were known to use the ancient lore and in many cases improved upon and even corrected them. Whether they portrayed north or south on the top, with an agenda in mind or not, the Muslim Civilisation was flush with important and interesting maps.

When the observer looks at these maps and these countries explained, he sees a true description and pleasing form” Al-Idirisi, 12th Cent.[7]

Here we introduce a few key examples of maps from the Muslim civilisation:


1. Al-Balkhi Map, 9th Century

2. Al-Istakhri Maps, 10th Century

3. Ibn Hawqal Map, 10th Century

4. Al-Masudi’s Map, 10th Century

5. The Book of Curiosities Map, 11th Century

6. Mahmûd El Kaşgari Map, 11th Century

7. Al-Idrisi Map, 12th Century

8. al-Qazwini Map, 13th Century

9. Ibn al-Wardi Map, 14th Century

10. Piri Reis Map, 16th Century

11. Ali Macar Map, 16th Century

12. Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi Map, 16th Century

13. Kâtip Çelebi Map, 17th Century

14. Erzurumlu Ibrahim Hakki Map, 18th Century

15. Appendix I – Other Maps
15.1 Taqwim-i ta’rikhi (Historical Calendar), 15th Century
15.2 Matrakci Map, 16th Century
15.3 Al-Rudani’ Astrolobe

16. Appendix II – Further Contributions

17. Further Reading (Bibliography)

18. References 


1. Al-Balkhi Map, 9th Century

Figure 3. A map by Abu Zaid Ahmed ibn Sahl al-Balkhi (850-934), a Persian geographer who was a disciple of al-Kindi and also the founder of the “Balkhī school” of terrestrial mapping in Baghdad. Picture displayed on “Old Manuscripts and Maps from Khorasan” (Source)

Abu Zaid Ahmed ibn Sahl al-Balkhi was born in 850 CE. Originally from the Balkh province of Khorasan, he went on to travel extensively throughout the Muslim world. He founded the Balkhi School of terrestrial mapping in Baghdad, but also specialised in mathematics, physics, phycology and other general sciences. Although he was born and died in Khorasan, he spent much of his life in Baghdad where he was known amongst the literary community. The Balkhi School maps may appear to be simplistic in representation, however this was intentional, similar to the purpose of the simplified lines that make up the London Underground Map.[8]

The image of the world consists of five parts: the head, two wings, breast, and tail of a bird. The world’s head is China. Behind China is [a place] people called Wakwak. Behind this [country called] Wakwak are people whom no one except God counts [as one of his creatures]. The right wing is India, and behind India is the sea; behind this sea there are no creatures at all. The left wing represents Khazar [of the Caspian], and behind Khazar are two nations each of which is called Manshak and Mashak. Behind Manshak and Mashak are Gog and Magog, both of which are nations whom only God knows. The breast of the world represents Mecca, Hijaz [the western shore of the Arabian Peninsula], Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. The tail represents the land from dhat al-Plumdm [the frontier of Egypt] to the Maghreb [Northwest Africa]. The tail is the worst part of the bird.” Ibn al-Faqih, 10th Cent.[9]

Although al-Balkhi is highly regarded as the originator of this cartographic school, some scholars hold their reservations due to the lack of surviving manuscripts that are actually from the time of al-Balkhi.[10] In fact, to this day, there is no existing map crafted directly from any of the four authors of the Balkhi school. The oldest surviving manuscript of this tradition dates back to the 11th century which is much later than the last of the Balkhi school’s authors. It is for this reason that some scholars hold their reservations on the origins of these maps. These cartographic manuscripts started to adopt the Balkhi name by scholars from the 18th,19th and 20th centuries. However, despite the origin of the al-Balkhi map being subjected to question, it is still popularly known as the “Balkhi World Map“.


2. Al-Istakhri Maps, 10th century

Figure 4. A world map by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al-Istakhri (934 CE) aka Estakhri. The map is oriented with South at the top, a common feature of maps at the time. Picture displayed on “Old Manuscripts and Maps from Khorasan” (Source)

Finally, I admit to having used Estakhri’s maps because of the personal allure they hold for me. In my opinion they are the most abstract paintings of Islamic Iran.” Parvis Tanavoli[11]

Al-Istakhri was a traveller and scholar from the 10th century, who was born in Fars (Persia). His work is known to have been largely influenced by Al-Balkhi’s tradition and is seen as an extension of his work. Subsequently Al-Istakhri’s work had intrigued Ibn Hawqal and was a source for his inspiration and travels.[12] Al-Istakhri’s most notable geographic work is the Kitab al-Masalik al-Mamalik. What little information we do have about him derives from a meeting between Al-Istakhri and Ibn Hawqal.[13] After his initial world map, al-Istakhri went on to author a series of twenty smaller, regional maps. These maps focused on different regions of the Muslim Civilisation.[14] Al-Istakhri is believed to have travelled through a number of Muslim nations including; parts of Arabia, Khuzistan, Daylam and the Indian sub-continent.[15] Interestingly, al-Istakhri is one of the first to record the existence of windmills, which were built by al-Masudi in Sijistan, 10th century.[16]

Al-Istakhri is similar to al-Muqaddisi in his treatment of the west, but to Ibn Hawqwal in his treatment of the east.” Zayde Antrim[17]

Figures 5-7. Left: South Caucasus (Armenia) (Source), Centre: From Al-aqalim (Source), Right: Persian Gulf’s coast (Source




1 reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.