Environment and Human Geography in the Sailing Instructions of Ahmad Ibn Majid (15th Century)

By Marina Tolmacheva
Submitted to Session P3202 (Transhistorical Accounts of the Environment, 2012 Annual Meeting
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The famous 15th-century navigator of the Indian Ocean Ahmad ibn Majid al-Najdi was a contemporary of Vasco da Gama and a witness to the Portuguese arrival in the Indian Ocean. One of the few Arab sailors of the pre-modern era to leave written instructions for the monsoon routes of the eastern and western parts of the ocean, he composed poetry and prose and was learned in formal as well as practical aspects of navigation, astronomy, and geography. Continuing interest in Indian ocean studies brings Ahmad ibn Majid firmly within the orbit of historians of regional and indigenous geography. His writings, some of which have been translated into European languages, allow s to explore the interaction of practical, popular, and scientific knowledge of geography and nature.
In the more formal of his works, Ahmad ibn Majid drew on established authorities ranging from Ptolemy to Abu’l-Fida and Ulugh-Beg. But the nautical instructions, composed in rhyme for easier memorization, highlight the practical information required for guidance to sailors needing expert advice in navigation and less familiar with the wide-ranging destinations along the numerous sailing routes of the ocean. This paper will focus on the famous “Sufaliya” poem (urjuza), so named for the city of Sofala in Mozambique and containing instructions for sailing from northwest India to southeast Africa. The long Arabic text allows for sustained narrative and contains information about a diverse and extended, yet geographically and climatically somewhat uniform coastal area. The paper will address Ibn Majid’s ideas about nature and landscape as they are present in the text and integrated into his record, consciously adapted for transmission to the next generation of learners. Examples will be drawn illustrating Ibn Majid’s use of scientific knowledge of geography and astronomy, his acceptance and promotion of the regionally-specific practice, and finally, his knowledge and opinion of the indigenous knowledge of the landmarks on the coastal route.