Lost Maps of the Caliphs: Drawing the World in Eleventh-Century Cairo

Publication Year



Yossef Rapoport, Ph.D. 2002.

About a millennium ago, in Cairo, an unknown author completed a large and richly illustrated book. In the course of thirty-five chapters, this book guided the reader on a journey from the outermost cosmos and planets to Earth and its lands, islands, features, and inhabitants. This treatise, known as The Book of Curiosities, was unknown to modern scholars until a remarkable manuscript copy surfaced in 2000.

Lost Maps of the Caliphs provides the first general overview of The Book of Curiosities and the unique insight it offers into medieval Islamic thought. Opening with an account of the remarkable discovery of the manuscript and its purchase by the Bodleian Library, the authors use The Book of Curiosities to re-evaluate the development of astrology, geography, and cartography in the first four centuries of Islam. Their account assesses the transmission of Late Antique geography to the Islamic world, unearths the logic behind abstract maritime diagrams, and considers the palaces and walls that dominate medieval Islamic plans of towns and ports. Early astronomical maps and drawings demonstrate the medieval understanding of the structure of the cosmos and illustrate the pervasive assumption that almost any visible celestial event had an effect upon life on Earth. Lost Maps of the Caliphs also reconsiders the history of global communication networks at the turn of the previous millennium. It shows the Fatimid Empire, and its capital Cairo, as a global maritime power, with tentacles spanning from the eastern Mediterranean to the Indus Valley and the East African coast.

As Lost Maps of the Caliphs makes clear, not only is The Book of Curiosities one of the greatest achievements of medieval mapmaking, it is also a remarkable contribution to the story of Islamic civilization that opens an unexpected window to the medieval Islamic view of the world.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: A Discovery
Chapter 2: Macrocosm to Microcosm: Reading the Skies and Stars in Fatimid Egypt
Chapter 3: The Rectangular World Map
Chapter 4: The Nile, the Mountain of the Moon, and the White Sand Dunes
Chapter 5: The View from the Sea: Navigation and Representation of Maritime Space
Chapter 6: Ports, Gates, Palaces: Drawing Fatimid Power on the Island-City Maps
Chapter 7: The Fatimid Mediterranean
Chapter 8: A Musk Road to China
Chapter 9: Down the African Coast, from Aden to the Island of the Crocodile
Chapter 10: The Book of Curiosities and the Islamic Geographical Tradition
Conclusion: Maps, Seas, and the Ismaʿili Mission

Appendix: A Technical Discourse on Star Lore and Astrology

Reviews and Endorsements

The Daily Telegraph

“This astounding 1,000-year-old find transforms how we think about history. . . . As tales of scholarly finds go, this is up there with the best. . . . Lost Maps of the Caliphs is a testament both to the scholarship of its authors and to the spirit of inquiry fostered by the Fatimids. It can teach us several things. That Islamic thought cannot be reduced to more obviously 'religious' texts written by a Sunni standpoint. That history, as a discipline, is hard work, and exciting. Above all, that what we know of the past is still only provisional.”

Imago Mundi

Lost Maps of the Caliphs is a tour-de-force that not only supersedes—complete with corrections, updates and new material—all their previous publications, but also proposes a comprehensive reconsideration of the way the history of astronomy, astrology, geography and cartography has hitherto been written. It is a lesson in how one remarkable manuscript and two talented scholars can change a field. . . . [The] conclusion has paradigm-changing implications for the study of early Islamic maps and their textual environment. We are fortunate indeed that Rapoport and Savage-Smith have undertaken fifteen years of meticulous, collaborative research on the Book of Curiosities. The culmination, Lost Maps of the Caliphs, is an exceptional tribute to an exceptional object of study.”

Sameer Rahim | Apollo

“A comprehensive and fascinating appraisal of the [Book of Curiosities], putting it in the context of other Arab and world maps. . . . Savage-Smith and Rapoport have done a splendid job in rescuing this intriguing work, forcing us to reorient our sense of the geographical priorities of differing Islamic dynasties. . . . It asks us to think ourselves into the worldview of an educated man curious about his empire, keen to show off the knowledge he had picked up here and there--both in written form and, when he needed to clarify, in a diagram or map.”

Jerry Brotton, Queen Mary University of London, author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps.

“A remarkable and important book of dazzling scholarship; as well as providing a definitive account of the discovery and significance of The Book of Curiosities to the history of cartography, the authors offer no less than a complete reappraisal of astronomy, astrology, and geography in the first four centuries of Islam. With its focus on eleventh-century Fatimid Cairo, The Lost Maps of the Caliphs reinterprets early Islamic apprehensions of the earth and the heavens, while reorienting our modern understanding of medieval Arabic mapmaking and its part in the transmission of Late Antique cartographic knowledge.”

Ingrid Rowland, University of Notre Dame

“There is nothing quite like The Book of Curiosities. It provides a view of the heavens and the known world as these were seen from eleventh-century Egypt, extending from the realm of the fixed stars to Europe, China, India, and East Africa. The author’s cartographic method is tailored to his own aims, the stylized equivalent of the subway maps that now exist for major cities like London and New York.  Lost Maps of the Caliphs is organized along the lines of the original manuscript, and exceptionally well documented, using a dazzling range of sources in an equally dazzling range of languages. The result is totally fascinating, with untold potential to illuminate any treatment of the medieval world on any continent in the Eastern Hemisphere. New trade routes appear. Krakatau is shown in full eruption. The authors’ ability to clarify what we see and read is so great that the unfolding of this marvelous story somehow seems easy and natural—but in fact it is a triumph of careful, imaginative scholarship.”

Hugh N. Kennedy, SOAS, University of London

“This book starts with an exciting account of the discovery of the manuscript of the Book of Curiosities and the growing realization of its importance, a great story in itself. Since then the text has been published with admirable speed. This book is the first scholarly discussion of the maps, their sources, and their place in the history of Arab cartography. At every level it reaffirms the importance of the work. The two authors, Savage-Smith on the heavens and Rapoport on the earth, explain the maps with exemplary scholarship and lucidity. Like the manuscript itself, this companion volume vastly enhances our understanding of the classical Arabic world view in all its rich complexity.”

University of Chicago Press
Cloth: 9780226540887; ebook: 9780226553405