Idrīsī: An Open Library of Historical Geography of the Premodern Islamic World

Historically, as particular places were impacted by various administrative and cultural influences, their names were reported in historical sources with different spellings, and in different languages. As a result, historians face significant challenges in identifying toponyms, i.e., establishing the various orthographies of a particular placename and correctly associating them with specific historical places. Moreover, the accuracy of the geospatial information reported in historical sources for a particular toponym evolved according to developments in the related scientific traditions (i.e., mathematical geography and astronomy).

These challenges are further compounded by historical ambiguities, where the same place has been given different names at different times and, conversely, where the same name has referred to multiple places. Such challenges are especially pronounced in the premodern Islamic context, due to the geographic expansiveness and social diversity of the territories that came under Muslim rule. Yet, there are also exciting opportunities for addressing these challenges, as the scientific, bureaucratic, and historical traditions of the premodern Islamic world offer an abundance of primary sources for studying historical geography.

The Idrīsī Library of Historical Geography, as a new component of the Dabīrān Project on the Intellectual History of the Islamic World, aims to create the digital infrastructure for encoding, synthesizing, and analyzing toponyms and geographical data from the vast corpus of premodern Islamic texts, in both manuscript and print forms. The Idrīsī Library’s namesake is al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī (d. 1164–5 or 1175), one of the most well-known geographers of the medieval period.

The Idrīsī Library, led by PI and Project Director Osama Eshera (University of Maryland), Co-Project Director Sajjad Nikfahm-Khubravan, and Co-Project Director Fateme Savadi is funded by a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for Humanities. During the grant period, four major activities will be undertaken to develop the Idrīsī Library:

  • 1. Building new capacity in the Dabīrān database for storing toponyms and geographical data (geodata) drawn from different historical sources.
  • 2. Adding new components to the Dabīrān alpha-level user-interface for capturing geodata directly from source images.
  • 3. Compiling geodata and text-transcriptions for an initial batch of sources.
  • 4. Defining a text-encoding schema for distinguishing toponyms and geodata.

The Idrīsī Library will help researchers identify toponyms via complex database queries that examine interrelations between occurrences of toponyms and geodata across various sources. In this way, researchers will be able to consider advanced questions and gain new perspectives on intellectual history and the historical geography.

Advisory Board

  • Tony Campbell

    Map Librarian (Retired), British Library, London, UK; Chairman, Imago Mundi Ltd; Owner and maintainer of MapHistory (http://www.maphistory.info “MapHistory”)

  • Ahmet T. Karamustafa

    Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park

  • Fatemeh Keshavarz

    Professor and Chair, Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, University of Maryland, College Park

  • Matthew Thomas Miller

    Assistant Professor, Persian Literature and Digital Humanities, Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, University of Maryland, College Park

  • F. Jamil Ragep

    Professor Emeritus, (Formerly) Canada Research Chair in the History of Science in Islamic Societies, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada); Executive Board Member, Islamic Scientific Manuscripts Initiative; Honorary Member, Turkish Academy of Sciences

  • Sally P. Ragep

    Senior Researcher (Retired), Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada); Executive Board Member, Islamic Scientific Manuscripts Initiative

  • John M. Steele

    Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity, Department of Egyptology and Assyriology, Brown University

  • Robert Wisnovsky

    James McGill Professor of Islamic Philosophy, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)