“Surat Bahr al Rum” (Picture of the Sea of Byzantium): Possible Meanings Underlying the Forms

“Surat Bahr al Rum” (Picture of the Sea of Byzantium): Possible Meanings Underlying the Forms

By Karen C. Pinto

Tetradia Ergasias, Vol.25/26 (2004)

Abstract: In this paper I will display, examine, and deconstruct the “classical” medieval Islamic conception of the Mediterranean as seen through colorful, miniature maps found in medieval Arabic and Persian geographical manuscripts from the 11th to 17th centuries. In his classic book “Mohammad and Charlemagne” (1939), the Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne set forth what has since come to be known as the Pirenne thesis, expressing the dominant European view that the sudden advent of Islam on the “other” side of the Mediterranean disrupted the unity of the “Roman Lake” forever. “With Islam a new world was established on those Mediterranean shores, which had formerly known the syncretism of the Roman civilization. A complete break was made, which was to continue even to our own day. Henceforth two different and hostile civilizations existed on the shores of Mare Nostrum. The sea, which had hitherto been the center of Christianity became its frontier”. A similarly antagonistic picture is presented by some scholars of the medieval Islamic approach to the Mediterranean. (See, for instance, André Miquel’s discussion of the subject in “La géographie humaine du monde musulman”). Do the detailed maps of the Mediterranean and its surrounding littorals prepared by medieval Muslim geographers reinforce this traditional, polarized, oppositional view? If not, what kind of a vision of the sea do the maps present? What can the pictorial depictions of the sea be taken to signify? Did they mutate over time? The surprising, counter-intuitive responses to some of these questions form the core of this paper.

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