A life well lived in the tenth-century

“There is nothing that befalls travelers of which I did not have my share, barring begging and grievous sin.” These are the words of al-Maqdisi, a geographer who lived in the tenth century. The story he tells of his own life seems to have had its shares of ups and downs.

Shams al-Dīn al-Maqdisī was born in Jerusalem around the year 946 to a middle class family. He saw himself as a Palestinian, but early on found an interested in learning about the wider world. By his early twenties he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, which would be the start of many travels across the Middle East and northern Africa. By the year 985 he published his most important work, The Best Divisions in the Knowledge of the Regions. Historians have called him the first person to really see geography as a ‘true science’ and lauded him for writing in an entertaining yet insightful way.


Al-Maqdisi explains that while he consulted books and talked with reliable people, much of what he learned was from his own experiences. He adds, “in this way I found a correct knowledge of what I was seeking in this subject.” As he traveled through the various countries and lands, he would do many different jobs, and so was called teacher, merchant, preacher, courier, jurist, messenger, bookbinder are more.

Here al-Maqdisi explains his life:

I studied law and letters, practiced asceticism and piety, taught theology and letters, preached on the pulpits, called to prayer on the minarets, led the prayers in mosques, preached in the congregational mosques, frequented the schools. I said the prayers in convocation, spoke in the councils. I have eaten their porridge with mystics; supped broth with the monks, and pudding with the sailors. I have been ejected from mosques at night, have traveled in the solitudes, gone astray in the deserts. At times I have been scrupulously pious; at times I have openly eaten forbidden good. I have become acquainted with the devout men on Mount Lebanon, and also been on intimate terms with governors. I have owned slaves, but have had to carry baskets on my own head.


A number of times I was close to drowning; our caravans were waylaid on the highway. I have served the judges and the great ones, have spoken with rulers and ministers. I have accompanied the licentious on the way, sold goods in the markets, been confined in jail, been accused as a spy, I have witnessed war with the Romaneans in battleships, and the ringing of church bells at night. I have been a bookbinder to earn money, have bought water at a high price. I have ridden in sedans and on horseback, have walked in the sandstorms and snows. I have been in the courtyards of the kings, standing among the nobles, I have lived among the ignorant in the workshops of weavers. What glory and honor I have been given! Yet my death has been plotted more than once. I have performed the Pilgrimage, and visited Medina; have been on forays, and in frontier posts. I have drunk sawiq (a potage of grains) from the public fountains in Mecca, eaten bread and chickpeas in a monastery.

Al-Maqdisi adds more about the highs and lows of his experiences, ranging from having gifts given to him by royalty, to having “had good experience of pickpockets.” In the end, he believes it helped him write this book:

Experiences of this kind are many, but I have mentioned such a number of them that the reader of our book may know that we did not compile it haphazardly, nor arrange it in any random fashion. The reader will thus be able to distinguish between it and the others; for, after all, what a difference there is between one who has undergone all these experiences, and one who has compiled his book in perfect ease, basing it one the reports of others.

Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions: Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Marifat al-Aqalim, has been translated by Basil Anthony Collins. You can buy it on


Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Arabe 5847 fol. 51