Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science

By Roshdi Rashed; Regis Morelon | Go to book overview

6

Arabic nautical science

HENRI GROSSET-GRANGE

(in collaboration with HENRI ROUQUETTE)


INTRODUCTION

Nautical ‘knowledge’ is principally founded on the accumulated experience of navigators, but it is also a ‘science’ which stands at the cross-roads of different disciplines: in particular, astronomy, geography and meteorology—without forgetting the question of measuring and observational instruments.

It is difficult to retrace the history of Arabic nautical science, because the ancient texts are currently lacking. The only works that are available were composed at the end of the fifteenth and at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and describe exclusively the art of navigating in the Indian Ocean. This account is therefore limited by force of circumstance to the analysis of the nautical instructions of their two authors, Ibn Mājid and Sulaymān al-Mahrī, navigators who were, we can say, the inheritors of a tradition whose historical development we cannot rediscover with our present knowledge of the sources.

It is helpful to recall first of all the historical and geographical framework in which the work of these two mariners was undertaken, to note the ‘routes’ and the vessels which they used, and to discuss some basic facts of navigation both ancient and modern, together with a brief definition of some nautical terminology; all of which is necessary to enable the texts to be presented and analysed, and the importance of the Arabic nautical experience to be fully understood.


The geographical and historical setting

The experience of the two navigators Ibn Mājid and al-Mahrī is set within a very precise geographical framework, that of the Indian Ocean: the traditional route of contact between the Western (Roman and then Arabic) and

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