Ibn Khordadbeh: Muslim geographer with varied interests

History Nilanjan Hajra
Muslim geographer
Manuscript of the Book of Roads and Kingdoms

Ibn Khordadbeh was a remarkable Muslim geographer, who wrote one of the earliest complete books on administrative geography. While there were other Arabic books on geography written during his times, none of them has survived the modern period. The only one which has withstood the onslaught of time is a phenomenal 9th-century treatise titled “Ketab al-masalek wal-Mamalek”, which in English means The Book of Roads and Kingdoms.

It remains one of the most important testaments to the development of Islamic geography in early medieval times. However, geography was not Ibn Khordadbeh’s only area of expertise. Besides being a leading Muslim geographer, he wrote as many as eight major boos on various subjects, ranging from treatises on proper etiquette to the art of listening to music.

Life and times of Ibn Khordadbeh 

Abu’l-Qasim Ubaydallah ibn Abdallah ibn Khordadbeh was the son of Abdallah, an important Abbasid genral. He was Caliph al-Mamun’s governor in Tabarestan around 816-17, and he occupied the territory by defeating the local ruler Shahriar. His son Ibn Khordadbeh was in all probability born in Khorasan. But he grew up in the highly cultured circles of Baghdad. During his early years, besides receiving his normal academic training, Khordadbeh also grew a keen interest in music. This was because one of the great singers of his times Eshaq Mawseli was his father’s close friend. Mawseli introduced him to the intricacies of good music. The great Muslim geographer retained this love for music all through his life.

On completion of his academic training, Ibn Khordadbeh became the director of the caliphate’s postal and intelligence department. He was first posted in Jebal, later in Samara, and finally in Baghdad. Marshaling the experiences of this job, Ibn Khordadbeh, wrote his magnum opus Ketab al-Masalek Wal Mamalek. He published the first version of the book while still in Samara around 846. This immediately established his reputation as a great Muslim geographer of his times.

Works of Muslim geographer Ibn Khordadbeh 

The Book of Roads and Kingdoms reflects a comprehensive picture of the geographical understanding of the world in the 9th century. Ibn Khordadbeh published the final version of the book in 870 CE and issued a second edition in 885 CE. In this opus, the great Muslim geographer details the various peoples and provinces of the Abbasid Caliphate. Remarkably, the author described, with maps, areas as far as the Indian north-eastern river Brahmaputra, the Andaman Islands, the Javan islands, and the Malaysian peninsular. He also mentioned Tang China, Silla (modern Korea), and Japan. He was the first Muslim geographer to note Viking trade routes to the East. Thus, The Book of Roads and Kingdoms remains one of the most important sources to understand the progress made by Islamic geographers in mapping the world.

Ibn Khordadbeh also wrote several other important books, the major ones among them were Ketab jamharat ansab al-fors wa’l-nawaqel, on the genealogy of the Persians and of “deported and transplanted peoples”, Ketab al-ṭabīko on cooking, Ketab al-Sharab, on drinks, Ketab al-lahw wa’l-malahi, on music and musical instruments, and, Ketab al-anwa, on the risings and settings of the stars. Al these clearly establish that Ibn Khordadbeh was not only a great Muslim geographer but a veritable polymath of the ninth century.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)