Neither facsimile nor copy, this re-creation combines painstaking historical research with advanced digital techniques and the highest levels of craftsmanship. It pays tribute to the lost original, offering yet another layer to its complex and unique history, and generating new research into one of the greatest of all Muslim mapmakers.
Recreating the lost silver map of al-Idrisi © Oscar Parasiego | Factum Foundation
Recording the Book of Roger
In order to begin this recreation, it was necessary for the team at Factum to record a surviving copy of al-Idrīsī’s book The Entertainment for those wanting to discover the world. One of the best-preserved copies of this book is held by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford (MS Pococke 375, fol. 3c-4r). The Bodleian’s copy was made in Cairo in 1553 and contains 69 of the 70 regional maps (70th map is blank) as well as a round world map, believed to be based on an earlier 11th-century Islamic source. In July 2017, this book was recorded using high-resolution composite photography. This captured every detail of the maps in the book and X-Rite ColourChecker Passports were used to ensure the colour was also recorded with accuracy.
Once these pages of the book had all been recorded, the process of combining the photos into a single circular image for the world map required many different digital and physical skills, mixing detailed research with sensitive digital artistry.
Firstly, the double-spread pages of the book were digitally corrected to create a single flattened image and colour checked to ensure consistency across all of them. The 69 regional maps were then placed alongside one another, resulting in a single continuous world map. The edges of each page did not align precisely with those pages surrounding it, which resulted in mismatched topographical features such as mountain ranges and rivers. These had to be digitally corrected and adjusted to create a continuity from one map to the next. The composite rectangular map showcases the Afro-Eurasian landmass with the North and the East-African coastlines at the top and Eurasia at the bottom.
The rectangle map formed the basis for the circular frame and our team of experts had to distort this rectangle, with Mecca at the central point of the circle. One of the difficulties that arose when modifying the shape of the map was that the Arabic placenames became distorted as they neared the edges. In order to retain these words in the original and legible form, every toponym from the map had to be digitally extracted and then re-inserted in the correct locations on the digitally modified landscape.
The next stage was to create the vectorial files from the circular image: to convert it from a pixelated image into one that is able to be materialised using a CNC milling machine. The final vectorised image was the result of months of subtle and sophisticated mediation between the physical pages of the book and the possibilities of digital representation. This final image was detailed in incredible resolution and thus made it possible to send this to Factum’s CNC milling machine and route the map in silver.
The composite map is rectangular, showing the Afro-Eurasian landmass with the North- and East-African coastlines at the top and Eurasia at the bottom.
The rectangular map was then distorted to fit a circular frame, with Mecca at the central point of the circle.
Engraving the map in silver
Where al-Idrīsī’s original map would have been meticulously engraved by hand, Factum Foundation’s recreation was able to use modern-day technologies such as a CNC milling machine, delicately embedding the contours of cities and coastlines into the silver surface.
CNC milling can often be considered an imprecise method of rematerialising data, owing to the ‘noise’ that can be left by the head of the drill, but Factum abated this issue by applying specific pressure to the point of the needle, re-working the same surface multiple times in finer and finer definition. This achieved the finest detail in both topographical cartographic details and the toponyms.
Factum’s CNC milling expert Carlos Alonso was able to translate the vectorised world map into highly accurate commands to the milling machine. The map was engraved into eight sheets of silver, with each plate measuring 500 x 1000mm. The engraving took hundreds of machine and human hours and was performed using a spring-loaded tool, which is able to score the surface without rotating, applying variable pressure to the thin plate (0.3mm), minimising the action of the hand. The plates were fixed to the work surface using a contact glue which allows a degree of movement, allowing them to deform in response to the pressure of the engraving tool.
Once routed, the plates were cut and joined together by a skilled silversmith working with silver nails. The last task was to polish the surface until it achieved its final appearance.
The map was on display in several map-related exhibitions and events, including: 'The Centre of the World: al-Idrisi's Map' (Bodleian Libraries, July 5th, 2019- March 1st, 2020), 'Talking Maps' at the Bodleian Library (5th July 2019-8th March 2020) 'The Centre of the World: al-Idrisi's Map' (Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, February 25th – 28th, 2020), ‘The Materiality of the Aura’ (Palazzo Fava, Bologna, May 18th, 2020 – February 15th, 2021).