Academic Books

Mapping Frontiers by Travis Zadeh

Mapping Frontiers examines the early Abbasid’s translation movement and the many viewpoints on translation prevalent at the time, particularly as it related to the feasibility of translating the Qur’an. It studies a famous passage from Ibn Kurradadhbih’s Kitab al-Maslik wa-l-mamalik (Book of Routes and Realms), and its reception and use over time (albeit it cannot be used as a guide to the mediaeval Muslim world). The goal is to comprehend the cultural formation of the ‘Abbasid society,’ viewing Arab civilisation as an adhesive medium, rather than a political and cultural power, that enabled other cultures to thrive. This point is significant for it forces us to revaluate Persian culture’s role in the development of Arab civilisation and beyond.

The passage is Ibn Kurradadhbih’s portrayal of the wall built against Gog and Magog, as described in Q 18:83–98, and often known as “Alexander’s Wall”. Ibn Kurradadhbih’s informant was Sallam al-Tarjuman, who supposedly mastered 30 languages and worked as a Turkic court interpreter. Based on Sallam’s official account, the Caliph al-Wathiq sent Sallam to the wall in order to investigate the actual state of affairs after a nightmare in which Gog and Magog hordes penetrated the wall. Over the next 28 months, Sallam travelled to the Caucasus and Khazaria, across barren uncharted territories towards the wall, then to Khurasan and home to Smarra. Sallam brought back a chunk of the wall as a gift to the Calipha, vivid description about its tremendous dimensions, and news that Gog and Magog were yet stuck there, implying that the end of the world was not impending.

Ibn Khurradadjbih’s book has sparked debate since its publication because of its unique blend of the implausible, factual, and the utterly bizarre. Ibn Rusta (fl.912), as well as contemporary intellectuals like al-Biruni (d.1050), al-Farghani (fl.861), Tha’alibi (d.1038), and Jajji Khalifa (d.1657), doubted the book, while others like al-Muqaddasi (fl.985) and al-Masudi (d.956) reluctantly accepted it. Nonetheless, the illustrious geographer al-Jayhabi (fl.922) treated the book seriously, and Ibn Hawqal (fl.988) heavily depended on it. Additionally, many viewed the information on the wall as credible. Modern academics are divided on the subject as well. J. T. Reinaud and Sebastien Garnier portrayed Sallam’s voyage to the wall as a fairytale and pious fiction, whereas De Goeje and E. J. van Donzel et al. took Sallam’s account as substantially historical. 

Zadeh’s book shifts the debate, opposing attempts to “historicize” Sallam’s account as jumbled yet authentic, or else connect it to the politics of the mihna period (as did Barbier de Meynard). Indeed, Zadeh sees value in Sallam’s account, demonstrating how, for instance, Sallam was cordially welcomed in Tiflis by the governor (who was likely in full revolt). Yet, he speculates that Sallam may have been dispatched to Armenia or Central Asia as a spy to examine the chaos wreaked by the Uyghur khanate’s collapse. Zadeh’s aim was not to verify the story’s validity, historicity or to “dissect the entire account into pieces of fact and fiction”, but to illustrate that one cannot ascertain the text’s authenticity (Zadeh 2011, 162).

This is because typical assumptions on authorship and transmission are inapplicable— there are inconsistencies between quotes of the passage in subsequent writings and also within the various versions of the manuscript itself. It was regularly re-edited by Ibn Kurradadhbih and others, and because at least four centuries had passed between the earliest existing manuscript and the most recent, it would be impossible to evaluate the revisions made over time.

Expectations predicated on particular genres such as “scientific,” “administrative,” “books of marvels,” or “stories of the prophets” might be deceptive. In Zadeh’s opinion, geographical treatises are works of “translation”—they transform an experience of the physical world into a coherent linguistic narrative for educational purposes, translating concepts from earlier works into other languages. As a result, a “frontier” exists between the safe, familiar, known, and the controllable world and the bizarre, mysterious, scary, and the unforeseen world. The latter is given in understandable forms inside the former’s cultural expectations or projects a sense of control, with imagination as a key component. Ibn Khurradadhbih included a section on “wondrous constructions,” which paralleled Q: 9–26, a Qur’anic marvel related to Caliph al-Wathiq, who dispatched the astrologer Muhammad b. Musa to Byzantium to learn about ashab al-kahf, according to Ibn Khurradadhbih.

The idea is that Sallam’s account should be treated as the multi-genre work that it is. It could be a report or a fiction; its historical truth is unclear, and the line between “the verisimilar and the legendary” remains blurred (Zadeh 2011, 180). It makes little difference whether Sallam was a factual explorer-writer or an inventor if this is recognised. Rather than delving into the details of fact or fiction, it is more helpful to explore literary criticism techniques to see where the narrative takes––to the influence of Ptolemic geography, Abbasid politics, the Alexander romances, the Arabic translation movement, and theological and exegetical issues. This Zadeh presents with immense erudition.

Mapping Frontiers is an intriguing study, and its narrative style is particularly captivating: by following the mutarjim Sallam, Zadeh takes us through several civilisations, Caliphs, and genres of poetry. The book has been handsomely printed, with 50 pages of detailed notes and 14 illustrative plates, and appendices with translations of the four revised editions of the Sallam’s account, in addition to 4 beneficial indices (of scriptural references, terms, places, and people) accompanied by a comprehensive bibliography.


Zadeh, Travis. 2011. Mapping Frontiers across Medieval Islam: Geography, Translation, and the ʻAbbāsid Empire. London: Tauris.

[Friday the 21st August 2021, Durham]

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