Digital Gazetteer Spotlight: al-Ṯurayyā Project

By Saqib Qureshi

This post is part of the Digital Islamic Law Lab (DILL) series, in which a Harvard student analyzes a primary source of Islamic law, previously workshopped in the DIL Lab.

Digital gazetteers ideally allow for not only the visualization of geographic localities, but also the ability to link them with relevant attributes such as variant names, routes, terrain, timeframes, further references, and linkages to other places, peoples, and objects. Other features may allow for analysis like route calculations or layering of different attributes (e.g., provinces, eras, etc.). Examples include Pleiades, which focuses on the Ancient Greco-Roman world, or OpenOttoman, covering the Ottoman era.

al-Ṯurayyā Project, developed by a team led by Maxim Romanov (University of Vienna) and Masoumeh Seydi (University of Leipzig), is a digital gazetteer of the pre-modern Islamic world which includes over 2,000 geographical routes and localities spanning from Andalusia and the Maghreb in the West, to Samarkand and Sind in the East. This post outlines the sources and primary features of the al-Ṯurayyā platform, and concludes by offering suggestions on how such a platform can be applied to Islamic law research.

The gazetteer is organized around 23 color-coded administrative provinces, which can be highlighted by the “Regions” pane.  Each of these provinces include cities, villages, routes, and other toponyms in the region.[1]

Administrative provinces in al-Ṯurayyā

The functional features are accessible on the left-hand panel and include:

(1) Searching for geographic localities, performed through the search icon.[2]

Search for “قرطبة”
Search for “قرطبة”

 (2) Background information and links to secondary references. This includes the geospatial reference, a brief history, and links to secondary sources including the Encyclopedia of Islam, Encyclopedia Iranica, Pleiades, and Wikipedia.

Background information on the entry for “Baghdad”

(3) Embedded references to primary sources, this feature searches for the locality name in Arabic historical and geographical sources and presents any matching descriptions found.[3]

Entry for “بغداد” in al-Ḥimyarī’s Rawḍ al-Miʿṭār

Another set of features includes methods for route and path analysis which allows for determining possible routes that could have been used to travel from one locality to another, along with its approximate time and distance measure.

These route sections are based on waystations extracted from Georgette Cornu’s Atlas du Monde Arabo-islamique à l’époque classique, IXe-Xe siècles (Leiden: Brill, 1983). They are color coded for each administrative region (eg. routes in Fustat are all green) and can be selected individually. Route sections in-between provinces are color coded in grey. Each individual route section also includes its distance measure.

Example route section from Dalas to Manf in the region of Fustat. Distance measure (meters) is located on the left panel

As the developers note, the benefit of the region and route combination is that it one, effectively removes borders of modern states in the region that would be present in contemporary maps, and two, provides a more accurate portrayal of how regions were organically shaped since strict borderlines would not have been present at the time.

al-Ṯurayyā regions and routes (without over laying borders of modern states)
Overlaying borders of modern states presents a distorted image of how regions were formed and connected

These route sections can then be used for three types of analysis: (1) Pathfinding (2) Itineraries and (3) Network Flood.

  1. Pathfinding, finds the shortest and most optimal route between two destinations. The “shortest” means shortest distance, while the most “optimal” means the shortest path with the greatest number of waystations. This distinction is made to allow for an analysis of actual paths that would have been taken, assuming paths with more waystations were more desirable.
Shortest and most optimal path between Damascus and Mecca. The shortest path in red has fewer waystations than the most optimal path in green. Distance and time measures are provided on the bottom left pane.
  1. Itineraries, refers to plotting an entire itinerary of travel (a maximum of 10 destinations), and finding the shortest and most optimal routes. In the example below, the developers have plotted Nāṣer-e Khosraw’s itinerary from Nishapur to Cairo, as described in his own travelogue, Book of Travels (Safarnāma).[4] Options allow for calculating the shortest and most optimal path for the entire itinerary, along with its distance and time measures.
Nāṣer-e Khosraw’s itinerary mentioned in Book of Travels (Safarnāma)[5]
  1. Network Flood, shows all the routes a certain locality has, and the distance those routes can be travelled in, within a certain number of days (averaging 30 km per day). The example below shows all the routes that can be traveled to from Damascus in five days, assuming 30 km per day. The black points refer to unreachable sites.
Network flood of “Dimashq” for five days

Though al-Ṯurayyā is under development, it provides a springboard for exploring research questions in Islamic law, such as knowledge networks that created a legal madhhab and the spread of a legal madhhab to other regions, or simply providing a more accurate portrayal of the “lay of the land” in which classical Islamic law developed.


[1] These localities and their toponyms are georeferenced from Georgette Cornu’s Atlas du Monde Arabo-islamique à l’époque classique, IXe-Xe siècles (Leiden: Brill, 1983).

[2] Currently, the search function only works for the name of the locality in its transliterated form or in Arabic script (eg. “Cordoba” would not work, but “Qurtuba” and “قرطبة” does).

[3] Currently, the only Arabic primary reference added is Abū ʿAbd Allãh al-Ḥimyarī (d. 900 AH). Rawḍ al-Miʿṭār fī ḫabar al-Aqṭār. ed. by Iḥsān ʿAbbās. 2nd edition. Bayrūt, 1980.

[4] Thackston, W. M. Nāṣer-e Khosraw’s Book of Travels (Safarnāma). Persian Heritage Series; No. 36. Albany, N.Y. Bibliotheca Persica, 1986.

[5] Image referenced from Masoumeh Seydi, Maxim Romanov, “Al-Ṯurayyā, the Gazetteer and the Geospatial Model of the Early Islamic World,” DH 2019, Utrecht University, July 2019, Also see for more technical details of al-Ṯurayyā.

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