World Zone

How geographers, explorers and scholars in Muslim civilisation influenced map-making and the way we understand the world today

upside down map by Idrisi

Explaining rainbows, determining the Earth’s circumference, proposing how mountains are formed… scholars from a thousand years ago made huge leaps of intuition and insight in their search to understand our planet. In this zone of the exhibition, explore the emerging view of the world as travellers ventured further afield, making discoveries and bringing back exciting tales to tell.

Did you know


...that in maps made under Muslim rule, north was drawn pointing downwards?


...that a sumptuous atlas recently bought by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, shows us how people saw the world a thousand years ago?

...that travellers’ stories of sailors being chased by a giant bird on a tropical island helped inspire classic books like the One Thousand and One Nights?

In this zone:

  • Find out about the oldest-surviving detailed map showing the Americas, drawn by 16th-century Turkish naval captain Piri Re’is
  • Explore a large-scale reproduction of the global map drawn by Moroccan scholar Al-Idrisi, who created it centuries before Marco Polo or Columbus explored the world. Do you think it appears to be upside-down?
  • See a model of the biggest wooden ship ever built, by Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He, who led seven voyages of discovery in the 15th century
  • Meet Abbas ibn Firnas, who in the 9th century flew using a glider, and hear stories of other pioneering inventors and explorers of Muslim civilisation
  • See, suspended above you, a reproduction of the wooden glider using which Abbas ibn Firnas took his pioneering 9th-century flight, according to legend
  • Discover the names of the huge number of scholars of all faiths who worked together during Muslim civilisation to advance knowledge and improve the societies around them
  • Investigate a large interactive map displayed on a touch-screen computer that shows the places all over Muslim civilisation where important discoveries and inventions developed
  • Hear about Ibn Battuta, who left home in 1325 to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, and returned three decades later having explored the limits of Muslim lands
  • Find out about the discoveries in geology and geography made by scholars like Al-Biruni, who predicted the circumference of the earth and studied the tides in India and wrote 200 books
  • Discover the colourful story of Kamal al-Din al-Farisi’s quest to unlock the mystery of the rainbow.