When Jāwa Was Not Java: Sumatra in Pre-Modern Arabic Geographies | Amsterdam University Press Journals Online


The article looks into pre-modern Arabic descriptions of Sumatra and discusses the conceptions and ideas of the island they present. Sumatra, the westernmost island of the Malay Archipelago, was the first part of the region to become familiar to Middle Eastern sailors and traders. It was on their way to China and served as a source of fresh water and food supplies, as well as camphor, benzoin, and other jungle products. The coastal areas of Sumatra were visited by Middle Eastern ships as early as the first centuries of Islam, which is reflected in Arabic geographies and travel accounts. Before 1450, these texts appear to contain more information on Sumatra than on the other islands of the archipelago. There can be distinguished three major areas in the island known to pre-modern Arab writers: the northern coast of Sumatra, the western coast facing the island of Nias, and the eastern coast in the vicinity of present-day Jambi and Palembang. Each of the areas has Arabic place names associated with it, which appear in geographical texts from the ninth up to the fifteenth century and beyond. Besides topographical data, Arabic sources provide ethnographic descriptions of local populations. The article offers a brief review of the accounts of Sumatra found in these texts and their authors’ ideas of pre-modern Sumatran geography and cultures.


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