Tioman Island in the Middle Ages

Just off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula in the South China Sea, at about two degrees north and 104 degrees east, there is a small island called Tioman. Administratively it’s in the Malaysian state of Pahang, and it’s supposed to be a lovely place (Figure 1). The main industry now is tourism: Tioman is full of diving resorts and, though it is only about 136 square kilometres in area, the island even has its own airport.

It would be remarkable if such a small island were recorded in medieval texts when several large islands in Southeast Asia (notably almost the entirety of the Philippines) barely feature — but in fact Tioman is mentioned in a number of Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese works, and presumably some in other languages too. Tioman’s mountains were important landmarks on the way to or from China, and fresh water could be acquired on the island. For sailors these were important considerations.

Tioman first appears, as far as I’m aware, in the c.851 CE Arabic account of Sulaymān the Merchant, which survives as the first part of the Accounts of China and India compiled by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī in Basra in the early tenth century. Describing the route between Sīrāf (in Iran) and Khānfū (Guangzhou), Sulaymān says (in Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s translation [2017:10]):

‘Then the ships go on to a place called Tiyūmah, where there is freshwater for anyone wanting it. The distance there from Kalah Bār is ten days.’

Tiyūmah (تيومه) here is clearly identifiable with Tioman — although as will be seen the name was subject to significant scribal errors. Kalah Bār is probably Kedah in what is now Malaysia. This was an essential stop on any trip to China, as it was neatly placed due east from India and Sri Lanka at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca (Figure 2). Unlike Tioman, Kedah is home to several important early inscriptions, including probably the earliest known texts from Malaysia (see Jacq-Hergoualc’h 1992 for an overview), and it is frequently encountered in travellers’ accounts.

Tioman/Tiyūmah is also present on the Indian Ocean map of a lovely Fatimid-era Egyptian world atlas, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Arab c. 90, which has been recently rediscovered and studied by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith (2018 — for extended commentary on this map specifically see pp.198–202). The map was made in around 1200 CE, and its depiction of the Indian Ocean preserves some interesting features derived from earlier geographical work in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek. Tioman appears as a rather large circle next to a volcano (Figure 3).

As you may be able to see in Figure 4 below, however, Tioman is not called Tiyūmah but rather ‘Benūmah Island’ (جزيرة بنومه). A rule of exotic place names in old manuscripts is that if a scribal error can occur then at some point it will: The difference between ⟨b⟩, ⟨t⟩, ⟨n⟩, and ⟨y⟩ being a matter of dots and Tioman being an infrequently visited island, it is not surprising that we find this spelling (and others like it — Betūmah, etc.). Still, this island is identifiable with Tioman both because of its position on the map and because the rest of the information in this section of the atlas is taken verbatim from Sulaymān the Merchant’s ninth-century account.

Tioman is notably absent from the works of later medieval Middle Eastern geographers (except those — and there are quite a few of them — that simply repeat earlier information). The fifteenth-century Arabian sailor Ahmad ibn Mājid discusses Pulau Tinggi and some other smaller islands off Pahang not mentioned by Sulaymān, but Tiyūmah is not included. An island apparently representing Tioman does appear, however, on the Cantino Planisphere (Modena, Biblioteca Estense, C. G. A. 2), a world map drawn in Portugal in 1502, some years before Portuguese ships had arrived in Southeast Asia (Figure 5). The map was made by an anonymous cartographer; it is named after Alberto Cantino, a spy in the service of the Duke of Ferrara who smuggled it out of Portugal shortly after it was finished. Much of the Planisphere’s information — apart of course from its famous depiction of the Americas — appears to have been taken from Arabic sources.

The map is ‘accurate’ in that Tioman is drawn just east of the Malay Peninsula, but you may note that the equator (Linha equinocialis:) is drawn quite far to the north of Melaka and Tioman (both of which are in the Northern Hemisphere). Sumatra — named ⟨ataporbana⟩ — is the only Indonesian island depicted; Java is not represented at all.

In any case, a caption on the map describes Tioman, labelled ⟨tímona⟩:

Jlha tímona em esta ilha
ha brasill çera e seda

‘The island of Tímona — on this island are brazil[wood], wax, and silk.’

Apparently more was going on at Tioman c.1500 than the mere acquisition of fresh water.

Tioman also appears in at least one Chinese source. (I haven’t found any others in e.g. Wheatley [1961] but I haven’t looked too hard, so there may be more.) On the Mao Kun map, an early seventeenth-century Chinese map which purports to record the routes taken by the fifteenth-century Chinese treasure fleets under Zhèng Hé (鄭和), the island appears as Zhùmá shān (苧麻山 — read right-to-left on the map), meaning ‘Mount Tioman’ (Figure 6):

The depiction of the Malay Peninsula here is a little confusing, as ‘Dragon Tooth Gate’ (龍牙門 lóngyámén), which is supposed to be part of Singapore, occurs quite close to Tioman — they are in fact 164 kilometres apart and on different sides of the Peninsula — but it is nonetheless interesting to note the presence of Tioman on a Chinese map claiming to record fifteenth-century data.

Medieval accounts of far-off places tend to focus on two things: basic necessities and fantastical marvels. In one passage we read about a tree that produces wine and in the next we hear of an island where drinking water can be obtained. I suppose this isn’t too different from modern travel literature, which likewise seldom attempts to look at a place through the locals’ eyes and with a view to local concerns (or at least hasn’t done well at this until recently), but in the absence of a local historical record of any significant size these concerns have an undue impact on what we can say about regions like island Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages. There are any number of interesting islands in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago that find no mention in medieval accounts; Tioman appears primarily because it happens to have been a well-placed stop for ships en route between China and India.


Jacq-Hergoualc’h, Michel. 1992. La civilisation de ports-entrepôts du sud Kedah (Malaysia). V-XIVe siècle. Paris: Editions L’HARMATTAN.

Rapoport, Yossef and Savage-Smith, Emilie. 2018. Lost maps of the caliphs. Oxford: The Bodleian Library.

Sirafi, Abu Zayd Hasan ibn Yazid. 2017. Accounts of China and India. Translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. New York: New York University Press.

Wheatley, Paul. 1961. The golden khersonese. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press.

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store