Voyager’s irrepressible desire to see the world was matched by his finesse in deal-making with his hosts and securing their generosity
By Joseph A. Kechichian SeniorWriter
March 14, 2013
Image Credit: Supplied
Ibn Battuta in Egypt, a 19th-century lithograph by Léon Benett
Abu Abdullah Mohammad Bin Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) is probably one of the greatest travellers of all time. At a time when few could afford, much less muster the courage, to embark on long voyages, the Moroccan, born in Tangier, accomplished the rarest of feats: he visited no less than the equivalent of 100 countries on three continents.
Beyond the required courage, he was undoubtedly motivated by curiosity, a love of adventure, as well as the eternal quest for knowledge. His pilgrimage to Makkah, which opened key doors to his exploits, led him to devote the better part of his life to journeys that lasted, on and off, nearly three decades. From North Africa, Egypt and the Swahili coast to the Arabian Peninsula, passing through Palestine and Syria, he swung by Anatolia, Persia and Afghanistan, crossed the Himalayas to India, then Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and reached the eastern coast of China before turning around and zigzagging all the way back to Morocco. He even outpaced Marco Polo, though unlike the Venice merchant who travelled for business, Ibn Battuta wanted to see the world. A trained qadi (judge), he probably understood that to deliver justice one needed to know something of human nature, which could only be acquired through extensive contacts with, and observation of, fellow human beings.
Ibn Battuta was born into a family of legal scholars in Tangier, drew on his Berber ethnicity to stand out and lead the life of an inquisitive mind. He studied at a Sunni Maleki school and at the age of 21 set off on the Haj to Makkah in 1325, at that time a journey that often took two years. He returned to Morocco 24 years later. How could a young man stay away from family and friends for so long at a time when communication was slow is difficult to appraise save for an innate motivation to discover the world. He was a raconteur, dictating his observations to a young scribe upon his returns, which were published in a journal.
Off to Makkah
This first land trek introduced him to Tlemcen in today’s Algeria, then a true centre of learning as it housed well-known madrasas, Catholic churches and synagogues. It was without a doubt the principal intellectual centre of the Maghreb. Travelling with caravans for protection, he then went to Tunis, where he stayed for several months. He married a woman in Sfax, the first of several marriages, although little is known of his family life. By early spring 1326, after a journey of more than 3,500 kilometres, Ibn Battuta arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, which he found enchanting; he then trekked to Cairo, controlled by the Mamluks; and about a month later, embarked on a few side trips all the way to Damascus and south to Upper Egypt.
On the way to Makkah, Ibn Battuta visited the other holy places, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Once in Makkah and after completing the rituals, rather than returning home, Ibn Battuta decided instead to head towards the Ilkhanate at a time when much of Central Asia and Persia were Mongol territories.
Starting in mid-November 1326, Ibn Battuta went north to Baghdad, and from there to Persia, with stops in Isfahan, Shiraz. In each city he marvelled at his discoveries and met many people. He returned to Basrah and Baghdad, which was still in ruins less than three decades after Hulagu ravaged the jewel city that lay between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Why he went back to Baghdad remains unclear, although he may have sought financial support from the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate before heading north on the Silk Road to Tabriz. Whether he earned sorely needed income through these side trips by “facilitating” discreet exchanges among rulers is not known, even if Kurdish mystics gave him some silver coins along the way. He returned to Makkah where he probably stayed from September 1327 until autumn 1330. While in the holy city he may have honed his legal skills, with future employment opportunities in mind.
In either 1328 or 1330, he embarked on his first sea voyage, leaving from Jeddah to Yemen, where he met with the ruler of Ta’iz, King Mujahid Noor Al Deen Ali Al Rasuli. From Ta’iz, he made his way to Aden, and from the tip of the Arabian Peninsula he entered Africa through the Somali coast. Ever the intrepid traveller, he devoted a few weeks to each stop as he reached Mogadishu, then a pre-eminent city of the Balad Al Barbar, the medieval Arabic term for the Horn of Africa. In 1331 Mogadishu was prosperous, and Ibn Battuta spoke of “an exceedingly large city” with wealthy merchants who exported high-quality fabrics and other manufactured goods. It was in Somalia that Ibn Battuta acquired the skills to describe the system of government in place, providing valuable data on the sultan’s retinue of ministers, legal experts and commanders, along with the entourage that filled the court.
From Mogadishu, Ibn Battuta went to the islands of Mombassah and Kilwah, both of which would eventually play critical roles in the Omani Empire that ruled over Eastern Africa. Everywhere he stopped, Ibn Battuta provided elaborate descriptions, commenting on how well cities were built, whether they adorned places of worship (mosques, churches, synagogues), if rulers lived in majestic palaces, and how rulers were perceived by their subjects. He provided details on local attire and other mundane features.
Ibn Battuta sailed back from Arabia, first to Oman and the Straits of Hormuz, then to Makkah not only to perform his third Haj but also to regroup as he stayed there for at least a full year (1332).
India and China
Though impossible to verify, Ibn Battuta picked up several languages during these travels, which meant that he could earn a living translating for sovereigns. It was in Makkah that he learnt of an employment opportunity with the sultan of Delhi, Prince Mohammad Bin Tughluq, and set out towards Anatolia to join one of the caravans that went from there to India. Roaming through the region, Ibn Battuta visited Constantinople where he saw the then great church of Hagia Sophia, which became a mosque from 1453 until 1931 (and a museum after 1935), and briefed his hosts on his travels to Jerusalem. On his way back to Astrakhan, he briefed Sultan Mohammad Uzbek on what he saw in Constantinople. For his observations, he received ample compensation on both ends. He then continued past the Caspian and Aral seas to Bokhara and Samarkhand, both of which mesmerised him. From there he journeyed south to Afghanistan, then crossed into India via the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, all the way to Delhi.
Armed with knowledge acquired in Makkah, Ibn Battuta received a lucrative appointment as a qadi from the sultan, though his jurisdiction was fairly limited. India was enchanting then as now and the traveller described it vividly over the course of six tumultuous years as he enjoyed the sultan’s largesse and suffered his erratic moods. When the ruler asked him to become his ambassador to the Yuan dynasty in China, Ibn Battuta considered it a good omen: the Moroccan wished to leave his prince and see some more of what else was out there.
Wherever he landed, Ibn Battuta served as a qadi, given the paucity of individuals with his skills in remote spots. In the Maldives, for example, he was made the chief judge and married into the royal family, but his poor decisions embroiled him in local politics, threatening his life. Then, through various mishaps, he reached the port of Chittagong in modern-day Bangladesh. He arrived in Sumatra in 1345, and through Malacca, Vietnam and the Philippines, he eventually reached Quanzhou in China. Impressed by local craftsmen, Ibn Battuta brought back rare insights into Chinese workmanship, including his incredulous discovery of paper money, then unknown elsewhere. He visited well-known monks and their monasteries.
Ibn Battuta’s tenure as ambassador lasted merely a year, and he began his journey back to Morocco in 1346, skipping India for fear that the sultan of Delhi might not approve of his hasty and unauthorised return, and headed towards his beloved Makkah. In 1348, Ibn Battuta arrived in Damascus with the intention of retracing his caravan route to the Arabian Peninsula, but learnt that his father had died 15 years earlier. As the European “Black Death” pandemic reached the Arab world, going on to kill nearly 400 million people across three continents, Ibn Battuta decided to return to Morocco. This time he went by sea to Sardinia and on to Tangier via Fez in 1349, only to discover that his mother had also died a few months earlier. With little holding him in his native land, the fearless traveller went to Spain, ostensibly to defend Gibraltar, although the pandemic devastating Europe meant that no army could survive, much less launch such an attack. He saw parts of Spanish Al Andalus and explored his native Morocco, marvelling at Marrakesh and Fez. His penultimate trip was deep inside Africa, visiting Mali and Timbuktu, where he discovered that local merchants relied on salt and gold to acquire wealth. Ibn Battuta travelled southwest along a river he believed to be the Nile (though it was Niger), until he reached the capital of the Mali Empire, where he met the king, whom he served for nearly a year. He eventually left for Timbuktu, but the sultan of Morocco, Abu Aynan Al Faris, summoned him to return home, where he arrived in 1354.
The ruler asked Ibn Battuta to dictate an account of his journeys to Ahmad Ibn Al Juzayyih Al Kalbi, a scholar whom he had met in Granada. Thus was born Al Rihlah, the only record of his numerous adventures, and though contemporary scholars insinuated that some passages were copied from other travellers’ notes, the feat was nevertheless remarkable for the 14th century. Appointed a judge in Morocco, he died in obscurity in 1369. According to Ibn Juzayyih, Ibn Battuta stated: “I have indeed — praise be to God — attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth, and I have attained this honour, which no ordinary person has attained.”
His legacy extended beyond Arabs and Muslims, as Ibn Battuta invented the art of travel writing which has served mankind well. Even if he did not visit the nearly 100 countries that are described in his opus, Ibn Battuta became one of history’s greatest itinerants, someone who wished to know about others, understand them, see nations in action and report back through stories to the less fortunate, thus enriching their minds.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia (London: Routledge, 2013).
This article is the 11th of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries