The book of Ibn Battuta’s travels, entitled A Gift to Contemplators of the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, is a sort of synthesis of the personal experiences of an outstanding traveller and the popular conceptions of his contemporaries, whom he wished to please, a many-layered, fantastical collection of information about “wonders and marvels” in the manner of the 14th century.
Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Lawati at-Tanji, known as Ibn Battuta, was born in the Moroccan city of Tanja (Tangiers) in AD 1304. Members of his family traditionally performed the duties of qadis or judges and the boy received a classical Muslim education that included study of the Koran, the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), legal literature and the basics of calligraphy.
At the age of 21, the Moroccan decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj). He set off on the second day of the month of Rajab in the year of the Hegira 725 (13 June 1325), passing eastwards through the countries of the Maghreb and making a stop in Egypt, visiting not only Cairo and Alexandria, but also Upper Egypt. Then he set off for Syria and later went on to Mecca with a Syrian caravan.
Although the pilgrim had already performed his first hajj, his wanderlust compelled him to spend almost 30 years travelling, in the course of which he visited Iran, Iraq, Yemen, the east coast of Africa and also the interior of the continent, Asia Minor, the Crimea, the Golden Horde, Constantinople, Central Asia, India, China, the Maldive Islands and Spain. Those were, in rough outline, the milestones on the journeys of that great Maghrebi.
In 1354 he returned to Morocco, where on the orders of the Sultan of Fez, Abu Inan Faris, his memoirs were written down by Ibn Juzayy, a scholar from Granada.
In his opus the author devotes great attention not only to holy places, ascetics and scholars, but also to the main political figures of the era, such as the Egyptian Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun (1285–1341), Khan Uzbek of the Golden Horde (c. 1283–1341) and the Indian ruler Muhammad Shah (1325–1351) of the Tughlaq dynasty. The traveller met many of them personally, while he gives information about others drawn from a variety of sources. There are numerous descriptions of objects from daily life, such as food, fabrics, utensils, means of transport and money. Besides that, Ibn Battuta readily divulges information about his own personal life. It emerges from his book that during his years of journeying he married repeatedly, acquired concubines and even a whole harem, on the Maldives, for example.
The exhibition, featuring around 300 items, the majority of which are being displayed for the first time, presents the world of Ibn Battuta’s day, follows his route and demonstrates the various spheres of life that the traveller encountered. This is, furthermore, a splendid opportunity to bring together works of art from places as far apart as Spain and China, the Volga basin and central Africa, to show their variety and interconnectedness in the Late Middle Ages. Among the exhibits from the Hermitage are ceramics, fabrics, metal objects, glassware, architectural details and numismatic items. Many have inscriptions containing the names of historical personages mentioned by Ibn Battuta, who came into contact with the celebrities of his age.
The second participant in the exhibition, the National Library of Russia, has provided more than 30 unique manuscripts, Islamic (Arabic and Persian), Christian and Judaic. These exhibits make it possible to show the intellectual life and range of reading matter available in the traveller’s time and also to demonstrate the art of the book in that era through the example of masterpieces, many of which are being exhibited for the first time.
The Moscow-based Mardjani Foundation, the third participant in the exhibition, presented, along with pieces of metalwork and ceramics, unique costumes of the late 12th to early 14th centuries. These items, which have survived practically intact, illustrate the everyday world and also recreate the appearance of the elite of the era.
An illustrated scholarly catalogue has been prepared for the exhibition (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2015). The curators of the exhibition are Anton Dmitriyevich Pritula, head of the Byzantium and Middle East sector of the State Hermitage’s Department of the East, Candidate of Philological Sciences, and Anastasia Nikolayevna Tepliakova, junior researcher and acting Chief Curator of the State Hermitage’s Department of the East.
To get an impression of the (beautiful but alas, written in Russian) catalogue, please click HERE