Travel from Europe and the Middle East

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Travel, as a human activity, predates language. It should be no surprise, then, that some of the first ancient literary expressions from the European and African continents should use travel as a motif. Certainly the ancient Hebrew biblical narratives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses structure the lives of their subjects through travel. Greek and Roman epicsThe Odyssey and The Aeneid as well as the history of Thucydides, use travel as an important thematic element, connecting it with various aspects of conflict. Similarly, Herodotus (c. 484c. 424 b.c.e.), in his historical, ethnographic, and geographic compendium, uses travel in part as his method of research. The Islamic tradition begins with epic travelflight and returncontinuing with pilgrimage, educational, and diplomatic travel. In the millennium and a half since, the motif of travel has attracted a number of images that structure our view of this basic human activity, images that appear in both fiction and nonfiction.

Ancient and Medieval Travel: Epic Heroes, Pilgrims, and Merchants

The genre of epic structures the oldest European travel narratives extant, from the voyages of Ulysses to that of Beowulf. The epic as a form connects travel to conflict and cultural threat, as well as to the landscape of fantasy and to the epic hero. Just as the epic hero is larger and more marvelous than life, so the epic landscape is both marvelous and dangerous. The epic hero and those who accompany him are often engaged in activities that either preserve or extend the culture of which he is the ideal. Such an image of travel has little room for reflection or satiric treatment; the mood is one of high seriousness. The epic form is modified in the oldest Hebrew writings; there, the culture-creating protagonists become sometimes the focal point of narrative but always the recipients of divine directives regarding travel. Biblical travel is conceived in three ways: first, as travel toward a land of divine promise; second, as wandering to or in the land; and third, as exodus or flight. In the Islamic tradition, the travel of the prophet Muhammad contains the same elements of divine directive, flight, and return.

The rise of Christianity and Islam activates a second image associated with travel, that of pilgrimage. One could classify the ancient Hebrew narratives as pilgrimage, but the concept, which gains importance in the period from 800 to 1400 c.e. in Europe and Africa, involves other elements. Pilgrimage is conceived as reenactment; the pilgrim undertakes a sacred journey, the significance of which is primarily spiritual, as he or she visits sites important to sacred history. In the Christian and Islamic traditions, this sacred journey is conditioned by devotion and obedience. Medieval Christian tradition adds the element of veneration and indulgence: the idea that acts of veneration for holy relics and places could provide spiritual benefit can be traced back to the late classical period. But the explicit linking of acts of devotion with the remission of temporal punishment for sin only began with the First Crusade in 1095, when Pope Urban II announced the granting of indulgences to those who fought to regain the Christian holy shrines. Such a view, conditioned by conflict, both renders ambiguous the spiritual aspects of the journey and historically allows the symbolizing of acts of devotion. The act of pilgrimage also allows travelers to escape being accused of the sin of curiosity; travel for sightseeing is problematic in the Middle Ages, but travel for at least ostensibly spiritual reasons can sometimes escape this censure.

In medieval Europe, a mode of pilgrimage writing develops, in which certain items of information and structures of narration become standardized. This tradition approaches landscape and the journey in the following ways: first, the journey is conceived as outgoing; narratives focus on the hardships of the journey out and the travels between the holy places, instead of on the journey out and back. Second, the journey within the holy destination is organized in terms of "stations" or stopping places, often connected with specifically significant sites. These significant sites usually become connected allegorically with a variety of biblical significances. The twelfth-century pilgrimage guide writer Fetellus, for example, localizes a number of biblical references in one spot. When he describes the traditional hill of Christ's crucifixion in his narrative, he names this spot as the site on which Abraham sacrificed Isaac and as the place where Adam was buried (and resurrected by Christ's blood falling upon him). Furthermore, this site has significance for the future, being the place upon which Christ will return at the end of history. Specific physical characteristics of the site are used to bolster these allegorical accretions: the crack running through the rocks of the crucifixion hill is there because of the earth-rending strain of holding the cross. Other sites, from the city of Hebron to the Dead Sea, gain a number of allegorical significances based on their associations with the biblical narrative.

The third important type of travel, for the purposes of trade, had almost certainly been occurring concurrently with other forms of travel since the earliest human cultures. In Europe, commercial travel was seldom documented until well into the Middle Ages. By far the most important Continental writing about commercial travel was the narrative of Marco Polo, a Venetian who traveled to China and back during a twenty-four-year period, between 1271 and 1295. His writings were both widely publicized and widely ridiculed, as his European readers refused to believe the apparently miraculous accounts of the wealth, geographical wonders, and population of the Far East, as well as his account of offices he had held while in China. His ultimate nickname, Il Milione (The million), reflected the European public's sense that he had exaggerated the information that he brought back. The reaction to Marco Polo's narrative also points to the general reaction that hearers and readers in the Middle Ages expected from information derived through travel: generally they wanted to react with a sense of wonder and calculated disbelief to the tales brought back by far-flung narrators. This appetite for wonders can also be seen by the popularity of the information in the compendia of geographical and other lore compiled by such people as Vincent of Beauvais, the medieval encyclopedist (c. 1190c. 1264).

Renaissance Travel: Exploration and Empire

With the beginning of the early modern period, the primary image of travel gradually transforms from the traditional images of epic and pilgrimage into something newexploration. There is a sense in which exploration retains the heroic character of epic travel: it often highlights conflict, whether conflict with the elements and a hostile landscape or conflict with the other cultures encountered. But explorers, while at some level imperialists, are, during the early period of exploration at least, not really larger-than-life figures. The curiosity about geographic features and other cultures ceases to be a minor sin and becomes the animating reason for travel. The explorer travels expressly to find new lands and peoples, desiring to trade with other cultures or to exploit the riches of new lands. In the initial European encounter with America, Christopher Columbus was very much the medieval man, looking during his voyage for the lost earthly paradise, said to be located in the west. The Spanish conquistadors saw themselves as feudal overlords of subject peoples, and conducted their conquests accordingly. Narrators of their voyages over the ocean and over land contributed to a perspective on the native civilizations they found there, a perspective that inherited the sense of wonder found in medieval travel narratives but also a less benign questioning of the humanity of the others who were encountered. Seeing the native civilizations as strange and wondrous tended to dehumanize the people encountered. But the New World yielded another, more tangible, reward to the explorersthe gold and silver of the Americas. Ultimately all the European exploratory ventures took part in a quest for resources, either precious metals or the natural resources of the lands discovered.

Exploration narratives were writings in search of a genre. It was important, for the first time, that each explorer "answere for himselfe, justifie his owne reportes, and stand accountable for his owne doings," according to England's greatest Renaissance collector and travel narrative editor, Richard Hakluyt, because these reports were becoming the guidebooks for colonists and pioneers. Curiosity about people, languages, and geography became a virtue, and truthfulness became important.

Fact and Fiction in Travel Narratives

Travel narratives allowed ancient and medieval audiences to escape through literary fantasy and compare their culture to different ones. But the wondrous living denizens of these narrativespeople whose heads grew beneath their shoulders, people who lived on odors, tribes of Amazon womenwould be proven nonexistent. In their place, exploration narratives would put the actual wonders of spices, gold, silver, canoes, and differing customs. Before the early modern period, the veracity of travel narratives was not a serious issue because travel was a rare event and large-scale cross-cultural contacts relatively few. The few medieval narratives that realistically recounted diplomatic missions to the invading Mongol hordes during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were not widely known.

Thus, though medieval travelers were not generally believed, veracity was trivial. The situation changed in the fifteenth century with the first seaborne expeditions around the African continent and to the Americas. Though the earliest sea voyagers carried medieval descriptions of the places for which they searched, it soon became apparent that these descriptions were untrustworthy. Columbus carried on his first American voyage a copy of the fourteenth-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville, one of the most popular pilgrimage and travel narratives of the time, hoping to use its description to find the scriptural earthly paradise. Richard Hakluyt reprinted a Latin version of Mandeville's Travels in the first edition of his collection The Principall Navigations (1589). He most probably dropped it from the second edition of the collection because of its falsehoods.

Travel as exploration demanded a different set of criteria; instead of wonder and the imaginative, the requirements of the new travel narratives involved reliability and exactness of detail. This demand for descriptive exactness contributed to an extension of the exploratory image in travel writing into the twentieth century. Though exploration as an image of travel connotes objectivity and exactness, it is clear that this image is affected by the historical concommitants of conquest and imperialism. Certainly the information the explorers recount is conditioned by their Eurocentric perspective.

As representatives of the ascendant European culture and its political hegemony spread out across the globe, the amount of travel writing greatly expanded. Women undertook journeys in support of spouses or independently and related their experiences exploring and encountering other cultures, often in epistolary form. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Turkey with her husband, a diplomat, between 1716 and 1718. Her letters closely observe the cultures through which she passed. It is clear, as well, that she is familiar with the male tradition of travel writing, because she often provides a contrasting female perspective on her travel experiences, as do many female travel authors of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Mary Wollstonecraft's epistolary journal of her travels to Scandinavia in 1795, in the company of only her maid and infant daughter, was influenced (like Lady Wortley Montagu's) by the earlier letters of the French Madame de Sévigné. In general, the specifically female mode of travel writing has much in common with the parallel tradition of women's autobiography.

Islamic Travelers

Islamic travelers voyaged through Africa and into the Far East using established overland and sea routes from northern Africa and the Mideast. Routes were established in the Mediterranean to Spain and indirectly to the rest of Europe; overland, the great Silk Road reached into China; by sea, Arab traders reached India.

Of two important early Muslim travelers, Ibn Fadlan (Ahmad ibn Fadlan ibn al-'Abbas ibn Rashid ibn Hammad) and Ibn Jubayr (Abu al-Husayn Muhammad ibn Ahmad Jubayr), little is known. Ibn Fadlan includes little description of himself in his risala, or epistle, describing a diplomatic mission from the caliph of Baghdad in 921 to the Bulgarians of the Volga. Ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Arab traveler during the twelfth century, voyaged around the Mediterranean basin and through Mecca and Medina on a journey that he recorded in rihla form; it is the only journey for which he wrote a narrative of three that he made. What is known of his second journey is that he composed a poem celebrating Saladin's victory at Hittin.

The rihla, a genre of travel description in Arabic developed by various Islamic authors, encompassed various sorts of journey: pilgrimage, travel for learning, or travel for discovery. One of the greatest of the travelers of the Middle Ages, Shams al-Din ibn Battuta (1304c. 1368), composed a rihla called Tuhfat al-nuzzar fí ghara'ib al-amsar wa 'aja'ib al-asfar (A feast for the eyes [presenting] exotic places and marvelous travels). This work so epitomized the genre of rihla that Ibn Battuta's work is often simply known by that namethe Rihla. Like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and his account were greeted with skepticism by his contemporaries, including the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun. Also like Marco Polo, contemporary scholarship indicates that he was essentially truthful in most of his account. All in all, Ibn Battuta's account is a compendious store of information about the Muslim world of his day.

Leo Africanus (al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wassan az-Zayyati), born in Islamic Spain, is one of the most important European writers about Africa between 1500 and 1800. His description of sub-Saharan and northern Africa, Descrittione dell'Africa (Description of Africa), was completed in 1529, after he had been captured by pirates and had converted to Christianity. His writing falls into the Arabic tradition of geography rather than into the tradition of the rihla account. Since, as a stranger in a different culture, he had no access to the traditional works of Arabic geography, he needed primarily to rely upon his memory to write his work. This necessity has led many readers to identify his Description more with genres of travel writing than geography.

One of the masters of rihla writing was the seventeenth-century Sufi scholar and poet Abu Salim Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Ayyashi, who left a detailed account of a journey that includes elements of pilgrimage and exploration. After a journey overland from his native Morocco to Cairo, al-Ayyashi continued his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He was as interested in the people and customs that he saw as he was in the holy sites that he visited. His narrative makes clear the interconnected world of North African Islam and that of the Mideast.

Men, meanwhile, continued the exploratory movement, this time under the aegis of scientific and sociological investigation. The narrative of David Livingstone in Africa in the mid-nineteenth century was constructed as an exploratory and imperialistic epic, while Mungo Park's narratives of Africa in the 1790s and Alexander von Humboldt's narratives of scientific discovery on the American continent from 1799 to 1804 combine both epic hardships and reports of important scientific investigations. Sir Richard Burton, one of the Victorian era's most intrepid travelers, hazarded his life in journeys through the Islamic world, including making a disguised pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing back the first eyewitness European description of that great journey (Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah; 18551856). Travel writing of the exploratory type thus takes on a more personal and literary character as time goes on.

Modern Images of Travel: Tourist or Ironist

Tourism began in the early modern period as travel for education. At this time, travel was seen as an important pedagogical capstone. In England, such important social and literary figures as Sir Philip Sidney (15541586) took the "grand tour" (an extended visit to important cities and courts of continental Europe) as an appropriate way to conclude their education in the arts of politics and culture. Ideally, the grand tour introduced its practitioner to the languages and polite societies of the Continent; practically, a number of English critics of this type of travel complained that it led to students coming back with French affectations and fashions, German manners, and Italian diseases. The playwright Thomas Nashe penned an ingenious satiric journey for his picaresque traveler Jack Wilton in The Unfortunate Traveler (1594). In the realm of nonfiction, the Oxford-educated eccentric Thomas Coryate penned his voluminous Crudities (1611), in which he paints himself as the innocent abroad, coming into contact with various kinds of picaresque adventures while undertaking a perhaps not-so-grand tour through the Continent. That Coryate had elements of the explorer in himself as well is evident from his death in India while on a more far-flung journey. George Sandys's Relation of a Journey Begun Anno Domini 1610 combines the structures of pilgrimage narrative with the motivations of the practitioner of the grand tour.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, travel became more consciously literary. Such figures as Samuel Johnson and James Boswell melded the tour of the countryside with autobiography, biography, and the essay, while Romantic period authors in Britain and on the Continent celebrated the imaginative potential of journeys through the natural world. This sort of travel often allied itself to the emerging genre of the novel, in which the physical journeys of various protagonists were paralleled by their interior development, sometimes with comic results.

Early Modern European Travel Collections

The early modern period in Europe (roughly 14501700) was not only a time of intense exploratory activity but also a time in which a number of editors and collectors strove to collect, organize, and distribute overviews of nonfictional writing about travel. Nationalistic impulses as well as the need for information drove a number of editors between 1550 and 1650 to collect narratives.

Giovanni Ramusio (14851557) collected and translated the works in Delle navigationi et viaggi (On navigations and travels) between 1550 and 1559. In this work, he intended to produce a new kind of compendium, an overall survey of important geographical treatises, organized by global region. It contains writing by Leo Africanus, Antonio Pigafetta (who took part in Magellan's circumnavigation), and Amerigo Vespucci, among others.

Richard Hakluyt (c. 15521616) compiled, edited, and translated The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation in two editions: 1589 and 15981600. Though both editions concentrated on English discoveries, the second edition especially had a larger scope, to provide information for English explorers and traders about all the areas in which they might have interest. Organized both chronologically and regionally, the collection provides a comprehensive look at the history of exploration and trade to the point of publication, insofar as Hakluyt was able to obtain information.

Samuel Purchas, a clergyman originally interested in a universal history of religions told through travel narratives, purchased Richard Hakluyt's literary effects around 1620. From it and his own collecting, Purchas compiled a collection called Hakluytus Posthumous, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, in 1625. Though organized in much the same way as Hakluyt's collection, Purchas's editorial methods and aims are quite different. He is interested as much in the edification and educational benefits of travel as he is in accurate information about exotic locations.

The Collectiones peregrinationum in Indiam orientalem et Indiam occidentalem, produced by the de Bry family at Frankfurt (begun by Théodor de Bry, but brought to conclusion by his sons; 15901634), enhanced narratives of travel with high-quality engravings.

However, travel could never fully become tourism until the level of danger inherent in the activity had diminished. One could say that tourism was born in Europe with the guides of Baedecker during the Victorian period and in America with the closing of the frontier in the late 1800s. But there had always been a sense of conflict between the "true" traveler and the mob of others; as early as the fourteenth century, Margery Kempe, the English mystic and pilgrim, lamented the motivations (curiosity and good fellowship) of her fellow pilgrims, to the point that her traveling companions attempted to strand her in Rome because of her constant moral hectoring. But with the advent of technology, one of the cachets of travel, its attendant dangers, had been removed. Thus, with the rise of tourism, a new tension arose in the image of travel: that between the true traveler and the tourist. While tourists stick to the instructions of Baedecker and travel in herds, the true traveler takes the road untraveled (at least by Europeans).

For literary travelers, this tension between tourism and other forms of travel produced much fruit. It would probably be a mistake to count various tourist guides as literary productions, but traveling authors have gained much ironic material by their appropriation of and resistance to the activities and material of tourism. During the early to mid-twentieth century, as well, there were still substantial portions of the globe generally off limits to tourists for political or other reasons. Modern authors tended to seek out just those sorts of marginal journeys.

Between the world wars, literary travelers often took the pose of ironists or reporters, sometimes espousing specific ideological points of view and sometimes using the profits gained by writing travel volumes to finance more "serious" literary pursuits. The English authors Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh traveled extensively: Waugh used his journeys in the Mediterranean and South America as well as his stint as a reporter in Africa to provide material for some of his satiric novels. André Gide's travels in Africa and the Mideast animated his sense of the ideal artistic life: to construct a careful equilibrium between the exotic and the familiar.

The contemporary literary traveler becomes a complexly folded narrator, taking an ironic stance, not just toward other cultures but often toward other travelers and even to him- or herself. Contemporary travel writing partakes of many genres and modes: novelistic, picaresque, satiric, and contemplative. Even the ancient motif of flight and return is explored as a means of self-discovery. For postmodernity, travel becomes a means of self-discovery or self-exploration.

See also Empire and Imperialism ; Eurocentrism ; Orientalism ; Other, The, European Views of .



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Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. Edited and translated by A. R. Pagden. New York: Grossman, 1971.

Gide, André. Amyntas. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Ecco, 1988.

Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. Edited and translated by Said Hamdun and Noël King. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: M. Weiner, 1994.

Ibn Jubayr. The Travels of Ibn Jubayr. Translated by R. J. C. Broadhurst. London: J. Cape, 1952.

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Howard, Donald R. Writers and Pilgrims: Medieval Pilgrimage Narratives and their Posterity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Speake, Jennifer, ed. Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia. 3 vols. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003.

James P. Helfers