Ibn Battuta Explores the Non-Western World

views updated

Ibn Battuta Explores the Non-Western World


Over the space of a quarter-century, the Moroccan journeyer Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) traveled to every civilized portion of the known non-Western world. From Morocco to China, from Russia to Mali, from Spain to Sumatra, he covered a staggering amount of ground: some 75,000 miles or 120,000 kilometers, not counting many detours. In so doing he gathered material for a highly informative travelogue, the Rihla. Yet in spite of the fact that he saw far more of the planet than did Marco Polo (1254-1324), he is much less wellknown—even in Middle Eastern nations.


Comparisons with Polo are virtually inevitable: not only were both men travelers of the medieval world, but they were contemporaries for 20 years. By 1304, when Ibn Battuta was born in the Moroccan city of Tangier, Polo had written his memoirs, a book that earned him a reputation as a teller of tall tales if not an outright liar. Ibn Battuta, who set out on his own journeys in 1325, a year after Polo's death, would one day publish his own book—and he, too, would be branded a fabricator of falsehoods.

The most significant difference between the two men, of course, is the fact that Polo came from Christian Europe and Ibn Battuta from Muslim North Africa, and this distinction bore heavily on the experiences each would encounter. Europe in Polo's time was rapidly awakening from the long period of isolation that had characterized the Early Middle Ages (c. 500-c. 1000), whereas the Muslim world of Ibn Battuta's era was on the decline from its former glory. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Arab warriors had greatly expanded territories under the control of the Umayyad (661-750) and the Abbasid (750-1258) caliphates, and Arabs had come to dominate the world from Morocco to the edge of China. The caliphs had imposed their own version of the Pax Romana, creating a world of peace and prosperity—a realm in which, from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, some of the medieval period's greatest thinkers had thrived.

But several factors had conspired to bring about the Abbasids' decline. One was the arrival of the Turks, a nomadic people from Central Asia who became the dominant political power in the Near East from the tenth century onward. Another was the Crusades (1095-1291), Western Europe's assault on the Holy Land and Byzantium, which led to massive slaughter on both sides and engendered religious tensions that remain alive today. And finally there were the internal contradictions within the caliphate itself, most of all the fact that its line of rulers had grown increasingly weak until in 1258 the last of them was killed by Hulagu Khan (c. 1217-1265).

Hulagu represented a new power, one that united the Near East, Central Asia, East Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe under a single system: the Mongol khanates. Mongol rule, in fact, had helped make Polo's journey possible, because for the first time since the Roman Empire had controlled the eastward routes, it was possible for a European to travel to India and lands beyond. By the time of Ibn Battuta, the Mongols too were in decline, but the trade routes remained open. And because Battuta was not a light-skinned Christian, much else was open to him as well, and he saw lands Marco Polo could never have visited.


Ibn Battuta's journeys began, in fact, with a pilgrimage to a city that is quite literally forbidden to non-Muslim visitors: Mecca. All Muslims are encouraged to make the hajj or pilgrimage to the holy city, located in what is now Saudi Arabia, at least once if they can afford to do so. Ibn Battuta would manage to make the hajj a total of four times. A member of a wealthy family in Tunis, he set out on his journey with the stated purpose of making the hajj, then returning home for a career as an Islamic judge. He would indeed return, but not for 24 years.

First he crossed North Africa, a 10-month journey, before arriving in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. In those days the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was still standing, and Ibn Battuta visited it. Only one other of the Seven Wonders, the Great Pyramid of Giza, was still standing (as it is today), and he soon saw that one too, when he took a boat ride up the Nile to Aswan. He then journeyed overland to the Red Sea port of Aidhab, where he hoped to board a ship for Jeddah in western Arabia. A local rebellion, however, forced him to return to Cairo, from whence he crossed the Sinai Peninsula to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was also a pilgrimage site for Muslims, as it was of course for Christians and Jews, and after stopping in Jerusalem for a time, Ibn Battuta went on to one of the Islamic world's greatest cultural centers: Damascus. In the Syrian city he studied Islamic law and took a second wife. (Apparently he had married earlier, but in a fashion typical of his time and culture, Ibn Battuta made little mention of the women in his life. Over the course of his journey, he would take numerous wives.) By September 1326, Ibn Battuta was on his way to Mecca. Instead of turning homeward after completing his hajj, however, he joined a group of pilgrims returning to the Muslim world's other great cultural center, former capital of the fallen Abbasid caliphate: Baghdad. He then traveled throughout Iraq and Persia before returning to Baghdad and joining a caravan headed back to Mecca.

His second sojourn in the holy city lasted much longer: three years, from September 1327 to the fall of 1330. During this time, Ibn Battuta furthered his legal studies and became a Muslim legal scholar, or qadi. He finally left Mecca for Jeddah, then sailed down the Red Sea for Yemen, and after some time in southern Arabia, sailed on to Somalia. He later continued southward as far as Kilwa in what is now Tanzania. Kilwa, a trading city established by Arabs, Persians, and Africans, is some 600 miles (960 km) below the Equator, and this too was a place no Westerner would see for several centuries—particularly because Europeans at that time believed that anyone who crossed the Equator would burn to death.

Always on the move, Ibn Battuta sailed from East Africa to Oman on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula, then made his third hajj. Intent on going to India, he took a roundabout route, sailing from Jeddah to Egypt, then skirting the Levantine coast to eastern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Crossing Anatolia, he boarded a ship across the Black Sea, and reached Kaffa, a port established by Genoese sailors on the Crimean Peninsula.

This was one of the few Christian cities he visited in his many long years of travel, but Ibn Battuta was soon to see the capital of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At first he moved eastward, into the lands of the Mongol khan Özbeg, from whose name that of the Uzbek people is drawn. However, one of Özbeg's wives, a Greek, persuaded him to join her on a trip back to Constantinople, where Ibn Battuta was presented to Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III.

In time Ibn Battuta moved eastward again, through the khan's lands and on into Central Asia. He entered the Chagatai Khanate, another Mongol realm, then veered southward into Afghanistan. Finally his party crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains—Ibn Battuta was the first traveler to record their name—and reached the Indus River in September 1335.

Much of the subcontinent at that time was under the control of the Delhi Sultanate, and the capital at Delhi was a great center of culture. But Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq (r. 1325-51) was a cruel and ruthless leader, and it is a mark of Ibn Battuta's abilities as a diplomat that he not only made a place for himself at Tughluq's court, but even managed to prosper there. Tughluq even once paid off Ibn Battuta's debts, but when the latter consulted a local soothsayer, the emperor was angered and placed Ibn Battuta under house arrest.

After six months, Ibn Battuta was rehabilitated and sent on a diplomatic mission to the Mongols' "Great Khan" in China. His boat wrecked off the southern coast of India, a disaster in which one of Ibn Battuta's children was killed, and rather than return to face the vicious Tughluq, he sailed southward to the Maldive Islands. There he came under the protection of a Muslim queen, but was eventually forced to leave because of political pressures.

In Sri Lanka Ibn Battuta visited Adam's Peak, a high mountain sacred to Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus alike. Sailing northward along India's eastern coast, his vessel was attacked by pirates, but he straggled into Bengal and boarded a Chinese junk for Sumatra. Sumatra, in what is now Indonesia, had a Muslim ruler who befriended Ibn Battuta and supplied him for a journey onward to China. This phase of his travels took him the furthest distance away from his homeland—it is rumored he traveled as far north as Peking (modern Beijing)—and Ibn Battuta recorded copious observations regarding Chinese culture and civilization.

Ibn Battuta's trip home was a varied one, involving stops in Sumatra, India, Arabia, Persia, and Syria, but though he witnessed the ravages of the Black Death (1347-51), it was a less eventful journey than his eastward travels had been. He made a final hajj in November 1348, then traveled overland to Egypt and then by boat along the North African coast to Morocco. On November 8, 1349, he returned to his hometown of Tangier. He was 45 years old, and had been away for 24 years.

One more great journey remained for Ibn Battuta, who took part in a military expedition to defend the city of Ceuta in northern Morocco against a Christian invading force. From Ceuta he crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain, then still in Muslim hands, before returning to Africa for a journey with a caravan across the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. He visited the empire of Mali, and there became one of the first outsiders to write see Timbuktu, a city that would reach its peak about a century later.

After a visit to what is now Niger, Ibn Battuta ended his travels, finally settling in Morocco to practice law. The sultan assigned a young writer named Ibn Juzayy to assist him in recording his observations, and the result was the Rihla, whose title means simply "travel book." Completed in 1335, the work initially earned Ibn Battuta a number of detractors, as well as no small share of supporters, among Muslim readers. But in the years that followed, as the Arab world went further into decline and the torch of exploration passed to the West, the book all but disappeared.

Ironically, when the Rihla was finally resurrected in the nineteenth century, it was by Westerners, and the book was soon translated into French, German, and English. In time Ibn Battuta came to be accorded his just recognition as a man who had recorded many sights and facts that would simply have been beyond the reach of a Western traveler.

Aside from his visits to Mecca and other "forbidden" spots, Ibn Battuta gave valuable accounts of Muslim naval power, slavery, and marriage practices, as well as a uniquely Islamic view on tensions with Christianity and other religions. He also helped popularize the name of one of the world's great mountain ranges, and in turn a crater on the Moon has been named in honor of Ibn Battuta. The Tangier airport, as well as a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar, are both named for him, a fitting tribute to a man who set off from Tangier to see the world.


Further Reading

Abercrombie, Thomas. "Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers." National Geographic. Photographs by James L. Stanfield. December 1991, pp. 2-49.

Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Ibn Battuta's Trip.http://www.sfusd.k12.ca.us/schwww/sch618/islam/nbLinks/Ibn_Battuta_map_sites.html (August 30, 2000.)

About this article

Ibn Battuta Explores the Non-Western World

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article