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Ibn Battuta - greatest medieval explorer of all

I was lecturing in a series on “The Silk Road and Marco Polo”, suggesting that Europeans were not as sophisticated in trade, capitalism and tran­s­port systems as the Asians were. But I fell apart suggesting that Marco Polo (1254-1324) was history’s most travelled and best documented medieval man. In fact the Christian Venetian, Polo, trailed far behind the Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta (1304-68).

Ibn Battuta’s family was of Berber origin and had a history of service as judges. After receiving an education in Islamic law, the young man chose to travel. He left home in 1325, at 21, and set off across North Africa. In Egypt, he studied Islamic law, and toured splendid Alexandria and Cairo.

A translated version of Ibn Battuta's book

His journeys were mostly by land. To reduce the risk of being attacked, he usually chose to join a caravan. He followed a curvy route east, first making his way through Syria. As he always did in Muslim-controlled lands, he relied on his status as an Islamic sch­olar to win hospitality from locals. No wonder he loved travel, of­ten being showered with fine clothes, horses, concubines and slaves.

In 1326 he continued exploring the lands of the Middle East, sail­ing down the Red Sea and on to Mecca and Medina, where he took part in the hajj. Ibn Battuta’s travels might have ended there, but having completed his hajj, he continued wandering across the Muslim world. He crossed the huge Arabian Desert and travelled to Iraq and Iran, and later mov­ed north to what is now Azerbaijan.

In 1330, he set off again in an unexpected direction, down the Red Sea to Aden, along the coasts of Kenya & Tanzania, trekking across Yemen and sailing to the Horn of Af­rica.

Battuta crossed the Black Sea and entered the domain of a Golden Horde Khan in Turkey. In 1332 he was welcomed at court and later accomp­anied one of the Khan’s wives to Constant­in­ople. Bat­t­uta stayed in the Byzantine city for a month, visiting Hagia Sophia and even receiving a brief audience with the emperor. Having never lived in a large non-Muslim city, he was stunned by the large number of Christian churches within its walls.

Battuta next travelled east across the Eurasian steppe before ent­er­ing India via Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. Arriving in Delhi in 1334, he won employment as a judge under Muhammad Tugh­luq, a pow­­erful Islamic sultan. He was warmly greeted by the Sul­tan of Delhi, and was soon appointed to the position of a judge.

Battuta spent 8 years in India, married and fathered children, but he eventually became anxious about the sultan, who was known to maim and kill his enemies with elephants. The chance to escape arrived in 1341, when the sultan selected Bat­t­uta as his envoy to China. The Moroccan set out a large caravan loaded with gifts and slaves.

But the trip to the Orient proved to be the worst part of Battuta’s odyssey. Hindu rebels in India harassed his group during their journey to the coast, and Battuta was kidnapped and robbed. He managed to make it to the Keralan port of Calicut, but on the eve of the ocean voyage, storms sank the ship and killed his party.

Map of the 4 routes taken by Ibn Battuta
between 1325 and 1353

The disaster left Battuta stranded and disgraced. He was loath to return to Delhi and face the sultan, so he made a sea voyage south to the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives and Sri Lanka. He remained in the idyllic islands for the next year, taking several wives and again serving as an Islamic judge. But following a falling out with its rulers, he actually made his journey to the Mongol court of China on merchant vessels through Southeast Asia. In 1345, four years after first leaving India, he arrived in bustling Chinese ports.

Battuta loved Mongol China and praised its natural beauty, but he also thought its locals were infidels. Distressed by the unfamiliar customs on display, this Islamic traveller felt at home with the country’s Muslim commun­ities but knew little about huge cities like Hangzhou. Battuta claimed to have roamed as far north as Beijing and crossed the famous Grand Canal, but I am not sure.

Having reached the edge of the known world, he finally faced home, arriving back in Tangier in 1349. Both Battuta’s par­ents had died by then, so he only remained for a short time before moving onto Southern Spain.

Battuta probably didn’t kept a complete journal while travelling. But when he finally return­ed to Morocco in 1354, the country’s sultan ordered him to compile a travelogue. He spent 2 years dictating his story to the writer Ibn Juzayy. The result was an oral history called My Journey/Rihla.

My Journey was part-autobio­g­raphy and part-travelogue. Did Ibn Battuta visit all the places that he described? In order to provide a complete description of the Muslim world, Ibn Battuta probably relied on hearsay evidence and accounts by earlier travellers. He reported that he experienced culture shock in some of the regions he visited, especially when the local customs of recently converted people did not fit his orthodoxy. Among Turks and Mongols, he was astonished at the way women behaved, spoke and dressed.

Loneliness on the road
Credit: Edoardo Albert's book

His chronology was often confused (as is my post), and while he wrote great desc­riptions of Anatolia in Asia Minor, he wrote poorly on Iran. Yet the book now stands as one of the most comprehensive accounts of the C14th Islamic world.

It appears that after a lifetime spent on the road, the wanderer was content to work as a judge in Morocco and remain there until his death 1368. It was only then that Ibn Battuta all but vanished from the historical record. 

In conclusion, Ibn Battuta was famous for the 30 years between 1325-54. His travels extended across the known Islamic world and beyond, from North and West Africa, Southern and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, India, Central and South-East Asia and China in the East. This was a much greater distance than Marco Polo covered!


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