11 July 2014

Unusual Journeys: Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Muslim world

By Lisa J. Yarde

Travel was not always a pastime for people, especially during Europe's Middle Ages. In the medieval period where intercultural exchange and the growth of international commerce flourished, the most frequent travel occurred among the mercantile class. Monarchs and nobles moved around often, with court being held at different castles or cities throughout the year. Pilgrims and missionaries too, as well as Crusaders, braved the perils of medieval travel. The average person did not; they might have needed permission to leave his or her village or town. The length of the trip, the state of roads, the threats of thieves or pirates along the route, or the possibility of shipwreck inhibited long journeys.         

The travels of Ibn Battuta
Few in the Middle Ages ever traveled so far from home, or visited so many places for such extraordinary lengths of time as the 14th-century Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta, whose journeys encompassed 29 years and constituted the territories of 44 modern-day countries. Ibn Battuta descended from a long line of Muslim legal scholars and he took up the family business. We would know little about him or the incredible expeditions he undertook if the Moroccan Sultan Abu Inan had not commissioned 35-year old Ibn Juzayy, a scholar from Moorish Spain, to record Ibn Battuta's travels throughout the Muslim world in 1356. The adventures began when he was 21 years old and would not end until he had almost reached the age of 50. 

As a devoted Muslim, Ibn Battuta made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a route taking him across North Africa into Palestine and Syria before he reached his goal 18 months later. Along the way, he survived a feverish illness, which had claimed the lives of two of his travel companions in Tunisia. After he completed the pilgrimage, he went into Persia for some time, admiring the city of Baghdad. A sea voyage two years later took him around the eastern coast of Africa to as far south as Tanzania. With the intention of arriving in India and serving the Sultanate of Delhi, in 1332 he decided to travel overland rather than by ship. At one point, he crossed from the Black Sea into central Asia, took a westward detour to the Byzantine city of Constantinople, and then resumed the trip east where he passed through Afghanistan. He reached India a year after setting out, where he would spend eight years, surviving the shipwreck of an official diplomatic mission to China, and visiting modern Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In those islands, queen Rehendi Kilege and her vizier-husband invited Ibn Battuta to become a judge, a task he undertook for seven months.

At the age of 41, Ibn Battuta embarked on another seaborne expedition to China, then under the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. He stopped at modern-day Myanmar and Sumatra before reaching the southern coast of his destination. He recorded the use of paper money in China, at a time when the Muslim world relied on gold and silver dinars or dirhams. Ibn Battuta came home to Morocco in 1349 at the age of 45, but clear wanderlust would not allow him to remain settled there for long. Next he visited Moorish Spain, where he first met Ibn Juzayy, whose father would go on to write about the life of the then ruler of Granada, Yusuf I. Remarkably, the visit took place just as the Black Death had started rampaging through Spain. Ibn Battuta would have been familiar with its effects, having seen them firsthand as early as 1348 in Damascus, Syria and Cairo, Egypt on his return home to Morocco. Sultan Yusuf did not have the opportunity to meet with Ibn Battuta, but the monarch's mother Bahar apparently funded part of the traveler's stay in Moorish Spain. 

In 1353, the 49-year old Ibn Battuta undertook a final adventure, taking the route of camel caravans south across the Sahara to the empire of Mali, which had its own famous adventurer in the ruler Mansa Musa. Ibn Battuta did not particularly enjoy the trip; he derived some insult because a local governor spoke to him through an interpreter. Accustomed to gifts of fine robes and gold coins, the Malians' offering of 'three round loaves of bread, fried beef and curdled milk' did not impress their guest upon his arrival in the capital . Even worse, Ibn Battuta suffered from food poisoning on his visit. He must have been glad to reach Morocco again in early 1354. He died 15 years later at the age of 65.

Scholars have called Ibn Battuta the 'Marco Polo of the Muslim world' due to these expeditions, which began a year after Marco Polo died. When Ibn Juzayy composed Ibn Battuta's Rihla or book of travels, the work gave insight into the people and cultures of varied lands, but other scholars today have questioned whether Ibn Battuta could have made such journeys. For instance, he gives a scarce account of his time in China, which might have made for fascinating reading to his audience. Whether or not the details of his travels abroad can be verified, each undertaking must have made for an incredible, unusual journey, done most often for the simple enjoyment of the adventure. 

The Longest Hajj: The Journeys of Ibn Battuta - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Saudi Aramco World

The Adventures of Ibn Battuta - A Muslim traveler of the 14th century by Ross E.Dunn

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.