Ibn Battuta, Traveler from Tangier
When it comes to globetrotting, even Marco Polo takes a backseat to this fourteenth-century voyageur.
In theyear 1349 a dusty Arab horseman rode slowly toward the city of Tangier on the North African coast. For IbnBattuta, it was the end of a long journey. When he left his home in Tangier 24years earlier, he had not planned to travel distant roads all during the yearsthat took him from young manhood to middle-age. From his mount, Ibn Battutasurveyed the white spires and homes of Tangier spreading in a crescent alongthe Atlantic Ocean. He tried to remember howthe city had looked when he left it behind almost a quarter-century ago.
In1325 Ibn Battuta had been a young man of 21, reluctantly leaving his parents tomake his first hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca some 3,000 miles due east. He hadcovered those 3,000 miles and then had gone on to travel another 72,000 miles!Many Muslims made the pilgrimage to the Holy Citybut then returned home, for it was not an age when people were accustomed tostraying from home for long periods. When Ibn Battuta began his travels, itwas, in fact, more than 125 years before such renowned voyagers as Columbus, deGama and Magellan set sail. It was no wonder, then, that Ibn Battuta returnedto his native city, where his parents had died in his. absence, to find himselfa famous wayfarer. A contemporary described him as "the traveler of theage," adding’ "he who should call him the traveler of the whole bodyof Islam would not exceed the truth."
IbnBattuta was indeed the traveler of his age. His wanderings took him to Spain, Russia,Turkey, Persia, India,Chinaand all the Arab lands. His description of the religious, political and socialconditions of the lands he visited—in some cases the only record—give insightinto medieval Eastern civilization. Authorities who estimate Ibn Battuta’sjourneys at more than 75,000 miles say that the distance was not exceeded byanyone—including Marco Polo, Magellan or Columbus—until the age of steam.
Travelershave many reasons for visiting foreign lands. Marco Polo was a merchant andColumbus an adventurer. Ibn Battuta, however, was a theologian, poet andscholar, a humanitarian in an age when life was cheap. He left Tangier to visitthe holy places of his faith and found himself curious about the wide world andeager to learn more about it.
Bornin 1304, the son of Abdallah, a qadi, or local judge, Ibn Battuta as ayoung man received a future qadi’s customary education, essentially athorough study of religious literature and poetry. He is, in fact, the onlygreat traveler to describe some of the places he visited in rhymed verse. Hisstyle (translated without rhyme) can be imagined from his description of theCairo of 1326: "I arrived at length at Cairo, mother of cities and seat ofPharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad regions and fruitful lands, boundless inmultitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendour, the meeting place ofcomer and goer, the halting place of feeble and mighty, whose throngs surge asthe waves of the sea, and can scarce be contained in her for all her size andcapacity.
"Onthe Nile," noted the amazed traveler,"there are 36,000 boats belonging to the Sultan and his subjects."
FromCairo Ibn Battuta toured through Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus, wherehe joined a caravan of pilgrims bound for Mecca.These caravans were a familiar sight in Islam. They consisted of Muslims, richand poor, ignorant and educated, soldier, merchant and scholar, who werefulfilling the duty of every Muslim to visit Mecca at least once in his lifetime ifpossible. In the towns and cities along the way they were fed, sheltered andentertained in rest houses and hospices maintained by generous benefactors.This traditional hospitality—which in Arab countries extends to all guests—madeit possible for Ibn Battuta, who was not rich, to travel with a light purse.
Hemade the hajj to Meccaseven times. The second time he stayed in the city three years to study withthe great Muslim scholars. This pilgrimage was preceded by a tour of Persia, including a visit to the then fabledcapital of Islam, Baghdad,where he found public baths that were unmatched anywhere in the world."Each establishment," wrote the traveler, "has a large number ofprivate bathrooms, every one of which has also a washbasin in the corner, withtwo taps supplying hot and cold water. Every bather is given three towels, oneto wear round his waist when he goes in, another to wear round his waist whenhe comes out, and the third to dry himself with."
At theend of three years of study in Mecca, IbnBattuta set out for India,where he hoped to join the court of the powerful and generous Sultan of Delhi.By this time he had made it a rule "never, so far as possible, to cover asecond time any road." He went to Jiddah, Mecca’s nearest port, where he turned downpassage on a ship he considered unsafe. "This was an act ofprovidence," he recalls, "for the ship sailed and foundered in theopen sea, and very few escaped."
Aftertouring through Egypt, Syria, Turkeyand Russia, Ibn Battutafinally reached Delhi,where he remained in the sultan’s service as qadi for eight years. Atthe end of this time the sultan called him. "I have sent for you to go asmy ambassador to the lung of China,"he said, "for I know your love of travel." The trip was to be amemorable journey.
Nosooner had Ibn Battuta left Delhithan he was taken prisoner by unfriendly Indians. They marked him for death,but one of the band, a young man, took pity on him and let him escape. Aftereating roots and nuts and hiding out in strange countryside for eight days, IbnBattuta finally rejoined his entourage and proceeded to Calicut,a trading port near the tip of Indiafrom which he planned to sail to China.
"Weentered the harbour in great pomp, the like of which I have never seen in thoselands," he noted, "but it was a joy to be followed by distress."Then he describes the great Chinese junks that monopolized traffic to China.
Thelarge junks had three masts and up to twelve sails, which were "neverlowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind." Three smallervessels usually accompanied the junks to tow them if they became becalmed. Thejunk was the fourteenth-century equivalent of the modern ocean liner. It evencarried its own fresh food: "The sailors," notes Ibn Battuta,"have their children living on board ship, and they cultivate greenstuffs, vegetables and ginger in wooden tanks."
InCalicut Ibn Battuta loaded his party and the presents for the Chinese emperoron a junk. His own belongings were put onto a smaller vessel called a kakam.The junk, as it made its way from the harbor, was caught by a sudden gale whichwhipped up the sea and dashed the ship onto shoals. All was lost. The smaller kakamthen sailed away with all of Ibn Battuta’s goods. He watched the kakamgrow smaller in the distance with nothing to his name but ten dinars and thecarpet he had slept on.
Frompast experience with foreign rulers, he wisely decided not to return to Delhi, for while thesultan was a generous man, Ibn Battuta reasoned that he might not haveunderstood why of all the treasure and envoys, only Ibn Battuta remainedintact! So the stranded ambassador, with the typical resourcefulness of aseasoned traveler, attached himself to a local Muslim potentate who appointedhim qadi in the nearby Maldive Islands. Ibn Battuta’sdescription of the customs of these islands was the first to reach the outsideworld.
WhenIbn Battuta finally sailed again for China,he landed at Zaytún, the storied "Shanghai"of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which may have been what is todaythe island of Amoy,opposite Formosa.He traveled through Chinaas an ambassador, although he actually represented no one and was withoutcredentials. Despite the fact that the Muslim and Chinese empires were not onthe friendliest terms, Ibn Battuta journeyed from Zaytún to Hangchow and Peking and back without any difficulty. On the contrary,he was feted in most places, a testimony to his charm and native diplomacy.
"Thereis no people in the world," noted Ibn Battuta, "wealthier than theChinese." He called Hangchow "thebiggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth." This was the samecity described by Marco Polo as "beyond dispute the finest and noblest inthe world."
TheArab from Tangier turned homeward the way he had come, except that he avoided Delhi altogether. Hepassed once again through Mecca and Baghdad and, in 1348, stopped at Damascus. There he enquired about one of hissons whom he had left 20 years before. He discovered that the boy had been dead12 years and his own father 15.
TheBlack Plague was then raging through the Middle East.At Cairo Ibn Battuta reported a daily death toll of 21,000, a figure thathistorians confirm. Ibn Battuta passed through town after town scourged by theplague, but providentially he escaped infection for had he been stricken, hisname would have been soon forgotten. He had not yet recorded his travels.
Evenafter he returned to Tangier in 1349, Ibn Battuta was not content to spend hisremaining days at home, where he might have passed many a pleasant hourspinning stories of distant lands for his friends. His mother also had fallenvictim to the plague during his absence, and with nothing to keep him inTangier, he was soon planning a trip to Spain. After Spain, threeyears later, Ibn Battuta began his last journey. He traveled throughwest-central Africa, where he mistook the Nigerfor the Nile, and visited Timbuktu,a city that was considered legendary by Europeans because none of them had beenthere. In 1354 the great traveler was called to Fez by his sultan, who ordered him to dictatea record of his wanderings to a court scribe.
Strangelyenough, Ibn Battuta’s exploits were lost to the Western world for 300 years. Notuntil the nineteenth century, when his Rihla (Travels’) was discoveredin Algeria,did his extraordinary roamings come to light. In contrast, Marco Polo dictatedan account of his journeys to a contemporary while they shared a prison cell in1296, and copies had circulated all over Europeby the fifteenth century. Had Ibn Battuta’s work received the same attention,his name would rank alongside Marco Polo’s as a synonym for world travel