|Persian Moroccan berber Ibn Battuta (February 25, 1304 – 1368 or 1369) was scholar and traveller who is known for the account of his travels and excursions called the Rihla (Voyage). His journeys lasted for a period of nearly thirty years and covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic world and beyond, extending from North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessors and his near-contemporary Marco Polo
Early life and his first Hajj
All that is known about Ibn Battuta's life comes from the autobiographical information included in the account of his travels. Ibn Battuta was born into a family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco, on February 25, 1304 during the time of the Marinid dynasty. As a young man he would have studied the Sunni Maliki "school" of Muslim law which was dominant in North Africa at the time. In June 1325, when he was twenty one years old, Ibn Battuta set off from his hometown on a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, a journey that would take 16 months, but he would not see Morocco again for 24 years.
His journey to Mecca was by land, and followed the North African coast crossing the sultanates of Abd al-Wadid and Hafsid. His route passed through Tlemcen, Béjaïa and then to Tunis where he stayed for two months. As there was always a risk of being attacked, he usually chose to travel as part of a caravan. In Sfax, Ibn Battuta got married for the first of several occasions on his journeys.
In the early spring of 1326, after a journey of over 3,500 km (2,200 mi), he arrived to the port of Alexandria, then part of the Bahri Mamluk empire. He spent several weeks visiting the sites and then headed inland to Cairo, a large important city and capital of the Mamluk kingdom, where he stayed for about a month. Within Mamluk territory, travelling was relatively safe and he embarked on the first of his many detours. Three commonly used routes existed to Mecca, and Ibn Battuta chose the least-travelled: a journey up the Nile, then east by land to the Red Sea port of Aydhab. However, upon approaching the town he was forced to turn back due to a local rebellion.
Returning to Cairo, he took a second side trip, to Damascus (then controlled by the Mamluks), having encountered a holy man during his first trip who prophesied that Ibn Battuta would only reach Mecca after a journey through Syria. An additional advantage to the side journey was that other holy places were along the route—Hebron, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, for example—and the Mamluk authorities put special effort into keeping the journey safe for pilgrims.
After spending the Muslim month of Ramadan in Damascus, Ibn Battuta joined up with a caravan traveling the 1,500 km (930 mi) from Damascus to Medina, burial place of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. After four days, he journeyed on to Mecca. There he completed the usual rituals of a Muslim pilgrim, and having graduated to the status of al-Hajji as a result, now faced his return home. Upon reflection, he decided to continue journeying instead. His next destination was the Ilkhanate in modern-day Iraq and Iran.
Iraq and Persia
On 17 November 1326, after a month in Mecca, Ibn Battuta joined a large caravan of pilgrims returning across the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia. The caravan first went north to Medina and then, travelling at night, headed northeastwards across the Nejd plateau to Najaf, a journey lasting approximately 44 days. In Najaf he visited the mausoleum of Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib), the fourth Rashidun (rightly guided Caliph), and son-in-law of Muhammad, a site venerated by all Muslims but particularly the Shi’a community.
At this point, instead of continuing on to Baghdad with the caravan, Ibn Battuta started a 6 month detour that took him into Persia. From Najaf he journeyed to Wasit and then south following the Tigris to Basra. His next destination was the town of Esfahān across the Zagros Mountains in Persia. From there he headed south to Shiraz, a large flourishing city which had been spared the destruction wrought by the Mongol invasion on many more northerly towns. Finally, he headed back across the mountains to Baghdad arriving there in June 1327. Parts of the city were in ruins as it had been heavily damaged by the army of Hulagu Khan.
In Baghdad he found that Abu Sa'id, the last Mongol ruler of the unified Ilkhanid state was leaving the city and heading north with a large retinue. Ibn Battuta travelled with the royal caravan for a while, then turned north to Tabriz on the Silk Road. It had been the first major city in the region to open its gates to the Mongols and had become an important trading centre after most of its nearby rivals were razed.
On returning again to Baghdad, probably in July, he took an excursion northwards following the Tigris, visiting Mosul, then Cizre and Mardin, both in modern Turkey. On returning to Mosul he joined a "feeder" caravan of pilgrims heading south for Baghdad where they met up with the main caravan that crossed the Arabian Desert to Mecca. Ibn Battuta was ill with diarrhea on this crossing and arrived back in Mecca weak and exhausted for his second hajj.
Ibn Battuta then stayed for some time in Mecca. He suggests in the Rihla that he remained in the town for three years: from September 1327 until autumn 1330. However, because of problems with the chronology, commentators have suggested that he may have spent only one year and left after the hajj of 1328.
Leaving Mecca after the hajj in 1328 (or 1330) he made his way to the port of Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea and from there caught a series of boats down the coast. His progress was slow as the vessels had to beat against the south easterly winds. Arriving in the Yemen he visited Zabīd, and then the highland town of Ta'izz where he met the Rasulid Malik (king) Mujahid Nur al-Din Ali. Ibn Battuta also mentions visiting Sana'a, but whether he actually did is doubtful. He likelier went directly from Ta'izz to the port of Aden, arriving at around the beginning of 1329 (or 1331). Aden was an important transit centre in the trade between India and Europe.
In Aden, he embarked on a ship heading first to Zeila on the African shore of the Gulf of Aden and then on around Cape Guardafui and down the East African coast. Spending about a week in each of his destinations, he visited Mogadishu, Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Kilwa, among others. With the change of the monsoon, he returned by ship to Arabia and visited Oman and the Strait of Hormuz. He then returned to Mecca for the hajj of 1330 (or 1332).
Byzantine Empire, Golden Horde, Anatolia, Central Asia and India
Spending another year there, he then resolved to seek employment with the Muslim Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq. Needing a guide and translator if he was to travel there, he went to Anatolia, then under the control of the Seljuqs, to join up with one of the caravans that went from there to India. A sea voyage from Damascus on a Genoese ship landed him in Alanya on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey. From there he traveled by land to Konya and then Sinope on the Black Sea coast.
Crossing the Black Sea, Ibn Battuta landed in Caffa (now Feodosiya), in the Crimea, and entered the lands of the Golden Horde. There he bought a wagon and fortuitously joined the caravan of Ozbeg, the Golden Horde's Khan, on a journey as far as Astrakhan on the Volga River.
Upon reaching Astrakhan, the Khan allowed one of his pregnant wives, Princess Bayalun, supposedly an illegitimate daughter of Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos, to go give birth back in her home city—Constantinople. Ibn Battuta talked his way into this expedition, his first beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world.
Arriving there towards the end of 1332, he met the Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos and saw the outside of Hagia Sophia. After a month in the city, he retraced his route to Astrakhan, then carried on past the Caspian and Aral Seas to Bukhara and Samarkand. From there, he journeyed south to Afghanistan, the mountain passes of which he used to cross into India.
The Delhi Sultanate was a new addition to Dar al-Islam, and Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq had resolved to import as many Muslim scholars and other functionaries as possible to consolidate his rule. On the strength of his years of studies while in Mecca, Ibn Battuta was employed as a qadi ("judge") by the sultan.
Tughlaq was erratic even by the standards of the time, and Ibn Battuta veered between living the high life of a trusted subordinate, and being under suspicion for a variety of treasons against the government. Eventually he resolved to leave on the pretext of taking another hajj, but the Sultan offered the alternative of being ambassador to China. Given the opportunity to both get away from the Sultan and visit new lands, Ibn Battuta took it.
Return home and the Black Death
Returning to Quanzhou, Ibn Battuta decided to return home—though exactly where "home" was was a bit of a problem. Returning to Kozhikode once again, he pondered throwing himself on the mercy of Muhammed Tughlaq but thought better of it and decided to carry on to Mecca once again. Returning via Hormuz and the Ilkhanate, he saw that state dissolved into civil war, Abu Sa'id having died since his previous trip there.
Returning to Damascus with the intention of retracing the route of his first hajj, he learned that his father had died. Death was the theme of the next year or so, for the Black Death had begun, and Ibn Battuta was on hand as it spread through Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. After reaching Mecca, he decided to return to Morocco, nearly a quarter century after leaving it. During the trip he made one last detour to Sardinia, then returned to Tangier to discover that his mother had also died, a few months before.
The Sahara Desert to Mali and Timbuktu
In the autumn of 1351, Ibn Battuta set out from Fes, reaching the Moroccan town of Sijilmasa a bit more than a week later. There he bought some camels and stayed for four months. He set out again with a caravan in February 1352 and after 25 days, arrived at the settlement of Taghaza which was situated in a dry salt lake bed. The buildings were constructed from slabs of salt by slaves of the Massufa tribe, who cut the salt in thick slabs for transport by camel. Taghaza was a profitable commercial center and awash with Malian gold, though Ibn Battuta did not have a favorable impression of the place: the water was brackish and the place was plagued with flies.
A long and difficult journey lay ahead, requiring special advance guides or takshif with local experience to arrange a passage. When the takshif became lost, the entire caravan could disappear without a trace. Traversing the open wastes of the Sahara was therefore terrifying to many travelers, and Ibn Battuta noted the difficulty of navigating without landmarks, writing that there was "no visible road or track in these parts, nothing but sand blown here and there by the wind." After another harrowing 900 km (560 mi) through the worst part of the desert, Ibn Battuta finally arrived at the oasis town of Iwalatan (Oualata), the southern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade route, which had recently become part of the Mali Empire.
From there, he traveled southwest along a river he believed to be the Nile (it was actually the Niger River) until he reached the capital of the Mali Empire. There he met Mansa Suleyman, king since 1341. Dubious about the miserly hospitality of the king, he nevertheless stayed for eight months. Ibn Battuta disapproved that female slaves, servants and even the daughters of the sultan went about stark naked. He left the capital in February and journeyed overland by camel to Timbuktu. Though in the next two centuries it would become the most important city in the region, at the time it was small and unimpressive, and Ibn Battuta soon moved on by boat to Gao where he spent a month. While at the oasis of Takedda on his journey back across the desert, he received a message from the Sultan of Morocco commanding him to return home. He set off for Sijilmasa in September 1353 accompanying a large caravan transporting 600 black female slaves. He arrived back in Morocco early in 1354.
After returning from his travels in 1354 and at the instigation of the Sultan of Morocco, Abu Inan Faris, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his journeys to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy, whom he had previously met while in Granada. This account, recorded by Ibn Juzayy and interspersed with the latter's own comments, is the only source of information on his adventures. The title of the manuscript تحفة النظار في غرائب الأمصار وعجائب الأسفار may be translated as A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling but is often simply referred to as the Rihla الرحلة, or "The Journey".
There is no indication that Ibn Battuta made any notes during his approximate 29 years of traveling, so, when he came to dictate an account of his adventures, he had to rely on his memory and to make use of manuscripts produced by earlier travelers. When describing Damascus, Mecca, Medina and some other places in the Middle East, Ibn Juzayy clearly copied passages from the 12th century account by Ibn Jubayr. Similarly, most of Ibn Juzayy’s descriptions of places in Palestine were copied from an account by the 13th century traveler Muhammad al-Abdari.
Western Orientalists do not believe that Ibn Battuta visited all the places that he described and argue that in order to provide a comprehensive description of places in the Muslim world Ibn Battuta relied on hearsay evidence while Ibn Juzayy made use of accounts by earlier travelers. For example, it is considered very unlikely that Ibn Battuta made a trip up the Volga River from New Sarai to visit Bolghar and there are serious doubts about a number of other journeys such as his trip to Sana'a in Yemen, his journey from Balkh to Bistam in Khorasan and his trip around Anatolia. Some orientalists have also questioned whether he really visited China. Nevertheless, whilst apparently fictional in places, the Rihla provides an important account of many areas of the world in the 14th century.
Ibn Battuta often experienced culture shock in regions he visited where local customs did not fit his orthodox Muslim background. Among Turks and Mongols recently converted to Islam, he was astonished at the way women behaved, and he felt that dress customs in the Maldives, and some sub-Saharan regions in Africa, were too revealing. He was often given gifts that seemed applicable to his social status.
After the completion of the Rihla in 1355, little is known about Ibn Battuta's life. He was appointed a judge in Morocco. Ibn Battuta died in Morocco in 1368 or 1369.
For centuries his book was obscure, even within the Muslim world, but in the early 1800s extracts were published in German and English based on manuscripts discovered in the Middle East containing abridged versions of Ibn Juzayy’s Arabic text. When French forces occupied Algeria in the 1830’s they discovered five manuscripts in Constantine including two that contained more complete versions of the text. These manuscripts were brought back to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and studied by the French scholars, Charles Defrémery and Beniamino Sanguinetti. Beginning in 1853, they published a series of four volumes containing the Arabic text, extensive notes and a translation into French. Defrémery and Sanguinetti’s printed text has now been translated into many other languages. Ibn Battuta has grown in fame and is now a well-known figure.
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