Ibn Battuta - the great traveller

by A.S. Chughtai

"To the world of today the men of medieval Christendom already seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is a thing unreal, which costs an effort of imagination. How much more must this apply to the great Islamic civilization, that stood over against medieval Europe, menacing its existence and yet linked to it by a hundred ties that even war and fear could not sever. Its monuments too abide, for those who may have the fortunate to visit them, but its men and manners are to most of us utterly unknown, or dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Even for the specialist it is difficult to reconstruct their lives and see them as they were. Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader. It is in this faculty that Ibn Battuta excels."

Thus begins the book, "Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia andAfrica 1325-1354" published by Routledge and Kegan Paul (1).

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 Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta




Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, also known as Shams ad - Din, was born at Tangier, Morocco, on the 24th February 1304 C.E. (703 Hijra). He left Tangier on Thursday, 14th June, 1325 C.E. (2nd Rajab 725 A.H.), when he was twenty one years of age. His travels lasted for about thirty years, after which he returned to Fez, Morocco at the court of Sultan Abu 'Inan and dictated accounts of his journeys to Ibn Juzay. These are known as the famous Travels (Rihala) of Ibn Battuta. He died at Fez in 1369 C.E.

Ibn Battuta was the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. He also travelled in Ceylon (present Sri Lanka), China and Byzantium and South Russia. The mere extent of his travels is estimated at no less than 75,000 miles, a figure which is not likely to have been surpassed before the age of steam.




In the course of his first journey, Ibn Battuta travelled through Algiers, Tunis, Egypt, Palestine and Syria to Makkah. After visiting Iraq, Shiraz and Mesopotamia he once more returned to perform the Hajj at Makkah and remained there for three years. Then travelling to Jeddah he went to Yemen by sea, visited Aden andset sail for Mombasa, East Africa. After going up to Kulwa he came back to Oman and repeated pilgrimage to Makkah in 1332 C.E. via Hormuz, Siraf, Bahrain and Yamama. Subsequently he set out with the purpose of going to India, but on reaching Jeddah, he appears to have changed his mind (due perhaps to the unavailability of a ship bound for India), and revisited Cairo, Palestine and Syria, thereafter arriving at Aleya (Asia Minor) by sea and travelled across Anatolia and Sinope. He then crossed the Black Sea and after long wanderings he reached Constantinople through Southern Ukraine.

On his return, he visited Khurasan through Khawarism (Khiva) and having visited all the important cities such as Bukhara, Balkh, Herat, Tus, Mashhad and Nishapur, he crossed the Hindukush mountains via the 13,000 ft Khawak Pass into Afghanistan and passing through Ghani and Kabul entered India. After visiting Lahri (near modern Karachi), Sukkur, Multan, Sirsa and Hansi, he reached Delhi. For several years Ibn Battuta enjoyed the patronage of Sultan Mohammad Tughlaq, and was later sent as Sultan's envoy to China. Passing through Cental India and Malwa he took ship from Kambay for Goa, and after visiting many thriving ports along the Malabar coast he reached the Maldive Islands, from which he crossed to Ceylon. Continuing his journey, he landed on the Ma'bar (Coromandal) coast and once more returning to the Maldives he finally set sail for Bengal and visited Kamrup, Sylhet and Sonargaon (near Dhaka). Sailing along the Arakan coast he came to Sumatra and later landed at Canton via Malaya and Cambodia. In China he travelled northward to Peking through Hangchow. Retracing his steps he returned to Calicut and taking ship came to Dhafari and Muscat, and passing through Paris (Iran), Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt made his seventh and last pilgrimage to Makkah in November 1348 C.E. and then returned to his home town of Fez. His travels did not end here - he later visited Muslim Spain and the lands of the Niger across the Sahara.

On his return to Fez, Ibn Battuta dictated the accounts ofhis travels to Ibn Juzay al-Kalbi (1321-1356 C.E.) at the court of Sultan Abu Inan (1348-1358 C.E). Ibn Juzay took three months to accomplish this work ,which he finished on 9th December 1355 C.E.

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In order to experience the flavour of Ibn Battuta's narrative one must sample a few extracts. The following passage illustrates the system of social security in operation in the Muslim world in the early 14th century C.E. :

"The variety and expenditure of the religious endowmentsat Damascus are beyond computation. There are endowments in aid of persons who cannot undertake the pilgrimage to Makkah, out of which ate paid the expenses of those who go in their stead. There are other endowments for supplying wedding outfits to girls whose families are unable to provide them, and others for the freeing of prisoners. There are endowments for travellers, out of the revenues of which they are given food, clothing, and the expenses of conveyance to their countries. Then there are endowments for the improvement and paving of the streets, because all the lanes in Damascus have pavements on either side, on which the foot passengers walk, while those who ride use the roadway in the centre". p.69, ref l

Here is another example which describes Baghdad in the early 14th century C.E. :

"Then we travelled to Baghdad, the Abode of Peace andCapital of Islam. Here there are two bridges like that at Hilla, on which the people promenade night and day, both men and women. The baths at Baghdad are numerous and excellently constructed, most of them being painted with pitch, which has the appearance of black marble. This pitch is brought from a spring between Kufa and Basra, from which it flows continually. It gathers at the sides of the spring like clay and is shovelled up and brought to Baghdad. Each establishment has a number of private bathrooms, every one of which has also a wash-basin in the corner, with two taps supplying hot and cold water. Every bather is given three towels, one to wear round his waist when he goes in, another to wear round his waist when he comes out, and the third to dry himself with." p.99, ref 1

In the next example Ibn Battuta describes in great detailsome of the crops and fruits encountered on his travels:

"From Kulwa we sailed to Dhafari [Dhofar], at the extremity of Yemen. Thoroughbred horses are exported from here to India, the passage taking a month with favouring wind.... The inhabitants cultivate millet and irrigate it from very deep wells, the water from which is raised in a large bucket drawn by a number of ropes. In the neighbourhood of the town there are orchards with many banana trees. The bananas are of immense size; one which was weighed in my presence scaled twelve ounces and was pleasant to the taste and very sweet. They also grow betel-trees and coco-palms, which are found only in India and the town of Dhafari." p.113, ref 1

Another example of In Battuta's keen observation is seen in the next passage:

"Betel-trees are grown like vines on can trellises or else trained up coco-palms. They have no fruit and are only grown for their leaves. The Indians have a high opinion of betel, and if a man visits a friend and the latter gives him five leaves of it, you would think he had given him the world, especially if he is a prince or notable. A gift of betel is a far greater honour than a gift of gold and silver. It is used in the following way: First one takes areca-nuts, which are like nutmegs, crushes them into small bits and chews them. Then the betel leaves are taken, a little chalk is put on them, and they are chewed with the areca-nuts." p.114, ref 1


Ibn Battuta - The Forgotten Traveller

Ibn Battuta's sea voyages and references to shipping reveal that the Muslims completely dominated the maritime activity of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Chinese waters. Also it is seen that though the Christian traders were subject to certain restrictions, most of the economic negotiations were transacted on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

Ibn Battuta, one of the most remarkable travellers of all time, visited China sixty years after Marco Polo and in fact travelled 75,000 miles, much more than Marco Polo. Yet Battuta is never mentioned in geography books used in Muslim countries, let alone those in the West. Ibn Battuta's  contribution to geography is unquestionably as great as that of any geographer yet the accounts of his travels are not easily accessible except to the specialist. The omission of reference to Ibn Battuta's contribution in geography books is not an isolated example. All great Musiims whether historians, doctors, astronomers, scientists or chemists suffer the same fate. One can understand why these great Muslims are ignored by the West. But the indifference of the Muslim governments is incomprehensible. In order to combat the inferiority complex that plagues the Muslim Ummah, we must rediscover the contributions of Muslims in  fields such as science, medicine, engineering, architecture and astronomy. This will encourage contemporary young Muslims to strive in these fields and not think that major success is beyond their reach.



1. Ibn Buttuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1345, Published by Routledge and Kegan Paul (ISBN O 7100 9568 6)

2. The Introduction to the "Voyages of Ibn Battutah" by Vincent Monteil in The Islamic Review and Arab Affairs. March 1970: 30-37












Ibn Battuta

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta (February 24, 1304 - 1377) was a Moroccan Berber traveller and explorer. His name is also sometimes spelled ibn Batuta.

At the instigation of the Sultan of Morocco, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his journeys to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy, whom he had met while in Iberia. While obviously fictional in places, the Rihla (translated somewhat inaccurately into English as "My Travels") still gives as complete an account as exists of some parts of the world in the 14th century.

Almost all that is known about Ibn Battuta's life comes from one source -- Ibn Battuta himself. In spots the things he claims he saw or did are probably fanciful, but in many others there is no way to know whether he is reporting or story-telling. The following account assumes the former where it is not obviously the latter.

Born in Tangier, Morocco some time between 1304 and 1307, at the age of (approximately) twenty Ibn Battuta went on a hajj -- a pilgrimage to Mecca. Once done, however, he continued travelling, eventually covering about 75,000 miles over the length and breadth of the Muslim world.

His journey to Mecca was by land, and followed the North African coast quite closely until he reached Cairo. At this point he was within Mameluk territory, which was relatively safe, and he embarked on the first of his 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 'Aydhad. However, upon approaching that city he was forced to turn back due to a local rebellion.

Returning to Cairo he took a second side trip, to Damascus (then also controlled by the Mameluks), 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 Mameluke authorities put special effort into keeping the journey safe for pilgrims.

After spending Ramadan in Damascus, Ibn Battuta joined up with a caravan travelling the 800 miles from Damascus to Medina, burial place of Mohammed. After four days, he then 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 Il-Khanate in modern-day Iraq and Iran.

Once again hooking up with a caravan he crossed the border into Mesopotamia and visited al-Najaf, the burial place of the fourth Caliph Ali. From there he journeyed to Basra, then Isfahan, which was only a few decades away from being nearly destroyed by Timur. Next were Shiraz and Baghdad, the latter of which was in bad shape after being sacked by Hulagu Khan.

There he met Abu Sa'id, the last ruler of the unified Il-Khanate. Ibn Battuta travelled with the royal caravan for a while, then turned north to Tabriz on the Silk Road. The first major city in the region to open its gates to the Mongols, it had become an important trading centre after most of its nearby rivals were razed.

After this trip, Ibn Battuta returned to Mecca for a second hajj, and lived there for a year before embarking on a second great trek, this time down the Red Sea and the East African coast. His first major stop was Aden, where his intention was to make his fortune as a trader of the goods that flowed into the Arabian Peninsula from around the Indian Ocean. Before doing so, however, he determined to have one last adventure, and signed on for a trip down the coast of Africa.

Spending about a week in each of his destinations, he visited Ethiopia, Mogadishu, Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Kilwa, among others. With the change of the monsoon, he and the ship he was aboard then returned to south Arabia. Having completed his final adventure before settling down, he then immediately decided to go visit Oman and the Straits of Hormuz. This done, he journeyed to Mecca again.

Spending another year there, he then resolved to seek employment with the Muslim sultan of Delhi. Needing a guide and translator if he was to travel there, he went to Anatolia, then under the control of the Seljuk Turks, 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 travelled by land to Konya and then Sinope on the Black Sea coast.

Crossing the Black Sea, Ibn Battuta landed in Kaffa, 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 to go give birth back in her home city -- Constantinople. It is perhaps of no surprise to the reader that 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 emperor Andronicus III 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 Bokhara and Samarkand. From there he journeyed south to Afghanistan, the mountain passes of which he used to cross into India.

The Sultanate of Delhi was a relatively new addition to Dar al-Islam, and the sultan 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 Muhammed Tuguluq.

The Sultan 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 reasons. 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.

En route to the coast, he and his party were attacked by Hindu rebels, and separated from the others he was robbed and nearly lost his life. Nevertheless, he managed to catch up with his group within two days, and continued the journey to Cambay. From there they sailed to Calicut. While Ibn Battuta visited a mosque on shore, however, a storm blew up and two of the ships of his expedition were sunk. The third then sailed away without him, and ended up seized by a local king in Sumatra a few months later.

Fearful of returning to Delhi as a failure, he stayed for a time in the south under the protection of Jamal al-Din, but when that worthy was overthrown it became necessary for Ibn Battuta to leave India altogether. He resolved to carry on to China, with a detour near the beginning of the journey to the Maldives.

In the Maldives he spent nine months, much more time than he had intended to. As a qadi his skills were highly desirable in the backwards islands and he was half-bribed, half-kidnapped into staying. Appointed chief judge and marrying into the royal family, he became embroiled in local politics, and ended up leaving after wearing out his welcome by imposing strict judgments in the laissez-faire island kingdom. From there he carried on to Ceylon for a visit to Adam's Peak.

Setting sail from Ceylon, his ship nearly sank in a storm, then the ship that rescued him was attacked by pirates. Stranded on shore, Ibn Battuta once again worked his way back to Calicut, from where he then sailed to the Maldives again before getting onboard a Chinese junk and trying once again to get to China.

This time he succeeded, reaching in quick succession Chittagong, Sumatra, Vietnam, and then finally Quanzhou in Fujian Province, China. From there he went north to Hangzhou, not far from modern-day Shanghai. He also claimed to have travelled even further north, through the Grand Canal to Beijing, but this is believed to be one of his tales, not an actual event.

Returning to Quanzhou, Ibn Battuta decided to return home -- though exactly where "home" was a bit of a problem. Returning to Calicut once again, he pondered throwing himself on the mercy of Muhammed Tuguluq, but thought better of it and decided to carry on to Mecca once again. Returning via Hormuz and the Il-Khanate, 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.

Having settled in Tangier for all of a few days, Ibn Battuta then set out for a trip to al-Andalus -- Muslim Spain. Alfonso XI of Castile was threatening the conquest of Gibraltar, and Ibn Battuta joined up with a group of Muslims leaving Tangier with the intention of defending the port. By the time he arrived the Black Death had killed Alfonso and the threat had receded, so Ibn Battuta decided to visit for pleasure instead. He travelled through Valencia, and ended up in Granada.

Leaving Spain he decided to travel through one of the few parts of the Muslim world that he had never explored: Morocco. On his return home he stopped for a while in Marrakesh, which was nearly a ghost town after the recent plague and the transfer of the capital to Fez.

Once more he returned to Tangier, and once more he moved on. Two years before his own first visit to Cairo, the Malian king Mansa Musa had passed through the same city on his own hajj and had caused a sensation with his extravagant riches -- something like half the world's gold supply at the time was coming from West Africa. While Ibn Battuta never mentions this specifically, hearing of this during his own trip must have planted a seed in his mind, for he decided to set out and visit the Muslim kingdom on the far side of the Sahara Desert.

In the fall of 1351, Ibn Battuta set out from Fez, reaching the last Moroccan town (Sijilmasa) a bit more than a week later. When the winter caravans began a few months later, he was with one, and within a month he was in the Central Saharan town of Taghaza. A centre of the salt trade, Taghaza was awash with salt and Malian gold, though Ibn Battuta did not have a favorable impression of the place. Another 500 miles through the worst part of the desert brought him to Mali, particularly the town of Walata.

From there he travelled southwest along a river he believed to be the Nile (but that was, in actuality, the Niger River) until he reached the capital of the Mali Empire. There he met Mansa Sulayman, king since 1341. Dubious about the miserly hospitality of the king, he nevertheless stayed for eight months before journeying back up the Niger 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. Partway through his journey back across the desert, he received a message from the Sultan of Morocco, commanding him to return home. This he did, and this time it lasted.

After the publication of the Rihla, little is known about Ibn Battuta's life. He may have been appointed a qadi in Morocco. Ibn Battuta died in Morocco some time between 1368 and 1377. For centuries his book was obscure, even within the Muslim world, but in the 1800s it was rediscovered and translated into several European languages. Since then Ibn Battuta has grown in fame, and is now a well-known figure in the Middle East.