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Volume 29, Number 1January/February 1978

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To Travel the Earth

Written by Frances Carney Gies
Illustrated by Michael Turner

I left Tangier, my birthplace, in the year seven hundred and twenty-five (A.D. 1325) with the intention of making the pilgrimage to Mecca and visiting the tomb of the Prophet...I made up my mind to leave all my friends male and female, and abandoned my home as birds abandon their nests. My father and mother were still alive. I resigned myself to part with them, though the separation brought pain both to them and to me. I was then twenty-two years old." Thus began a career of travel with few rivals in history - either for endurance or for its written record. For Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Battuta, in the course of the following 28 years, logged an estimated 75,000 miles, a record which was unequaled until the age of steam, and which very nearly satisfied what he confessed was his ruling passion: "to travel over the earth." In 1353, moreover, obeying the command of the Sultan of Fez, he dictated to the Sultan's private secretary a manuscript which runs to four printed volumes, known today as The Travels of Ibn Battuta, one of the greatest books on travel ever written.

Ibn Battuta was far from being the first Muslim traveler. Even in pre-Islamic times, Arab merchants were constantly on the move, by ship or caravan, to other parts of Africa, to Persia, India and China, and who, after the Muslim conquest, could, and sometimes did, journey from the Pyrenees to the Indus River without leaving the Muslim Empire. There were also pilgrims, who traveled long distances to Mecca and Medina, as well as geographers and historians who traveled to collect information. But Ibn Battuta was indisputably the greatest.

Born into a well-to-do Berber family of Tangier, Ibn Battuta was educated for a legal career and, before setting out on his pilgrimage to Mecca, planned to follow law in Tangier. En route to Mecca, however, he visited one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - the ruined lighthouse of Alexandria, built by the Ptolemies 16 centuries before - and heard an arresting comment from a pious ascetic of Alexandria which apparently whetted his appetite for more wonders. "I see that you like to travel and roam strange lands," the ascetic said, adding calmly, "You must certainly, if God will, visit my brother Farid al-Din in India, and my brother Rukn al-Din Ibn Zakariya in Sind, and my brother Burhan al-Din in China. When you see them, greet them for me.

"I was astonished at this speech," Ibn Battuta wrote later, "and the desire to go to those countries was planted in my mind. I never ceased to travel until I had met the three men that he named and given them his greeting."

After leaving Alexandria, still heading for Mecca, Ibn Battuta visited the Pyramids and sailed on up the Nile, intending to cross the Red Sea to Jiddah and Mecca. At the Red Sea, however, he found that a local sultan, at war with the Mamluks of Egypt, had sunk all the ships in the harbor as a defensive measure. The pilgrims, therefore, had to return to Cairo, and Ibn Battuta went on to Syria, stopping at post-stations along the way. En route he toured the Holy Land and then, after three weeks in Damascus, set out once more - on September 1, 1326 - for Mecca. At last, after visiting Medina, where he paid his respects at Muhammad's tomb, he arrived in Mecca and, made his pilgrimage.

It was at that point that Ibn Battuta started to travel for the sake of traveling. Instead of embarking on the study of law, as he had planned, he decided to make a side trip to Iraq. By then, however, the Mongols had descended on the Muslim Empire and Ibn Battuta, arriving in Baghdad, found the once-magnificent capital depopulated and in ruins. Ibn Battuta, therefore, decided to learn what he could of the Mongols and joined the mahalla - mobile court - of the Mongol leader Abu Said, a descendant of the infamous Ghengis Khan.

Traveling with the Khan's train for 10 days, Ibn Battuta observed how the Mongol leader lived on the road. Abu Said and his slaves, he wrote long after, occupied a camp by themselves and each of Abu Said's wives had a separate area with its own imam, muezzins, Koran readers and bazaar. The viziers, secretaries and finance officers occupied another section, and each commander had his own quarters.

Each morning at dawn, he went on, the Mongols struck camp in a colorful ceremony in which musicians played trumpets, fifes and drums. Then the commander of the advance guard galloped off, his troops at his heels, while the rest of the train followed: the Khan's wives, the royal baggage train, its escort and, finally, the main body of the army.

After his excursion with the Mongols, Ibn Battuta returned to Mecca, where he settled down for three years of study. But then wanderlust seized him again and he set out on his first ocean voyage. Taking passage at the Red Sea port of Jiddah on a fragile sailing vessel called a jalba - whose planks were stitched together with coconut fiber - he endured a bout of seasickness, noted that in the Red Sea, ships sailed only by day - because of the danger of running aground - and eventually disembarked at Aden. But not for long. Soon after he boarded another ship and sailed down the coast of East Africa to Maqdashaw, Mombasa and Kulwa, taking note at each stop of the customs and cuisine.

Returning by way of Oman and the Arabian Gulf, Ibn Battuta and a companion, tired of shipboard, decided to land and walk to the city of Qalhat to spend the night. As a sailor hired as a guide tried to lead them into a dangerous ford - hoping to drown them and steal their belongings - the three men spent an uneasy night by the roadside..." I placed the guide between my exhausted fellow-traveler and me, put my extra clothes between my robe and my skin, and gripped my lance firmly. My companion went to sleep, and so did the guide, but I stayed on watch, and every time the guide stirred I spoke out to show him I was awake." In the morning they limped into the city, where they spent six days recovering from their adventure.

Back in Mecca in 1332, Ibn Battuta decided to visit India where, he had heard, the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, was a generous patron of foreign scholars. Crossing the Red Sea, he joined a camel caravan through Egypt and Syria and, at Latakia, boarded a Genoese ship bound north for the "land of the Turks." Landing 10 days later at Alaya, he set out on horseback to cross Asia Minor and, along the way, began, for the first time, to encounter a problem familiar to today's travelers. Because he spoke only Arabic he had to hire a Turkish interpreter who, he says "was a man of ... low ambitions, base character, and evil actions ... We had to put up with him because we did not know Turkish, but matters went so far that we ... would say at the end of the day, 'Well, Hajji, how much of the expense money have you stolen today?' He would reply, 'So much,' and we would laugh and make the best of it."

At Sinop, Ibn Battuta boarded a Greek ship, and in a raging storm, crossed the Black Sea to the Crimea, then ruled by the Mongol Uzbek Khan. When they reached Karsh, his party hired wagons "covered with felt or blanket cloth, in which are grilled windows. The person inside the tent can see without being seen, and can spend his time as he likes, sleeping or eating or reading or writing while he is traveling..." As the governor of the territories north of the Black Sea was on the point of setting out for Sarai on the Volga - near present-day Volgograd - Ibn Battuta, possibly emboldened by his earlier trip with the Mongols, joined the governor's caravan. As on his earlier trip, Ibn Battuta was impressed, but this time by the respect accorded Turkish and Mongolian women. The governor's wife, he reported, traveled in a wagon covered with fine blue woolen cloth and neither she nor her attendants were veiled. When she alighted, moreover, the attendants carried the train of her gown and the governor himself rose, helped her to her seat beside him and even dined with her.

Merchants too treated their wives with respect, he said. Most wives were so well dressed that they sometimes eclipsed their husbands. As Ibn Battuta wrote of one such husband, "anyone seeing him would take him for one of her servants; he wears a rough sheep's wool cloak and a high cap to match."

At Bish Dagh, east of the Black Sea in the Caucasus, the governor's party joined the mahalla of Uzbek Khan, "a vast city on the move, with mosques and bazaars, the smoke of the kitchens rising in the air (for they cook while on the march), and horse-drawn wagons transporting the inhabitants. Upon reaching the camp, they unloaded the tents from the wagons and set them on the ground, for they were very light, and they did the same with the mosques and shops."

One of the Khan's wives, it turned out, was a Byzantine princess, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor. As she was pregnant, and wanted to return to Constantinople to deliver her child, Ibn Battuta seized the opportunity to join her party and, as a result, met the princess' father, the Emperor Andronicus. He also toured Constantinople in style, thanks to the emperor, who, impressed by his travels, presented Ibn Battuta with a guide, a robe of honor, a horse - and an umbrella such as was carried above the emperor's own head as a sign of protection. Ibn Battuta spent weeks inspecting the vast fortifications, the bazaars, the monasteries, the harbor, and Santa Sophia - from the outside, for no one could enter it without prostrating himself before the cross over the gate, and this Ibn Battuta refused to do.

The Khan's wife deciding to remain in Constantinople, Ibn Battuta returned with her military escort, crossing the steppes north of the Black Sea in the depths of the Russian winter. "I wore three fur coats and two pairs of trousers, one lined, and on my feet woolen boots, with a pair of linen-lined boots on top of them and a pair of horse skin boots lined with bearskin on top of those. I performed my ablutions with hot water near the fire, but every drop of water froze instantly. When I washed my face the water ran down my beard and froze, and when I shook it off a sort of snow fell from it... I could not mount my horse because of the quantity of clothes I was wearing, and my companions had to help me into the saddle."

After paying his respects to the Khan in his capital city of Sarai, the insatiable traveler made up his mind to fulfill his postponed ambition and visit India. Selling horses and wagons, he hired camels to cross the desert between Sarai and Khwarizm, today's Khiva, south of the Aral Sea. He was amazed at the populousness of the capital Khwarizm - "One day as I was riding in the bazaar I became so wedged in the crowd that I was unable to move forward or backward." Next came Bukhara and Samarkand, the two once-great Muslim cities razed by Genghis Khan 100 years earlier, and then Balkh, "an utter ruin and uninhabited." After a month and a half of waiting - for the worst of the winter storms to end - his party pushed into the rugged mountain passes of Afghanistan. They were armed, he wrote, with bundles of felt mats which they spread in front of the camels to help them keep their footing in the deep snow. At Ghazna, the capital of Afghanistan, they found still more ruins and pushed on, in a hazardous forced march, to the Indus. From there, by slow stages, Ibn Battuta proceeded to Delhi, where he presented himself at the court of Muhammad Tughlaq, sultan of one of several large Muslim principalities in India.

Delhi, Ibn Battuta recalled later, was one of the most colorful places he had seen. Outside the doors of the Sultan's palace, he wrote, trumpeters and flute-players waited to sound their instruments when any important person arrived and on nearby platforms were guards, the keeper of the register - with his gold mace and jeweled tiara surmounted with peacock feathers - and the scribes who kept the list of people who entered.

In the audience hall of "a Thousand Pillars," he goes on, the Sultan held his public levees, sitting cross-legged on a throne set on a dais carpeted in white, with a large cushion at his back, a servant with a fly-whisk beside him and 200 armor-bearers ranged on the right and left, carrying shields, swords and bows. "Then 60 horses are brought in, half ranged on the right and half on the left, where the Sultan can see them. Next they bring in 50 elephants adorned with silken cloths, their tusks shod with iron..

And during one of the Sultan's spectacular entrances into the capital, Ibn Battuta reported, three or four small catapults placed on the elephants' backs cast gold and silver coins among the people.

Fascinated by Delhi, Ibn Battuta settled down at the court for almost 10 years, during which he won an appointment as qadi, or judge of the Shari' ah courts. As the Sultan was a difficult ruler - subject to violent whims and storms of temper, sometimes munificent and open-handed, sometimes cruel and tyrannical - Ibn Battuta eventually fell out of favor and withdrew from the court. After a time, however, the capricious Sultan recalled him and announced that he had been appointed ambassador to the "King of China" - the Mongol Great Khan - because "I know your love of travel."

On the road again at last, Ibn Battuta on July 22, 1342, set out for China - and was almost immediately reminded that travel in the 14th century could be difficult. A few days out of Delhi his party was attacked by bandits, who stripped him of everything except the clothes on his back. He managed to talk them into setting him free, but for several days had to live on roots and berries and to sleep where he could. One night he bedded down in a grain bin, on top of which a bird fluttered all night. "We made a pair of frightened creatures," he wrote. After a week, he met a Muslim who gave him food and water and carried him piggy-back to a village where the governor helped him rejoin his friends, regain the comforts of his new ambassadorial rank and resume his journey to China.

His second try, however, was also beset with troubles. Accompanied by his entourage, he moved through central India and down the Malabar Coast to Calicut where he obtained passage on a junk bound for China. When a sudden squall sank two other junks in the harbour, however, Ibn Battuta was so busy watching the Sultan's police drive off looters - trying to salvage cargo washed up on shore - that he failed to notice his own ship weighing anchor. With all his goods aboard, it disappeared over the horizon, leaving him with nothing but 10 dinars and the carpet he had slept on the night before.

Ibn Battuta, however, was not one to give up easily. Knowing the junk was scheduled to put in at Quilon, south of Calicut, he hastened there by river boat. But the junk never came; en route, he learned that the junk had been seized by pirates. As, by then, his entourage was scattered he concluded that his service with the irascible Sultan Muhammad Tughluq was over. He sailed, therefore, for the Maldive Islands instead of China and, on the basis of his legal training and experience in Delhi, won another post as a qadi.

As a qadi in the islands, Ibn Battuta attempted to reform the free-and-easy customs of, the islands, but when the reforms made him unpopular, he went on to Ceylon, Bengal - "a vast country, abounding in rice" - and then Sumatra, where, finally, he boarded a junk for China.

In China, Ibn Battuta wrote, he sailed "up the River of Life" - probably the inland system of canals and rivers - to Canton and soon set off on still further explorations - this time more peacefully. Indeed, he said, he found traveling safer in China than anywhere else in the world. When a Muslim merchant arrived in a town, he was given the choice of staying with a local merchant of his own religion or at an inn; in either case his money was given to his host for safe-keeping, his expenses being paid out of it and the host held accountable for any deficit when he left. On the road each post station registered the names of all travelers, with their descriptions; at the next post-station a clearance certificate had to be sent back stating that all were accounted for.

Among the cities Ibn Battuta visited in China were "Qanjanfu," probably Fuchow, and Hangchow, "the biggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth." Hangchow, he continues, "is so long that it takes three days to traverse in the ordinary succession of marches and halts," and was divided into six cities, each with its own wall, the whole surrounded by an outer wall. In one city lived Jews and Christians, under a Chinese governor, another was occupied by Muslims, who had their own bazaars, mosques and muezzins.

From Hangchow, Ibn Battuta went to Peking, the Khan's capital, arriving just in time to attend the funeral of the Khan. It was, he said, observed with music, games and amusements, and a magnificent burial service. But as the Khan had been killed by rebels, Ibn Battuta felt uneasy. Furthermore he was beginning to be homesick. In Fuchow he had encountered a Muslim merchant and learned that he came from Ceuta. "And I from Tangier!" Both men wept and Ibn Battuta decided to go home.

Even the voyage home, however, provided its quota of adventures. En route to Sumatra on a junk he saw an island on the horizon which suddenly appeared to rise into the air, terrifying the sailors who swore they had seen Sinbad's famous giant bird, the Roc.

From Sumatra, Ibn Battuta took passage for Quilon and Calicut, then sailed across the Indian Ocean to Oman and traveled overland through Persia to Baghdad, and thence - after 20 years - to Syria.

Returning home after all that time, Ibn Battuta found himself a Rip van Winkle - a man facing a different world from the one he had left. In India, the Sultanate of Delhi was breaking up; in Persia and Iraq the il-Khans had been overthrown; and in Egypt the Mamluks were on the verge of collapse. There was more sinister news too: the Black Death had swept through Syria, Egypt and Africa on its way to Europe, killing 1,000 people every day in Gaza, more than 2,000 a day in Damascus and, at the height of the epidemic, 21,000 a day in Cairo. The epidemic had also, he learned on approaching Tangier, taken the life of his mother.

The sad homecoming, however, did not cure his mania for travel. After a visit to Spain, where Muslims still held the Kingdom of Granada, he undertook what proved to be his last journey - to what was then called Black Africa, and including a Muslim state called Mali, a name to be revived 600 years later. Ibn Battuta, however, found this outpost of Islam disappointing and the Sultan a miser. As he told the Sultan himself, "I have traveled all over the world and have met the kings of many countries. Here I have spent four months in your country, and you have neither shown me hospitality nor given me anything. What am I to say of you to other rulers?" The Sultan took the hint, and presented his important guest with an appropriate gift.

Still, there were interesting customs to describe. He witnessed, for example, a ceremony in which the court poets appeared dressed as birds, with feathers, wooden heads and red beaks. "They stand in front of the Sultan in this ridiculous get-up and recite their poems. I was told that their poetry is a kind of sermonizing in which they say to the Sultan, 'This throne on which you sit was once occupied by this king and that king, and such and such were this one's noble actions, and such and such the other's. So may you too do good deeds whose memory will outlive you.' Then the chief poet climbed the steps of the throne and laid his head in the Sultan's lap, then on his right shoulder, and then on his left."

He also saw crocodiles and hippopotami for the first time, heard intriguing stories about cannibals and, on the way home again, passed through Touareg country, whose women impressed him. They were, he wrote, "the most perfect in beauty and the most shapely in figure of all women, of a pure white color and very fat; nowhere in the world have I seen any who equal them in fatness."

Recrossing the desert to Fez, Ibn Battuta settled down under the wing of the Sultan, entertaining the court with the story of his adventures. Some of those adventures, contemporaries said, were received with some of the same incredulity met by Marco Polo - particularly his reports of India - but the Sultan believed him and ordered him to dictate his story to a secretary. At last, therefore, the weary traveler rested. Resuming the career for which he had trained - 28 years and 75,000 miles before - he became a qadi in Morocco, lived another 15 years and either traveled no more, or, if he did, left no account.

During that time he also finished his book on travel - a work which provided a rich source for historians about people and places, ships, navigation, caravan routes, tolls, pirates, roads, inns and much more besides - in some areas the only firsthand evidence that exists. His book, moreover, has value as a lively, readable, candid story of a man who loved life in all its infinite variety. As Ibn Juzayy, secretary of the Sultan of Morocco, commented at the end of his transcriptions of Ibn Battuta's Travels: "It is plain to any man of intelligence that this sheikh is the traveler of our time, and if one were to say the traveler par excellence of our Muslim community, he would be guilty of no exaggeration."

Frances Carney Gies, with her husband, is the author of 12 books and numerous articles, mostly on history. She has also written screen plays and recently contributed a cover story to Aramco World Magazine on the Arab geographer al-Idrisi.

This article appeared on pages 18-27 of the January/February 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1978 images.