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Volume 51, Number 4July/August 2000

In This Issue

Part One
From Traveler to Memoirist: China, Mali and Home

The Maldives, off the southwest coast of India, comprise so many numerous, small islands—the Rihla puts their number at 2000—that Ibn Battuta could be confident of escaping Sultan Ibn Tughluq's agents—or even his notice altogether.

The ruler of the Maldives, Queen Rehendi Kilege, locally called Khadija, was a puppet of her husband, the vizier. Despite Ibn Battuta's attempts to keep a low profile, the royal couple soon heard that a well-traveled qadi—indeed, one who had served in the metropolis of Delhi—was in their midst. As they had no one in the islands filling the office of qadi at the time, they invited Ibn Battuta to take up the post, and they made it clear that they would not take "no" for an answer.

So reasoning with myself that I was in their power and that if I did not stay of my own free will I would be kept by main force, and that it was better to stay of my own choice, I said to his messenger, "Very well, I shall stay."

For the next few months Ibn Battuta enjoyed the perquisites of power while acting in the familiar function of qadi, punishing thieves and adulterers, adjudicating disputes, and even trying, quite unsuccessfully, to require women to cover themselves more fully than island custom dictated. He married into the royal family, and soon found himself the husband of four wives, the full complement allowed under Islamic law. All of these unions were, at least in part, political, and it was not long before Ibn Battuta, whose Delhi credentials made him a big fish in this very small pond, began to acquire a power base of his own among the local nobles. This led to a falling out with the rulers and his departure under suspicion—apparently well-founded—of plotting a coup d'état. In a mere seven months Ibn Battuta had gone from a much-courted qadi to qadi non grata.

He went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which Marco Polo had described as "size for size, the most beautiful isle in the world." There he rekindled his spiritual side, and made a trek up to the heights of Adam's Peak, where he met Christians and Hindus, for the place was revered in all three faiths. Along the way, he noted the abundance of rubies and sapphires, monkeys and "flying leeches."

On the way back to the Coromandel Coast, on the eastern flank of India, a fierce squall broke up his ship. He got his wives safely aboard a raft, but there was no room on it for him, and Ibn Battuta was not a good swimmer. He clung to the slowly sinking stern of the ship through the night. In the morning, just as it appeared to be going down for good, a boat of local fishermen arrived. They set him on his way to the sultan, who proved to be Ibn Battuta's brother-in-law, the brother of a former wife in Delhi—one of those coincidences that highlight the "small world" of 14th-century nobility in Dar al-Islam.

Ibn Battuta and the sultan, Ghiyath al-Din, plotted their joint return to the Maldives, accompanied by a military force that would carry out the unrealized coup. But on the way back to the coast with the expeditionary force, the qadi was repelled by his ally's brutal treatment of non-Muslim prisoners, calling his behavior "an abomination" and asserting, "that is why God hastened his death." Indeed, it was not long before, in the coastal city of Pattan, "a plague fron which people died suddenly,... in two or three days" claimed Ghiyath al-Din, and Ibn Battuta appears to have abandoned his designs on the Maldives.

He set sail once more for Honavar on India's west coast, and once more he lost everything, this time to a sea-cordon of pirate vessels. Their tactic was to disperse far out at sea but just within sight of each other. When a victim neared, they communicated with light signals and swarmed on their target en masse:

They took everything I had preserved for emergencies; they took the pearls and rubies that the king of Ceylon had given me, they took my clothes and the supplies given me by pious people.... They left me no covering except my trousers.

It speaks well of Ibn Battuta's resourcefulness and the brotherhood of the 'ulama that, after coming ashore stripped, he was again well-dressed by day's end and, within weeks, had money to spend and was again embarked on a boat headed for the Maldives, alone. It was a brief visit, he told the decidedly mistrustful vizier and queen: He wanted only to see the son he had fathered there. And five days later he was on his way to Bengal, Sumatra, and on—to China.

Ibn Battuta’s long journey through Southeast Asia and China is strikingly less clear in its geography and chronology than his accounts of India. In the town of “Sumutra,” on the northeast tip of what is today the island of Sumatra, he recalled being told, “‘It is our custom that a newcomer does not greet the sultan for three days, so that the fatigue of the journey has gone out and he has recovered his faculties. ...They brought us food three times a day, fruit and delicacies evening and morning.”

A t this point, it is fair to ask, "Why China?" The superficial answer is that Ibn Battuta had obously determined to travel as widely in Dar al Islam as he possibly could. From the Malabar coast of India, China was almost as distant as Tangier, where he had started his traveling 20 years earlier. His first attempt to get to China was as the head of a royal embassy, which would have been a magnificent way to see that country. Now he was merely a well-traveled, politically savvy, well-connected qadi who offered potential patrons a greater knowledge of world and a better grasp of how it worked, than most of his peers. He had no particular need to go to China. Why not pack up his sandals and go home?

Yet China was a tremendous attraction for travelers. From the 10th to the 13th century, mutually reinforcing prosperity in the Islamic lands, under the Abbasids, and in China, under the Sung Dynasties, boosted Arab trade to heady heights. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty took China in 1279, and despite the Mongol devastations within Dar al-Islam, the maritime trade was little affected. Omani and other traders, as before, continued their arduous, 18-month voyages unmolested from the Arabian Gulf to Chüan-chou.

Even though the Yuan never embraced Islam, unlike the other Mongol dynasties that controlled Persia and Central Asia, they tended to trust Muslims more than they trusted their Chinese subjects. They esteemed Muslims as men of their word, as merchants who did not err because of intoxication, and as people whose behavior in the spirit of the Qur'an was also laudable by the principles of Confucius. The Yuan's open-door policies filled their bureaucracy with Muslims of all origins—not to mention a few Westerners like Niccolo Polo and his son Marco. Thus Ibn Battuta may have been lured toward China for two of the same reasons he had been lured to India: the prospect of employment, and a persistent memory of the sage in Alexandria, Burhan al-Din, who two decades earlier had predicted that Ibn Battuta would one day visit China and greet his brother of the same name.

Ibn Battuta's account of his sojourn in China proper is much briefer than that of the 5700-kilometer (3500-mi) voyage that took him there by way of Burma and Sumatra. This is surprising in light of the rich detail lavished earlier in the Rihla on every corner of the Indian subcontinent that the traveler could reach. It is especially surprising given that a number of Chinese ports were the most significant long-distance Muslim trade destinations of the era, and the Marinid patron of the Rihla would hardly be any less interested in news of those destinations than of India. Ibn Battuta's scanty account of China is one of the great riddles of the Rihla.

On his way back to Morocco in 1348, Ibn Battuta encountered history’s greatest pandemic, the Black Death, which affected the Middle East as dramatically as it did Europe. “I went to Damascus and arrived on a Thursday; the people had been fasting for three days.... The number of deaths among them had risen to 2400 a day.... Then I went to Cairo and was told that the number of deaths there had risen to 21,000 a day. I found that all the religious scholars I had known were dead. May God Most High have mercy upon them!”

The troubles are more than scant treatment, however. There is plenty of evidence that either Ibn Battuta or the scribe of the Rihla, Ibn Juzayy, incorporated the writings of others in the text or embellished second-hand information, perhaps to supplement gaps in the traveler's memory. Such liberties appear most egregiously in the account of Ibn Battuta's trip up the Volga to "Bulgary" in the Urals, where his descriptions are fuzzy and his chronology virtually impossible to follow. Similarly, in China, his reliability is so maddeningly variable that one can argue for or against his having been there at all. On the one hand, many of his visual descriptions are just detailed enough to keep them in line with the rest of the Rihla. On the other, the portions that describe Fu-chou, Hang-chou, and Beijing are so devoid of anecdote and so generic that it is hard to believe that these are first-hand recollections: More likely, he learned about these places from other Muslim traders he met in the southern Chinese ports that he actually did visit, and about which he offers reasonably rich, nuanced description.

Occasionally he is simply wrong, although the rarity of outright error in the Rihla is part of what has made it such an enduringly valuable document. En route to China he describes the port of Qaqula (now in Myan-mar): "Elephants are very numerous there; they ride on them and use them to carry loads.... The same is the case with all of the people of China and Cathay [Northern China]." This is not correct, as anyone who had been to China could attest and as Ibn Battuta himself should have known.

Elsewhere, his facts on China are largely correct, and they are fascinating, if too brief. He describes the universal use of paper money, which was also noted by others: "If anyone goes to the bazaar with a silver dirham or dinar, no one will accept it from him until he changes it into balisht [paper money]." He notes that fine porcelain costs less in China than common pottery in India and Arabia. Some of the best, he says, comes from Sin-Kalan, from whose name comes the word kaolin, the finest porcelain clay known. Ibn Battuta also reports one of those revealing vignettes that say much about the psychology of a culture:

“The memory of my homeland moved me, affection for my people and friends, and love for my country, which for me is better than all others.... [In the spring of 1349] I sailed in a small qurqura belonging to a Tunisian.... I reached the city of Taza, where I learned that my mother had died of the plague, God Most High have mercy upon her.... I sought to visit my mother’s grave [in Tangier and] visited it.” Ibn Battuta was now 45 years old, and although he was in his native city for the first time in a quarter-century, he did not stay, but set out for “the holy war and the frontier fighting” in Spain.

The Chinese are of all peoples the most skillful in depiction. I never returned to any of their cities after an earlier visit without finding my portrait and the portraits of my companions drawn on the walls and on sheets of paper exhibited in the bazaars.... I was told that the sultan had ordered this. The artisans had come to the palace while we were there and observed us, drawing our portraits without our noticing. If a stranger commits any offense among them, they send his portrait far and wide. A search is then made for him. Wheresoever a person resembling that portrait is found, he is arrested.

But he was not always admiring. Here he notes the severity of Chinese maritime customs inspections:

They order the ship's master to dictate to them a manifest of all the merchandise in it, whether small or great. Then everyone disembarks and the customs officials sit to inspect what they have with them. If they come upon any article that has been concealed from them the junk and whatever is in it is forfeit to the treasury. This is a kind of extortion I have seen in no country, whether infidel or Muslim, except in China.

On the whole, Ibn Battuta seems to have enjoyed China less than any other place he had so far visited. Although "the Chinese are of all peoples the most skillful in crafts and attain the greatest perfection in them," and "China is the safest and best country for the traveler," the fussbudget, provincial side of his character came out here in nines. Perhaps he was simply road-weary.

China, for all its magnificence, did not please me.... When I left my lodging I saw many offensive things which distressed me so much that I stayed at home and went out only when it was necessary. When I saw Muslims it was as though I had met my family and my relatives.

After another narrow escape—this time from Christian corsairs who took a preceding company of Muslim soldiers prisoner—Ibn Battuta arrived in Granada. It was a time when the beleaguered kingdom was struggling to maintain its cultural and political brilliance, and its ruler, Yusuf i, was constructing what are today some of the most elegant portals and courtyards within the Alhambra. Yet Ibn Battuta did not meet him “because of an illness he had, but his nobly born, pious and excellent mother sent me some gold dinars, of which I made good use.”

After a sojourn of less than a year—the exact duration is uncertain—a "rebellion broke out and disorders flared up," giving him a welcome excuse to quit the country. He left aboard a friend's India-bound junk. Though he was not fully aware of it, he was on his way home.

In India, he met only ghosts of his past: "I wanted to return to Delhi, but became afraid to do so." He sailed on to Oman.

By this point in his travels, the flush of youthful discovery and the prospects of success just over the horizon seem to have left Ibn Battuta—or perhaps by this point in his recounting he was growing weary of dictating to Ibn Juzayy. For whatever reason, a few pages suffice to cover his return from China, via Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, to make his fourth Hajj in Makkah.

Among those pages are one of the Rihla's most harrowing accounts. It was late spring in 1348, in Aleppo, when Ibn Battuta learned that "at Gaza the plague had broken out and the number of deaths reached over a thousand a day." Although his numbers were hardly official statistics, his impressions of the Black Death are now certainly first-hand:

I went to Horns and found that the plague had already struck there; about 300 persons died on the day of my arrival. I went to Damascus and arrived on a Thursday; the people had been fasting for three days.... The number of deaths among them had risen to 2400 a day.... Then we went to Gaza and found most of it deserted because of the number that had died.... The qadi told me that only a quarter of the 80 notaries there were left and that the number of deaths had risen to 1100 a day.... Then I went to Cairo and was told that during the plague the number of deaths rose to 21,000 a day. I found that all the shaykhs I had known were dead. May God Most High have mercy upon them!

He reported only on the areas he visited, and that briefly. Today we know that the plague was as great a pandemic in Dar al-Islam as it was in Europe, and that to the east, the Great Wall did nothing to stop the rat and the flea that brought the disease to China in cargoes of grain. The scale of the deaths there was taken as a sign that the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn and that the Yuan Dynasty would fall. Fourteen years later, it did.

In Damascus Ibn Battuta learned that a son he had fathered there had died 12 years before and that his own father had died no fewer than 15 years earlier in Tangier. But his mother, a fellow Berber reported, was still alive, though now advanced in years. He resolved to see her.

But first he made his intended fourth Hajj. He remained in Makkah from Ramadan through the month of the Hajj, about three months, and "every day I visited the holy places." He comments little on the city in this passing, and little on plague-ridden Cairo, now a honeycomb without honey. The great builder, Mamluk sultan al-Nasir Muhammad Qala'un, had nine years earlier fallen to a cabal of rivals, under whom the city's administration all but collapsed.

Further west, the tribes of Ifriqiyyah were once more besieging Tunis. The one strong leader in the region, Abu al-Hasan, seized the central Maghrib, then sent an expedition to retake Gibraltar. Emboldened by its success, he sent another into Spain to try to stop and drive back the waves of Christian knights out of Castile, but he lost much of his army at the battle of Río Salado, an event that augured the last scene of the last act of Islam's presence in southwestern Spain and Portugal.

Ibn Battuta says nothing of his filial feelings as he made his halting way toward Tangier, but surely they were there. Then, alas: In Taza, near Fez, he learned that death had knocked on his mother's door before he had been able to. She had died of the plague that he had escaped.

In Fez, Ibn Battuta presented to the Marinid sultan's representative. Considering that Sultan Abu 'Inan was later to become Ibn Battuta's final and most steadfast patron, as well as the underwriter of the Rihla, it is understandable that the traveler now spends little time describing his private reunions with family, friends and colleagues and indulges instead in the rhetorical equivalent of kissing the soil-of his homeland—as well as the staff of its ruler. It is a reminder again of his ability to ingratiate himself with the right person in the right way at the right time, at home no less than abroad.

I  stood before our exalted master, the most generous imam, the Commander of the Faithful,... Abu 'Inan, may God establish his grandeur and crush his enemies. His majesty caused me to forget the majesty of the sultan of Iraq, his beauty caused me to forget that of the king of India, his gracious manners those of the king of Yemen, his courage the king of the Turks.... I laid down my traveling staff in his noble country after verifying, with superabundant impartiality, that it is the best of countries.

This panegyric carries on for several pages of the Rihla, but when Ibn Battuta moves on to Tangier, he describes in one sentence his visit to his mother's tomb, and in the next three sentences a visit to Ceuta, his illness there, and his decision "to take part in the jihad and the defense of the frontier" against the Christians in Spain.

So though the great traveler had returned home, he was not yet done traveling. There were two more significant journeys to make, one to the north, and one to the south.

In contrast to the anomalous China narrative, his descriptions of al-Andalus are no less copious and rich than the rest of the Rihla. For anyone who has been to southern Spain, the scenery has been changed only in that the tracks he walked are now mostly paved roads, and that, in the towns, television antennae clutter what were then unbroken roofscapes of red tile.

Ibn Battuta was as charmed with Granada as visitors are today. It was the time of Yusuf I, who was then building the Alhambra, though Ibn Battuta does not mention it. He does mention one item, almost in passing, that speaks again of the extraordinary mobility of the population of Dar al-Islam in the early 14th century: There was a company of Persians in Granada, he notes, "who have made their homes there because of its resemblance to their native lands. One is from Samarkand, another from Tabriz, a third from Konya [Turkey], two from Khurasan, two from India, and so on."

He also met a young man, scion of a long line of gentleman poets, who was mesmerized by the places and people Ibn Battuta had seen. His name was Muhammad ibn Juzayy, and he wrote down a number of the traveler's stories, sketchily and spontaneously. The two would meet again, in Fez, some five years later, when Ibn Juzayy would be commissioned to record the full extent of Ibn Battuta's travels. In the Rihla, Ibn Juzayy notes as an aside: "I was with them in that garden [in al-Andalus]. Shaykh Abu 'Abdallah [Ibn Battuta] delighted us with the story of his travels."

Then Shaykh Abu 'Abdallah returned to Fez by way of Rabat and Marrakech, where he noted "magnificent mosques, like the principal mosque, known as the Mosque of the Booksellers. It has a wonderful and awe-inspiring minaret, which I climbed and from which the whole town can be seen." Today we can't climb that minaret, but we can certainly agree on its beauty.

Mali, renowned for its gold, was the destination of perhaps the most arduous of all Ibn Battuta’s journeys, and he was, when he set out, 48 years old. In the capital of Mali, whose location at that time is uncertain, he visited mansa (“sultan”) Suleyman, and noted sourly that “he is a miserly king, and a big gift is not to be expected from him.” Ibn Battuta waited at the local qadi’s house for the customary welcoming gift, “but [instead of robes of honor, or money] there were three round loaves of bread, a piece of beef fried in gharti, and a calabash with curdled milk. When I saw it I laughed.”

When he got back to Morocco, political conditions were stable and Sultan Abu 'Inan was building the finest madrasa Fez had ever known. Ibn Battuta was three years short of his 50th birthday. What a wonderful place and time this would have been to end his pereginations!

But no. By now Ibn Battuta had traversed the entirety of Dar al-Islam except that part almost the closest to his home, but which, because of the difficulty of getting there, was, in practical terms, farther away than all the rest.

On the first day of the month of Muharram in early 1352, Ibn Battuta left with a caravan to cross the Sahara to Mali and bilad al-sudan, "the country of the blacks." Today, Tuareg guides in their indigo blue still make that camel trek, from Goulemine in Morocco, near his departure point of Sijilmasa, then prosperous but now deserted. The crossing takes 63 days. Ibn Battuta did not count them, but simply described the trip as "long and arduous."

It was not out of casual curiosity that Ibn Battuta went in this direction. Central West Africa was on the rise, undergoing its own remarkable blossoming. The upper valleys of the Senegal and Niger rivers were fruitful. They easily provisioned the rich gold mines at Bambuk and Bure. Had the demand for gold from Dar al-Islam been all there was, the region around the kingdom of Mali would have maintained a prosperous but stagnant economy. But there was far greater demand for gold. The Christian lands of Europe were converting to stably priced but foreign gold from local, but price-volatile, silver. The effect on Mali, which then produced 60 percent or more of the world's total supply of gold, was an economic boom. The new wealth could support stronger armies, whose conquests in turn enlarged the tax base to include more farmers and herders.

The caravans of camels that carried the gold of Mali north to Morocco also carried the region's other exports, such as hides, nuts, ostrich and other feathers, ivory and salt. In the opposite direction went cotton textiles, spices, finished jewelry, grain, dried fruit, horses for the Malian army, and the metals that West and Central Africa lacked: silver, copper, and iron. One example alone demonstrated the extraordinary range of the Muslim commercial system: Cowrie shells from the Maldives were used as money in Sudan and Mali, and gold from Mali turned up in the Maldives, 9000 kilometers (5500 mi) and an ocean away.

The Mali-Morocco trade was dominated by Berber merchants, who had settled in Mali and the savanna lands south of the gold fields. Thanks to their connections with these merchants, Muslim traders also arrived, settled among the locals, built mosques and called the people to prayer. Muslim concepts of fair trade helped bring order to the boom times and won their practitioners respect that reflected well on their religion.

As with other expansions of Islam, conversion brought the need for administration, for qadis, for 'ulama, and all the administrative infrastructure that was part of the network that had produced Ibn Battuta and thrived by his labors and those of his colleagues. This process is spectacularly illustrated by the example of Mali's most fabled king, mansa ("sultan") Musa, who became a legend by distributing so much gold in Cairo en route to the Hajj in 1324 that he depressed the market. The chronicler al-'Umari wrote: "He established the Friday observances [in his kingdom], prayers in the congregation, and the muezzin's call. He brought jurists...to his country and...became a student of religious sciences."

This was a familiar pattern to Ibn Battuta, and he pursued what role he could in it. But this last adventure produced few of the glories of his previous ones. In fact, it had pretty much the opposite effect. He begins observantly enough:

After a six-day delay caused by the death of his camel, Ibn Battuta arrived in Timbuktu on a fresh one. The city, he noted, “is four miles from the Nile.” That he believed the Niger to be the Upper Nile is evidence of the scant geographical knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa even among educated people in the northern part of the continent.

[In Taghaza] there are no trees, only sand in which is a salt mine.... They dig the ground and thick slabs are found in it, lying on each other as if they had been cut and stacked under the ground. A camel carries two slabs.... A load of it is sold at [Walata] for eight to 10 mithqals, and in the city of Malli for 20 to 30, sometimes 40. The blacks trade with salt as others trade with gold and silver; they cut it in pieces and buy and sell with these. For all its squalor qintars and qintars of gold 'dust are traded there. We spent 10 days there, under strain, for the water is brackish and it is the place with the most flies.

The next stage of his journey, from Taghaza to Walata, was some 800 kilometers (500 mi), broken by only one oasis. The terrain was so barren, and the chance of becoming lost so great, that a relief-convoy system had evolved. Caravan leaders would hire a local Musafa tribesman to act as a takshif, a messenger who, for a high fee, would precede them and inform the merchants of Walata of the caravan's coming. Those merchants then equipped a convoy of water-bearers to march four days' distance out to meet the incoming caravan. The takshif was paid only when the two groups met, and "sometimes the takshif perishes in this desert and the people of [Walata] know nothing of the caravan, and its people, or most of them, perish too." Imagine the relieved sighs when the men of the caravan—traveling mostly at night because of the heat—saw the lights of the water convoy on the horizon!

In Walata, some 400 kilometers (250 mi) west of Timbuktu, Ibn Battuta was less than impressed by his reception. The local governor spoke to him only through an interlocutor, and, though he was told this was correct Malian protocol, the qadi took offense. His sour mood curdled altogether when "the repast was served—some pounded millet mixed with a little honey and milk and put into a calabash shaped like a large bowl." Ibn Battuta, a man accustomed to the cuisine of the finest courts of the world, was taken aback, and conceived an uncharitable sentiment that he harbored for the rest of his trip: "I then became convinced that no good was to be hoped for from these people." Nonetheless, he remained in that country for 50 days, and admitted that "its people treated me with respect and gave me hospitality."

From Mali he took to the Niger River, which he mistook for the Nile, since it flows eastward through Mali before abruptly turning south into Nigeria. He wrote copiously about this region, especially its Arabic language and Islamic culture, and recounted stories about cannibal tribes in the south.

Later, in the capital of Mali, which he neither names nor locates, he visited Mansa Suleyman and noted that "he is a miserly king and a big gift is not to be expected from him." To make Ibn Battuta's mood worse, he contracted food poisoning from a meal that killed one of its six partakers. He waited at the qadi's house for a welcoming gift. When it arrived, he expected "robes of honor and money, but there were three round loaves of bread, a piece of beef fried in gharti, and a calabash with curdled milk. When I saw it I laughed and was greatly surprised at their feeble intelligence and exaggerated opinion of something contemptible."

At this point in the Rihla, we begin to get an impression of travel-weariness, probably exacerbated by extended illness. Fortunately for Ibn Battuta—and for our impression of 14th-century Mali—there were also better times, such as what appears to have been a pleasant river trip by dugout canoe from near Timbuktu to Gao on the Niger, which he continues to refer to as the Nile:

At Tunbuktu [sic] I embarked on the Nile in a little boat hollowed out from a single piece of wood. Every night we stopped at a village where we bought the food and butter we needed, paying with salt, aromatics and glass trinkets. We reached a town whose name I have forgotten; the amir was an excellent man, a hajji.

Later, journeying over the desert to Takadda, "I fell ill from the extreme heat and excess of bile. We hastened our march." He recovered sufficiently to visit a nearby copper mine, and then a messenger arrived with a command from the sultan of Fez, ordering his return to his exalted capital.

I kissed [the letter] and obeyed instantly. I bought two riding camels...[and] took on provisions for 70 nights, for no grain is found between Takadda and Tawat. Only meat, curdled milk and butter are to be had; they are bought with cloth.

Ibn Battuta’s venture across the Sahara shows vividly that the world he traveled through was not demarcated by linear borders, as it is on maps—though not always in fact—today. Rather, the geographical limits of a 14th-century ruler’s power were more like what we see at night from a commercial jet at cruising altitude. Looking down from the airplane, we see cities as intense agglomerations of light whose brilliance becomes progressively less as we look from the city centers to the suburbs. The lights thin out further as we look at less populated countryside, with lines stretching outward along river courses and fertile valleys until finally, in the open, scantily populated lands, there appears only the occasional flicker of an outpost. Then the land goes dark, until traces of the tentacles of the next urban core begin to appear.

The sultanates, kingdoms, fleeting petty trading states and vast dynastic empires that Ibn Battuta visited were also lights seen from altitude. Around the temple and the palace, the shining core of power, were the houses of the nobles, hardly less brilliant. Beyond them, within easy serving distance, lay the quarters of merchants, workers and students, shining lights of intellect and the industry. Then there were suburbs of the somewhat well-to-do, the government functionaries, the retired soldiers, whose light was mostly a reflection of the light at the center. Finally came the poor quarters of laborers, freed slaves, disenfranchised farmers, refugees from other principalities’ wars, and others of the underclasses. Beyond them lay the fields, though only as far as water might be found. Where these last skeins of light ended, so also did the ruler’s writ—a fact ruefully noted by every tax collector sent to perform his duties in the hinterlands.

On the trek back he was rather better impressed by the rough but sincere piety of some Berber customs:

We...reached the country of the Hoggar, a Berber clan,... who are scoundrels. We had arrived in their country in the month of Ramadan, during which they do not go on raids or intercept caravans; if their robbers find goods on the road in Ramadan they do not take them. It is so with all Berbers along this road.

We can almost hear him sighing, "Civilization at last!"

In January 1354 Ibn Battuta arrived back in Fez to an enthusiastic welcome from Sultan Abu 'Inan, who deemed Ibn Battuta's stories worth recording. He assigned the task to the scribe and poet Ibn Juzayy, who had been so impressed with Ibn Battuta when they met in Granada and who may indeed have expressed an enthusiasm for the job. Although we know Ibn Battuta's account today by its generic title of Rihla, its original title was more florid, in the court style of the day: Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Ghara'ib al-Amsar wa-'Aja'ib al-Asfar [A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling).

Strictly defined, a rihla was a written account of a Hajj ourney. We saw earlier how portions of Ibn Battuta's descriptions of Madinah and Makkah closely paralleled, or were copied directly from, a rihla of Ibn Jubayr's penned a century earlier. Such unacknowledged copying, done with or without Ibn Battuta's knowledge, was not fair play by the standards of his time any more than our own, but perhaps bn Juzayy thought that only one pair of eyes—the sultan's—would ever read this rihla.

More forgivable are Ibn Juzayy's touching up Ibn Battuta's prose with the addition of narrative highlights, since most of hem are likely indistinguishable from the moments of Ibn Battuta's own fitful eloquence that Ibn Juzayy claimed to have ecorded verbatim. Ibn Juzayy was, after all, a professional court poet, and the eloquence of the finished work, both colaboraters knew, would reflect less on either of them than on he work's patron, the sultan. Thus beautiful writing and specacular description was a matter, once again, of knowing vhich side of the narrative bread would receive the royal buter. And there is, of course, the question of first- and second-land information from Ibn Battuta himself: How much redence did he give to tales wafting through the caravansaries? We cannot tell, and so must be content with what we have.

Ironically, despite these questions, Ibn Battuta only came to be appreciated centuries after his death. His peers and con-temporaries, the Moroccan 'ulama, often flatly disbelieved him and said so. Some dismissed him as a qadi of middling rank who substituted tall tales for a respectable record of juridical achievement—a sentiment perhaps spread by some degree of envy, provincialism and academic rivalry. Ibn Khaldun, the great political scientist and sociologist who was a lose contemporary of Ibn Battuta, muttered darkly that the latter "reported things...that his listeners considered strange." Abu al-Barakat al-Balafiqi of Granada called him "purely and simply a liar," and said snidely that Ibn Battuta "possessed only a modest share of knowledge." Though Abu al-Barakat lay have been technically correct in that statement, which of the two is being read today? A more gracious comment came in the 15th century from Muhammad ibn Marzuk, a scholar who said, "I know of no person who journeyed to so many lands...on his travels, and he was generous and well-doing."

Beginning in 1354, Ibn Battuta dictated his memories to court poet Ibn Juzayy, who finished distilling them into what became the Rihla some two years later—just shortly before his own death. In his introduction, Ibn Juzayy called Ibn Battuta “the most trustworthy and veracious traveler, the ranger of the earth and traverser of its climes in length and breadth,...” and averred that he himself had “rendered the sense of the narrative...in language which adequately expresses the purposes that [Ibn Battuta] had in mind and sets forth clearly the ends which he had in view. Frequently I have reported his words in his own phrasing, without omitting either root or branch.” At the end of the Rihla, Ibn Juzayy wrote, “This completes the epitome I made of the composition of the shaykh Abu ’Abdallah Muhammad ibn Battuta, God ennoble him. It is obvious to anyone of intelligence that [he] is the traveler of the age, [and] if anyone were to call him ‘the traveler of the [entire Muslim] community’ he would not exaggerate.”

After that, little is heard about the Rihla, although it circulated in Arabic, mostly in the Maghrib, until European scholars rediscovered it a century and a half ago. It attracted the interest of historian Sir Hamilton Gibb, whose unabridged translation made the Rihla widely available in English beginning in 1958, and from whose definitive, four-volume work (with minor liberties) the translations in this article have been taken.

Ibn Battuta died in 1369 at the age of 65. His death came 11 or 12 years after he finished dictating the Rihla, a project that appears to have come to an end with the death of Ibn Juzayy. We know nothing of the rest of Ibn Battuta's life, except that he served as a qadi in an unrecorded Moroccan town. He had no known descendants in Morocco.

As to his world, one of the great virtues of the Rihla is that it is so voluminous that everyone who reads it finds facets to enjoy. Let us focus for a concluding moment on one largely unremarked but very important aspect of the work: Local markets. Here are the prices of chickens, there the markups for salt, and everywhere the cash and barter prices for no end of eggs, cucumbers, yams, jewelry, household items, perfumes, carpets, and so on, to say nothing of the cash price for other cash. The Rihla is our era's only available stroll through the supermarkets and banks of the early 14th century, the only source for the longue durée view of history that became so influential in the second half of the 20th century. Put these details together with his descriptions of transport and delivery infrastructure, support them with his specifics on the number and funding of waqfs, madrasas, royal entourages, modes of taxation, armies, shipbuilding and the organizing of caravans, and there takes shape before our eyes an enormous canvas detailing the workings of an intricate, sophisticated, global, pre-industrial economy.

Our delight in his gift, as we contemplate the wonders of his travels, lives on.

Douglas Bullis

Douglas Bullis is a researcher and writer who specializes in the Arab and Asian Muslim worlds. He divides his time between Southeast Asia and India, and can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].

Norman  MacDonald Norman MacDonald has illustrated more than 25 articles for Aramco World. He lives in Amsterdam, and became a grandfather while carrying out the present assignment.

This article appeared on pages 28-39 of the July/August 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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