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Home Geographers and Explorers The Journeys of Ibn Battuta

The Journeys of Ibn Battuta

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 The Journeys of Ibn Battuta

 Written by Douglas Bullis. Illustrated by Norman MacDonald. 

Map of the journeys of Ibn Battuta

At age 21, Ibn Battuta “set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries [of Makkah and Madinah]. So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones...and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests. My parents being yet in the bonds of life, it weighed sorely upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow at this separation.” He did not return to Tangier until 1349, some 24 years later. 

Despite his travels and his book, Ibn Battuta was not a travel writer in the modern sense. Four things can help us today understand what we read about his experiences between 1325 and 1354.

First, though the book is commonly referred to as "the Rihla," that" is not its title, properly speaking, but its genre. (The title is Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Ghara'ib al-Amsar wa-'Aja'ib al-Asfar, or A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling.) The Prophet Muhammad's traditional injunction to "seek knowledge, even as far as China" had the effect of legitimating travel, or even wanderlust, and, in the Islamic middle ages, gave rise to the concept of al-rihla fi talab al-'ilm, travel in search of knowledge. In Islamic North Africa in the 12th to 14th centuries, as paper became increasingly widely available, educated men began to pen and circulate first-hand descriptions of their pilgrimages the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah. Such an account was called a rihla, or "travelogue," and it combined geographical and social information about the route with the writer's description of and emotional responses to the religious experience of the Hajj. The rihla is thus a category of Arab literature which Ibn Jubayr and, almost a century later, Ibn Battuta brought to its finest flowering.

Though Ibn Battuta's Rihla is, at its roots, a work of devotion, its distinction from other works in the category lies in the vast sweep of the writer's secular accounts: He embraces geography, politics, personalities, natural history, local customs and his own exploits, all mostly very far afield from the Holy Cities and the established routes of pilgrimage. Ibn Battuta enlarged the scope of the rihla genre.

Second, the Rihla is a memoir. There is no evidence that Ibn Battuta took any notes that survived his peregrinations. Indeed, writing the Rihla was not even the traveler's own idea: It was the brainchild of the Marinid sultan of Fez, who saw reason to record what Ibn Battuta had experienced—or, at least, what Ibn Battuta was able and willing to recall of his experiences. Given this fact, and the duration and complexity of Ibn Battuta's sojourns, his many gaps, inconsistencies and self-regarding embellishments are more understandable.

 Third, the Rihla is what we would today call an oral history, and Ibn Battuta is not so much its author as its source. He dictated it over the course of two years to the sultan's court poet, who claims, in an introduction, to have approached his assignment with due humility. However, most scholars agree that Ibn Juzayy would have guided and edited Ibn Battuta's recollections, and that, in addition to his own insertions, he took interpretive liberties with some of Ibn Battuta's accounts, in all likelihood to bring them up to stylistic standards of the time and to make them more meaningful to his audience: the sultan in particular and educated gentlemen in general.

Finally, the Rihla comprises nearly 1000 pages in the four volumes of its leading English translation, and the present writer and editors have necessarily omitted more than they have included when selecting highlights from this vast text. For example, the present article describes mostly urban, secular experiences, albeit viewed through the eyes of a specialist in Islamic law; however, the Rihla abounds in accounts of holy places and revered people that we have largely omitted. Similarly, Ibn Battuta's near-encounter with what he and his shipmates unquestioningly regarded as the legendary rakhkh, or roc—the bird as big as a mountain that haunted the southern Indian Ocean—is also omitted from the present account.

Thus our world traveler's adventures have been filtered several times—through his own memory, through his scribe's literary preferences, through the modern editors of the Arabic text, through a translator, and through a writer and editors—to become the account you now hold in your hands. Nonetheless, we hope the result makes this astute, often delightfully idiosyncratic traveling companion more understandable than ever, for Ibn Battuta offers the clearest and broadest glimpse available to us of the daily workings of a civilization that was arguably as successful in its worldwide reach 700 years ago as ours is today. He lets us gaze closely at unfamiliar people who, like us, were confident in their civilizational purpose. With Ibn Battuta we can vicariously travel the world during the age when Islam was the very definition of global civilization.



At a time when the greatest speed humans could reach was astride a galloping horse, to travel 120,000 kilometers, or 75,000 miles, in 30 years was a remarkable feat. At a steady pace, it would have worked out to a bit under 11 kilometers (7 mi) a day for almost 11,000 days. 

Ibn Battuta does not describe his early life in the Rihla nor, for that matter, much of his personal life at all—such matters would have been inappropriate for the literary memoir he was dictating. We know he was trained as a qadi, or judge, in the Maliki tradition of jurisprudence, which is one of the four major schools of Islamic legal thought that codified, interpreted and adjudicated shar’ia, or Islamic law. He would have studied in mosques and in the homes of his teachersThe man who traveled that distance was, according to his chronicler, "the traveler of the age." He was not the Venetian Marco Polo, but Ibn Battuta of Tangier, who set out eastward in 1325, the year after Polo died. Ibn Battuta's wanderings stretched from Fez to Beijing, and although he resolved not to travel the same path more than once, he made four Hajj pilgrimages to Makkah, in addition to crossing what, on a modern map, would be more than 40 countries. He met some 60 heads of state—and served as advisor to two dozen of them. His travel memoir, known as the Rihla, written after his journeys were complete, names more than 2000 people whom he met or whose tombs he visited. His descriptions of life in Turkey, Central Asia, East and West Africa, the Maldives, the Malay Peninsula and parts of India are a leading source of contemporary knowledge about those areas, and in some cases they are the only source. His word-portraits of sovereigns, ministers and other powerful men are often uniquely astute, and are all the more intimate for being colored by his personal experiences and opinions.

Ibn Battuta was born in the port town of Tangier, then an important debarkation point for travelers to Gibraltar, beyond which lay al-Andalus, Arab Spain, by then reduced from its former extent to include only the brilliant but beleaguered kingdom of Granada.

At age 21, Ibn Battuta set forth at a propitious time in history. The concept of the 'umma, the brotherhood of all believers that transcends tribe and race, had spiritually unified the Muslim world, which stretched from the Atlantic eastward to the Pacific. Islam was the world's most sophisticated civilization during the entire millennium following the fall of Rome. Its finest period was the 800 years between Islam's great first expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries and the advent of European transoceanic mercantilism in the 15th century. During that time, Islam had breathed new life into the sciences, commerce, the arts, literature, law and governance.

Thus the early 14th century, an era remarkable in Europe for gore and misery, was a magnificent time in Dar al-Islam, the Muslim world. A dozen or more varied forms of Islamic culture existed, all sharing the core values taught in the Qur'an, all influencing each other through the constant traffic of scholars, doctors, artists, craftsmen, traders and proselytizing mystics. It was an era of superb buildings, both secular and sacred, a time of intellect and scholarship, of the stability of a single faith and law regulating everyday behavior, of powerful economic inventions such as joint ventures, checks and letters of credit. Ibn Battuta became the first and perhaps the only man to see this world nearly in its entirety

In Tangier, Shams al-Din Abu 'Abdallah Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battuta was born into a well-established family of qadis (judges) on February 25, 1304, the year 723 of the Muslim calendar. Beyond the names of his father and grandfathers that are part of his own name, we know little about his family or his biography, for the Rihla is virtually our sole source of knowledge of him, and it rarely mentions family matters, which would have been considered private. But we can surmise that, like most children of his time, Ibn Battuta would have started school at the age of six, and his literate life would have begun with the Qur'an. His class—held in a mosque or at a teacher's home—would in all likelihood have been funded by a waqf, a religious philanthropic trust or foundation, into which the pious could channel their obligatory charitable giving (zakat). Ibn Battuta's parents would have paid his teachers an additional modest sum, in installments due when the boy achieved certain well-defined milestones.

The curriculum of a 14th-century classroom would, in some ways, look remarkably up to date today. Learning, in the first instance, meant the Qur'an, but for urban children especially it did not stop there. Elementary arithmetic was obligatory, for everyone needed to be able to carry on everyday transactions. Secondary education transmitted the bulk of what are now termed vocational skills, including the more complex calculations needed for such practical purposes as the division of an estate among heirs, the surveying of land, or the distribution of profits from a commercial venture. Tertiary or higher education, however, was as much about character development as the subjects taught. Foremost were the refinements of Arabic grammar, since Arabic was not only the language of the Qur'an but also the language of all educated, let alone scholarly, discourse, and the Muslim lingua franca from Timbuktu to Canton. Other subjects taught would have included history, ethics, law, geography and at least some of the military arts.

There were differences from today's practices, too. Young Ibn Battuta's most important goal, as for most young students of his time, was to learn the Qur'an by heart: He refers many times in the Rihla to reciting the entire Qur'an aloud in one day while traveling—and a few times, when he felt he needed moral stiffening, twice. Knowledge of the Qur'an took precedence over all other intellectual pursuits, and students whose means permitted traveled from one end of Dar al-Islam to the other to learn its subtleties and its interpretation from the wisest men of the day. Every provincial scholar who desired distinction at home aspired to study in Makkah, Madinah, Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo—a kind of scholarly Grand Tour. Wandering scholars were given modest free meals and a place to stay in the madrasas that dotted the Muslim world, or if no better accommodation were available they slept on mosque floors. No institutional degrees existed; instead the student received a certificate from his teachers. The highest accolade was adah, meaning "one who is adept" at manners, taste, wit, grace, gentility, and above all, "knowledge carried lightly."

Ibn Battuta's knowledge of the subtleties of Arabic identified him anywhere as an educated gentleman, but Tangier was not one of the great centers of learning. The knowledge of fiqh, or religious law, that he acquired there might perhaps be described as B-level work at a B-list school. So, armed with his earnest but hardly world-tested knowledge, Ibn Battuta set out eastward from Tangier to make his first Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Makkah. In the words he dictated to his scribe three decades later, one can still detect both youthful excitement and youthful misgiving:

"I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries [of Makkah and Madinah]. So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones...and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests. My parents being yet in the bonds of life, it weighed sorely upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted-with sorrow at this separation."

Thirty years were to pass before Ibn Battuta hung up his sandals for good. He set out a pilgrim, probably planning to return to Tangier, but along the way he grew into one of the rarest kinds of travelers: one who voyaged for the sake of voyaging. In the coming years, he would change his itinerary almost on impulse, at the merest hint of the chance to see some new part of Dar al-Islam, to visit a scholar, a revered teacher, or a sultan.

Time after time he set out for a destination in a roundabout, or even an entirely opposite, direction. Once, a mere 40 days by sail from India but facing a months-long wait for favorable winds, he instead set out on a land route that took him there by way of Turkey, a Central Asia and the Hindu Kush, a journey of more than a year.

Hints of the persistence that marked his life appear early on. From Tangier he proceeded east across Mediterranean Morocco and Ifriqiyyah (now Algeria) to Tunis. On the way, two fellow travelers fell ill with a fever. One died; from the other, unscrupulous government agents confiscated his entire estate, which he was carrying, in gold, to his needy heirs. Ibn Battuta himself was so ill that he strapped himself to the saddle of his mule. Yet fare forward he did, determined that "if God decrees my death, it shall be on the road with my face set towards the land of the Hijaz" and Makkah.

He also learned early the manners and courtesies of the road:

At last we came to the town of Tunis.... Townsfolk came forward on all sides with greetings and questions to one another. But not a soul said a word of greeting to me, since there was none of them that I knew. I felt so sad at heart on account of my loneliness that I could not restrain the tears that started to my eyes, and wept bitterly. But one of the pilgrims, realizing the cause of my distress, came up to me with a greeting and friendly welcome, and continued to comfort me with friendly talk until I entered the city, where I lodged in the College of the Booksellers.

It was Ibn Battuta's first and last recorded bout of homesickness. The pilgrim's kindness and the hospitality of the College of the Booksellers made for what was literally a rite of passage. His home was now the fraternity of the 'umma, warmed by the company of the educated men, the 'ulama, whom he would meet in palace courts and madrasas wherever he traveled in Dar al-Islam.

In Tunis, Ibn Battuta joined a caravan headed for Alexandria. There, two things happened to him that, as he relates it, set his sights forever on the travels he eventually undertook. In the first,

I met the pious ascetic Burhan al-Din,...whose hospitality I enjoyed for three days. One day he said to me, "I see that you are fond of traveling through foreign lands." I replied, "Yes, I am" (though as yet I had no thoughts of going to such distant lands as India or China). Then he said, "You must certainly visit my brother Farid al-Din in India, and my brother Rukn al-Din in Sind [Pakistan], and my brother Burhan al-Din in China. When you find them, give them greetings from me." I was amazed at his prediction, but the idea of going to these countries once cast into my mind, my journey never ceased until I had met these three and conveyed his greeting to them.

A few days later, while the guest of the pious Shaykh al-Murshidi, Ibn Battuta had a dream:

I was on the wing of a great bird which was flying me toward Makkah, then to Yemen, then eastward, and thereafter going south, then flying far eastward, and finally landing in a dark, green country, where it left me.... Next morning, the Shaykh interpreted it to me, "You will make the Hajj and visit the Tomb [of the Prophet], and you will travel through Yemen, Iraq, the country of the Turks, and India. You will stay there a long time and meet my brother Dilshad the Indian, who will rescue you from a danger into which you will fall." Never since I departed from him have I received aught but good fortune.

The life-saving Dilshad did indeed arrive to rescue Ibn Battuta from danger in India, and the last sentence quoted above must imply that one breathtaking brush with death after another was in fact "good fortune" when compared to the more catastrophic alternative.

Ibn Battuta does not hint at the size of the annual pilgrimage caravan by which he traveled from Damascus to the Holy Cities of Madinah and Makkah, except at one point to refer to it as “huge.” He describes how it replenished its water supplies in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia: “Each amir or person of rank has a [private] tank from which his camels and those of his retinue are watered, and their waterbags filled; the rest of the people arrange with the watercarriers [of the oasis] to water the camel and fill the waterskin of each person for a fixed sum of money. The caravan then sets out from Tabuk and pushes on speedily night and day, for fear of this wilderness.”

Cairo was Ibn Battuta's first taste of Muslim civilization on a grand scale. He entered Egypt at a time when a far-sighted ruler, a good administrative bureaucracy and a strong economy reinforced each other and together encouraged peace, prosperity, and prestige. Egypt held a virtual monopoly on trade with Asia, which did much to enrich the Mamluk regime, swell the sails of middle-class prosperity, and drive forward the ship of state. To the young man from Tangier, it was nothing short of wonderful:

It is said that in Cairo there are 12,000 water carriers who transport water on camels, 30,000 hirers of mules and donkeys, and on the Nile 36,000 boats belonging to the sultan and his subjects, which sail upstream to Upper Egypt and downstream to Alexandria and Damietta laden with goods and profitable merchandise of all kinds. On the banks of the Nile opposite Cairo is a place known as The Garden, which is a pleasure park and promenade containing many beautiful gardens, for the people of Cairo are given to pleasure and amusements.... The madrasas cannot be counted for multitude.... The Maristan hospital has no description adequate to its beauties....

But Makkah was still Ibn Battuta's goal. He sailed up the Nile and caravanned east to 'Aydhab on the Red Sea coast, a transit town "brackish of water and flaming of air." Unfortunately, he arrived at a moment when the ruling clan was in revolt against their Mamluk sovereign in Cairo. So, making the best out of the worst—something he became quite adept at—Ibn Battuta returned to Cairo and crossed the Sinai by camel, sojourning in the khans and cities of Palestine and Syria till he reached Damascus, where he could join the annual Hajj caravan to Makkah. The fact that another caravan also left annually from Cairo tells us something of Ibn Battuta's temperament: Rather than endure a brief residence in Cairo, he chose to extend his travels.

In Damascus, one of his first stops was the great mosque, which stands today. He reflected on its pragmatic adaptiveness:

The Friday Mosque, known as the Umayyad Mosque, is the most magnificent in the world, the finest in construction, and the noblest in beauty, grace, and perfection.... The site of the mosque was a [Greek Orthodox] church. When the Muslims captured Damascus, one of their commanders entered from one side by the sword and reached as far as the middle of the church. The other entered peaceably from the eastern side and reached the middle also. So the Muslims made the half of the church which they had entered by force into a mosque, and the half which they had entered by peaceful agreement remained a church.

Later, the Umayyad rulers offered to buy the Christians out, but they refused to sell. The Umayyads then confiscated the building, but quickly made up for this lapse of civility by raising a huge sum of money that was given to the Christians to build a new cathedral.

Mosques were community centers as well as houses of worship. The first ones had been sheltered spaces where the community could come together not only for prayer, but also to discuss public issues. Friday, or congregational, mosques, where the faithful of a whole city or quarter came together to pray, occupied prime locations, and made those locations the most prestigious parts of the city. Near a Friday mosque and its madrasas one could find both the finest wares and the intellectual professionals. Ibn Battuta's description of the Umayyad mosque continues:

The eastern door, called the Jayntn door, is the largest of the doors of the mosque. It has a large passage, leading out to an extensive colonnade, which is entered through a quintuple gateway between six tall columns. Along both sides of this passage are pillars supporting circular galleries, where the cloth merchants, among others, have their shops. Above these are long galleries in which are the shops of the jewelers and booksellers and makers of admirable glassware. In the square adjoining the first door are the stalls of the principal notaries, in each of which there may be five or six witnesses in attendance and a person authorized by the qadi to perform marriage ceremonies. Near these bazaars are the stalls of the stationers who sell paper, pens, and-ink.... To the right as one comes out of the Jayrun door, which is also called "The Door of the Hours," is an upper gallery shaped like a large arch, within which are small open arches furnished with doors, to the number of the hours of the day. These doors are painted green on the inside and yellow on the outside. As each hour of the day passes the green inner side of the door is turned to the outside. There is a person inside the room responsible for turning them by hand....

Several points are notable about Ibn Battuta's descriptive accuracy. First, he appears to have regarded reportage in terms of information that might prove useful to others: The Door of the Hours served as a timekeeper for commerce. Second, he had a sense of significant detail: The number of public witnesses in the notaries' stalls testifies to a society in which bonded word and accurate memory are almost one and the same. When Ibn Battuta memorized the Qur'an, he embraced the collective assumption of the time that the mind can be relied on for accuracy just as our era relies on writing and microchips. Thus, in his descriptions, he was doing for his world something like what satellite television does for ours. And finally, it is striking not only that we can almost smell the cooking fires and hear the mongrels he describes whining at the braised-meat stalls, but also that he appears to have so clearly understood how the common moments of daily life link us all, no matter in what place or time we live. In reading the Rihla in its full extent, we gain a humbling yet embracing sense of our own place within civilization's long endurance. Seven centuries lie between Ibn Battuta and us, yet his words collapse them until we can feel many of the same things that he does.

In Damascus, Ibn Battuta also had quite a bit to say about the waqfs:

The variety and expenditure of the religious eitdowments of Damascus are beyond computation. There are endowments for the aid of persons who cannot undertake the Hajj [such as the aged and the physically disabled], out of which are paid the expenses of those who go in their stead. There are endowments to dower poor women for marriage. There are others to free prisoners [of warj. There are endowments in aid of travelers, out of the revenues of which they are given food, clothing, and the expenses of conveyance to their countries. There are civic endowments for the improvement and paving of the streets, because all the lanes in Damascus have sidewalks on either side, on which foot passengers walk, while those who ride the roadway use the center. One day I passed a young servant who had dropped a Chinese porcelain dish, which was broken to bits. A number of people collected around him and suggested, "Gather up the pieces and take them to the custodian of the endowment for utensils." He did so, and when the endowment custodian saw the broken pieces he gave the boy money to buy a new plate. This benefaction is indeed a mender of hearts.

Such an esoteric endowment as one to replace broken utensils bespeaks a broad definition of charity and implies broad support for it. Indeed, of Damascus's 171 waqfs, Ibn Battuta reports, ten were endowed by the sultan, 11 by court officials, 25 by merchants, 43 by members of the 'ulama, and 82 by military officials. Ibn Battuta sheltered at waqfs during hardship periods and in outlying towns and cities—although he much preferred the better-appointed courts of local rulers.

With the new moon of the month of Shawwal, it was from Damascus toward Madinah, and thence to Makkah, that Ibn Battuta turned. The 1350-kilometer (820-mi), 45- to 50-day camel caravan plod took an inland route along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, through the region known as the Hijaz, where the semi-desert littoral of the Red Sea rises abruptly inland to the high plateau of the Arabian Desert. The peaks topping 3700 meters (12,000') were the highest Ibn Battuta had seen since the Atlas Mountains of his native Morocco. Sprinkled lightly here and there were oases, and the caravan was strategically routed to pass through them, sometimes pausing overnight, sometimes remaining for several days. Ibn Battuta recalled the sequence of oases vividly: Dwellers in one, he said, named "The Bottom of Marr," luxuriated in "a fertile valley with numerous palms and a spring supplying a stream from which the district is irrigated, whose fruits and vegetables are transported to Makkah." There was not enough soil or water for grains, so the oasis dwellers cultivated dates, peaches, apricots, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, and figs. Some of these dried well in the piercing sun and air "as clear as sparkling water" and were staples of the desert diet.

Although the journey was arduous, there was little fear of getting lost: The way was visibly worn by the sandals of all the moveable world of that age: traders, pilgrims, servants, poets, camel-tenders, menders, soldiers, singers, ambassadors, clerks, physicians, coiners, architects, stable-sweepers, scullery boys, waiters, legalists, minstrels, jugglers, beekeepers, artisans, peddlers, shopkeepers, weavers, smiths, carters, hawkers, beggars, slaves and the occasional cutpurse and thief. Under way for six to seven weeks, the Hajj caravan was a small city on the hoof, with its own kind of cruise-ship economy, which always included several qadis for the resolution of disputes; imams to lead prayers; a muezzin to call people to prayer and a recorder of the property of pilgrims who died en route. That year, Ibn Battuta's caravan was protected from bandits by Syrian tribesmen, and he was befriended by a colleague, another Maliki qadi, in the genial and collegial fraternity of the road.

Ibn Battuta's account of Madinah fills 12 pages. Much of it is a detailed history and description of the Prophet's Mosque and other sites; the rest consists of anecdotes he heard from those he met, which give us vivid impressions of life in the desert. According to one of these, a certain Shaykh Abu Mahdi lost his way amid the tangle of hills surrounding Makkah. He was rescued when "God put it into the head of a Bedouin upon a camel to go that way, until he came upon him...and conducted him to Makkah. The skin peeled off his blistered feet and he was unable to stand on them for a month." Other tales are set in places from Suez to Delhi, and it was in settings like this that the 22-year-old Ibn Battuta's imagination was surely stimulated.

Our stay in Madinah the Illustrious on this journey lasted four days. We spent each night in the Holy Mosque, where everyone engaged in pious exercises. Some formed circles in the court and lit a quantity of candles. Volumes of the Holy Qur'an were placed on book-rests in their midst. Some were reciting from it; some were intoning hymns of praise to God; others were contemplating the Immaculate Tomb [of Muhammad]; while on every side were singers chanting the eulogy of the Apostle {Muhammad], may God bless him and give him peace.

At Dhu al-Hulaifa, just outside Madinah, the hajjis changed from their weather-worn caravan clothes into the ihram, the two-piece white garment which symbolically consecrated their entry into the Holy City of Makkah. Once in the ihram, the Muslim's behavior was expected to be a model of piety, and the spiritual aura of Makkah reinforced that expectation.

I entered the pilgrim state under obligation to carry out the rites of the Greater Pilgrimage...and [in my enthusiasm] I did not cease crying, "Labbaik, Allahumma" ["At Thy service, O God!"] through every valley and hill and rise and descent until I came to the Pass of 'Ali (upon him be peace), where I halted for the night.

Had Ibn Battuta been a lone voice in that unwatered wilderness, his words would have been lost on the wind. But he wasn't. Although he never mentions how many may have been with him in the caravan, it was likely to have been several thousand, for the pilgrimage must be performed in one specific 10-day period, and the sense of culmination and community pilgrims feel is part of what gives the Hajj its unique power.

Ibn Battuta described the Great Mosque:

We saw before our eyes the illustrious Ka'ba (may God increase it in veneration), like a bride displayed on the bridal chair of majesty and the proud mantles of beauty.... We made the seven-fold circuit of arrival and kissed the Holy Stone. We performed the prayer of two bowings at the Maqam Ibrahim and clung to the curtains of the Ka'ba between the door and the Black Stone, where prayer is answered. We drank of the water of the well of Zamzam which, if you drink it seeking restoration from illness, God restoreth thee; if you drink it for satiation from hunger, God satis fieth thee; if you drink it to quench thy thirst, God quencheth it.... Praise be to God Who hath honored us by visitation to this Holy House.

Ibn Battuta allots some 58 pages to description of the Ka'ba, the Haram, or sacred enclosure, around it, the city of Makkah itself, its surroundings, the details of the Hajj prayers and ceremonies, the character of the people and the traditions in the hearts of Muslims from all over Dar al-Islam. So important is Makkah that it seems that no detail, be it the interior of the Ka'ba or the provisioning of the bazaars or the forms of worship in the Haram, seems lost on him. Although his account has the tone of something partly received and partly felt, few documents have ever painted such a multicolored canvas of Makkah.

Even so, there was the rest of the world and a lifetime of footsteps ahead. Makkah's feast of harsh natural scenery, global trade patterns, sharp mercantile acumen and abiding religious faith—all spiced with languages and dialects from Sudanese to Sindhi—no doubt whetted the young jurist's appetite for more. But unlike most pilgrims, who returned from their Hajj to their home cities and villages, Ibn Battuta did not set out westward for Tangier. He does not say why. Perhaps it was a spirit of youthful adventure; perhaps it was the memory of Burhan Al-Din's prognostication, back in Alexandria, that he would one day travel to India and China; perhaps it was word from others that jurists like himself might find work in remote places that were eager to receive scholars with more than local credentials.

Scholar Ross E. Dunn describes this significant juncture in Ibn Battuta's career in his 1986 book The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: "When he left Tangier his only purpose had been to reach the Holy House,...[but] when he set off for Baghdad with the Iraqi pilgrims on 20 Dhu al-Hijja, one fact was apparent. He was no longer traveling to fulfill a religious mission or even to reach a particular destination. He was going to Iraq simply for the adventure of it."

Setting a precedent he was to follow throughout his travels, however, Ibn Battuta did not take a direct route: Across the Arabian Peninsula's deserts, he looped through southern Iran and ventured north to Tabriz in southern Azerbaijan. It was a new year, 1327, when he entered the great walled city on the Tigris now called Baghdad.


As he traveled to Persia and Mesopotamia, Ibn Battuta was, for the first time, moving outward from the heart of Dar al-Islam, following its northeastward axis from Makkah.

Once he had crossed the Tigris near its mouth, he entered a land through which a tribe of fair-skinned conquerors, the Aryans, had passed so long ago that they were now remembered only by the name they left: Iran. What he saw and heard there—the faces, the languages, the style of the minarets, the governments, the arts—were all still Islamic, but this was a different cultural domain within Islamic culture: the land ruled by the Islamized Mongols known as the Ilkhans.

Since 1258, when the Mongols took the city, Baghdad—and much of Iraq to the west—had also been part of the Ilkhanid domains. In the middle of 1327 Ibn Battuta crossed the Tigris again and, via Kufa, arrived in the once-great city.

Fourteenth-century Baghdad was a city where the marketplace of ideas was as rich and as noisy as any other of the suqs. The devastation the Mongols had wrought 69 years earlier was catastrophic, but under Sultan Abu Sa'id Bahadur Khan, the last of "the kings of the Tatars [Mongols] who converted to Islam," Baghdad was attempting to revive the brilliance and prosperity that had characterized it during its Abbasid heyday, roughly from the eighth to the 11th century. That had been a time when, though China's palaces might have been richer and Cordoba's philosophers deeper, Baghdad was still the world's greatest confluence of intellect, commerce, art, trade and religion, the richest volume on history's bookshelf.

Much of Ibn Battuta's account of the city is elegiac, for in his time the western side of the city, where the caliph al-Ma'mun had built the great Bayt al-Hikma ("House of Wisdom") and other monuments, was largely "a vast edifice of ruins." The mantle of greatness—and the caliphate itself—had shifted to Cairo, which the Mongols never reached. Still, for fame, allure and its aura of history, Baghdad was still the Queen of the Tigris, a name to conjure with—so much so that Ibn Juzayy, as he took down Ibn Battuta's account, was moved here to insert into the Rihla several pre-Mongol panegyrics the city had inspired, presumably to impress upon the reader its former glory. As for Ibn Battuta, in addition to describing visits to the mosques and madrasas supported by nobles or by the sultan himself, he faithfully and factually notes Baghdad's bridges, aqueducts, fountains, reservoirs, baths, fortresses, turrets, machicolated walls, palaces, workshops, factories, granaries, mills, caravansaries, hovels and "magnificent bazaars...splendidly laid out."

In the eastern city, where most settlement was concentrated in the early 14th century, the average workmen's houses were humble rectangles of sun-dried brick. Streets were wide enough for two loaded donkeys to pass—the same width in Baghdad as in Seville. Better homes had a courtyard, a water basin or pit well, a shade tree and ornamental plants. Then as now in much of the Islamic world, outward displays of wealth were avoided. From the outside, no door or window revealed or hinted at the status of the inhabitants within.

Inside, water splashed from fountains or was stored in unglazed urns. Everything that could be decorated, was. Brilliant colors were prized. The qa'da, or code of social behavior, that governed life in these homes was much the same in Baghdad as it was back in Ibn Battuta's Tangier, or virtually anywhere else in the Muslim world.

In Baghdad, Ibn Battuta determined to return to Makkah for his second Hajj, and again he took the Ion: way. The sultan himself invited Ibn Battuta to accompany his caravan northward, and Ibn Battuta accepted. His motive can only have been curiosity.

For 10 days he traveled with the mahalla, or camp, of Abu Sa'id. His description of the journey's routines is unusu ally detailed, perhaps because of the impression the journey made on him, or because, in retrospect, the practices of the Ilkhans were of particular interest to the Moroccan sultan under whose patronage he recollected his travels:

It is their custom to set out with the rising of the dawn and to encamp in the late forenoon. Their ceremonial is as follows: Each of the amirs comes up with his troops, his drums and his standards, and halts in a position that has been assigned to him, not a step further, either on the right wing or the left wing. When they have all taken up their positions and their ranks are set in perfect order, the king mounts, and the drums, trumpets and fifes are sounded for the departure. Each of the amirs advances, salutes the king, and returns to his place; then the chamberlains and the marshals move forward ahead of the king, ...followed by the musicians. These number about a hundred men... Ahead of the musicians there are 10 horsemen, with 10 drums.... On the sultan's right and left during his march are the great amirs, who number about 50... Each amir has his own standards, drums and trumpets.... Then [come] the sultan's baggage and baggage-animals...and finally the rest of the army.

After parting from the mahalla, Ibn Batuta's itinerary took him, among other places, to the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan, and to Tabriz, which had become a major center of Islamic Mongol influence and power. In the latter city he regretted being able to remain only one night, "without having met any of the scholars," although his haste was due to the arrival of an order for his escort to rejoin Sultan Abu Sa'id's mahalla. At that time Ibn Battuta received his first audience with the sultan and a promise of provisions for his intended second Hajj.

All through the Rihla Ibn Battuta's personal character comes out in hints and fragments. Today he might be regarded as a bit of a fussbudget or a meddler, evidenced by the rather too generous outrage he expresses at minor lapses in others' behavior. In Basra, for example, he became so exasperated at grammatical errors in a Friday sermon that he complained to the local qadi, who commiserated. In Minya, Egypt he was livid that men at a public bath did not wear a towel around their waist. His complaint to local authorities resulted in a towel-rule being enforced "with the greatest severity." On the other hand, in the course of his travels he saw a great deal of blood spilled by royalty—as often as not, his patrons—without recording any scruples he may have felt. To us today this may seem a rather selective morality. We also know that he had few hesitations about fulsome flattery during audiences with potential benefactors. If Ibn Battuta was not quite a court poet, he was certainly one smooth jurist. Such was his character and his world.

Yet he was also capable of speaking truth to power at times, as his account of a meeting with the sultan in the Persian town of Idhaj reveals:

I wished an audience with this sultan Afrasiyab, but that was not easily come by as he goes out only on Fridays, owing to his addiction to wine.... Some days later the sultan sent a messenger...to invite me to visit him. The sultan was sitting on a cushion, with two goblets in front of him which had been covered, one of gold and the other of silver....It became clear to me that he was under the influence of intoxication.... I said to him, "If you will listen to me, I say to you, 'You are the son of the sultan Atabeg Ahmad, who was noted for piety and self-restraint, and there is nothing to be laid against you, as a ruler, but this,'" and I pointed to the two goblets. He was overcome with confusion at what I said and sat silent. I wished to go but he bade me to sit down and said to me, "To meet with men like you is a mercy."

Ibn Battuta returned briefly to Baghdad, "received in full what the sultan had ordered for me," and used that gift not to go to Makkah—the caravan didn't leave for another two months—but rather to strike off again in another direction: the cities of the Tigris upstream from Baghdad. He returned to join the Hajj caravan, but he says little of this trip except that he caught an illness that from his descriptions may have been typhus. He made this Hajj in health so poor that "I had to carry out the ordinances seated."

Ibn Battuta says he remained in Makkah two years on this occasion, but in fact his stay was closer to one year. His account is full of chronological confusions that madden the scholar, but are more tolerable when we remember that the Rihla was written not to record his every move with precision but to communicate knowledge of the things that the book's patron, the sultan of Morocco, would consider important. And in a rihla, if one were going to err in describing one's time in Makkah, one would err on the side of generosity, for "resident in Makkah" was an academic credential throughout Dar al-lslam rather as "studied at Oxford" is today—even absent any specifics of subject, duration or degree.

When Ibn Battuta set out again, it was southward. He certainly visited Yemen, which he called al-Mashrabiyah, "The Latticed Windows." Today, the byways of old Sana'a and Ta'izz still resemble his descriptions. The ornate latticeworks of carved wood admitted light and cooling breezes into Yemeni homes, but they blocked the inward view of passersby, preserving the residents' privacy. And, he wrote, "a strange thing about the rain in Yemen is that it only falls in the afternoon.... The whole town of Sana'a is paved, so when the rain falls it washes and cleans all the streets."

Inside those homes, walls were painted with as many colors as the owner could afford, and although there was little furniture, floors were covered with rugs to sit on. Men crossed their legs in front of them; women made cushions of their ankles as they folded their legs behind them. The last word in household luxury was a long diwan, a wide, low bench that might run all the way around the room, furnished with dozens of cushions. Beds were cushions that were rolled up and stuffed in a closet during the day.

Ibn Battuta's judgements were sometimes tart, as any traveler's might be on occasion:

We proceeded to the city of Ta'izz, the capital of the king of Yemen. It is one of the finest and largest cities of Yemen. Its people are overbearing, insolent, and rude, as is generally the case in towns where kings have their seats.

Somewhat later he sums up a minor sultan named Dumur Khan as "a worthless person," and adds, "His town attracted a vast population of knaves. Like king, like people."

But he liked the country. He found Yemen's air fragrant with thyme, jasmine and lavender. Roses were picked while the dew was still on them; according to local folklore their fragrant attar, daubed on the body, all but guaranteed progeny. Myrrh, balsam and frankincense, whose export had helped build the already long-faded, ancient empire of South Arabia, were still produced.

Ibn Battuta then crossed the Red Sea to Somalia, disembarking first slightly north of Djibouti, then called Zeila. He judged it "a large city with a great bazaar, but it is in the dirtiest, most disagreeable, and most stinking town in the world" because of its inhabitants' habits of selling fish in the sun and butchering camels in the street.

He traveled down the East African coast as far as Mombasa and Kilwa, a region in which there were large numbers of Africans locally called Zanj; the name of today's Zanzibar keeps the word alive. They were "jet-black in color," he notes, with "tattoo-marks on their faces." In Kilwa, "all the buildings are of wood, and the houses are roofed with reeds." The local sultan, Abu al-Muzaffar Hasan, was "a man of great humility; he sits with poor brethren, and eats with them, and greatly respects men of religion and noble descent."

Then Ibn Battuta headed back to Arabia by way of Dofar, in southwestern Oman, where he mentions the ways the sultan lured merchants to his ports:

When a vessel arrives from India or elsewhere, the sultan's slaves go down to the shore, and come out to the ship in a sambuq carrying with them a complete set of robes for the oivner of the vessel [and his officers].... Three horses are brought for them, on which they mount with drums and trumpets playing before them from the seashore to the sultan's residence.... Hospitality is supplied to all who are in the vessel for three nights.... These people do this in order to gain the goodwill of the shipowners, and they are men of humility, good dispositions, virtue, and affection for strangers.

The traveler also described the custom of chewing betel nut, which is still socially important in many parts of the world today:

A gift of betel is for them a far greater matter and more indicative of esteem than the gift of silver and gold.... One takes areca nut, this is like a nutmeg but is broken up until it is reduced to small pellets, and one places these in his mouth and chews them. Then he takes the leaves of betel, puts a little chalk on them, and masticates them along with the betel nut.... They sweeten the breath, remove foul odors of the mouth [and] aid digestion....

Farther up the coast, Ibn Battuta describes the efficient way Omani fishermen used the sharks they caught. They cut and dried the meat in the sun, as dwellers on that coast still do, then dried the cartilaginous backbones further and used them as the framework of their houses, covering the frame with camel skins.

As for his own adventures, he describes a hired guide who, outside the city of Qalhat, turned robber. Ibn Battuta and his companion outsmarted the man by hiding in a gully and trekking into town, but with great difficulty: "My feet had become so swollen in my shoes that the blood was almost starting under the nails."

From this point, Ibn Battuta's itinerary again seems muddled, but it is known that in 1332 he returned to Makkah for his third Hajj. He doesn't say why, nor how long he stayed there. We do know that it was at about this time that he made his momentous decision to go to India. We also know that his motive was largely pecuniary. He had heard—perhaps in Oman, perhaps in Makkah or Baghdad, we don't know—that the Turco-Indian sultan of Delhi, Muhammad ibn Tughluq, was extraordinarily generous to Muslim scholars, and in fact had invited such people from throughout Dar al-Islam to come to his court.

That call, with its promise of royal generosity, was Ibn Battuta's lodestone for the next decade. He vowed to follow it. But as we might guess by now, his route to India was not the most direct. Indeed, it took him two years to get there.

One would think, looking at the map, that a goal-oriented traveler would go back to Oman, where he could embark on a dhow and ride the monsoon winds for about 40 days to the west coast of India. But at the time he made his decision to go, Ibn Battuta would have had to wait several months for the onset of the eastbound monsoon. Such was not his style.

Instead, he made his way back to Cairo, then around the east coast of the Mediterranean through Gaza and Hebron to a Genoese ship bound for Anatolia. Guided, it seems clear, by little more than serendipity and impulse, he crisscrossed that region, and became so familiar with its petty sultanates and local customs that his Rihla is our primary factual source for conditions in Turkey between the time of the Seljuqs and the arrival of the Ottomans.

One of these customs was the akhi, which is related both to the Turkish word for "generous" and the Arabic for "brother." The fraternal societies throughout the land that adopted the term clearly acknowledged both meanings. Ibn Battuta was introduced to them in a bazaar in Ladhiq (now Denizli):

As we passed through one of the bazaars, some men came down from their booths and seized the bridles of our horses. Then certain other men quarreled with them for doing so, and the altercation between them grew so hot that some of them drew knives. All this time we had no idea what they were saying [Ibn Battuta did not speak Turkish], and we began to be afraid of them, thinking that they were the [brigands] who infest the roads.... At length God sent us a man, a pilgrim, who knew Arabic, and I asked what they wanted of us. He replied that they belonged to the fityan...and that each party wanted us to lodge with them. We were amazed at their native generosity. Finally they came to an agreement to cast lots, and that we should lodge first with the group whose lot was drawn [and then with the other].

The akhis Ibn Battuta describes were known as fityans in Persia. They were a cross between a civic club and a trade fraternity, composed of unmarried younger men drawn by the ideals of hospitality and generosity that were such important virtues in the world of Islam. In Ibn Battuta's words, "They trace their affiliation...back to Caliph 'Ali, and the distinctive garment in their case is the trousers.... Nowhere in the world are there to be found any to compare with them in solicitude for strangers."

Such societies, however, were not unique to Anatolia. They existed in various forms and by several names throughout Dar al-Islam. Their social function was to institutionalize the sense of civic unity into a structure consistent with the ideals of the Qur'an but which was not addressed by the waqf, the hospice or other altruistic organization. Not hospitable only toward travelers, akhis and fityans also helped local individuals and their own members in time of need.

Leaving Anatolia, Ibn Battuta crossed the Black Sea to Crimea on a voyage one would think should have alienated him forever from sea travel. His vessel sailed into a storm so rough that at one point one of his companions went topside to see what was happening and returned to croak, "Commend your soul to God!" But God was merciful, and Ibn Battuta headed for the Mongol Kipchak Khanate, which rimmed the northern shore of the Black Sea.

There in Crimea Ibn Battuta bought a wagon for his travels. Unneeded and unknown in the lands of the camel, these were large, four-wheeled coaches drawn by oxen or horses. Ibn Battuta described them:

There is placed upon the wagon a kind of cupola made of wooden laths tied together with thin strips of hide; this is light to carry, and covered with felt or blanket-cloth, and in it there are grilled windows. The person who is inside the tent can see [other] persons without their seeing him, and he can employ himself in it as he likes, sleeping or eating or reading or writing.... Those of the wagons that carry the baggage, the provisions and the chests of eatables are covered with a sort of tent much as we have described, with a lock in it.... We saw a vast city on the move with its inhabitants, with mosques and bazaars in it, and the smoke of the kitchens rising in the air, for they cook while on the march.

His descriptions of the long journey across the steppe reveal that his status as scholar, traveler and courtier was now such that he merited a new level of largesse from his hosts. By the time he crossed the Hindu Kush, he had accumulated a personal entourage of attendants, a sizable number of horses that he was prepared to give as gifts, and a number of wives and concubines. Thus had the lad from Tangier prospered—and greater good fortune was to come.

The trade routes Ibn Battuta traversed north of the Caspian were less busy than those across Afghanistan and Iran. Nonetheless, amber came down this way from the Baltic Sea to China via Moscow and the Volga. (He claims to have made an abortive attempt to journey up the Volga to the capital of the Bulgar state, but scholars doubt his veracity on this.) There is little doubt that he did indeed make a lengthy side trip to Christian Constantinople. He traveled there in the company of Princess Bayalun, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus in who had been married, for political and economic reasons, to the Muslim Ozbeg, Khan of the Golden Horde, as his third wife; she was now returning to Constantinople for the birth of her child. Ibn Battuta reports that she wept "with pity and compassion" when he told her of his travels. Perhaps, unlike him, she was homesick.

After his return to the steppes from Constantinople, Ibn Battuta relates descriptions of the route's continuation along the Silk Road and its cities. Near Samarkand Ibn Battuta spent 54 days with Tarmashirin, the Chagatay khan who had only recently converted to Islam and was interested in what a worldly-wise qadi might tell him. Although Tarmashirin "never failed to attend the dawn and evening prayers with the congregation," he was overthrown by a nephew soon thereafter.

Ibn Battuta's exact path through Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush is uncertain because he does not make it clear where along the Indus he came out. But once on the hot plains, he headed for Multan, the sultan's westward customs outpost, which lay 40 days' march from Delhi "through continuously inhabited country." The traveler's pen waxed prolix as he noted the new foods, spices, trees, fruits and customs of this land where the ruling Muslims were the minority among the majority Hindu population.

Ibn Battuta's intention was to impress Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq sufficiently to win a sinecure—which we might justly call the Moroccan jurist-vagabond's first steady job. When he reached Multan he presented his credentials, including, in effect, the economic and social implications of his train and entourage, to the governor, who dispatched a courier to the sultan.

It was very important to make a good first impression, for no one in Delhi was likely to know anything about the new arrival's background or lineage. When Ibn Battuta was finally told to proceed to court, he was also informed that it was the custom of the sultan to reward every gift with a much greater one. So Ibn Battuta struck a deal with a merchant who offered to advance him a sizable stake of dinars, camels, and goods in exchange for a fat cut of the proceeds when the sultan's reward was duly given. The merchant, clearly an early venture capitalist, also turned out to be a fair-weather friend, for he "made an enormous profit from me and became one of the principal merchants. I met him many years later at Aleppo after the infidels had robbed me of everything I possessed, but he gave me no assistance."

Ibn Battuta's long stays in Baghdad and Damascus, studying the law and discussing fiqh, or legal interpretation, with fellow jurists, served him well in Delhi. He impressed Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq, who appointed him qadi in Delhi with the handsome compensation of 12,000 silver dinars per year, plus a "signing bonus" of 12,000 dinars for agreeing to reside there permanently.

Ibn Tughluq's largesse, however, was out of proportion to the stability of his reign. His taxes beggared the countryside, yet in the cities his extravagance was mind-boggling. This was immediately apparent to Ibn Battuta, who observed:

This king is of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood. His gate is never without some poor man enriched or some living man executed.... For all that, he is of all men the most humble and the readiest to show equity and to acknowledge the right.... I know that some of the stories I shall tell on this subject will be unacceptable to the minds of many persons, and that they will regard them as quite impossible in the normal order of things.

Ibn Battuta devotes numerous pages to the lineage of the royal family, the history of the country, the details of a variety of elaborately choreographed court rituals, the wars and revolts preoccupying the sultan, his extensive gifts to religious and political men and his ceremonies entering and leaving the capital. On one particular triumphal return to Delhi, the sultan had arranged for an unusually spectacular procession of caparisoned elephants, infantry columns of thousands, musicians and dancers:

The space between the pavilions is carpeted with silk cloths, on which the Sultan's horse treads.... I saw three or four small catapults set up on elephants throwing dinars and dirhams among the people, and they would be scrambling to pick them up, from the moment he entered the city until he reached the palace.

Ibn Battuta soon discovered that he, too, could find himself on the wrong side of this mercurial ruler, whose character, if one can judge from the length at which Ibn Battuta wrote about him, fascinated—perhaps even transfixed—the jurist like that of no other ruler.

When the severe drought reigned over the lands of India and Sind...the sultan ordered that the whole population of Delhi should be given six months' supplies from the [royal] granary.... [Yet] in spite of all that we have related of his humility,...the sultan used to punish small faults and great, without respect of persons, whether men of learning or piety or noble descent. Every day there are brought to the audience-hall hundreds of people, chained, pinioned, and fettered, and those who are for execution are executed, those for torture are tortured, and those for beating, beaten.

There were administrative errors as well: Once Ibn Tughlug misconstrued Chinese texts about finance and decreed that, since silver was in short supply, coins should thenceforth be made of copper. Since those coins were backed by the sultan's gold and copper was abundant, counterfeiters had a field day, and the kingdom lost heavily.

Eventually, Ibn Battuta was denounced at court for his association with a teacher whom Ibn Tughluq suspected to be a plotter. Disgraced and afraid for his life, Ibn Battuta retreated to study with a different teacher not in the ambit of the first. When Ibn Tughluq heard of this he commanded Ibn Battuta to present himself. "I entered his presence dressed as a mendicant, and he spoke to me with the greatest kindness and solicitude, desiring me to return to his service. But I refused and asked him for permission to travel to the Hijaz, which he granted."

After 40 days, Ibn Battuta recalled, Ibn Tughluq sent him "saddled horses, slave girls and boys, robes and a sum of money." This was clearly a summons. Again he presented himself to Ibn Tughluq, and he was no doubt thunderstruck to hear words he never forgot: "'I have expressly sent for you to go as my ambassador to the king of China, for I know your love of travel.'"

Here was an assignment Ibn Battuta could not even have dreamed of back in Makkah, when he first thought of heading eastward to seek his fortune. Now, it seemed that fortune lay spendidly before him.

It was an assignment for which Ibn Battuta was almost wholly unprepared by his study of shari'a law and his experience as a qadi. He was to accompany 15 Chinese envoys then in residence in Delhi and somehow oversee the transport and presentation to the king of China of a gift of "a hundred thoroughbred horses saddled and bridled; a hundred male slaves; a hundred Hindu singing-and dancing-girls"; some 1200 pieces of various kinds of cloth, each type of which Ibn Battuta details; "10 embroidered robes of honor from the Sultan's own wardrobe...; 10 embroidered quivers, one of them encrusted with pearls"; similarly decorated swords, scabbards, hats and, to top it all off, 15 eunuchs.

On July 22,1342, with an escort of "a thousand horsemen," Ibn Battuta set forth for Calicut, where the plan was to put the embassy on one of the Chinese junks that were there waiting out the contrary monsoon.

The trouble that was to dog him for the next five years began immediately, during the long march from Delhi to the coast via Daulatabad, the sultan's second capital. Ibn Tugh-luq's rule was breaking down rapidly, and Hindu rebels now roamed the roads, sometimes as guerrilla armies, other times as brigands. Near the town of al-Jalali, the ambassador's retinue battled "about a thousand cavalry and 3000 foot [soldiers]." There were skirmishes over the next few days, and at one point Ibn Battuta became separated from his train and fell from his horse. He ran for his life—straight into the arms of one of the rebel bands. Their leader ordered Ibn Battuta executed, but for unknown reasons the rebels dithered and then let him go. He hid in a swamp, and for seven days found no refuge. The locals who saw him refused him food. A village sentry took away his shirt. He came to a well, tried to use one of his shoes as a bucket, and lost the shoe in the depths. As he was cutting the other in two to make sandals, a man happened along—a Muslim. He asked Ibn Battuta in Persian who he was, and Ibn Battuta replied warily, "A man astray." The man replied, "So am I." The Muslim then carried Ibn Battuta, fainting with exhaustion, to a Muslim village.

Thanks to his coreligionist, Ibn Battuta regained his caravan, and in time they reached Calicut. The gifts and the slaves were put aboard the hired Chinese junk while Ibn Battuta stayed ashore to attend prayers. There he decided that he was unwilling to travel on the junk because its cabin was "small and unsuitable." His personal retinue, including a concubine pregnant with his child, transferred to a smaller kakam that would sail with the junk.

In the night, a storm came up, which "is usual for this sea.... We spent the Friday night on the seashore, we unable to embark on the kakam and those on board unable to disembark and join us. I had nothing left but a carpet to spread out." But rather than abate the storm increased. Junks were cumbersome in shallow, narrow harbors, and the junk captain tried to make for deeper water where he might safely ride it out.

This junk didn't make it. Ibn Battuta had the ghastly experience of watching it smash onto the rocks, where "all on board died." When the crew of the kakam saw what had happened, they did not return to pick up the ill-fated embassy's leader. Rather, "they spread their sails and went off,...leaving me alone on the beach."

Wrecked with the junk and lost with those aboard it was Ibn Battuta's Delhi career. He knew the first question Ibn Tughluq would put to him was why he had failed to go down with his ship. This time, no show of mendicancy would be an adequate answer.

Despite the trauma of the incident, Ibn Battuta inserts in his account one of those factual and informative observations that make his Ribla such a treasure today:

The [Sultan of Calicut's] police officers were beating the people to prevent them from plundering what the sea cast up. In all the lands of Malabar, except in this one land alone, it is the custom that whenever a ship is wrecked, all that is taken from it belongs to the treasury. At Calicut, however, it is retained by its owners, and for that reason Calicut has become a flourishing and much frequented city.

Ibn Battuta withdrew to the port of Honavar, where he spent some six weeks in nearly solitary prayer and fasting—perhaps to keep a low profile, perhaps to grieve for the loss of his child and his dream of an exalted ambassadorial career, or perhaps to figure out what to do next. His retreat ended when he volunteered—exactly why he does not say—to lead the Honavar sultan's military expedition against the rival port of Sandapur. Though briefly victorious, the attack was swiftly countered: "The sultan's troops...abandoned us. We were... reduced to great straits. When the situation became serious, I left the town during the siege and returned to Calicut."

He had no means left to him, no prospects of an appointment, and one friend fewer in Honavar. There were few options.

Then fate beckoned again. He happened on a ship's captain bound for the remote Maldives.

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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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.



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