The Adventures of Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta was the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. He also travelled in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), China, Byzantium and Russia. The mere extent of his travels is estimated at over 75,000 miles, a figure which is not likely to have been surpassed before the age of steam.

The famous traveller Ibn Battuta lived by the motto - 'never, if possible, cover any road a second time'. Fifty years earlier than Marco Polo, he travelled, on horse, camel, foot and boat, through all manner of lands, including West Africa where he visited Timbuktu, Mali and Niger. His interest was not only confined to geography. He vividly described the prevailing political, economic and social conditions, the position of women and religious matters. He was appointed Qadi (Chief judge) of Delhi, and spent the last twenty-three years of his life as Qadi of Fez, Morocco, writing his comprehensive travel document.

Ibn Battuta started on his travels when he was 21 years old in 1325. His main reason to travel was to go on a Hajj, or the Pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca), as all Muslims are instructed to do. But his traveling went on for about 29 years and he covered about 75,000 miles visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries.

He met many dangers and had many adventures along the way. He was attacked by bandits, almost drowned in a sinking ship and was almost beheaded by a tyrant ruler on his travels!

Near the end of Ibn Battuta's own life, the Sultan of Morocco insisted that Ibn Battuta dictate the story of his travels to a scholar and today we can read translations of that story called "Rihla - My Travels". It is a valuable and interesting record of places which add to our understanding of the Middle Ages.

From Tangier across North Africa to Alexandria, Egypt

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier, Morocco into a family of Muslim legal scholars in 1304. He studied Muslim law as a young man. Then in 1325, he left Tangier to make a pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca). He was eager for more learning and adventure.

"My departure from Tangier, my birthplace, took place ... with the object of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House [at Makkah] and of visiting the tomb of the Prophet [in Medina], God's richest blessing and peace be on him. 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. So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, 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." [Gibb, p. 8]

Travel was dangerous by land and by sea. Ibn Battuta travelled overland at first alone riding a donkey. Then for protection he joined a caravan with other pilgrims and traders. Some of them walked, others rode horses, mules, donkeys, or camels. By the time the caravan reached Cairo, Egypt, the caravan was several thousand members.

The pilgrims were an enthusiastic group and were excited about their hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah). The trip was a grand study tour of the World of Islam - Dar al-Islam. For Ibn Battuta it was an opportunity to acquire knowledge of religion and law, and meet with other Muslim scholars. Ibn Battuta must have thought about getting a fine job as a judge (qadi) in some part of Dar al-Islam after gaining certificates of learning from great scholars of his time.

From Tangier, the travelers arrived at the port of Algiers where they camped outside the city walls waiting for other pilgrims to join the caravan. Then they traveled through forests of oak and cedar, mountains and valleys before reaching the city of Bijaya. Here Ibn Battuta became ill, but he pushed on anxious to get on with his trip. He was advised to stay and rest, but he insisted on continuing.

"If God decrees my death, then my death shall be on the road, with my face set towards ...[Makkah]." [Gibb, p. 11]

Next the group of travelers entered Tunis, a city of about 100,000 - a major city of Islamic art and learning. It was also a shipping port of north African products: wool, leather, hides, cloth, wax, olive oil, and grain. It contained splendid mosques and palaces, public gardens, and colleges.

Ibn Battuta spent about two months in Tunis. Here he stayed in a college (madrasa) dormitory and met with the scholars and judges in high positions. The group left Tunis in a larger caravan of pilgrims and Ibn Battuta was even appointed qadi (judge and settler of disputes) for the hajj caravan - quite an accomplishment for the young traveller! They were accompanied by Muslim government troops of horsemen and archers to protect them from the Arab rebels.

His caravan continued across the coastal Libyan countryside. Near Tripoli a band of camel robbers attacked the caravan waving their swords, but "the Divine Will diverted them and prevented them from doing us harm..."

From there the caravan continued without trouble, completing the 2,000 mile trip across North Africa in about eight or nine months. Since the next pilgrimage season was still eight months away, he decided to be a tourist and visit Cairo, the largest capital of the Arabic-speaking world and the largest city anywhere in the world except those in China! Its population was estimated to be about 600,000 people.

Sometime in 1326, the caravan reached Alexandria at the western end of the Nile Delta. Ibn Battuta was very impressed with Alexandria. Later he said it was one of the five most magnificent places he ever visited. At this time Alexandria was a busy harbor firmly controlled by Egypt's Mamluk warrior caste who had governed that country and Syria as a united kingdom since 1260. It was the Mamluks (Mamluk means "slave") who took over the rule of Egypt from their "masters", and were able to defeat the Mongols who had taken over Baghdad and other parts of the Muslim World.

Ibn Battuta visited other cities on the Nile Delta, and continued on to Cairo (or "al-Qahirah" - "the Victorious") founded in the 10th century by the Fatimid dynasty. Life inside the walled city was crowded and frantic. The narrow streets were filled with people, camels, and donkeys and lined with thousands of shops and markets. Armies of peddlers and vendors also jammed the streets. Ibn Battuta goes on to describe the city's many mosques, colleges, hospitals, and convents which housed the poor. They were built by the amirs (military commanders) who competed "with one another in charitable works and the founding of mosques and religious houses." [Gibb, vol. I, p. 54]

Ibn Battuta was particularly impressed with a maristan (hospital) for its beauty and service to the sick. Such hospitals demonstrated Islamic commitment to "charity", one of the Five Pillars of Islam. A later traveller echoed this enthusiasm:

"Cubicles for patients were ranged round two courts, and at the sides of another quadrangle were wards, lecture rooms, library, baths, dispensary, and every necessary appliance of those days of surgical science. There was even music to cheer the sufferers; while reader of the Koran afforded the consolations of the faith. Rich and poor were treated alike, without fees, and sixty orphans were supported and educated in the neighboring school." [Lane-Poole, Story of Cairo, quoted in Dunn, p. 50.]

On to Syria and Palestine (1326)

Ibn Battuta left Cairo and headed to Damascus, Syria along the Royal Road. The Mamluk government organized caravans to carry pilgrims and merchants along this trail. The Mamluks examined passports, taxed the merchants, and strictly monitored who was going in and out of their territory.

This part of the Mamluk Empire had been in fierce battles with Mongol Invaders. From 1260 to the early 1300s, the Mamluk warriors were able to push the Mongol armies out from Damascus and northern Syria, and kept them from taking Egypt and Palestine. (The Mongols had taken over Baghdad and much of the Abbasid State by 1258 capturing and destroying cities as they went.)

The Mamluk armies protected the empire and kept open the trade routes and the pilgrimage routes. Along one part of the route soldiers on horseback dragged carpet or mats to smooth the sand every night.

Damascus was like a second capital to the Mamluk, a great city that Ibn Battuta just had to see! From Damascus he could connect with a Hajj caravan and complete his trip to Makkah in safety. But there were other holy sites to see on this part of his trip: Al-Khalil (Hebron), Al-Quds (Jerusalem), Bethlehem, and more! And a stream of Muslim, Christian and Jewish pilgrims came to these places under the protection of the Muslim Mamluk Sultan.

Hebron is a holy site for Muslims, Christians, and Jews since it is the burial place of the "fathers" or "patriarchs" of monotheism (belief in one God): Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Also in Hebron are other holy sites: the burial places of Lot and Joseph (son of Jacob). The picture here is the Ibrahim (Abraham) Mosque described by Ibn Battuta, built over the cave tomb of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Ibn Battuta continued on his journey and on his way to Jerusalem he visited more holy sites: the tomb of Jonah - over which there is built a great mosque, and Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

Continuing northward he visited and described more holy places, many towns destroyed by the crusades, such as Tyre and Acre, and he described many castles. He also tells about more holy men, but also of assassins with poisoned knives, wars, and political intrigues, all part of the history of this area.

Then he arrived in Jerusalem which was a rather small town at that time, with a population of only about 10,000. "Its defensive walls were in ruins, part of its water supply had to be brought in... and it was located on none of the important trade routes..." [Dunn, p. 56.] Yet, because of its important shrines and sanctuaries, it was an important part of Ibn Battuta's pilgrimage: "Allah (God) ennoble [Jerusalem] - third in excellence after the two sacred Mosques [of Makkah and Medina] and the place of ascension of the Apostle [Muhammed] of Allah - Allah bless him and give him peace - whence he was caught up into heaven." [Gibb, p. 77.] Here he visited the Sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

The silver-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque was built in 691 across from the Dome of the Rock. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest place in Islam and was the first direction of prayer for Muslims before they faced Makkah. "One prayer here is equivalent to 500 times the prayers in any other mosque except for the Haram Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet's (An-Nabawi) Mosque in Medina. In the journey to heaven, Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) prayed in here, leading all the prophets." The Dome of the Rock was built in 687 A.C. by Caliph Abd al-Malik, half a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

"This is one of the most marvelous of buildings, of the most perfect in architecture and strangest in shape ... it has a plentiful share of loveliness ... and rare beauty... The greater part of this decoration is surfaced with gold, so that it glows like a mass of light and flashes with the gleam of lightning... In the center of the Dome is the blessed Rock ...for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) ascended from it to heaven. It is a solid piece of rock, projecting about a man's height, and underneath it there is a cave... with steps leading down to it..." [Gibb, vol. I, p. 79.]

Ibn Battuta stayed in Jerusalem for about one week. Because the Hajj season would begin soon, he continued on to Damascus and arrived there during the Holy Month of Ramadan, 1326. From Damascus he could join a hajj caravan going to Makkah.

Damascus had once been the capital of the Umayyad Empire founded by Muawiya, the fourth caliph and a successor of Muhammad. At the time Ibn Battuta visited Damascus, it was an international supermarket. Its population was about 100,000 people. Damascus was a center of trade routes which linked Egypt and Persia, and Asia Minor and the Black Sea region. And it was a center of learning. Ibn Battuta was very impressed with the beauty of Damascus, saying:

"Damascus is the city which surpasses all other cities in beauty..." [Gibb, p. 118]

The Umayyad Mosque (or "Great Mosque") of Damascus, built in the 8th century. It was famous as a center of learning throughout the Muslim world. Ibn Battuta describes it as "the greatest mosque on earth ..., the most perfect in architecture, and the most exquisite in beauty..." [Gibb, p. 124]

During his stay in the city, Ibn Battuta may have lived in this mosque's dormitory, sitting beneath the marble columns and listening to lecturers and Quranic readers. Ibn Battuta stayed in Damascus for only 24 days, and he spent much of his time studying and meeting famous teachers and judges. But "he could not have devoted his every waking moment to his studies since he was by no means free of more mundane concerns. For one thing, his entire stay in Damascus took place during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast during daylight hours, a strenuous obligation that upset the normal routines of daily life. He also admits in [his book] that he was down with fever during a good part of his stay and living as a house guest of one of ...[his] professors, who put him under a physician's care. On top of that, he found time ... to get married again." [Dunn, pp. 61 - 62.] Ibn Battuta claimed to have earned additional credentials for his studies in Damascus to help get him a job once he finally reached India.

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