Today’s Happy Birthday wishes: Ibn Battuta

Today happens to be the 711th birthday of Ibn Battuta, whose importance to history hasn’t been unfairly overlooked, in contrast to some other people we could mention. Born to a Berber family in the city of Tangier (in modern Morocco) in 1304, Ibn Battuta is rightly famous for his incredible world travels and the book he dictated (called Al-Rihla, “The Journey”) about them. Think of him as the Muslim Marco Polo if you want (and coincidentally enough his travels began in 1325, the year after Marco Polo died in Venice), but in terms of distance traveled and places seen, Marco Polo (probably) had nothing on Ibn Battuta.

After leaving home in 1325 to make the Hajj, Ibn Battuta covered tens of thousands of miles, traveling with large caravans whenever he could and supporting himself usually by finding work as a Maliki legal expert (which reflected his studies in Tangier), before he finally stopped traveling in 1354. He crossed North Africa to Egypt overland, then crisscrossed the Levant, Iraq, Iran, Anatolia, and Arabia, then traveled by boat down the east coast of Africa as far south as modern Tanzania before heading back to Arabia (he completed three pilgrimages to Mecca during this period). Then he decided to go to work as a legal expert for the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad b. Tughluq (who was famous for being extremely wealthy and extremely generous to artists and scholars). This necessitated traveling north to Anatolia (via Egypt and the Levantine coast) in order to catch an overland caravan to Delhi, via Crimea (with a side trip into modern Bulgaria), the Caucasus, and Central Asia. When he got into Uzbek territory in Central Asia, the Uzbeks were preparing a royal caravan to Constantinople, which Ibn Battuta managed to join despite the fact that it was taking him away from his intended destination. He arrived in Constantinople in 1332 (possibly 1334), and got to meet the Byzantine Emperor and see the city before heading back toward Delhi.

According to the Rihla, Ibn Battuta got that job in Delhi in 1333 (there are conflicting accounts here, so it may have been 1335), but seems to have used it mostly as a justification for traveling throughout India. He did stay in India for several years though, before leaving in 1341 to resume his world travels. He visited the Maldives and then traveled east through modern Bangladesh, modern Malaysia, and into modern Indonesia (Sumatra). He arrived in China in 1345 before resolving to begin the almost unimaginably long (at that time) journey back home the following year. He arrived back in Tangier in 1349, both of his parents having died while he was gone. Still unable to shake the urge to keep traveling, in 1350 he set out on another long journey that would take him north into Andalusia and then south into Mali, which at the time was renowned for its riches. He returned home for good in 1354 and later dictated the story of his travels to another scholar named Ibn Juzayy (d. 1357).

Ibn Battuta's travels, at least according to him
Ibn Battuta’s travels, at least according to him

There are some problems with Ibn Juzayy’s account, specifically in that big sections of it are obviously copied from earlier travel literature without attribution. That could be explained by the fact that Ibn Battuta was recounting almost 30 years worth of travels without reference to any kind of journal or written notes. They may have decided to borrow from other written sources to help patch gaps in Ibn Battuta’s memory. Or, more cynically, they may have padded Ibn Battuta’s life story with tales of places he never actually visited. Some modern scholars question whether he ever really got to China, for example, or wonder about the authenticity of his side trip into the Bulgar-controlled part of Europe. Still, just limiting Ibn Battuta’s travels to the parts of the Rihla that seem like genuine, first person accounts leaves you with a remarkable life of world travel, and when considered as a text rather than as a memoir, the Rihla — plagiarized bits and all — is an invaluable one-stop source for the 14th century Islamic World, from one end to the other.

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2 thoughts on “Today’s Happy Birthday wishes: Ibn Battuta

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