Move over Marco Polo! You were not the only one to spend the greater part of your life hoofing it across Asia
and elsewhere. The Muslim scholar, Abu Abd Allah Ḿohammed Ibn Abd Allah El Lewātī, set off from his home in Tangiers, Morocco
in June, 1325, at age 21 for a pilgrimage to Mecca. Nearly thirty years and 75,000 miles later, he returned home where he dictated a journal of his travels. (Ibn is a
patronymic like the Russians use, meaning "son of." So therefore, Abu Abd Allah Ḿohammed was the son of
Abd Allah El Lewātī.)
I admit, when I bought this book I had not a clue, but now, as usual, I have become totally intrigued. This particular edition is definitely a scholarly one, with notes in English (and Arabic—Yikes!!), even more extensive than the actual text. In other words, many pages have more footnotes than text. But that is OK, because I have learned a great deal. At 242 pages, it is a very abridged edition of the original version. (The Dover edition is an unabridged reprint of this translation by Samuel Lee, from 1829.) I have done a bit of research, and found numerous other editions, including one from Internet Archives by H.A.R. Gibb. One word of warning: I have found that many of their digitized editions are corrupt and cannot be read on either .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (Nook and others). This one is included. However, the PDF file is simply a copy of the original text, and though it is messy, it is intact and readable. Kindle reads PDF files nicely, at least on my tablet, and you can download a Kindle app. for free from Amazon, or you can read it online. This is an enormous file, over 13 MB, so I am thinking it is the complete work. Amazon also has it in five volumes, all WAAAY beyond what I am willing to spend on a book. It appears it was first published in 1929, the PDF file version, making it still much more modern than this Dover edition. And, from what I skimmed through, it does not have many footnotes, but the Amazon book version does have a few. The volumes apparently have been published over a number a years, re-edited from Gibbs' edition, the first dated 1958, and the re-issued versions from 2016-2017. Whew. Well, I am glad there is such an interest in this book!! It is fascinating, but then I love history and travel books. (By the way, I DO own the complete works of Marco Polo too, when I have time to read the thousands of pages!) Anyways, there are also numerous other cheaper, shorter modern versions of his Ibn Battuta's travels. Here is the Amazon page.
One thing that is desperately missing from this edition is a map, which Dover could have added for the reprint. There are maps online, and Wikipedia, in their article, actually has three, one for each segment of his journey: 1325-1332; 1332-1347; and 1349-1354. (He actually returned home for a short time in 1349 to find both his parents deceased.) The Berkeley article, linked below, however, has the best maps and the most interesting and extensive articles, divided into seventeen sections, plus introductory materials and additional links.
However, since I am usually not online when I read, I found that my old atlas, that we got back in 1965 with "Plaid Stamps," which the A&P grocery store used to give out with each purchase, is still one of the best books I own. Many of the places to which he travelled are still there—some now huge cities, but others no longer exist, it appears. So, reading this book was slow-going because I traced his footsteps the best I could. There would be no point in reading it otherwise. One would probably need a floor-sized map to truly appreciate his wanderings, and perhaps there is one in some museum. Even the Wikipedia map is confusing because he retraced his steps numerous times, and returned to Mecca numerous times, also.
On his first journey, he travelled Northern Africa along the coast, then travelled southward from Cairo, planning to reach Mecca by crossing the Red Sea to Jeddah, (what he called Judda). He was warned that would be impossible, but disregarded that advice. Thus, he was forced to return to Cairo and travelled to Syria, then down the west coast of Saudi Arabia. The first segment of his journey, from 1325-1332, centers around the "Holy Lands."
Though I knew this, it did not strike me until I began studying the maps, that the holy sites for three major religions are so close together—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and of course, not far from the lands of Pagan ancient Egypt. Ibn Battuta seems to honor all three religions and their holy people, though of course he was a strict Muslim. These three religions all believe in the same "God," as opposed to the Hindus, Buddhists, and Pagans, to which he (and the editor, it seems) gave little credence and referred to them as "infidels" roughout the book. As an added note, there are numerous people today who also believe that whole area was (is?) a stronghold for the alien Reptilian race, which makes total sense to me. It should be no surprise that the world's current most violent fighting is happening in this area. Later, as he explored India and China, he intermingled with even more religious diversity.
Since there are SO many anecdotes of interest, and I have pages of notes, it has been a difficult task to choose what to share from each segment of his journey. Here are some other interesting online articles about Ibn Battuta's travels. The second article, from Berkeley is like a booklet in itself. Jules Verne, the great French author of travel fiction (and science fiction), also wrote a huge non-fictional work called Celebrated Travels and Travellers. Project Gutenberg has it for free in two parts, and I have already downloaded it.
Why Arab Scholar Ibn Battuta is the Greatest Explorer of all Time
The Travels of Ibn Battuta (Berkeley)
I would imagine that the more complete work would detail Ibn Battuta's every day experiences, but this one focuses on mostly people he met and long, long lists of who was related to whom and who ruled what and when, all with long, long names. It also includes the wondrous "miracles" he witnessed. Dr. Lee calls him "superstitious," but I am certainly a believer that people in the past had powers over the physical world, no matter what their religious belief, although many of these are questionable. I write about this all the time. We in the modern industrial/technological era have lost even the ability to imagine that people had these abilities, but I am completely open-minded that they did, and that we will soon rediscover them. So I would not ever rule out the powers of mysticism.
I want to point out again that the Berkeley article above is a great supplementary to read along with this book, because, without all the disruptions of footnotes, we get a better picture of what life on the road must have been like and it was not easy to be sure. I really would not have been able to make sense of the book had I not found this article! It also contains wonderful pictures of the area, and that always brings history to life. Ibn Battuta fell ill a number of times, and also married and divorced numerous times, and even had children! He had a wealth of gifts bestowed upon him, and also lost everything. He nearly drowned in a shipwreck, and got stuck with a really nasty Sultan until he finally escaped. And the article adds a personal interest, for instance, the fact that he was homesick. The article is SO much more readable than the book, which tends to be a rather dry account. Its quotes, by the way, are taken from the Gibbs book mentioned above—the free PDF file. Here, we also learn that he was eager to gain recognition as a Muslim scholar and legal scholar. He, to his delight, was appointed qadi (Islam judge and settler of disputes) for one of the caravans in which he traveled early in his journey.
One thing I want to point out throughout the whole book was that Muslims took care of their people. The Muslim royalty were generous to pilgrims, supporting their journey, and taking care of the poor was a religious obligation. Some were known for their immense generosity. How we need such an attitude today!
Ibn Battuta had the opportunity to visit the graves of important people in all three faiths mentioned above in Hebron, including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives, Lot, Joseph, and Fatimah, great-granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad.
One thing the online article makes clear that the book does not, is that so many of these once beautiful and thriving cities along this route had been decimated by the Mongol invasions. One can only wonder how glorious the original art, architecture, and landscaping might have been.
Here are a few more interesting anecdotes from the first segment of Ibn Battuta's journey. He tells of a certain "mosque of the foot," outside Damascus. There, supposedly a stone contains the footprint of Moses. Ibn Battuta writes that he was there during the plague (1345), which would have been on his way back home. He said that 24,000 people were dying daily, but at that time the people were assembled for prayer, after which the plague ceased. Hmm. They should have prayed sooner. Lee dismisses this as superstition, and it probably is.
He also tells of the city Meshed Alī, where Ali is supposed to be buried, and of miracle healings there. On the 17th day of the month Rejeb, the ill and crippled arrive from many places. They are placed over the grave at sunset, and pray or read the Koran as they await recovery. At night time, they all rise up, healed and well.
He tells, as he travels through Persia (now Iran) how there are cells set up for religious, enquirers, and travelers which provide all sorts of foods. A Sultan would often give money to those on pilgrimage, as I mentioned before, but it impressed me greatly because Ibn Battuta writes about their generosity constantly.
Here is another "miracle" story, a bit more believable than the last two. It tells of the King of Iraq, Mohammed Khudā Banda, who, when he received Islamism, took the advice of a favorite follower and joined the Shīah sect. He then wrote to other places inviting them to do the same. The people of Bagdad and Shīrāz, however would not. So he commanded the judges of these districts to come to him, the first being that of Shīrāz. The king kept vicious dogs in chains to do his business, and so he threw the judge, Kāzī Majd Oddin to them. However, instead of tearing him to pieces, they wagged their tails and did nothing. The king, in great fear, tore off his robes and put them on the judge, kissing his hands. He then rewarded the Sheikh with a hundred villages, and himself joined the Sonnee sect. Reminds me of the Biblical story of Daniel in the lion's den.
Our traveler then embarks on a rough ship ride down the east coast of Africa, where he finds the city of Zaila, Ethiopia disgusting. "Their food is, for the most part, camel's flesh and fish. The stench of the country is extreme, as is also its filth, from the stink of the fish and the blood of the camels which are slaughtered in the streets." Yuk. And that wasn't the only place he found disgusting down the coast.
However, not all the food was repugnant. He spends quite a bit of time describing fruits and nuts found nowhere else but in India, he said. One is the betel-tree leaves, which are chewed. This is not to be confused with betel nuts, both of which really should not be consumed because they are toxic. He also speaks of "cocoa-nuts" which are healthy foods.
He then returns to Persia and had to cross a dangerous desert. He says. "In this the Somoom [Simoom] blows during the months of June and July, and kills everyone it meets with, after which his limbs drop off." Nasty wind, huh? And the last point of note in this segment, is his description of pearl divers who had something they placed over their faces with a hole for the nose, made of tortoise shell. He said some would remain underwater for an hour. Hmm. Wonder about that one.
One of the numerous points of confusion in this edition is that, unlike the more modern versions which divide Ibn Battuta's journey into segments, this one is continuous. However, using the extremely informative article above from Berkeley, I was able to make more sense out of this one. There is a section entitled Room, and I have NO idea what country he is referring to. Here he goes far, far past his original destination of Mecca. He travels through what is now Turkey, and northward even into what is now Russia, which he calls Siberia, and I think it still may be, 'cause it was very cold. Other areas are now broken up into separate countries, but which made up the former Soviet Union, then into Afghanistan and on to India. The maps on the Berkeley link show the four huge regions conquered by Genghis Khan, which became the Mongol Empire, later divided by him for his sons and grandsons upon his death, making up the four "Khanates." The first is the Khanate of the Golden Horde which makes up the territories now Russia and Eastern Europe. These "Khanates" are not so named anywhere in the book.
However, by far, the largest segment is entitled Hindustan, in which Ibn Battuta finds himself stuck in Delhi, but is finally able to escape. From there he visits the Maldive Islands and Ceylon, which is now called Sri Lanka. From there he heads through Southeast Asia—between what is now Malaysia and Sumatra, called the Strait of Malacca to China.
Two of the most interesting stories occur while he is still in "the Mongol States," called Tartary in the book. The first is how the wives are greatly important and treated with the utmost respect by the Khan. They are also not veiled.
The other is about Ibn Battuta's trip to Constantinople, which at the time was part of the Byzantine Empire (Greek, and Christian). One of the wives of the ruler at Astrakhan, which is now part of Russia, on the Caspian Sea, was pregnant and wished to have the baby at her father's court. A 500,000 member army, along with numerous others accompanied her, and the local peoples were forced to feed and supply them!! When the wife neared her destiny, she no longer practiced her Muslim rituals, but reverted back to Christianity! The marriage had been arranged by her father, of course, for political reasons. She remained with her father, and the rest, including Ibn Battuta returned. There is more about these two incidents in the Berkeley article linked above.
As I said before, this book tends to be dry reading—great if you are an Arab scholar, but difficult for us regular people. A great amount of time is spent discussing the rulers of Delhi, and how greed and treachery (often within the family), quickly overthrew each ruler, by death, of course. That part was interesting, but the names about drove me nuts, all very long and really confusing, since they were all so similar. Judging from the quotes from the Gibb version (linked above), it seems Ibn Battuta's own writings were much more interesting and personal. Lee has extracted the parts which would be interesting to Arab scholars, but dull for the rest of us. If I read a travel journal, I want to hear about what the traveler experienced—what he saw and heard and how he felt about all of it. And so I will mention here again that the Berkeley article supplies all that, and that there are numerous other books which would be more fun reading about this fascinating wanderer.
Here is an interesting story in the Tartary section, about the city of Balkh, which I am going to guess is in Russia because it was near Samarkand. Though it was in ruins from the invasion of Genghis Khan, who destroyed so much of the beauty of this region, there was a legend about a buried treasure under what was once a most beautiful mosque. It is said that one of the Califs of the house of Abbās was enraged about an incident at Balkh, and sent someone to collect a large fine. In fear, the women and children went to the wife of the governor, who sent back a very richly embroidered robe in payment. The Calif was surprised at her generosity, and sent the robe back, cancelling the fine. But when the governor's wife found that the Calif had seen the robe, she would not wear it because a man's eyes, other than her husband's had fallen upon it. So she had it cut up and sold, and the money it brought was enough to build the mosque with a great treasure still left over. Supposedly it was buried under the pillars of the mosque, but either someone stole it or the story was not true.
Another point I found interesting was the use of "runners" to carry a message. Each ran to the next station, where another runner would continue, and so on. This makes sense, of course, but it reminded me of the book I read on the Incas, Daily Life of the Incas, in which this same method was used. In a way, I suppose it still is, but now it's with postal trucks and aircraft.
There is also an interesting story about a city called Laharī, along the Sinde River, which I believe is now known as the Indus, in what is now Pakistan. Ibn Battuta said that it is filled with stones in the shape of men, beasts, herbs, and even seeds. He said the residents there said that at one time the people were so base that God transformed them into stones. Well!
In the Hindustan section, Lee inserts a long segment of the history of the Fort of Gwalior, which is south of Delhi, but I believe that was not actually part of Ibn Battuta's journey.
Eventually, Ibn Battuta gets employment with the Emperor of Delhi. He is paid well, but begins to fear for his life. This man was a brutal tyrant, torturing and killing his people every day, even if he merely suspected them of wrongdoing. He had elephants fitted with swords and knives, who were trained to maul the victims alive. At one point, the people began to rebel, and he ordered all citizens to leave Delhi! Two remained, one blind and one bed-ridden who were tortured and killed. Ibn Battuta said, "When I entered Delhi it was almost a desert." And "The consequence was, the greatest city in the world had the fewest inhabitants." Oh my!
At one point, he himself just escaped death. He prayed and fasted, and finally put on the clothing of a beggar and became a hermit. Eventually he returned to the Emperor to ask permission to once again go on a pilgrimage, but instead, he was appointed ambassador to China.
At times throughout, Ibn Battuta gives a description of the foods he eats, especially local fruits and vegetables. The Berkeley article supplies a very good example of what he ate in Delhi and some of it sounds quite good.
Unfortunately, Hindu robbers attack Ibn Battuta and his escorts. He gets separated and lost for seven days, surviving on mountain fruits and leaves. He is eventually rescued, and falls asleep as he is being carried. The Emperor had been informed of what took place, and sent money. Therefore, he rejoins others, and they continue.
The journey down the east coast of India begins the most interesting segment in the book. There are few names to struggle with, but great descriptions of the land, the people and the customs.
One point I have to make here is Lee's disrespect for Hindus and other "infidels" that do not believe in "God." He also mocks the mystical experiences as being nonsense. Some may be, of course, but none are any more unusual than the "miracles" ascribed to Jesus.
They eventually make it to Calicut where they hired Chinese junks to take them to China, but were obliged o wait until the proper season when the winds were right. On the night before they were to sail, Ibn Battuta remained on land to attend service. That night, a terrible wind blew up and the ships were all wrecked. Some people were able to be rescued, but all aboard the ship in which Ibn Battuta was to sail were killed. However, the one that contained his property, including his slave girl who was pregnant with his child, took off to China without him. The girl died along the way.
Now Ibn Battuta is warned not to return to the Emperor, because he would surely be punished, so he agrees to accompany the King of Hinaur on an expedition (war). They fight in a battle, but Ibn Battuta escapes that king, too, and takes off on his own to China, by way of the Maldives. He says there are two thousand of these tiny islands, but there are really only 26, very close together. Ibn Battuta soon finds himself in a sort of kingly position, marrying several women. On these islands, marriages are temporary because the women never leave. And thus, they are divorced if their husbands depart. Ibn Battuta soon finds himself out of favor, then takes off for Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
The main point about Ceylon is that he got to climb Adam's Peak, which at the time must have been grueling—two miles up the steep mountain. There is a depression at the top in the rock that looks like a huge footprint, claimed to be Buddha's by Buddhists, Shiva's by Hindus, and Adam's by Muslims, at the time. There is a video of the climb on the Berkeley site—click the link for Sri Lanka. Of course, now there are wide steps with rest areas along the way. The modern climb takes about two hours.
Ibn Battuta's problems seem to be getting worse. The ship they are on is wrecked during a storm, and he is finally rescued in the morning with many of his gifts and belongings. His further travels take him to Maturāh, where he became very ill with the fever. Upon recovering, he boards another ship, which was attacked by Hindu pirates, and this time he lost all but his trousers. They return to the Maldives, and he is able to see his little boy, whom he leaves with the mother.
Finally, he boards another ship, and is off to China, through the Strait of Malacca (between present day Sumatra and Malaysia). But first he stops in what he calls Bengal, but is now Bangladesh, and notes how cheap were provisions, then travels up the River to meet a very old Sheikh, who had foretold his followers of Ibn Battuta's arrival two days prior! He finally sails to Sumatra, then off to Pagan China.
Of China, Ibn Battuta remarks on its wealth and prosperity, culture, safety, and other compliments. However, he is repulsed by the Pagan lifestyle. Muslims freely inhabit the cities in their own areas.
And from China, he returns homeward. This segment has been greatly abridged, not mentioning the terrible bubonic plague outbreak that had spread across all the lands Ibn Battuta had covered, and re-covered on his way home. In fact, the homeward segment is very short, some pages not much more than a list of cities through which he traveled. He arrived home to find his mother had recently died. (He already knew his father had died fifteen years prior.) And so, he decides to explore Spain and Morocco, then Mali, Africa. The book calls it Sudan, but he is nowhere near that country. And the many of the points made in the book are very negative, such as the openly sexual behavior of the people, racism, and cannibalism. Again, the Berkeley article supplies much more interesting materials.
Having said all that, I will end this review. I highly recommend everyone do some reading on this amazing man and his lifelong journey. I really do not recommend this book, but I would start with the Berkeley article, and then download the free PDF version by Gibbs or buy one of the shorter, more modern book offered at Amazon or elsewhere.
Below: Modern Mecca (Saudi Arabia) 2009.
All material on this site copyright © 2019 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.