Travels of Ibn Battuta

Book illustration by Léon Benett published in 1878 showing Ibn Baṭṭūṭah (right) in Egypt

Ibn Battuta needs no introduction amongst the world of medieval travellers. He was born in Tangier, Morocco in 1306, in a family of Qazis (Islamic Judge). His curious nature and love for travel took him to many countries. He started his journey to the holy city of Mecca for Hajj. He visited many lands in Africa , before turning east and travelling to Persia, Iraq, Central Asia, India, Maldives and China. From China, he journeyed back to his homeland Morocco and narrated his travels to a writer named Ibn Juzayy. The book known as ‘Rihla’ (or “Travels”) is a fantastic account of 14th Century Islamic World. During the journey, he learnt Persian without which thriving in the Islamic world could have been difficult.

In Delhi, he enjoyed the patronage of the King Muhammad Tughlaq for many years and also became immensely wealthy. The king was known to be a despotic ruler and he once fell from grace and barely survived execution. Enroute his journey to China, he was looted by bandits and more misfortune followed when his ship sunk at the port of Calicut. Since he felt disgraced and did not want to return to Delhi, he travelled to Maldives. He served as an Islamic judge there, took several wives and restored some of his former glory.

From Maldives, he went to Sri Lanka and reached the port city of Quanzhou (China) in 1345. He was impressed with Mongol China in terms of safety of travellers and its natural beauty. He found the customs very unfamiliar and having travelled through the Islamic world, naturally could not relate to them. Though historians debate this fact, he claimed to have travelled till Beijing. From China, he travelled back to Tangier in 1349. When he reached home, his parents had died. He spent his last days in Morocco.

Ibn Battuta also travelled to the Golden Horde of the Southern Volga region ruled by Muhammad Uzbek Khan. He also claimed to have travelled to Bulghar, the capital of medieval Bulgaria. This would probably be the northern most that he travelled. He also spend time in Anatolia and Constantinople.

His cultural anecdotes are the most interesting to read. In Maldives, he found it shocking that women roam around naked from the waist upwards and so he writes ‘It is thus that they walk abroad in the bazars and elsewhere.’ This is one practice that he tried to change, in line with the Islamic practice of dressing but met with little success. He constantly praised them for their cleanliness, their natural charm and loved savouring the local food. His account talks about the local Flora and Fauna in great detail. He also talks about the practice of ‘Sati’ in India. He claims that cannibalism was practiced in some parts of Africa and also encountered female nudity there which he found disturbing.

He found favour with local rulers and influential people. His profession as a Qadi greatly helped him especially in cultures where Islam was relatively new and the local people needed help in interpretation or to dispense justice in line with Shariat. While he enjoyed the luxuries bestowed on him, there were times when he found himself in grave danger. He had one such experience in Delhi but luckily he survived.

While reading accounts of travellers, it is important to take cognisance of the fact that they have made observations through their own frame of reference which is greatly influenced by their religious or racial identity and may often not be fully objective. The second factor is the socio-political environment which is prevalent when the account was written.

References:

  1. Ibn Battuta- L.P. Harvey, Oxford University Press
  2. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveller of the Fourteenth Century- Ross E. Dunn, University of California Press

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