Ibn Battuta: the most famous traveller of the medieval Arab world

Justin Marozzi traces three decades of travels by the unparalleled 14th-century wanderer across the Dar al-Islam – the vast Muslim world

Statue of Ibn Battuta at the Islamic culture center, Quanzhou, Fujian, China

Who was Ibn Battuta?

Revered today as the ‘Traveller of Islam’, Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Lawati al-Tanji ibn Battuta was born in the Moroccan port of Tangier in 1304. Of Berber stock, rather than an Arab, his was a family of Islamic legal scholars, an intellectual heritage that would underpin later stints as chief judge to foreign rulers. Few other details are known about his background, other than what featured in his memoir, and even there reliable information – such as the number of his wives and children – is scant.

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We know, though, that his lifetime coincided with the highpoint of splendour under the Moroccan Marinid dynasty, which ruled swathes of North Africa between 1244 and 1465, making its imperial capital in Fez.

This ancient city, where Ibn Battuta dictated his memoir to the young scribe Ibn Juzayy, was a seat of learning known as the ‘Athens of Africa’, hosting al-Qarawiyyin, a complex of mosque, madrassa, library and university dating back to the ninth century.

This rich cultural hinterland likely provided the foundations for Ibn Battuta’s Muslim self-confidence and sense of superiority when encountering non-Islamic cultures, such as those in China and parts of Africa. As for his curiosity, wanderlust and insatiable desire for adventure, who knows where they came from? Perhaps he took at face value the Prophet Muhammad’s famous exhortation: “Travel in search of knowledge, even though the journey take you to China”.

Ibn Battuta died in c1368–69, aged around 65. It’s not known where or how he died, nor indeed much about his life after the writing of his memoir – which, 650 years later, remains one of the greatest works of travel literature ever written.


Where did Ibn Battuta travel?

On a piercingly clear day in June 1325, a 21-year-old Moroccan from Tangier fastened his sandals, checked he had everything he needed, and said his goodbyes to family and friends. He was setting out on Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca – a long and arduous journey from the northwest tip of Africa, but one that usually took months or a few years, not decades.

He departed alone, “having neither fellow-traveller 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… 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.” Little did any of them know that this relatively straightforward pilgrimage would somehow be extended into a 29-year, 75,000-mile odyssey across Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the far east.

East to Egypt

Alone on his donkey, Ibn Battuta headed east across empty, sun-scoured valleys, over the Rif mountains and on through cedar and oak forests. In what’s now western Algeria, he joined a caravan of travellers, which provided some companionship – though it did not prevent an acute pang of homesickness outside Tunis. “I felt so sad at heart on account of my loneliness that I could not restrain the tears that started in my eyes, and wept bitterly,” he wrote. And not just homesickness: as on other occasions during his later travels, at Bougie in Algeria he fell ill from fever, though soon recovered enough to continue.

In Tunis he threw himself into his books, lodging in a madrassa (Islamic college) and hobnobbing with illustrious scholars and judges. It was the earliest display of his evident ambition, and a glimpse of the inveterate social climber he would become. Extraordinarily, on leaving Tunis in November 1325 amid a swelling caravan of travellers, he was appointed their qadi (judge) in recognition of his burgeoning intellectual talents.

Somewhat frustratingly, his later accounts rarely mention his experiences of life on the road; descriptions of landscapes and conditions are notable by their absence from his story. So we know little of the details of his journey across north Africa – but rather more about his impressions of cities, and of people he encountered.

Marriages came and went for Ibn Battuta like the desert winds. Two were contracted before he reached Cairo, the “mother of cities”, which mesmerised him as it does first-time visitors to this day. Packed with peerless monuments, the city “surges as the waves of the sea with her throngs of folk and can scarce contain them”. Like any tourist in Egypt, after admiring the city’s mosques, colleges and an impressive hospital that offered medical services free at the point of delivery, Ibn Battuta took to the Nile (which “surpasses all rivers of the earth in sweetness of taste, breadth of channel and magnitude of utility”). There was something of the prude about the young traveller, who was appalled by what he saw in one bathhouse, where he found men “wearing no covering. This appeared a shocking thing to me, and I went to the governor and informed him of it.”

Sailing up the Nile, Ibn Battuta attempted to cross the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula, but was stymied by conflict and returned to Cairo before departing in July 1326 to travel to Mecca via an alternative route. In Jerusalem, then a small town of around 10,000 inhabitants noted for its sacred Muslim sites such as al-Aqsa Mosque, he was smitten by the Dome of the Rock. “Both outside and inside, the decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description. The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.”

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Ibn Battuta enthused about this important Islamic shrine
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. “The decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description”, Ibn Battuta enthused about this important Islamic shrine (Yi Liao / Alamy Stock Photo)

By contrast, Damascus – a short journey of 150 miles or so from Jerusalem – was a full-blown metropolis with a population around 10 times as great. In 634, Damascus had been the first major Byzantine city to fall to Muslim warriors – a feather in the cap for the fast-spreading Islamic empire.

With a history stretching back centuries – it’s often claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world – Damascus had long attracted florid praise from Muslim visitors. Ibn Battuta considered its Umayyad Mosque “the greatest mosque on earth”, and Damascus “the city that surpasses all other cities in beauty and takes precedence of them in loveliness”. Apart from rubbing shoulders with the cream of the city’s scholars, holy men and officials, we know he married again in Damascus, and just as quickly divorced; we also know that he took many concubines and fathered numerous children across several continents.

In September 1326, Ibn Battuta’s caravan set off south from Damascus towards Arabia, passing the mighty castle of Karak, “one of the most marvellous, inaccessible and celebrated of fortresses”, still standing today. Once on the Arabian peninsula, he recounted that the caravan “pushes on speedily day and night, for fear of this wilderness”.

The impressive remains of Karak, a crusader castle in what's now Jordan
The impressive remains of Karak, a crusader castle in what’s now Jordan. Ibn Battuta visited Karak in 1326, calling it “one of the most marvellous, inaccessible and celebrated of fortresses” (Yadid Levy / Alamy Stock Photo)

After four days in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Ibn Battuta and his fellow pilgrims finally reached Mecca “with hearts full of gladness at reaching the goal of their hopes” – a spiritually uplifting experience. But once his pilgrimage was over, in mid-November, it was clear the young Moroccan had been bitten by the travel bug. There was no question of returning home.

Instead, Ibn Battuta set his sights on travelling north. In November he was invited by a rich official to share a relatively luxurious camel litter in a caravan bound for Mesopotamia (a land corresponding roughly with what’s now Iraq). Having passed through Basra, they looped through the mountains and orchards of Persia via Isfahan – “one of the largest and fairest of cities” – and Shiraz, where he admired the local women’s piety. He reached Baghdad in 1327, and recalled the famous verse his father used to recite to him:“Baghdad for men of wealth has an ever-open door / But short and narrow shrift is all she gives the poor.”

Ibn Battuta was a proud Muslim travelling in an era when the blaze of Islam illuminated much of Africa and Asia

A spa-lover before his time, Ibn Battuta was again fascinated by the city’s public baths, impressed by their state-of-the-art facilities and by the Baghdadis’ generosity with fluffy towels. “Every bather is given three towels: one to wear round his waist when he goes in, another to wear round his waist when he comes out, and the third to dry himself with.”

More scholarly appetites were sated with visits to “the wonderful Nizamiya College” and, a stone’s throw from the river Tigris, Mustansiriya University, Baghdad’s finest ancient monument and one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1233.

Ibn Battuta was a proud, observant Muslim travelling – and later writing – in an era when the self-confident blaze of Islam illuminated much of Africa and Asia. For any Muslim, Baghdad – capital of the mighty Abbasid caliphate from 762 to 1258 – was a hallowed city, an architectural gem steeped in glorious history. In his words: “She is the abode of peace and capital of al-Islam, of illustrious rank and supreme preeminence, abode of caliphs and residence of scholars.”

Beyond Baghdad

After Baghdad, the adventures had to continue. There was a pause – understandable after totting up around 4,000 miles in frequently challenging conditions – while Ibn Battuta returned to his books. He backtracked to Mecca, where he studied and prayed for a year – then it was time to hit the road again.

In c1329–30, he sailed down the Red Sea, visiting Yemen before continuing south along the east African coast, calling in at Mogadishu and Mombasa, successfully dodging pirates and an unscrupulous guide’s plot to kill him. His party then sailed north again, rounding Oman and traversing the Gulf of Hormuz before crossing the Arabian peninsula from Bahrain to Mecca.

From 1330, he retraced his footsteps north and continued to Anatolia, aspects of which thrilled and disgusted him. In one city he learned that “they buy beautiful Greek slave girls and put them out to prostitution, and each girl has to pay a regular due to her master. I heard it said that the girls go into the bathhouses with the men, and anyone who wishes to indulge in depravity does so in the bathhouse – and nobody tries to stop him.”

Sailing across the Black Sea to the Crimea, Ibn Battuta ventured up the Volga, then travelled south through the Balkans. Reaching Constantinople in 1332, the Moroccan did what he did best and indulged in some more shameless social climbing. As an erudite young scholar and man of letters, he managed to secure an audience with the Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos, who gave him a robe of honour and assigned him a horse on which, to the accompaniment of “trumpets, fifes and drums”, he was paraded around the city to admire its “marvellous and rare sights”. He was made to sing for his supper and finery, quizzed by the curious emperor on Islamic cities including Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad.

Though impressed by its great size, Ibn Battuta considered the Byzantine capital more like a dozen individual villages separated by fields than a single city. He caught the unmistakable whiff of imperial decline – broken bridges, filthy markets – in his description of the city, counterbalanced by a recognition of its powerful Christian identity, heritage and practice, not least in the Hagia Sophia, the great basilica church that he was told contained “thousands” of monks and priests.

That autumn, Ibn Battuta set out east again for central Asia, travelling via Bukhara to reach Samarkand, which he thought “one of the largest and most perfectly beautiful cities in the world”. Of its large palaces and impressive monuments, though, he saw that “the greater part are ruined and a portion of the city is also devastated – it has no wall or gates and there are no gardens outside the city itself”. Such scars were the legacy of ruinous Mongol invasions unleashed by Genghis Khan a century before. Ibn Battuta’s visit in 1333 came just a few decades before the arrival of Timur (often known as Tamerlane), who chose this ancient Silk Road city as his capital, and developed it into a great cultural and commercial centre.

The Moroccan was particularly excited to visit the tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, reputed to have arrived here in 676. Brimming with missionary fervour, Kusam was on a mission to convert Zoroastrian fire-worshippers to Islam. The local population did not take kindly to this foreign preacher, however, and he was apprehended and beheaded. Legend has it that he picked up his head and jumped down a well, where he has remained ever since, ready to resume his work. Arabs venerated him, and the tomb attracted many of the faithful over the centuries – and still does today.

Illustration following the footsteps taken by Ibn Battuta through Africa and Asia
Illustration following the footsteps taken by Ibn Battuta through Africa and Asia (Illustration by Theresa Grieben)

From central Asia, Ibn Battuta pushed south-east, in 1334 arriving in India where he finagled his way into the service of Muhammad bin Tughluq, sultan of Delhi. Tradition dictated that visitors should bestow valuable gifts on the sultan, so Ibn Battuta borrowed goods from an Iraqi merchant, and presented 30 horses, camels, arrows and slaves. The return on his investment was immediate: the position of chief qadi, a huge signing-on bonus of 12,000 dinars and a fabulous annual salary of 12,000 dinars. He was rich.

Working for the notoriously cruel ruler was no picnic, though. The sultan was “far too free in shedding blood”, Ibn Battuta reckoned, a firm believer in hideously imaginative torture. Criminals were skinned alive or thrown into pens to be gored by elephants with tusk-mounted swords. Hundreds were brought in chains daily to the audience hall, the Moroccan reported, to be executed, tortured or beaten.

At one point, Ibn Battuta himself was suspected of disloyalty and was forced to abandon his possessions, don a beggar’s rags and live with a hermit in a cave for five months until things calmed down. One can easily imagine his relief when, in 1341, the sultan appointed him ambassador to the Mongol court in China, offering an escape route from a paranoid, disintegrating state.

Mission to China

The journey east had barely begun when 4,000 Hindu rebels attacked Ibn Battuta’s party. He was over-run and robbed

The journey had barely begun when Ibn Battuta’s party was attacked by 4,000 Hindu rebels. Then, chased by horsemen, he was overrun and robbed, narrowly escaping death. More scrapes followed, including a shipwreck resulting in the loss of his companions and the death of a slave girl pregnant with his child. Down but not out, Ibn Battuta decided to continue east alone. Sailing on, he stopped in the Maldives for nine months, where he became chief judge (again), joined the royal family and took another clutch of wives.

In the great imperial city of Fez, Ibn Battuta dictated the story of his life to a young writer. The result was his voluminous memoir

After another diversion to Sri Lanka, where he hobnobbed with the king and climbed the holy summit of Adam’s Peak, in 1346 he docked at the port of Chittagong, in what’s now Bangladesh. Ibn Battuta thought it squalid, “a hell crammed with good things”, the latter presumably including the “extremely beautiful” slave girl he purchased. Sailing south again through the Strait of Malacca, he reached the Chinese port of Quanzhou later that year, though only after pirates and shipwrecks had once again robbed him of all his possessions. The orthodox Muslim did not take to China. Though impressed by the size of cities such as Hangzhou, at that time probably the most populous city on Earth, he confessed to being “greatly troubled” by the country’s “paganism”. The truth is that he was invariably happier travelling among his fellow Muslims, and by 1348 he was en route home via Sumatra.

During the 6,000-mile journey back to Morocco, in Damascus he learnt of the death of his father some 15 years earlier and of a 10-year-old son he had never met. Yet no sooner had he returned to Morocco than he resolved to cross the Sahara to visit the empire of Mali, and set out in late 1351. Once there, he was disappointed by the food, including millet porridge and a yam-like root that made him seriously ill. But he was as determined as ever to receive the lavish presents from the ruler that he felt were his due.

Camels traverse the Sahara Desert in North Africa
Camels traverse the Sahara Desert in North Africa. In 1325, the young Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta set out east from Tangier through such desert landscapes – and didn’t return home for a quarter of a century (Hemis / AWL Images)

“I have journeyed to the countries of the world and met their kings,” he told Mansa (emperor) Sulayman of Mali quite brazenly. “I have been four months in your country without your giving me a reception gift or anything else. What shall I say of you in the presence of other sultans?” The unabashed request had the desired effect: a house, an allowance and a quantity of gold. Not that this in any way curbed his acerbic comments on what he called the “feeble intellect” of his fellow Africans.

Returning to Morocco from Mali, in 1354 Ibn Battuta settled in Fez, the great imperial city of Morocco. It was there, under the orders of the great Marinid Sultan Abu Inan – who was understandably impressed by the scholarly traveller – that he dictated the story of his life to a young writer, Ibn Juzayy. The result was his voluminous memoir, The Precious Gift for Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel, known in Arabic as the Rihla (‘Journey’). The ultimate Arab travelogue is as fresh today as it was when first dictated in the mid-14th century, at once erudite, anecdotal, humorous, humane and consistently entertaining.

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Justin Marozzi is a historian and travel writer, and the author of Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization (Allen Lane, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 18 of BBC World Histories magazine