The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta

Konrad Hirschler on a new look at a great historical travel writer

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Reviewed by: Konrad Hirschler
Author: David Waines
Publisher: IB Tauris
Price (RRP): £25

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Ibn Battuta is one of the great medieval writers of travel literature whose importance rivals the significance of his contemporary Marco Polo. Setting out from his native Morocco in the 14th century he travelled – or claims to have travelled – the important regions of the medieval world stretching from west Africa to China.

The remarkably high number of surviving manuscripts shows that this report has continuously enjoyed popularity in the Arabic-speaking

lands and it started to gain some prominence in Europe after the first translations had been published in the early 19th century.

Waines’s book is an up-to-date introduction to this often bewildering account. He organises the material in four themes that are salient issues in Ibn Battuta’s text and that give a taste of the book as a whole: travel, food/hospitality, sacred places/miracles, and the ‘Other’.

These themes convey the fascinating spirit of Ibn Battuta’s report and range from the production of grape juice in Syria to boat travel in India. The author discusses scholarly debates on Battuta (most importantly his claimed travel itinerary and the issue of ‘plagiarism’). However, the position that Waines takes on these issues is not always convincing, and sometimes questions on the text’s reliability are summarily discarded. The translation is generally accurate with a few slips (for instance “Holy Land” for western Arabia), but the title’s reference to Homer’s Odyssey remains mysterious.

This is a valuable introduction to one of the grand texts of travel literature and a helpful starting point for reading the original text – in the wonderful four-volume translation by Gibb and Beckingham.

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Konrad Hirschler is senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London