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Ibn Battuta: Marco Polo Before Marco Polo

posted on: Mar 25, 2021

Ibn Battuta: Marco Polo Before Marco Polo
“I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose part I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So I braced my resolution to quit my dear ones, female and male, 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.” Ibn Battuta

By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer        Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan scholar and explorer who widely traveled the Old World. Over a period of thirty years, Ibn Battuta visited most of the Old World, including Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and the Iberian Peninsula. Near the end of his life, he dictated an account of his journeys, titled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling. He traveled more than any other explorer in distance, totaling around 117,000 km, surpassing Zheng He with about 50,000 km and Marco Polo with 12,000 km. However, history failed to acknowledge the efforts of this great scholar. Nonetheless, his work paved the road for those who dared to explore the world and investigate its many people and cultures.


All that is known about Ibn Battuta’s life comes from the autobiographical information included in the account of his travels, which records that he was of Berber descent and born into a family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco on February 24, 1304 during the reign of the Marinid dynasty. His family belonged to a Berber tribe known as the Lawata. As a young man, he would have studied at a Sunni Maliki school, the dominant form of education in North Africa at the time. Maliki Muslims requested Ibn Battuta to serve as their religious judge as he was from an area where it was practiced. In June 1325, at the age of twenty-one, Ibn Battuta set off from his hometown on a hajj to Mecca, a journey that would ordinarily take sixteen months. He would not see Morocco again for twenty-four years.

He traveled to Mecca by land, following the North African coast across the sultanates of Abd al-Wadid and Hafsid. The route took him through Tlemcen, Béjaïa, and then Tunisia, where he stayed for two months. For safety’s sake, Ibn Battuta typically joined a caravan to reduce the risk of being robbed. In the early spring of 1326, after a journey of over 3,500 km (2,200 mi), Ibn Battuta arrived at the port of Alexandria, at the time part of the Bahri Mamluk empire. He met two ascetics, pious men, in Alexandria. It was told that these men foretold to ibn Battuta that he will travel the world and is to convey regards to those in relation to the pious men. He spent several weeks visiting sites in the area and then headed inland to Cairo, the capital of the Mamluk Sultanate and an important city. After spending about a month in Cairo, he embarked on the first of many detours within the relative safety of Mamluk territory.

After spending the Islamic month of Ramadan in Damascus, he joined a caravan traveling the 1,300 km (810 mi) south to Medina, the site of the Mosque of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. After four days there, he journeyed onto Mecca, whereupon completing his pilgrimage, he took the honorific status of El-Hajji. Rather than returning home, Ibn Battuta decided to continue traveling.

Ibn Battuta: Marco Polo Before Marco Polo
“It seems to me that you are fond of foreign travel. You will visit my brother Fariduddin in India, Rukonuddin in Sind and Burhanuddin in China. Convey my greetings to them” Sheikh Burhanuddin

The Explorer

On 17 November 1326, following a month spent in Mecca, Ibn Battuta joined a large caravan of pilgrims returning to Iraq across the Arabian Peninsula. The group headed north to Medina and then, traveling at night, turned northeast across the Najd plateau to Najaf, on a journey that lasted about two weeks. In Najaf, he visited the mausoleum of Ali, the Fourth Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate. He then continued his journey throughout Iraq and Persia.

After his travels ended, he decided to go back to Mecca again for a second hajj. After completing his second hajj in 1330, Ibn Battuta made his way to the port of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. From there, he followed the coast in a series of boats making slow progress against the prevailing south-easterly winds. Once in Yemen, he visited Zabīd and later the highland town of Ta’izz, where he met the Rasulid dynasty king Mujahid Nur al-Din Ali. Ibn Battuta also mentions visiting Sana’a. In all likelihood, he went directly from Ta’izz to the important trading port of Aden, arriving around the beginning of 1331.

From Aden, Ibn Battuta embarked on a ship heading for Zeila on the coast of Somalia. He then moved on to Cape Guardafui further down the Somalia seaboard, spending about a week in each location. Later he would visit Mogadishu, the then pre-eminent city of the “Land of the Berbers.” Ibn Battuta continued by ship south to the Swahili Coast, a region then known in Arabic as the Bilad al-Zanj. After his third pilgrimage to Mecca, Ibn Battuta decided to seek employment with the Muslim Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq. In the autumn of 1332, he set off for the Seljuk controlled territory of Anatolia with the intention of taking an overland route to India. On this journey, he was inspired by Alexandria’s pious men. He finally reaches Sinope, a city on the coast of the Black Sea. From Sinope, our traveler took a sea route to the Crimean Peninsula, arriving in the Golden Horde realm. He went to the port town of Azov, where he met with the emir of the Khan, then to the large and rich city of Majar.

Ibn Battuta: Marco Polo Before Marco Polo
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. I have indeed – praise be to God – attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the earth, and I have attained in this respect what no other person has attained to my knowledge.” Ibn Battuta

The Far East

Muhammad bin Tughluq was renowned as the wealthiest man in the Muslim world at that time. He patronized various scholars, Sufis, qadis, viziers, and other functionaries in order to consolidate his rule. As with Mamluk Egypt, the Tughlaq Dynasty was a rare vestigial example of Muslim rule in Asia after the Mongol invasion. On the strength of his years of study in Mecca, Ibn Battuta was appointed a qadi, by the sultan. However, he found it difficult to enforce Islamic law beyond the sultan’s court in Delhi, due to lack of Islamic appeal in India. Thus, ibn Battuta continued on his journey. In 1345, Ibn Battuta traveled on to Samudra Pasai Sultanate in present-day Aceh, Northern Sumatra, where he notes in his travel log that the ruler of Samudra Pasai was a pious Muslim named Sultan Al-Malik Al-Zahir Jamal-ad-Din. Ibn Battuta continued traveling to the far east.

In the year 1345 Ibn Battuta arrived at Quanzhou in China’s Fujian province, then under the rule of the Mongols. One of the first things he noted was that Muslims referred to the city as “Zaitun” (meaning olive), but Ibn Battuta could not find any olives anywhere. He mentioned local artists and their mastery in making portraits of newly arrived foreigners; these were for security purposes. Ibn Battuta praised the craftsmen and their silk and porcelain; as well as fruits such as plums and watermelons and the advantages of paper money. There was much to his travel record, nonetheless, his travels ended his travels back to his homeland.

Ibn Battuta also traveled to western Africa. His records show the spread of Islam in that region. After returning home from his travels in 1354, and at the suggestion of the Marinid ruler of Morocco, Abu Inan Faris, Ibn Battuta dictated an account in Arabic of his journeys to Ibn Juzayy, a scholar whom he had previously met in Granada. The account is the only source for Ibn Battuta’s adventures. The full title of the manuscript may be translated as A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling. This is the only remaining piece of his legacy. It is very unfortunate that not many were as motivated as he was, otherwise, we would have seen more Arab or Islamic history in the New World.

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