Written by Ross E. Dunn Illustration by Robert Littleford
Historian Ross E. Dunn provides an insight into the life and travels of Ibn Battuta, as he explored Eurasia and Africa in the 14th century.
Historian Ross E. Dunn provides an insight into the life and travels of Ibn Battuta, as he explored Eurasia and Africa in the 14th century. Born in 1304, Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta left Tangier at the callow age of 21, probably intending to perform the hajj and advance his education in Cairo. Instead, he set forth on an ambitious 29-year odyssey, travelling by donkey, horse, camel, wagon, and ship a total distance of more than 73,000 miles (118,000km).
This was the twilight of the great Mongol empires. When he began his career, four Mongol states, three of them Muslim, ruled the greater part of Eurasia. Other large and flourishing states included the Mamluk empire in Egypt and Syria, the Sultanate of Delhi, and the Mali empire in West Africa. Typically, these dynasties encouraged long-distance trade and provided security along the inter-urban routes. They welcomed foreign merchants, theologians, jurists, poets, artists, and other educated achievers who modelled sophisticated Muslim intellectual and creative standards. Ibn Battuta never became an accomplished doctor of the law. But he was nonetheless an ‘alim’, or man of the learned class, and he commanded respect as a native speaker of Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur’an.
The Moroccan, however, spent little of his time abroad at desk jobs or quiet study. Indeed, his adventures are worthy of an epic feature film. He was shipwrecked, lost in a blizzard, captured by bandits, attacked by pirates, nearly executed by the Sultan of Delhi, infected with disease, exposed to the Black Death, and drawn into a plot to overthrow the government of the Maldive Islands. He also married and divorced several times, bought and sold slaves, fathered children, and sat in audience with Mongol monarchs.
After his final journey, which took him across the fearsome Sahara Desert to the Mali empire, he settled for a time in Fez, the Moroccan imperial capital. There, he undertook an assignment from Sultan Abu Inan to compile a narrative of his journeys.
Ibn Battuta’s narrative, known informally as the Rihla, or Book of Travels, stands alone as a detailed and absorbing account of Eurasia and Africa in the 14th century.
It strikingly reveals the far-flung cosmopolitanism of Muslim civilization in that era, a huge zone of cultural intercommunication made possible by the dense networks of roads, trails, and sea routes that crisscrossed the Eastern Hemisphere.
Since the 19th century, the Rihla has been translated from Arabic into numerous languages, and in recent years Ibn Battuta has achieved growing fame as a subject of popular articles, school textbooks, and films. In 1976, the International Astronomical Union named a lunar crater after him. It is 11km wide and located on the near side of the moon. More recently, Dubai’s most illustrious shopping mall – which was designed as a celebration of his extensive travels, with its cavernous ceilings, intricate mosaics, and acute architectural details in each of the themed halls (including Andalusian, Persian, Egyptian, and Chinese) –
is also named after the great man.
Ross E. Dunn is Professor Emeritus of History at San Diego State University and author of The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
Ibn Battuta’s Rihla is not a diary or set of travel notes but a work of literature composed after he returned home. He relied almost entirely on his memory, though he and his collaborator likely consulted other travel books. Historians generally accept the narrative’s reliability, though Ibn Battuta did not always remember his chronology and itinerary accurately.