If you thought Giovanni da Pian’s 5000 miles across Asia was long, how about 73,000 miles?
Muslim scholar Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battutah — in Arabic بُو عَبْد الله مُحَمَّد اِبْن عَبْد الله اللَّوَاتِيّ الطَّنْجِيّ اِبْن بَطُّوطَة — traveled all across the deserts of Asia Minor AND across northern Africa, southern Europe, eastern Europe, India, the southern oceans, and parts of China. It was enough to circumnavigate the globe three times. Battuta went so far, that there are multiple views of his trip, all of which could fit under the heading of “map porn,” a few of which I will include because I do just love me some maps.
The First Hajj
Ibn Battutah started this long journey in Morocco, in Tangiers where he was born. Coming of age at 21, he decided to take the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that Muslims need to take at some point. The caravan journey, probably in rickety carts or the hard saddles of the dromedary camels (see C is for Camel), took nearly two months. He expected to be back home within a year, although he wouldn’t be home again for 24 years. But he would come back to Mecca to complete the hajj more than twice.
Battuta spent a year in Mecca but had been bitten by wanderlust. He supposedly said that he never liked to travel the same path twice, and to look at where he went is to confirm that notion. He went up and down the Red Sea, heading down the coast of East Africa, around the African horn. As we learned a few days ago, frankincense was a big local item in the Ethiopian markets. This was the Spice route and the Spice trade that went back and forth via India up through Egypt and Italy.
He had heard that there were Muslims welcome in northern India, and he was interested in looking for work in Delhi. But he couldn’t make it and opted instead to go back up through Arabia and up to Turkey.
The Greeks, the Golden Horde, and the Crazy Sultan
The cities surrounding the Black Sea were under the province still of the Greek Roman Empire at Constantinople. Muslims and Christians were in an a nervous stalemate; it was still the days of the Crusades and some had taken place in the vicinity in previous centuries. The cities of Konia and Sonip, near the heart of the Eastern Christian empire, still reflected a classical kind of civilization. From there, Battutah went up to the steppes of the Golden Horde. Which calls for another map!
In my hour allotted for research, I stumbled on to this brilliant history resources through UC Berkeley called Orias. Maps! Quote! Pictures! I had to hold back not to just stick a single reference up there in lieu of a blog. If you find this story interesting, check it out there.
The Golden Horde was the name given to the khanate of the Mongols which spread across parts of Russia and Uzbekistan; the Golden Horde had erased a generation of princes of Rus when they destroyed Kiev and Moscow. The westerners called them Tartars or Tatars, and eventually Russians would absorb their culture and be called that, too. This was less than a century after the days of expansion under Genghis Khan, but the Mongol territory was too big and did not remain under a single ruler. The empire had split into four: one piece was the Yuan dynasty in China, one the Chagatai in central Asia, one the Muslim-Mongol of the Il-Khanate around Bagdad, and lastly the Golden Horde.
In 1330s, the cities of Azov and Astrakhan were where the court of Ozbek Khan stayed. His wife Taydula Khatan gained a reputation for being wise, strong, and tough as nails. She got the reputation, in part, because Ibn Battuta wrote her that way.
This was a stay that showed him a number of practices and cultures. He actually traveled with a party back to Constantinople and did meet with the Emperor Andronikos (the Greeks would be overthrown by Ottomans within a century). Then, Battutah went out as far as Samarkand, where the head of the Chagatai Khan stayed. Next, down south into northern India, roughly in 1334, where the kingdom had passed back and forth among relatives and rivals.
Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq was head of the empire located in Delhi. The Sultan was powerful, respected Battutah’s skills as a judge, and he did hire him as Battutah had sought for nearly a decade. It was a scary choice. Muhammad was nuts. He would shower Battutah with gifts, then throw him in jail. After seven years of this gyrations, the sultan decided that his judge should become ambassador to China. Battutah was relieved and hopped a boat as quick as he could. But the journey would be perilous: shipwrecks, pirates, the overthrow of the sultan, and probably lots of scurvy. He did reach the Yuan dynasty, but it was in decline by that point, and he didn’t stay long.
Back Home to the Lands of Oranges, Fountains, and Atlantic Breezes
The next stop: crossing through three oceans. From China, Battuta sailed south in the Pacific, around the horn of India, and back up to the Mediterranean. His timing was both good and horrible. It was 1348 by time he returned through the Red Sea and Damascus. Everywhere–Syria, the Crimea, Europe, Africa–was being swept by the Black Death.
Somehow, Battutah did not succumb. Perhaps twenty years of travel had made him to ornery to be killed. Besides, the plague had been traversing the steppes before it went to Europe, so it’s quite possible he encountered it already in Samarkand or Guanghzou or in some other part of that 73,000 miles.
He was robbed and imprisoned several times, yet he did not cross paths with armies or battles. Thus, some point out that this was evidence of the Pax Mongolica, the peace that came with the empire, despite its split and its reputations for mayhem. On the other hand, the land and seas that he crossed were vast, and it’s just possible he was lucky enough to miss any of the thousands of skirmished that happened in the region across the years.
He had one more stop. This time he went up to the al-Andalus, the southern tip of Spain. Here were cities of the Moors, the Moroccans and Muslims who had developed a beautiful series of beautiful cities in southern Spain. The Catholics in the north were unhappy about it, and they would take it back within a century, but not yet. Here, he went to Granada:
Thence [from Malaga] I went to on the city of Gharnata [Granada], the metropolis of Andalusia and the bride of its cities. Its environs have not their equal in any country in the world. They extend for the space of forty miles, and are traversed by the celebrated river of Shannil [Xenil] and many other streams. Around it on every side are orchards, gardens, flowery meads, noble buildings, and vineyards. One of the most beautiful places there is “Ayn ad-dama” [the Fountain of Tears], which is a hill covered with gardens and orchards and has no parallel in any other country. [from Gibb]
And to Malaga, a city I was happy to visit a few years back. The remains of an Islamic castle city high above the island’s beaches. The fountains are still there.
At last in 1354, he went “home” to Morocco, although he had had many homes by then. Journey’s end. There and back again, as another writer once said. The ruler of Morocco made a suggestion. He should do a travel blog and write of his journeys.
It was called A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling or the short form, Riahl. It wasn’t read much back in that century, but has come down the ages to be one of the greatest travel stories and histories of places and times that the world has known.