1902 Encyclopedia > Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta
Arab traveller
(1304-78 AD)

IBN BATTUTA (or IBN BATUTA) (1304-78), whose proper name was Abu-Abdullah Mahommed, one of the most remarkable of travellers and autobiographers, was born at Tangier in 1304. he entered on his travels at the age of twenty-one (1325), and closed them in 1355. Their compass was so vast that we can but give the barest outline of them.

Ibn Battuta image

Ibn Battuta
Arab traveller

He began by traversing the whole African coast of the Mediterranean from Tangier to Alexandria, finding time to marry two wives on the road. After some stay at Cairo, then probably the greatest city on the world (excluding China), and an unsuccessful attempt to reach Mecca from Aidhab on the west coast of the Red Sea, he visited Palestine, Aleppo, and Damascus. He then made the pilgrimage to the holy cities of the Hedjaz, and visited the shrine of Ali at Meshed-Ali, traveling thence toBussorah, and across the mountains of Khuzistan to Ispahan, thence to Shiraz, and back to Kufa and Baghdad. After an excursion to Mosul and Diarbekr, he made the haj a second time, staying at Mecca three years. He next sailed down the Red Sea to Aden (then a place of great trade), the singular position of which he describes, noticing its dependence for water-supply upon these great cisters for preserving the scanty rainfall which have been cleaned out and restored in our own time. he continued his voyage down the African coast, visiting, among other places, Mombas, and Quiloa in 9o S. lat. Returning north he passed by the chief cities of Oman to New Hormuz, as he calls the city which had, not many years before, been transferred to the island where it became so famous. After visiting other parts of the gulf, he crossed the breadth of Arabia to Mecca, making the haj for the third time. crossing the Red Sea he made a journey of great hardship to Syene, and thence along the Nile to Cairo. After this, traveling through Syria, he made an extensive circuit among the pretty Turkish sultanates into which Asia Minor was divided after the fall of the kingdom of Rum (or Iconium). He now crossed the Black Sea to Caffa, then mainly occupied by the Genoese, and apparently the first Christian city the Moor had seen, for he was much perturbed by the bell-ringing. He next traveled into Kipchak, or the country of the Mongol khans on the Volga, and joined the camp of the reigning khan Mahommed Uzbek, from whom the great and heterogeneous body that we know as Uzbeks is believed to have taken a name. Among other places in this empire he traveled to Bolgar (54° 54’ N.lat) in order to witness the shortness of the summer night, and desired to continue his travels north into the "Land of Darkness," of which wonderful things were told, but was obliged to forego this. Rejoining the sultan’s camp, he was allowed to join the cortege of one of the Khatuns, who was a Greek princess by birth (probably an illegitimate one), and who was about to visit her own people. In her train he traveled to Constantinople, where he had an interview with the emperor Andronicus the Elder, whom he calls Jirjis (George). He tells us how, as he passed the city gates in the lady’s train, he heard the guards muttering Sarakinu! Sarakinu! Returning to the court of Uzbek, at Sarai on the Volga, he took his way across the steppes to Khwarizm and Bokhara, and thence through Khorasan and Cabul. On this journey he crossed the HINDU KUSH (q.v.), to which he gives that name, its first occurrence. Travelling on, he reached the Indus, - according to his own statement, in September 1333. This closes the first part of his narrative.

From Sind, which he traversed to the sea and back again, he proceeded by Multan, and eventually, on the invitation of Mahommed Tughlak, the reigning sovereign, to Delhi. Mahommed was a singular character, full of pretense at least to many accomplishments and virtues, the founder of public charities, and a profuse patron of scholars, but a parricide, a fratricide, and as madly capricious, bloodthirsty, and unjust as Caligula. As Ibn batuta pithily sums up the contradictions of his character, "there was no day that the gate of his palace failed to witness alike the elevation of some object to affluence and the torture and murder of some living soul." He appointed the traveler to be kazi of Delhi, with a present of 12,000 silver dinars (rupees) and an annual salary of the same amount, besides an assignment of village lands. In the sultan’s service he remained eight years; but his good fortune only stimulated his natural extravagance, and at an early period his debts amounted to four or five times his salary. At last he fell into disfavor, and retired from the court, only to be summoned again on a congenial duty. The emperor of China, the last of the Mongol dynasty, had sent a mission to Delhi which was to be reciprocated, and the Moor was to go as one of the envoys. The account of the journey through Central India to Cambay is full of interest. Thence the party party went by sea to Calicut, which is classed by the traveler with the neighboring Kaulam (Quilon), Alexandria, Sudak in the Crimea, and Zayton (or CHINCHEW, q.v.) in China, as one of the greatest trading havens in the world,-an interesting enumeration from one who had seen them all. the mission party was to embark in Chinese junks (the word used) and smaller vessels, but that carrying the other envoys and the presents which started before he was ready, was wrecked totally; the vessel that he had engaged went off with his property, and he was left on the beach of Calicut. Not daring to return to Delhi with such a tale, he remained about Honore and other cities of the western coast, taking part in various adventures, among others the capture of Sindabur (or Goa), tillhe took it into his head to visit the Maldive Islands. there he was made welcome, was nominated kazi, married four wives, and remained some months. But before long he was deep in quarrels and intrigues, and in August 1344 he left for Ceylon. In this island he made the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak ("The footmark of our Father Adam," he calls it), of which he gives an interesting account. Thence he betook himself to Ma’abar (the Coromandel coast), where he joined a Musulman adventurer who had made himself master of much of that region, with his residence at madura. After once more visiting Malabar, Canara, and the Maldives, he departed for Bengal, a voyage of forty-three days, landing at Sadkawan (Chittagong). The chief circumstance of his sojourn in Bengal was a visit made to a Musulman saint of singular character and pretensions, Shaikh Jalaluddin, who dwelt in a hermitage among the Silhet hills, and where his shrine (at Silhet) is still maintained as a place of sanctity under the name of Shah Jalal. Returning to the delta, he took ship at Sunarganw (near Dacca) on a junk boundfor Java (i.e., Java Minor of Marco Polo, or Sumatra). Touching on the coast of Arakan or Burmah, he reached Sumatra in forty days, and was hospitality received at the court of Malik al-Dhahir, a zealous disciple of Islam, which had then recently spread among the states on the northern coast of that island. The king provided him with a junk in which to prosecute his voyage to China. Some of the places which he describes on this line are hard to identify, but apparently one of them was the coast of Camboja. The pot which received him in China was Zayton, famous in Marco Polo’s book, and identified with the modern Chinchew. He also visited Sin-Kalan ("Great China" or Machin), a name by which Canton was then know to the Arabs, and professes to have visited also Khansa (Kinsay of Marco Polo, i.e., Hangchau), and Khanbalik (Cambaluc or Peking). The truth of his visit to these two cities, and especially to the last, is very questionable. The traveller’s own history singularly illustrates the power of the free-masonry of Mahometanism in carrying him with a welcome over all the known world, and some anecdotes of his adventures in China illustrate this even more forcibly.

We cannot follow in detail his voyage back, or tell how he saw the great bird (evidently, from his description, an island lifted by refraction). Revisiting Sumatra, Malabar, Oman, Persia, Baghdad, he crossed the great desert to Tadmor and Damascus, where he got his first news of home, and heard of his father’s death fifteen years before. diverging to Hamath and Aleppo, on his return to Damascus he found the Black Death raging, so that two thousand four hundred died in one day. Revisiting Jerusalem and Cairo, he made the haj for a fourth time, and finally turned westward, reaching Fez, the capital of his native country, 8th November 1349, after an absence of twenty-four years. It was, he says, after all, the best of all countries. "The dirhems of the West are but little ones, ‘tis true; but then you get more for them."

After going home to Tangier, he crossed into Spain and made the round of Andalusia, including Gibraltar, which had just then stood a siege from Alphonso XI. (whom the traveler calls "the Roman tyrant Adfunus"). In 1352 the restless man started for Central Africa, passing by the oases of the Sahara (where the houses were built of rock-salt, as Herodotus tells, and roofed with camel skins) to Timbuctoo and Gogo on the Niger, a river which he calls the Nile, believing it to flow down into Egypt, an opinion maintained by some up to the date of Landor’s discovery. Being then recalled by his own king, he returned by Takadda, Hogar, and Tawat to Fez, which he reached in the beginning of 1354. this is the end of his recorded wanderings, which extended over a space of twenty-eight years, and in their main lines alone exceeded 75,000 miles.

By royal order his history was written down from his dictation by Mahommed Ibn Juzai, the king’s secretary, a work concluded on the 13th December 1355. This editor ends the work with this appropriate colophon: - "Here ends what I have put into shape from the memoranda of the Shaikh Abu-Abdallah Mahommed Ibn batuta, whom may God honor! No person of sense can fail to see that this Shaikh is the Traveller of Our Age; and he who should call him The Traveler of the whole Body of Islam would not exceed the truth!" The traveler died in 1377-78, aged seventy-three.

Ibn Batuta’s travels have only been known in Europe during the present century, and were known then for many years only by Arabic abridgments existing in the Gotha and Cambridge libraries. Notices or extracts had been published by Seetzen (c. 1808), Kozegarten (1818), Apetz (1819), and Burckhardt (1819), when in 1829 Dr S Lee published for the Oriental Translation Fund a version from the abridged MSS. at Cambridge, which attracted much interest. The French capture of Constantina at last afforded MSS. of the complete work, one of them the autograph of Ibn Juzai. And from these, after versions of fragments by various French scholars, was derived at last (1858-59) a careful edition and translation of the whole by M. Defremery and Dr Sanguinetti, with a valuable index and other apparatus, in 4 vols. 8vo.

Though there are some singular chronological difficulties in the narrative, and a good many cursory inaccuracies and exaggerations, there is no part of it except the voyage to China in which its substantial veracity is open to doubt. Nor can it be questioned, we think, that he really visited China, though it is probable that his visit was confined to the ports of the south. The whole of the second part of his story especially is full of vivacity and interest . His accounts, e.g., of the Maldive Islands, and of the Negro countries on the Niger, are replete with interesting particulars, and appear to be accurate and unstrained. The former agrees surprisingly with that given by the only other foreign resident we know of, viz., Pyrard de la Val, two hundred and fifty years later. His full and curious statements and anecdotes regarding the showy virtues and very solid vices of Sultan Mahommed Tughlak are in entire agreement with Indian historians, and add many fresh details.

To do justice to the travellers own character, as he has unconsciously drawn it, would require the hand of Chaucer and his freedom of speech. Not deficient either in acuteness or in humanity; full of vital energy and enjoyment; infinite in curiosity; daring, restless, impulsive, sensual, inconsiderable, extravagant, superstitious in his regard for the Moslem saints and quacks, and plying devout observances when in difficulties; an agreeable companion, for he is always welcomed at first, but clinging like a horseleech when he finds a full-blooded subject, and hence apt to disgust his patrons, and then to turn to intrigue against them, -- such is the picture we form of this prince of Moslem travelers. (H. Y.)

The article above was written by Col. Sir Henry Yule, R.E., K.C.S.I., C.B., Secretary of Public Works Department, India, 1857-62; edited The Book of Marco Polo for the Hakluyt Society; author The Book of the African Squadron Vindicated, Fortifications, and The Mission to the Court of Ava, 1855.

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