His Travelog, the “Rihla” Illustrated
Battuta's Travels 1325-1349
Cornelius and Ulysse
Ibn Battuta on the Road
Ibn Battuta was unknown
in the West until a French translation of "The Rihla," his
travelogue, appeared in the 1860s. Since then he has become the
"Arabian Marco Polo", a highly unjust epithet.
In fact, Battuta's "Rihla" is far superior to Marco Polo's (1254-1324) famous "Il Millione." In contrast to Polo's constantly repeated clichés, Battuta presents the reader with surprisingly accurate, most lively descriptions of his adventures and of the people he encounters. More open minded than the Christians of his time - though occasionally horrified - he describes Infidels, Idolaters and Christians as carefully as Moslems.
Neither Polo nor Battuta describe the landscape: at best it is "beautiful or fertile," often threatening. Francesco Petrarch's (1304 – 1374) discovery of the landscape (Mount Ventoux) had not reached Battuta yet. The illustrations I added are supposed to remedy this deficiency.
At 21, a year after Marco Polo had died, Battuta (he had a “doctorate” in jurisprudence) left his home town of Tangier with the intention of making the obligatory pilgrimage to the Holy Cities of Islam. Diverted by the promise of vast riches, by wars and the Black Death he ended up traveling for 24 years with caravans and by boat all over the Near and Far East, Spain and Africa.
Like Polo he was hired by local potentates as ambassador on special missions. At one point he is obliged to accompany a pregnant Byzantine princess from Serai on the Volga, the camp of her Uighur husband - the Khan of the Golden Horde - to Constantinople. After the princess arrives there she refuses to return to her Khan! - He nearly drowns in a storm on the Black Sea, is shipwrecked twice, at another time he is robbed losing all of his possessions. Black Death is sweeping the cities. His curiosity is insatiable, his observations on Moslem life and women are priceless.
After his return from China he traveled to Al-Andalus (Andalusia) and thereafter through the Sahara to Mali in Central West Africa - where to his horror the women walk around naked....
On Reading The Rihla 1325-1349
dictating the Rihla to Ibn Juzayy and his scribes
Battuta's Dedication to The Rihla, Fez 1353-55
Rihla is a Present to those interested in the Curiosities of the
the Marvels of the Ways of the World.
Its dictation was finished on
the 9th of December 1355.
Praise be to God and
Peace to His creatures whom He hath chosen.
A Google-Earth Map of Battuta's Travels
If Ibn Battuta's
travels, 120,000 kilometers or 75,000 miles in 24 years, are an
impressive feat, his recall is astounding. He dictated his memoirs to
Ibn Juzayy, the royal scribe provided by his revered Sultan of
Morocco, from memory! Occasionally the names and locations of places,
which he spells in Arabic, are mixed up, but when I was in doubt, I
invariably found that Battuta was right and I had to adjust his
This phenomenal recall is surely due to his training as a qadi (Islamic judge) and as a pious Moslem. He could recite the complete Qur'an by heart, and when in distress did so. He does not dwell on his gifts, but he appears as a highly intelligent man with a shrewd insight into people and the affairs of the world. He is also surprisingly sensitive, occasionally even sentimental and naturally believes in supra-mundane predictions and happenings.
After his fateful meeting with Burhan al-Din in Alexandria and with Shaykh al-Murshidi in Fawwa, Egypt on the following day in 1325, he becomes obsessed with the idea of going to China, in order, besides to satisfy his curiosity, to outdo all other travelers of his day.
Tales of the largess of Sultan Mohammed ibn Tughluq of Delhi added the fantasy of getting rich. He visits Mecca four times and spends 3 years there studying theology and Islamic law, but these exercises are as much pious deeds as they are shrewd vehicles to make himself more salable to the rich Moslems of his time. He has no own money – and loses what he garners for himself again and again to robbers, shipwrecks or war fare. He lives entirely on his wits.
A few passages in Battuta's account leave the reader incredulous: he tours eastern Turkey in 3 pages. Then he claims to have visited Russia with even less to show, and a long detour of the famous towns of eastern Persia is equally impossible. Everyone agrees that he never got as far as Beijing. He did not have a "flying carpet" as we do today.
Closer inspection suggest that these descriptions of well-known destinations were repeated after other travelers and inserted by him or Juzayy for prestige purposes. His ambition got the upper hand, he had to have been where others had traveled. - An excusable weakness which Marco Polo indulges in continuously. I simply disregarded them.
For further reading:
In the past 60 years several abridged editions of the Rihla have appeared:
An excellent short article is found on-line at Saudi Aramco World
And, of course, there is an article in Wikipedia
For an on-line English translation of excerpts from his travel diaries see: Fordham University
An incomplete on-line reprint of the Rihla (read only) exists at Books.Google.com
For my quotations I used an edition of "Battuta's Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354" published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1929. The name of the editor is not given.
In addition I also consulted the more modern and in places extended paperback compilation of "The Travels of Ibn Battutah" edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Picador-Macmillan, London, 2002.
All of these abridged excerpts are based on the monumental translation of H. A. R. Gibb, "Travels of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354-; 3 Vol.'s, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1999. Volume 4 was never finished and Volume 5 (notes, index, etc) appeared in 2000, but could not be found; besides the three available tomes alone cost a fortune.
Rolf Gross, April 2009/January 2010/ May 2014