Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ibn Battouta - the traveller from Tangier

Born in Tangier on 24 February 1304 CE, Ibn Battuta was the greatest traveller of the 14th century.

Although often compared to Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta covered more ground and was much more adventurous than the European. Born Abou Abdallah Mohammed Ibn Abdallah Ibn Mohammed Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Mohammed Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Youssef Alaouati Attangi, but more snappily known as Ibn Battuta, the intrepid traveller set out on his first trip in 1325. He left Tangier for Mecca, and in fact made the pilgrimage three times over his lifetime. His journey lasted 28 years and covered 120 000 km across 44 states on three continents: Africa, Asia and Europe.

That first journey to Mecca led him via the Maghreb, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran. At the beginning, while he was still in Tunisia, he joined a caravan on its way to Mecca and at Tripoli in Libya, married for the first time and continued the journey with his wife. But the couple separated somewhere along the way, and Ibn Battuta married another member of the caravan, a woman from Fez.

In his writings, Battuta describes the lighthouse at Alexandria in Egypt as he saw it in 1326. By the time of his return in 1349, the building had been destroyed. He followed the route along the Nile valley with stops at Cairo and the pyramids, and at Aswan. He continued on to Gaza, Hebron and Jerusalem, detoured to Beruit in Lebanon as well as Damascus in Syria where he received a teacher's diploma, and then carried on to Jordan. Eventually he reached Medina and Mecca, and also visited the cities of Baghdad, Mossul, Nadjaf and Bassora in Iraq.

Another voyage to Mecca between 1328 and 1330 took Ibn Battuta to the southern Arabian peninsula and East Africa. Then between 1330 and 1346, he explored Turkey, the Black Sea, Central Asia, India, China and Indonesia. During his fourth and last journey between 1349 and 1354, he crossed the Sahara to Mali. He also spent some time in various places such as eight years in Delhi, a year and a half in the Maldives, and two years in central Africa.

Today, there are many references to the famous son of Tangier in his home city. There's Ibn Battouta airport, various streets, buildings, hotels and even travel companies bearing his name. As for his tomb, we're told that there is a small mausoleum in la Perle du Détroit. To reach it, take Rue d'Italie, turn right into Rue Gzenaya which leads into the tiny Ibn Battouta street. At the end of this you'll find a modest white building with a cupola that is his tomb.

Ibn Battuta's family were of Berber origin and belonged to the educated classes. They had a tradition of serving as qadis, Islamic judges. Ibn Hajar's Concealed Pearls, a biographical dictionary of the time, describes him as follows:

"Ibn Battuta ... journeyed to the East ... travelled through its lands, penetrated into Iraq al-Ajam, then entered India, Sind and China and returned through Yemen ... In India, the king appointed him to the office of qadi. He came away later and returned to the Maghrib where he related his doings and what had befalled him and what he had learned of the people of different lands ... "

This man of letters, geographer, poet and lawyer did, of course, write his memoirs, entitled The Precious Gift for Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel. He dictated them in Fez to the Andalusian Ibn Jouzayy, private secretary to the Merinid sultan Abou Inan from around 1355. In 1829 we find the first known translation into English written by the Reverend Samuel Lee, who was eventually professor of both Hebrew and Arabic at Cambridge University. There have been many translations and scholarly works on the travels; perhaps the best being historian Ross E. Dunn's The Adventures of Ibn Battuta.

By far the most entertaining books about Ibn Battuta are Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. This writer, based in San'a in Yemen, set out to follow in Battuta's footsteps - the first book deals with the first stage of his journey from Tangier to Constantinople; the second deals with his voyage through India.

"I grappled with the logistics of covering his Travels in one volume of my own, and lost", says Mackintosh-Smith. "In many places I have shadowed him more or less closely. Elsewhere I have dropped in on him ... I only wish I had the odd thirty years to spare, and IB's enviable knack of extracting large amounts of cash, robes and slaves from compliant rulers."

There's a third book yet to come - one which we're very much looking forward to.


Maysaloon said...

Amazing personality, Ibn Battuta's journeys should make a fascinating read as soon as I get the time!

And great blog by the way.

Gerald Loftus said...

I thought you'd be interested in a film currently being shown in Washington on Ibn Battouta: "Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battouta"

By the way, I read your previous posts about the American Legation in Tangier with great interest - I am going there next month to be the new director. You are welcome back!

Gerald Loftus

Anonymous said...

I know you wrote this entry two years ago, but thought I'd drop you a quick line. You mention the Ross Dunn translation of Ibn Battuta's Rihla. Just want to let you know that Dunn did not translate the Rihla - his book rather seeks to contextualize Ibn Battuta and his travels. It's a good book, as you say, but it is not a translation.