Ibn Battuta’s journeys lasted for a period of almost thirty years, covering most of the Muslim world and beyond.
The pandemic has severely restricted travel, tourism and business trips; all manner of plans have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.
While we all continue to dream of a future of unencumbered travel again, one historical figure comes to mind to serve as an inspiration.
Although most people mention Marco Polo when talking about famous explorers, the Muslim scholar, Ibn Battuta, should in fact be one of the first to come to mind. His travels, which spanned a period of nearly thirty years, covering some 73,000 miles (117,000 km), surpassed those of Marco Polo’s.
The Moroccan’s jaunts covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic world, extending from present-day North and West Africa, to Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and China, a distance readily outdoing that of his predecessor and near-contemporary, Marco Polo, by 15,000 miles (824,000 km).
Known as the greatest traveller of premodern times, Ibn Battuta travelled over sea, by camel caravan and on foot, venturing into over 40 present-day nations, often putting himself in extreme danger just to satisfy his wanderlust.
Turning back home after 29 years, near the end of his life, Sultan Abu Inan who was the Sultan of Morocco, insisted that Ibn Battuta should write the story of his travels. And, today we can read the translations of that account, originally titled “Tuhfat al-anzar fi gharaaib al-amsar wa ajaaib al-asfar”, or “A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling”.
The title of his book is a bit of a mouthful, so the text is generally just called Ibn Battuta's Rihla, meaning journey.
The origins and journey
Ibn Battuta was born in Morocco in 1304 during the rule of the Marinid dynasty. He was commonly known as Shams ad-Din, and his family was of Berber origin who had a tradition of serving as judges.
In the same vein, Ibn Battuta (Shams ad-Din) received an education in Islamic law but he instead chose to travel. Leaving his home in 1325, when he was 21-years-old, Ibn Battuta first went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage which took 16 months to complete. After the pilgrimage he decided to continue travelling.
His journeys were predominantly made over land. To reduce the risk of being attacked, he usually chose to join a caravan. He survived wars, shipwrecks, and rebellions.
The narrative of his travels is a unique and indispensable account of Islamic and medieval history.
Sailing down the Red Sea to Mecca, Ibn Battuta initially crossed the vast Arabian Desert and travelled to Iraq and Iran. In 1330, he set off again, down the Red Sea to Aden and then to Tanzania. Then in 1332, Ibn Battuta decided to visit India. He crossed Khwarizm, Bukhara, Afghanistan, and reached Delhi, which was then a Muslim land.
Welcoming Ibn Battuta, the Sultan of Delhi at the time appointed him as a judge and Ibn Battuta stayed on the Subcontinent for eight years - some sources claim it was less. Then, he embarked on another trip.
Spending more than a year in the Maldives as a judge, he went through Sri Lanka and India reaching China.
In 1345, he arrived in present-day Quanzhou, China. During his time in China, Ibn Battuta visited cities such as Beijing, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou. He travelled down the Grand Canal, visited the Great Wall of China, and met with the Mongol Khan who ruled the country.
China marked the beginning of the end of Battuta’s travels. Having reached the edge of the known world, he finally turned around and journeyed home to Morocco in 1349. Both of Battuta’s parents had died by then, so he only remained for a short while before making a jaunt to Spain. He then embarked on a multi-year excursion across the Sahara to the Malian Empire, where he visited Timbuktu.
He faced dangers all along the way. He was attacked by bandits, almost drowned in a sinking ship, and was nearly beheaded by a tyrannical ruler.
In 1355, he was finally back home in Tangier, Morocco, permanently. In fact, Ibn Battuta never kept journals during his adventures, but it was the sultan, Sultan Abu Inan, who ordered him to compile the action-packed, immense travelogue (Rihla) we can draw from today. He spent a year dictating his story to a writer named Ibn Juzayy.
After completing the Rihla (Journey), he is believed to have worked as a judge in Morocco for several years, and died sometime around 1368.