BRIA 18 1 c Ibn Battuta: The Greatest Traveler in the Middle Ages

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BRIA 18:1 Home | The United States and the Barbary Pirates | AIDS in AfricaIbn Battuta: The Greatest Traveler in the Middle Ages


Ibn Battuta: The Greatest Traveler in the Middle Ages

Ibn Battuta traveled further and visited more countries than any other person in medieval times. His final journey took him to Mali, a Muslim empire in West Africa. The report of his travels reveals a vivid portrait of the Muslim world at its height.

Marco Polo was a youthful traveler from Venice who crossed Asia to visit the Mongol empire. While serving at the emperor's court, he journeyed through much of China. Twenty-four years later, he returned to Venice and attained fame by writing a book about his travels.

In 1325, the year after Marco Polo's death, another young traveler, Ibn Battuta, embarked on a tour of Asia and Africa that lasted nearly 30 years. His travels took him throughout the Islamic world. In total, he traveled an astonishing 75,000 miles, much more than Marco Polo. When he finished his journeys, he dictated his story to a scribe. His travel book provides the best eyewitness account of the diverse Muslim cultures of the 14th century.

Abu Abdallah ibn Battuta was born in 1304 in Tangier, Morocco, across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. He came from a Muslim family of legal scholars and judges. Like them, he studied the Sharia, the sacred law of the Muslims based on the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. This prepared him to become a qadi, a Muslim judge.

In 1325, at age 21, Ibn Battuta left his parents to go on a hajj. This was a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam. After traveling across North Africa to Egypt, he took a detour through Palestine and Syria.

By 1300, the Muslims had expelled the last of the Christian crusaders from the Holy Land. The end of the Crusades brought peace to the eastern Mediterranean, which greatly stimulated commerce and allowed individuals like Ibn Battuta to travel freely through the area.

In 1326, he finally reached Mecca. Somewhere along the way, he decided what he really wanted to do was to visit every part of the Muslim world and even beyond. Early on, he vowed "never to travel any road a second time."

The World of Ibn Battuta

In Ibn Battuta's time, Dar al-Islam (The Home of Islam) extended from West Africa across North Africa to the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia, India, and the East Indies. Throughout these regions, Islam unified many different peoples with a common religion and system of law.

After Ibn Battuta studied for a while in Mecca, he left in 1328 to make his way down the Red Sea. He boarded a trading ship and sailed halfway down the east coast of Africa. Muslim merchants had established trading ports in East Africa, mainly to trade for African gold.

Ibn Battuta next traveled north through the Middle East and Persia to Russia and then eastward into Central Asia. The Mongols under Genghis Khan had conquered the Muslims in many of these regions during the mid-1200s. But by the time of Ibn Battuta's travels, a hundred years later, the Mongols had settled down and were rapidly adopting Islam.

Ibn Battuta reached India in 1333. Muslim sultans (kings) ruled most of India. By now, many had heard of Ibn Battuta and his travels. The sultan of Delhi welcomed him with gifts and money, a form of hospitality that he came to expect from the rulers he visited. His fame had earned him wealth. He no longer traveled alone, but with servants and a harem.

The sultan also made him a qadi, a Muslim judge. He held this post for several years. When a rebellion broke out, however, the sultan grew suspicious of many around him, even of Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta was briefly arrested. When released, he fled Delhi. But the sultan called him back. Much to Ibn Battuta's surprise, the sultan appointed him as his ambassador to the emperor of China. He set sail for China in 1342, but was shipwrecked. He eventually arrived by sea in southern China in 1346. This was about a half-century after Marco Polo had left China.

The Mongols still ruled China when Ibn Battuta made his visit. Unlike the other areas that the Mongols had conquered, China never became a Muslim land. But Ibn Battuta did visit Muslim merchant communities in China, especially in Hangzhou, which may have been the largest city in the world at this time. He might have traveled to Peking, but never met the ruling emperor.

When Ibn Battuta returned from China by way of India and the Middle East, he encountered the first outbreak of the bubonic plague, the Black Death, in 1348. Surviving the plague, he made another pilgrimage to Mecca and then headed for home.

Ibn Battuta arrived in Tangier late in 1349. He had been away from home for 24 years. He learned that his mother had died of the plague a few months earlier, and his father had died years before.

At age 45, Ibn Battuta had not yet finished traveling. He crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to tour Granada in southern Spain. This was the last Muslim kingdom left in Spain, which the Christians had been trying to reconquer for several hundred years.

One last part of Dar al-Islam remained that Ibn Battuta had not visited--the West African empire of Mali. It lay a thousand miles south of Morocco across "the empty waste" of the Sahara Desert. In 1352, Ibn Battuta joined a desert caravan headed for Mali on his last great adventure.

Timeline of the Life of Ibn Battuta*
















Born in Tangier, Morocco.

Left home and went across North Africa.

Arrived in Cairo, Egypt.

Traveled through Syria and Palestine.

Went on a hajj to Medina and Mecca.

Sailed down the coast of East Africa, sailed to the Persia Gulf, and returned across land to Mecca.

Went to Asia Minor (Turkey), traveled through Persia and Iraq, and crossed Central Asia.

Reached Delhi, India, and served as a judge.

Trip to China via Maldive Islands, Ceylon, and Malaysia.
Traveled in China.

Returned home via India and the Middle East.

Went to Granada (Spain) and returned home to Morocco.

Traveled through West Africa.

Returned home to Morocco.

Died in Morocco.

*These are approximations. The exact dates of when he was in certain places are unclear.

The Empire of Mali

Mali was known for its gold and great wealth. The year before Ibn Battuta left home to start his world travels, the Muslim emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa, had made a spectacular appearance in Cairo, Egypt. He was on a hajj to Mecca. The royal caravan of the mansa (sultan or king) included thousands of attendants and slaves along with 100 camels loaded with bags of gold. During his stay in Cairo, Mansa Musa spent and gave away so much gold that its market value temporarily fell.

Islam had spread south to Mali many years before. Arabs and Berber peoples from North Africa had begun trading with black Africans around A.D. 800. Soon, large caravans crossed the Sahara, carrying slabs of mined salt to trade for gold in African market towns along the southern border of the forbidding desert. Many Arab and Berber traders gradually settled in these towns as merchants. They were Muslims, and they were the ones who first brought Islam to black Africa.

From their ties with the Muslim merchants, many African rulers and merchants along the lands bordering the Sahara adopted Islam. Most of the common people, though, still held on to their traditional religious beliefs.

Because of the gold trade, several successive empires arose in West Africa south of the Sahara. The Empire of Mali took over this area in the early 1200s and soon adopted Islam as its official religion. Mali included many different African peoples as well as Arab and Berber immigrants. Its gold financed a strong army of bowmen and an armored cavalry. But the real source of Mali's success was its flourishing commerce with Muslim merchants and caravan traders. Africans traded gold, ivory, hides, and slaves for Arab and Berber salt, cloth, paper, and horses. The peak of Mali power and wealth took place under Mansa Musa and his successor, Mansa Sulayman whom Ibn Battuta met on his journey.

Ibn Battuta reached the Mali capital in the spring of 1352. He was pleased that the Muslims of Mali strictly observed traditional Islamic practices and had a "zeal for learning the Koran by heart." But he disapproved that the sexes were not segregated as he was accustomed to in other Muslim lands. He wrote that "their women show no bashfulness before men, and do not veil themselves."

Mansa Sulayman largely ignored him and gave him only small gifts, which greatly displeased the famous world traveler. Ibn Battuta did, however, get to witness an audience before Mansa Sulayman in the palace courtyard. The mansa did not speak directly to the people, but only through a spokesman. Ibn Battuta reported, with some disgust, "If anyone addresses the king and receives a reply from him, he uncovers his back and throws dust over his head and back . . . like a bather splashing himself with water. I used to wonder how it was [that the people the king spoke to] did not blind themselves. "

Ibn Battuta also observed a state ceremony that began with Muslim prayers. But afterward came several dancers, dressed as birds, chanting before the mansa. Ibn Battuta viewed this as an insult to Islam. He did not recognize that the mansa needed to satisfy the common people, most of whom still held on to the old religious beliefs.

Despite his disappointments, Ibn Battuta was impressed that the Mali people "have a greater hatred of injustice than any other people." He related that the mansa showed little mercy to the guilty. "There is complete security in their country," he wrote. "Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence."

City of Scholars

Ibn Battuta left the Mali capital early in 1353, heading down the Niger River for Timbuktu. This city of about 10,000 people was never a military stronghold or seat of a king. Instead, its fame rested on its reputation as a city of scholars.

Timbuktu was founded around 1100 as a market town bordering the Sahara. Almost from the beginning, it seems to have been a Muslim town. It was self-governing until Mansa Musa annexed it without bloodshed to the Mali Empire in 1325. Even after that, the city continued running its own affairs with little control from the Mali kings.

Black African farmers and river people as well as white Arab and Berber merchants populated the city, making it an ethnically mixed settlement. It became known as a place open to newcomers and a city of refuge.

When Ibn Battuta came to Timbuktu in 1353, it was becoming the major center of Islamic learning in black Africa. Because it had a large Muslim population and was also on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, the city drew many Muslim scholars. The sons of wealthy Timbuktu merchant families studied under them to become Islamic scholars, too. They studied Islamic religion, law, literature, science, and medicine. Islamic books became expensive import items.

Elementary schools, sometimes supported by rich merchants, taught boys to read and memorize the Koran. Most Muslim males, both black and white, learned to read. (Muslim countries at this time normally excluded females from formal schooling.)

Timbuktu reached the height of its influence in the 1500s as part of the Muslim Songhai Empire, which replaced Mali. Many colleges, elementary schools, and libraries flourished in Timbuktu, whose population had grown to about 50,000. All of this became possible because of the leadership and financial contributions of wealthy black and white Muslim merchant families.

Although the Mali and Songhai kings appointed a governor for Timbuktu, the qadi, or judge, was the real leader of the community. The most important scholars of the city selected the qadi from a few long-established families. The qadi had to be a scholar of the law and above suspicion of ever accepting bribes.

The qadi heard lawsuits argued by legal scholars, who acted as lawyers for each side of the case. He relied on the testimony of witnesses and other types of evidence presented in his court. He made judgments and ordered punishments, which included beating and imprisonment. He enforced his own decisions, calling on the help of his personal followers or the people of the city. He directed a police force made up of lower-ranking scholars. He also represented the Muslim community when the king came to call.

Occasionally, qadis interpreted the law and established precedents. For example, a Timbuktu qadi made an important ruling on slaves captured in war. If they claimed that they were Muslims, they had to be given the benefit of doubt and freed. (Islamic law prohibited Muslims enslaving other Muslims.)

"Traveler of the Age"

After visiting with the qadi, scholars, and merchants of Timbuktu, Ibn Battuta joined a caravan going north to Morocco. He arrived home early in 1354. This ended his travels to foreign lands. Altogether, he covered about 75,000 miles in 29 years, meeting with 60 rulers in Asia and Africa. He probably had several wives. (Islamic law permitted a man up to four wives at once.)

Like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta dictated a report of his travels. He then served as the qadi of a Moroccan town and disappeared from history. The scribe who wrote down Ibn Battuta's account of his travels added these words: "It is plain to any man of intelligence that this [learned man] is the traveler of the age."

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Describe Dar al-Islam. What unified its diverse peoples?
  2. How did Timbuktu become a Muslim "city of scholars"?
  3. Why do you think Ibn Battuta is important? Explain.

For Further Information

The Travels of Ibn Battuta—A Virtual Tour

Ibn Battuta—the great traveller By A.S. Chughtai.

Travels of Ibn Batuta in Asia and Africa Selections from his book. From Medieval Sourcebook.

Ibn Battuta and his Saharan Travels More selections.

Ibn Battuta's Travels in Mali Still more selections.


Medieval Cultures

In the late medieval period, Ibn Battuta traveled through many countries and saw many different cultures. In this activity, students will use their textbooks and other resources to describe the elements of different cultures in the late Middle Ages.

  1. Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group one of these cultures: China, Mali, India, Japan, Europe.
  2. Each group should research and write a one-paragraph description for each of the following elements of their culture: Languages, Law and Government, Education, Warfare, Religion, Slavery, Treatment of Women, Architecture, Food, Transportation, Literature, and Art and Music.
  3. Each group should create a chart describing each element and prepare a five-minute presentation to the class on the chart.

Links to Additional Lessons

To Timbuktu—A Journey with Ibn Battuta From Schools of California Online Resources for Education (SCORE).

The Achievements and Challenges of Mali From The Odyssey, World Trek.

Ibn Battuta—Virtual Tour By Nick Bartel.



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