Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354
January 12, 2013 3:27 AM   Subscribe

"To the world of today the men of medieval Christendom already seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is a thing unreal, which costs an effort of imagination. How much more must this apply to the great Islamic civilization, that stood over against medieval Europe, menacing its existence and yet linked to it by a hundred ties that even war and fear could not sever. Its monuments too abide, for those who may have the fortunate to visit them, but its men and manners are to most of us utterly unknown, or dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Even for the specialist it is difficult to reconstruct their lives and see them as they were. Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader. It is in this faculty that Ibn Battuta excels." Thus begins the book, "Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354" published by Routledge and Kegan Paul. Step into the world of "the first tourist" who made his mark as the world's greatest traveler before the age of steam.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, was a Moroccan Muslim scholar and traveler. He is known for his traveling and going on excursions called the Rihla. His journeys lasted for a period of almost thirty years. This covered nearly the whole of the known Islamic world and beyond, extending from North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessors. After his travel he returned to Morocco and gave his account of the experience to Ibn Juzay. Via

A map of his decades of wandering.

Inspiring an animated series, computer game, books and documentaries* galore including an IMAX , he lived through 3 epidemics of plague, in his search for adventure. Trained judge (qadi), scholar, and observer, he's been called a true Renaissance man, surpassing his contemporary, that other, more famous traveler Marco Polo.

Battuta crossed over 40 modern countries and covered over 70,000 miles. He became one of the greatest travelers the world has ever seen. He left behind a travelogue of his life's journeys filled with details on the places, people and politics of medieval Eurasia and North Africa.

His adventures reveal, as Dunn writes, "the formation of dense networks** of communication and exchange." These networks "linked in one way or another nearly everyone in the hemisphere with nearly everyone else.

"From Ibn Battuta," Dunn continues, "we discover webs of interconnection that stretched from Spain to China, and from Kazakhstan to Tanzania." Even in the 14th century, an event in one part of Eurasia or Africa might affect places thousands of miles away.

*BBC documentary in three parts of which this link is to the first part. Noted here is that it doesn't cover Battuta's travels in Sub Saharan Africa, considered the best available written record of life in Africa before the Europeans arrived.

**For more on the inexhaustible wealth of information from and about Ibn Battuta
posted by infini (20 comments total) 113 users marked this as a favorite
This post is dedicated to b1tr0t
posted by infini at 3:30 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey, I studied this guy in college. This post goes into my 'reacquaint yourself with interesting stuff from that one class you forgot about' folder.
posted by anaximander at 3:35 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

anximander, me too! I looked up my notes from my class on African travel narratives, and apparently I had fun reading about his travels: "He wandered around from college to college, hanging out with scholars, getting loaded with diplomas without having to do all the work, talking to mystics, and seeing new and interesting things along the way. That sounds like an academic’s dream job, not to mention that once in a while he’d get married to yet another woman (who never gets mentioned again)."

We read this book by Dunn, and here are bits of the Amazon reviews that help show how interesting his travels were:
Here was a man who journeyed thousands of miles over many, many years but who only very rarely felt himself to be a stranger in a strange land. In some places Islam was in the majority and in some places it was the minority but Ibn Battuta was always able to find educated Moslems similar to himself who could provide a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear and money to spend.

The book is also very good when Ibn Battuta settles down in India for awhile and gets a nice, cushy government job working for a despot who sounds as though he was probably psychotic!

...his observations about Ibn Battuta's Sunday shouting down with Quranic verses of the Christian bells in an Anatolian town and the story of Ibn Battuta being stripped and left with a flourish by sea pirates.

Dunn recounts many of the Moroccan's interesting adventures, from being jailed in Delhi to trying as a judge to forbid Maldivian women going topless in public. Dunn also places Ibn Battuta in a framework of a hemisphere-wide Islamic civilization and as an ambitious semi-scholar who was perhaps not so well studied as he wanted people to believe.
posted by dreamyshade at 3:58 AM on January 12, 2013

Great post, but how is he the "first tourist"?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:08 AM on January 12, 2013

Great, I just dug myself out of a Wookieepedia hole, and now I am going to spend even longer nerding out over real history.

Fantastic post.
posted by Mezentian at 4:15 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great post, but how is he the "first tourist"?

I can only assume he was hopelessly naive, always thought the best of people while simultaneously being blissfully unaware of local exchange rates, and traveled around with a magical piece of luggage that walked along on hundreds of little legs.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:45 AM on January 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

This is great, infini. I really enjoyed Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, so I'm thrilled to find the documentary (which I haven't seen before) linked here. Lovely.
posted by taz at 5:11 AM on January 12, 2013

Great post, but how is he the "first tourist"?

The OP did specify "before the age of steam".

(Please excuse the snark, I just couldn't resist - - this is a fantastic MeFi post!)
posted by fairmettle at 5:12 AM on January 12, 2013

Great post, but how is he the "first tourist"?

It is not widely known that he coined the phrase "Please cook my steak again."

Awesome post, infini. This is why I love metafilter.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:19 AM on January 12, 2013

Hard cheese on Herodotus and Pausanias, but, yeah, good stuff.
posted by BWA at 7:34 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

That BBC series is great, btw. I watched it a few years ago and highly recommend it.
posted by empath at 7:59 AM on January 12, 2013

Thanks for this post! Adding a link to a great children's book: Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:32 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Awesome post. Whenever I hear the guy's name, I think of this Bollywood song.
posted by bookish at 2:04 PM on January 12, 2013

Wrt to the above linked Bollywood song (no, don't use Nasruddin Shah to distract me ...)

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta must be a happy man. For, many circas after his existence, the usage of his name in a few lines in the song Ibn-e-Batuta Ta Ta, Bagal Mein Joota Ta Ta ... in Ishqiya has created a controversy.

The point of contention is apparently the similarity between the song's opening line and that of a poem by well-known Hindi poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, which goes, Ibn Batuta Pehen Ke Joota, Nikal Pade Toofan Mein ..

posted by infini at 5:25 PM on January 12, 2013

Hard cheese on Herodotus and Pausanias,

Hence the sense that I should probably put that in air quotes... nice links btw, thank you.
posted by infini at 5:26 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first phone call I got today at work at the used bookstore was somebody looking for Ibn Battuta. I had never heard of him and was also forced to admit to the caller that we didn't have the book. About five hours later, I ended up staring in bemusement at that same book that had just come in, a book that none of us were familiar with. Well, okay, that's normal enough; it is eerie how many times people come in looking for something that shows up a few hours later.

And then I came home and checked Metafilter and hello, here is Ibn Battuta again.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:34 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Super post - many thanks!
posted by aqsakal at 3:09 AM on January 13, 2013

infini: " Ibn Batuta Pehen Ke Joota, Nikal Pade Toofan Mein .."

Reading the original poem, I'm not sure this is something for Saxena to complain about. Apart from rhyming Battuta with joota (REALLY CLEVER THERE, GUYS), there really isn't much similarity at all.

The only complaint I can drum up with the Gulzar song is that the mention of Battuta is completely superfluous. At least the Saxena poem has some relevance to stuff Battuta actually might have done, such as going to Japan, or visiting a cobbler.
posted by vanar sena at 7:05 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

such as going to Japan, or visiting a cobbler.

So who wrote 'mera joota hai japani' and does he/she get to sue both of them?
posted by infini at 7:34 AM on January 15, 2013

Heh, that would be Shailendra, and Shree 420 was released in 1955, sixteen years before Saxena's poem was published. So... probably?
posted by vanar sena at 10:17 AM on January 15, 2013

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