Ibn Battuta (Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Ibn Battuta (Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta)

Ibn Battuta (Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta) (1304-ca. 1377) Moroccan scholar and travel writer

A native of the trading port of Tangier, Ibn Battuta, studied Islamic jurisprudence and flourished as a qadi (judge) of an Arabian law court, an ambassador to China, and one of the world's most-read travel authors. He set a record in his day for traveling through 15 empires. On June 14, 1325, he set out on a 30-year trek that began with an obligatory religious hajj (pilgrimage) by camel from Morocco to Mecca, the holiest city in Arabia. His odyssey of 73,000 miles took him across northern and western Africa and Zanzibar as well as through Iberia and Gibraltar, where he observed the Marinid Empire's struggle to control the straits between Mediterranean trade routes and the Atlantic Ocean. He traveled east from Morocco to Sardinia and into Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Oman, Persia, Thrace, Turkey, the Genoese colony of Crimea and Ukraine, Armenia, Afghanistan, the Punjab, Ceylon, China, and Mongolia. His journey took him to Malaya and Sumatra in the Majapahit Empire, to Burma in the aftermath of the breakup of the Bagan Empire, and to Vietnam in the Khmer Empire.

Ibn Battuta's observations, pinpointing aspects of empires and historical events of the mid-14th century, are compiled in his Tuhfat al-nuzzar fi ghara’ib al-amsar wa’aja’ib al-asfar (On the curiosities of cities and the wonders of travel, 1354; translated into English as Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354.). At the request of the Marinid sultan Abu Inan Faris of Fez, Morocco, the author dictated a TRAVELOGUE to Ibn Juzayy, a court scribe. Like the Greek traveling historian HERODOTUS and the Venetian adventurer MARCO POLO, Ibn Battuta mixed fanciful narrative with fact, including the peculiarities of the hippopotamus on the River Niger between Gao and Timbuktu in the Mali Empire, catapults firing coins to onlookers from the backs of elephants that he saw in Delhi, India, during the Tughlaq dynasty, and the meals of turmeric-stuffed lizard he refused in Siwasitan (present-day Sehwan, Pakistan). In Mamluk territory, he inspected the ruins of the famous pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, Egypt, one of the eight wonders of the ancient world.

Carrying only a KORAN, Ibn Battuta spoke with authority on the subject of shipping routes and piracy, epidemics, highwaymen, jurisprudence, civil wars, conquest, and international conspiracies and spying. His acquaintance with the Malian king Mansa Suleyman, the Seljuks of Turkey, and the unpredictable Sultan Tughluq of Delhi equipped Ibn Battuta with enviable political experience, including his knowledge of an attempted coup by the Malian queen. In return for his piety, courtesy, and wisdom, he heard STORYTELLING sessions by Malian griots and received gifts of slaves and concubines, horses, ceremonial robes, furs, jewelry, and gold. In the Maldives, Queen Khadijah's court conferred on him a deity's reverence and a magistracy. At Constantinople, under tight security, he met the Byzantine emperor Takfur, who questioned the visitor about his tour of Abraham's relics in Hebron and about Jesus's cradle and burial place

in Jerusalem. Under the Mamluk regime, notable for economic and political stability in Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, Ibn Battuta investigated hospitals, canals, colleges, and mosques, the fruits of wise government.

Dissension disturbed Ibn Battuta more than threats, robbery, foul salt mines, and house arrest. When a Singhalese sultan in Ceylon requested the traveler’s advice on plotting a coup, Ibn Battuta hurriedly booked passage from the island. In Persian and Egyptian territory, he criticized the split of old empires among squabbling clans, particularly in Anbar, Iraq, on the Euphrates River. Of Egypt, then in political disarray, he reported archly, “The wretched subjects naturally suffered more severely than from the calculated extortions of a settled regime” (Ibn Battuta 2001, 24). In some Islamic states, he found outright banditry; in Damascus, he encountered a deadlier threat, the arrival of the Black Death. Most impressive of empires was the rule of Huizong, the Yuan emperor of China, a vast territory radiating out from an elegant wooden palace. Ibn Battuta’s descriptions of processions and courts of the emperor’s head wife substantiated the accounts in Travels of Marco Polo (1298), which some readers had doubted. Overall, Ibn Battuta enjoyed good company by being affable, trustworthy, and unobtrusive, and he left a unique legacy of travel writing.


Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Ibn Battuta. Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354. Translated by H. A. R. Gibb. New Delhi: Manohar, 2001.