Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier, Morocco in the early 1300s. His family were respected in the Berber community. At this time the Berbers were mostly mountain dwellers – some semi-nomadic, but the majority settled into rural agricultural lifestyles. Ibn may have been raised with the idea of travel from his semi-nomads relatives, but he became a student of Islamic law and was eventually appointed to the position of judge.
In his early twenties he set off on a hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. The journey took him sixteen months as he joined caravans along the way, settled in towns and cities and even married his first wife. After completing his pilgrimage he decided to continue on his journey and not return home. For a quarter of a century he ventured on the least travelled routes through forty four modern countries.
The first leg of this journey took him over the border into Mesopotamia and onto Baghdad. He was welcomed by royalty and even travelled in a royal caravan for part of this journey east. He ventured onto the Silk Road – a network of trade routes that extended for 8,000 miles bringing mostly luxury goods from the East to the Mediterranean – where he learnt of interesting places, was exposed to a range of different cultures and made many new contacts.
After his second hajj he ventured into East Africa where he spent about a week in each community, absorbing what made them different and of course the same.
His third hajj put him on a journey with a sultan’s wife to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) where he documented some of the wonderful sites of the city including the Hagia Sophia which was an Orthodox Church, later a mosque and today a museum.
He then turned east and journeyed through the mountains of Afghanistan and into India. Here he was employed as a judge by the Sultan of Delhi. He seemed to get involved in some complicated situations and decided to leave and return to Mecca on another hajj, but the sultan offered him a position in China to represent him as the ambassador. Ibn accepted the role. En route to China his ship was seized, he was robbed and almost died. He returned to the sultan, embarrassed and deflated. The sultan was not impressed with his failure and sent him on his way.
Arriving in the Maldives he was again appointed judge and again married – this time into the royal family. But his strict rulings and his inflexible laws forced him to leave.
Ibn was still eager to get to China. This time he went via Ceylon and again through India and successfully crossed the border. Interestingly his account of this part of his travels is probably more tale than truth as many of his stories were not possible or do not match with other documentation of events in China at the time.
He decided to take another hajj and en route discovered his father had passed away. The Black Death had spread through Europe, the Middle East and Africa and Ibn decided the time had come to return to Morocco. He took a detour to Sardinia and after a quarter of a century returned to Tangiers to discover his mother had died a few months before.
He did not stay in Morocco for long. Spain was his next destination, which at that time was a wonderful mix of Islamic and European culture. He spent time with some learned scholars and returned to Africa, but headed further south into Mali, where he accepted the hospitality of the king for eight months. He was summons back to his home by the Sultan of Morocco, which sadly ended his adventures.
The only source we have of his journey is his personal recollections which he dictated to a friend when he returned to Morocco. The manuscript was called ‘A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling’ or shortened to ‘The Journey’. There is of course an element of storytelling, forgotten sequences of events and often muddled facts, thus historians are not able to accept his journals as hundred per cent factual. Besides the inaccuracies Ibn Battuta’s stories do give us an idea of his fascinating life and his adventures while travelling through the Islamic world of that time. His most interesting accounts were of the different cultures he encountered and the rights exercised by women in different religious communities – Islamic and non-Islamic. He was especially horrified by cannibalism he came across in West Africa. In recent years his legend has been revived in the cinema and other forms of popular culture, but most importantly he is revered as the most widely travelled and famous explorer of his time.