Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
Ibn Battuta’s account of his travels to Mecca on pilgrimage is an extremely interesting read describing the Middle East during the European Middle Ages. These descriptions can be found in many European accounts, but this one is seen through the eyes of someone native to the land and the customs. He gives an unbiased account of what he sees during his travels including the interaction with local merchants, government officials, and people of all sections of society. In this alone, Ibn Battuta’s writings is a great resource of this period rich in detail and connection to the intimate pictures of Middle Eastern culture.
Ibn Battuta begins his narrative with a detailed explanation of his own personal life. In effect, he gives a brief autobiographical account of himself before he starts his pilgrimage. This allows the reader to get to know the writer and understand where he is coming from. He explains where he is from, his age, his intent, and why he is making the journey on his own. In just two paragraphs, he addresses the who, what, when, and where of writing.
From there, Ibn Battuta gives a detailed daily account of his journey. A reader could easily map out exactly where the pilgrim was on what day of his journey. He names the cities he stayed in and the regions he crossed such as when he states, “On reaching al-Jaza’ir we halted outside the town for a few days…when we went on together through the Mitija to the mountain of Oaks and so reached Bijaya.” He does not just state that he left one point and arrived at another. He gives such detail that an historian could dance with delight at being able to follow his route and better understand the timetable for the journey and path taken.
The descriptions of the various people Ibn Battuta encounters on his journey are also valuable to an historian. He describes the people with such detail for the reader to see beyond the physical appearance of a person and into the reasons behind their actions. He gives the person’s history as well as stating their actions during his journey. In doing so, he opens up the person to the annals of history to get a better understanding of the people during this time. He does not just paint a pretty picture of his fellow Middle Eastern man. He paints the reality of each man as in describing the commander of Bijaya who learned of a vast amount of money on one person travelling with Ibn Battuta and “forcibly seized the money.” The author describes how he views the act as tyrannical and how it is the first time he has witnessed the abuse of government power firsthand. This gives his writing credibility as it is not painting any group of people as perfect or completely evil. He is stating what he sees.
From Ibn Battuta’s writing, the reader can see the tension between various tribes still existed. Various Arab tribes still attacked caravans and made the journey dangerous. Because of this, the annual pilgrim caravan was “accompanied for several stages by a hundred or more horsemen as well as a detachment of archers.” The pilgrimage was not an easy journey nor was it a bed of roses for those wishing to reach the city of Mecca. The writer could easily have made it so and turned the tale into a highly spiritual one, but he shows the reality of the dangerous such a pilgrimage draws to the individual traveler including sickness and death. A solid historical source is one that gives details of the good and the bad with no desire to make one look any better than the other.
Impressively, Ibn Battuta gives vivid descriptions of the interactions between various groups of people. At one point, he describes the collection of customs from the traveling merchants as well as how their caravan was searched thoroughly. The ‘boring’ life of the government official and that of the merchant is explained for anyone wanting to know the reality of Middle Eastern life and the facts of traveling from one city to another. What many might consider insignificant to describe, Ibn Battuta notes which adds more to the reality of the Middle Eastern life. He goes as far as describing the road and how it is maintained. When night descends on Qatya, “they [Bedouin] smooth down the sand so that no track is left on it, then in the morning the governor comes and looks at the sand.” Any mark on the sand results in punishment administered by the governor.
The details offered by Ibn Battuta makes his writing a source to be studied. Upon arriving at the holy city of Jerusalem, he gives the measurements of the sacred mosque and describes what he sees first hand: “The Dome of the Rock is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of shape.” He continues by saying, “The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.” The words he uses brings the reader into the very place he stands so anyone absorbing his words can feel as though they are back in time standing in the spot he stood gazing upon the holy site. His writing becomes a mixture of different styles bringing the reader into his world.
This work of Ibn Battuta’s is poetic in describing the holy sites while also proving to be a map of a pilgrim’s journey and an archeological handbook in describing the sights, smells, and sounds of Middle Eastern World during the 14th century. A modern reader wondering what a pilgrimage to Mecca was like could easily pullout Ibn Battuta’s writing and use it as a guide to experience firsthand what it was like. It is as though the reader is one experiencing it and can fully understand the world of Ibn Battuta. He opens the door to his world to reveal people of various walks of life and to show the good, the bad, and the ugly as well as the beauty of his religion.
Battuta, Ibn. “Medieval Sourcebook: Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354.” Forham University. Accessed March 16, 2012. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1354-ibnbattuta.asp.