A Bird that Forsook His Nest: The Travels of Ibn Battuta

Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta, a native of Tangier, Morocco, was one of the greatest travelers of pre-modern times.

Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta, a native of Tangier, Morocco, was one of the greatest travelers of pre-modern times.

Born in 1304 during the reign of the Marinid dynasty, Ibn Battuta traveled extensively across the Eastern Hemisphere, visiting North and West Africa, the Horn of Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and parts of China. His adventures are recorded in A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, an outstanding example of the Arabic rihla, or travel writing, genre that reached its apogee between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries.

Ibn Battuta was born into a family of legal scholars of Amazigh descent. Although Tangier had no established madrasa, or school of higher learning, he did study at a Sunni Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence in his native city. However, Ibn Battuta’s lofty ambitions led him to travel far and wide to satisfy his intellectual appetite. And while Fez, then the imperial capital of Morocco, was rapidly gaining a reputation as a major center of learning, it paled in comparison to the centers of erudition in the Middle East, such as Cairo and Damascus.

So, in June of 1325, when Ibn Battuta was only 21 years old, he set off alone on the hajj, or holy pilgrimage, to Mecca. It would be 24 years before he set foot in Morocco again.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and every Muslim is expected to complete the hajj at least once, barring impoverishment, enslavement, insanity, or the imminent peril of war or epidemic. Not only was the hajj a religious imperative, but the 3,000-mile journey overland from Morocco to Mecca was also an opportunity to visit grand mosques, acquire books and higher education, to become acquainted with respected scholars, and – occasionally – to be entertained by royals and their retinues.

The route, though, was nothing if not perilous. Pilgrims who chose to sail the length of the Mediterranean risked running into rough seas, pirates, and the navies of enemy states. Those who took the overland route faced no fewer dangers, menaced as they were by marauding bandits and the very real chance of blundering into armed conflict or violent uprisings.

Decades later, Ibn Battuta remembered his departure from Tangier like this:

“I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So, I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests.” (trans. H.A.R. Gibb)

And so, he set off. Over the course of the next 24 years – a period of unprecedented peace and stability across North Africa and the wider Islamic world – Ibn Battuta would complete no fewer than four hajjs. He traversed the entirety of the Dar al Islam, or the Abode of Islam, a term used to designate all the lands where Muslims comprised a majority or where a non-Muslim majority was ruled over by a Muslim monarch. His first pilgrimage would lead him through Tlemcen, Béjaïa and Tunis before arriving in the Mamluk Empire, visiting Alexandria and Cairo, and then heading on to Damascus, Hebron, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Upon reaching Mecca, Ibn Battuta decided to strike out for Ilkhanae, a Mongol Khanate, rather than returning home. This journey took him to Baghdad via Persia, before he turned back to Mecca for a second pilgrimage. After spending some three years in the holy city, Ibn Battuta was back on the road again, this time visiting Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and the Swahili Coast before returning, once again, to Mecca.

After Ibn Battuta’s third hajj, he decided to seek employment in Delhi, then ruled over by a Muslim sultan named Muhammad bin Tugluq, who was rumored to be fabulously wealthy. His journey to Delhi took him through Anatolia, the Crimean Peninsula, the Golden Horde realm, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. After serving the sultan’s court as a qadi, or Islamic judge, Ibn Battuta secured an ambassadorship and was tasked with accompanying two boats loaded with riches to the Chinese emperor. The trip quickly devolved into disaster when one boat sank and the other was seized by a local Sumatran king. But, ever intrepid, Ibn Battuta pressed on, marrying into the royal family of Omar I on the Maldives, visiting Sri Lanka, Assam, and ultimately reaching China (although some modern-day scholars suspect Ibn Battuta never actually made it as far as China and simply fabricated this portion of his adventure).

When Ibn Battuta finally decided to return to Morocco, he found a country ravaged by the Black Death – his mother having succumbed to the disease just months before his return. Now an orphan (his father had died some 15 years prior), he set off to tour West Africa’s Kingdom of Mali and visited Timbuktu. It was to be his final journey. While crossing the desert, he received a message calling him back to the sultan of Morocco’s court where he was instructed to dictate his rihla, or journey, to a young scribe, Ibn Juzayy.

The manuscript that resulted from Ibn Battuta and Ibn Juzayy’s two-year collaboration offers a unique and vivid account of the Islamic world during the early fourteenth century. Unlike Marco Polo’s more famous Book of the Marvels of the World, Ibn Battuta’s account is deeply personal, and he goes to great lengths to develop an author’s persona – that of a learned and pious religious scholar and expert on Islamic jurisprudence. Ironically perhaps, there is no evidence that he ever engaged in any serious study after leaving Tangier. In fact, one of the few contemporary accounts that makes mention of Ibn Battuta – a compilation of notable biographies assembled by Ibn al Khatib – dismisses him as a man who possessed only “a modest share of the sciences.”

As Ross E. Dunn argues in his outstanding The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century, although Ibn Battuta would have been an unlikely choice for a high judicial post in a center of Islamic learning, such as Cairo or Damascus, he did thrive on the peripheries of Islam. It was from these margins that Ibn Battuta witnessed – and recounted for future generations – the dynamic changes occurring in the far reaches of the Middle Period’s Dar al Islam.