On this day in 1304, Ibn Battuta, one of the world’s greatest travelers, was born. Over some 30 years, Battuta traveled most of the Islamic world, some 121,000 kilometres, a distance surpassing his contemporary, Marco Polo.
Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battuta, also known as Shams ad-Din, was born in Tangier, Morocco, into a family of Islamic legal scholars. As a youth, he was schooled in Islamic jurisprudence, then, “swayed by an overmastering impulse,” he set off for the hajj pilgrimage when he was just 21. He would not return to Morocco for 24 years.
Ibn Battuta set off for Mecca following the North African coastline, through Algiers, Tunis, and Sfax, where he took the first of a series of wives, Alexandria, and Cairo, where he spent about a month before continuing on to Mecca. He chose a less traveled route, up the Nile valley, then east to cross the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula. But in the port city of Aydhab, Ibn Battuta encountered a rebellion and was forced to turn back. He regrouped in Cairo and pursued another route, northeast overland to Damascus, stopping on the way in Hebron, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. After spending the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Damascus, Ibn Battuta joined a caravan for safety and journeyed south through Tabuk and Medina before finally reaching Mecca. He completed his pilgrimage, took the honorific title of El-Hajji, and instead of returning home, journeyed onward.
In the ensuing years, Ibn Battuta traveled to Iraq, Persia, modern-day Turkey, Mecca again, Somalia, the Swahili coast and present-day Tanzania. He spent more time in Mecca, then set off again across Anatolia, the Byzantine Empire, Central Asia, Constantinople, Bukhara and Samarkand, Afghanistan. From there, Ibn Battuta crossed the Hindu Kush into India, journeyed on to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and even China, where he saw the Great Wall. In 1346, he decided to return to Morocco. By 1348, he learned his father had died. By the time he reached Tangier in 1349, Ibn Battuta learned his mother, too, had died, just a few months earlier. After only a few days rest in Tangier, Ibn Battuta set off again, this time for the Moor-controlled area of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula. He returned to Tangier, again staying only a short while before deciding to cross the Sahara and visit the Muslim kingdoms of Mali and Timbuktu.
Finally, in 1354, Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco and decided to record his travels for posterity. He dictated an account of his adventures to Ibn Juzayy, a scholar and friend he met in Granada. The account, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, known simply as “Rihla,” or “The Journey,” is the only account of Ibn Battuta’s travels. Over his lifetime, Ibn Battuta visited the equivalent of 44 modern-day countries and traveled more than 121,000 kilometres, a figure unsurpassed by any explorer until the onset of the Steam Age some 450 years later.
Photo Credit: © INTERFOTO / Alamy
Photo Caption: A map illustrating the extensive journeys of Ibn Battuta.