WORLD TRAVEL CLASSICS—THE TRAVELS OF IBN BATTUTA AND THE TRAVELS OF MARCO POLO —-FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
For most of us coming from a Western background when we think of the great travelers and travel accounts of world history the name that first comes to mind is of course that of Marco Polo, the 13th Century Venetian whose Odyssey took him to the China court of the Mongol Emperor of Yuan Dynasty Kublai Kahn in 1275, and from whence he returned by sea via India and Persia to his native land years after his departure to dictate in a Genoese prisoner-of-war compound his immortal “Travels of Marco Polo.” We may thus approach the travels and writings his contemporary Moroccan Muslim world traveller Ibn Battuta (or Battutah) by thinking of him initially as “The Muslim Marco Polo,” though giving to each equal dignity, and given that Ibn Battuta’s journeys from 1325 to 1354 totalled over 73,000 miles, nearly three times the distance covered by Marco Polo, including not only their common visits to China, India and Persia, but ranging much farther, transiting the whole of North Africa from Morocco to Cairo, down the Swahili Coast of East Africa to Kenya and across the Sahara southwards from Morocco to the Niger River Kingdom of Mali in the deep interior of West Africa, we would be equally justified in considering Marco Polo, “The Western Ibn Battuta.” That Marco Polo became the much more famous of the pair was owing less to the prowess of his travels than the fact that his book was far more widely circulated and read, especially after the Gutenberg Revolution of the printing press made his works extensively available across Europe, having a profound effect on public consciousness, whereas Ibn Battuta’s work languished relatively obscure and unknown, even in the Muslim world, until re-discovered and brought to light by Western scholars of the 19th Century.
The travels of Ibn Battuta are truly awe-inspiring in their scope and range, especially considering the limits of transportation technology of his and Marco Polo’s age. He set out alone at the age of 21 on a Hajj to Mecca from his native Tangier in Morocco in 1325, one year after Marco Polo’s death in the Venetian Republic, leaving behind his tearful mother and father whom he would never see alive again. The challenge was perhaps even greater for Battuta compared to Polo, since although the young Marco departed at the younger age of 17, it is often forgotten that Polo was accompanied through his entire journey by his father and uncle who had both been to the Mongol capital on a previous journey and already knew the route well, whereas Batutta struck out alone and had no experienced guide. Luckily, the travel infrastructure of the Hajj throughout the Muslim world to and from Mecca would make his journey possible, though still extremely difficult.
The first leg of Battuta’s transcontinental travels began with a long camel caravan across North Africa from Morocco to Cairo in Egypt that would last 16 months. His departure from the home he would not see again for another 24 years was solemn:
“I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a long-cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home. As my parents were still alive, it weighed grievously upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow.”
After arriving in Cairo, the capital of the Mamluk Sultanate, Battuta attained his goal of visiting Mecca by the roundabout path to Damascus and down through the holy sites of Jerusalem and Medina. Not quitted of his Wanderlust even then, after a soujourn in Mecca he joined a caravan of homeward bound pilgrims and ventured northward into Iraq and Persia, where he met the last surviving Mongol ruler of the conquest of the Mongol Khans, Abu Sa’id in Baghdad before returning again to Mecca.
Battuta then stayed in Mecca for three years, continuing the law studies he had begun in Tangier and advancing in the profession. This was an important skill that enabled him to pay for and prosper on his travels in the Muslim world, where he continuously was employed as a judge or legal scholar or administrator of the Sharia law, a skill much in demand in the outlying regions of Islam.
The next great leg of his travels was a sweep down the Red Sea into East Africa where he visited such Arab trading centers as Mogadishu in Somalia, Mombassa in modern Kenya, Zanzibar and Kilwa, a region known as the Swahili or Arab Slave Coast. There as throughout the Muslim world he encountered the trade and practice of slavery, which had endured for centuries since before even the Roman Empire. Indeed it is estimated by some scholars, surprisingly to many, that the total Arab Slave Trade From East and West Africa into the Muslim world from the time of Mohammad until slavery’s abolition by the Western Powers in the 19th Century (650-1900) totalled 12-18 million Africans exceeding the total numbers of slaves transported to the Americas, the 12-13 million via the “Middle Passage” (1500-1900) by several millions, albeit over a much longer time frame. To this is added the several million white European slaves captured and sent to the Muslim world, especially the Slavs, some of whome became mainstays in the Ottoman Janissary corps, and ironically, after a revolt of these European Mamluk slave-soldiers in Egypt, they became the rulers of the Mamluk Sultanate,(Slave Kings)the only force to have defeated the Mongol armies in their conquest from China to Palestine. Famous slave uprisings in the Muslim world occured intermittently, such as the Zanj Rebellion in Basra, Iraq in 869 which involved the temporarily successful rising of 500,000 slaves, mostly African, rivaling the Spartacus Rebellion of Rome in scope, and successful for fifteen years until brutally crushed by the Caliphate. Ibn Battuta himself bought and sold slaves on his travels, and fathered several children by his slaves, including one Greek woman slave. As a Sharia law judge he held that though fornication and adultery were forbidden, sex and engendering children with owned slave women was lawful. When he was a magistrate to the Musllm Sultan of Dehli and later appointed as the Sultan’s Ambassador to the Chinese Emperor in India a gift of 100 Chinese slaves to the Sultan’s royal court was reciprocated with a countergift of 200 Indian slaves sent by the Sultan in return to the Chinese court.
Returning from the Swahili Slave Coast he then spent another year in Mecca in his legal work before undertaking a journey to take up employment as a Sharia judge and magistrate in India in the Sultanate of Dehli, headed by Sultan Muhammud bin Tugluq. His route carried him into the realm of the Mongol Golden Horde, where he met its leader Uzbeg Khan. There he was engaged to accompany one of the Khan’s wives, a Byzantine princess given to the Kahn in a diplomatic marriage who was pregnant and wished to return to her family in Constantinople to give birth. While in Constantinople, which would become the modern city of Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest a century later, he met the Christian Emperor of Byzantium Andronikos III Palaiologos and visited the famous Greek Orthodox cathederal, the Hagia Sophia, which would later be converted into a mosque after the conquest, and whose domed design was the Western model for much of Arabic architecture.
Thereafter, returning from Constantinople he passed through the realm of the Mongol Golden Horde and beyond until descending through Afghanistan and Sind he reached India and Dehli. A second reason for Battuta’s success in travel was the well developed infrastructure of the Mongolian Empire, suradded to the travel routes within the Muslim world developed for purposes of the Hajj. Indeed,, we can say that without the Mongol Empire’s accomplishment of uniting and pacifying Eurasia neither Marco Polo nor Ibn Battuta would have been able to complete their transcontinental journeys and leave behind their accounts to the world. Travel in the Mongol empire was relatively safe and provided an unending chain of hostelries for caravans and travellers from Europe to China. We can say that the Mongol interlude of Globalization is a forgotten but highly significant aspect of the unification of the world and an underrated era of World History, second only to the impact of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
By connecting by their conquest East and West, the Mongols catalyzed the transfer of many of the seeds of the Rise of the West, ironically sometimes derived from the East, such as the transfer of the technologies of gunpowder, printing and advanced papermaking and the compass, none of which the Mongols were the originators of, but of which they enabled the diffusion. Even Marco Polo’s very fame through the printed book, which became common in Europe about a century after his death with the Gutenberg Revolution in the 1450’s, would have been impossible without the seed technologies of proto-printing and papermaking from China and the East. Columbus’s later voyage, inspired by Marco Polo’s book, would also have been impossible without the transfer of the Chinese compass for navigation via the Arab or Mongol world.
But as the return of Ibn Battuta later in his story proves, the logistical linking of East and West by the Mongol Empire was not at all completely benign, and had evil aspects rivaling the impact of Columbus’ linking of the New and Old Worlds. For in the very year Battuta arrived in Damascus on his return from China, 1348, the Black Plague, or Bubonic Plaugue, also known as the Black Death broke out in Europe and the Middle-East. Modern scientists have retraced the roots of the Black Plague from its origins in Yunnan, China across Eurasia, through the Crimea to the Mediterranian and throughout Europe. One result of the Mongolian Globalization was the death of perhaps 200 million people across the world from the Black Plague, which took the lives of from one-third to one-half of the populations of many countries in Europe. It is often forgotten that the Black Plague also killed a similar proportion of urbanites in Egypt, Syria, Pelestine and Arabia and many parts of the Muslim world and was never a strictly European phenomenon. Indeed the country of origin of the Black Plague, China, also suffered massive depopulation and mass deaths of urban populations in the same era. Thus it is very likely Battuta himself or his traveling companions and their animals in caravans or on ships laden with rats may have brought some of the fleas which transferred the disease. While never affected by the disease personally, he was indirectly affected, as before resolving to return to his home in Tangiers he first considered seeking the patronage of his old friend Abu Sa’id, the last Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate over Persia and Iraq. But when he got to Basra he discovered that Abu Sa’id had died, probably of plague, and in the wake of his death a fierce civil war broke out between the remaining Mongols and the Persians. In light of his lost prospects and the impact of the plague elsewhere, he decided to return to Morocco.
From both the Mongol conquest, as well as the conquest of the Americas proceeded good and ill. Thus Globalization in history has proven far from wholly benign, with the Mongol Empire Globalization effacing 200 million through the Black Death across Eurasia and the Columbian Transatlantic Globalization resulting in the death of 80% of the populations of Aztec Mexico, Incan Peru and the New World, driven by the lack of any immunity of the indigenous population to smallpox, plague, malaria and other Eurasian diseases. You are recommended to read Jared Diamond’s excellent work on this topic, “Guns, Germs and Steel” to realize the depth of the impact of contagious disease and globalization on World History. The same plague that affected Ibn Battuta also gave us Boccaccio’s Decameron, however, without which we may not have had Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so the hand of nature or God giveth even while it taketh away.
Arriving in India he gained the favor of the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammud bin Tugluq, and gained employment as a qadi, or Sharia law judge and magistrate, based on his excellent scholarship derived from his years in Mecca. The Sultan of Dehli was the reputed wealthiest man in all Islam and gave patronage to Muslim sscholars, teachers, artists, architects and sufis. He sought Ibn Battuta’s aid in extending Islam and Sharia law amoung his Indian subjects, but found little success amoung the Hindu subject population, with its influence extending little beyond the royal court and its attached communities.
The roots of Ibn Battuta’s travel to China came through his service at the court of the Sultan of Dehli in India. The Sultan was erratic, sometimes rewarding Battuta and sometimes suspecting him of conspiracy or treason. Battuta wished to leave and requested permission to return to Mecca but was refused. The Sultan, however, did consent to send him as his Ambassador to the court in China, the genesis of Battuta’s trip further eastward. The embassy to China was ill fated, however, as the travellers were attacked by bandits and pirates and ships were sunk in storms. Battuta was stranded in southern India for a time, then detoured to the Maldive Islands. His skills as an Islamic Sharia judge were in demand on the Islands as the Muslim rulers were hard put to convert the Buddhist nation to Islam. Battuta stayed for nine months, taking a member of the Muslim royal family as a new wife. There his semi-Puritanical streak began to show as he loudly objected to the native women going about in public virtually naked, or naked from the waist up, and vented his anger at the women’s refusal to abandon “the garb of Eve” for traditional Muslim dress. Finally he left the islands and was able to continue his mission to China, sailing to Sumatra, Singapore and finally arriving in the great Chinese port of Quanzhou. Later he made his way to Hangzhou, which he observed to be the most magnificent city he had ever seen, seconding the opinion of Marco Polo when he had been there a generation before. He made his way to Beijing and the Mongol Yuan court, then back to Quanzhou in Fujian province where he was able to book passage on Muslim trading ships headed back to India and the Middle-East. He decided it dangerous to return to Dehli for political reasons, and as mentioned above considered going to Abu Sa’id in Persia and Iraq, but with his death and the Black Plague hitting the Muslim world and soon Europe, he decided home was best and headed back to Morocco. He succeeded in returning home, but not happily, as on arrival he learned his father had died fifteen years ago and his mother heartbreakingly only a few months before his return.
Partly because of this he soon set out on the last leg of his travels, this time south from Morocco across the Sahara and deep into the interior of Africa, reaching the Niger River and the Mali Kingdom. This would be the same region later visited by the famous British traveller Mungo Park, who also wrote a memorable travel account of his adventures.
On his return from Mali and the Niger, Ibn Battuta was celebrated and the ruler of Morocco insisted that he must write an account of his travels for posterity. The circumstances of his composition of the “Rihla,” his record of his travels thus proved to be remarkably similar to that of Marco Polo, albeit luckily without the imprisonment. A scholar was assigned to Battuta, Ibn Juzayy, and Battuta embarked on dictating orally to him, which the scribe wrote down and edited. Marco Polo composed his Travels by dictating to a fellow prisoner, the romance writer Rusticello de Pisa, who wrote down and edited the manuscript. Perhaps surprisingly, but not really, neither Marco Polo nor Ibn Battuta had kept any notes, diary or travel records, or had lost anything they had. Both had to dictate from memory alone. The scholar helped Battuta to remember this incredible thirty year adventure, sometimes by refreshing his memory from other writings. This led to claims by some in both the cases of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta that their accounts were not authentic or derived from hearsay and never occured. However recent scholars in both instances have verified their essential authenticity from numerous details impossible to know if they had not personally been on the scenes described. Omissions, such as Polo’s non-relating of Chinese details such as the Great Wall, chopsticks or foot binding have been explained as either lapses of memory, selective or negligent recording of their dictation or the circumstance that they lived with Mongol rulers and not common Chinese. Discrepencies in Battuta’s narrative are likewise explicable as additions of the scholar from other sources or lapses of memories thirty years old on dictation.
Thus the Travels of both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta have rightfully taken their place in the canon of great travel writing in World Literature, alongside other greats such as the Travels of Captain Cook, Mungo Park in East Africa, Sir Richard Burton in Africa and the Muslim world, the travels of Xuan Zang from Tang China to India to seek out Buddhist scripture immortalized in the “Journey to the West” of Wu Chengen, the Travels of the “Ottoman Marco Polo” Evliya Celebi, the travels of the Japanese monk Matsuo Basho,the Voyages of the French explorer Bougainville, Stanley and Livingston and many others. In addition travels of the imagination, such as Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” based on Polo’s work or Pynchon’s zepplin travels of “Against the Day” enrich our World Literature.
My own recent novel, Spiritus Mundi, draws on many aspects of the Classics of World Travel Literature. Book I of Spiritus Mundi includes Ibn Battuta as a fictional character in the account of Sartorius’ ancestor Admiral Sir George Rose Sartorius’ shipwreck on the Maldive Islands and his encounter with the “Sultan of the Sea of Stories,” related to Ibn Battuta’s sojourn on the Islands, and includes a mythic account of Battuta’s role in converting the islanders from Hinduism to Islam, as well as Admiral Sartorius’ encounter with “Sir She” the sorceress Lilith on the same voyage. The protagonist of Spiritus Mundi, Robert Sartorius completes a circumnavigation of the world traveling to China, the Maldives, London and New York, symbolically also completing the Odyssey of his family from its origin in Little Gidding, England and back.
I highly recommend and invite everyone to read and enjoy the Travels of Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, and the novel Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, all of which contribute to our vision of our globalized world and to this genre of World Literature.
For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: https://robertalexandersheppard.wordp…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: The Novel: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved