Ibn Battuta - the great traveller

by A.S. Chughtai

"To the world of today the men of medieval Christendom already seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is a thing unreal, which costs an effort of imagination. How much more must this apply to the great Islamic civilization, that stood over against medieval Europe, menacing its existence and yet linked to it by a hundred ties that even war and fear could not sever. Its monuments too abide, for those who may have the fortunate to visit them, but its men and manners are to most of us utterly unknown, or dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Even for the specialist it is difficult to reconstruct their lives and see them as they were. Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader. It is in this faculty that Ibn Battuta excels."

Thus begins the book, "Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia andAfrica 1325-1354" published by Routledge and Kegan Paul (1).









Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta



Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, also known as Shams ad - Din, was born at Tangier, Morocco, on the 24th February 1304 C.E. (703 Hijra). He left Tangier on Thursday, 14th June, 1325 C.E. (2nd Rajab 725 A.H.), when he was twenty one years of age. His travels lasted for about thirty years, after which he returned to Fez, Morocco at the court of Sultan Abu 'Inan and dictated accounts of his journeys to Ibn Juzay. These are known as the famous Travels (Rihala) of Ibn Battuta. He died at Fez in 1369 C.E.

Ibn Battuta was the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. He also travelled in Ceylon (present Sri Lanka), China and Byzantium and South Russia. The mere extent of his travels is estimated at no less than 75,000 miles, a figure which is not likely to have been surpassed before the age of steam.



In the course of his first journey, Ibn Battuta travelled through Algiers, Tunis, Egypt, Palestine and Syria to Makkah. After visiting Iraq, Shiraz and Mesopotamia he once more returned to perform the Hajj at Makkah and remained there for three years. Then travelling to Jeddah he went to Yemen by sea, visited Aden andset sail for Mombasa, East Africa. After going up to Kulwa he came back to Oman and repeated pilgrimage to Makkah in 1332 C.E. via Hormuz, Siraf, Bahrain and Yamama. Subsequently he set out with the purpose of going to India, but on reaching Jeddah, he appears to have changed his mind (due perhaps to the unavailability of a ship bound for India), and revisited Cairo, Palestine and Syria, thereafter arriving at Aleya (Asia Minor) by sea and travelled across Anatolia and Sinope. He then crossed the Black Sea and after long wanderings he reached Constantinople through Southern Ukraine.

On his return, he visited Khurasan through Khawarism (Khiva) and having visited all the important cities such as Bukhara, Balkh, Herat, Tus, Mashhad and Nishapur, he crossed the Hindukush mountains via the 13,000 ft Khawak Pass into Afghanistan and passing through Ghani and Kabul entered India. After visiting Lahri (near modern Karachi), Sukkur, Multan, Sirsa and Hansi, he reached Delhi. For several years Ibn Battuta enjoyed the patronage of Sultan Mohammad Tughlaq, and was later sent as Sultan's envoy to China. Passing through Cental India and Malwa he took ship from Kambay for Goa, and after visiting many thriving ports along the Malabar coast he reached the Maldive Islands, from which he crossed to Ceylon. Continuing his journey, he landed on the Ma'bar (Coromandal) coast and once more returning to the Maldives he finally set sail for Bengal and visited Kamrup, Sylhet and Sonargaon (near Dhaka). Sailing along the Arakan coast he came to Sumatra and later landed at Canton via Malaya and Cambodia. In China he travelled northward to Peking through Hangchow. Retracing his steps he returned to Calicut and taking ship came to Dhafari and Muscat, and passing through Paris (Iran), Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt made his seventh and last pilgrimage to Makkah in November 1348 C.E. and then returned to his home town of Fez. His travels did not end here - he later visited Muslim Spain and the lands of the Niger across the Sahara.

On his return to Fez, Ibn Battuta dictated the accounts ofhis travels to Ibn Juzay al-Kalbi (1321-1356 C.E.) at the court of Sultan Abu Inan (1348-1358 C.E). Ibn Juzay took three months to accomplish this work ,which he finished on 9th December 1355 C.E.



In order to experience the flavour of Ibn Battuta's narrative one must sample a few extracts. The following passage illustrates the system of social security in operation in the Muslim world in the early 14th century C.E. :

"The variety and expenditure of the religious endowmentsat Damascus are beyond computation. There are endowments in aid of persons who cannot undertake the pilgrimage to Makkah, out of which ate paid the expenses of those who go in their stead. There are other endowments for supplying wedding outfits to girls whose families are unable to provide them, and others for the freeing of prisoners. There are endowments for travellers, out of the revenues of which they are given food, clothing, and the expenses of conveyance to their countries. Then there are endowments for the improvement and paving of the streets, because all the lanes in Damascus have pavements on either side, on which the foot passengers walk, while those who ride use the roadway in the centre". p.69, ref l

Here is another example which describes Baghdad in the early 14th century C.E. :

"Then we travelled to Baghdad, the Abode of Peace andCapital of Islam. Here there are two bridges like that at Hilla, on which the people promenade night and day, both men and women. The baths at Baghdad are numerous and excellently constructed, most of them being painted with pitch, which has the appearance of black marble. This pitch is brought from a spring between Kufa and Basra, from which it flows continually. It gathers at the sides of the spring like clay and is shovelled up and brought to Baghdad. Each establishment has a number of private bathrooms, every one of which has also a wash-basin in the corner, with two taps supplying hot and cold water. Every bather is given three towels, one to wear round his waist when he goes in, another to wear round his waist when he comes out, and the third to dry himself with." p.99, ref 1

In the next example Ibn Battuta describes in great detailsome of the crops and fruits encountered on his travels:

"From Kulwa we sailed to Dhafari [Dhofar], at the extremity of Yemen. Thoroughbred horses are exported from here to India, the passage taking a month with favouring wind.... The inhabitants cultivate millet and irrigate it from very deep wells, the water from which is raised in a large bucket drawn by a number of ropes. In the neighbourhood of the town there are orchards with many banana trees. The bananas are of immense size; one which was weighed in my presence scaled twelve ounces and was pleasant to the taste and very sweet. They also grow betel-trees and coco-palms, which are found only in India and the town of Dhafari." p.113, ref 1

Another example of In Battuta's keen observation is seen in the next passage:

"Betel-trees are grown like vines on can trellises or else trained up coco-palms. They have no fruit and are only grown for their leaves. The Indians have a high opinion of betel, and if a man visits a friend and the latter gives him five leaves of it, you would think he had given him the world, especially if he is a prince or notable. A gift of betel is a far greater honour than a gift of gold and silver. It is used in the following way: First one takes areca-nuts, which are like nutmegs, crushes them into small bits and chews them. Then the betel leaves are taken, a little chalk is put on them, and they are chewed with the areca-nuts." p.114, ref 1


Ibn Battuta - The Forgotten Traveller

Ibn Battuta's sea voyages and references to shipping reveal that the Muslims completely dominated the maritime activity of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Chinese waters. Also it is seen that though the Christian traders were subject to certain restrictions, most of the economic negotiations were transacted on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

Ibn Battuta, one of the most remarkable travellers of all time, visited China sixty years after Marco Polo and in fact travelled 75,000 miles, much more than Marco Polo. Yet Battuta is never mentioned in geography books used in Muslim countries, let alone those in the West. Ibn Battuta's  contribution to geography is unquestionably as great as that of any geographer yet the accounts of his travels are not easily accessible except to the specialist. The omission of reference to Ibn Battuta's contribution in geography books is not an isolated example. All great Musiims whether historians, doctors, astronomers, scientists or chemists suffer the same fate. One can understand why these great Muslims are ignored by the West. But the indifference of the Muslim governments is incomprehensible. In order to combat the inferiority complex that plagues the Muslim Ummah, we must rediscover the contributions of Muslims in  fields such as science, medicine, engineering, architecture and astronomy. This will encourage contemporary young Muslims to strive in these fields and not think that major success is beyond their reach.


1. Ibn Buttuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1345, Published by Routledge and Kegan Paul (ISBN O 7100 9568 6)

2. The Introduction to the "Voyages of Ibn Battutah" by Vincent Monteil in The Islamic Review and Arab Affairs. March 1970: 30-37

Article by A.S. Chughtai

HTML by Monzur

This article originally appeared in Muslim Technologist, March 1990 and is reproduced with permission.