The Life and Travels of Ibn Battuta, World Explorer and Writer

Mid-19th century print by Paul Dumouza depicting Ibn Battuta in Egypt.
Mid-19th century print by Paul Dumouza depicting Ibn Battuta in Egypt.

Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

Ibn Battuta (1304–1368) was a scholar, theologian, adventurer, and traveler who, like Marco Polo fifty years earlier, wandered the world and wrote about it. Battuta sailed, rode camels and horses, and walked his way to 44 different modern countries, traveling an estimated 75,000 miles during a 29 year period. He journeyed from North Africa to the Middle East and Western Asia, Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

Early Years 

Ibn Battuta (sometimes spelled Batuta, Batouta, or Battutah) was born in Tangier, Morocco on February 24, 1304. He was from a fairly well-to-do family of Islamic legal scholars descended from Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to Morocco. A Sunni Muslim trained in the Maliki tradition of Islamic law, Ibn Battuta left his home at the age of 22 to begin his rihla, or voyage.

Rihla is one of four forms of travel encouraged by Islam, the best known of which is Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. The term rihla refers to both the travel and the genre of literature that describes the journey. The purpose of rihla is to enlighten and entertain readers with detailed descriptions of pious institutions, public monuments and religious personalities of Islam. Ibn Battuta's travelogue was written after he returned, and in it he stretched the conventions of the genre, including autobiography as well as some fictional elements from the 'adja'ib or "marvels" traditions of Islamic literature. 

Ibn Battuta's Travels 1325-1332
The first seven years of Ibn Battuta's Travels took him to Alexandria, Mecca, Medina, and Kilwa Kiswani.  Wikipedia Users

Setting Off 

Ibn Battuta's journey began from Tangier on June 14, 1325. Originally intending to make a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, by the time he reached Alexandria in Egypt, where the lighthouse was still standing, he found himself entranced by the people and cultures of Islam. 

He headed for Iraq, Western Persia, then Yemen and the Swahili coast of East Africa. By 1332 he reached Syria and Asia Minor, crossed the Black Sea and reached the territory of the Golden Horde. He visited the steppe region along the Silk Road and arrived at the oasis of Khwarizm in western central Asia. 

Then he traveled through Transoxania and Afghanistan, arriving in the Indus Valley by 1335. He stayed in Delhi until 1342 and then visited Sumatra and (perhaps—the record is unclear) China before heading home. His return trip took him back through Sumatra, the Persian Gulf, Baghdad, Syria, Egypt, and Tunis. He reached Damascus in 1348, just in time for the arrival of the plague, and returned home to Tangier safe and sound in 1349. Afterwards, he made minor excursions to Granada and the Sahara, as well as to the West African kingdom of Mali.

A Few Adventures

Ibn Battuta was mostly interested in people. He met and talked with pearl divers and camel drivers and brigands. His traveling companions were pilgrims, merchants, and ambassadors. He visited countless courts.

Ibn Battuta lived on donations from his patrons, mostly elite members of Muslim society he met along the way. But he was not just a traveler—he was an active participant, often employed as a judge (qadi), administrator, and/or ambassador during his stops. Battuta took a number of well-placed wives, generally daughters and sisters of the sultans, none of whom are named in the text. 

Ibn Batutta's Travels, 1332-1346
Ibn Battuta is thought to have reached Asia.  Wikimedia Users

Visiting Royalty

Battuta met countless royals and elites. He was in Cairo during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun. He visited Shiraz when it was an intellectual haven for Iranians fleeing the Mongol invasion. He stayed in the Armenian capital of Staryj Krym with his host, the governor Tuluktumur. He detoured to Constantinople to visit Andronicus III in the company of the Byzantine emperor Ozbek Khan's daughter. He visited the Yuan emperor in China, and he visited Mansa Musa (r. 1307–1337) in West Africa. 

He spent eight years in India as a qadi in the court of Muhammad Tughluq, the Sultan of Delhi. In 1341, Tughluq appointed him to lead a diplomatic mission to the Mongol emperor of China. The expedition was shipwrecked off the coast of India leaving him with neither employment nor resources, so he traveled around southern India, Ceylon and the Maldive islands, where he served as qadi under the local Muslim government.

History of the Literary Rilha 

In 1536, after Ibn Battuta returned home, the Marinid ruler of Morocco Sultan Abu 'Ina commissioned a young literary scholar of Andalusian origins named Ibn Juzayy (or Ibn Djuzzayy) to record Ibn Battuta's experiences and observations. Over the next two years together, the men wove what would become the Book of Travels, based primarily on Ibn Battuta's memories, but also interweaving descriptions from earlier writers. 

The manuscript was circulated around different Islamic countries, but not much cited by Muslim scholars. It eventually came to the attention of the west by way of two adventurers of the 18th and 19th centuries, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen (1767–1811) and Johan Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817). They had separately purchased abridged copies during their travels throughout the Mideast. The first English language translation of those copies was published in 1829 by Samuel Lee.

Five manuscripts were found by the French when they conquered Algeria in 1830. The most complete copy recovered in Algiers was made in 1776, but the oldest fragment was dated 1356. That fragment had the title "Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling," and is believed to have been a very early copy indeed if not an original fragment. 

The complete text of the travels, with parallel Arabic and a French translation, first appeared in four volumes between 1853–1858 by Dufrémery and Sanguinetti. The full text was translated first into English by Hamilton A.R. Gibb in 1929. Several subsequent translations are available today. 

Criticism of the Travelogue

Ibn Battuta recounted tales of his travels throughout his voyage and when he returned home, but it was not until his association with Ibn Jazayy that the stories were committed to formal writing. Battuta took notes during the journey but admitted that he lost some of them along the way. He was accused of lying by some contemporaries, though the veracity of those claims is widely disputed. Modern critics have noted several textual discrepancies which hint at substantial borrowing from older tales. 

Much of the criticism of Battuta's writing is aimed at the sometimes confusing chronology and plausibility of certain parts of the itinerary. Some critics suggest he may have never reached mainland China, but did get as far as Vietnam and Cambodia. Parts of the story were borrowed from earlier writers, some attributed, others not, such as Ibn Jubary and Abu al-Baqa Khalid al-Balawi. Those borrowed parts include descriptions of Alexandria, Cairo, Medina, and Mecca. Ibn Battuta and Ibn Juzayy acknowledge Ibn Jubayr in the descriptions of Aleppo and Damascus. 

He also relied on original sources, relating historical events told to him in the courts of the world, such as the capture of Delhi and the devastations of Genghis Khan.

Death and Legacy 

After his collaboration with Ibn Jazayy ended, Ibn Batuta retired to a judicial post in a small Moroccan provincial town, where he died in 1368.

Ibn Battuta has been called the greatest of all travel writers, having traveled farther than Marco Polo. In his work, he provided priceless glimpses of the various people, courts and religious monuments around the world. His travelogue has been the source of countless research projects and historical investigations.

Even if some of the stories were borrowed, and some of the tales a bit too marvelous to be believed, Ibn Battuta's rilha remains an enlightening and influential work of travel literature to this day.

Ibn Battuta Fast Facts

  • Name: Ibn Battuta
  • Known For: His travel writing, which described the 75,000-mile journey he took during his rilha.
  • Born: February 24, 1304, Tangier, Morocco
  • Died: 1368 in Morocco 
  • Education: Schooled in the Maliki tradition of Islamic law
  • Published Works: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling or The Travels (1368)

Sources