We’ve gotten a lot more followers, especially on Twitter, over the weekend (my thanks to Chapo Trap House for letting me promote the project in my most recent appearance). If you still don’t know who Ibn Battuta is, start with this post. This is a great time for people to pick up the story, because Ibn Battuta’s arrival in Egypt is really when his narrative begins, but if you want to go back and start from the beginning there’s not too much that you need to cover to catch up. Anyway here’s the quick summary for new arrivals on how you can follow along.
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If you’ve been following Ibn Battuta’s journey on Twitter and/or Facebook then you know he’s finally made his way from Cairo to Damascus, picked up a Hajj caravan in Damascus, and set off for Mecca. You’ll also know that I’m a little skeptical about this part of Ibn Battuta’s account. When Ibn Battuta left Cairo he seemed to be in a great rush to get to Damascus in time to meet that year’s Hajj caravan. Indeed, his failed attempt to get to Mecca via the Red Sea, which would have put him in the Hejaz long before the next Hajj, is suggestive of somebody who wanted to get to Mecca as quickly as possible. But if he was in a rush, why go all the way to Damascus instead of cutting across the Sinai, a far more direct route from Cairo to the Hejaz? And why, according to his account, did he travel throughout the Levant–often doubling back a bit to see places he passed along the way–before finally meandering into Damascus?
Ibn Battuta’s timing is also suspect. Despite the litany of places he describes visiting on the way to Damascus, we’re also told that he made the journey in a scant 23 days, quick enough that he was able to spend most of the month of Ramadan in Damascus before heading out for the Hajj. It’s not inconceivable that Ibn Battuta made the trek he describes in the time he says it took, but it seems questionable. We know that Ibn Battuta related his account long after the fact, we know that he visited Syria again on his return home, and we’re pretty sure he just made up a couple of parts of his account that we’ll discuss later, so part of me wonders whether the combination of a faulty memory and a loose association with the facts caused Ibn Battuta to fudge things a little bit. Regardless, I’m committed here to treating The Rihlah as though the whole thing really happened, even the parts we’re pretty sure didn’t happen, so on we go.
I know it’s been a while since we left off, on all fronts, so apologies for that. I maneuvered myself into a position where we couldn’t continue until I’d written a couple of meaty subscriber pieces on the Mamluks, and I just plain couldn’t find the time to write them. So we got stuck for a couple of weeks. But those pieces have been written, finally, and now we’re ready to resume and I thought the best way to do that was with another travel account to refresh everyone’s memory before we push on.
Over at Patreon, I’ve posted my second podcast (for subscribers) on Ibn Battuta. This one offers a brief overview of the chaos of the 13th century in North Africa and the Middle East, from the breakup of the Almohad Caliphate to the rise of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria and the Mongolian invasion of Iran/Iraq. We’ll be covering the ramifications of the 13th century in more detail here at the blog as we move along (and as my workload lightens up a bit, it’s been ridiculous lately), but I thought a quick run through the main points would help provide some context and also offered a good way to incorporate another podcast into the project. I hope you enjoy it!
My plan moving forward is to try to do make these travel accounts shorter and more frequent than they were for the trip across North Africa. There’s more to cover now that we’re in Egypt because Ibn Battuta is much more expressive about what what he’s seeing than he’s been up to this point. As always you can follow the journey with more frequent updates on Twitter and somewhat less frequent updates on Facebook, but these posts will go into more contextual detail about the places Ibn Battuta visits and may incorporate a few more quotes from the text of his Travels.
Last time we saw Ibn Battuta through the Kingdom of Tlemcen, which at the time was at war with the Hafsids over control of the city of Béjaïa, or Bougie. Béjaïa is today a mid-sized city in north-central Algeria, but at the time it was the western capital of the Hafsid dynasty. Its site had been occupied at least since Carthaginian times, but gained in importance as a port city after the Arab conquests. It became the capital of the 11th-12th century Hammadid dynasty and retained much of that prominence under the Almohads and then the Hafsids. In the late 12th century, a young Pisan boy spent a good chunk of his youth in Béjaïa with his merchant father and became interested in mathematics. His name was Leonardo Fibonacci, and later on he would introduce Hindu-Arabic numerals as well as the concepts of zero and the decimal point to Europe. No big deal.