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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The Mamluk Sultanate survived from roughly 1250 until…well, that’s not as simple a question as it might seem on first glance. The most common answer is the most obvious one: 1517. That’s when the Ottomans conquered Cairo and took control of Egypt, Syria, and the Hejaz, which they would hold until the end of World War I (and the end of the Ottoman Empire). The expansive “ahhhh, actually” answer is 1811, when the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, massacred most of the mamluk class in his Cairo citadel. The Ottomans, see, viewed Egypt as something of a special prize, and rightly so–it was probably the most important conquest they ever made. So they were very careful not to disrupt its administration they way they did in the other places they conquered. Which meant that the mamluks, despite losing their sultanate, maintained their status at the top of the social pecking order. Eventually they usurped real power from the Ottoman governors and reasserted themselves. Until Muhammad Ali, you know, killed them all.
For our purposes, I’m going to propose a third date: 1382. Which is definitely not the end of the Mamluk Sultanate, but it is the end of the Bahri “Dynasty” whose birth we discussed last time. Eventually the mostly Turkic Bahri sultans were superseded by a line of Circassian mamluks that historians call the Burji “Dynasty,” because they ruled out of the Cairo citadel (burj in Arabic means “tower”).
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.
The first ten years after the Mamluks usurped power in Egypt from the Ayyubid dynasty were a chaotic and confusing time. The first Mamluk sultan, Aybak (d. 1257), spent most of his time trying to marginalize his fellow Mamluks in order to consolidate his own power. It was in a sense his failure to do so that birthed the unique Mamluk system we talked about last time.
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.
Last time out, we looked at the roots of slave soldiery in the Islamic world and talked about a few slave soldiers who rose up to found ruling dynasties of their own. That’s not exactly what happened in Egypt and Syria. Instead the mamluk slave system itself took the place of a traditional dynasty, or at least competed with the traditional notion of dynasty.
Ibn Battuta’s journey isn’t just of value to scholars and amateur historians as a curiosity. Of course that’s part of it–somebody who traveled all the way from western Morocco to China in the 14th century is bound to attract some attention–but what’s really of interest is the role Ibn Battuta can play, via his travelogue, as an eyewitness to the life and times of the places he visited. Assuming, of course, that he really was an eyewitness–remember we’re not sure he actually visited some of the places he claims to have visited.
We’re also interested in Ibn Battuta’s account because of when he traveled through these places. Because the 14th century was a time of great transition for much of Eurasia, which was emerging from the 13th century Mongol conquests and adjusting to the new realities left in their aftermath. This transition is a theme we’ll come back to over and over again, particularly when we move deeper into the Middle East and a world that’s still coming to grips with the sudden disappearance of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258. But Egypt and Syria (and the Hejaz, where Ibn Battuta is headed on his pilgrimage) were a bit of a different case. Egypt and Syria were spared much of the turmoil brought by the Mongols because they remained outside the Mongols’ hands. And that’s because they were successfully defended by the Mamluk Sultanate.
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.
The Hafsid dynasty was the first of the three successor dynasties to emerge from the collapse of the Almohad Caliphate in the mid 13th century. Unlike the Zayyanids, who had merely been regional governors in Tlemcen under the Almohads, and the Marinids, who had never been anything more than an enemy to the Almohads, the Hafsids had been part of the Almohad project from its earliest days as a religious revivalist movement. Unlike the Marinids and Zayyanids, the Hafsids emerged from the same Masmuda Amazigh background as Ibn Tumart and the Almohads. In fact, the dynasty could trace its ancestry to one of Ibn Tumart’s closest companions, Omar Abu Hafs al-Hentati, so it held a prominent position in the caliphate throughout its history.