Ibn Battuta’s 1325, part 2: the Kingdom of Tlemcen

When Ibn Battuta set out from Tangier on Hajj in 1325, Marinid Morocco was one of three kingdoms occupying the territory of the former Almohad Caliphate. Immediately to their east, and the next stop on Ibn Battuta’s journey, was the Kingdom of Tlemcen, ruled by the Zayyanid dynasty. This map should illustrate things for you:


Fortunately for Ibn Battuta 1325 was a relatively peaceful year during which to make the crossing from Marinid to Zayyanid territory. The two dynasties were frequently at war as they, along with the Hafsids, competed to become the true heir to the Almohads. But the Marinid ruler at the time was Abu Saʿid Uthman II (d. 1331), who seems to have been a uniquely non-confrontational ruler, and the Zayyanid ruler was Abu Tashufin I, who was preoccupied waging war against the Hafsids in the east. So crossing the border between the two kingdoms was as easy as it could get for Ibn Battuta–who, remember, was at this point traveling on his own as far we know from his account.

It must have taken Ibn Battuta weeks to get from Tangier to the city of Tlemcen, which is the next place he mentions in his account. Tlemcen was the Zayyanid capital and was a natural rest stop for a traveler going overland from Morocco to Tunisia. But there were important Marinid towns and cities along the way that Ibn Battuta might have visited–places like Fez, Taza, Debdou, Oujda–and I think we have to assume he stopped in some towns along the way to Tlemcen. But he doesn’t tell us about them.

Tlemcen grew out of a second-century Roman military outpost and developed into a northern terminus for trans-Saharan trade coming from West Africa. The trans-Saharan trade, mostly in gold and slaves, was lucrative and so the city prospered in that role despite its location in a relatively arid place without access to good agricultural resources. Its wealth as a meeting point for African and European merchants made it a powerful city of upwards of 40,000 to 50,000 people in the 14th century, and a natural choice as the capital of one of the Almohad successor states. But we don’t learn very much about it from Ibn Battuta.

The reason Ibn Battuta’s account doesn’t offer much detail about Tlemcen is that Ibn Battuta didn’t stay there very long. Which is a little strange, because at the time there was a decided lack of major cities between Morocco and the western parts of the Hafsid kingdom, and if Ibn Battuta were going to linger anywhere Tlemcen would’ve been the place to linger. But he explains his haste in his account:

I came to the city of Tlemcen, the sultan of which at that time was Abu Tashufin, and my arrival chanced to coincide with the visit of two envoys of the king of Africa [Ifriqiya, i.e. the Hafsids]. These envoys left the town, and one of the brethren advised me to travel in their company. I consulted the will of Almighty God in regard to this, and after a stay of three nights in Tlemcen to procure what I needed, I left, riding after them with all speed, and on reaching the town of Miliana overtook them there.

(slightly edited from Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s The Travels of Ibn Battuta)

What we have here is someone who knows he’s got a long and dangerous road ahead of him and is well aware that attempting to traverse it alone could be a monumentally bad idea. So when he’s told by “one of the brethren” (I don’t know who “the brethren” are but that’s a term you’d usually see used in reference to Sufis and Ibn Battuta did have some Sufi inclinations) that there are Hafsid envoys who just left and are heading the same way he is, he sees an opportunity to catch up with them and finally have some traveling companions. It’s unclear what the Hafsid envoys were doing in Tlemcen–trying to negotiate a peace treaty seems the likeliest explanation–but for Ibn Battuta that would’ve been beside the point. He remains in Tlemcen just long enough to get what he needs to continue on and then he leaves.

Ibn Battuta could have opted at this point to take a more well-traveled road north to the coast and then continue along that way, but because the next place he mentions is the town of Miliana, which is about 70 miles southwest of Algiers, we know that he must have gone by a somewhat more inland route. Perhaps this was the faster route or perhaps he knew which way the envoys were going, it’s not clear. It would have been a hard ride, especially if he was trying to make up time and catch up to the envoys. Miliana was on the edge of Zayyanid territory. It grew from a Carthaginian settlement called Zucchabar that had actually developed into a fair sized city in Roman times. It was not so large in 1325.

It would presumably have been a relief for Ibn Battuta to have caught up to the envoys, whose names were Abu Abdullah al-Zubaydi and Abu Abdullah al-Nafzawi, but that feeling didn’t last long. Misfortune either had already struck the envoys or was about to strike them, because both of them fell ill and feverish. They had to remain in Miliana for ten days while the men recovered, and after they set out they only got a short distance from town before Nafzawi succumbed to his illness. Zubaydi and the Hafsid company returned to Miliaia with the body for burial, and Ibn Battuta slowly continued east with a group of merchants in order to give them time to bury Nafzawi and catch back up with the rest of the group.

The group apparently reached Algiers during this time, but Algiers was such a minor town that Ibn Battuta doesn’t bother describing it. In fact Algiers wouldn’t become a major city until the expulsion of the Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity) from Spain in 1609. Spain controlled a small island off the coast of Algiers called the Peñón of Algiers and conducted a lot of its North African trading via that island and thus via Algiers. So for many displaced Spanish Moriscos who had suddenly been kicked out of their homeland, it was a familiar and natural destination.

It was outside of Algiers where Zubaydi and the rest of the group caught up with Ibn Battuta and the merchants, and together they made their way toward Béjaïa, or Bougie, the largest city in the western Hafsid kingdom and the object of Abu Tashufin’s military provocations. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.

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