Ibn Battuta’s 1325, part 3: the Hafsid kingdom and Libya

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.


Ibn Battuta recalls being stricken ill either in Béjaïa or around the time he and his small group arrived there. He was so feverish that one of his companions, the Hafsid emissary  Abu Abdullah al-Zubaydi, suggested he remain there to recover, but Ibn Battuta tells us that he refused, saying “if God decrees my death, then my death shall be on the road, with my face set toward the land of the Hejaz.” For many Muslims, even today, dying on Hajj effectively guarantees you’ll get into Heaven, which I think explains Ibn Battuta’s eagerness. Either that or he’s fluffing the historical record a bit. Zubaydi did manage to convince Ibn Battuta to sell most of his baggage in Béjaïa and travel light so that the group could move faster. This had to do with the instability in the region. As I’ve said, the Hafsids and the Zayyanids were at war–in fact the Zayyanids were besieging the next city the group encountered–but that’s not the only issue. The Hafsid dynasty was in a period of sustained weakness and was struggling to control its territory against both internal rebellions and pastoral tribes (particularly the Arab Banu Hillal) who came and went and marauded in Ifriqiya pretty much as they pleased.

The next city on the road was Constantine, which today is considered the “eastern capital” of Algeria. To the group’s good fortune, it seems that while they were on the way there, the Zayyanids decided to pack up their siege and head home, so the road wasn’t quite as treacherous as it might have been. As in Béjaïa, we don’t learn much from Ibn Battuta about Constantine, but we do get a story of the welcome he received from the city’s governor. The travelers must have been in pretty ragged shape and they’d spent the night getting rained on, so the governor ordered their clothes cleaned at his own home and gifted Ibn Battuta with a fancy new mantle with two gold dinars sewn into it. Charity is an important obligation in Islam, and charity to a traveler was among the highest categories of charity. We’ll encounter this sort of behavior again and again along the way.

After Constantine the travelers came to Annaba (Bunah), an important port city now in eastern Algeria. Again we don’t learn much about the city, but we find out that the merchants who had been accompanying Ibn Battuta and Zubaydi stayed here, presumably to conduct some business. The now smaller group moved quickly for fear of raiders, with the once-again feverish Ibn Battuta literally tied to his saddle to keep from falling off his donkey. Eventually they arrived in Tunis, the Hafsid capital and the preeminent city of Ifriqiya. The Hafsids built the city up to reflect their self-image as the true heirs to the Almohad Caliphate, and so it was bustling with commercial activity, building projects, centers of culture and learning, and of course grand mosques.


I thought you might be getting tired of maps, so here’s a photo of the minaret of Tunis’s Zaytuna Mosque, which was built in the early 8th century and so was definitely around when Ibn Battuta passed through (Wikimedia)

Ibn Battuta’s first recollection of his arrival in Tunis is his sadness upon seeing people come out to welcome his companions while nobody welcomed him. He recalls that “I felt so sad on account of my loneliness that I could not restrain the tears that started to my eyes, and wept bitterly.” One of his companions noticed this and spent time with Ibn Battuta as he adjusted to the new city. It was a pretty good time to be there. Tunis was entering a period of relative stability as the Hafsid ruler, Abu Bakr II, was finally consolidating his authority. He ruled from 1318-1346, and while he wasn’t a particularly strong ruler there can be a certain amount of stability that comes just from having one guy on the throne for that length of time.

Ibn Battuta was given a place to stay in one of the city’s religious schools and spent almost two months there, from early September through early November. But we don’t get any great exposition about the place. We instead learn that he arrived in time for the end of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr celebration that follows. Ibn Battuta describes the pageantry:

The inhabitants had already assembled in large numbers to celebrate their festival and had come out in brave show and in their richest apparel. The sultan arrived on horseback, accompanied by all his relatives and courtiers and guards of his kingdom walking on foot in a magnificent procession. The prayers were recited, the allocution was discharged, and the people returned to their homes.

A Hajj caravan was assembled in Tunis and for the first time Ibn Battuta hit the road with a full-fledged traveling party. Not only that, but he was appointed the qadi, or religious judge, for the group. This was a tremendous honor–caravans were like mobile mini-nations, and this appointment made Ibn Battuta the judiciary of their mini-government–and is the first of several times we’ll see his legal training pay off, literally, in the form of gainful employment.


Granted, this is a map of modern Tunisia, but the place names are all there as you move south along the coast from Tunis

The caravan passed south along the Tunisian coast, through the cities of Sousse, Sfax, and Gabès–Ibn Battuta says nothing about any of them except that they had to stop in Gabès for ten days due to “incessant rains.” They turned east, still sticking to the coastal route more or less, and headed toward Tripoli, or Tarabulus. This may have been the most dangerous road Ibn Battuta had yet traveled, because Tripoli had recently fallen out of Hafsid control altogether and so roaming tribes were a big problem in this region. But nevertheless the caravan seems to have made good time, protected by a cavalry detachment and “a troop of archers” so that the tribes steered clear. In Tripoli, whose name itself announces its Roman roots, we learn that Ibn Battuta had married. In Sfax, he tells us, he contracted with a Tunisian official in the caravan to marry his daughter. She was conveyed to Tripoli to meet her husband. However, their union was short.

For some reason (something to do with his new wife?) while in Tripoli Ibn Battuta opted to strike out ahead of the rest of the caravan with just a small group of fellow travelers. This is wild because, to get to Alexandria from Tripoli (which was historically the easternmost region of the “Maghreb”) travelers had to cross the eastern Libyan region of Cyrenaica, which was even more lawless than the eastern Hafsid kingdom had been. The risk of attack was high and Ibn Battuta relates almost being attacked near Sirte, but they managed to get through unscathed and waited for the caravan to catch up before continuing on to Egypt. It’s during this part of the trip that Ibn Battuta got into a fight with his father in-law and returned the man’s daughter to him. Instead he married the daughter of another member of the caravan, a scholar from Fez. That’s all we learn about her.

I think it’s worth noting here how brief Ibn Battuta’s accounts are in this leg of the journey as compared to the level of detail he’ll get into later on. It seems to me there are three likely explanations for this. One is that in this phase of the journey Ibn Battuta was still intent that this was a Hajj pilgrimage and nothing more, and so he wanted to move quickly and didn’t spend a lot of time checking these places out. Later on when he decided to explore for exploration’s sake he paid much more attention to his surroundings. The second explanation is that Ibn Battuta just didn’t remember this part of the trip very well. Recall that this whole story is being related by Ibn Battuta to a ghostwriter years after the fact. It wouldn’t be out of the question to think that the first part of this 24 year trek was a little foggier in his head than later bits.

The third explanation is related to the second but is a little more sinister, and basically it’s that Ibn Battuta didn’t have any other sources from which he could crib his accounts of these places in North Africa. We have pretty good reason to believe that he…consulted, let’s say, additional sources when he was recounting his own travels, at least in some parts. In fact we have reason to question whether entire segments of his journey actually took place at all. The Maghreb wasn’t as well-chronicled a place in the 14th century as, say, the Levant, or India, or China, and Ibn Battuta may not have had the material he needed to, uh, jog his memory about the places he saw in North Africa.

In early April 1326, or thereabouts, the caravan arrived in Alexandria, easily the biggest and most important city Ibn Battuta had yet encountered. It’s in Egypt where his journey will begin to change from a focused pilgrimage to one of meandering discovery, as he travels the breadth of the Mamluk Sultanate. We’ll begin that part of the journey next time.

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