Ibn Battuta in Egypt, part 1: Alexandria to Cairo

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.

Ibn Battuta says that his caravan arrived in the city of Alexandria on the first of Jumada al-Awwal, 726. For most of us that corresponds to April 5, 1326, give or take. I don’t think I need to go into much detail about Alexandria. Suffice to say that it was one of the largest port cities in the Mediterranean and really in the world, and had been from its founding by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. Aside from being a major port of entry/exit for Egyptian trade it was a vital waypoint on the trade from India to Europe. In 1326 it was in a period of great importance–the chaos caused by the decline of the Mongols in the Middle East made the Egyptian route the preferred choice for merchants moving goods from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean. Egypt at the time was relatively stable, under the Mamluk Sultanate. It had been the Mamluks who stopped the Mongols from invading Egypt at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260, and so kept Egypt out of their eventual dynastic decline.

Ibn Battuta is lavish in his praise of Alexandria in a way that so far in his account we haven’t seen:

She is a well-guarded frontier citadel and a friendly and hospitable region, remarkable in appearance and solid of construction, furnished with all that one could wish for in the way of embellishment and embattlement, and of memorable edifices both secular and religious. Noble are her dwellings, graceful her qualities, and to imposing size her buildings unite architectural perfection. She is a unique pearl of glowing opalescence, and a secluded maiden arrayed in her bridal adornments, glorious in her surpassing beauty, uniting in herself the excellences that are shared out by other cities between themselves through her mediating situation between the East and the West. Every fresh marvel as there its unveiling, every novelty finds its way thither. Among all the ports in the world I have seen none to equal it, except the ports of Quilon and Calicut in India, the port of the infidels at Sudaq in the lands of the Turks, and the port of Zaitun in China, all of which will be mentioned later.

Ibn Battuta was in a position to slow down and smell the roses at this point because he’d arrived in Egypt months before the next Hajj pilgrimage would begin. So he stopped to check out some tourist sites, like the lighthouse in Alexandria’s harbor. This Wonder of the Ancient World was still there in 1326 though it had fallen into ruin. He also recalls visiting Pompey’s Pillar, which you can see here in a 1911 photograph:


Wikimedia | Sladen, Douglas

He also sought out scholars and renowned holy men. The first of these he encountered was a man named Burhan al-Din the Lame, who foretold that Ibn Battuta would visit India and China and asked our traveler to pass along greetings to his brothers (Sufi brothers, presumably, not biological ones) in those places. Ibn Battuta tells us that the thought of world travel hadn’t yet really crossed his mind, so Burhan al-Din may get some credit for the journey that followed. Ibn Battuta then decided to take a trip through the Nile Delta, and stopped in the town of Fawwa to visit another well-known Sufi named Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Murshidi. This man offered him a similar prediction, interpreting a dream that Ibn Battuta has to mean that he will travel to India. He too asked Ibn Battuta to pass along greetings to his Sufi brother there.

Ibn Battuta eventually reached the Nile Delta city of Damietta, an old city that had recently been torn down and rebuilt with stronger defenses, after it had fallen to Crusaders on both the Fifth and Seventh Crusades. He is effusive in his praise here as well, calling it “a city of spacious quarters with a diversity of fruits, admirably laid out, enjoying a share of every good thing.” In Damietta he visited with a Sufi order called the Qarandariyah, whose founder instituted the practice of shaving off one’s beard and eyebrows, ostensibly in order to get a woman to stop pursuing him.

After another stop in the Nile Delta town of Samannud, Ibn Battuta boarded a boat to take him up the Nile to Cairo. Along the way he recalls being stunned at the towns, markets, and farms that lined the river, such that “there is no need for a traveler on the Nile to take any provision with him” because anything one might need can be so easily obtained. Next time, then, we’ll see what Ibn Battuta found when he arrived in Cairo, unquestionably the largest and most important city he’d ever seen.

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