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.