Ibn Battuta in Egypt, Part 2: Cairo to, uh, Cairo

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.

When we left Ibn Battuta he’d completed his journey across North Africa and had made the trek from Alexandria across the Nile Delta to Damietta and then south to Cairo. Whatever sights he’d seen to that point in his journey must have paled in comparison to what he encountered upon entering Cairo, one of the most important cities in the world.

Conservatively Cairo was home to around 500,000 people, far larger than any other city Ibn Battuta had ever seen and possibly the largest city in the world outside of China. Economically it benefited from its position across two of the main routes through the region–the commercial route from the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea and then overland to the Mediterranean, and the pilgrimage route from North and West Africa to the Hejaz–as well as its status as the capital of the Mamluk Sultanate and the home of its ruling class. Politically and culturally it also benefited from its status as the Mamluk capital, home to the kingdom that had defeated the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260 and arguably saved the religion of Islam (Sunni Islam at least), and perhaps even Islamic civilization, after the Mongols had destroyed Baghdad. Scholars, artisans, and other notables driven out of the rest of the Middle East by the Mongols in the 13th century found their way to Egypt, and that meant Cairo.

Ibn Battuta isn’t sparing in his superlatives when describing the city:

From Dimyat [Damietta] I traveled up the Nile until at length I arrived in the city of Misr [Cairo], mother of cities and seat of pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad provinces and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting place of comer and goer, the stopping place of feeble and strong. Therein is what you will of learned and simple, grave and gay, prudent and foolish, base and noble, of high estate and low estate, unknown and famous; she surges as the waves of the sea with her throngs of folk and can scarce contain them for all the capacity of her situation and sustaining power. Her youth is ever new in spite of length of days, and the star of her horoscope does not move from the mansion of fortune; her conquering capital has subdued the nations, and her kings have grasped the forelocks of both Arab and non-Arab. She has as her peculiar possession the majestic Nile, which dispenses her district from the need of entreating the distillation of the rain; her territory is a month’s journey for a hastening traveler, of generous soil, and extending a friendly welcome to strangers.

The Mamluk Sultanate was itself a contradiction. It was a dynasty of Turkic slave soldiers that came to rule the most important kingdom in the Arab world, a repository of Arab literature and society as set against the Mongolian khanate to the east. It was based on an inherently unstable system wherein cadres of ex-slaves jockeyed, often violently, for supremacy, yet it was almost certainly the most politically stable place Ibn Battuta encountered in the Middle East.

That stability was enhanced by the fact that Ibn Battuta visited during the reign of al-Nasir Muhammad, who ruled briefly from 1293-1294 and then more or less consistently from 1299-1341, which made him the longest-serving ruler in Mamluk history. The stability generated by his long reign allowed the Mamluks to build up Cairo even further, including a massive mosque that bears al-Nasir Muhammad’s name, and also allowed Ibn Battuta to pass through Egypt in relative security.


The al-Nasir Muhammad mosque in downtown Cairo (Wikimedia Commons | Sailko)

And pass through Ibn Battuta did. After sojourning in Cairo for around a month, seeing many of the city’s sights–including, yes, the pyramids–and visiting its schools and Sufi lodges, he resumed his trip up the Nile heading toward Mecca. One look at a map will cause you to wonder what the heck he was doing, but actually this was actually a legitimate pilgrimage route through Egypt. Travelers went up the Nile as far as they could before cutting across Egypt’s eastern desert to the Red Sea port of Aydhab, then hopping a boat to Jeddah and from there on to Mecca. The northern route, across the Sinai, was probably more commonly used and a little safer, but for somebody who really wanted to explore, the southern route was probably the more interesting one and still, thanks to the Mamluks, plenty safe. It was mid-May and he was leaving early–the Hajj was many months away and the Egyptian caravan didn’t set out until the middle of the month of Shawwal (which in 1326 would have been mid-September).

Ibn Battuta’s trek up the Nile took him to the city of Edfu, a common starting point for travelers heading for Aydhab. Along the way he recalls stopping in the town of Hu, where he visited with a holy man named Sayyid Sharif Abu Muhammad Abdullah al-Hasani. When Hasani asked him where he was headed, Ibn Battuta explained that he was traveling to Aydhab to hop a boat to the Hejaz. Hasani advised him to turn around at once, saying “go back, for you will make your first pilgrimage by the Syrian road or no other.” Assuming this isn’t post-diction, Once in Edfu he hired some camels, joined a group planning the same journey, and headed out. After about two weeks they arrived in the port city.

Folks, I’ve always said it pays to listen to rando religious dudes you meet on the street or whatever, and this case is no exception. Because as it turns out, the ruler of Aydhab was in open revolt against the Mamluks at the moment, and he closed the port. Ibn Battuta would indeed not be making the journey to Mecca this way. And maybe it was for the best. Ibn Jubayr, an Arab traveler from al-Andalus who made the pilgrimage in the 12th century and wrote about his experiences, described horrifying conditions on the pilgrim boats from Aydhab to Jeddah, so the overland route to the north was probably nicer anyway.

Ibn Battuta returned uneventfully to Cairo, but now he decided that instead of taking the direct route across the Sinai and on south into the Hejaz he would instead travel from Cairo to the second city of the Mamluk Sultanate, Damascus. Hasani had said he should go by the Syrian road, after all, and he still had time to get to Damascus before the next Hajj caravan left that city in Shawwal.

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