Ibn Battuta in the Levant

If you’ve been following Ibn Battuta’s journey on Twitter and/or Facebook then you know he’s finally made his way from Cairo to Damascus, picked up a Hajj caravan in Damascus, and set off for Mecca. You’ll also know that I’m a little skeptical about this part of Ibn Battuta’s account. When Ibn Battuta left Cairo he seemed to be in a great rush to get to Damascus in time to meet that year’s Hajj caravan. Indeed, his failed attempt to get to Mecca via the Red Sea, which would have put him in the Hejaz long before the next Hajj, is suggestive of somebody who wanted to get to Mecca as quickly as possible. But if he was in a rush, why go all the way to Damascus instead of cutting across the Sinai, a far more direct route from Cairo to the Hejaz? And why, according to his account, did he travel throughout the Levant–often doubling back a bit to see places he passed along the way–before finally meandering into Damascus?

Ibn Battuta’s timing is also suspect. Despite the litany of places he describes visiting on the way to Damascus, we’re also told that he made the journey in a scant 23 days, quick enough that he was able to spend most of the month of Ramadan in Damascus before heading out for the Hajj. It’s not inconceivable that Ibn Battuta made the trek he describes in the time he says it took, but it seems questionable. We know that Ibn Battuta related his account long after the fact, we know that he visited Syria again on his return home, and we’re pretty sure he just made up a couple of parts of his account that we’ll discuss later, so part of me wonders whether the combination of a faulty memory and a loose association with the facts caused Ibn Battuta  to fudge things a little bit. Regardless, I’m committed here to treating The Rihlah as though the whole thing really happened, even the parts we’re pretty sure didn’t happen, so on we go.

Damascus, Ibn Battuta’s goal, was nearly as important to the Mamluks as Cairo, their capital and largest city. Damascus was very much the second city of the sultanate, responsible for governing its Levantine territory and defending its northern and eastern frontiers, the ones that bordered the Mongols and the Mongols’ Turkic vassals in Anatolia. It was also a venerable city with an illustrious history and cultural preeminence, whose wares were as highly prized in Cairo as vice versa. And so the Mamluks made sure that the road from Cairo to Damascus was well-maintained and well-protected. It was also well-taxed; Ibn Battuta and other 14th century travelers in the region describe a sophisticated toll system based in the Sinai, which involved hired Bedouin literally smoothing out the desert sands every night so that in the morning patrol riders could search for the tracks left by smugglers or other would-be tax cheats.

Of course Ibn Battuta would not be Ibn Battuta if he simply rode straight to Damascus, and there’s no way a curious 14th century traveler was going to cruise the highway north to Syria without taking a side trip to see Jerusalem. Because of its religious significance, over the centuries Jerusalem has often held a prestige far out of whack with its actual size and political importance. So it was in 1326, when the “city” was probably home to about 10,000 people tops. With the Crusading era only fairly recently concluded, the city was kind of a battered wreck–the walls that had hampered both the First Crusade and Saladin were rubble, having been destroyed by the Muslim Ayyubids in the early 13th century in order to leave the city indefensible. But it was a magnet for pilgrims, as was nearby Hebron with the Cave of the Patriarchs, the alleged resting place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with their wives.

It’s likely that Ibn Battuta spent most of his time among Jerusalem’s Sufis, because we learn that he was bestowed with a Sufi cloak by a local master, Abd al-Rahman ibn Mustafa. Which means he must have made an impression on the elder man. The 14th century was a time of great Sufi activity, and it’s not hard to understand why. The Mongols had destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate just a few decades earlier and the ramifications of that loss were still being worked out. An upsurge in mysticism and spirituality seems like a natural popular response to the loss of the preeminent religio-political authority in Islam, at the hands of a conquering horde that may well have seemed at its peak like a harbinger of the end times.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of Ibn Battuta’s alleged travels on the way from Jerusalem to Damascus, but I think they do highlight a key detail of the post-caliphal Islamic world: the decentralization of power. It can be easy to think of medieval kingdoms and empires as something akin to modern autocracies, but in reality the limits of transportation and communication meant that the central authority could only control things at a remove, and never with much real day to day power outside of the capital or wherever the sovereign might reside at any given time. In a world like the early 14th century Middle East, which had been knocked well off of its equilibrium by the Mongols only about 70 years earlier, this was even more true. The Mamluks ruled Egypt and Syria, yes, but outside of Cairo, Damascus, and a few other major cities locals were in charge of themselves, and as long as they kicked their taxes upstairs regularly they had a lot of leeway to live life as they wished.

Maybe the best example of this comes from Ibn Battuta’s visit to the northern Syrian coast, the home of the Alawites (or Nusairiyah as Ibn Battuta calls them). Our traveler clearly doesn’t know very much about the Alawites–his explanation that they “hold the belief that Ali b. Abi Talib is a god” isn’t completely off the mark but it’s not accurate either–but he does know, purportedly from personal experience, that they don’t worship in mosques. Nevertheless the Mamluks–again this is according to Ibn Battuta–required them to build mosques in their towns. So, we’re told, they built the structures on the outskirts of their towns and used them to house livestock. Strangers who happened upon an Alawite village and entered the mosque to make the call to prayer would be told to “stop braying; your fodder is coming to you.” That part may be a little poetic license. But the rest of the story reflects how power worked at the time–as long as subjects kept to a certain minimum level of obedience, there wasn’t much a sultan could or would do to really monitor their behavior.

Ibn Battuta arrived in Damascus, by his account, on August 9 1326, or Ramadan 9 726. Next to Cairo it was certainly the largest and most spectacular city Ibn Battuta had ever seen, home to about 100,000 people. Damascus was far removed from its heyday as the capital of the Umayyad dynasty–that run had ended in 750 when the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids–but it was still a regional hub thanks to its plentiful water, and since this was a period when the Mongol Ilkhans were in decline trade routes to the east were beginning to open back up and bring commerce back into the city. The Mamluks were also on something of a building spree in Damascus, spearheaded by their Syrian viceroy Tankiz (d. 1340). The Mamluks always had governors in Damascus running Syria, but Tankiz, a favorite of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, stands out for the degree to which he was able to amass power in the region. Eventually he amassed too much power and al-Nasir Muhammad had him arrested and executed, but that’s not our problem here.


The Umayyad Mosque, from the 14th century Kitab al-Bulhan (The Book of Wonders) by Abd al-Hasan al-Isfahani (Wikimedia Commons)

Damascus’s most venerated institution was undoubtedly the Umayyad Great Mosque, and as far as we can tell Ibn Battuta seems to have spent most of his time in the city at the mosque, worshiping and attending Quran readings and lectures. Ibn Battuta claims to have completed 14 separate courses (“completing” a course usually meant listening to a teacher read and lecture on an important book and receiving a certificate–an ijaza–signifying that you were now qualified to teach on that same book) in the scant 24 days he was in Damascus. This would be an outrageous pace of study under normal conditions, but it was also Ramadan, so he was fasting, and Ibn Battuta tells us that while he was in Damascus he yet again came down with a serious fever and that he yet again got married (they seem to have divorced when he left the city). So probably there’s a little exaggeration going on here, or a little misremembering. Nevertheless we have no reason to doubt that he did spend a considerable amount of time in study.

Immediately following Ramadan and the ensuing Eid al-Fitr celebration, Ibn Battuta joined the Damascus Hajj caravan and finally set out toward what had been his goal from the start: Mecca.

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