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.


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.


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’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’s 1325, part 1: Leaving Tangier

Precise dating for the first part of Ibn Battuta’s trip is all but impossible. We know that he arrived, or at least that he remembered arriving, in Alexandria on April 5, 1326, so just a bit shy of ten months after his departure from Tangier. We know (again, based on his recollection) that he set out from Tunis toward the beginning of November 1325. But otherwise he doesn’t really offer a lot of help with the chronology of his trek across North Africa. We’re of course further hampered by the fact that Ibn Battuta dated his adventures according to the Islamic calendar, whereas we’re converting dates to the Gregorian calendar. So when we do get specific dates keep in mind that they could still be a little wobbly. And also keep in mind that this whole journey is being recounted by Ibn Battuta years after he took it, which introduces some extra wobbliness into the situation. To simplify things, even though he doesn’t get to Alexandria until April 1326, we’ll treat his North African leg as 1325 and start 1326 with his arrival in Egypt.


Who was Ibn Battuta?

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Lawati al-Tangi ibn Battuta, or “Ibn Battuta” for short, was born in the Moroccan city of Tangier in 1304. By all rights he was an unremarkable man: educated but not elite, born into a comfortable but not wealthy or powerful family in a city that was not one of the dominant cultural centers of the Islamic Maghreb (western North Africa). Had he remained in Tangier it’s likely that he would have lived and died in relative anonymity, and that we wouldn’t know his name today.


Before we set out

Activity here at the website will be picking up this weekend, so please stay tuned for that. In the meantime, I’ve happened upon a set of three BBC documentaries on YouTube retracing Ibn Battuta’s steps in modern times. This first episode covers Ibn Battuta’s journey across North Africa to Egypt. Aside from an overview of the trip, it offers a great look at modern life in these places, so I hope you enjoy it. I’ll post the other videos in the series when we get to those parts of the trip. (more…)