Mamluk Origins: Ibn Battuta’s Egypt and Syria, part 1

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.


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.