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.
The Hafsid dynasty was the first of the three successor dynasties to emerge from the collapse of the Almohad Caliphate in the mid 13th century. Unlike the Zayyanids, who had merely been regional governors in Tlemcen under the Almohads, and the Marinids, who had never been anything more than an enemy to the Almohads, the Hafsids had been part of the Almohad project from its earliest days as a religious revivalist movement. Unlike the Marinids and Zayyanids, the Hafsids emerged from the same Masmuda Amazigh background as Ibn Tumart and the Almohads. In fact, the dynasty could trace its ancestry to one of Ibn Tumart’s closest companions, Omar Abu Hafs al-Hentati, so it held a prominent position in the caliphate throughout its history.
When Ibn Battuta set out from Tangier on Hajj in 1325, Marinid Morocco was one of three kingdoms occupying the territory of the former Almohad Caliphate. Immediately to their east, and the next stop on Ibn Battuta’s journey, was the Kingdom of Tlemcen, ruled by the Zayyanid dynasty. This map should illustrate things for you:
After Ibn Battuta left Marinid Morocco he entered the Kingdom of Tlemcen, under the control of the Zayyanid Dynasty, sometimes also known as the Abd al-Wadids. They ruled a territory that to some degree corresponds with modern Algeria, or at least the coastal parts of modern Algeria, as you can see on the map:
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.
The first territory Ibn Battuta crossed on his journey was, obviously, his homeland. So that’s where our journey has to begin as well.
Actually, we should probably start in an even more basic place than that, with a little etymology. Sorry. The thing is that my use of the name “Morocco,” which helps my English-speaking brain situate Ibn Battuta’s homeland geographically, is kind of problematic. Historically, for Arabic speakers, this region–at the far western edge of North Africa–is the Maghrib or, as you’ll sometimes see in modern usage, “Maghreb.” The word simply means “western place” so its usage here should be fairly self-explanatory. The modern nation is usually called al-Maghrib in Arabic, though its full name is al-Mamlakah al-Maghribiyyah, “the Western Kingdom.” The name “Morocco” derives from the city of Marrakesh, whose name may be Tamazight (Berber) in origin but we can’t be sure. In European usage for centuries Morocco was known as the “Kingdom of Marrakesh” since Marrakesh was often its capital and most important city. Morocco is still called “Marrakesh” today in Persian and several Persian-influenced languages (Pashto, Urdu, Uzbek, Sindhi, Azerbaijani, etc.)
Turks, by the way, call the country Fas, after the city of Fez. Same idea as Morocco/Marrakesh but different city. It’s a land of contrasts.
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.
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…)