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Ibn Battuta: Travels & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ibn Battuta was one of the great travelers in human history, and had a thirst for knowledge. In this lesson, we'll explore his journey across the Islamic world in the 14th century.

Ibn Battuta

Many people consider themselves well-traveled, but that may not really be the case. One person, however, could really make that claim. Ibn Battuta was a 14th century Muslim scholar who became one of the greatest travelers of all time when he embarked on a journey across the Islamic world, guided by a desire for knowledge and an unshakeable faith. So, let's recount the travels of Ibn Batutta, and see what it takes to be a great world traveler.

Ibn Battuta was a great world traveler, and on camelback nonetheless
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Early Life

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier, today part of Morocco, in 1304. At the time, it was one of the westernmost parts of the vast territory loosely unified under the Islamic religion, stretching into western and southeast Asia. Battuta's family was in the legal profession, a very important job in Islamic society, and Battuta followed suit. However, Tangier didn't have a major university, or madrasa, and he was filled with a desire to learn more. The Islamic world had some great libraries, but they were far away. However Ibn Battuta had a reason to leave Tangier. It is an expected tenet of Islam that members of the faith must make pilgrimages to the holy site of Mecca, a journey called the hajj. At the age of 21, Ibn Battuta got a donkey, and by himself left Tangier to start his hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca would take him on a 29-year journey that spanned nearly 75,000 miles.

Travels, Part One

Ibn Battuta's first destination was Tunis, today in Tunisia. Along the way, he was sustained by madrasas, hospices, and private citizens in accordance with the Islam value of providing for those on a hajj. By the time he left Tunis, he had joined up with a travelling caravan and served as their judge to resolve legal disputes. They passed through Alexandria and Damascus, homes of massive libraries. In Alexandria, Battuta stayed with some prominent scholars, and had a dream where a large bird carried him east. The scholar and holy man he was staying with interpreted the dream to mean that Ibn Battuta would travel east and stay there for a long time.

Ibn Battuta on his travels
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The prophecy turned out to be quite accurate. From Egypt, Ibn Battuta started going on small trips around the region. Of the three most common routes to Mecca, he chose the least travelled, taking him along the Nile and Red Sea, before being forced to turn back by local wars. He ended up making it to Mecca through Syria, a journey that took him through Jerusalem and other holy sites as well. Battuta made it to Mecca, where he remained for a month to complete the religious rituals. He joined a caravan returning from Mecca through Iraq, but halfway through took his own detour into Persia, and travelled extensively throughout the Middle East, meeting scholars, princes, and even the Mongol rulers who used Baghdad as one of their westernmost trading cities, connecting them to China along the massive trade routes known as the silk roads.

Travels, Part Two

From the Middle East, Ibn Battuta made it either to the Red Sea or the Kush Mountains, and eventually into India. In Delhi, he took an appointment as a judge in the court of the Muslim king who controlled that territory. He worked as a judge in Delhi for years, before getting the itch to travel again. He then left for China, as an ambassador of the Muslim king bringing shiploads of trade and tribute items. According to Ibn Battuta's accounts, the larger ship was caught in a major storm and sank. He was supposed to be on that ship, but had gone to Friday prayers instead, and left later on a smaller vessel. With all of his belongings destroyed, minus his prayer rug, he set sail for China. He made it as far as the Maldives, the islands 400 miles off of India's coast. Battuta claimed to have made it all the way to China, although scholars dispute this due to inconsistencies in his reports, and the fact he claimed to be deeply unimpressed with Beijing.

The route of Ibn Battuta, according to his own recordings
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