Travels with

Globetrotting with the Great Moroccan Scholar Ibn Battuta

Ed Peters tries to keep track of roving scholar and judge Ibn Battuta, whose travels took him from Morocco to Mecca, Beijing and beyond

You may not have heard of Ibn Battuta (though you might have shopped in the gargantuan Dubai mall named after him), and so are unlikely to have dipped into his catchily titled magnum opus: The Precious Gift for Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel, which stormed the bestseller lists back in the 14th century.

To put it briefly, Ibn Battuta – Morocco’s Marco Polo; IB to his intimates – trotted about the globe in the Late Middle Ages, ranging across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, India and China for almost 30 years.

When he finally returned home to Tangier in 1354, he dictated The Precious Gift for Lookers… to a scribe from memory; some scholars say he cribbed bits, others that he made stuff up. Either way, he was a born storyteller, and nobody else had come up with the idea beforehand. So there.

Born and brought up a Muslim, IB trained as a jurist in Islamic law. His first stop was Mecca, naturally, but he didn’t so much catch the travel bug as hug it to his chest, and promptly set off for pastures new.

Given that IB frequently picked up and dispensed with female companions and slaves – as well as any souvenirs in the form of children – rather as modern travellers employ Uber, I’m a touch chary of proposing myself as his nomadic bosom buddy.

Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Nevertheless, I would have liked to have seen first-hand how he inveigled his way into the court at Delhi, where the ultra-powerful and stinking rich Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq presented the weary and impoverished Tangerian with a hefty bag of gold and the post of qadi, or judge. IB’s 10 years in India were not without adventure – at one point he lost all his possessions in a violent storm – but he finally quit judging and set sail for China on a diplomatic mission for the sultan, landing in the summer of 1346 at Quanzhou, which he described as ‘the greatest harbour in the world’.

Refreshed, IB made his way to Guangzhou, lodging with Arab merchants who from the looks of things had already been in situ for some time, and Hangzhou – where he witnessed a spectacular mock naval battle with oranges used as ammunition – and then on to Beijing.

Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Or did he? Critics have pointed to numerous errors in his writings on China – IB deduced porcelain was made from coal, and mentioned travelling throughout the country on a network of canals – and they doubt he actually got anywhere near Khanbaliq, the centre of the Mongol empire, and what is now Beijing. If I’d dogged his footsteps, I’d have known for sure if he really witnessed an emperor being interred with live horses and retainers, or simply wanted to spice up his stories. As it is, I’ll have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

IB’s return to his homeland was by no means plain sailing; both Jerusalem and Cairo were being ravaged by the Black Death as he passed through. Back in Morocco, he worked as a judge in the Casablanca region before dying circa 1368. For centuries afterwards, his reflections, which became known simply as The Travels, remained relatively unknown ­– despite the fact that he travelled farther and more widely than many of the best-known travellers throughout history.

According to one account, his last words were: ‘Our time upon the earth is short. Not so our time beneath it.’ Sound advice for prospective lookers into the marvels and wonders of travel.

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