Title: The Travels of Ibn Battutah
Author: Ibn Battutah, edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Year Published: 1356AD; this version 2002
Places Explored: Northern Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, the Maldives, Indonesia, China, Spain, West Africa
My Rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
“I have traveled through the countries of the world and I have met their kings.” – Ibn Battutah
This quote provides a pretty good summary of The Travels of Ibn Battutah. This man was able to travel through much of the known world in his time… pretty much all of the Muslim world and plenty of other places, from Spain to China and from Siberia to Tanzania, and met a lot of the important world leaders of the time. After spending pretty much his whole life traveling, he wrote this book. He was traveling in the 1300s, so many of the places he visited aren’t identifiable now, or are very different (reading about places like Aleppo was certainly interesting).
The story begins with him in Morocco, then doing a pilgrimage to Mecca and traveling throughout the Middle East. To be honest, this part was the toughest to get through for me. It was a lot of “I met this important religious person and this other important leader” and, because they were traveling through desert, a lot of “we stopped for water here, we camped here.” Without any connection to these places I had a hard time being interested that this or that town had nice orchards, so it was a bit tedious. Later places, like Turkey, Tanzania, India and China, were a bit more interesting.
There are plenty of interesting tidbits that I learned from reading this book. Ibn Battutah mentions twice how effective coconuts are as an aphrodisiac, for example. The myth about the “Land of Darkness” – which could only be accessed by 4o days of travel in ‘small wagons drawn by large dogs’ – was pretty cool. I also learned that the concept of putting sheets that can be removed and washed on a mattress was a new idea for Ibn Battutah, but an old one for the Indians. The story of how he met the princess Urduja was one of my favorite parts. From his conversation with her, she seemed like an awesome mix of the Greek goddess Artemis and Daenerys from Game of Thrones. She asks him about ‘the pepper country’ (India), and says, “I must invade it and take possession of it. Its wealth and its soldiers please me.” Ibn Battutah tells her, “Do so.”
I suppose since this was written several centuries before the invention of the novel, and since Ibn Battutah doesn’t seem to exaggerate much, it was inevitable that it would be a slow read. Besides some of the boring parts, like references to places and people I had no connection with (sans descriptions that would help me imagine them), one of the other things that slowed me down reading was how unlikable Ibn Battutah is.
He is extremely religious and judgmental of those who are not of the Sunni Muslim persuasion. At one point he tattles to local authorities on people for being naked… at a bathhouse. At another point he scolds a fellow Muslim traveler in front of everyone for eating food that wasn’t killed the halal way. When he’s in Africa he learns of the concept that men and women can be just friends (instead of wives or family members), and let’s just say his mind = blown. He also marries women left and right and seems to just leave them and the children he has with them behind as he continues on his travels.
Once, on a sinking ship, he moves to get in the lifeboat, ditching all his companions, and only bothers to let them in when they point out how terrible it is that he’s leaving them to die. In India, for some reason a sultan makes Ibn Battutah the commander of his army (I have no idea why he would deem him qualified for this). The battle goes well at the beginning, but when the going gets tough Ibn Battutah, army commander, ditches. In his own words, “We were besieged by the infidels and reduced to great straits. When the situation became serious, I left the town during the siege and returned to Qaliqut.” Nice, huh?
So, anyway, this was a really slow read for me. I actually took a break from it and read the whole The Count of Monte Cristo (which is amazing but a formidable 1200 pages) in less time then it took me to finish the second half of this book. When reading a travel memoir, it’s almost as if you are traveling with the writer, and let’s just say he’s not on my list of dream travel companions. I’m still glad I read the book, since it’s such a classic, and I will probably revisit it when I travel to any of the places he visited as a sort of historical reference.
Into the desert, of which the saying goes: ‘He who enters it is lost, and he who leaves it is born.’
It was a habit of mine on my travels never, so far as possible, to retrace any road that I had once traveled over.
I have indeed – praise be to God – attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the earth, and I have attained in this respect what no other person has attained to my knowledge.
Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battutah by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo