IBN BATUTA, 1328-1353

Ibn Batuta—The Nile—Gaza, Tyre, Tiberias, Libanus, Baalbec, Damascus, Meshid, Bussorah, Baghdad, Tabriz, Mecca and Medina—Yemen—Abyssinia—The country of the Berbers—Zanguebar—Ormuz—Syria—Anatolia—Asia Minor—Astrakhan—Constantinople—Turkestan—Herat—The Indus—Delhi—Malabar—The Maldives—Ceylon—The Coromandel coast—Bengal—The Nicobar Islands—Sumatra—China—Africa—The Niger—Timbuctoo.

Marco Polo had returned to his native land now nearly twenty-five years, when a Franciscan monk traversed the whole of Asia, from the Black Sea to the extreme limits of China, passing by Trebizond, Mount Ararat, Babel, and the island of Java; but he was so credulous of all that was told him, and his narrative is so confused, that but little reliance can be placed upon it. It is the same with the fabulous travels of Jean de Mandeville. Cooley says of them, "They are so utterly untrue, that they have not their parallel in any language."

But we find a worthy successor to the Venetian traveller in an Arabian theologian, named Abdallah El Lawati, better known by the name of Ibn Batuta. He did for Egypt, Arabia, Anatolia, Tartary, India, China, Bengal, and Soudan, what Marco Polo had done for Central Asia, and he is worthy to be placed in the foremost rank as a brave traveller and bold explorer. In the year 1324, the 725th year of the Hegira, he resolved to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and starting from Tangier, his native town, he went first to Alexandria, and thence to Cairo. During his stay in Egypt he turned his attention to the Nile, and especially to the Delta; then he tried to sail up the river, but being stopped by disturbances on the Nubian frontier, he was obliged to return to the mouth of the river, and then set sail for Asia Minor.

Ibn Batuta in Egypt
Ibn Batuta in Egypt.

After visiting Gaza, the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Tyre, then strongly fortified and unassailable on three sides, and Tiberias, which was in ruins, and whose celebrated baths were completely destroyed, Ibn Batuta was attracted by the wonders of Lebanon, the centre for all the hermits of that day, who had judiciously chosen one of the most lovely spots in the whole world wherein to end their days. Then passing Baalbec, and going on to Damascus, he found the city (in the year 1345) decimated by the plague. This fearful scourge devoured "24,000 persons daily," if we may believe his report, and Damascus would have been depopulated, had not the prayers of all the people offered up in the mosque containing the stone with the print of Moses' foot upon it, been heard and answered. On leaving Damascus, Ibn Batuta went to Mesjid, where he visited the tomb of Ali, which attracts a large number of paralytic pilgrims who need only to spend one night in prayer beside it, to be completely cured. Batuta does not seem to doubt the authenticity of this miracle, well known in the East under the title of "the Night of Cure."

From Mesjid, the traveller went to Bussorah, and entered the kingdom of Ispahan, and then the province of Shiraz, where he wished to converse with the celebrated worker of miracles, Magd Oddin. From Shiraz he went to Baghdad, to Tabriz, then to Medina, where he prayed beside the tomb of the Prophet, and finally to Mecca, where he remained three years. It is well known that from Mecca, caravans are continually starting for the surrounding country, and it was in company with some of these bold merchants that Ibn Batuta was able to visit the towns of Yemen. He went as far as Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea, and embarked for Zaila, one of the Abyssinian ports. He was now once more on African ground, and advanced into the country of the Berbers, that he might study the manners and customs of those dirty and repulsive tribes; he found their diet consisted wholly of fish and camels' flesh. But in the town of Makdasbu, there was an attempt at comfort and civilization, presenting a most agreeable contrast with the surrounding squalor. The inhabitants were very fat, each of them, to use Ibn's own expression, "eating enough to feed a convent;" they were very fond of delicacies, such as plantains boiled in milk, preserved citrons, pods of fresh pepper, and green ginger.

After seeing all he wished of the country of the Berbers, chiefly on the coast, he resolved to go to Zanguebar, and then, crossing the Red Sea and following the coast of Arabia, he came to Zafar, a town situated upon the Indian Ocean. The vegetation of this country is most luxuriant, the betel, cocoa-nut, and incense-trees forming there great forests; still the traveller pushed on, and came to Ormuz on the Persian Gulf, and passed through several provinces of Persia. We find him a second time at Mecca in the year 1332, three years after he had left it.

But this was only to be a short rest for the traveller, for now, leaving Asia for Africa, he went to Upper Egypt, a region but little known, and thence to Cairo. He next visited Syria, making a short stay at Jerusalem and Tripoli, and thence he visited the Turkomans of Anatolia, where the "confraternity of young men" gave him a most hearty welcome.

After Anatolia, the Arabian narrative speaks of Asia Minor. Ibn Batuta advanced as far as Erzeroum, where he was shown an aerolite weighing 620 pounds. Then, crossing the Black Sea, he visited the Crimea, Kaffa, and Bulgar, a town of sufficiently high latitude for the unequal length of day and night to be very marked; and at last he reached Astrakhan, at the mouth of the Volga, where the Khan of Tartary lived during the winter months.

The Princess Bailun, the wife of the khan, and daughter of the Emperor of Constantinople, was wishing to visit her father, and it was an opportunity not to be lost by Ibn Batuta for exploring Turkey in Europe; he gained permission to accompany the princess, who set out attended by 5000 men, and followed by a portable mosque, which was set up at every place where they stayed. The princess's reception at Constantinople was very magnificent, the bells being rung with such spirit that he says, "even the horizon seemed full of the vibration."

The welcome given to the theologian by the princes of the country was worthy of his fame; he remained in the city thirty-six days, so that he was able to study it in all its details.

This was a time when communication between the different countries was both dangerous and difficult, and Ibn Batuta was considered a very bold traveller. Egypt, Arabia, Turkey in Asia, the Caucasian provinces had all in turn been explored by him. After such hard work he might well have taken rest and been satisfied with the laurels that he had gained, for he was without doubt the most celebrated traveller of the fourteenth century; but his insatiable passion for travelling remained, and the circle of his explorations was still to widen considerably.

On leaving Constantinople, Ibn Batuta went again to Astrakhan, thence crossing the sandy wastes of the present Turkestan, he arrived at Khovarezen, a large populous town, then at Bokhara, half destroyed by the armies of Gengis-Khan. Some time after we hear of him at Samarcand, a religious town which greatly pleased the learned traveller, and then at Balkh which he could not reach without crossing the desert of Khorassan. This town was all in ruins and desolate, for the armies of the barbarians had been there, and Ibn Batuta could not remain in it, but wished to go westward to the frontier of Afghanistan. The mountainous country, near the Hindoo Koosh range, confronted him, but this was no barrier to him, and after great fatigue, which he bore with equal patience and good-humour, he reached the important town of Herat. This was the most westerly point reached by the traveller; he now resolved to change his course for an easterly one, and in going to the extreme limits of Asia, to reach the shores of the Pacific: if he could succeed in this he would pass the bounds of the explorations of the celebrated Marco Polo.

He set out, and following the course of the river Kabul and the frontiers of Afghanistan, he came to the Sindhu, the modern Indus, and descended it to its mouth. From the town of Lahore, he went to Delhi, which great and beautiful city had been deserted by its inhabitants, who had fled from the Emperor Mohammed.

This tyrant, who was occasionally both generous and magnificent, received the Arabian traveller very well, made him a judge in Delhi, and gave him a grant of land with some pecuniary advantages that were attached to the post, but these honours were not to be of any long duration, for Ibn Batuta being implicated in a pretended conspiracy, thought it best to give up his place, and make himself a fakir to escape the Emperor's displeasure. Mohammed, however, pardoned him, and made him his ambassador to China.

Fortune again smiled upon the courageous traveller, and he had now the prospect of seeing these distant lands under exceptionally good and safe circumstances. He was charged with presents for the Emperor of China, and 2000 horse-soldiers were given him as an escort.

But Ibn Batuta had not thought of the insurgents who occupied the surrounding countries; a skirmish took place between the escort and the Hindoos, and the traveller, being separated from his companions, was taken prisoner, robbed, garotted, and carried off he knew not whither; but his courage and hopefulness did not forsake him, and he contrived to escape from the hands of these robbers. After wandering about for seven days, he was received into his house by a negro, who at length led him back to the emperor's palace at Delhi.

Mohammed fitted out another expedition, and again appointed the Arabian traveller as his ambassador. This time they passed through the enemy's country without molestation, and by way of Kanoje, Mersa, Gwalior, and Barun, they reached Malabar. Some time after, they arrived at the great port of Calicut, an important place which became afterwards the chief town of Malabar; here they were detained by contrary winds for three months, and made use of this time to study the Chinese mercantile marine which frequented this port. Ibn speaks with great admiration of these junks which are like floating gardens, where ginger and herbs are grown on deck; they are each like a separate village, and some merchants were the possessors of a great number of these junks.

At last the wind changed; Ibn Batuta chose a small junk well fitted up, to take him to China, and had all his property put on board. Thirteen other junks were to receive the presents sent by the King of Delhi to the Emperor of China, but during the night a violent storm arose, and all the vessels sank. Fortunately for Ibn he had remained on shore to attend the service at the mosque, and thus his piety saved his life, but he had lost everything except "the carpet which he used at his devotions." After this second misfortune he could not make up his mind to appear before the King of Delhi. This catastrophe was enough to weary the patience of a more long-suffering emperor than Mohammed.

Ibn soon made up his mind what to do. Leaving the service of the emperor, and the advantages attaching to the post of ambassador, he embarked for the Maldive Islands, which were governed by a woman, and where a large trade in cocoa was carried on. Here he was again made a judge, but this was only of short duration, for the vizier became jealous of his success, and, after marrying three wives, Ibn was obliged to take refuge in flight. He hoped to reach the Coromandel coast, but contrary winds drove his vessel towards Ceylon, where he was very well received, and gained the king's permission to climb the sacred mountain of Serendid, or Adam's Peak. His object was to see the wonderful impression of a foot at the summit, which the Hindoos call "Buddha's," and the Mahometans "Adam's, foot." He pretends, in his narrative, that this impression measures eleven hands in length, a very different account from that of an historian of the ninth century, who declared it to be seventy-nine cubits long! This historian also adds that while one of the feet of our forefather rested on the mountain, the other was in the Indian ocean.

Ibn Batuta speaks also of large bearded apes, forming a considerable item in the population of the island, and said to be under a king of their own, crowned with leaves. We can give what credit we like to such fables as these, which were propagated by the credulity of the Hindoos.

From Ceylon, the traveller made his way to the Coromandel coast, but not without experiencing some severe storms. He crossed to the other side of the Indian peninsula, and again embarked.

Ibn Batuta's vessel was seized by pirates
Ibn Batuta's vessel was seized by pirates.

But his vessel was seized by pirates, and Ibn Batuta arrived at Calicut almost without clothes, robbed, and worn out with fatigue. No misfortune could damp his ardour, his was one of those great spirits which seem only invigorated by trouble and disasters. As soon as he was enabled by the kindness of some Delhi merchants to resume his travels, he embarked for the Maldive Islands, went on to Bengal, there set sail for Sumatra, and disembarked at one of the Nicobar Islands after a very bad passage which had lasted fifty days. Fifteen days afterwards he arrived at Sumatra, where the king gave him a hearty welcome and furnished him with means to continue his journey to China.

A junk took him in seventy-one days to the port Kailuka, capital of a country somewhat problematical, of which the brave and handsome inhabitants excelled in making arms. From Kailuka, Ibn passed into the Chinese provinces, and went first to the splendid town of Zaitem, probably the present Tsieun-tcheou of the Chinese, a little to the north of Nankin. He passed through various cities of this great empire, studying the customs of the people and admiring everywhere the riches, industry, and civilization that he found, but he did not get as far as the Great Wall, which he calls "The obstacle of Gog and Magog." It was while he was exploring this immense tract of country that he made a short stay in the city of Tchensi, which is composed of six fortified towns standing together. It happened that during his wanderings he was able to be present at the funeral of a khan, who was buried with four slaves, six of his favourites, and four horses.

In the meanwhile, disturbances had occurred at Zaitem, which obliged Ibn to leave this town, so he set sail for Sumatra, and then after touching at Calicut and Ormuz, he returned to Mecca in 1348, having made the tour of Persia and Syria.

But the time of rest had not yet come for this indefatigable explorer; the following year he revisited his native place Tangier, and then after travelling in the southern countries of Europe he returned to Morocco, went to Soudan and the countries watered by the Niger, crossed the Great Desert and entered Timbuctoo, thus making a journey which would have rendered illustrious a less ambitious traveller.

This was to be his last expedition. In 1353, twenty-nine years after leaving Tangier for the first time, he returned to Morocco, and settled at Fez. He has earned the reputation of being the most intrepid explorer of the fourteenth century, and well merits to be ranked next after Marco Polo, the illustrious Venetian.