Ibn Batuta (c. 1304-1368), or ابن بطوطة, was an Arab scholar and judge who travelled throughout most of the known world in the early 1300s, from Spain to China, from Samarkand to Timbuktu – a sort of Arab Marco Polo, one who went 120,000 km to Polo’s “mere” 24,000 km.
Unlike Polo, he saw black Africa, visiting Kilwa and the Mali Empire. He saw more of India but less of China and almost none of the Silk Road. He saw the Black Plague and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. He saw the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and crossed the Sahara.
He travelled from 1325 to 1354, from age 21 to 50. He wrote it all down in a book of a thousand pages called the “Rihla” (1355).
He visited the following present-day countries and cities (some dates might be a year off):
- 1325: Morocco (Tangiers), Algeria, Tunisia (Tunis)
- 1326: Egypt (Alexandria, Cairo), Israel (Jerusalem), Syria (Damascus), Jordan, Saudi Arabia (Medina, Mecca)
- 1327: Iraq (Baghdad, Najaf, Basra), Turkey, Iran (Shiraz, Tabriz)
- 1328: (studies in Mecca till 1330)
- 1330: Sudan, Yemen (Aden, Sana’a)
- 1331: Somalia (Mogadishu), Kenya (Mombasa), Tanzania (Kilwa), Oman
- 1332: Turkey (Ephesus, Constantinople)
- 1333: Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (Bukhoro, Samarkand), Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (Delhi)
- 1334: (works for the sultan of Delhi till 1341)
- 1341: Maldives
- 1342-45: Sri Lanka, eastern India (Calcutta), Bangladesh
- 1346: Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China (Quanzhou, Hangzhou, Beijing)
- 1347: (heading back west)
- 1348: Syria (Damascus – stricken with the Black Plague)
- 1349: Morocco
- 1350: Spain
- 1351: Morocco (Marrakesh)
- 1352-54: crosses the Sahara to Timbuktu: Algeria, Mauritania, Mali (Timbuktu, Gao), Niger
Ibn Batuta was Arab by tongue and Berber by blood, what Shakespeare would call a Moor. He grew up in Tangiers at the north-western corner of Africa. Because he studied Muslim law he could work as a judge or teacher in most places he visited, which is just what he did for nine years in India under the sultan of Delhi and again in the Maldives (islands south-west of India).
At first he set out merely to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious duty for every Muslim who has the means to go. But he stayed on in Mecca and studied for three years.
Throughout the Muslim world there were places to live and study for travelling scholars like him. And the Sufi order had a network of guest houses, where he sometimes stayed.
He was not a good family man: he married at least seven women, and had children, but in the end he left them all behind. He also had children with his slave girls. One slave girl he bought in Ephesus for 40 dinars (80 crowns or $2100). She was Greek.
He grew rich under the sultan of Delhi but then in 1341 lost everything but the clothes on his back to pirates on the Malabar Coast of India.
In 1346 in China after 21 years on the road, he wanted to come home. It took him three years. When he got to Damascus in 1348 he saw the Black Plague killing thousands a day. In Cairo it was even worse. And in Tangiers it killed his mother – just six months before he got home.