Ibn Battuta

by The Editorial Team Published on: 27th April 2007

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The Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta is known as the greatest traveller of premodern times. He lived in the 8th century H/14th century CE. Leaving his homeland at the age of 21 to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, he performed a series of extraordinary journeys that spanned nearly three decades and took him as far away as India and China, but also to the Volga River valley and south to Tanzania. The narrative of his travels is a unique account on Islamic and medieval history that was placed by the historians within the rich, trans-hemispheric cultural setting of the history of the medieval world.

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Figure 1. Ibn Battuta as imagined by a present-day artist. ©1001inventions

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304. His year of death is uncertain, possibly 1368-69. He was a Moroccan traveller, geographer, botanist and man of the law. At times he was a Qadi or judge; however, he is best known as a traveller and explorer, whose account documents his travels and excursions over a period of almost thirty years, covering some 73,000 miles (117,000 km). These journeys covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic world, extending from present-day North and West Africa to Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and China, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessor and near-contemporary Marco Polo.

In 1325 he left his parental home for pilgrimage in Mecca. He narrated the beginning of his journeys as follows:

“I left Tangiers, my birth place on Thursday 2 Rajab, 725 (H) with the intention of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. I was alone, without companions, not in a caravan, but I was stirred by a powerful urge to reach my goal (Mecca)… I left my friends and my home, just as a bird leaves its parental nest. My father and mother were still alive, and with great pain, I parted with them. For me as for them, it was cause of insufferable illness. I was then only twenty two.”[1]

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Figure 2. Painting of Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta went through North Africa, Upper Egypt, and reached the town of Aidhab to find out he could not cross the Red Sea for Mecca due to a local war.[2] Failing to find a safe crossing point, he went through Syria and Palestine before reaching Mecca. From there, he went to Iraq, Iran, then back to Mecca, where he stayed for two years (729-730 H.[3] Then crossing southern Arabia, he went back into Eastern Africa, just to cross back into southern Arabia, and back again in Mecca; then Egypt, Syria, and then crossing Asia Minore, to reach Crimea. He visited Constantinople, and reached the shores of the Volga.[4] He crossed Khwarizm, Bukhara, Afghanistan, and reached Delhi in India, which was then a Muslim land. He spent two years there as a Qadi (judge), before he joined an embassy for China. He stopped in the Maldives, exerting as a judge there for a year and a half.[5] From there, through Ceylon, Bengal, and India he reached China, as far as Zaitun (Pekin) and Canton. Passing by Sumatra, he returned to Arabia (748 H).[6] From there, he travelled to Iran, Syria, Iraq, and back for a fourth pilgrimage in Mecca. He reached Fes by a trip through the whole of North Africa.[7] Not feeling too tired, he went north to Grenada (Spain), before turning further south to the interior of Africa, reaching Tombuctu.[8] In the interior of Africa, he visited the mighty Mali Madinka state, in particular, the cities of Timbuctu and Gao.[9] He returned to Morocco, to Fes, and at the request of the Merinid Sultan Abu Inan, Ibn Battuta dictated his travels (Rihla) to the secretary Ibn Djozay, an official at the court of the Sultan. He died in his country around 1368-69.[10]

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Figure 3. The Traveling Man: the Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354 by James Rumford (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

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Figure 4. Moroccan stamp depicting Ibn Battuta.

Ibn Battuta’s Rihla[11] is an account of his travels that took him from Tangiers through over forty countries. His work was translated into French by Defremey and Sanguinetty, a translation usefully accompanied by the Arabic version. However, the version chosen here to give some accounts of his work is the English partial selection and translation by H.R. Gibb[12], who only translated chosen extracts (thus the Arabic and French versions remaining more comprehensive and whole). The merit of Gibb’s version is that it gives a very useful and lengthy introduction on Ibn Battuta’s life, relating for instance to his adoption of an ascetic life, resigning all his offices and giving away all his possessions at some stage, before he was urged into accepting office again by Sultan Muhammad of India and became his envoy at the head of an important mission to the most powerful Emperor of China. Gibb also tells of how Ibn Battuta was a hunted fugitive for eight days and was left only with the clothes he was wearing and his prayer mat, forcing him to seek refuge in Malabar, where he became Qadi again.[13] During his journey from Alexandria to the Maghreb, and on two occasions, he narrowly escaped capture by European pirates yet still his love for travel was never exhausted.[14]

In medieval times, in the Muslim world, going on pilgrimage, meant visiting, and on occasions, studying with the famous scholars to be met en route; customary study trips often extended over many years.[15] For Ibn Battuta, it went longer than any other. He did not just perform his religious duty four times during his rihla. From each part visited, Ibn Battuta relates his experiences and observations, which brings witness to the countries he visited and constitutes a unique account on the lives of societies, nature, history, geography, politics of various lands. Ibn Battuta was interested in political conditions and glories of foreign rulers; in economic factors, in all sorts of strange customs, such as those of marriage and burial; in the construction of Indian beds and the kind of fuel used in China; in strange inventions, such as wagons in the Crimea or supposed way of getting rid of vermin; in remarkable animals, minerals, and to a greater degree, trees and plants, especially those useful to humans.[16] And all these aspects help us today to understand life in all these diverse places in those times. Thus as Rosenthal reckon, Ibn Battuta’s observations are not just undisputed, he also contributes considerably to our knowledge, his data being often the only ones we have to fill our knowledge of particular parts of the globe.[17]

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Figure 5.  Crater Ibn Battuta on the Moon [6.9oS, 50.4oE]. (Source)

To form an idea on the variety of Ibn Batuta’s observations, a few examples follow. Thus, in Egypt, he makes many observations of Cairo:

“There you find them all, the great scholars and the ignorant, men of stature, and frivolous men, the gentle and those short-tempered, those with great fame, and those totally ignored. The city’s population is so high that their movements remind of the waves of the sea… although an old city, it still remains youthful.”[18]

On the River Nile, he states:

“The Egyptian Nile surpasses all rivers of the earth in the sweetness of taste, length of course, and utility. No other river in the world can show such a continuous series of towns and villages along its banks, or a basin so intensely cultivated. Its course is from south to north, contrary to all other [great] rivers. One extraordinary thing about it is that it begins to rise in the extreme hot weather, at the time when rivers generally diminish and dry up, and begins to subside just when rivers begin to increase and overflow. The river Indus resembles it in this feature…. Some distance below Cairo the Nile divides into three streams, none of which can be crossed except by boat, winter or summer. The inhabitants of every township have canals led off the Nile; these are filled when the river is in flood and carry the water over the fields.”[19]

Figure 6-7.  “14th-century traveller Ibn Battuta’s tomb [Tangier, Morocco]. He saw the world, braved the storms, dined with kings, slept in palaces, felt the mysterious & bizarre. Yet his final resting place is in an obscure & humble abode in the midst of a society where life goes on, as it always has” Amro Ali

Religious sites impress Ibn Battuta greatly, especially the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the mosques of Aleppo and Damascus.[20] Damascus strikes him for the dedication of its population to all forms and manners of religious foundations, so many foundations, it is difficult for him to count them. He cites as instances legs by people who could not travel to Mecca to pay others to do it; foundations aimed at providing girls from poor backgrounds with all their requirements for their marriage; foundations devoted to purchasing the freedom of Muslim prisoners; others for paying the maintenance of roads, and so many more.[21] Once, he saw a young boy dropping a porcelain plate, which broke. The passer-byes told the boy to take the pieces to the foundation for utensils. On doing so, he got a refund for the value of a new plate.[22] The people of Damascus also provided waqfs (charitable endowments) for schools, hospitals, and mosques in their great numbers, a city, Ibn Battuta tells, where the social spirit was at its optimum.[23]

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Figure 8. “Painting of Ibn Battuta”Tangier is the birthplace of the famed traveller Ibn Battuta who once said: “Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Today, it would leave him speechless at passport checks, visas, border controls, customs, and security vetting.” Amro Ali

In Mecca, Ibn Battuta spent two years (728-730 H), living piously in the company of devout men. He says:

“The life I lead is one of the most agreeable; I was always part of the processions around the Kaaba, in the service of God, and in the closeness of the Holy sites”.

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Figure 8. Cover of The Adventures of Ibn Battuta A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century by Ross E. Dunn (University of California Press, 1989)

The serene spirit and atmosphere, certainly contributing to his recovery from the illness which affected him before.[24]

In Ceylon Ibn Battuta observed that the people still lived in “idolatry” (Buddhism), yet they showed respect for Muslim dervishes, lodged them in their houses, and gave them to eat.[25] The Indians, on the other hand, “never make friends with Muslims, and never give them food or drink out of their vessels, although at the same time they neither act nor speak offensively to them .”[26]

The Turks, Ibn Battuta observes, leave their livestock free to graze without guardians or shepherds. This is due to their strict laws against theft. Anyone caught with a stolen horse is forced to restore it with nine others; if he cannot do this, his sons are taken instead.[27]

China amazes Ibn Battuta for a number of reasons. High-quality porcelain is one such thing; the huge size of hens and cockerels is another. China’s hens’ eggs are bigger than “our” goose eggs, he notes. His party bought a hen to cook, but it was so big they had to use two pots.[28]

Also massive were Chinese ships. Each of such Chinese vessels is powered by a thousand men; six hundred sailors, that is, and four hundred fighting men, mainly archers, and even men who use naphtha fires. Each ship is accompanied by three lesser ones, and the large vessel has four bridges, its commander being the equivalent of a great emir.[29]

The skills of the Chinese are what amaze him most, though, very talented and precise people. He states:

“I never returned to any of their cities after I had visited it a first time without finding my portrait and the portraits of my companions drawn on the walls and on sheets of paper exhibited in the bazaars… Each of us set to examining the other’s portrait [and found that] the likeness was perfect in every respect… They had been observing us (in the palace) and drawing our portraits without our noticing it. This is a custom of theirs, I mean making portraits of all who pass through their country. In fact they have brought this to such perfection that if a stranger commits any offence that obliges him to flee from China, they send his portrait far and wide. A search is then made for him and where so ever the [person bearing a] resemblance to that portrait is found is arrested.”[30]

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Figure 9. Map of the areas covered by Ibn Battuta (highlighted in yellow). (Source

Although exceptionally rich in personal data, the Rihla, Rosenthal notes, was not meant to constitute a personal record in terms of the circumstances of the author’s life or the proper sequences of his itinerary.[31] Its purpose was to enlighten the reader about remarkable and other marvellous things and events that could be observed in other countries and to deepen his understanding of human society and his respect for the divine handiwork in all its richness and variety.[32] This purpose was uniquely achieved and has given the Rihla its lasting greatness.[33] From his trip to Africa, Walckenaer, for instance, holds, he becomes the first man to have penetrated and provided the first known accounts of the interior of such continent.[34]

There are interesting anecdotes about his trip to finish with, and which offer a very interesting insight into the mind of the Muslim scholars of the time. In Ceylon, Ibn Battuta met the sultan of the island, who enjoyed conversing with him. Ibn Battuta says, he went one day to see the sultan, who had by his side a number of pearls which had just been fished in his kingdom. The officers were selecting the most precious.

The sultan asked Ibn Battuta: “have you come across other pearl fishing places where you came from?”

“Yes,” said Ibn Battuta.

The sultan picked the pearls by his side, and asked Ibn Battuta: “Are pearls from those places like these?”

Ibn Battuta answered: “Those I saw were all inferior to these in quality.”

The sultan rejoiced at the answer. He said to Ibn Battuta: “Take these pearls then.”

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Figure 10. The exterior of the burial monument of Ibn Battuta in Tangier, built on his family’s land, part of a garden. (Source: the website of San Francisco Unified School District, where a full account of Ibn Battuta’s trips is on display).

Ibn Battuta felt shame at the offer and answered the sultan that his only desire was to see the famed trace of the foot of Adam supposed to be on the island.[35]

In Constantinople, Ibn Battuta was impressed by the great city. But what staggers him is the high number of convents and nuns. He is greatly impressed by the Church Saint Sophia, but he refuses to enter, for had he done it, he would have had to bend in front of the cross.[36]

Ibn Battuta’s personal contribution, Rosenthal concludes, lies in the single-mindedness with which he travelled in order to learn more and more about humans and nature, in the skill he showed for ferreting out meaningful facts, and in his realization of the importance of these facts for the growth of human knowledge. And during his travels, he remained spiritually within the boundaries of Islam. He clearly belongs to the select circle of men who paved the way for the modern age of discovery.[37]


[1] Quoted by Barron Carra de Vaux in Les Penseurs de l’Islam, Paris: Geuthner, 1921, vol 2, p. 93.
[2] Ibid, p. 94.
[3] A.Mieli: La Science Arabe et son role dans l’évolution scientifique mondiale, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1966, p. 277.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, p. 278.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Gustave Le Bon, La Civilisation des Arabes, Syracuse: IMAG, 1884, p. 370.
[9] F. R. Rosenthal, “Ibn Battuta”, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, vol. 1, p. 516.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibn Battuta, Voyages d’Ibn Battuta, Arabic text accompanied by French translation by C. Defremery and B.R. Sanguinetti, preface and notes by Vincent Monteil, I-IV, Paris, 1968; reprint of the 1854 edition.
[12] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, translated and selected by H.A.R. Gibb, London: Routledge, 1929.
[13] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, tr. by H.A.R. Gibb, op. cit., p. 6.
[14] Ibid, p. 8.
[15] F. Rosenthal, “Ibn Battuta”, op. cit., p. 516.
[16] Ibid, p. 517.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Barron Carra de Vaux, Les penseurs, op. cit., p. 94.
[19] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, tr. by H.A.R. Gibb, op. cit., p. 52.
[20] Barron Carra de Vaux, Les penseurs, op. cit., p. 94.
[21] Ibid, p. 95.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, tr. by H.A.R. Gibb, op. cit., p. 96.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid, p. 143.
[28] Ibid, pp. 282 ff.
[29] Barron Carra de Vaux, Les penseurs, op. cit., p. 99.
[30] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, tr. by H.A.R. Gibb, pp. 282 ff.
[31] F. Rosenthal, “Ibn Battuta”, op. cit., pp. 516-17.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Barron Carra de Vaux, Les Penseurs, op. cit., p.100.
[35] Ibid, p. 324.
[36] Ibid, p. 97.
[37] F.Rosenthal, “Ibn Battuta”, op. cit., p. 517.

Further Reading

  • Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, translated and selected by H.A.R. Gibb. London: Routledge, 1929.
  • Ibn Battuta, Voyages d’Ibn Battuta, Arabic text accompanied by French translation by C. Defremery and B.R. Sanguinetti, preface and notes by Vincent Monteil, I-IV. Paris, 1968 (reprint of the 1854 edition).
  • [Ibn Battuta-centered web directory]. Ibn Battuta on the Web: https://www.isidore-of-seville.com/ibn-battuta/
  • [Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa ]Medieval Sourcebook: Ibn Battuta: Travels In Asia And Africa (1325-1354) (contains excerpts from H. A. R. Gibb’s translation): https://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1354-ibnbattuta.html
  • Mackintosh-Smith, Tim, Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah. London: John Murray, 2001 (Reprint New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2002).
  • Mackintosh-Smith, Tim (ed.), The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador / Macmillan, 2003.
  • McDonald, Lucile, The Arab Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1975.
  • Ross Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Rumford, James, The Traveling Man: the Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
  • Rosenthal, Franz R., “Ibn Battuta”, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, vol. 1, pp. 516-517.
  • [Travels of Ibn Battuta]. The Travels of Ibn Battuta. A Virtual Tour with the 14th Century Traveler: https://www.sfusd.k12.ca.us/schwww/sch618/Ibn_Battuta/

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