The Travels of Ibn Jubair

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 1st June 2002

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Born in Valencia, Ibn Jubair (Ibn Jubayr) travelled widely, offering good accounts of the life of Muslims and their surroundings in both Eastern and Western parts.

Figure 1. Idealized portrait of Ibn Yubair. Painted by Guillermo Muñoz Vera,1956 (Source)

Ibn Jubair (Ibn Jubayr) was born in Valencia. He travelled widely,[1] offering good accounts of the life of Muslims and their surroundings throughout the known world. The extracts that follow are from the English version of his travels.[2]

In the introduction we are reminded of the reasons for Ibn Jubair’s travels. A secretary for the ruler of Granada, in 1182, he was forced by that ruler, under threat, to drink seven cups of wine. Seized by remorse, the ruler then filled seven cups of gold which he gave him. To expiate his godless act, although forced upon him, Ibn Jubair decided to perform the duty of Hajj to Mecca. He left Granada early in 1183 accompanied by a physician from the city. The itinerary of Ibn Jubair, with all his stops, is well marked by two maps that are included in this present version, one for his eastern travels; the other for the western. One of the first places Ibn Jubair visits is Alexandria in Egypt (pp. 30 forward) in the Spring of 1183, it left strong impressions on him, especially its famed giant lighthouse of which he had this to say (pp. 32-3):

One of the greatest wonders that we saw in this city was the lighthouse which Great and Glorious God had erected by the hands of those who were forced to such labour as `a sign to those who take warning from examining the fate of others’ [Quran XV, 75] and as a guide to voyagers, for without it they could not find the true course to Alexandria. It can be seen for more than seventy miles, and is of great antiquity. It is most strongly built in all directions and competes with the skies in height. Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle.”

Figure 3. …drawing of the ancient Light House of Alexandria by Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati (Source)

Figure 4. The Travels of Ibn Jubayr,  Roland J.C. Broadhurst (translator) Publisher: Goodword Books (Source)

Another glory of the city, Ibn Jubair notes, are the colleges and hostels erected for students and pious men of other lands by the Sultan (Salah Eddin al-Ayyubi) (d.1193). In those colleges, students find lodging and tutors to teach them the sciences they desire, and also allowances to cover their needs. The care of the sultan also grants them baths, hospitals, and the appointment of doctors who can even come to visit them at their place of stay, and who would be answerable for their cure. One of the Sultan’s other generous acts was that every day two thousand loaves of bread were distributed to the poor. Also impressing Ibn Jubair in that city was the number of mosques, often four or five of them in the same street.

In Sicily, in the very late stages of his travels (Dec 1184-Jan 1185), Ibn Jubair recounts other experiences (pp. 335 to the end). Attracting his attention was the activity of the volcanoes of which he found himself in the vicinity, saying (pp.343-4):

At the close of night a red flame appeared, throwing up tongues into the air. It was the celebrated volcano (Stromboli). We were told that a fiery blast of great violence bursts out from air-holes in the two mountains and makes the fire. Often a great stone is cast up and thrown into the air by the force of the blast and prevented thereby from falling and settling at the bottom. This is one of the most remarkable of stories, and it is true.”

As for the great mountain in the island, known as the Jabal al-Nar [Mountain of Fire], it also presents a singular feature in that some years a fire pours from it in the manner of the `bursting of the dam’. It passes nothing it does not burn until, coming to the sea, it rides out on its surface and then subsides beneath it. Let us praise the Author of all things for His marvellous creations. There is no God but He.”

Figure 5. Map of the first journey by Ibn Jubair from Ceuta until Makkah (Source)

Also striking Ibn Jubair is the city of Palermo (pp. 348 ff.). He describes it as follows:

It is the metropolis of the islands, combining the benefits of wealth and splendour, and having all that you could wish of beauty, real or apparent, and all the needs of subsistence, mature and fresh. It is an ancient and elegant city, magnificent and gracious, and seductive to look upon. Proudly set between its open spaces and plains filled with gardens, with broad roads and avenues, it dazzles the eyes with its perfection. It is a wonderful place, built in the Cordoba style, entirely from cut stone known as kadhan [a soft limestone]. A river splits the town, and four springs gush in its suburbs… The king roams through the gardens and courts for amusement and pleasure… The Christian women of this city follow the fashion of Muslim women, are fluent of speech, wrap their cloaks about them, and are veiled.”

In April 1185, Ibn Jubair returned to Granada, more than two years after he had left it; and praised God abundantly.

Figure 6. The Travels (Rihla) of Ibn Jubayr (875/1470, Mecca). Leiden University Library (source)

[1] Ibn Jubair: Voyages, translated with notes by M. Gaudefroy Demombynes, Paris, (1949-65).

[2] The travels of Ibn Jubayr; tr., from the original Arabic with introduction and notes, by R.J. C. Broadhurst; Jonathan Cape, London, 1952.


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