The title of “history’s most famous traveler” usually goes to Marco Polo, the great Venetian wayfarer who visited China in the 13th century. For sheer distance covered, however, Polo trails far behind the Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta. Though little known outside the Islamic world, Battuta spent half his life tramping across vast swaths of the Eastern Hemisphere.
Moving by sea, by camel caravan and on foot, he ventured into over 40 modern day nations, often putting himself in extreme danger just to satisfy his wanderlust. When he finally returned home after 29 years, he recorded his escapades in a hulking travelogue known as the Rihla. Though modern scholars often question the veracity of Battuta's writings—he may never have visited China, for example, and many of his accounts of foreign lands appear to have been plagiarized from other authors' works—the Rihla is a fascinating look into the world of a 14th-century vagabond.
Born in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta came of age in a family of Islamic judges. In 1325, at age 21, he left his homeland for the Middle East. He intended to complete his hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca—but he also wished to study Islamic law along the way. “I set out alone,” he later remembered, “having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries.”
Battuta began his journey riding solo on a donkey, but soon linked up with a pilgrim caravan as it snaked its way east across North Africa. The route was rugged and bandit infested, and the young traveler soon developed a fever so severe that he was forced to tie himself to his saddle to avoid collapsing. Nevertheless, he still found time during one stopover to wed a young woman—the first of some 10 wives he would eventually marry and then divorce during his travels.
In Egypt, Battuta studied Islamic law and toured Alexandria and the metropolis of Cairo, which he called “peerless in beauty and splendor.” He then continued on to Mecca, where he took part in the hajj. His travels might have ended there, but having completed his pilgrimage, he decided to continue wandering the Muslim world, or “Dar al-Islam.” Battuta claimed to be driven by a dream in which a large bird took him on its wing and “made a long flight towards the east…and left me there.” A holy man had interpreted the dream to mean that Battuta would roam across the earth, and the young Moroccan intended to fulfill the prophecy.
Battuta’s next few years were a whirlwind of travel. He joined a caravan and toured Persia and Iraq, and later ventured north to what is now Azerbaijan. Following a sojourn in Mecca, he trekked across Yemen and made a sea voyage to the Horn of Africa. From there, he visited the Somali city of Mogadishu before dipping below the equator and exploring the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania.
Upon leaving Africa, Battuta hatched a plan to travel to India, where he hoped to secure a lucrative post as a “qadi,” or Islamic judge. He followed a winding route east, first cutting through Egypt and Syria before sailing for Turkey. As he always did in Muslim-controlled lands, he relied on his status as an Islamic scholar to win hospitality from locals. At many points in his travels, he was showered with gifts of fine clothes, horses and even concubines and slaves.
From Turkey, Battuta crossed the Black Sea and entered the domain of a Golden Horde Khan known as Uzbeg. He was welcomed at Uzbeg’s court, and later accompanied one of the Khan’s wives to Constantinople. Battuta stayed in the Byzantine city for a month, visiting the Hagia Sophia and even receiving a brief audience with the emperor. Having never ventured to a large non-Muslim city, he was stunned by the “almost innumerable” collection of Christian churches within its walls.
Battuta next traveled east across the Eurasian steppe before entering India via Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. Arriving in the city of Delhi in 1334, he won employment as a judge under Muhammad Tughluq, a powerful Islamic sultan. Battuta passed several years in the cushy job and even married and fathered children, but he eventually grew wary of the mercurial sultan, who was known to maim and kill his enemies—sometimes by tossing them to elephants with swords attached to their tusks. A chance to escape finally presented itself in 1341, when the sultan selected Battuta as his envoy to the Mongol court of China. Still thirsty for adventure, the Moroccan set out at the head of a large caravan brimming with gifts and slaves.
The trip to the Orient would prove to be the most harrowing chapter of Battuta’s odyssey. Hindu rebels harassed his group during their journey to the Indian coast, and Battuta was later kidnapped and robbed of everything but his pants. He managed to make it to the port of Calicut, but on the eve of an ocean voyage, his ships blew out to sea in a storm and sank, killing many in his party.
The string of disasters left Battuta stranded and disgraced. He was loath to return to Delhi and face the sultan, however, so he elected to make a sea voyage south to the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives. He remained in the idyllic islands for the next year, gorging on coconuts, taking several wives and once again serving as an Islamic judge. Battuta might have stayed in the Maldives even longer, but following a falling out with its rulers, he resumed his journey to China. After making a stopover in Sri Lanka, he rode merchant vessels through Southeast Asia. In 1345, four years after first leaving India, he arrived at the bustling Chinese port of Quanzhou.
Battuta described Mongol China as “the safest and best country for the traveler” and praised its natural beauty, but he also branded its inhabitants “pagans” and “infidels.” Distressed by the unfamiliar customs on display, the pious traveler stuck close to the country’s Muslim communities and offered only vague accounts of metropolises such as Hangzhou, which he called “the biggest city I have seen on the face of the earth.” Historians still debate just how far he went, but he claimed to have roamed as far north as Beijing and crossed through the famous Grand Canal.
China marked the beginning of the end of Battuta’s travels. Having reached the edge of the known world, he finally turned around and journeyed home to Morocco, arriving back in Tangier in 1349. Both of Battuta’s parents had died by then, so he only remained for a short while before making a jaunt to Spain. He then embarked on a multi-year excursion across the Sahara to the Mali Empire, where he visited Timbuktu.
Battuta had never kept journals during his adventures, but when he returned to Morocco for good in 1354, the country’s sultan ordered him to compile a travelogue. He spent the next year dictating his story to a writer named Ibn Juzayy. The result was an oral history called A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, better known as the Rihla (or “travels”). Though not particularly popular in its day, the book now stands as one of the most vivid and wide-ranging accounts of the 14th century Islamic world.
Following the completion of the Rihla, Ibn Battuta all but vanished from the historical record. He is believed to have worked as a judge in Morocco and died sometime around 1368, but little else is known about him. It appears that after a lifetime spent on the road, the great wanderer was finally content to stay in one place.