A traveler through the East


    The Arab traveler Abu Abdallah Muhammad known as Ibn Battuta (1304 - 1377) spent 28 years of his life traveling, in which he covered a distance of over 120,000 kilometres and won the reputation of the greatest traveler of the East.

 

 

Ibn Battuta traveled all over the Arabian Peninsula, in Egypt, Iran, Mesopotamia, Russia, China, India and Africa. One of the most important of his destinations was to Central Asia. A literary transcript of his reminiscences made by historian Ibn Juzaya - A Gift to Those Dreaming of the Miracles of Cities and Wonders of Travels - is unsurpassed in the history of the world descriptive geographic literature of the Middle Ages. The manuscript presents a realistic picture of political, public and cultural life in the region in the first half of the 14th century. An important factor is that he traveled in Central Asia soon after the devastating Mongolian invasion.

Traveling around the region, Ibn Battuta enjoyed the hospitality of the Order of Ahi and stayed in zaviya (Sufi tenements) where itinerants, especially pilgrims, were warmly welcomed. In the autumn of 1333 Ibn Battuta arrived in Khorezm. By that time Khorezm had recovered from the devastation left by the Genghis Khan hordes. 'It is the greatest, most beautiful and largest of the Turkic cities with wonderful bazaars, broad streets, numerous edifices and impressive views. Life is thriving in the city thanks to a large number of residents, and it looks like a billowing sea,' he wrote about its capital Urgench, which he also called Khorezm. He mentioned a clinic where a Syrian doctor worked, and wrote in detail about a zaviya not far from Khorezm, near the tomb of Sheikh Najm ad-Din al-Kubra. In the house of Kadi Abu Hafs Umar he was amazed by the beautiful carpets the central hall was decorated with, and the cloth-upholstered walls with numerous recesses where gilded sliver vessels and Iranian jugs stood.

 

    
         Ibn Battuta 
 

Ibn Battuta also visited the Emir whose house, along with the sumptuous feast, he described in detail. He also emphasized the piety of his new acquaintances and the extravagant gifts they lavished on him: a large sum of money, a sable overcoat and a beautiful stallion. But what he especially admired were Khorezmian melons, '… there are no melons like Khorezmian melons, may be with the exception of Bukharian ones, and the third best are Isfahan melons. Their peels are green, and the flesh is red, very sweat and hard. Surprisingly, they cut melons into slices, dry them in the sun, put them into baskets as it is done with Malaga figs, and take them from Khorezm to the remote cities in India and China to sell. They are the best of all dried fruit.'

Then he made his way to Bukhara. Medieval Bukhara was one of the most famous cities in the Islamic world, and many Arab geographers described its splendor. However, Ibn Battuta saw Bukhara in a sorry state. 'This city had once been the capital of the cities lying across the Jaihun River, but the cursed Tatar Tinghiz (Genghiz Khan)… destroyed it so that all of its mosques, madrassahs and market-places lay in ruins, with a few exceptions. Its residents are humiliated, and their testimony is accepted neither in Khorezm nor in any other country…'

     

Ibn Battuta stayed in Fathabad, a suburb of Bukhara, where there was a large zaviya and a mausoleum, which struck him by its dimensions, near the tomb of a sacred hermit Saif at-Din al-Baharzi. The Sheikh of the zaviya invited Ibn Battuta to his place, as well as all notables of the city, and '…reciters read the holy Koran in their pleasant voices, while the preacher made a sermon. They sang wonderful songs in Turkic and Persian. That was the most wonderful night of all nights.' There is nothing like these lively details retained in the memory of an inquisitive and well-wishing person! And there are a lot of such excerpts in the manuscript, that is why the book is considered a masterpiece of rihla - geographic description of a country a traveller saw with his own eyes. Biographies of historical personalities often contain data that cannot be found in other sources.

The next city Ibn Battuta visited was Samarkand. 'It is one of the largest and most beautiful cities,' Ibn Battuta writes, and remarks with bitterness that 'most of Samarkand was turned into a shambles.' The traveler could not but admire the beautiful mausoleums of the Shah-in-Zinda ensemble. He made special mention of a Muslim sanctity - the tomb of Sheikh Kusan ibn-Abbas of whom a legend says that he is Prophet Mukhammad's cousin. 'Over the grave is erected a dome on four supports, each of them flanked with twin marble columns of green, black, white and red colours. The walls of the mausoleum are decorated with multicoloured gilded inlay; its roof is covered with lead; the tomb is made of inlaid ebony, with silver-studded corners, and three silver lamps are hung inside. The floor of the mausoleum is covered with wool and cotton carpets…'

From Samarkand the Moroccan traveler set his feet to Termez, which was a large city for that time, with beautiful buildings and market-places and an abundance of orchards and vineyards. Ibn Battuta pointed out some curious details of local everyday life. 'In the baths city dwellers wash their heads with sour milk,' he recalls. 'Each bathhouse attendant has a lot of jugs filled with sour milk. Everyone who comes to the baths pours some milk into a small bowl and washes his head. This milk freshens the hair and makes it soft…'

Of great importance for historians are Ibn Battuta's data on the movement of sarbedars, which started in Khorasan in the 1330s as an expression of social and political protest of representatives of the middle class against the policy of Mongolian invaders. In 1365 the sarbedars headed an uprising in Samarkand and won. Their independent state existed in Khorasan from 1337 through 1381. They had their own army, minted their own coins, and abolished some taxes imposed by the Mongols. Meanwhile, there is practically no evidence of eyewitnesses about this movement in written sources.

 After Central Asia Ibn Battuta traveled in Iran and Afghanistan, China and Africa. He spent about eight years in India.

Scholars believe than the Moroccan traveler died in 1377. It is very likely that he is buried near Tаnjer where he was born. Anyway, it is there that tourists are shown his grave.

Contemporaries were rather critical about Ibn Battuta's writings. Many considered his evidence dubious while others thought it was all fantasy and fiction. Soon they were all forgotten. And it was only in the 19th century that readers could re-discover his 'Travels'.

The purpose of Ibn Battuta's entire life was to 'see the world and please the heart'. He belonged to the same cohort of pathfinders as the Italian traveler Marco Polo and the Russian traveler Afanasy Nikitin. Such people make the world larger, brighter and multi-dimensional.