Tuesday 29 August 2023

Travelling with Ibn Battutah

Recently, my travelling companion has been the great Arab traveller and anecdotal historian, Ibn Battutah (IB). Not literally, he travelled in the 14th century (1325 to 1354). The Travels of Ibn Battutah edited by Tim McIntosh-Smith in the beautiful Macmillan Collector’s Library edition fitted into my pocket and its silk ribbon marked my progress through its gilt-edged pages and IB’s 29-year journey

IB was a Qadi, a judge and expert in Islamic jurisprudence. He was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. IB set out from his home in Tangier towards Mecca but travelled north to the Volga, east to China and south as far as modern Tanzania, or so he says. IB is an unreliable narrator. He is known to exaggerate and he probably presented other travellers’ tales as his own.

IB was a learned and devout Muslim. He takes a puritanical view of licentiousness in others, though he expects it of infidels. Wherever he goes, he seeks out fellow Muslim scholars. He also seeks out wealthy rulers. For them he is not just a scholar and Qadi but a man with interesting tales to tell.

Given that we cannot necessarily rely on his stories, I grew interested in the logistics of his travels and what little he tells us about his personal relationships. At times, IB appears to travel alone and at others, he had a large retinue. He speaks occasionally of companions but never names them. Late in his travels, he does mention that one of his companions dies, which causes him some inconvenience.

I do not think he ever travelled light, which brings me to the question of how he financed his travels. He sets out with a supply of silver dirhams that would have been good tender throughout the Islamic world. On arrival in a new city, IB would seek out the Sultan. Sultans usually lavished gifts upon him. Sometimes it was coin but often less convertible items such as grain, live animals and fabrics. On occasions, he had to hire camels to transport his goods. I imagine he sold some gifts to raise cash.

IB’s attitude to slavery slowly shows itself. He never agonises over it. It is part of the way of his world.

IB travels through Turkey, a journey of some weeks. He says matter-of-factly that he travelled in an oxcart accompanied only by three slave girls. In a later episode, he is caused some inconvenience when a slave girl gets pregnant and gives birth. IB does not reveal who the father is.

At one point, he arranges a voyage to China in a junk. He insists that he must hire one of the merchants’ suites, a series of private rooms. He needs them so he can take with him his slave girls and wives (in that order). It is his habit never to travel without slave girls. The arrangements are made but, while IB is ashore making his final preparations, a storm blows up and the junk with all his possessions including slave girls and wives sails away, leaving him behind. He never sees them again.

IB finds himself in the Maldives, his fortunes restored. Here, we get the only insight into IB’s sex life. He writes that the inhabitants live on fish and the fruit of the coco palm which has ‘an amazing and unparalleled effect in sexual intercourse. I had myself there four wives and concubines as well. I used to visit them all every day and pass the night with the wife whose turn it was.’ He left after a year and a half, leaving the wives and concubines behind.

There is little mention of slaves as labourers; rather, they appear to be owned by sultans as status symbols. On several occasions, IB writes that he has given or been given a white slave girl as a gift.

I enjoyed having Ibn Battutah as the travelling companion in my pocket but I would not have wanted to travel with him.

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