Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battutah, commonly known as Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/1369) was a Berber explorer and scholar, and among the most well-travelled people of his time, reaching further than Marco Polo had a few decades earlier. His journeys were a showcase of the Islamic Golden Age.
Ibn Battuta came from a family of legal scholars, and he was trained in that field. At age 21, he set out from Tangier for his hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and continued travelling until his forties, mostly in the Islamic world, India and imperial China.
He documented his journeys in the Rihla – always with the definite article, because rihla is a generic Arabic word for a travelogue. However, many scholars are uncertain if he visited all of the places mentioned in the Rihla or whether he based some of his descriptions on hearsay, and whether he visited them in the order provided in the book.
The University of California Berkeley has a good online account of Ibn Battuta's travels. Our text below is based on that.
The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca was Ibn Battuta's first long journey, starting in 1325. He travelled overland, at first alone but later joining various pilgrim caravans.
Across North Africa
- 1 Tangier (Morocco). Ibn Battuta's hometown.
- 2 Algiers (Algeria). The caravan camped outside the city and became larger as more pilgrims joined it.
- 3 Tunis (Tunisia). After two months in Tunis, mostly spent with the local legal scholars, he joined another eastbound caravan.
- 4 Tripoli (Libya).
- 5 Alexandria (Egypt). Ibn Battuta was greatly impressed by the city and spent several weeks there.
- 6 Cairo (Egypt). This was the greatest city of the Islamic world, and at the time the largest anywhere except China. He arrived in 1326, stayed about a month, then set off for Mecca.
Cairo to Mecca
There were several routes from Cairo to Mecca, and he chose what was then usually the safest — south along the Nile in territory controlled by the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, then across the Red Sea to Jeddah. However, as he approached the Red Sea port involved, he found out that its ruler was in revolt against the Mamluks and there was fighting nearby, so he turned back to Cairo.
- 7 Damascus (Syria). This ancient city was one of the great centers of the Islamic world, important for trade, learning, and the arts. The rulers organized caravans for pilgrims, and provided them with guards. Ibn Battuta joined one of those.
- 8 Medina (Saudi Arabia). The second holiest city in Islam, with the tomb of the Prophet.
- 9 Mecca (Saudi Arabia). He stayed for a year studying Islam, and in particular Islamic Law.
Mesopotamia and Persia
- 10 Basra (Iraq). He did not consider that this town, known as the home port of Sinbad the Sailor, lived up to its reputation.
- 11 Isfahan (Iran). When Ibn Battuta was there, this city was still recovering after being destroyed by the Mongols a few decades earlier. Today it is again one of Iran's finest cities.
- 12 Shiraz (Iran). As one of the few Persian cities not sacked by the Mongols, the "city of roses" was undergoing a bit of a renaissance when Ibn Battuta visited.
He wrote: its inhabitants are handsome in figure and clean in their dress. In the whole East there is no city except Shiraz which approached Damascus in the beauty of its bazaars, fruit-gardens and rivers.
- 13 Baghdad (Iraq). This city had also been destroyed by the Mongols.
- 14 Tabriz (Iranian Azerbaijan). Tabriz surrendered to the Mongols, so it had not been destroyed. At this time, it was one of the world's great cities and a major center for Silk Road trade.
- 16 Qalhat (Oman). This was an important port at the time; both Zheng He and Marco Polo also visited it. The city no longer exists, but the ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The nearest town today is Sur.
After some time recovering in Mecca, he was ready to continue his journey east. In nearby Jeddah, he spent several months while looking for a ship that would take him to India, but to no avail.
He figured he might be able to join a Turkish trade caravan heading east, so he set off north toward Anatolia, travelling via Egypt and Damascus. He left Syria on a Genoese galley which took 10 days to cross the Mediterranean to arrive at Alanya, on the southern coast of Anatolia.
- 17 Alanya (Turkey). At that time, Alanya was a major port exporting wood to Syria and Egypt. Nowadays it has limited shipping (it has a seasonal ferry line to Cyprus and that's about it), but is a major resort town. The citadel mentioned by Ibn Battuta is the main sight.
Ibn Battuta praised "the land of the Turks" for its beauty, delicious cuisine, and its people's hospitality, but was surprised by the Turks' less than perfect compliance with Islamic norms.
- 18 Antalya (Turkey). Ibn Battuta continued west along the coast, and found Antalya to be one of the most attractive towns in the world. It apparently still is, as it welcomes millions of modern-day tourists annually. The city walls Ibn Battuta described are intact, and the city maintains its multiculturalism he spoke of — although there is no longer a local Greek community, Antalya has a large European expat population, reinforced by thousands of Ukrainians and Russians fleeing the war since 2022 and making it their home.
Ibn Battuta extensively travelled the land, and was hosted by an Islamic fraternity in most towns. He eventually made his way to Konya, the capital of the Mevlevi Sufi order.
- 19 Konya (Turkey). Konya is a major center of the mystical Sufi branch of Islam, and the site of the tomb of Rumi, Sufi poet and the founder of the Mevlevi order. Its members have been known as the "whirling dervishes" for the ecstatic movements performed during their sema ceremony. Semas are still regularly held in Konya.
At the time of Ibn Battuta's visit, there was no central authority in Anatolia, as the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum collapsed following the Mongol invasion, and numerous petty kingdoms known as beyliks had emerged in the power vacuum left behind. Ibn Battuta visited several of the local rulers, including Orhan, the chief of the nascent statelet that was to become the Ottoman Empire.
In November 1331, he started his trek north, which proved to be full of trouble. His progress was cut off by a raging river, then a guide got them lost (apparently on purpose as the guide later demanded a ransom), and as the winter approached he almost froze to death, but he eventually managed to get to Sinop on the Black Sea coast.
- 20 Sinop (Turkey). Ibn Battuta had to wait for more than a month here for the weather to clear up and the sailings to resume. Nowadays the town is a minor harbour on the northernmost tip of Anatolia, and a minor beach resort.
The Mongol lands
From there he went into Mongol territory, first that of the Golden Horde. His boat struggled through the severe storms common in the Black Sea, and finally reached Caffa, present-day Feodosiya in Crimea, several days later.
- 21 Sudak (Crimea). Historically this city had a largely Greek population and extensive trade with the Mediterranean. Ibn Battuta rated it one of the world's four great ports.
He visited many Black Sea ports, inhabited by a multinational merchant population and receiving the rich produce of the steppe as well as that brought over via the Silk Road. He departed from Azov to catch up with the travelling court of Uzbeg Khan of the Golden Horde, whom he learned was a few days ahead.
At the time, the area was inhabited by Turkic and Mongolian nomads. He described their cuisine based on horse meat (still a delicacy in some of the modern nations in the wider region such as Kazakhstan) and how they let their horses and other livestock free range on the open steppe. He also mentioned the nomad drinks of kumis, fermented mare's milk still popular in Turkic Central Asia and in Mongolia, and boza, a thick malt drink now common in Turkey and the Balkans.
Ibn Battuta met the khan's court, which he likened to an entire city on the move, near Beshtau, in what is now Stavropol Krai north of the Caucasus Mountains. From there, he went north to Bolghar, although some modern historians dispute this. If it's true that he had been there, that was the northernmost point he ever set foot in — indeed he noted that the summer nights that far north were unusually short to him.
- 22 Bolghar (Tatarstan). Bolghar was the capital of Volga Bulgaria (forerunner of Tatarstan and remotely related to the modern nation of Bulgaria) which collapsed with the Mongol takeover. However, the Mongols maintained the city as the centre of a separate duchy, and it acquired immense wealth in this period. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site rich in ancient monuments, and the Tatar people consider it their spiritual heartland.
While in Bolghar, Ibn Battuta thought about venturing further north into the "land of darkness", likely somewhere deep inside Siberia, which could only be reached by a dog sled and was said to be inhabited by a mysterious group of people. But such a trip never materialized.
From Bolghar, he returned to the khan's court, and they moved to Astrakhan together.
- 23 Astrakhan (Russia). Winter capital of the Golden Horde, on the main route connecting the Silk Road to Russia.
At Astrakhan, he heard the khan's wife, a Byzantine princess by birth, was about to leave for her father's realm to give birth to her baby there. So in July 1332 Ibn Battuta joined her party for a 75-day trip back along the Black Sea to Constantinople, where he stayed for more than a month.
- 24 Constantinople (today's Istanbul) (Turkey). Ibn Battuta's only visit to Christian Europe was to the capital of the Byzantine Empire. (Iberia, which he would visit about two decades later, was under the rule of the Muslim Moors in that period.)
The Byzantine Empire of that time was a shadow of its former self, unrecovered from the Latin occupation several decades prior, and ruling over only some territories in the Balkans and a tiny sliver of land in northwestern Anatolia. He saw Hagia Sophia, the main cathedral, but didn't go inside it. He described the inner city (now called Sultanahmet) and the suburb of Galata, then an autonomous Italian colony and now one of the liveliest parts of the city, in detail.
As he went back to Astrakhan, it was already winter, brutal in the Eurasian steppe. He approached Sarai on the frozen Volga River.
- 25 Sarai (Russia). One of the Golden Horde's main cities, sometimes the capital. It no longer exists and the archeology is complicated; certainly it was somewhere on the Volga, but it is not clear where and it seems likely more than one city had the name at different times.
Ibn Battuta wrote: The city of al-Sarā is one of the finest of cities, of boundless size, situated in a plain, choked with the throng of its inhabitants, and possessing good bazaars and broad streets..
From Sarai, his route trended south, into the Chagatai Khanate.
- 26 Samarkand (Uzbekistan). One of the greatest Silk Road trading cities.
- 27 Balkh (Afghanistan). At the time this was the main city of Bactria.
Leaving Mongol lands, he continued to the Indian subcontinent.
- 28 Multan (Pakistan). An ancient city, a center for trade in Ibn Battuta's day.
- 29 Delhi (India). Ibn Battuta reached here in 1334 and stayed for seven years, working for the Sultan who, as the Muslim ruler of a mainly Hindu country, employed many foreign Muslims and rewarded them well. As a legal scholar with advanced training from Mecca, Ibn Battuta became a judge. However, the Sultan was quite cruel and erratic enough that some considered him mad, and as in any medieval court there were intrigues, so the work was not without risk.
Eventually, the Sultan decided to use him as an envoy to China and put him in command of an expedition that included 15 Chinese envoys returning home. They went off toward the coast with a rich and well-guarded caravan, but had some serious trouble with rebels and bandits; at one point Ibn Battuta became separated from the caravan and was robbed of everything but his trousers. However, they did make it to the fortress of Daulatabad where they rested up for a few days before continuing to Cambay, then along the coast to Gandhar where they boarded four ships.
- 30 Calicut (India). This was a major port of the Maritime Silk Road. Here they transferred from four dhows to three of the much larger Chinese junks.
A severe storm came up, the junks put to sea (without Ibn Battuta) to ride it out, and two of them were sunk. The third ship set off for China, without Ibn Battuta; he pursued briefly, but gave up. That ship made it as far as Sumatra, but then was seized by a local king.
Left penniless, and afraid of what the Sultan might do if he returned to Delhi a failure, he found employment with one of the southern Muslin sultans for a while, then did some more travelling.
The Maldives and Sri Lanka
- 31 Malé (Maldives). He stayed for some time, becoming the kingdom's chief judge and acquiring four wives, all noblewomen.
He wrote: It is easy to marry in these islands ... When the ships put in, the crew marry; when they intend to leave they divorce their wives. This is a kind of temporary marriage. The women of these islands never leave their country..
- 32 Adam's Peak (Sri Lanka). This is a depression, shaped like a large human footprint, in a rock atop a mountain. It is a pilgrimage site for several religions, considered the footprint of Shiva, Hanuman, Buddha, or Saint Thomas. To Muslims and some Christians, of the first man, Adam.
Leaving Sri Lanka, he had more bad luck. One ship was sunk by a storm, but he was rescued and boarded another ship; that one was taken by pirates and again he was robbed of everything except his trousers. However, the pirates put the passengers ashore unharmed and they made their way back to Calicut.
From Calicut he decided to continue toward China; he returned to Malé and got on an eastbound ship.
- 33 Chittagong (Bangladesh). This was a major port of the Maritime Silk Road.
- 34 Sylhet (Bangladesh). He went inland to this town in order to find a famous holy man, and spent three days with him.
- Samudra (Samudera Pasai Sultanate) (on the north coast of Sumatra). At the time, this was the world's easternmost Muslim kingdom. The Sultan had Ibn Battuta as an honoured guest for two weeks.
The Sultan owned ships which traded with China, and sent Ibn Battuta off on one.
He landed in China at Quanzhou, then travelled by land to other cities.
- 35 Quanzhou (Fujian). This port was the main eastern terminus of the Maritime Silk Road. Marco Polo had sailed home from here a few decades earlier, and considered it one of the world's two greatest ports; the other was Alexandria. Parts of the downtown are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 36 Guangzhou (Guangdong). Another major port on the Maritime Silk Road, today southern China's greatest city.
- 37 Fuzhou (Fujian). Also a port, and a center of ship building, later China's largest center of tea export.
- 38 Hangzhou (Zhejiang). Quite likely this was the world's largest city in Ibn Battuta's time; Marco Polo wrote the city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world. It had been the capital of the Song Dynasty and remained important after the Mongol conquest, completed in 1279. Today it remains one of China's largest and richest cities and a major destination for both domestic and foreign tourism. Parts of the downtown are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 39 Beijing. He claimed to have reached the capital via the Grand Canal in 1345. Some historians believe he did not actually go there and is only repeating other travellers' tales for that part of the journey.
Returning to Quanzhou, he found a junk owned by the Sultan of Samudra in port, and boarded it to begin his three-year journey home. After a stop in Samudra he sailed to India, landing at Quilon then returning to Calicut where he boarded a westbound ship.
- 40 Zafar (Yemen). This was then a moderately important port, and had once been the capital of an empire. Today it is an archeological site in Yemen.
- 41 Hormuz (Iran). This was an important port on the Maritime Silk Road, also visited by Marco Polo. Today it is a small town.
When Ibn Battuta had visited 11 years before, the Ilkhanate had been peaceful under a strong sultan. However, that sultan had died and the region was now chaotic as various generals and nobles vied for power. Ibn Battuta left Persia quickly, going west via Baghdad and Damascus.
He went back to Palestine, Cairo, Jeddah and Mecca, then returned to Egypt to take a ship west.
- 43 Tenes (Algeria). He landed here, then made his way overland home to Tangier.
Iberia and West Africa
By now, Ibn Battuta had visited most of the Muslim world (dar al Islam), as well as areas beyond it. His last major journey was to Islamic kingdoms he had not yet seen.
- 44 Granada (Spain). Greatest city of Al-Andalus, the Moorish kingdom which then ruled nearly all of Iberia and parts of what is now France.
- 45 Niani (Guinea). Ibn Battuta's furthest journey into West Africa. At the time the town had a population around 100,000 and was the capital of the Mali Empire. Today there is only a village.
- 46 Timbuktu (Mali). Great trading city of the Mali Empire on the edge of the Sahara, and a major center of Islamic scholarship in its heyday.
After the West African journey, he settled in Tangier, worked as a judge, and wrote a book:
- The Rihla (A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling).
The work became well-known in the Muslim world, but was not much known in the West until the early 1800s.