Ibn Baṭṭūṭah MUSLIM EXPLORER AND WRITER

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, in full Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Lawātī al-Ṭanjī ibn Baṭṭūṭah, (born February 24, 1304, Tangier, Morocco—died 1368/69 or 1377, Morocco), the greatest medieval Muslim traveler and the author of one of the most famous travel books, the Riḥlah (Travels). His great work describes his extensive travels covering some 75,000 miles (120,000 km) in trips to almost all of the Muslim countries and as far as China and Sumatra (now part of Indonesia).

Early Life And Travels

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was from a family that produced a number of Muslim judges (qadis). He received the traditional juristic and literary education in his native town of Tangier. In 1325, at the age of 21, he started his travels by undertaking the pilgrimage(hajj) to Mecca. At first his purpose was to fulfill that religious duty and to broaden his education by studying under famous scholars in EgyptSyria, and the Hejaz (western Arabia). That he achieved his objectives is corroborated by long enumerations of scholars and Sufi (Islamic mystic) saints whom he met and also by a list of diplomas conferred on him (mainly in Damascus). Those studies qualified him for judicial office, whereas the claim of being a former pupil of the then-outstanding authorities in traditional Islamic sciences greatly enhanced his chances and made him thereafter a respected guest at many courts.

That renown was to follow later, however. In Egypt, where he arrived by the land route via Tunis and Tripoli, an irresistible passion for travel was born in his soul, and he decided to visit as many parts of the world as possible, setting as a rule “never to travel any road a second time.” His contemporaries traveled for practical reasons (such as trade, pilgrimage, and education), but Ibn Baṭṭūṭah did it for its own sake, for the joy of learning about new countries and new peoples. He made a living of it, benefitting at the beginning from his scholarly status and later from his increasing fame as a traveler. He enjoyed the generosity and benevolence of numerous sultans, rulers, governors, and high dignitaries in the countries he visited, thus securing an income that enabled him to continue his wanderings.

From Cairo, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah set out via Upper Egypt to the Red Sea but then returned and visited Syria, there joining a caravanfor Mecca. Having finished the pilgrimage in 1326, he crossed the Arabian Desert to Iraq, southern IranAzerbaijan, and Baghdad. There he met the last of the Mongol khans of Iran, Abū Saʿīd (ruled 1316–36), and some lesser rulers. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah spent the years between 1327 and 1330 in Mecca and Medinaleading the quiet life of a devotee, but such a long stay did not suit his temperament.

Embarking on a boat in Jiddah, he sailed with a retinue of followers down both shores of the Red Sea to Yemen, crossed it by land, and set sail again from Aden. This time he navigated along the eastern African coast, visiting the trading city-states as far as Kilwa (Tanzania). His return journey took him to southern Arabia, OmanHormuz, southern Persia, and across the Persian Gulf back to Mecca in 1332.

There a new, ambitious plan matured in his mind. Hearing of the sultan of DelhiMuḥammad ibn Tughluq (ruled 1325–51), and his fabulous generosity to Muslim scholars, he decided to try his luck at his court. Forced by lack of communications to choose a more indirect route, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah turned northward, again passed Egypt and Syria, and boarded ship for Asia Minor (Anatolia) in Latakia. He crisscrossed that “land of the Turks” in many directions at a time when Anatolia was divided into numerous petty sultanates. Thus, his narrative provides a valuable source for the history of that country between the end of the Seljuq power and the rise of the house of Ottoman. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was received cordially and generously by all the local rulers and heads of religious brotherhoods (ākhīs).

His journey continued across the Black Sea to the Crimean Peninsula, then to the northern Caucasus and to Saray on the lower Volga River, capital of the khan of the Golden HordeÖz Beg (ruled 1312–41). According to his narrative, he undertook an excursion from Saray to Bulgary on the upper Volga and Kama, but there are reasons to doubt his veracity on that point. On the other hand, the narrative of his visit to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the retinue of the khan’s wife, a Byzantine princess, seems to be an eyewitness record, although there are some minor chronological discrepancies. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s description of the Byzantine capital is vivid and, in general, accurate. Although he shared the strong opinions of his fellow Muslims toward unbelievers, his account of the “second Rome” shows him as a rather tolerant man with a lively curiosity. Nevertheless, he always felt happier in the realm of Islam than in non-Muslim lands, whether Christian, Hindu, or pagan.

After his return from Constantinople through the Russian steppes, he continued his journey in the general direction of India. From Saray he traveled with a caravan to Central Asia, visiting the ancient towns of BukharaSamarkand, and Balkh, all of those still showing the scars left by the Mongol invasion. He took rather complicated routes through Khorāsān and Afghanistan, and, after crossing the Hindu Kush mountain range, he arrived at the frontiers of India on the Indus River on September 12, 1333, by his own dating. The accuracy of that date is doubtful, as it would have been impossible to cover such enormous distances (from Mecca) in the course of only one year. Because of that discrepancy, his subsequent dating until 1348 is highly uncertain.

Time In India And Later Journeys

By that time Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was already a man of some importance and fame, with a large train of attendants and followers and also with his own harem of legal wives and concubines. India and its ruler, Muḥammad ibn Tughluq, lived up to Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s expectations of wealth and generosity, and the traveler was received with honours and gifts and later appointed grand qadi of Delhi, a sinecure that he held for several years.

Though he had apparently attained an easy life, it soon became clear that his new position was not without danger. Sultan Muḥammad, an extraordinary mixture of generosity and cruelty, held sway over the greater part of India with an iron hand that fell indiscriminately upon high and low, Muslim and Hindu alike. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah witnessed all the glories and setbacks of the sultan and his rule, fearing daily for his life as he saw many friends fall victim to the suspicious despot. His portrait of Muḥammad is an unusually fine piece of psychological insight and mirrors faithfully the author’s mixed feelings of terror and sympathy. Notwithstanding all his precautions, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah at last fell into disgrace, and only good fortune saved his life. Gaining favour again, he was appointed the sultan’s envoy to the Chinese emperor in 1342.

He left Delhi without regrets, but his journey was full of other dangers: not far away from Delhi his party was waylaid by Hindu insurgents, and the traveler barely escaped with his life. On the Malabar Coast of southwestern India he became involved in local wars and was finally shipwrecked near Calicut (now Kozhikode), losing all his property and the gifts for the Chinese emperor. Fearing the wrath of the sultan, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah chose to go to the Maldive Islands, where he spent nearly two years; as a qadi, he was soon active in politics, married into the ruling family, and apparently even aspired to become sultan.

Finding the situation too dangerous, he set out for Sri Lanka, where he visited the ruler as well as the famous Adam’s Peak. After a new shipwreck on the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India, he took part in a war led by his brother-in-law and went again to the Maldives and then to Bengal and Assam. At that time he decided to resume his mission to Chinaand sailed for Sumatra. There he was given a new ship by the Muslim sultan and started for China; his description of his itinerary contains some discrepancies.

He landed at the great Chinese port Zaytūn (identified as Quanzhou, near Xiamen [Amoy]) and then traveled on inland waterways as far as Beijing and back. That part of his narrative is rather brief, and the itinerary, as well as the chronology, presents many problems and difficulties, not yet surmounted, that cast shadows of doubt on his veracity.

Equally brief is his account of the return voyage via Sumatra, Malabar, and the Persian Gulf to Baghdad and Syria. In Syria he witnessed the ravages of the Black Death of 1348, visited again many towns there and in Egypt, and in the same year performed his final pilgrimage to Mecca. At last he decided to return home, sailing from Alexandria to Tunisia, then to Sardinia and Algiers, finally reaching Fès, the capital of the Marīnid sultan, Abū ʿInān, in November 1349.

But there still remained two Muslim countries not yet known to him. Shortly after his return he went to the kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Moorish Spain, and two years later (in 1352) he set out on a journey to the western Sudan. His last journey (across the Sahara to Western Africa) was taken unwillingly at the command of the sultan. Crossing the Sahara, he spent a year in the empire of Mali, then at the height of its power under Mansa Sulaymān; his account represents one of the most important sources of that period for the history of that part of Africa.

Toward the end of 1353 Ibn Baṭṭūṭah returned to Morocco and, at the sultan’s request, dictated his reminiscences to a writer, Ibn Juzayy (died 1355), who embellished the simple prose of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah with an ornate style and fragments of poetry. After that he passes from sight. He is reported to have held the office of qadi in a town in Morocco before his death, details of which remain uncertain. It has been suggested that he died in 1368/69 or 1377 and was buried in his native town of Tangier.

Legacy

The claim of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah to be “the traveler of Islam” is well founded: it is estimated that the extent of his wanderings was some 75,000 miles (120,000 km), a figure hardly surpassed by anyone before the age of steam power. He visited, with few exceptions (central Persia, Armenia, and Georgia), all Muslim countries, as well as many adjacent non-Muslim lands. While he did not discover new or unknown lands, and his contribution to scientific geography was minimal, the documentary value of his work has given it lasting historical and geographical significance. He met at least 60 rulers and a much greater number of viziers, governors, and other dignitaries; in his book he mentioned more than 2,000 persons who were known to him personally or whose tombs he visited. The majority of those people are identifiable by independent sources, and there are surprisingly few errors in names or dates in Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s material.

His Riḥlah, as his book is commonly known, is an important document shedding light on many aspects of the social, cultural, and political history of a great part of the Muslim world. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was a curious observer interested in the ways of life in various countries, and he described his experiences with a human approach rarely encountered in official historiography. His accounts of his travels in Asia Minor, East and West Africa, the Maldives, and India form a major source for the histories of those areas, whereas the parts dealing with the Arab and Persian Middle East are valuable for their wealth of detail on various aspects of social and cultural life.

On the whole, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah is reliable; only his alleged journey to Bulgary was proved to be invented, and there are some doubts concerning the East Asian part of his travels. A few grave and several minor discrepancies in the chronology of his travels are due more to lapses in his memory than to intentional fabrication. A number of formerly uncertain points (such as travels in Asia Minor and the visit to Constantinople) have since been cleared away by contemporary research and the discovery of new corroborative sources.

Another interesting aspect of the Riḥlah is the gradual revealing of the character of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah himself; in the course of the narrative the reader may learn the opinions and reactions of an average middle-class Muslim of the 14th century. He was deeply rooted in orthodox Islam but, like many of his contemporaries, oscillated between the pursuit of its legislative formalism and an adherence to the mystic path and succeeded in combining both. He did not offer any profound philosophy but accepted life as it came to him, leaving to posterity a true picture of himself and his times.

Ivan Hrbek

The First City in Recorded History

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Uruk was an ancient city in Sumer and later Babylonia. At one time it was the most important city in ancient Mesopotamia. It was situated in the southern region of Sumer (modern day Warka, Iraq), to the northeast of the Euphrates river.

Thousands of clay tablets dug up in the ruins of what used to be the great city of Uruk show that it was indeed a religious and scientific center. It was here, according to Archaeology Magazine, that the the world’s oldest texts were written.

The writing system known as cuniform, a series of wedge-shaped symbols pressed into wet clay using reeds, was developed around 3200 B.C. by Sumerian scribes in Uruk. The combination of shapes represented different sounds, so the system could thus be adopted by scribes who spoke different languages. The script was used by multiple cultures for around 3,000 years.

Uruk is also well known as the city of Gilgamesh. The mythological Sumerian hero king was made famous in the modern world with the discovery of a collection of stories — known as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” — in 1853. The 12 cuneiform tablets on which the stories were written were discovered by archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam at the site of the the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal.

According to Professor John Maier of the State University of New York College at Brockport, “Ancient writings point to the existence of an actual, historical person we now call Gilgamesh. He lived, according to our best estimate, about 2600 B.C.”

It is also believed that Uruk is the biblical city of Erech, the second city of the kingdom of Nimrod in Shinar (Genesis 10:10).

Archaeologists distinguish nine different periods in the rise of the city from a simple settlement to the first urban center of the world.

The foundations of the first settlements on the site date somewhere around 5000 B.C., the Eridu period. According to the Sumerian King List (an ancient stone tablet which lists all the kings of Sumer, in Sumerian language), Uruk was founded by King Enmerkar around 4500 B.C. This was during the Ubaid period (5000–4100 B.C.).

After 4000 B.C., Uruk rose from small, agricultural villages to a significantly larger and more complex center. This has been attributed partly to a period of climatic change; the area saw less rainfall and so people living in the hills migrated to the river valley of the ancient Euphrates.

The course of the Euphrates has since shifted, an important factor in the decline of the city.

Nestled in the lush and fertile river valley, the population of Uruk continued to grow throughout the Early Uruk period (4000–3500 B.C.), Middle Uruk period (3800–3400 B.C.) and Late Uruk period (3500–3100 B.C.). Farming and irrigation techniques were refined, providing a surplus of food for the community.

By around 3200 B.C., the city of Uruk was the largest settlement in southern Mesopotamia, and probably in the world.

It was an urban center with full-time bureaucracy, stratified society, and a formal military. It was also a major hub of trade and administration.

The organization of Uruk in this period set the blueprint for cities ever since. There is evidence of social hierarchies and coercive political structures that would be familiar to most of us today. Clay tablets containing a “standard professions list” have been found, listing around 100 professions.

As the city became more affluent, those at the top sought ways to display their wealth and power. Luxury goods were acquired by conquest or trade with lands as far as the Egyptian Nile Delta.

Uruk was a city of extraordinary architecture and works of art. The remains of monumental mud-brick buildings, the walls of which were decorated with mosaics of painted clay cones, pressed into the mud plaster — a technique known as clay cone mosaic — have been excavated.

The most impressive creations discovered to date of this Sumerian craft are the two large temple complexes in the heart of Uruk.

One was dedicated to Anu, the god of the sky, and the other, known as the Mosaic Temple of Uruk, to Inanna (or Ishtar), the goddess of love, procreation, and war. There was a clear division of the city into the Anu and Eanna Districts.

Another famous piece of artwork, “The Lady of Uruk,” or the Mask of Warka, was discovered in 1939 by the German Archaeological Institute in Uruk. Dating from 3100 B.C., it is most likely that the mask was part of a much larger work from one of the temples and it is considered to represent of Inanna. The marble sculpture is one of the earliest representations of the human face.

To this day, the mask is the most significant artifact found on the site, and it is part of the collection of National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. It is also called “The Sumerian Mona Lisa.”

Uruk continued to expand and, as the center of luxurious materials and possessions, it demanded greater protection.

Although it was traditionally believed that the great wall of Uruk was built by King Gilgamesh himself, as it is written in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it was possibly created during the reign of King Eannutum who established the first empire in Uruk during the Jemdet Nasr Period (3100-2900 B.C.).

By the time the wall was raised, it protected an area of 2.32 square miles and a population of almost 80,000.

During the Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 B.C.), Mesopotamia was governed by city-states whose rulers gradually grew in importance and power.

Starting circa 2004 B.C. the struggles between the Sumerians in Babylonia and the Elamites from Elam, the Pre-Iranian civilization rose to serious national conflicts.

Uruk was still a prominent center during this time but suffered severely.

There are recollections about the conflicts in the Gilgamesh epic. Sometime after 2000 B.C., Uruk lost importance, but it wasn’t abandoned.

The city remained inhibited throughout the Seleucid (312–63 B.C.) and Parthian (227 B.C.–224 A.D.) periods. The last people living there left Uruk after the Islamic contest of Persia in 633–638 A.D.

The remains of probably the oldest city in the world laid buried until 1850 when archaeologist William Loftus led the first excavations on the site and identified the city as “Erech, the second city of Nimrod.”

 Katie Vernon