Sir Isaac Newton was a mathematician and physicist during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He developed the principles of modern physics, especially about motion and gravity, and was considered instrumental in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, according to Biography.
Newton is a very multifaceted figure. He was undeniably a brilliant scientific mind, and a very pious man. He was also prone to fits of rage, insecurity, and social withdrawal, where he would do no work and isolate himself from everyone.
He had a longtime interest in the study of alchemy, and was searching for the recipe to create the Philosopher’s Stone, which was reputed to turn base metals into gold, and have the power to confer eternal life.
Unlike with his interests in math and physics, his alchemical research was a very private pursuit, and was not driven by money so much as it was inspired by a desire for power over nature, according to Nova.
All of these things taken together build a picture of a man who struggled with mental illness, probably bipolar disorder, according to Futurism.
When he was around 19 or 20, Newton maintained a diary in which he cataloged a list of his sins. Examining his list, it’s clear that he had problems with anger from a young age.
He identifies, among his sins, “peevishness” with his mother, his sister, and at “Master Clarks, for a piece of bread and butter”. He lists “falling out with the servants”, as well.
You could say that bad temper and grouchiness are par for the course for a boy of his years, and that would certainly be true, but he also specifies, as number 13, “threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them, and the house over them”.
He also cites multiple examples of physical aggression, punching his sister, beating people, and putting a pin in someone’s hat, so that it will scratch them. He comes across as anxious, egotistical, and dominating.
Newton was not a people person. He didn’t make friends. In his personal life, he only had close emotional relation relationships with two people, his niece Catherine Barton, who became his housekeeper in London, and a mathematician named Fatio de Duillier, who was only 25 when he and Newton met.
Their relationship was very emotionally intense, and neither man ever married, which makes some of Newton’s biographers speculate that the men were romantically involved, although there is no proof.
In his professional life, he was very touchy and insecure about his work, and would fly into fits of rage over its criticism, resulting in his withdrawing and refusing to continue his work. These episodes of withdrawal could last for months. He shied away from fame, and requested that his papers be published anonymously.
He had sincere religious beliefs, and was a nominal Anglican, but seemed to have a Puritan view of morality and religious observance, as can be seen from his list of sins.
Multiple items reflect his notions of what he owed to God, and his remorse at not always living up to that standard. He had a keen interest in mysticism that was tied firmly to his study of alchemy.
He believed that he had been chosen by God. In fact, the pseudonym he took to communicate with fellow alchemists was Jehovah Sanctus Unus, which translates to “Holy God”, according to the New York Post.
Despite all of these issues, Sir Isaac Newton was brilliant, and prolific in his work. His intellectual curiosity was not hampered by what was clearly a difficult personality, and despite his struggles and mood swings he still made a large and incredibly significant contribution to the world of science.
In Shteyngart’s biting, edgy, often hilarious new novel, hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen, who manages $2.4 billion (£1.86b) in assets and is being investigated by the SEC, is steadily divested of privilege while travelling across the country by Greyhound bus. Back home, his estranged wife Seema struggles to keep up with their newly diagnosed autistic three-year-old son, Shiva, and begins an affair with a neighbour. Her sections of the novel are tender in comparison with Barry’s. An outgoing narcissist, he befriends a crack dealer on a Baltimore block that fans of The Wire like to visit, hangs out with a onetime colleague in Atlanta, tracks down an old Princeton girlfriend in El Paso. Barry loses everything, but gathers more kindness from his fellow passengers than from everyone in his years in finance. (Credit: Random House)
Abby Geni, The Wildlands
Geni’s impressive second novel begins with a catastrophic tornado. Cora, six years old, notes that the horses are screaming and the Oklahoma sky is “soaked with a new colour. Damp jade. Split pea soup. Moss on stone.” Within hours, her father, their home, and all the animals are gone. Her older sister Darlene settles brother Tucker, sister Jane and Cora in a mobile home instead of going to college. Tucker takes off, drawn into animal-rights activism. Three years later, injured after bombing a local factory that is cruel to lab animals, he kidnaps Cora to help him. Cora adores Tucker, but gradually sees how dangerous he is. Geni’s genius is that she makes us empathise with every member of this troubled family, and also with the animals Tucker yearns to protect. (Credit: Counterpoint)
Kate Atkinson, Transcription
In the latest from this masterful, Whitbread award-winning novelist, Juliet Armstrong is living alone in 1950, working as a producer for the BBC. She encounters a former colleague she knew as Godfrey Toby, but he denies knowing her. This sighting is the first reminder of a clandestine role she thought she’d left behind when the war ended. From 1940 to 1944 Juliet worked for MI5 as a transcriptionist for Godfrey. He was taping fifth columnists – Nazi sympathisers in London who brought him treasonous information, believing he was a Gestapo agent. As long-buried secrets resurface, Juliet’s life is at risk and it’s unclear who can help her decipher the mystery. “Today the dead were everywhere, tumbling out of the box of the past and inhabiting the world of the living.” (Credit: Little, Brown)
Miriam Pawel, The Browns of California
Pawel’s illuminating history focuses on the father and son who served nearly a quarter century as California governors: Pat Brown, an “ebullient, beloved, old-style politician” and his “cerebral, skeptical, visionary son,” Jerry Brown. The family’s California roots date back to a forebear who arrived in Sacramento in 1852. Pat Brown served eight years as governor in the 1960s, encouraging bipartisanship, a robust university system and preserving water resources. Jesuit-trained Jerry Brown was a forward-thinking governor in the 1970s and early ‘80s, anticipating climate change and the growth of the technology industry. When he returned to office in 2011 as governor once again, California was the sixth most powerful economy in the world. In his 2017 State of the State speech, he vowed to defend immigrants and noted, “When California does well, America does well.” (Credit: Bloomsbury)
Eric Vuillard, The Order of the Day
Vuillard’s extraordinary, disturbingly resonant, Prix Goncourt Award-winning novel about the early days of the Third Reich, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, highlights the “underhanded maneuvers, marriages of convenience, double dealings,” greed and vicious passivity of those who appeased and supported Hitler. In February 1933, 24 German businessmen gather secretly and agree to finance the Nazi Party. (“And there they stand, affectless, like 24 calculating machines at the gates of Hell,” Vuillard writes.) British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain learns that Hitler has invaded Austria on 12 March 1938, while hosting a farewell lunch for Ambassador von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop yammers on, intentionally distracting the overly polite Chamberlain. “What’s astounding about this war,” writes Vuillard, “is the remarkable triumph of bravado… Everyone is susceptible to the bluff.” (Credit: Other Press)
Deborah Eisenberg, Your Duck Is My Duck
Six mercurial stories from the lauded short-story master reflect our shifting times. The title story follows an artist who encounters a wealthy couple who surprise her with the news that they just bought a painting of hers. Soon she is their guest in a tropical beach house, where a playwright in residence warns her, “things are clearly about to get worse.” In the story Taj Mahal, the grandson of a vaunted Hollywood director writes a memoir, and the great man’s inner circle reunites to complain about it after it’s been published. In The Merge a corrupt CEO’s hapless post-college son tries to find his way on his own. Recalculating revolves around Adam, who discovers an uncle who long ago left the family’s Iowa farm for London, and serves as “a hazy figure, radiant and beckoning.” (Credit: Ecco)
Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry
This gripping memoir by Steve Jobs’ daughter adds another layer of complexity to the public perception of the late Apple co-founder. Her mother is Jobs’ high-school girlfriend, artist Chrisann Brennan. They never married, and until DNA tests proved it definitively, he denied paternity. In her teens, Lisa lived in his Palo Alto home with Jobs and his wife Lorene. She babysits for her infant brother, but she feels alone, unsure she belongs. One night Jobs says if she doesn’t come with the family to the circus she should move out. She leaves, and after that, he’s rarely in her life. Her yearning for his affection is palpable, as is her compassion for a man of dark moods who withholds money and affection, but who, she writes, also can be “sensitive, collaborative, fun.” (Credit: Grove Press)
Jill Lepore, These Truths
Harvard professor Lepore’s invaluable political history serves as a refresher course on the American experiment, based on three political ideas – “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people”. It’s also an old-fashioned civics book, explaining “the origins and ends of democratic institutions.” She ranges from 1492, with Columbus’s voyage, to the aftermath of the 2016 election, that “rent the nation in two”, and Donald Trump’s Twitter account. She parses the origins of the Constitution, the separation of church and state, the effects of slavery and the Civil War on the democracy, the country’s entrance into world wars and the Cold War, plus the wars waged since 9/11. By emphasising founding fathers and presidents, and charismatic leaders on both sides of the political divide, she makes history vivid. (Credit: WW Norton)
Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women
Gabriel’s fascinating group portrait of Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler – women who played pivotal roles in the New York School during the emergence of abstract expressionism between 1929 and 1959 – shimmers with vivid personal detail. Gabriel opens with the landmark Ninth Street Show in May 1951, which included all five women. She traces their interwoven paths from studio to Cedar Bar to the Eighth Street loft known as the Club, to gallery openings and museum collections. Over time, Willem de Kooning outshone Elaine; Jackson Pollock eclipsed Krasner. Key contributions were erased (Helen Frankenthaler was ignored as the “fount” of the Color Field School). Gabriel makes sure these major artists who have been written out of history are not forgotten. (Credit: Little, Brown)
Lydia Kiesling, The Golden State
Daphne is a single mother with a toddler daughter, working for the Al-Ihsan Institute in Berkeley. Her husband was tricked into giving up his green card, and is now in immigrant limbo at his mother’s house in Istanbul. One morning, on impulse, she fetches Honey from day care and takes off for Altavista in the high desert of northern California, to the home she inherited from her grandparents. There, she has breathing space to consider her next moves and adjust to the relentless challenges of new motherhood. She encounters a neighbour in the State of Jefferson movement to secede from California and have a state without laws, and allies herself with an older woman who has spent time in Turkey. Unexpected intersections and convergences make this first novel sparkle. (Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite bits of pseudoscience: human beings use only 10 percent of their brain, and awakening the remaining 90 percent—supposedly dormant—allows otherwise ordinary human beings to display extraordinary mental abilities. In Phenomenon (1996), John Travolta gains the ability to predict earthquakes and instantly learns foreign languages. Scarlett Johansson becomes a superpowered martial-arts master in Lucy(2014). And in Limitless (2011) Bradley Cooper writes a novel overnight.
This ready-made blueprint for fantasy films is also a favorite among the general public. In a survey, 65 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “People only use 10 percent of their brain on a daily basis.” But the truth is that we use all of our brain all of the time.
How do we know? For one thing, if we needed only 10 percent of our brain, the majority of brain injuries would have no discernible consequences, since the damage would affect parts of the brain that weren’t doing anything to begin with. We also know that natural selection discourages the development of useless anatomical structures: early humans who devoted scarce physical resources to growing and maintaining huge amounts of excess brain tissue would have been outcompeted by those who spent those precious resources on things more necessary for survival and reproductive success. Tougher immune systems, stronger muscles, better looking hair—just about anything would be more useful than having a head full of inert tissue.
We’ve been able to back up these logical conclusions with hard evidence. Imaging techniques, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), allow doctors and scientists to map brain activity in real time. The data clearly shows that large areas of the brain—far more than 10 percent—are used for all sorts of activity, from seemingly simple tasks like resting or looking at pictures to more complex ones like reading or doing math. Scientists have yet to find an area of the brain that doesn’t do anything.
So how did we come to believe that 90 percent of our brain is useless? The myth is often incorrectly attributed to 19th-century psychologist William James, who proposed that most of our mental potential goes untapped. But he never specified a percentage. Albert Einstein—a magnet for misattribution of quotes—has also been held responsible. In reality, the concept most likely came from the American self-help industry. One of the earliest mentions appears in the preface to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 mega best seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The idea that we have harnessed only a fraction of our brain’s full potential has been a staple for motivational gurus, New Age hucksters, and uninspired screenwriters ever since.
Obviously, this is bad news for anyone hoping to find the secret to becoming a genius overnight. The good news, though, is that hard work still works. There is plenty of reason to believe that you can build brainpower by regularly working at challenging mental tasks, such as playing a musical instrument, doing arithmetic, or reading a novel.
Sacagawea, also spelled Sacajawea, (born c. 1788, near the Continental Divide at the present-day Idaho-Montana border [U.S.]—died December 20, 1812?, Fort Manuel, on the Missouri River, Dakota Territory), Shoshone Indian woman who, as interpreter, traveled thousands of wilderness miles with the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–06), from the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in the Dakotas to the Pacific Northwest.
Separating fact from legend in Sacagawea’s life is difficult; historians disagree on the dates of her birth and death and even on her name. In Hidatsa, Sacagawea (pronounced with a hard g) translates into “Bird Woman.” Alternatively, Sacajawea means “Boat Launcher” in Shoshone. Others favour Sakakawea. The Lewis and Clark journals generally support the Hidatsa derivation.
A Lemhi Shoshone woman, she was about 12 years old when a Hidatsa raiding party captured her near the Missouri River’s headwaters about 1800. Enslaved and taken to their Knife River earth-lodge villages near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, she was purchased by French Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau and became one of his plural wives about 1804. They resided in one of the Hidatsa villages, Metaharta.
When explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived at the Mandan-Hidatsa villages and built Fort Mandan to spend the winter of 1804–05, they hired Charbonneau as an interpreter to accompany them to the Pacific Ocean. Because he did not speak Sacagawea’s language and because the expedition party needed to communicate with the Shoshones to acquire horses to cross the mountains, the explorers agreed that the pregnant Sacagawea should also accompany them. On February 11, 1805, she gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste.
Departing on April 7, the expedition ascended the Missouri. On May 14, Charbonneau nearly capsized the white pirogue (boat) in which Sacagawea was riding. Remaining calm, she retrieved important papers, instruments, books, medicine, and other indispensable valuables that otherwise would have been lost. During the next week Lewis and Clark named a tributary of Montana’s Mussellshell River “Sah-ca-gah-weah,” or “Bird Woman’s River,” after her. She proved to be a significant asset in numerous ways: searching for edible plants, making moccasins and clothing, as well as allaying suspicions of approaching Indian tribes through her presence; a woman and child accompanying a party of men indicated peaceful intentions.
By mid-August the expedition encountered a band of Shoshones led by Sacagawea’s brother Cameahwait. The reunion of sister and brother had a positive effect on Lewis and Clark’s negotiations for the horses and guide that enabled them to cross the Rocky Mountains. Upon arriving at the Pacific coast, she was able to voice her opinion about where the expedition should spend the winter and was granted her request to visit the ocean to see a beached whale. She and Clark were fond of each other and performed numerous acts of kindness for one another, but romance between them occurred only in latter-day fiction.
Sacagawea was not the guide for the expedition, as some have erroneously portrayed her; nonetheless, she recognized landmarks in southwestern Montana and informed Clark that Bozeman Pass was the best route between the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers on their return journey. On July 25, 1806, Clark named Pompey’s Tower (now Pompey’s Pillar) on the Yellowstone after her son, whom Clark fondly called his “little dancing boy, Pomp.”
Lewis and Clark ExpeditionHeadwaters of the Missouri River, detail from Lewis and Clark Expedition map by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, 1804–06.Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.
Pompey’s Pillar, near Billings, Mont., U.S.Travel Montana
The Charbonneau family disengaged from the expedition party upon their return to the Mandan-Hidatsa villages; Charbonneau eventually received $409.16 and 320 acres (130 hectares) for his services. Clark wanted to do more for their family, so he offered to assist them and eventually secured Charbonneau a position as an interpreter. The family traveled to St. Louis in 1809 to baptize their son and left him in the care of Clark, who had earlier offered to provide him with an education. Shortly after the birth of a daughter named Lisette, a woman identified only as Charbonneau’s wife (but believed to be Sacagawea) died at the end of 1812 at Fort Manuel, near present-day Mobridge, South Dakota. Clark became the legal guardian of Lisette and Jean Baptiste and listed Sacagawea as deceased in a list he compiled in the 1820s. Some biographers and oral traditions contend that it was another of Charbonneau’s wives who died in 1812 and that Sacagawea went to live among the Comanches, started another family, rejoined the Shoshones, and died on Wyoming’sWind River Reservation on April 9, 1884. These accounts can likely be attributed to other Shoshone women who shared similar experiences as Sacagawea.
Lewis and Clark ExpeditionRoute of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–06.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Lewis and Clark Expedition: Corps of Discovery annotated member listAnnotated list of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from William Clark’s journal, 1825–28. Clark notes that Sacagawea (“Se car ja we au”) is dead, among others.The Newberry Library, Gift of Everett D. Graff, 1964
Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, traveled throughout Europe before returning to enter the fur trade. He scouted for explorers and helped guide the Mormon Battalion to California before becoming an alcalde, a hotel clerk, and a gold miner. Lured to the Montana goldfields following the Civil War, he died en route near Danner, Oregon, on May 16, 1866. Little is known of Lisette’s whereabouts prior to her death on June 16, 1832; she was buried in the Old Catholic Cathedral Cemetery in St. Louis. Charbonneau died on August 12, 1843.
Sacagawea has been memorialized with statues, monuments, stamps, and place-names. In 2000 her likeness appeared on a gold-tinted dollar coin struck by the U.S. Mint. In 2001 U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton granted her a posthumous decoration as an honorary sergeant in the regular army.
India’s Parvati Valley is well known among travellers for its psychedelic parties and free-flowing hashish that originates from the ancient village of Malana in North India’s Himachal Pradesh region. But if you look beyond the haze, you’ll find a treasure trove of legends, intrigue and unanswered questions.
Nestled in the peaks of the Himalayas, Malana is surrounded by steep cliffs and snow-capped mountains. Travellers have long been drawn to this village of nearly 1,700 inhabitants, staying for days on end amid the cold gushes of wind and rows of dark green deodar trees to consume what locals consider the holy herb and what outsiders see as a way to free the mind: the famed and award-winning Malana cream. This cannabis resin or hashish is renowned both for the hand rubbing-technique used to produce it and for its reportedly remarkable intoxicating effects. But I’d come to Malana to try to make sense of the myths surrounding the village.
Legend has it that some of Alexander the Great’s army took shelter in this isolated village in 326BC after they were wounded in a battle against Porus, a ruler in India’s Punjab region. These soldiers are often said to be the ancestors of the Malani people. Artefacts from that period have been found in the village, such as a sword that reportedly rests inside the temple. However, genetic ties to the soldiers have not been studied or established. In fact, many of the locals I spoke to had no idea where this myth originated.
“The big claim that Malani people have descended from Alexander the Great’s army has become a widely accepted truth, but I have not found any real backing to it. There are some weapons and other things that can be found that have raised these links, but I am certain that there is no evidence to this story,” said Amlan Datta, a filmmaker who has spent a decade working in Malana.
But these theories are fuelled by locals’ noticeably different physical features and their language, which are unlike that of any other local tribe, adding to the enigma surrounding the Malanis and their identity. They speak Kanashi, which is considered sacred and is not taught to outsiders. It is also spoken nowhere else in the world. During my visit, I referred to some of the men I met as ‘Bhaiji’ (a polite way of saying brother), which is a fairly common way to address men in Himachal. Though locals understood when I spoke to them in Hindi, their responses in Kanashi were incomprehensible to me.
A study of Kanashi is currently being undertaken by Uppsala University in Sweden, led by professor of linguistics, Anju Saxena. “Kanashi qualifies as a definitely endangered, as an unwritten and almost undescribed language,” Saxena told me. “It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, and in all the surrounding villages, Indo-Aryan languages are spoken, which are completely unrelated to Kanashi. This raises interesting questions concerning its prehistory and its linguistic structure.”
Even getting to Malana was a journey into the unknown. There are no motorable roads to the village, and it took me about four hours to trek there from the village of Jari at the bottom of the Parvati Valley. The approach was steep yet breath-taking. It wasn’t long before I started passing Malani people – distinguishable by their light brown hair, light brown eyes, long noses and a distinct wheatish or a golden-brownish complexion of skin – most of whom were traditionally dressed in light brown robes, caps and hemp shoes. To me, they looked more Mediterranean than Himachali.
As I entered the village, I came to a group of teenagers who casually inquired whether I was interested in buying some hashish. Though cannabis has long been the backbone of this small village’s economy, it has led to a host of socio-cultural issues, such as young children being involved in the drug trade. This is perhaps why, one year ago, the village deity Jamdagni Rishi – who is locally nicknamed the Jamlu Devta and is a great sage in Hindu mythology – decreed through his spiritual spokesperson (the Gur) that all guesthouses across the village would be shut, leaving the village open to outsiders only during the day.
Jamlu Devta is an important figurehead in village governance, a political set-up that has long baffled researchers and visitors who cannot comprehend how such an advanced form of governance exists in this quaint and remote Himalayan village.
Malana’s unique democratic system is said to be among the oldest in the world, and, similar to the Ancient Greek system of democracy, it consists of a lower house and upper house. However, it has a uniquely spiritual twist to it: ultimate rulings rest on the upper court, which includes three important figures, of which one is the representative of the local deity, Jamlu Devta.
“Devta is the ultimate word and we have a set-up of a council and three political figures of sorts, one of whom – the Gur, or the vessel who is possessed by Jamlu – communicates to us the decisions of Jamlu Devta,” explained Rohan, one of the hashish-dealing teenagers.
Malanis’ distinct physical characteristics are reminiscent of those seen in Mediterranean populations (Credit: Jenny Matthews/Alamy)
Datta had told me about a local legend that said Jamlu Devta once inhabited Malana, which he was gifted by the Hindu god Shiva. There are two temples in the village, one dedicated to him and the other, to his wife, Renuka Devi. As I walked through the narrow passageways of this ancient village, dotted with wooden and brick houses, I entered the large courtyard, where the lower court gathers, and a temple dedicated to Jamlu Devta. It was sight to behold against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
The temple, with wide wooden pillars, intricate doors and a host of bones, skulls and other sacrificial animal parts on one wall looked intriguing. But there was a warning sign outside demanding INR 3,500 ‘On touching of this holy place of Jamdagni Rishi’.
This sign is an outward demonstration of another tradition that is very apparent in Malana: a quest to preserve the ‘purity’ of the village. People across Himachal Pradesh will tell you that the Malanis are known to restrict contact with outsiders, particularly in terms of direct physical contact. I personally had been warned to keep my distance by the driver who had brought me to Jari earlier that day.
Although I did see some of the younger generations hugging or shaking hands, most people here still strongly hold the taboo of touching outsiders. When I went to pay for a bottle of water, the shopkeeper asked me to leave the notes on the counter instead of handing them to him directly. I also learned that marriages must take place within the village; transgression of this norm invites social boycott.
Well aware that outsiders aren’t welcome here, I felt like an intruder as I kept probing people to find out more information about the village. Himachali people in general are warm and chatty, and they love to share stories and meals with visitors; in Malana, however, long conversations with locals were rare.
Descending from the hills and coming down from this otherworld, I acknowledged my position as a traveller who would forever be on the outside of this mysterious Himalayan hamlet. Whether I liked it or not, the locals hadn’t taken me in, and I needed to respect their culture.
But now, weeks later, as I look back on my quest to unfold the legends of Malana, I have come to the realisation that the very beauty of my experience was based on the essence of mystery, the unknown. Cherishing that very quality of Malana finally has led me to a newfound appreciation of this strange, cold land of enigmatic people.
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 Egypt, Syria, 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 Iran, Azerbaijan, 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, Oman, Hormuz, 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 Delhi, Muḥammad 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 Horde, Öz 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 Bukhara, Samarkand, 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.
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.