Travels in Asia and Africa – 1325-1354 – Ibn Battúa

I heard about this book from Reddit and knew right away that I wanted to read it. I love history and traveling and here is a first hand account from a well traveled (for the times) man from over 600 years ago. This is unlike a history book. History books are the past seen through the prism of the historian and these can be tainted by the passage of time as well as the nationality of the author. From a first hand account I can gain a better idea of what times were really like and how people thought.

Furthermore, due to the time I spent studying in Spain I’m very fascinated with the Muslim/Moor identity as Spain was one of the borders where Christian civilization ended and Muslim civilization began. Spain was for a few hundred years a Muslim country and this is easily seen in its architecture as well as the traits of its people.

In understanding the past I can further understand the world today and it is easy to see that although much has changed the core identities when it comes to religion have not. We still have the same hatreds, same wars and same divisions as over 600 years ago.

Below are some passages I’ve pulled out that I found rather interesting and wanted to comment on.

To the world of today the men of medieval Christendom already seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is a thing unreal, whcih costs an effort of the imagination. How much more must this apply to the great Islamic civilization, that stood over against medieval Europe, menacing its existence and yet linked to it by a hundred ties that even war and fear could not sever. Its monuments too abide, for those who may have the fortune to visit them, but its men and manners are to most of us utterly unknown, or dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Even for the specialist it is difficult to reconstruct their lives and see them as they were. Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians, for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader.

This is the opening and it is wonderful. Whenever we travel overseas we take pictures next to monuments and maybe read a blurb about it or two if that and then it is on to the next thing. There is a reason those monuments are there and when traveling to the ‘old countries’ these monuments go back centuries if not millennia. In the case of Japan one can see shrines and writings on the sides of roads whose meaning is only known to the monks if by anyone at all! I feel very thankful for today’s technology which can offer a glimpse into what the monuments are for without my smartphone they would just be another statue. How interesting the world is and how little we know of it!

This is the church of which they are falsely persuaded to believe that it contains the grave of Jesus. All who come on pilgrimage to visit it pay a stipulated tax to the Muslims, and suffer very unwillingly various humiliations.

This is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now in the hands of the Israelis’. It is the place where the Crusaders fought to reclaim and the surrounding land still ground zero where the religions still fight for control. This is also the spot where one of the most exciting archaeological studies are taking place since for the first time ever have been granted access to open it. The whole world was waiting for the results but checking this article it looks like if Jesus’s remains are there or not is so far inconclusive. This is some real life Indiana Jones stuff and is truly incredible. Whether you believe in religion or not is irrelevant as this is history that has changed and continues to change the world and the findings could further change the world.

Thence to Ma’arra, whcih lies in a district inhabited by some sort of Shi’ites, abominable people who hate the Ten Companions and ever person whose name is ‘Omar.

Ibn Battuá was a Sunni and this passage is interesting to me as the Sunnis and Shi’ites still fight to this very day with Saudia Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. It is a dispute over how one interprets Islam and the wars of 600 years ago persist with even more devastating consequences today.

One day a Turk happened to be there, and hearing a broker call “nine and one,” he laid his club about his head “Say ‘ten,'” whereupon quoth he “Ten with the club.”

Again, this is Sunni vs. Shi’ite.

Land of the Armenian infidels.

I’ve learned a lot about the Armenians and their sad history. The persecution continues today with Turkey being a main offender.

Thence we journeyed to Ma’an, which is the last town in Syria, and from “Aqabat as-Sawan entered the desert, of which the saying goes: “He who enters it is lost, and he who leaves it is born.”

How frightening crossing the deserts must have been in the middle ages. In fact, without airplanes crossing a desert is still a formidable challenge today. Deserts represent a mythical land where the veil between life and death is very thin. It is no wonder this is where the idea of genies which come from “the Jinn” was born and all of the superstitions that come with it.

Isfahán is one of the largest and fairest of cities, but the greater part of it is now in ruins, as a result of the feud between Sunnís and Shi’ites, which is still raging there.

Additional testament to the war between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam.

We went on from there to the town of Ta’izz, the capital of the king of Yemen, and one of the finest and largest towns in that country. Its people are overbearing, insolent, and rude, as is generally the case in towns where kings reside.

Isn’t this still true today in our major cities? I’ve found the people of the countryside to be a refreshing change from the uptight and pretentious people that inhabit our modern cities. Some things never change.

Greek slave called Michael
I bought a Greek slave girl here for forty dinars.
He gave me a young Greek slave named Nicholas
Here my slave, on taking my horses to water along with a slave belonging to one of my companions, attempted to escape.
In this town I bought a Greek slave girl called Marguerite.

It was interesting to me that a man of religion would think nothing of taking slaves. Does religion not teach us that we are all God’s children? How does a religious person reconcile this with the taking of slaves. Religion is a blight on humanity full of contradictions and mind twisting feats of logic to explain why they believe and act the way they do. I wrote down the names of these slaves as these were real people, cared for as babies who were cruelly torn from their families and put into slavery. For me, these are not just a names from 600 years ago but real people that were born in a very cruel world and who I feel very sorry for. Looking at their names a feeling of sorrow envelops me and I feel their souls are close since I, one of the living, are remembering them.

A day’s march from this town (Ukak), are the mountains of the Russians. These are Christians, red-haired and blue-eyed, with ugly faces and treacherous.

One tribe encountering another. Nothing has changed in modern times and we are still as apart today as we were 600 years ago.

I was out one day with my Greek guide, when we met the former king George who had become a monk.

I clasp the hand which has entered Jerusalem and the foot which has walked within the Dome of the Rock and the great church of the Holy Sepulchre and Bethlehem,'” and he laid his hand upon my feet and passed it over his face.

This was in Constantinople and the Byzantine empire. He visited the Hagia Sophia and at this time it was still under Christian control. It wasn’t until 120 years later that it was conquered by the Turks and remains under their control to this day. I was amazed that the Emperor would touch Ibn Battua’s feet because they had been in the Holy Sepulchre, how religious he was! Kingdoms come and go and I wonder what further changes are in store for humanity in the next 600 years.

He who enters it must needs prostrate himself before the great cross, for this is a rule which the ancients laid down and which cannot be contravened.

This is the Hagia Sophia. Here I am reading an account from 600 years ago and in this quote they are referencing the “ancients” which was 600 or more years ago for them! How things involving religion remain the same even though we have made such advancements elsewhere.

The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; only when a widow burns herself her family acquire a certain prestige by it and gain a reputation for fidelity. A widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity, but she is not forced to burn herself.

Each elephant has on its back a sort of large chest capable of holding twenty warriors or more or less, according to the size of the beast.

This reminded me of Lord of the Rings and how the evil men from the south rode elephants or “Oliphants” as the hobbits called them. JRR Tolkein got his idea directly from history which is described above.

Yogis, appearing in the shape of a tiger
The men of this class do some marvelous things One of them will spend months without eating or drinking, and many of them have holes dug for them in the earth which are then built in on top of them, leaving only a space for air to enter. They stay in these for months, and I heard tell of one of them who remained thus for a year. The people say that they make up pills, one of which they take for a given number of days or months, and during that time they require no food or drink. They can tell what is happening at a distance. The sultan holds them in esteem and admits them to his company Some eat nothing but vegetables, and others, the majority, eat no meat; it is obvious that they have so disciplined themselves in ascetic practices that they have no need of any of the goods or vanities of this world. There are amongst them some who merely look at a man and he falls dead on the spot. The common people say that if the breast of a man killed in this way is cut open, it is found to contain no heart, and they assert that his heart has been eaten.

Such superstition and myths continue to this day. Again, things change but remain the same.

I want a cabin to myself because of the slave-girls, for it is my habit never to travel without them.

I can’t imagine why. A religious man preaches against the sins of sex yet still engages in the practice. At least with him it wasn’t little boys.

“Are you going to go on the raft and leave us?” So I put their safety before my own and said “You two go and take with you the girl that I like.” The other girl said “I am a good swimmer and I shall hold on to one of the raft ropes and swim with them.”

This was a moment when they were sinking and at least Ibn Battua had the decency to think of his female slaves.

In the morning the infidels whom our troops had captured the previous day were divided into four groups and impaled at the four gates of the camp. Their women and little children were butchered also and the women tied by their hair to the pales….. This [slaughtering of women and children] is a dastardly practice, which I have never known of any [other] king, and it was because of it that God brought him to a speedy end.

Very violent the Middle Ages were. Oh wait, we’re still very violent today and nothing has changed. Only now this murder is done with air strikes and on computer screens. How civilized!

If he desires to take a concubine, the keeper purchases a slave-girl for him and lodges him in an apartment opening out of the hostelry, and purveys for them both. Slave-girls fetch a low price; yet all the Chinese sell their sons and daughters, and consider it no disgrace. They are not compelled, however, to travel with those who buy them, nor on the other hand, are they hindered from going if they choose to do so.

The Chinese seem much more compassionate here unlike in the West where if you found yourself in slavery you were in a very bad spot.

“What we thought was a mountain is the Rukh, and if it sees us it will make an end of us.”

It took me a minute to understand what they were referring to here but it is a mythological Roc which is an enormous bird that preys upon everything. This passage showed me how superstitious the people were for the time. Although nobody had actually seen these mythological creatures they were still very real to their minds. I imagine dragons, sea serpents and other creatures would have also been very real in their minds during this age.

Two months after this we reached Jáwa and landed at the town of Sumutra. We found its sultan al-Malik az-Záhir just returned from a raid, with a large train of captives. He sent me two girls and two boys, and lodged me in the usual manner.

More trading of slaves which seems to be all very normal at this time.

I had left a wife of mine there pregnant, and I learned that while I was in India that she had borne a male child, whereupon I sent to the boy’s maternal grandfather, who belonged to Miknása [Mequinez] in Morocco, forty gold dinars in Indian money. When I arrived in Damascus on this occasion I had not thought but to enquire after my son.
“He is dead these twelve years.”
“told him the name of my family he informed me that my father died fifteen years before and that my mother was still alive.”

I guess it was not a big deal to leave your wives pregnant and never to be seen again. I’m sure the idea of children and family was very different at this time compared to what it is today. It is stories like this that make my the story of my own DNA very interesting. To a modern mind you’d think it is just a succession of families in orderly progression but as we get further back in time it all turns into a bit of a mess. Looking at my own DNA I have traces of Nordic countries, some Southern and given how times were back then cannot imagine that one tribe would so easily accept someone from another tribe into their family. The story of humanity is one big mess and any common idea of “purity” from a certain land is a bunch of nonsense. We’re already a melting pot and erecting walls isn’t going to change anything. People will mix and we’ll all eventually become a blend no matter how many wars, walls, or hatreds come about through the years.

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By 魔手

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/