The internet is this fascinating place where you will see an article titled “Ibn Battuta: The Lesser-Known Marco Polo of the Middle East”. Whether or not this is disrespectful depends on your knowledge and sensibilities.
The practice of introducing or even praising an individual in terms of another who is a known quantity is everywhere, one would presume. When it is, however, expressed in certain situations, it betrays a certain lack or inaccuracy.
Both Battuta and Polo were explorers and even lived around the same time in the 14th century.
That headline is right about one thing though: Ibn Battuta is unknown to too many Westerners. That is the lack, if not ignorance, the headline betrays about its readership.
Why are many Westerners ignorant of Ibn Battuta? That is easily explainable but it is a topic for another time. There is a more pertinent question.
Why is Marco Polo supposedly and objectively the greater explorer? This is a different question because it targets the categorical belief and universally-applied understanding that Marco Polo is the greatest.
In his entry for the History.com, Evan Andrews implied that if Polo’s greatness is simply because of the distance he covered, then Polo “trails far behind the Muslim scholar”.
It goes without saying that Andrews’ comparison of the two on the scale of distances covered is only an a priori motivation of what it means to be an explorer.
Explorers travel, thus, the farther one goes, the wider a map they can draw and the more cultures they can report of. Ibn Battuta certainly has the receipts, as they say.
Born in modern-day Tangier in Morocco, North Africa in 1304, Battuta has was raised Muslim. He was a Berber from the Lawata tribe.
In this period, it is likely Battuta was schooled in Islamic jurisprudence, according to Sunni Malikite thought. Solomon Gotein points out in A Mediterranean Society a Maliki community even engaged Battuta as a judge.
At 21, Battuta left home to embark on the Islamic religious pilgrimage to Mecca called Hajj. However, the young man was not to come back home for another 24 years.
Battuta remembers the beginning of his journey in his memoir: “I set out alone having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries.”
On a donkey along with his belongings, Battuta traveled a path well-known for its thieves. He also had to contend with the harshness of landscape and weather.
The first of his memorable stopovers were in Egypt, studying Islamic philosophy in Alexandria and living in Cairo, the city he described as “peerless in beauty and splendor”.
For Battuta, the journey was an excursion of Dar-al-Islam, or the Muslim world. Today, we look back thankful for the geographical and sociological value his memoir gives us. But the young scholar was motivated by more than meets the eye.
He even recounts seeing a big bird in a dream that whisks him away to the Far East. A diviner explained that it was in Battuta’s destiny to travel, and so travel he did.
And he recorded the dates of his travels so, through his accounts, we have ideas as to what was happening at when. This is of particular interest to historiographers.
Battuta was in Hebron, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, sites holy to Jews and Christians. From these places, he went to Damascus in modern Syria and then to Medina and Mecca. At this point, it had taken him 16 months through about 4,000 miles to reach his destination.
Mecca turned out to be another stopover. From there, Battuta traveled into the Mongolian empire, settling at Ilkhanate, a medieval city comprises parts of modern-day Iran and Azerbaijan.
Then, he returned onto the African continent, visiting areas now known as Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania. But then, the optimism of going to the Far East kept nudging at Battuta and he left the East of Africa to start all again from Egypt.
Andrews writes that “[A]s he always did in Muslim-controlled lands, he relied on his status as an Islamic scholar to win hospitality from locals. At many points in his travels, he was showered with gifts of fine clothes, horses and even concubines and slaves.”
After leaving home in 1325, Battuta arrived in India in 1334. From this juncture, he would become a trusted member of a king’s cabinet; get shipwrecked and fall victim to highway robbers who stole everything save his pants.
He would also write about Mongolia, the walls of China and Beijing itself. At this point, Battuta felt he had reached the end of the known world so he returned to Morocco, arriving in 1349.
The wanderer’s soul was not at peace seeing that his parents had died. And so he left again, this time to Spain and then back onto the continent to the Malian Empire.
Finally, in 1354, Battuta settled back home for good. His oral testimonies were transcribed in an essay titled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling or Rihla.
Battuta is believed to have died in 1368 but historians are not certain. Not much is also known of him apart from travels.
In all, he had visited over 40 modern-day countries spanning more than 20,000 miles and bequeathing to us an unbeatable volume of historical education for a man of his time.
If we are being fair, Marco Polo would not mind traveling in Battuta’s sandals.