We all know about Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Lewis and Clark, but many people haven’t heard of Ibn Battuta, a medieval Muslim scholar who traveled more than 75,000 miles across the world. Born in 1304 in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta claimed to have journeyed through what we now call North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and China, visiting areas that today make up 44 countries. Because he dictated his experiences to a scribe, we can read about his globe-trotting in the Rihla (Travels).
Born into a family of Islamic judges, Ibn Battuta wanted to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1325, at 21 years old (22 by the lunar calendar), he left his birthplace in Tangier, admitting in the Rihla that he felt sad to leave his parents: "I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join ... So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests."
On the way to Mecca, he passed through Egypt and Syria, making friends and marrying a young woman. He stopped in Alexandria, which he called a beautiful, well-built city—he would later say it was one of the five most magnificent places he ever visited. He also detailed his visits to the Christian holy places in Jerusalem: Bethlehem, Mary’s grave, and Jesus’s burial place. He was awed by Damascus, which he said "surpasses all other cities in beauty," and told of the magnificent Umayyad Mosque there, which he said was "the finest in construction and noblest in beauty, grace and perfection; it is matchless and unequalled."
He visited Cairo and spent Ramadan in Damascus, then went to Medina, a sacred Islamic spot housing Muhammad’s tomb. He finally arrived in Mecca in 1326, and participated in the hajj. He could have ended his journeys then, but further adventures beckoned. He claimed to have had a dream in which he was soaring on the wings of a large bird, which flew in several directions before "landing in a dark and green country, where it left me." A holy man interpreted the dream to mean that Battuta would continue his travels throughout the Middle East and India—and indeed he did.
Traveling was dangerous thanks to bandits and pirates, and during his decades on the road, Ibn Battuta was robbed, attacked, and shipwrecked. He survived fevers, diarrhea, and loneliness, traveling on camels, in wagons, on foot, by ship, and with other pilgrims in caravans for safety. In the cities he visited, Ibn Battuta met local rulers who gave him silver coins, gold, wool, robes, food, candles, slaves, and places to sleep. Because he was a Muslim scholar and judge, Muslim rulers he encountered treated him as an esteemed guest. He visited mosques and bazaars, observing the locals’ rituals, clothing, and food. He also prayed, studied with theologians, and worked as a judge to settle disputes.
He sailed on the Red Sea, seeing Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Somalia in 1331. He made another pilgrimage to Mecca before going to Palestine. In Constantinople, he was impressed by the Hagia Sophia (but decided, as a non-Christian, not to go inside) and met the Byzantine emperor. He then went through Afghanistan, reaching India via the Hindu Kush, a snow-covered mountain range.
Starting in 1333, he worked as a judge for several years in Delhi for the sultan. During a period of great unrest in India, the sultan sent Ibn Battuta to be the ambassador to the Mongols in China. During the journey, the ship carrying all his luggage sank, and he found himself penniless back in India. Instead of returning to Delhi (where he was sure the sultan would execute him for the failed mission), Ibn Battuta again left for China, stopping at the Maldive Islands, where he served as chief judge and married a daughter of the sultan (in all, he married 10 women during his travels). He continued on to Sri Lanka and Vietnam, arriving in China in 1345. He described the Great Wall of China, praised the wooden ships he saw in Hangzhou, visited the Yuan imperial court in Beijing, and spent time with Muslim merchants who lived in a segregated part of China.
After China, Ibn Battuta went to Sardinia and Fez, arriving back home in Tangier in 1349 just as the Black Death was wreaking havoc in Europe and North Africa. Not content to stay home, he then sailed toward Spain, seeing Gibraltar, Marbella, Valencia, and the orchards, vineyards, and gardens of Granada around 1350. He headed back through Morocco, describing the magnificent mosques in Marrakesh, and visited Mali and Timbuktu, making an arduous trip across the Sahara desert.
In 1354, he again returned home to Morocco. The sultan hired a poet, Ibn Juzayy, to work with Ibn Battuta while the great explorer described, from memory, the experiences he’d accumulated over almost 30 years. Together they created the Rihla, the lone account of Ibn Battuta’s travels. Ibn Battuta went on to work as a judge in Morocco until his death in the late 1360s.
Because the Rihla was in Arabic, it was known mostly to Muslims until a German scholar got his hands on a manuscript in the early 1800s, and a translation was published in 1818. Scholars believe that Ibn Battuta probably didn’t personally visit all the cities he claimed to, pointing to the relative vagueness of his descriptions of China, for example. He may have embellished some descriptions with anecdotes he had heard from people he met or with passages from previous travel texts, and he made a few geographical mistakes. For example, he thought the Niger River was a tributary of the Nile. However, these errors may have been a result of a hazy memory as Ibn Battuta recalled journeys undertaken decades before.
Ibn Battuta’s travel writing is important because it provides historians with descriptions of huge swaths of the 14th-century non-Western world. It also offers valuable accounts of Muslim attitudes to marriage, slavery, and other social practices. Today, Ibn Battuta has both a crater on the moon and the Tangier airport named after him—both fitting homages for one of history's greatest-ever travelers.