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The Silk Road

Samarkand Square

Travelers

Ibn Batuta

Imagine yourself at the age of 21, about to leave your homeland for the very first time to embark on a 3,000-mile pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. What if, after reaching Mecca 16 months later, you then traveled for another 28 years, covering more than 70,000 miles by land and sea across the continents of Africa and Asia? This is what happened to Muhammad Ibn Batuta! Ibn Batuta was one of the most remarkable travelers in the history of the Silk Road. He was born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1304. He received religious and legal training before he headed east to the holy city of Mecca in 1325. Instead of returning home after he reached there, he crisscrossed Central Asia, the Middle East, and the coast of Africa for the next seven years, several times returning to Mecca for holy observances. During this first period of his travels he went as far south as Kilwa (near Zanzibar) and as far north as the Crimea. He traveled on the Silk Road by caravan across Iran and Afghanistan, then through the Khyber Pass into the northern Indian subcontinent.

Ibn Batuta then interrupted his travels while he served the next six years as a judge in Delhi, but by the mid-1340s he was on the road once more, into China — as far as the Yuan dynasty capital of Dadu (present–day Beijing) — then back through Delhi, and on to Baghdad, Damascus (where he witnessed the effects of the Black Plague), Jerusalem, and home to Morocco in 1349. But he couldn't stay put and left again for southern Spain and Mali, finally returning to Morocco again in 1354 at the age of 50. His travels were over!

Travel was not for the timid in Ibn Batuta's day. For instance, the 820 miles between Damascus and Medina would take a caravan 45–50 days to traverse. Thousands of travelers might die on the way due not only to extremes in the weather (both hot and cold) and natural calamities, but also to illnesses and attacks from local bandits.

Everything we know about Ibn Batuta comes from his account of his travels, published shortly after his final return home to Morocco. Vivid in detail and immensely informative, Ibn Batuta's book brought the diversity, vitality, and richness of the Silk Road and its cultures to the attention of readers who probably would never actually visit this most fascinating part of the world. Ibn Batuta died in 1368 or 1369.

  • Religion: Islam was steadily growing as a powerful religious and political force during Ibn Batuta's lifetime, expanding from its core in the Middle East to other parts of the world. Ibn Batuta was a follower of Sufism, the mystical component of Islam. He began his journey for religious reasons: to make the pilgrimage required of every Muslim to the holy city of Mecca.
  • Food: In Mecca, Ibn Batuta reported that the market street was "overflowing with figs, grapes, pomegranates, quinces, peaches, lemons, walnuts, palm-fruit, watermelons, cucumbers, and all the vegetables." He praised China for "the excellence of its plums and watermelons, the enormous size of its chickens."
  • Language: Ibn Batuta's Travels were written in Arabic and circulated among Arabic-speaking scholars. In the early 19th century, the book was translated into Latin, and later into German, English, and many other languages.