We all know about Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Lewis and Clark, but most 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 (the long title: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling).

Born into a religious family of Muslim legal scholars, Ibn Battuta wanted to make a pilgrimage to Mecca and travel to meet other scholars. In 1325, at 21 years old (22 by the lunar calendar), he left home in Morocco, admitting in the Rihla that he felt sad to leave his parents. On the way to Mecca, he stopped at various towns and cities, making friends, taking brides, and learning about local customs. In 1326, he arrived in Alexandria, which he called a beautiful, well-built city, and he described the faces and doors of the lighthouse there.

Traveling was dangerous due to bandits and pirates, and during his decades on the road, he 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. After describing the tight border security between Egypt and Syria, he detailed his visits to the Christian holy places in Jerusalem: Bethlehem, Mary’s grave, and Jesus’s grave. Calling Damascus the most beautiful city, he told of the magnificent Umayyad Mosque and about a friendship he struck up with a generous professor. 

Umayyad Mosque Courtyard in Damascus, american_rugbier via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

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 visited Cairo and spent Ramadan in Damascus, then went to Medina, a sacred Islamic spot housing Muhammad’s tomb. After fulfilling his pilgrimage by making it to Mecca, he continued his travels, heading to Persia. In 1327, he reached Baghdad, later writing about the elaborate baths there, and joined the royal caravan of a Mongol ruler. He then returned to Mecca and lived there for a few years.

Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (The Mosque of the Prophet) in Medina today, Omar A. via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Leaving Mecca, 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. But 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. 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 as the Black Death was wreaking havoc. 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.

Sankore Madrasah in Mali, Baz Lecocq via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.5 NL

In 1354, he 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 gives historians valuable access to descriptions of huge swaths of the 14th-century world; it also helps us understand Muslim religious attitudes at the time. Because Ibn Battuta was an observer and participant rather than a cartographer or merchant, the Rihla gives a behind-the-scenes look into various social mores, cultural customs, and political workings of towns across a huge swath of land in the 1300s.