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Ibn Battuta: History’s real life Indiana Jones

(Muhammad) Ibn Battuta was one of the great travellers and travel writers of pre-modern times. His extraordinary journeys, which spanned three decades, took him to almost the entirety of the Islamic world and beyond – from present day West and North Africa to India, Spain, Central Asia and China.

In series two of BBC Radio 4’s epic Tumanbay, the character of Alkin is inspired by the life of (Muhammad) Ibn Battuta.

Escaping death

Travel was not easy in the 14th century, but the Moroccan explorer was tough and determined: at various times he was imprisoned, sentenced to death, beaten and left for dead, but somehow always survived. As a charming and charismatic man, he managed to ingratiate himself with the courts of rulers and even inveigle himself into official posts: he was the Indiana Jones of his era, a scholar and a man of action.

Beyond borders

Battuta wrote journals which documented his expeditions. Packed with adventure, they provide an extraordinary insight into the world he lived in and travelled through. Battuta’s observations of political activity, innovations and societies are undisputed by modern historians and in some cases, the only credible accounts of what life was like in the communities he visited during this period in history. He witnessed executions, joined military campaigns, survived plague and starvation, took hallucinogenic drugs, hitched rides across deserts with caravans of merchants and spent time in palaces as well as slums. Sometimes he enjoyed wealth: at other times he was forced to rely on the generosity of strangers.

Escaping death

Travel was not easy in the 14th century, but the Moroccan explorer was tough and determined: at various times he was imprisoned, sentenced to death, beaten and left for dead, but somehow always survived. As a charming and charismatic man, he managed to ingratiate himself with the courts of rulers and even inveigle himself into official posts: he was the Indiana Jones of his era, a scholar and a man of action.

The army of decorated faces at the Bayon Temple at Angkor, Cambodia
Traveling - it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.
Ibn Battuta

Beyond borders

Battuta wrote journals which documented his expeditions. Packed with adventure, they provide an extraordinary insight into the world he lived in and travelled through. Battuta’s observations of political activity, innovations and societies are undisputed by modern historians and in some cases, the only credible accounts of what life was like in the communities he visited during this period in history. He witnessed executions, joined military campaigns, survived plague and starvation, took hallucinogenic drugs, hitched rides across deserts with caravans of merchants and spent time in palaces as well as slums. Sometimes he enjoyed wealth: at other times he was forced to rely on the generosity of strangers.

He bore witness to extraordinary acts of generosity, and of cruelty. On one occasion the governor of a town he was visiting, who had been very hospitable to him, invited him to watch an infidel being cut in two. Ibn pleaded for the man’s life and the governor let him off. On another, a pious ruler left instructions that the poor should be given food outside his palace gates the morning following his death. The handing out of food was so badly organised that there was a riot: the dead ruler’s son then punished the ringleaders by having their hands and feet chopped off. Battuta witnessed many such events and wrote them down; but like a modern-day journalist he rarely judged or got involved.

Later life

Battuta spent time in Cairo during the Mamluk sultanate and embarked on many journeys within Mamluk territory which included Syria and the Holy Land. One of the most intimate insights into Battuta as a man is a passage in which he returns to Damascus after a gap of 20 years. On his previous visit, he writes, “I had left there a pregnant wife”. Deciding to look her up and meet his child for the first time, he goes to the local mosque to ask the Imam about their whereabouts. The Imam tells him that the child was a boy, but he died at the age of eight. It’s a moment of sad reflection for Battuta, forcing him to question his way of life.

The legacy of the great traveller lives on in popular culture, history and language; among Arabs, those who travel frequently are occasionally nicknamed Ibn Battuta.

Tumanbay on BBC Radio 4