Want to know what plants grew in 14th century Ceylon? What the bride wore to her marriage ceremony in the Maldive Islands? Did you know Egypt endured a plague in 1354 A.D.?
Ibn Battuta, an amazingly intrepid traveler of the 14th century, went everywhere and wrote it all down in a book called The Travels of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354. The translator (Rev. Samuel Lee) says: “The Sheikh Ibn Batuta, the author of these travels, left his native city of Tangiers for the purpose of performing the pilgrimage in the 725th year of the Hejira (A.D. 1324-5.)”
The work is translated from an Arabic manuscript, now preserved in the Cambridge Public Library, and documents history, geography, botany, antiquities, etc. of all the places he visited.
The man traveled in the Near East, India, China, and Africa for 20 years, recording the names of cities he visited, names of kings and sultans, how long it took to sail from one coastal city to another or plod across the desert on camel back, what he ate, how much money he was given by generous hosts, and practically everything else you’d ever want to know about those lands he visited.
Here are some snippets:
Egypt: “The Nile, which runs through this country, excels all other rivers in the sweetness of its taste.” [Translator Rev. Samuel Lee notes: “That the water of the Nile was commonly drunk as early as the times of Moses, we are informed in the book of Exodus, chap. vii.”]
Syria: “I entered the sands (Desert)... at each stage (village) there is an inn, which they call El khan. Here the travellers put up their beasts; here are also watering camels, as well as shops, so that a traveller may purchase whatever he may want either for himself or his beast.
I next arrived at Gaza, and from thence proceeded to the city of El Khalil Ibrahim (Abraham the Friend). In the mosque of this place is the holy cave, and in this are the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with those of their wives. This cave I visited.”
Iraq: “The inhabitants consist chiefly of rich and brave merchants. About the gardens are plastered walls adorned with paintings, and within them are carpets, couches, and lamps of gold and silver.”
Persia: “It is a practice with them [the inhabitants of El Hilla, near Babylon] to come daily, armed to the number of a hundred, to the door of the mosque, bringing with them a beast saddled and bridled, a great number of persons also with drums and trumpets, and to say, ‘Come forth, Lord of the age, for tyranny and baseness now abounds.’”
Turkey: “ From this place (Tekrit) I went to Nisibin, where I arrived after a journey of two days. This is an ancient city; but is now mostly in ruins. It abounds in water and gardens, and is surrounded by a river as with a bracelet. Rose-water incomparable in scent is made here.”
Zanzibar: “Their meat is generally rice roasted with oil, and placed in a large wooden dish. Over this they place a large dish of elkushan, which consists of flesh, fish, fowl, and vegetables. They also roast the fruit of the plantain, and afterwards boil it in new milk: they then put it on a dish, and the curdled milk on another. They also put on dishes, some of preserved lemon, bunches of preserved pepper-pods salted and pickled, as also grapes, which are not unlike apples, except that they have stones.”
Arabia: “From this place [Amman] I went to Hormuz, which is a city built on the seashore; opposite to which, but within the sea, is New Hormuz. This is an island, the city of which is called Harauna. It is a large and beautiful place, and here the King resides. The island is in extent about a day’s journey: but the greatest part of it consists of salt earth, and of hills of Darani salt. The inhabitants subsist upon fish and dates... they have but little water.”
Tartary: “This desert is green and productive: it has, however, neither tree, mountain, hill, nor wood in it. The inhabitants burn dung. They travel over this desert upon a cart... the journey is one of six months.”
Kabul: “I proceeded to the city of Barwan, in the road to which is a high mountain, covered with snow and exceedingly cold; they call it the Hindu Kush (Hindu-slayer) because most of the slaves brought thither from India die on account of the intenseness of the cold.”
Ceylon: “The ruby and carbuncle are found only in this country. They are not allowed to be exported, on account of the great estimation in which they are held: nor are they elsewhere dug up. But the ruby is found all over Ceylon. When they dig for this ruby, they find a white stone abounding with fissures. Within this the ruby is placed. They cut it out, and give it to the polishers, who polish it until the ruby is separated from the stone. Of this there is the red, the yellow, and the cerulean. They call it the Manikam. It is a custom among them, that every ruby amounting in value to six of the golden dinars current in those parts, shall go to the Emperor... and what falls short of this goes to his attendants. All the women in the island of Ceylon have traces of coloured rubies, which they put upon their hands and legs as chains, in the place of bracelets and ankle-rings. I once saw upon the head of the white elephant [belonging to the Emir] seven rubies, each of which was larger than a hen’s egg.”
Hindustan: “This Emir had always before him a number of bows of various sizes, and when anyone, who wished to enlist as a bowman, presented himself, the Emir threw one of these bows to him, which he drew with all his might. Then, as his strength proved to be, so was his situation appointed. But when any one wished to enlist as a horseman, a drum was fixed, and the man ran with his horse at full speed, and struck the drum with his spear. Then, according to the effect of the stroke, was his place determined.”
“We next came to the city of Hinaur, which is situated at an estuary of the sea, and which receives large vessels. The inhabitants of this place are Moslems of the sect of Shafia, a peaceable and religious people. The women of this city, and indeed of all the Indian districts situated on the sea-shores, never dress in clothes that have been stitched, but the contrary. One of them, for example, will tie one part of a piece of cloth round her waist, while the remaining part will be placed upon her head and breast. They are chaste and handsome. The greater part of the inhabitants, both males and females, have committed the Koran to memory.”
Maldive Islands: “They are a cleanly people, each individual washing himself twice daily, on account of the great heat of the sun. They very much use perfumes, such as the galia, and scented oils. Every woman must, as soon as her husband has arisen and said his prayers, bring him the box of colyrium for his eyes, with the perfumes, and with these he anoints and perfumes himself. The whole country is shaded with trees, so that a person walking along, is just as if he were walking in a garden.
“Whenever a traveler enters these islands, he may marry for a very small dowry one of the handsomest women for any specific period, upon this condition, that he shall divorce her when he leaves the place.
“The greatest part of their trade consists in a sort of hemp, that is, thread made of the fibres of the cocoa-nut. It is made by macerating the nut in water, then by beating it with large mallets till it is quite soft; they then spin it out, and afterwards twist it into ropes. With this thread the ships of India and Yemen are sewn together, of which, when they happen to strike against a rock, the thread will yield a little, but will not soon break, contrary to what happens when put together with iron nails.”
Sumatra: “I traveled to the city of Jabnak, which is very large and beautiful; it is divided by the river which descends from the mountains of Kamru, called the Blue River. By this one may travel to Bengal and the countries of Laknouti. Upon it are gardens, mills, and villages, which it refreshes and gladdens like the Nile of Egypt.”
Java: “In Java there is only the frankincense of Java, camphor, some cloves, and Indian aloes. ... Of this is the frankincense, the tree of which is small, and about the height of a man; its branches are like those of the artichoke [translator doubts this word]. The leaves are small and thin; and the incense is a gum which is formed in the branches. As to the camphor, its tree is a reed, like the reeds of our own countries, except only that it is thicker, and the knots are longer. The camphor is formed within it: and when the reed is broken, both camphor and myrrh are found within the knot.”
China: “In China grows the sugar-cane, and is much better than that of Egypt. Silk is most plentiful among them, for the silkworm is found sticking and feeding upon the trees in all their districts; and hence they make their silk, which is the clothing of the poorest among them. Were it not for the merchants, it would bring no price whatever, and still, a cotton dress will purchase many silken ones.”
Spain: “The first place I saw was the Hill of Victory... From this place commenced Islamism, in the great victory; for here landed Tarik Ibn Ziad, the slave of Musa Ibn Nasir, at the time of his passing over to Spain. From this circumstance it was named after him, and called Jabal Tarik [corrupted to Gibraltar].
“I then went to Granada, the chief city of Andalusia, which, for its structures and suburbs is unequalled in the whole world. The King of Granada was at this time Abu El Walid Yusuf Ibn Nasir.”
Africa: “From Granada I then traveled by land to Marrakish [Morocco], which is a most beautiful city, of extensive trade and territory.”
Sudan: “As to their bad practices, they will exhibit their little daughters, as well as their male and female slaves, quite naked. Nor do the free women ever clothe themselves till after marriage.”
Source: The Travels of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354, translated by Rev. Samuel Lee, Dover