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Ibn Battuta (or, to give him his full name, Sheikh Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Lawati) was one of the greatest tourists of all time, racking up around 75,000 miles – most of them on foot, horseback, camel-back or ship, although on a few occasions he managed to organise himself a slave-borne litter. This is more mileage even than his near-contemporary Marco Polo.

Ibn Battuta left his home in Tangier in June 1325, aged just 21, to make a hajj – and didn’t come back until about thirty years later. Somewhere between Tangier and Alexandria, on that first trip to Mecca, he was infected with a wanderlust which didn’t leave him until he’d visited the court of every Muslim ruler in the world at that time, and many others besides. He is the only medieval traveller known to have done so. His journeys took him throughout North Africa and the Middle East, down the east coast of Africa as far as Kilwa, through Afghanistan to an India freshly conquered by the Moguls, to Ceylon and the Maldives, to China and the steppes of Russia, to Andalusia and Mali.

Unlike Marco Polo, whose visit to China predated his by 60 years (and who had a much better time there), Ibn Battuta travelled not as a trader but as a sort of freelance judge and scholar. He served for several years at the court of Sultan Mohammad Tughlaq in Delhi, but the Sultan was a less than desirable employer, given to torturing and beheading those who fell out of his favour, and our hero was lucky in the end to escape with his life. In the main, however, he relied on the hospitality of his hosts. This was often considerable, it being customary and honourable to bestow upon one’s guests the most extravagant gifts one could afford. At various times Ibn Battuta amassed respectable fortunes this way – only to have all of them stolen again. He was scathing about the few occasions when such gifts were not forthcoming, as in the Saharan town of Walata where the governor offered him nothing more than a bowl of millet with honey and yoghurt instead of the expected banquet:

“I said to them: ‘Was it to this that the black man invited us?’ They said: ‘Yes, for them this is a great banquet’. Then I knew for certain that no good was to be expected from them and I wished to depart.”

Ibn Battuta settled eventually in Fez where, on the orders of the Sultan of Morocco, he dictated his travels to a young scholar named Ibn Juzazzy. The resulting “Rihla” or travel book, although it contains as many untruths, exaggerations, tall tales and scraps of hearsay as any other, is a rare and valuable eyewitness account of life in the medieval Islamic world.

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