Ibn Battuta: The Marco Polo of Islam


By Sahil Prasad, Indian American, Grade 4, Maryland.
 

Wasn’t Marco Polo an amazing explorer? If you agree, you’ll be excited to learn about his Islamic counterpart, the 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta, who traveled 75,000 miles on foot from Timbuktu, Mali to Guangzhou, China (with that distance, you could circumnavigate the globe three times). Impressive, isn’t it, considering that’s how many miles some cars travel in their entire lifetime!

Ibn Battuta was an Islamic explorer whose mission was to travel to every Muslim city in the known world at the time.[1] His legendary taste for adventure started when he took the Hajj (a pilgrimage that Muslims take to Mecca, Saudi Arabia) because after he finished, he really wanted to explore more. Ibn Battuta was born on February 24, 1304 in Tangier, Morocco and he died in 1377[2] in Marrakesh, Morocco after 24 years of exploration! This extraordinary explorer met many fascinating people in his travels like:  a mad sultan in India who tried to kill him, mystics who ate their snakes’ heads of, or jumped in fires to try to put them out, and he met many different followers of Islam, mainly in Asia. He traveled all over the world through continents like Africa, Oceana, and Europe (North and South America were not discovered yet). When he visited some Islamic cities in Europe, the rulers there flooded him with gold and camels because they had a liking for travelers. That’s how Ibn Battuta supported himself on his travels.

Ibn Battuta chronicled his travels in a book called Rilah (The Travels, in English) and because of that, we know so much about Islamic cultures of his time. He gave so much information in his autobiography that it feels like you’re living in an Islamic world of the 14th century.

Marco Polo was a Venetian explorer who traveled all around the Mongol empire under the supervision of the ruler Kublai Khan. Marco Polo was born on September 15, 1254 and he died on January 8, 1324. Kublai Khan developed a very big liking for him and he sent Marco Polo on a series of diplomatic missions throughout the Mongol Empire.

I decided to compare Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta because they have a lot of similarities. Both explorers’ journeys were completely unexpected. For example, Marco Polo just wanted to travel to the Mongol Empire with his father and uncle because they wanted to trade European goods for Asian ones. Who knew that the same young Marco Polo would travel across Asia on tons of missions. Ibn Battuta had a similar series of events that led him to travel.

Ibn Battuta went on the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) because it was one of the Five Pillars of Islam—five duties that Muslims have to perform during their lifetime, and he was a devout Muslim. That one pilgrimage led to 50 other adventures all around Asia, Europe, and Oceana! That’s the last thing one would expect, isn’t it? Given that the Age of Exploration—where Europeans began to make voyages into the Americas—started a hundred years later.

Another similarity is that both explorers suffered some hard times on their travels. Ibn Battuta crossed a lot of dangerous areas. For example, in Africa, Ibn Battuta had to cross the Mamluks’ [3] territory and they were one of the most feared warriors at the time. Also, Ibn Battuta got sick with fever numerous times, and he had to often take breaks from his travels because of that. Marco Polo also encountered some problems in the desert on the way to the Mongol Empire. For example, he couldn’t find any modes of transportation so he just had to walk the whole way. Marco Polo was robbed by bandits and lost a lot of essential supplies including his diary, which was very important to him.

Lastly, both explorers traveled very long distances. Marco Polo traveled almost everywhere in the Mongol Empire which spanned almost the whole length of Asia! The Mongol Empire was the largest empire in history, so while traveling all over that big empire, he must have covered a very long distance. Ibn Battuta traveled very long distances as well. He traveled more than half of the known world at that time, covering over fifty thousand miles. Also, Ibn Battuta’s average miles per year were 3,000. So if you multiply that by the 24 years of his travels, you get 72,000 miles (his total miles were actually around 75,000)! Didn’t he travel a whole lot?

Ibn Battuta might seem like a superhuman, but like us, he was just an ordinary person. If we dedicate ourselves to a goal with determination and perseverance, we too can be successful like him.

Bibliography

1. David Angus Great Explorers, Naxos Audiobooks, 2003

2. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th century by Ross E. Dunn, University of California Press, 1989

3. Ibn Battuta: The Journey of a Medieval Muslim by Edoardo Albert, Kube Publishing, 2019

4. Extra History by Daniel Floyd, 2008


[1] There are more Islamic cities currently in the world than at the time of Ibn Battuta.

[2] His death day and month are unknown.

[3] A group of slave warriors who lived between the 9th and 19th century in the Islamic world.

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