Monday, 21 June 2010

IBN BATTUTA: the greatest traveller ever

On a visit to Morocco last month I found the tomb of Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Berber Muslim whom many consider to have been the greatest traveller of all time.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304. Aged 21, he completed an arduous pilgrimage to Mecca from where he extended his travels to the Middle East, India, Central Asia and ultimately to China.

My own fascination comes from having visited many of these countries and exotic ports such as Mocha, Basra and other cities mentioned in his journals.

But while I`d been to Tangier on many occasions, I was unaware until this recent trip, that the traveller whom I most admire is buried there.

`Yes, his tomb is here,` said the woman in the tourist office - `Mais je ne suis pas sur -- ou.`

So I set off along the Boulevard Pasteur, crossing the Grand Socco to the Rue de la Kasbah where I began asking: `Pouvez-vous me diriger vers la tombeau de Ibn Battuta?`

`Up the hill and first right,` said a man standing in the doorway of a Tabac.

`Left, then straight on. Suivez-moi,` said a man carrying bunches of mint.

On we went, round this corner, down that alley, up many steps. Then he stopped. Unsure of what he was looking for. But there it was - in a shadowy corner of the medina, washing drying on a line above, a woman filling her jar at a fountain below - the tomb of Ibn Battuta.

I touched it, humbled by the experience: travel in far-off lands is trying enough today. What difficulties and dangers were faced some 700 hundred years ago?

My return to London coincided with the release of the film Journey to Mecca recounting Ibn Battuta`s pilgrimage around 1325-6 to the sacred shrines in Saudi Arabia.

Financed by the King Abdulaziz Public Library and King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, the short movie essentially illustrates the importance of the hajj to Muslims of whom two million make the annual pilgrimage. (the Qur`an requires that every Muslim of good health and means performs the hajj at least once in his lifetime).

Since Christians are forbidden to visit Mecca - highway signs advise to this effect - the film is a must see for anyone interested in the Muslim rites observed both here and at Medina.

The scene of white-robed pilgrims swirling around the ka`aba in the Prophet`s Mosque is an awesome piece of cinematography. So too are the shots of the 'great Damascus caravan of more than 10,000 pilgrims with 500 camels' embarking on the journey- filmed in stunning locations in southern Morocco.

But while Journey to Mecca is a colourful and emotionally engaging epic, to me it does not rise above a movie made in the Cecil B. de Mille mould.

Considering the amount of bureaucracy which would have been involved, it is likely a miracle the film was made at all, but I feel that Ibn Battuta deserves a far bigger tribute than simply as the subject of a PR exercise for Islam.

BFI Imax Cinema at London Waterloo.


  1. an endless stream of 'wives', arguments with rulers, serious coup considerations
    one wonders why the Saudis are publicizing such a great traveler ?

  2. Since the holier-than-thou Saudis forbid anyone but Muslims to visit Mecca, it is their method of promoting the shrines of which they have custody and which many Muslims wish they had not.

  3. Ibn Battuta is greatly honored in Saudi and included in every history schoolbook. It's not a PR exploitation of his name since there are many Arab travelers they could have gone with.

  4. I am pleased to know that Ibn Battuta is rightly honoured in Saudi Arabia as he should be for there is no greater traveller than he. It is estimated he travelled some 75,000 miles in his lifetime. Even more than Marco Polo or me...

    But I trust my point is not lost that the film was devised - with the blessing and finance of the Saudi authorities - purely as a means of explaining the `hajj` since anyone other than a Muslim is rigorously forbidden to visit the sacred sites of Islam.

    That was the motive for Journey to Mecca and a proper full length film of the amazing journeys of Ibn Battuta remains to be made.

  5. A most interesting article - not too many Brits would be familiar with the extent of his travels or indeed know of him at all. Fascinating that C.O.was able to follow ( albeit tentatively in some of the footsteps ! )

  6. It's not a PR exploitation of his name since there are many Arab travelers they could have gone with. getit search app ,
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  7. The Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai has a first class interpretive display of the places Ibn Battuta visited along with other respected scientific achievements from the North Africa Middle East region.


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