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Fallen Off the Map: The Adventures of Ibn Battuta

In 1492, Columbus sailed the….wait, we all know how this goes! The same can probably be said for Drake, Vespucci, and Magellan. It seems a shame that we spend so much time on the same tales, impressive as they are. So we decided to devote a series to some adventurers who have, due to historical malpractice, fallen off the map. The first in this series will focus on none other than (drum roll, please)…Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Arab explorer who knocked out an astonishing 75,000 miles of travel in his lifetime.

Across thirty years, Ibn Battuta traveled from his home country of Morocco, across Africa, into South Asia, and eventually onto China. Traveling by camel, donkey, raft, and ship, Batutta pushed the limits of human endurance, acting as an ambassador, judge, and advisor to various noble houses (some of which he married into, sly dog). The sultan of Morocco, impressed by his exploits, appointed Batutta a scribe, to whom he dictated one of the most influential travel books of all time: the Rihla, or Journey. As with many pre-modern texts, it’s important to exercise some skepticism when judging the veracity of its contents (after all, Sir Walter Raleigh claimed to have discovered a race of headless Native Americans!), but Batutta’s tales of fighting off hyenas in Egypt, surviving bandit raids in India, and nearly dying of illness in Syria all pass historical muster.Painting by Hippolyte Leon Benett

The passage of time hasn’t drained Ibn Batutta of his particular color, either. In a darkly humorous incident, Battuta got himself kicked out of the Maldives, in part for demanding that the local women cover themselves (it was their custom to walk around shirtless). In his irritation, Battuta sought the help of India in overthrowing the small island kingdom, though his plans were frustrated by a near fatal storm. Nor was this the only time “exposure” got him in trouble. While being hosted by Mansa Suleyman, the Sultan of Mali, Batutta again agitated against the common practice of nudity.

When Batutta finally returned to Morocco, he discovered that his father had died 15 years earlier, and he had missed his mother by only three months. He devoted everything he could to travel and saw more of the world than anyone would for four centuries, outpacing Marco Polo by a factor of three.

To get a sense of where 30 years of travel gets you in the 14th century, one need only look below.  Batutta (in green) covered all that ground in a time before Imodium, antibiotics, and yellow fever vaccinations, to say nothing of trains and planes.  “Impressive” is an understatement.

Thomas DeVito has a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. He has traveled to over thirty different countries, and spent 2011 living and teaching in Panama. 


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