Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) is regarded as the greatest traveler of all time. He was an Islamic scholar, jurist, judge, explorer, geographer from Tangier in present-day Morocco who traveled 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) through more than 40 present-day countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia during a 27 year period 700 years before trains and automobiles. He described his adventures in “Travels in Asia and Africa.” Ibn Battuta was a contemporary of Marco Polo (1254-1324). His journeys preceded those of Columbus by about 150 years. Although he is little known in the West he is as well known as Marco Polo and Columbus in the Arab world. [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, December 1991]

Ibn Battuta spent some time in Constantinople, the capital of the once mighty and proud Byzantine Empire and a western terminus of the Silk Road. He befriended one of the wives of the khan of the Golden Horde— the daughter of a Byzantine emperor—and was given an introduction to meet the Byzantine emperor. He made a 2,500 mile detour to Constantinople, where he met the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus. The Emperor gave him a robe of honor and a horse. Ibn Battuta wrote: "Anyone who wears the king's robe of honor...is paraded through the city bazaars with trumpets, fifes, and drums...so that they may not be molested; so they paraded me." [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, December 1991]

Ibn Battuta stayed in Constantinople for five weeks. On Hagia Sofia he wrote, "They allow no person to enter it until he prostrates himself to the huge cross...set in a golden frame...Inside is another church exclusively for women, containing more than a thousand virgins consecrated to religious devotions." This was a reference to a nunnery. As a Muslim he thought this was a strange concept.

By the time Ibn Battuta visited Constantinople, Byzantium was a shadow of its former self. Ross E. Dunn, a professor of History at San Diego State University, wrote:"Byzantium in the 1330s was a minor Greek state of southeastern Europe and little more. Its international trade had been abandoned to the Italians, its currency was almost worthless, its landlords were grinding the peasantry unmercifully, its army was an assemblage of alien mercenaries, and its Asian territories had been all but lost to the triumphant Turks. It was a state living on borrowed time and past glories." About 120 years after Ibn Battuta visited Constantinople it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.[Source: p. 172, “The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century” by Ross E. Dunn, University of California Press, 1989]

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com;
Books on Ibn Battuta "Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354", translated by H.A.R. Gibb, edited by Sir E Denison Ross and Eileen Power (Broadway Travellers Routledge & Kegan Paul Fifth Impression, 1963); : “Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354" translated and edited by ed. H. A. R. Gibb (London: Broadway House, 1929); “Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah” by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001). Battuta’s journal is available in Arabic under the title “The Precious Gift of Lookers Into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel.”

Ibn Battuta’s Trip from Southern Russia to Constantinople

Andronikos III

According to Nick Bartel and ORIAS: When Ibn Battuta and his entourage reached Astrakhan, on the Volga River in southern Russia, “Ibn Battuta learned that the third wife of the Khan was pregnant. The Khan gave her permission to go back to her father - the King of the Byzantine Empire - to have her baby in Constantinople. Ibn Battuta asked the Khan if he could go along and also got permission. Here was an unexpected opportunity to see another part of the world, his first time to go beyond” the Islamic world “and see one of the great cities of the world. (There was nothing unusual about Muslim Turks or Arabs visiting Christian Constantinople in the 14th century. Merchants and ambassadors went there whenever business required it, and there was even a mosque in the heart of the city.) [Source: Travels of Ibn Battuta, Nick Bartel and ORIAS, U. C. Berkeley, ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu |::|]

So in July, 1332, they set out with about 5,000 horsemen, 500 of her personal soldiers and servants, 200 slave girls, 20 Indian and Greek pages, 400 wagons, 2,000 horses and about 500 oxen and camels. (The unfortunate people who lived along the route were obligated to provide this huge caravan with food! This was part of their "tax" and required support for their rulers.) After traveling about 75 days they arrived in Constantinople. Ibn Battuta noticed that as they got closer, the former Christian princess stopped the calls to prayer; wines were brought to her and she even ate pork! [Her marriage to the Khan was a political arrangement made by her Christian father to gain advantages from the Muslim ruler.]” |::|

Ibn Battuta wrote: “Then her brother, whose name was Kifali Qaras, arrived with five thousand horsemen, fully accoutred in armour. When they prepared to meet the princess, her brother, dressed in white, rode a grey horse, having over his head a parasol ornamented with jewels. On his right hand he had five princes and the same number on his left hand, all dressed in white also, and with parasols embroidered in gold over their heads. In front of him were a hundred foot soldiers and a hundred horsemen, who wore long coats of mail over themselves and their horses, each one of them leading a saddled and armoured horse carrying the arms of a horseman, consisting of a jewelled helmet, a breastplate, a bow, and a sword, and each man had in his hand a lance with a pennant at its head. Most of these lances were covered with plaques of gold and silver. These led horses are the riding horses of the sultan's son. [Source: “Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354"; Fordham University fordham.edu \~] “His horsemen were divided into squadrons, two hundred horsemen in each squadron. Over them was a commander, who had in front of him ten of the horsemen, fully accoutred in armour, each leading a horse, and behind him ten coloured standards, carried by ten of the horsemen, and ten kettledrums slung over the shoulders of ten of the horsemen, with whom were six others sounding trumpets and bugles and fifes. \~\

“The khatun rode out with her guards, maidens, slave boys and servants, these numbering about five hundred, all wearing silken garments, embroidered with gold and encrusted with precious stones. She herself was wearing a garment of gold brocade, encrusted with jewels, with a crown set with precious stones on her head, and her horse was covered with a saddle-cloth of silk embroidered in gold. On its legs were bracelets of gold and round its neck necklaces set with precious stones, and her saddle frame was covered with gold ornamented with jewels. \~\

“Their meeting took place in a flat piece of ground about a mile distant from the town. Her brother dismounted to her, because he was younger than her, and kissed her stirrup and she kissed his head. The commanders and princes also dismounted and they all kissed her stirrup, after which she set out with her brother. \~\

Ibn Battuta Reaches Constantinople

Ibn Battuta wrote: “We encamped at a distance of ten miles from Constantinople, and on the following day the population, men, women and children, came out riding or on foot, in their richest apparel. At dawn the drums, trumpets and fifes were sounded; the troops mounted, and the Emperor with his wife, the mother of this khatun, came out, accompanied by the high officials of state and the courtiers. Over the king's head there was a canopy, carried by a number of horsemen and men on foot, who had in their hands long staves, each surmounted by something resembling a ball of leather, with which they hoisted the canopy. In the centre of this canopy was a sort of pavilion which was supported by horsemen [carrying] staves. When the Emperor approached, the troops became entangled with one another and there was much dust. I was unable to make my way amongst them, so I kept with the khatun's baggage and party, fearing for my life. I was told that when the princess approached her parents she dismounted and kissed the ground before them, and then kissed the two hoofs of their horses, the principal members of her party doing the same. [Source: “Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354"; Fordham University fordham.edu \~]

Andronicos II

“Our entry into Constantinople the Great was made about noon or a little later, and they rang their bells until the very skies shook with the mingling of their sounds. When we reached the fist gate of the king's palace we found there about a hundred men, with an officer on a platform, and I heard them saying "Sarakinu, Sarakinu," ["Saracen, Saracen"] which means Muslims. They would not let us enter, and when those who were with the khatun said that we belonged to their party, they answered "They cannot enter except by permission," so we stayed at the gate. /~/

“One of the khatun's party sent a messenger to tell her of this while she was still with her father. She told him about us and he gave orders that we should enter, and assigned us a house near the khatun's house. He wrote also on our behalf an order that we should not be abused wheresoever we went in the city, and this order was proclaimed in the bazaars. We stayed indoors three days, receiving from the khatun gifts of flour, bread, sheep, chickens, butter, fruit, fish, money and beds, and on the fourth day we had audience of the sultan.” \~\

Ibn Batutta Meets the Byzantine Emperor

Ibn Battuta wrote: “The Emperor of Constantinople is called Takfur [actually Andronicus III], son of the Emperor Jirgis ["George," but actually Andronicus II]. His father, the Emperor George, was still alive, but had become an ascetic and monk, devoting himself to religious exercises in the churches, and had resigned the sovereignty to his son. We shall speak of him later. [Source: “Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354"; Fordham University fordham.edu \~]

“On the fourth day after our arrival in Constantinople, the khatun sent the slave Sunbul the Indian to me, and he took my hand and led me into the palace. We passed through four gateways, each of which had archways in which were footsoldiers with their weapons, their officer being on a carpeted platform. When we reached the fifth gateway the slave Sunbul left me, and going inside returned with four Greek youths, who searched me to see that I had no knife on my person. The officer said to me: "This is a custon of theirs; every person who enters the king's presence, be he noble or private citizen, foreigner or native, must be searched." The same practice is observed also in India. After they had searched me the man in charge of the gate rose and took me by the hand and opened the gate. Four of the men surrounded me, two of them holding my sleeves and two behind me, and brought me into a large hall, the walls of which were of mosaic work, in which there were pictures of creatures, both animate and inanimate. In the centre there was a stream of water, with trees on either side of it, and men were standing to right and left, silent, not one of them speaking. \~\

“In the midst of the hall three men were standing to whom those four men delivered me. These took hold of my garments as the others had done, and on a signal from another man led me forward. One of them was a Jew, and he said to me in Arabic "Do not be afraid; this is their custom that they use with one who enters. I am the interpreter, and I come from Syria." So I asked him how I should salute the Emperor, and he told me to say "As-salam alaykum." \~\

“After this I reached a great pavilion, where the Emperor was seated on his throne, with his wife, the mother of the khatun, before him. At the foot of the throne were the khatun and her brothers, to the right of it six men and to the left of it four, and behind it four, every one of them armed. The Emperor signed to me, before I had saluted and reached him, to sit down for a moment, in order that my apprehension might be calmed. After doing so I approached him and saluted him, and he signed to me to sit down, but I did not do so. He questioned me about Jerusalem, the Sacred Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the cradle of Jesus, and Bethlehem, and about the city of Abraham [Hebron], then about Damascus, Cairo, Iraq, and Anatolia, and I answered all his questions about these, the Jew interpreting between us. He was pleased with my replies and said to his sons "Treat this man with honour and ensure his safety." Then he bestowed upon me a robe of honour and assigned me a horse with saddle and bridle, and an umbrella of the kind which the king has carried above his head, that being a sign of protection. I requested him to designate someone to ride in the city with me every day, that I might see its marvellous and rare sights and tell of them in my own country, and he appointed a man as I had asked. They have a custom that anyone who wears the king's robe of honour and rides his horse is paraded round with trumpets, fifes and drums, so that the people may see him. They do this mostly with the Turks who come from the territories of Sultan Uzbeg, so that the people may not molest them, and I was paraded in this fashion through the bazaars.” \~\


Ibn Battuta on Constantinople

Ibn Battuta wrote: “The city is enormous in size, and in two parts separated by a great river [the Golden Horn], in which there is a rising and ebbing tide. In former times there was a stone bridge over it, but it fell into ruins and the crossing is now made in boats. The part of the city on the eastern bank of the river is called Istambul, and contains the residence of the Emperor, the nobles and the rest of the population. Its bazaars and streets are spacious and paved with flagstones; each bazaar has gates which are closed upon it at night, and the majority of the artisans and sellers in them are women. The city lies at the foot of a hill which projects about nine miles into the sea, its breadth being the same or greater. On the top of the hill there is a small citadel and the Emperor's palace. Round this hill runs the city-wall, which is very strong and cannot be taken by assault from the sea front. Within its circuit there are about thirteen inhabited villages. The principal church is in the midst of this part of the city. [Source: pp. 159-164, “Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354"; Fordham University fordham.edu \~]

“The second part, on the western bank of the river, is called Galata, and is reserved to the Frankish Christians who dwell there. They are of different kinds, including Genoese, Venetians, Romans [other Italians?] and people of France; they are subject to the authority of the king of Constantinople, who sets over them one of their own number of whom they approve, and him they call the Comes [count]. They are bound to pay a tax every year to the king of Constantinople, but often they revolt against him and he makes war on them until the Pope makes peace between them. They are all men of commerce and their harbour is one of the largest in the world; I saw there about a hundred galleys and other large ships, and the small ships were too many to be counted. The bazaars in this part of the town are good but filthy, and a small and very dirty river runs through them. Their churches too are filthy and mean.” \~\

Ibn Battuta on Hagia Sophia

Ibn Battuta wrote: “Of the great church I can only describe the exterior, for I did not see its interior. It is called by them Aya Sufiya [Hagia Sophia], and the story goes that it was built by Asaph, the son of Berechiah, who was Solomon's cousin. It is one of the greatest churches of the Greeks, and is encircled by a wall so that it looks as if it were a town. It has thirteen gates and a sacred enclosure, which is about a mile long and closed by a great gate. No one is prevented from entering this enclosure, and indeed I went into it with the king's father; it resembles an audience-hall paved with marble, and is traversed by a stream which issues from the church. Outside the gate of this hall are platforms and shops, mostly of wood, where their judges and the recorders of their bureaux sit. At the gate of the church there are porticoes where the keepers sit who sweep its paths, light its lamps and close its gates. [Source: pp. 159-164,“Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354"; Fordham University fordham.edu \~]

“They allow none to enter it until he prostrates himself to the huge cross there, which they claim to be a relic of the wood upon which the pseudo-Jesus was crucified. This is over the gate of the church, set in a golden case whose height is about ten cubits, across which a similar golden case is placed to form a cross. This gate is covered with plaques of silver and gold and its two rings are of pure gold. \~\

“I was told that the number of monks and priests in this church runs into thousands, and that some of them are descendants of the apostles, and that inside it is another church exclusively for women, containing more than a thousand virgins and a still greater number of aged women who devote themselves to religious practices. It is the custom of the king, the nobles and the rest of the people to come every morning to visit this church. The Pope comes to visit it once a year [sic]. When he is four days' journey from the town the king goes out to meet him, and dismounts before him and when he enters the city walks on foot in front of him. During his stay in Constantinople the king comes to salute him every morning and evening.” \~\

Hagia Sophia

Ibn Battuta on Christians in Constantinople

Ibn Battuta wrote: “A monastery is the Christian equivalent of a religious house or convent among the Muslims, and there are a great many such monasteries at Constantinople. Among them is the monastery which King George [Andronicos II] built outside Istambul and opposite Galata, and two monasteries outside the principal church, to the right as one enters it. These two monasteries are inside a garden traversed by a stream of water; one of them is for men and the other for women. In each there is a church and they are surrounded by the cells of men and women who have devoted themselves to religious exercises. Each monastery possesses pious endowments for the clothing and maintenance of the devotees. Inside every monastery there is a small convent designed for the ascetic retreat of the king who built it, for most of these kings, on reaching the age of sixty or seventy, build a monastery and put on garments of hair, investing their sons with the sovereignty and occupying themselves with religious exercises for the rest of their lives. They display great magnificence in building these monasteries, and construct them of marble and mosaic-work. [Source: pp. 159-164, “Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354"; Fordham University fordham.edu \~]

“I entered a monastery with the Greek whom the king had given me as a guide. Inside it was a church containing about five hundred virgins wearing hair-garments; their heads were shaved and covered with felt bonnets. They were exceedingly beautiful and showed the traces of their austerities. A youth sitting on a pulpit was reading the gospel to them in the most beautiful voice I have ever heard; round him were eight other youths on pulpits with their priest, and when the first youth had finished reading another began. The Greek said to me, "These girls are kings' daughters who have given themselves to the service of this church, and likewise the boys who are reading [are kings' sons]." \~\

“I entered with him also into churches in which there were the daughters of ministers, governors, and the principal men of the city, and others where there were aged women and widows, and others where there were monks, each church containing a hundred men or so. Most of the population of the city are monks, ascetics, and priests, and its churches are not to be counted for multitude. The inhabitants of the city, soldiers and civilians, small and great, carry over their heads huge parasols, both in winter and summer, and the women wear large turbans.” \~\

Ibn Battuta on a Former Emperor Who Became a Monk

Russian steppe

Ibn Battuta wrote: “I was out one day with my Greek guide, when we met the former king George [Andronicos II] who had become a monk. He was walking on foot, wearing haircloth garments and a bonnet of felt, and he had a long white beard and a fine face, which bore traces of his austerities. Behind and before him was a body of monks, and he had a staff in his hand and a rosary on his neck. When the Greek saw him he dismounted and said to me, "Dismount, for this is the king's father." When my guide saluted him the king asked him about me, then stopped and sent for me. He took my hand and said to the Greek (who knew the Arabic tongue), "Say to this Saracen (meaning Muslim), 'I clasp the hand which has entered Jerusalem and the foot which has walked within the Dome of the Rock and the great church of the Holy Sepulchre and Bethlehem,'" and he laid his hand upon my feet and passed it over his face. I was astonished at their good opinion of one who, though not of their religion, had entered these places. Then he took my hand and as I walked with him asked me about Jerusalem and the Christians who were there, and questioned me at length. [Source: pp. 159-164,“Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354"; Fordham University fordham.edu \~]

“I entered with him the sacred enclosure of the church which we have described above. When he approached the principal gate, a party of priests and monks came out to salute him, for he is one of their chief men in monasticism, and on seeing them he let go my hand. I said to him "I should like to enter the church with you." Then he said to the interpreter, "Say to him, 'He who enters it must needs prostrate himself before the great cross, for this is a rule which the ancients laid down and which cannot be contravened.'" So I left him and he entered alone and I did not see him again. \~\

“After leaving the king I entered the bazaar of the scribes, where I was noticed by the judge, who sent one of his assistants to ask the Greek about me. On learning that I was a Muslim scholar he sent for me and I went up to him. He was an old man with a fine face and hair, wearing the black garments of a monk, and had about ten scribes in front of him writing. He rose to meet me, his companions rising also, and [he] said, "You are the king's guest and we are bound to honour you." He then asked me about Jerusalem, Syria, and Egypt, and spoke with me for a long time. A great crowd gathered round him, and he said, "You must come to my house that I may entertain you." After that I went away, but I did not see him again. \~\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei:Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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