Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ibn Baṭṭûṭa and the Silk Roads

For the fourth-grade class I’m teaching, as part of our mediæval Africa unit, I’ve been teaching about the life and Travels of the Moroccan Berber jurist and scholar ‘Abû ‘Abdallâh Muḥammad ibn Baṭṭûṭa. Now, ibn Baṭṭûṭa was a fascinating character in his own right: clearly quite the ladies’ man, and also unfortunately something of a snitch. And his travels are legendary, which makes it all the more heinous that he is so roundly ignored in both Western and (bafflingly) Muslim historiography. He travelled further than either Marco Polo or Zheng He. In his twenty-four year journey he got enough mileage – 75,000 miles, in fact – to circle the earth three times. But what is truly fascinating to me are the ways in which he managed to navigate both the overland route (at least in part) and the maritime route of the Silk Roads in his time. Ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s travels, in fact, were substantially aided by the trade routes between China and the Islâmic world.

To sum up the basics: ibn Baṭṭûṭa left his home in Tangier at the age of twenty-one to make the ḥajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which is the duty of all Muslims who are physically and financially able. Although he set out alone across the northern coast of Africa, he quickly fell in with a merchant caravan, who were happy to have a trained jurist with them to settle disputes. He visited Alexandria and Cairo, as well as spending about a month in Damascus, before going to Baghdad, Medina and Mecca. This first jaunt of his to Mecca only whetted his appetite for travel. He took his next journey from Mecca travelling around the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the East African coast – essentially along the easternmost parts of the Maritime Route. His third journey, in an official capacity as a diplomat, took him through Anatolia, to Constantinople, northward into Russia and eastward along the Silk Road. He travelled through Astrakhan, Khiva, Bukhara, Balkh and Samarkand. He reached Delhi and, at the behest of the Sultân Muḥammad ibn Tuġlaq, again took a seaward journey from Calicut in Kerala to the Maldives (whose women he apparently appreciated immensely) and Sri Lanka, before moving on to Singapore, Canton and even Beijing. After he returned to Tangier, he spent some time dictating what he had learned on his travels to a learned scribe, and then took a fourth journey that took him around West Africa and to the great library at Timbuktu before he returned to Fez, where he spent the remainder of his life. He occasionally took small travels to southern Spain and Nigeria during his old age.

The written account of ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s Travels are an immense, encyclopædic volume of knowledge which it would be impossible to treat in a single blog post, let alone a series of them. But ibn Baṭṭûṭa did make frequent references in his Travels not only to the religious customs, manners, music, food and drink, and material cultures of the places he visited, but also to the trade practices of the Muslims he met in his travels. From this we can gain an appreciation for the world system that still prevailed in ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s time. Remember that his first voyage from Tangier to Mecca was mostly taken in the presence of a caravan across North Africa. It can be seen from the Travels that although Muslims dominated the Maritime Route, the Indian Ocean system truly was a globalised one. And although Christian and other non-Muslim traders were subject to certain restrictions along these routes, most of the œconomic exchanges on the Maritime Route happened – as ibn Baṭṭûṭa tells it, at least – on a basis of respect and some semblance of equality.

Perhaps indirectly, we can also see from ibn Baṭṭûṭa that Muslim powers did not enjoy a similar monopoly over trade on the overland Silk Road. The Mongols – who at that time were mostly either Nestorian Christians or Buddhists – were the ones who made up the terms of trade along the eastern stretch of that road into China. Ibn Baṭṭûṭa lived during the waning years of the Yuan Dynasty, and his interactions with China on behalf of the Indian Sultân were with members of the Mongol dynasty.

Ibn Baṭṭûṭa writes in his Travels as a scholarly and pious Muslim, and so his account must be read in such a light. However, he is remarkably astute and observant of the ways in which both routes worked. Along the Maritime Route, for example: while he was in Aden in Yemen on his second voyage, he saw Indian traders from Gujarat offloading Chinese silks and textiles, which were apparently a popular item of purchase. On his third voyage, Ibn Baṭṭûṭa also took note of the Chinese junks which made port at Quilon on the Malabar Coast of Kerala when he was shipwrecked there in the 1330s. The Indian Ocean trade seems to have been dominated by Arabic, Persian and Gujarati traders, who settled in the intermediate ports, took local wives and started families, and were some of the primary forces of the missionary impulse of Islâm along the Maritime Route.

Ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s visits to China proper were also incredibly informative, and today they can offer us a glimpse into how Chinese business and government operated at the time within the ambit of the older Maritime Route. He observed with interest and some degree of approbation the standard use of paper currency in Canton, and the effects that this had on Muslims who wanted to do trade in China (and who were permitted to do so only under some fairly constraining conditions). He also made note of the way the state monopoly on salt was managed. He was awed and impressed by his visits to Quanzhou and Hangzhou: the former being one of the busiest ports he had been in, and the latter being the largest and most beautiful city he had ever visited in his long travels.

Again, it’s been something of an education for me to learn more about ibn Baṭṭûṭa, since his name was not at all known to me before… and I’ve studied both Chinese history and Western history. That speaks rather to the neglect of his work in standard historiography in the West, I think. Even so, the degree to which his career also highlights the thriving commercial thoroughfare that existed along the Indian Ocean (and the one along land which was undergoing some transitions) merits a greater degree of attention in the modern time as this trade route again becomes ascendant in importance.

No comments:

Post a Comment