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The Wondrous Travels of Ibn Battuta

When I was studying history in school, I remember reading the one mention of Ibn Battuta in our insipid textbook, which contained almost nothing outside the bounds of British colonialism and Singapore independence. Yet even then, I was curious about this 14th century Ibn Battuta character, in the same way I was curious about Marco Polo, because I did not, at that time, think it possible for one man to travel such distances in the absence of the technology of today.

I finally read Ibn Battuta’s Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354 and his account only added to my sense of amazement, for his writing is straightforward yet poetic, and filled with the same surreal mood as The Arabian Nights, despite the fact that the latter is probably a work of fiction. Here are some excerpts from Travels in Asia and Africa – I have to resort to giving excerpts as I cannot possibly describe the book in a manner that does justice to it – followed by some clips on Ibn Battuta that I found on Youtube.

A note: Amazon reviews of the book comment that the translation by Samuel Lee is awful and that the bulk of that edition is composed of pointless and long-winded commentary.The translation that GOHD Books carries is not Samuel Lee’s, but H.A.R. Gibb’s, which I do not find offensive at all. Having said that, I’m sure I would have found much more to criticise if I understood Arabic.

The men of this class do some marvellous things. One of them will spend months without eating or drinking, and many of them have holes dug for them in the earth which are then built in on top of them leaving only a space for air to enter. They stay in there for months, and I heard tell of one of them who remained thus for a year. The people say that they make up pills, one of which they take for a given number of days or months, and during that time they require no food or drink… is obvious that they have so disciplined themselves in ascetic practices that they have no need of any of the goods or vanities of this world. There are amongst them some who merely look at a man and he falls dead on the spot. The common people say that if the breast of a man killed in this way is cut open, it is found to contain no heart, and they assert that this heart has been eaten.” – p. 225, on the Yogis in India.

“Som men got down from their booths and took our horses’ bridles, then some others objected to their action and the altercation went on so long that some of them drew knives. We of course did not know what they were saying and were afraid of them, thinking they were those brigands and that this was their town. At length God sent us a man who knew Arabic, and he explained that they were members of two branches of the “Young Brotherhood,” each of whom wanted us to lodge with them. We were amazed at their generosity. It was decided finally that they should cast lots, and that we should lodge first with the winner. This being done the prior of the first hospice, Brother Sinan, conducted us to the bath and himself looked after me; afterwards they served up a great banquet with sweetmeats and many fruits.’ -p.128-129

‘The illustrious Sultan Muhammad Uzbeg Khan is the ruler of a vast kingdom and a most powerful sovereign, victor over the enemies of God, the people of Constantinople the Great, and diligent in warring against them. He is one of the seven mighty kings of the world, to wit: our master the Commander of the Faithful, may God strengthen his might and magnify his victory! [the sultan of Morocco], the sultan of Egypt and Syria, the sultan of the Two Iraqs, this Sultan Uzbeg, the sultan of Turkistan and the lands beyond the Oxus, the sultan of India and the sultan of China.’ – p 148


And here is a TRULY AWFUL animated series, full of rubbish historical distortions and even worse graphics, done in Malaysia: