Rigmaroles

Henry Day

  • The Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
    Murray, 333 pp, £20.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 7195 6225 2

In 1346, after a four-month voyage from Sumatra, Ibn Battutah reached China. A devout Muslim, he was now far beyond the boundaries of the Dar al-Islam and the sway of the sharia, and was feeling nervous: ‘China, for all its magnificence, did not please me. I was deeply depressed by the prevalence of infidelity, and whenever I left my lodging I saw many offensive things which distressed me so much that I tended to stay at home as much as possible.’ But hagiomania soon got the better of him and he set off for Canton, in pursuit of ‘a venerable sheikh over two hundred years old who neither ate nor drank nor excreted nor had intercourse with women, though his powers were intact’. Having sniffed Ibn Battutah’s hand, the hermit, who was ‘thin, very ruddy, showed the traces of his devotional practices, and had no beard’, astonishingly said that he had met Ibn Battutah five years previously, on the island of Anjidiv, near Goa.

Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Battutah was born 701 years ago into a world strung together by the twin threads of trade and Islam, a vast network reaching from Bengal’s mangrove swamps to North Africa’s Atlantic coast, from the beaches of Zanzibar to the steppes of Kazakhstan. In 1325, aged 21, he set out from Tangier, ostensibly on the hajj. He covered more than 75,000 miles before his return 29 years later. His travels took him from Morocco to Egypt, through Palestine, Syria and Iraq, back to East Africa and Oman, up to Turkey, across the Black Sea to the Crimea, then on through Afghanistan to India. From there, Muhammad Shah Ibn Tughluq, the sultan of Delhi, sent him as his ambassador to the Mongol emperor, Toghon Temur. It was not in any sense empty flattery when he was hailed in Assam as the ‘traveller of the Arabs and of the non-Arabs’. By camel, horse, mule, ox-wagon, raft, dhow, junk and on foot, Ibn Battutah journeyed three times as far as Marco Polo (who died the year before he left Morocco). His progress, admittedly, was lavishly circuitous. He fulfilled his stated objective of ‘making the pilgrimage’ by the end of 1326, for instance, but, looping around and across the Arabian peninsula, returned to Mecca on three further occasions. The vulgar mechanics of getting directly from A to B had no interest for him.

If we know about him now it is because, like many modern travellers, he turned his adventures into a book. When, after stumbling through plague-ravaged Syria and Egypt, he finally returned to Morocco in 1354, Sultan Abu Inan was so impressed with his tales that he commissioned Ibn Juzayy, a young Andalusian scholar Ibn Battutah had met four years before in Granada, to transcribe them. The Rihlah (‘Travels’) represented, in its length and complexity, the apogee of a genre then flourishing in North Africa. It is still a defining text in the history of travel writing: whether rhapsodising over the desert, complaining about a boil on his bottom or suffering the near-fatal consequences of undercooked yams, Ibn Battutah speaks to his reader with more immediacy than most modern travel writers, describing the people he meets (all 1500 of them) and the places he visits with enthusiasm at once wide-eyed and critical.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has lived in Yemen since the early 1980s; his first book was Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land (1997). A couple of years later, poking around in Sana’s Greater Yemen Bookshop, he came across Ibn Battutah’s memoir, and decided to follow in its ‘footnotes’: ‘Instead of re-creating past lives by examining objects and places, I would start with a life … and go off in search of its memorabilia, fragments of existence withdrawn from time.’ The wittily erudite Travels with a Tangerine (2001) tracked Ibn Battutah from Tangier to Istanbul. The Hall of a Thousand Columns tries to reassemble the fragments scattered between Delhi and Kollam, at India’s southern tip. ‘C’est quasi le même de converser avec ceux des autres siècles,’ Descartes wrote, ‘que de voyager.’ Mackintosh-Smith aims to do both, delighting in the ‘unexpected foreshortenings of time’ his quest produces.

Early 14th-century Tangier was a frontier town: it played a supporting role in the efforts of the Marinids, Morocco’s ruling dynasty, to reverse the Christian reconquista of Spain, providing a hideaway for warships and pirate galleys. It was also an important trading post, profiting from the recent expansion of Mediterranean shipping into the Atlantic, following the forays of the Genoese along Morocco’s south-west coast. Specific information about Ibn Battutah’s childhood and adolescence is scarce, but, against this backdrop of jostling soldiers and merchants, it’s easy to imagine him breathing in Tangier’s cosmopolitan air, dreaming of the world that lay beyond his classroom in the local mosque.

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[*] California, 359 pp., £12.95, January, 0 520 24385 4.