The Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah 
by Tim Mackintosh-Smith.
Murray, 333 pp., £20, March 2005, 0 7195 6225 2
Show More
Show More

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.

It was his education that enabled him to turn these dreams into reality. Although his family came originally from the Berber Lawata tribe, they had long been accultured into Arab society. Specifically, they had taken up the study of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, serving for several generations as Tangierian qadis (judges) and faqihs (legal scholars). Ibn Battutah, too, was trained as a faqih. Thanks to the 13th-century spread of Islam through Eurasia under the Pax Mongolica, he was able to set his sights higher. For reputation-conscious communities in the outer reaches of the Muslim world, nothing could better cement their identity and local authority, or broadcast their status, than a qadi-in-residence: when Ibn Battutah arrived in the Maldives, Jamal al-Din, the islands’ grand vizier, all but kidnapped him, compelling him to take up office on Male. Al-Din got more than he bargained for, as the new qadi promptly set about streamlining Maldivian customs with sharia – chopping off the hands of thieves, ordering topless women to cover up – before mounting an abortive coup.

Young men with places to see and fiqh to sell knew, however, that it was Delhi, the capital of a Muslim military state extending over most of the Subcontinent and ruled by Muhammad Shah (‘of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood’), which held the glittering prizes. Since its capture by Muslim Turko-Afghans in 1193, Delhi had been steadily attracting theologians, jurists, craftsmen and artists from Persia, Transoxiana and beyond. Muhammad Shah took this process to new levels. In an effort to ensure unquestioning obedience to his frequently unorthodox demands, he had developed the habit of employing educated foreigners as political agents, offering fabulous rewards in return: on his arrival in Delhi in 1334, Ibn Battutah was given a mansion in the old quarter of Kila Ray Pithora, 2000 silver dinars as sarshushti (‘for washing his head’), an annual stipend of 5000 silver dinars, a robe of fine goathair, and ‘a thousand Indian pounds of flour, a thousand pounds of flesh-meat, and I cannot say how many pounds of sugar, ghee, salif and areca-nuts, with a thousand betel leaves’ – all before he had even met Muhammad Shah, or done a day’s work for him.

He was qadi of Delhi for seven years, although it was a role for which, without proficiency in Persian or knowledge of India’s legal system, he was eminently ill-suited. Like all jobs at the royal court, it was also subject to the caprice of Muhammad Shah, a man who in 1326 had decided to move his capital to Dawlat Abad, 400 miles south of Delhi, forcibly evacuating the city’s entire population; on discovering a cripple and a blind man still wandering the streets, ‘he ordered that the cripple should be flung from a mangonel and the blind man dragged from Delhi to Dawlat Abad … All of him that reached Dawlat Abad was his leg.’ It was only a matter of time before Ibn Battutah, too, felt the sultan’s wrath, finding himself temporarily imprisoned for associating with a cave-dwelling Sufi who had fallen from favour. But, with the job as qadi netting him 7000 silver dinars a year (on top of his existing stipend), he clearly thought the job was worth the risk. A Hindu peasant family in Tughluqid India survived on less than five dinars a month.

The rationale behind Ibn Battutah’s wanderings wasn’t purely pecuniary. ‘Travel in search of knowledge, even if it takes you to China,’ the Prophet Muhammad had advised. Ibn Battutah didn’t keep his discoveries to himself: his book provided fellow Maghribi pilgrims and traders with detailed information about the rest of the Muslim world. What’s more, as Mackintosh-Smith wrote in Yemen,

Roads have a significance for the Arabs verging on the sacrosanct, and in Arabia one of the most important rights is the right of passage. The Islamic era begins with a journey – that of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to al-Madinah; pilgrimage is one of the Pillars of Islam; sabil Allah, the Road of God, is shorthand for all the exertions expected of a good Muslim.

At first glance, this checklist seems unremarkable: the notion of one’s existence in time being like a journey in space is hardly exclusive to Islamic thought. What is unusual is the way Ibn Battutah’s highly mobile society gave the metaphor physical substance, prizing both the practice and the scholarly fruits of travel: Ibn Battutah belongs in a long line of distinguished Muslim geographers stretching from al-Masudi (888-957), the ‘Herodotus of the Arabs’, to King Roger II of Sicily’s court cartographer al-Idrisi (1099-1166) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), Ibn Battutah’s younger contemporary who wrote the vast work of historical sociology known as the Kitab al-Ibar. It’s fitting, too, that all we know of Ibn Battutah’s existence is coterminous with his travels. The only thing we’ve been told of his later life in Morocco is that, according to Ibn Hajar’s Concealed Pearls (Mackintosh-Smith calls it ‘the Islamic Who’s Who of the 14th century’), he held ‘the office of qadi in some town or other’: as Marinid power crumbled in the later 1350s, so Ibn Battutah, his Rihlah complete, slipped back into provincial obscurity, before dying in 1369 – 100 years before the birth of Vasco da Gama, another explorer who was to bring India’s Malabar coast to the attention of the Western Mediterranean.

Sir Hamilton Gibb, Ibn Battutah’s first English translator, called him ‘the supreme example of le géographe malgré lui’, and the exuberance of the Rihlah’s descriptive detail – its fascination with the Malians’ use of salt as both currency and building material, or with the akhis (‘hospitality guilds’) of the Turks – is one of the best things about it. For historians of 14th-century Asia Minor or Sudanic West Africa, Ibn Battutah is the major – sometimes the only – source. But, besides the beards and bazaars, madrassas and slave girls (of whom Ibn Battutah was especially fond, fathering – and abandoning – countless children during his travels), the Rihlah boasts holy men in their hundreds, Hindu and Christian as well as Muslim.

Burhan al-Din the Lame, a Sufi ascetic Ibn Battutah met in Alexandria in 1326, played a particularly important role, prophesying that Ibn Battutah would meet his brother Sufis, Farid al-Din, Rukn al-Din and Burhan al-Din, in India, Sind and China. This, it seems, is the reason for his travels that meant most to Ibn Battutah himself: ‘I was amazed at his prediction, and … my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named.’ His countryman al-Murshidi foretold his wanderings through Yemen, Iraq, Turkey and India, where he would meet ‘Dilshad the Indian’. Much later, having escaped from a band of Hindu rebels marauding near Delhi, Ibn Battutah was rescued by a mysterious figure calling himself Dilshad who vanished as swiftly as he had appeared. ‘I knew that it was he whom the saint had foretold that I should meet,’ Ibn Battutah says.

The 19th-century German Orientalist Heinrich Julius Klaproth dismissed the feats of Ibn Battutah’s holy men as ‘rigmaroles’. But ‘for medieval metaphysicians,’ as Mackintosh-Smith notes, ‘dreams came not from some spidery Freudian crypt of the psyche but from the bright world of spiritual intellection where events and places are parallel.’ Ibn Khaldun’s explanation, anticipating Schopenhauer, is that our dreaming and waking lives function as mutually dependent metaphors, each offering a different perspective on ‘reality’ – the former presenting past and future as co-existent, the latter maintaining chronological order. Ibn Battutah’s saints and Sufis had permanent access to this dream world and were able not so much to see the future as actively to experience it, leaping across temporal boundaries (and, in the case of the yogi of Anjidiv, spatial ones too). Such heightened awareness required lengthy initiation processes. Ibn Battutah tried – and failed – to devote himself to the contemplative life on more than one occasion: his recurring battles with his nafs, his spirit, capture in close-up the tensions between the temporal and the transcendent around which the Rihlah whirls.

‘The Travels,’ Mackintosh-Smith writes, ‘is a DIY Odyssey by a homespun Homer and the yarn, as elastic as its spinner, is prone to stretch alarmingly.’ In line with contemporary literary practice, Ibn Juzayy used the works of earlier authorities (notably the 12th-century Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubayr) to flesh out his master’s descriptions of Damascus, Medina and Mecca, occasionally filching passages wholesale, while for reasons of clarity he reorganised sections of Ibn Battutah’s erratic itinerary, a process that later copyists may inadvertently have continued. Ross Dunn, whose Adventures of Ibn Battutah provides an overview of the historical context of the journeys,* observes that Ibn Battutah was ‘highly unlikely’ to have used extensive travel notes or journals while working with his amanuensis. Aside from the notes on Bukhara that were lost in an attack by ‘Indian infidel’ pirates, Ibn Battutah never mentions keeping any sort of diary (although Ibn Juzayy describes his own work as an ‘abridgment’ of the taqyid, or ‘notations’, scribbled by his master on his return to Fez). Little wonder, then, that Ibn Battutah’s names, dates and places sometimes get mixed up (he occasionally confesses to memory lapses) – or that these various interpretative hazards have provided abundant fuel for academic argument.

Ibn Khaldun remarks flatly that people ‘whispered to each other that Ibn Battutah must be a liar’. Al-Balafiqi, an Andalusian judge who had met Ibn Battutah in Granada, encouraged such sniping, adding snootily that Ibn Battutah had only ‘a modest share of the sciences’. But he had his allies, too. It’s perhaps to be expected that his amanuensis would describe him respectfully as ‘the sheikh learned in the law, the most trustworthy and veracious traveller’; but such notables as Ibn Marzuq, the future Grand Qadi of Cairo, also came to his defence. Despite suspicion that parts of Ibn Battutah’s trips to China and Constantinople are fabricated, recent scholarship has generally vindicated these early supporters. In any case, as Sultan Abu Inan’s vizier, Ibn Wadrar, advised Ibn Khaldun, ‘you should never dismiss accounts of other lands merely on the grounds of not having seen them,’ or you run the risk of ending up like the boy born in prison: the only creatures he had ever seen were rats and so ‘he considered all creatures to be sub-species of rat.’

Ibn Wadrar was talking about perspective, about its multiplicity and its blind-spots. Mackintosh-Smith exploits the same idea: at one point, he tries to build a mental picture of Muhammad Shah’s famous audience chamber, but the real ‘Hall of a Thousand Columns’ is his book, built on the Rihlah’s foundations; having discovered that Muhammad’s hall is now a ‘spacious al fresco public lavatory’, he dodges turds and peers round pillars, trying to gain a better angle on the past, in the same way as his narrative winds in and out of the centuries, sometimes glimpsing Ibn Battutah or the traces of his world, more often finding the view obscured.

Just as the things that Ibn Battutah gets right are in the end more noteworthy than his inconsistencies, so what’s remarkable about Mackintosh-Smith’s book – and what drives him – are those occasions when, despite the obstacles, a link seems to be forged across the centuries. It’s an experience he describes as ‘temporal vertigo: the feeling of looking at a spot in time, far away yet reachable in a single, breathtaking leap’. Unsettlingly, the place in India which conjures this sensation most powerfully for Mackintosh-Smith is Ambika-Jhambika, an old sati site in Madhya Pradesh, the layout of which, he discovers, corresponds exactly with that of Ibn Battutah’s ‘spot in hell’: a ‘dark place with much water and many trees, thick with shadows’ where, watching a widow climb purposefully onto her own funeral pyre, he nearly fell off his horse in fright.

Up and down the length of the Malabar coast, Mackintosh-Smith encounters astonishing displays of religious heterodoxy: a mosque in Kottakal with a sculpture of Christ adorning its pulpit, a Shaivite trident on a mosque in Ponnani. Appropriately enough, these processes of cultural cross-pollination also draw the teleporting yogi of Anjidiv into their orbit: one possible location for his meeting with Ibn Battutah is an 800-year-old temple-complex dedicated to Durga Parameshvari, Shiva’s consort, but founded by a Muslim merchant named Bappa. Besides furnishing an image for Mackintosh-Smith’s attempts to join the historical dots, Malabar’s religious atmosphere also reflects the open-mindedness sporadically displayed by Ibn Battutah: in between ticking off fellow Muslims for slaughtering birds improperly or strutting naked in mixed-sex bathhouses, he enjoys a tour round one of Constantinople’s many monasteries, where he meets a boy reading the Gospel ‘in the most beautiful voice’ he has ever heard.

Mackintosh-Smith is also fascinated by the fluidity and ambiguities of language. ‘Grammars, like theatre, call for a suspension of disbelief,’ he notes in Yemen. When first learning Arabic, the qamus (‘dictionary’, but also ‘ocean’) seemed to him ‘a surreal lexical landscape whose inhabitants lived in a state of relentless metamorphosis’: zahab can mean both ‘a messenger’ and ‘a huge deaf rat’; qutrub a ‘puppy/ demon/restless insect/melancholia’. Under these semantic conditions, somebody who had merely istanwaq, ‘mistaken male camels for she-camels’, could count himself lucky. There’s a Flaubertian yearning for the exotic at work here, and Mackintosh-Smith is aware of his position within a long line of Orient-obsessed Europeans. But it’s also clear that these philological leanings underpin his fascination with cultural genealogy. The same awareness of life’s interconnectedness that informed Burhan al-Din’s interpretation of Ibn Battutah’s dream, and which, at the practical level, facilitated Ibn Battutah’s travels through the Dar al-Islam, also plays out in Mackintosh-Smith’s donnish digressions: ‘One Attab, a scion of the early Umayyad dynasty of caliphs and thus a distant collateral of the tangal’s, gave his name to a quarter of Baghdad, which gave its name to a type of stripey cloth woven there – attabi, the English “tabby”, which gave its name to the cat.’

It’s a pity that Mackintosh-Smith can’t help over-egging the word-play, exposing himself to the charge of ‘phonetic fellatio’ that he levels at Battutah. Delhi’s Qutb Minar (‘swollen, ribbed, mottled and veined in pink’) should never be described as ‘Islamic design on Viagra’. But this remains an engaging homage to one of travel writing’s founding fathers. A lunar crater has been named after Ibn Battutah, two films about his travels are in production, and in 1994 Charles Beckingham published the final volume of the Rihlah’s full English translation, a project begun by Gibb 65 years earlier; I hope Mackintosh-Smith’s book encourages people to read it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences