BBC World Histories Magazine

Ibn Battuta’s medieval journeys across Africa and Asia

On a piercingly clear day in June 1325, a 21-year-old Moroccan from Tangier fastened his sandals, checked he had everything he needed, and said his goodbyes to family and friends. He was setting out on Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca – a long and arduous journey from the northwest tip of Africa, but one that usually took months or a few years, not decades.

He departed alone, “having neither fellow-traveller in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a desire long cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries… I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones… and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests. My parents being yet in the bonds of life, it weighed sorely upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow at this separation.” Little did any of them know that this relatively straightforward pilgrimage would somehow be extended into a 29-year, 75,000-mile odyssey across Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the far east.

East to Egypt

Alone on his donkey, Ibn Battuta headed east across empty, sun-scoured valleys, over the Rif mountains and on through cedar and oak forests. In what’s now western Algeria, he joined a caravan of travellers, which provided some companionship – though it did not prevent an acute pang of homesickness outside Tunis. “I felt so sad at heart on account of my loneliness that I could not restrain the tears that started in my eyes, and wept bitterly,” he

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