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CNES Celebrates Ibn Battuta

CNES Celebrates Ibn Battuta

UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies honors the 700th anniversary of the birth of the "Prince of Travelers" who spent 29 years exploring Central Asia, India, China, Spain and both east and west Africa.

By Steve Aziz Joudi

View a slideshow of the event

The G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA, in association with the James Coleman African Studies Center, was proud to host a symposium commemorating the 700th birthday of the famed Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta. The event, which took place at UCLA’s Faculty Center, was the combined effort of eleven UCLA academic and research units, media organizations and foundations, and a notable contribution by Royal Air Maroc Airlines.

The event was divided into two parts consisting of academic and musical programs. The afternoon line-up was introduced by Michael Cooperson, Professor of Arabic in the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and included several scholarly presentations and addresses, among them the welcoming remarks of Her Excellency Nouzha Chekrouni, Minister Delegate in Charge of Moroccans Living Abroad, and a keynote address by Dr. Ross Dunn, Professor Emeritus of History at San Diego State University, entitled, “Ibn Battuta: A 14th-Century Cosmopolite.”

Professor Dunn presented an outline of Ibn Battuta’s life and his journey which lasted from 1325 to 1354. Born in 1304, Ibn Battuta began his journey at the age of 21 when he left his home in Tangiers to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. “This was the first of a series of extraordinary journeys that spanned nearly three decades and took him not only eastward to India and China but also north to the Volga River valley and south to Tanzania,” remarked Dunn.

He described Ibn Battuta as a citizen of Dar al-Islam rather than as a citizen of a particular country, and an examination of his era reveals as much. Dunn stated that “the fourteenth-century world was a much more mobile one than we might imagine. Caravan routes and sea lanes were busy with travelers moving back and forth across the eastern hemisphere. Among these travelers, Muslims were to be seen from Spain and West Africa to Central Asia and Southern China. Muslims were the preeminent travelers.”

Many factors help to explain Muslim mobility, preeminently the fact that Muslim civilization dominated the central part of the eastern hemisphere and extended nearly all the way across it. Merchants frequently moved from region to region, supporting the hemisphere’s international trade. Others made the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Still other Muslims, according to Dunn, traveled as diplomats, imperial messengers, wandering Sufis, soldiers of fortune or cultured scholars in search of books and famous teachers.

This is the world that surrounded Ibn Battuta at the time he decided to make his first pilgrimage to Mecca, but what motivated him to continue traveling for 29 years? Dunn identifies five interrelated motives for his heroic travels. First, Ibn Battuta traveled to make the hajj, which he completed at least five times, with Mecca serving as the hub of his travels. Secondly, as a man of knowledge and a member of the ulema, or men of learning, he traveled in constant search of greater knowledge of the religious and legal sciences. We know from his writings that he traveled to Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, and spent a good deal of time in madrasas, or schools.

Third, Dunn states that Ibn Battuta “traveled as a devotee of Sufism, which we might characterize as the mystical dimension of Islam, the dimension that emphasized the individual quest to know God and his love. He journeyed to a number of places specifically to visit a saintly Sufi master or the tomb of a Sufi saint in order to partake of the baraka, or divine blessing, in the sense of divine grace that that saint might bestow on pious Muslims.”

Fourth, Ibn Battuta traveled to gain employment and generous rewards in the service of Muslim rulers. Finally, he journeyed to some places for the simple fact that they existed. He seems to have wanted to make a complete tour of the Muslim world, declaring in his memoirs that he wished to travel so that he would never retrace his steps.

Dunn’s presentation reinforced Minister Chekrouni’s description of Ibn Battuta as “a Muslim who had no fear and inspired no fear. He respected the cultures and conventions of other peoples with his eyes wide open. He was welcomed by fakirs, princes and maharajahs, and this was a reality which presents a certain contrast with today. He belonged to a civilization that really did not need to envy any other civilization of its time.”

Following Professor Dunn’s address, a roundtable discussion examined aspects of Ibn Battuta’s journey in terms of specific world regions. Moderated by Michael Morony, UCLA Professor of History, the panel included presentations by Professors Ghislaine Lydon and Geoffrey Symcox of the UCLA History Department and Professors Dunn and Cooperson.

Professor Lydon’s presentation, “Ibn Battuta’s Rihla: An Important Written Source for African History,” traced the final leg of Ibn Battuta’s journey which took him to the heart of western Africa in 1351/52. “His ethnographic description of the peoples, places and customs there represents the most valuable early written sources for African history, and the only eye-witness account of the great medieval empire of Mali." Lydon suggested that Ibn Battuta’s curiosity and pursuit of wealth motivated him to reach the empire of Mali, famed for its gold riches.

Many have described Ibn Battuta as the Moroccan Marco Polo, but Geoffrey Symcox’s presentation cautioned against such comparisons, offering five differences between their experiences. First, “Marco Polo’s travels were conditioned much more than Ibn Battuta’s by the recently-established Mongol imperium: it made possible the Polos’ journey across Asia, and then Marco’s service under Kublai Khan in the newly conquered realm of China. By Ibn Battuta’s time, the Mongol empire was declining and his travels did not take him along the same Asian routes." Second, each traveler had his own motivations for undertaking his journey. Polo’s journey was initially a missionary enterprise in Christendom’s war against Islam which was soon transformed into a commercial venture, while Ibn Battuta’s trip was rooted in religious and scholarly motives.

The third difference noted by Symcox was that each man wrote from a different perspective, Ibn Battuta's being that of a religious scholar while Marco Polo took the view of a merchant, noting the price of things, the availability of goods in markets and so on. Fourth, “Ibn Battuta was moving from one Muslim community to another, as far as China. He was thus operating in a familiar context of religion, law, mores. For Marco Polo, there was no equivalent Christian world community in which he could move." Finally, the fate of each traveler's book was different: both were written with the aid of amanuenses, but whereas Ibn Battuta’s work lay buried for centuries, Marco Polo’s soon became a best-seller and a major influence on Christopher Columbus’s decision in 1492 to sail to China in search of the Great Khan and the fabulous wealth described by Polo.

A lively discussion ensued on a wide variety of issues, from historiography to multiculturalism, followed by concluding remarks by His Excellency Mohammed Ariad, Moroccan Deputy Ambassador to the United States. The Deputy Ambassador commented on the linkages between the United States and Morocco, pointing out that Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent American state.

Following a reception, Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic author and photographer, presented a captivating illustrated lecture entitled, “Ibn Battuta: The Prince of Travelers." Having traveled to all of the lands visited by Ibn Battuta, Abercrombie offered a cornucopia of images and commentary, frequently recounting anecdotes of his own travels and experiences and giving visual and comedic points of reference for a long and diverse journey.

The evening concluded with a musical program designed to highlight the cultures of the various lands visited by Ibn Battuta. UCLA’s Middle Eastern,Chinese, Balkan, and West African Ensembles performed and were joined by a host of other musicians. Dance performances included flamenco, whirling Sufi dervishes, and a mélange of traditional Arabic dances. In total, the crowd of over 200 enjoyed nine musical and dance performances. For his efforts in organizing the evening performances, the Center for Near Eastern Studies would like to thank Kamal Oudrhiri and the Grove of Hope Foundation for making this event possible.

In conclusion, it should be noted that several important projects have resulted from the symposium. First was the creation of an instructional unit that will be used by K-12 educators to teach about Ibn Battuta’s voyage and the contributions he made toward the increased understanding of world cultures. The unit, along with classroom materials on Ibn Battuta produced by the UCLA History Project and San Diego State University, will be made available to teachers nationwide via Outreach World and World History for Us All.

Also, Professor Ross Dunn traveled to Morocco on the invitation of the Moroccan government for the first of several meetings designed to produce a full-length feature film on the great traveler, Ibn Battuta.

A full list of event sponsors includes: UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, African Studies Center, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Center for Chinese Studies, Department of Ethnomusicology, Department of Geography, Department of History, United Arab Society, and the UCLA International Institute. Other Sponsors included: The Los Angeles Grove of Hope Foundation and Royal Air Maroc Airlines. CNES would like to give special thanks to: NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories,, and Badia Designs.

Center for Near Eastern Studies