Ibn Battuta's journey to Iraq and Persia"When the afternoon prayers had been said, drums ... were beaten and the [Sufi] brethren began to dance. After this they prayed the sunset prayer and brought in the repast, consisting of rice-bread, fish, milk, and dates. When all had eaten and prayed the first night prayer, they began to recite the [prayer-songs]... They had prepared loads of firewood which they kindled into flame, and went into the midst of it dancing; some of them rolled in the fire, and others ate it in their mouths, until finally they extinguished it entirely... Some of them will take a large snake and bite its head with their teeth until they bite it clean through." [Dunn, p. 91]


A Land Conquered by the Mongols

About 100 years before Ibn Battuta's travels, the Mongol Invasion led by Genghis Khan's grandson Hulagu, had been a nightmare of violence for the peoples of Persia and Iraq. "With one stroke," wrote a Persian historian of the time, "a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert, and the greater part of the living dead, and their skin and bones crumbling dust; and the mighty were humbled..." [Juvaini, The History of the World Conquerors, vol. 1, translated by Boyle, Cambridge, 1958.] "The Mongols wreaked death and devastation wherever they rode from China to the plains of Hungary, but nowhere more so than in Persia, where most of the great cities were demolished and their inhabitants annihilated. "The total population of this area may have dropped temporarily from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine." [J.M Smith in Dunn, p. 83.] In 1258, the Iraqi city of Baghdad was captured and the caliph put to death, bringing the Abbasid Caliphate rule to an end.

When Ibn Battuta arrived in the region nearly a century later, Persia and Iraq were still suffering from the devastating effects of the Mongol Invasion, particularly on its economy and agricultural prosperity. But Ibn Battuta also witnessed positive aspects of Mongol rule on Persian culture. After the Mongols converted to Islam, they became patrons of Persian art and learning. One example can be seen in the observatory at Margheh in which Persian and Chinese scholars collaborated to work out astronomical tables of great importance. The master historian of the age was Rashid al-Din, a Jewish convert to Islam who wrote a Collection of Histories, the first truly universal history of mankind ever written embracing all of Islam, China, Byzantium, and western Europe. Chinese cultural influence is also found in Persian miniature painting, calligraphy, and textile and pottery design

This map of Ibn Battuta's full itinerary shows the location of the Mongol Khanates during his lifetime.

Ibn Battuta's Travels through Persia and Iraq

Map of Ibn Battuta's travels in Persia

On Nov. 17, 1326, Ibn Battuta left Mecca and joined a caravan of pilgrims in an official caravan of the Persian state. He was treated to a half of a "double camel litter" by a rich official who was impressed with Ibn Battuta's learning and friendly personality. They marched at night by torchlight "so that you saw the countryside gleaming with light and the darkness turned into radiant day." [Dunn, p. 89] The wife of a caliph had paid for the construction of a chain of watering tanks and wells along the trail to keep the caravans safe. The entire journey from Mecca to Mesopotamia took approximately 44 days. In al-Najaf Ibn Battuta visited a holy site, important to all Muslims, but especially important to the Shi'a communities. In al-Najaf was the mausoleum (burial place) of Ali, the fourth Caliph (successor to Muhammad), and Muhammad's nephew and son-in-law. It was here that Ibn Battuta met Sufi Muslims, people who tried to find God through experiences like twirling around in a trance, through music and poetry, and through dance.


Sufis are Muslims who strive to obtain direct experience of Allah intuitively through Love. Often, they express their knowledge through poetry and music. By the 12th century, Sufis could be found in urban and rural areas in the Middle East and North Africa. Ibn Battuta was very attracted to many Sufi ideas.

"When the afternoon prayers had been said, drums ... were beaten and the [Sufi] brethren began to dance. After this they prayed the sunset prayer and brought in the repast, consisting of rice-bread, fish, milk, and dates. When all had eaten and prayed the first night prayer, they began to recite the [prayer-songs]... They had prepared loads of firewood which they kindled into flame, and went into the midst of it dancing; some of them rolled in the fire, and others ate it in their mouths, until finally they extinguished it entirely... Some of them will take a large snake and bite its head with their teeth until they bite it clean through." [Dunn, p. 91]


This painting of Sufi Dancing Dervishes was probably created c. 1480 in the area of Afghanistan.

Travel was dangerous by land and by sea. Ibn Battuta traveled overland at first alone riding a donkey. Then for protection he joined a caravan with other pilgrims and traders. Some of them walked, others rode horses, mules, donkeys, or camels. By the time the caravan reached Cairo, Egypt, the caravan was several thousand members.

The pilgrims were an enthusiastic group and were excited about their hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The trip was a grand study tour of the World of Islam - Dar al-Islam. For Ibn Battuta it was an opportunity to acquire knowledge of religion and law, and meet with other Muslim scholars. Ibn Battuta must have thought about getting a fine job as a judge (qadi) in some part of Dar al-Islam after gaining certificates of learning from great scholars of his time.

After leaving Tlemcen, the small caravan traveled the green-brown valleys for several days at a time without encountering any towns, only Berber camps and groups of camel herders.

Basra

Ibn Battuta was disappointed in the city that had been famous because of its past beauty. The city had shrunk in population and importance. When he attended a Friday service in the mosque, he was surprised at the errors in grammar committed by the leader. He learned that "In this town there is not a man left who knows anything of the science of grammar." [Dunn, p. 92.]

And so he continued on by taking a small sailboat up river to the city of Abadan. Along the river he saw "an uninterrupted succession of fruit gardens and overshadowing palmgroves both to the right and to the left, with traders sitting in the shade of the trees, selling bread, fish, dates, milk, and fruit." Further on in a marshy area far from civilization, he looked up a famous hermit who seemed so peaceful and happy with so little. For a while, Ibn Battuta even though about spending the rest of his life in the service of this old holy man. But the next day he was back on the road to Isfahan.

Isfahan (the Orchard City)

Isfahan (in modern-day Iran) was another city that had been destroyed by the first Mongol invasion. [But the future destruction by a later Mongol leader, Timur the Lame (or Tamerlane) would be much worse. Tamerlane dominated all of Persia from 1387. His invasion of Isfahan alone, led to more than 70,000 deaths and his soldiers stacked the heads of their many victims into pyramids.

Ibn Battuta lodged for two weeks in a large Sufi center and saw the sights and met with religious and legal scholars.

At Barsian, about 42 kilometers north-east of Isfahan, there is a fine complex consisting of an old minaret, a Seljuk mosque and what is probably one of the caravansarais built by Shah Abbas I to promote and protect internal trade in the 12th century. (Such buildings were frequently attached to mosques.) Other caravanserai were built to encourage international trade.

Though this particular mosque & caravanserai complex was built after Ibn Batutta's life and travels, others existed in his time.

This caravanserai at Neyestanak (in central Iran) also post-dates Ibn Battuta's trip. The image depicts the enclosed inner courtyard of a giant structure ot house travelers, their animals and their goods.

Shiraz (the Garden City)

Ibn Battuta visited Shiraz after traveling another 300 miles south. Shiraz had not been destroyed by the Mongols. (It was too far south and too hot for the steppe herdsmen.) So the city survived and opened its gates to the refugees fleeing from the north. The arrival of well-educated fugitives stimulated a cultural flowering in literature and art. Ibn Battuta said, "its inhabitants are handsome in figure and clean in their dress. In the whole East there is no city except Shiraz which approached Damascus in the beauty of its bazaars, fruit-gardens and rivers." Ibn Battuta also told of a Muslim hero who lived there.

Ibn Battuta stayed in a dormitory attached to a mosque (perhaps the Friday Mosque below), while he visited mosques and tombs. Here he praised the piety of the women.

"The people of Shirza are distinguished by piety, sound religion, and purity of manners, especially the women. These wear boots, and when out of doors are swathed in mantles and head-veils, so that no part of them is to be seen, and they are noted for their charitable alms [money given in charity] and their liberality. One of their strange customs is that they meet in the principal mosque every Monday, Thursday and Friday... sometimes one or two thousand of them... I have never seen in any land an assembly of women in such numbers." [Gibb, p. 300.]

It was here that Ibn Battuta heard of a miracle of a shaikh (a leader) who was saved by an elephant.


A Miracle of Shaikh Abu 'Abhallah b. Khafif

It is related that on one occasion [the shaikh] set out for a mountain .... accompanied by about thirty poor brethren [brothers]. They [became hungry] on the way to the mountain... and lost their bearings. They asked the shaikh to allow them to catch one of the small elephants, which are exceedingly numerous in that place and are transported [from there] to the capital of the king of India. The shaikh forbade them, but their hunger got the better of them; they disobeyed his instruction and, seizing a small elephant, they slaughtered it and ate its flesh.* The shaikh, however, refused to eat it. That night, as they slept, the elephants gathered from every direction and came upon them, and they went smelling each man and killing him until they had made an end of them all. They smelled the shaikh, too, but offered no violence to him; one of them took hold of him, wrapped its trunk round him, set him on its back, and brought him to the place where there was some habitation. ... Then the elephant, as it came near [the people of the village], seized him with its trunk, and [gently] lifted him off its back down to the ground in full view of them. These people them came up to him, touched ... his robe [for a blessing] and took him to their king [where he received a reward of three rubies]. [Abridged from Gibb, pages 314 - 315.]

*Certain groups of Muslims believe that eating the flesh of elephants is prohibited in the Qur'an.


Shah Chirag, Tomb of Amir Ahmad

Tombs are still favorite pilgrimage destinations in Shiraz. This one houses the graves of two brothers who took refuge in Shiraz following Abbasid persecution of the Shi'ite sect (Amir Ahmad died or was murdered in 835). The brothers' tombs, originally only simple mausoleums, became celebrated pilgrimage destinations in the 14th century when the pious and art-loving Queen Tashi Khatun erected a mosque and theological school by the tombs.

Vakil Bazaar- Iran-03-25-2012

The city of Shiraz was renowned for its beautiful tombs, mosques, gardens and bustling bazaars, all of which Ibn Battuta explored for about two weeks. Tourists still flock to Shiraz to see the same sort of sights, though the buildings have been updated over time. Below you can see some of the bazaars, mosques, and tombs of Shiraz.

This short video shows the Vakil Bazaar, which was already hundreds of years old when Ibn Batutta passed through Shiraz, where it is located.