Ibn Battuta's Journey in West Africa

"[The sultan] has a lofty pavilion ... where he sits most of the time... There came forth from the gate of the palace about 300 slaves, some carrying in their hands bows and others having in their hands short lances and shields... Then two saddled and bridled horses are brought, with two rams which, they say, are effective against the evil eye... The interpreter stands at the gate of the council-place wearing fine garments of silk... and on his head a turban with fringes which they have a novel way of winding..." [Dunn, p. 302]


The Allure of Mali

When Ibn Battuta first visited Cairo in 1326, he undoubtedly heard about the visit of Mansa Musa (King of Mali from 1307 to 1332). Mansa Musa had passed through the city two years earlier making his pilgrimage to Mecca with thousands of slaves and soldiers, wives and officials. One hundred camels each carried one hundred pounds of gold. Mansa Musa performed many acts of charity and "flooded Cairo with his kindness." So much gold spent in the markets of Cairo actually upset the gold market well into the next century. Mali's gold was important all over the world. In the later Medieval period, West Africa may have been producing almost two-thirds of the world's supply of gold! Mali also supplied other trade items - ivory, ostrich feathers, kola nuts, hides, and slaves. No wonder there was talk about the Kingdom of Mali and its riches! And no wonder Ibn Battuta, still restless after his trip to Al-Andalus, set his mind on visiting the sub-Saharan kingdom.

This is a small section of a famous map known as the Catalan Atlas, produced in 1375. The Atlas is attributed to Abraham Cresques, a Jewish book illuminator and map-maker. The original version is housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, but this image is a clip from a website that hosts very high-definition images of the map panels.

Since this map was made in 1375, it did not exist yet when Ibn Battuta went to Mali. However, the inclusion of Mansa Musa on the map (shown sitting on a throne, with gold accessories) suggests that the legends of his wealth and power continued well after Ibn Battuta's time.

A trip to Mali, like all other trips, would be made easier because of already established trade routes controlled by Muslims. The rulers and many businessmen of Mali had converted to Islam a generation before and Muslim traders had come to live in Mali's business centers. Ibn Battuta could not resist another trip before he settled down. Or perhaps he thought about settling in Mali where the converts and Muslim settlers and even the king (sultan) were hungry for Islamic education and law. Mansa Musa had built mosques and minarets and established Friday prayer-days in Mali. He had brought judges to his country and became a student of religion, himself. Perhaps Ibn Battuta was looking for a job in the circle of rulers in Mali. This trip would take him 1,500 miles across a fearsome desert.

Image of buildings in Draa River Valley

An image from the Draa River Valley, on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert.

Source: Theoliane - Own work, Public Domain

Salt caravan in Niger

Azalai salt caravan, December 1985.

Source: Holger Reineccius at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Crossing the Sahara

Ibn Battuta set out from Fez in the autumn of 1351 and crossed the Atlas Mountains. After traveling for eight or nine days he arrived at a town called Sijilmasa on the Oasis of Tafilalt. This was the last outpost before crossing the vast Sahara Desert. Here he spent four months waiting for the winter season when the great caravans could cross the desert. It was here where he bought camels of his own while staying with Muslims who offered him hospitality.

And so he set out across the Sahara Desert for Walata in a camel caravan in February, 1352. They traveled in the early morning and late afternoon and rested under awnings to avoid the scorching midday heat. Twenty-five days later the caravan reached the settlement of Taghaza, the main salt-mining center of the Western Sahara. Here workers loaded great slabs of salt which was in great demand in Mali. Taghaza was a desolate place. "This is a village with nothing good about it," complained Ibn Battuta. "It is the most fly-ridden of places." Then he described the huge amounts of gold that changed hands there.

The caravan stayed in Taghaza for ten days where he stayed in a house built entirely of salt except for the camel skin roof! The water was salty, too, and food had to be brought from the outside.

Then began the most dangerous part of the journey - almost 500 miles of sand where only one water place exists. Fortunately there had been some rainfall that year, so there was some scattered vegetation and occasionally even pools of water for the camels. The travelers drank water from goat skin bags. Yet there were more dangers:

"In those days we used to go on ahead of the caravan and whenever we found a place suitable for grazing we pastured the beasts there. This we continued to do till a man ... became lost in the desert. After that we neither went on ahead nor lagged behind."

Ibn Battuta worried about running out of water, about his guides losing their way, and about falling prey to the "demons which haunted those wastes." In the end of April, they arrived in Walata, on the edge of the desert -- a sweltering little town with mud brick houses next to barren hills and with a few palm trees. Ibn Battuta regretted coming at all to this town because he had been treated so much better in other parts of the Islamic world. He resented the governor who offered the visitors a bowl of millet with a little honey and yogurt as a welcoming meal.

"I said to them: 'Was it to this that the black man invited us?' They said: 'Yes, for them this is a great banquet.' Then I knew for certain that no good was to be expected from them and I wished to depart."

He stayed in Walata for several weeks, but as happened in other places on his journey, he took offense at the local customs. After all, he must have thought, he was a special visitor that should be pampered. And even more offensive were the local customs that Ibn Battuta thought were not appropriate for good Muslims.

For example, he expected the sexes to be separated in an Islamic society. On one occasion he entered in a qadi's (judge's) house only to find a young and beautiful woman there to greet him. She was the judge's friend! (Ibn Battuta considered her presence there highly inappropriate). On another occasion Ibn Battuta called on a scholar and found the man's wife chatting with a strange man in the courtyard. Ibn Battuta expressed his disapproval and the man answered,

"The association of women with men is agreeable to us and a part of good manners, to which no suspicion attaches. They are not like the women of your country."

Needless to say, Ibn Battuta considered the local customs inferior to his own. This was not the first time Ibn Battuta took issue with the behavior of local women.

camel image to indicate side trip Side Trip: What were Ibn Battuta's views on women and sexuality?

South into the Sahel and Savannah

The travelers went southward away from the desert and into the sahel (the arid country between the sandy desert in the north and grassy savannah to the south) along the Niger River to the king's palaces. Along the way he offered glass beads and pieces of salt in return for millet, rice, chickens, and other local foods. After two or more weeks on the road, he arrived at the seat of government, a town with several palaces for Mansa Sulayman, younger brother of Mansa Musa who had died. (Sulayman ruled from 1341 to 1360). The main palace was built by a Muslim architect from al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) and was covered with plaster painted with colorful patterns, a "most elegant" building. Surrounding the palaces and mosques were the residences of the citizens: mud-walled houses roofed with domes of timber and reed.

boat on the Niger River

Ibn Battuta followed the Niger River to several of Mali's biggest cities. He rode in a boat such as this. 

The sahel forest in Mali during the rainy season.

Source: NOAA, US Gov, Public Domain