Ibn Battuta in the Steppe Khanates"At every halt the Turks loose their horses, oxen and camels and drive them out to pasture at liberty, night or day, without shepherds or guardians. This is due to the severity of their laws against theft. Any person found in possession of a stolen horse is obliged to restore it with nine others; if he cannot do this, his sons are taken instead, and if he has no sons he is slaughtered like a sheep." [Gibb, p. 473 - 474]


Sailing the Black Sea

collage of Black Sea images

Source: wikimedia images, various artists

After waiting more than a month for good weather, Ibn Battuta and his small party boarded a ship and began to cross the Black Sea. Severe storms hit and almost capsized the ship, but after several days of panic and near disaster, they arrived at the opposite coast. Then they reached Kaffa, a Genoese (Italian) colony which had about 200 ships in its harbor. Here lived traders from Genoa, Venice, Egypt, Russia, and elsewhere. There was only one mosque in the town since most of the Europeans were Christians. When the Church bell rang, Ibn Battuta and his friend were offended! They went up to the top of their lodging and out of anger started the call for Muslim prayer! Some other Muslims rushed to them and tried to stop what might cause a religious fight! The next day they continued on to a city with a much larger Muslim population.

At these Black Sea ports they could see the trade goods of the steppe: grains, timber, furs, salt, wax, and honey. There were also the trade goods that had come along the Silk Road from Persia or China. And there were slaves, too: war captives and the sad children of poor parents who sold their children in order to survive. They would be sold in the slave markets of Cairo; others would be sent to work in the sugar plantations of Cyprus or in the rich households of Italy. [Dunn, p.163 - 164]

By the time Ibn Battuta visited, Black Sea ports had been part of trans-regional trade networks for over 2,000 years. The first of the two maps below, for example, shows ancient Greek colonies along the coast of the Black Sea (the Euxine Sea as the Greeks called it). You can compare the location of those Greek colonies to modern Black Sea cities, shown on the second map. Today, in addition to being host to modern shipping routes, the Black Sea region contains both oil-drilling areas and famous vacation resorts.

Map of Greek colonies on Black Sea 

Map of Greek colonies in the Black Sea region from Wikimedia Commons

map of modern Black Sea region

 Map of modern Black Sea region from Googlemaps

When they arrived in al-Qiram, Ibn Battuta's party of travelers heard some good news! They had arrived just in time to make the 700-mile trip to the Volga River under the protection of the King of the Golden Horde who was traveling only a few days ahead. So they bought three wagons and animals to pull them and rushed to catch up. (One wagon was for Ibn Battuta himself and a slave girl - with whom he would father another child! A second wagon was for his friend, and a third large one was for the rest of his companions and other slaves.) A prosperous steppe dweller might own one or two hundred wagons! 

When Genghis Khan died he divided the Mongol Empire into four "khanates" for his sons and grandsons. The Golden Horde was the northwestern khanate (including much of Eastern Europe and Russia). Unlike the Mongol conquest of Persia where the conquerors settled in cities and adopted Persian culture, the Golden Horde were able to maintain their nomadic customs on the Russian steppes.

Mongol Caravan

Soon they caught up to the caravan of the Kipchak Khan Ozbeg, King of the Golden Horde. The Khan's caravan was like "a vast city on the move with its inhabitants, with mosques and bazaars in it, the smoke of the kitchens rising in the air for they cook while on the march. . ." [Dunn, p. 167]

This image of a yurt comes from the online Silk Road Encyclopedia.

Travel in this part of the world was generally in wagons pulled by teams of horses, camels, or oxen. Mongol and Turkish nomads followed their herds in wagons over which was built a round felt yurt, a type of tent made of felt over a wooden frame.

William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar who traveled among the Mongols wrote that the caravan "of a rich Mongol seems like a large town, though there will be very few men in it. One girl will lead twenty or thirty carts, for the country is flat, and they tie the ox or camel carts the one after the other, and a girl will sit on the front one driving the ox, and all the others follow after..."[Dunn, p. 166]

Ibn Battuta was surprised at the treatment of the animals among the steppe nomads:

"At every halt the Turks loose their horses, oxen and camels and drive them out to pasture at liberty, night or day, without shepherds or guardians. This is due to the severity of their laws against theft. Any person found in possession of a stolen horse is obliged to restore it with nine others; if he cannot do this, his sons are taken instead, and if he has no sons he is slaughtered like a sheep." [Gibb, p. 473 - 474]


"The horses in this country are exceedingly numerous and their price is negligible. . . Horses in this country [are] like sheep in ours, or even more numerous, so that a single Turk will possess thousands of them. ... These horses are exported to India in droves, each one numbering six thousand or more or less." [Gibb, p. 478 - 479]

The next morning he met Ozbeg, seated upon a silver throne in the middle of a huge tent whose exterior was covered with a layer of bright gold tiles. The family of the Khan were below the throne, but the four wives were seated next to him. "In the Mongol states," explains Dunn, "women of the court shared openly and energetically in the governing of the realm. Princesses, like their brothers, were awarded land which they ruled and taxed." Ibn Battuta described how the Khan greeted his wives:

"[The ruler] advances to the entrance to meet her, salutes her, takes her by the hand, and only after she has mounted to the couch and taken her seat does the sultan himself sit down. All this is done in full view of those present, and without any use of veils...The horses that draw [each wife's] wagon are [decorated] with silk .. In front of the wagons are ten or fifteen pages (young boy servants), Greeks and Indians, who are dressed in robes of silk encrusted with jewels, and each of whom carries in his hand a mace of gold or silver... Behind her wagon there are about a hundred wagons, in each of which there are four slave girls full-grown or young... Behind these wagons still are about three hundred wagons, drawn by camels and oxen, carrying the [wife's] chests, moneys, robes, furnishings, and food." [Dunn, p. 168 - 169]

Ibn Battuta described the food of the Turks, which included "dugi" (a millet porridge). They poured curdled mares' milk over this. The meat they ate most often was horse flesh and sheep's flesh which was roasted or boiled. He said that the Turks "do not eat any meat unless the bones are mixed with it" and they dipped their meat into a salt-water sauce. They also had "rishta" (a kind of pasta cooked and eaten with milk). Ibn Battuta mentions some bread and fruits: grapes, apples, pears, quinces.

According to Ibn Battuta, the Turks didn't seem to like sweets at all and considered eating them to be disgraceful. They drank mares' milk ("qumizz" which Ibn Battuta found "disagreeable") and millet beer ("buza" which Ibn Battuta couldn't drink because he was a strict Muslim). Once the great Khan even came drunk to a dinner with his surprised and embarrassed guest!

A Trip to Constantinople!

When they reached Astrakhan, Ibn Battuta learned that the third wife of the Khan was pregnant. The Khan gave her permission to go back to her father - the King of the Byzantine Empire - to have her baby in Constantinople. Ibn Battuta asked the Khan if he could go along and also got permission. Here was an unexpected opportunity to see another part of the world, his first time to go beyond Dar al-Islam and see one of the great cities of the world. (There was nothing unusual about Muslim Turks or Arabs visiting Christian Constantinople in the 14th century. Merchants and ambassadors went there whenever business required it, and there was even a mosque in the heart of the city.)

So in July, 1332, they set out with about 5,000 horsemen, 500 of her personal soldiers and servants, 200 slave girls, 20 Indian and Greek pages, 400 wagons, 2,000 horses and about 500 oxen and camels. (The unfortunate people who lived along the route were obligated to provide this huge caravan with food! This was part of their "tax" and required support for their rulers.)

After traveling about 75 days they arrived in Constantinople. Ibn Battuta noticed that as they got closer, the former Christian princess stopped the calls to prayer; wines were brought to her and she even ate pork! [Her marriage to the Khan was a political arrangement made by her Christian father to gain advantages from the Muslim ruler.]

Ibn Battuta stayed in Constantinople for more than a month. He even got to meet the emperor, Andronicus III. He saw many of the sights of this capital city of the Christians - the new Rome. (Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire in the mid-4th century and inhabitants of the region still considered themselves Romans by the time of Ibn Battuta's visit).

He even saw the great Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia, though he did not go inside. But as Dunn says, "Byzantium in the 1330s was a minor Greek state of southeastern Europe and little more. Its international trade had been abandoned to the Italians, its currency was almost worthless, its landlords were grinding the peasantry unmercifully, its army was an assemblage of alien mercenaries, and its Asian territories had been all but lost to the triumphant Turks. It was a state living on borrowed time and past glories." [Dunn, p. 172]

In 1453, about 120 years after Ibn Battuta visited Constantinople, the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The city was then under Islamic leadership and renamed Istanbul. The cathedral was turned into a mosque. Today Hagia Sophia is a museum.

computer reconstruction of Hagia Sofia

This is a computer reconstruction of the original Byzantine Hagia Sophia, before Ottoman conquerors modified it and made it into a mosque.
Source: Byzantium 1200

modern Hagia Sofia

The Hagia Sofia today. Note the addition of minarets and domed building sections.
Source: Arild Vågen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0