The Travels of Ibn Battuta: Side Trips

camel image to indicate side tripSide Trips will give you some historical background about places Ibn Battuta visited and will introduce broader world history themes to help you interpret The Rihla as an historian.

camel image to indicate side trip Side Trip: The Mamluks

Mamluk means "property" in Arabic, or "slave." However, since the word "mamluk" is related to an Arabic word for king, it implies a state-owned slave (rather than a private house-hold slave). The Bahri Mamluks were men originally taken from outside Dar al-Islam as children by Ottoman Turks. They were instructed in Arabic, Islam, and arts of war so by the time they reached adulthood they were skilled warriors who knew no life other than the Ottoman's military. This made them a fearsome fighting force behind the rise of the Ottoman Empire. In other words, while they were "owned" by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, in practice they ruled over Egypt and engaged in serious warfare.

During the time Ibn Battuta was in Alexandria and Cairo, the Bahri Mamluk Sultanate ruled Egypt and Syria as a united kingdom. 

Map of Bahri Mamluk sultanate

Source: Arab League at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Trade was the life-blood of the Mamluk Sultanate, and caravanserai were built to encourage trade. One caravanserai for Syrian merchants had 360 lodgings above the storerooms and enough space for 4,000 guests at a time! Ibn Battuta would be staying at places like this built along the main trade routes.

camel image to indicate side trip Side Trip: Anatolia's History

The Seljuk Turks were nomadic herdsmen of sheep and horses who lived in the grassy steppes near the Aral Sea. As their population increased, the high green valleys of Anatolia (now part of modern Turkey) became tempting areas for conquest. The Seljuks developed a highly effective fighting force as they attacked their neighbors on horseback and claimed their lands. These Turks were feared and respected warriors, even recruited as slave soldiers by other kingdoms (such as in Egypt where they would later take over as the Mamluk or "slave" dynasty). So the Seljuk conquests began in Anatolia. In 1071 the Muslim Seljuk cavalry defeated the mighty Christian Byzantine army. From that point on, a series of nomadic groups crossed over into Anatolia and spread out over the central plateau. The Byzantines had given up all but the west quarter of this region near their capital of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), and a new Muslim society was emerging in Anatolia.

Map of Seljuk Empire

When the Seljuk commanders settled down in Konya, their capital, and in other Greek and Armenian towns, these former herdsmen and warriors took up the settled ways of the city. The leaders had close contacts with the Abbasids in Persia. The Seljuk state extended from Central Asia to the plateaus and valleys in Asia Minor (Turkey). It became a well-administered Sunni state under the nominal authority of the Abbasid caliphs at Baghdad.

There were still large Christian populations in the towns along the coast. The process of Muslim conversion of all of Anatolia was slow during the 1100s. The Byzantines and the Turkish Sultans were usually at peace and they treated each other mostly with respect and diplomacy.

The Mongol Invasion

The Mongol invasions (in 1243 and again in 1256) changed all that. The Turks were pushed from Central Asia into the towns and valleys of Anatolia which increased the Turkish population greatly. By 1260 Mongol armies were lodged in most important towns of Anatolia and had settled down to the business of taxation and keeping order. There was little of the terror and destruction that the Mongols had employed in Persia and Iraq and the Seljuk Turk Sultan retained his power by paying tribute to the Mongol Il-Khan, who now lived in Persia. The Seljuks had put up mosques in the former Greek cities and their architecture was influenced by Greek and Byzantine architecture and culture. Persian Muslim scholars, secretaries, and architects had been invited to come to work in Anatolia. Konya, the capital city, was an international center of learning, art, and Sufi teaching. These Turkish cities were becoming more Muslim and more Persian than ever before.

Trade was important to the economy. The Turks had established vast trade routes and had built huge caravanserai to encourage trade. The caravanserai were secure inns where merchants could stay along with both their animals and their goods. Armed guards escorted the travelers on the caravan routes to Persia and part of the way to China as part of the Silk Road!

Rise of the Ottoman Empire

However, there was still warfare between Seljuk warlords who fought amongst themselves for territory. One of these groups under the leadership of the descendants of Osman (known as Ottoman) would soon take over all of Anatolia. They would later conquer Greece and other parts of Eastern Europe, and eventually would take over northern Africa all the way to Ibn Battuta's homeland of Morocco! Ibn Battuta arrived at a period of decline of the Seljuk Turks and the Byzantines, and at the rise of the Ottoman Turks. He would meet the son of Osman on this trip.

camel image to indicate side trip Side Trip: Torture

Punishments in the Middle Ages were extremely physically violent and kings ruled without regard to individual rights. This was especially true of the Sultan Muhammad Tughluq of the Sultanate of Delhi in India. Even Ibn Battuta feared for his life! He tells us of a friend of his, a religious leader. The shaikh Shinab al-Din had called the Sultan Muhammad Tughluq an oppressor and refused to follow his orders. He was imprisoned and tortured:

"On the fourteen day, the Sultan sent him food ... but he refused to eat it. ... When the Sultan heard this he ordered that the shaikh should be fed human excrement [dissolved in water]... [They] spread out the shaikh on his back, opened his mouth with forceps, ... and made him drink it. On the following day.... he was beheaded." [Gibb, p. 699 - 700]

Others were tortured to get confessions:

"They were laid flat on their backs and on the chests ... was placed a red-hot iron plate, which was pulled off after a moment and took with it the flesh of their chests. After that, urine and cinders were brought and put on their wounds, whereupon they confessed..."[Gibb, p. 701]

Ibn Battuta also tells of the execution of some men and a boy:

"On the Sultan's orders they were strung up by their hands to a wooden stake and [the soldiers] shot arrows at them until they died." [Gibb, p. 707]

When the Sultan was trying to relocate his capital further south, he became angry at the whole city of Delhi for their reluctance to move and he took out his anger against them all.

" of the gravest charges against the Sultan is his forcing of the population of Delhi to evacuate the city... [because] of insults and abuse... So he decided to lay Delhi in ruins, and having bought from all the inhabitants their houses and dwellings and paid their price to them, he commanded them to move out of the city and go to Dawlat Abad. They refused, so his herald was sent to proclaim that no person should remain in it after three nights. The majority of the citizens left, but some of them hid in the house. The Sultan ordered a search to be made ... and his slaves found two men in the streets, one of them a cripple and the other blind... He ordered the cripple should be flung from a [catapult] and the blind man dragged from Delhi to Dawlat Abad, a distance of forty days' journey. He fell to pieces on the road, and all of him that reached Dawlat Abad was his leg." [Gibb, p. 707 - 708]

Other kings were equally cruel. Ibn Battuta tells us of King Kabak of Transoxiana or Chagatay and how he settled a dispute about a drink of milk!

"...a woman laid a complaint before [the king] against one of the amirs (military leaders). She stated that she was a poor woman with children to support, that she had some milk [for sale] with the price of which she would procure food for them, and that the amir had taken it from her by force, and drunk it. [The king] said to her, 'I shall cut him in two; if the milk comes out of his belly, he has gone to his fate, but if not I shall cut you in two after him'. The woman said, '[No,] I release him from the obligation... But [the king] gave the order, the man was cut in two, and the milk came out of his stomach." [Gibb, p. 557]

camel image to indicate side trip Side Trip: How did Spain become part of Dar al-Islam?

The Berber Muslims of North Africa first moved into Spain in 711 C.E. General Tarik invaded and rapidly conquered the Visogoths who had taken over from the Romans. Within seven years the peninsula had been conquered. The Muslim army continued on until they had reached Poitiers in France. In 733 the Christian army stopped the Muslims from going further into Europe.

One of the greatest Muslim leaders of al-Andalus was Abd al Rahman, who had escaped from a "deadly dinner" hosted by the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Abbasid general had invited 80 Umayyad leaders (the ruling family) to dinner. While the guests were eating, the general ordered them all killed. Only one of the Umayyads escaped from the Abbasids. He jumped out of a window, swam across the Euphrates River, and fled in disguise. He made his way out of Mesopotamia and went across North Africa and finally to al-Andalus (Spain). Once there, Abd al Rahman united the warring Muslim groups and established a new Umayyad government. Back in Baghdad the Abbasids took control from the Umayyads and moved the capital of the Muslim World from Damascus, Syria to Baghdad.

Al-Andalus (Andalusia, or Muslim Spain) became one of the great centers of civilization of the Middle Ages reaching its peak of glory in the 10th century. It is known for its art, poetry, architecture, science and learning. This was at a time when much of Europe was in a "Dark Age". It was partly through al-Andalus that the knowledge held by the Muslims would be passed on to Europe - and start the European "Renaissance" or rebirth.

Al-Andalus remained at least partially under Muslim control until 1492 when Granada was conquered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. (Yes, the same rulers who gave Christopher Columbus three ships to do more exploring!)

By the time Ibn Battuta visited al-Andalus, the Muslim control in Spain was disunited and in decline. He saw al-Andalus in its golden sunset years before the Christian forces took over.

camel image to indicate side trip Side Trip: Slavery in the Medieval World

Read these passages from Ibn Battuta's book and then make some generalizations about his attitudes toward slaves and slavery in the Medieval Islamic World.

On slave labor

In Zafari (southern Arabia) Ibn Battuta tells of some work done by slaves.

Most of the sellers [in the bazaar] are female slaves." ... and later... "Their method of irrigation is that they make a large bucket and attach it to a number of ropes, each one of which is tied round the waist of a male or female slave; these draw up the bucket...; [Gibb, p. 383]

On slaves taken from the steppe region

[Ship captains] would load their decks with war captives and the sad children of impoverished steppe folk, consigning some to the slave market of Cairo, others to the sugar plantations of Cyprus or the rich household of Italy. [Dunn, pp. 163 - 164]

Ibn Battuta says:

"[In Birgi, Anatolia] We found about twenty of his servants, of surprisingly beautiful appearance, wearing robes of silk, with their hair parted and hanging loose, and in color of a resplendent whiteness tinged with red. I said to the doctor, 'What are these beautiful figures?' and he replied 'These are Greek pages.'" [Gibb, p. 442]

Rulers had perhaps thousands of slaves. The wife of the Ozbek Khan (of the Golden Horde) went back to her father, the Emperor of Constantinople to have her baby. She took with her the following: 5500 troops (200 of which were slaves), two hundred slave-girls, most of them Greeks, ten Greek and ten Indian page boys. She left most of her slave-girls with their husband. [Gibb. p. 498]

On capturing slaves and giving slaves as gifts

The Sultan of Kilwa ... was called ["the generous"] ... on account of the multitude of his gifts and acts of generosity. He used to engage frequently in expeditions to the land of the Zinj people [in the villages inland from the coast], raiding them and taking booty, and he would set aside the fifth part of it to devote to the [religious "tax" required in the Koran].[Ibn Battuta then tells of the sultan giving away 20 slaves in one incident as an example of his generosity.] [Gibb, p. 380]


The amir [of Yazmir in Anatolia] was a generous and pious prince, and continually engaged in jihad [religious war against the Christians]. He had war-galleys with which he used to make raids on the environs of Constantinople ... to seize prisoners and booty, then after spending it all in gifts and largesse he would go out again to the jihad." [Gibb, p. 446]

Slaves were also given by one ruler to another.

The Chinese emissaries had earlier arrived in Delhi with 100 slaves and cartloads of fine clothing, brocade, musk, and swords [as a gift to Muhammad Tughluq]... Muhammad Tughluq naturally felt obliged to reciprocate with an even more magnificent array of gifts. The list included 200 Hindi slaves, songstresses, and dancers, 15 pages (boy servants), 100 horses, and wondrous quantities of choice textiles, dishware, and swords. [Dunn, p. 214]

Ibn Battuta was given several slaves as gifts (in Anatolia, the Steppe, and in China). His first slave was a gift of the amir of Aydin, a male Greek captive. In Izmir the sultan gave him another boy. In Astrakhan he was given a Turkish slave boy as a gift. In Fuzhou, China, a he learned that a Muslim man he had met years before in India was now rich. He

"...owned about fifty white slaves and as many slave-girls, and presented me with two of each, along with many other gifts."

Ibn Battuta bought several slaves while on his journey. In Ephesus [Aya Suluq], Anatolia he purchased a young Greek girl for forty gold dinars. [Gibb, p. 445] In Balikesir he bought a second Greek girl named Marghalita, but he doesn't give a price. He fathered a child with one of his slaves, a daughter who died two months after reaching India. [Gibb, p. 449]

We learn that everything in Chittagong was cheap, including slaves. He bought "an extremely beautiful" girl and a friend bought a young boy for a couple of gold dinar.

On sex with (female) slaves

This practice was legal according to the medieval Islamic laws Ibn Battuta followed. He fathered children by at least two of his slaves. One young Greek woman (or, more likely, a teen-ager) bore him a daughter who died in India, and one died when his ship sank in India on its way to China.

On prostitution

Though Ibn Battuta approves of concubinage (in this case, having a sexual relationship with his female slaves), he is critical of prostitution. In other words, he disapproves of sex with a woman to whom you have no permanent attachment through marriage or ownership. In speaking of the inhabitants of Ladhiq, a city in Anatolia (Turkey):

"[They] make no effort to stamp out immorality - indeed, the same applies to the whole population of these regions. They buy beautiful Greek slave-girls and put them out to prostitution, and each girl has to pay a regular due to her master. I heard it said there that the girls go into the bath-houses along with the men, and anyone who wishes to indulge in depravity does so in the bath-house and nobody tries to stop him." [Gibb, p. 425]

On run-away slaves

We never learn of the punishment for running away, but it happened at least twice to Ibn Battuta:

"The slaveboy who belonged to me took our horses and went to water them, in company with a slave of one of my companions. He was absent for a long time, and by the afternoon no trace of them had appeared. We informed [the sultan]. They made for a city belonging to the infidels [Christians] on the sea-coast... In the afternoon [of the next day] the fugitives were brought in, along with the horses, by some Turks, who said that the pair of them had passed by them the previous evening, and that they, becoming suspicious about them, had used pressure on them until they confessed their design of escaping." [This happened in Yazmir, Anatolia] [Gibb, p. 448]


"I was determined to set out [from al-Sara], when a slaveboy of mine escaped and I had to stay because of him. ... Three days later one of my associates found the fugitive slave...and brought him to me, where upon I set out for Khwarism." [ Gibb, p. 517]