Who Is The World’s Greatest Traveller?

I know. You saw that title up there, and the name “Marco Polo” leapt into your mind. Fair dues: the Venetian explorer’s journeys, an estimated 15,000-20,000 miles in total around the eastern and southern limits of Asia, were an astonishing achievement. It’d be impressive even now. Back then, it was insane

Or perhaps you’ve done a bit more reading, and know that Polo’s mileage was surpassed by a Chinese mariner, explorer and fleet admiral called Zheng He (1371-1435). Across seven voyages and some 30,000 miles, his fleets, made of ships of a size that utterly dwarfed European counterparts of the same period, pushed Chinese maps westwards as far as Mombasa on the coast of Africa. 

A cancelled stamp from Canada commemorating Marco Polo
A cancelled stamp from Canada commemorating Marco Polo

(Incredibly, Zheng He’s “Ming Treasure Voyages” – so-named because they were designed to be lavish, intimidating displays of the reach of Chinese power – were largely ignored by popular Chinese history until the arrival of a highly influential book in 1904…and, more recently, a highly shall-we-say speculative one in 2003 that claimed Zheng He’s ships discovered America before Columbus did. Hm. Historians have been raising their eyebrows at that one for a decade.)

Yet if you define “great” by sheer distance covered in the ages before the advent of mass-tourism technology, it’s neither of these men – although it inevitably is a man, since unenlightened antiquity was slow to acknowledge the exploits of women explorers and regrettably quick to forget them (here’s one fascinating exception who really should be a household name).

Here it is, then. The most well-travelled man in history is Shams al-Din Abu’Abdallah Muhammad ibn’Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battuta, to use his full family name. (Now there’s a tradition that has fallen out of favour with explorers: having a name that’s way too long to fit on the cover of a book.)

Ibn Battuta, as he’s most commonly known, was born in 1304 to a family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco. The path of his life seemed predictable: beyond his required holy pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in what is modern-day Saudi Arabia, Ibn Battuta would follow the family vocation, undertake judicial training and find a comfortable, lucrative position somewhere working as a religious judge.

It’s worth considering the effect of Islam on travel at this time. Then as now, the hajj was required of all Muslims at least once in their lifetimes, and for those living on the outskirts of the Islamic world this could be a journey of thousands of miles, taken without all the modern-day luxuries of cheap flights, plentiful accommodation and clockwork-like border control. For some, it was a journey they would spend most of their life saving up for – but it was a journey they had to make, a mandatory “once-in-a-lifetime adventure”.

In Ibn Battuta’s case, he took his pilgrimage early, at the age of 21. He then took an astonishing amount of time to come home, covering the territory of 44 modern-day countries and eating up around 75,000 miles enroute, most of it by land. If you’re taking a Wheel and Anchor trip to Israel and Jordan or Egypt & the Nile, you’ll cross his footsteps as he meandered his way into Asia on an epic multi-stage journey that would last a further 29 years, until 1354.

Pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Coming from a relatively wealthy family, embarking on his first hajj in June 1325 didn’t seem to cause many difficulties. Following the African coastline west to Alexandria and Cairo, Ibn Battuta attempted to reach Mecca via a journey up the Nile valley, then east to the Red Sea and beyond – but had to turn back because of threats presented by a local rebellion on the route ahead. His alternate route via Damascus (the capital of Syria) and Medina (Saudi Arabia) got him to Mecca in late 1326, after over a year of travel.

What followed isn’t hard to decipher for someone who has been bitten by the travel bug. Using Mecca as a kind of spiritual base of operations (or an excuse to stop moving for a while), Ibn Battuta took journey after journey in every direction: south to the territory of modern-day Somalia and Tanzania and the Swahili coast, north to Anatolia (Turkey), and further and further east, across Central Asia and through northern India until he’d found a way by land and sea to Beijing. By his fiftieth birthday, he’d achieved the equivalent of circling the world three times – over half a millenia before the first airplane took flight.

Impressed? You should be. It’s a mind-boggling achievement. (I mean, take a look at the places he went. It’s simply amazing.) 

Alas, if only we could be sure it’s all true.

A big problem with the accounts of early adventures is the identity of their authors. How do you fact-check a journey that happened half a dozen centuries ago? Answer: with enormous difficulty, owing to the increasing scarcity of reliable documentary records to call upon.

Go back far enough and the banal but practical everyday details of life – the news and “admin” of the day, as it were – gets replaced by that which was deemed worth of reproduction (because in most cases, history has come to us as copies of copies of copies of…you get the idea). What’s worth keeping? All too frequently, it’s (a) the most entertaining (ie. outlandish) stuff, or (b) the most currently “useful”, that which reinforces a world view most palatable to the later generations it’s put into the hands of.

It's a considerable challenge to dig into the past to learn about ancient travellers
It’s a considerable challenge to dig into the past to learn about ancient travellers

In Ibn Battuta’s case, we know about his journey because of a book he wrote. A book with a magnificent title that, like his full name, isn’t destined for modern book covers (but perhaps should be): “A Gift To Those Who Contemplate The Wonders Of Cities And The Marvels Of Travelling” (1354). It was written in the form of a rihla, a travel narrative, a popular form in the Arab world, partly because everyone would undertake one such great journey in their lifetimes.

It’s not Ibn Battuta himself penning the words in the book. Instead, it’s written by Ibn Juzayy, a young writer hired by the Sultan of Morocco and tasked to sit with the great explorer and record his reminiscences – which appear to be without written prompts (there’s no mention of Ibn Battuta keeping notebooks), of journeys taken decades in the past. Either Ibn Battuta had a photographic memory, or the blurry line between his recollections and the young writer’s poetic embellishments and ‘borrowings’ from elsewhere were more numerous than would be comfortable to modern audiences.

Then there’s the intention of the book itself. Perhaps this was something designed for posterity and future generations – but it’s likely it was also an attempt to show the Sultan (a potential sponsor for the explorer’s future sedentary career) just how grandly Ibn Battuta had been treated on his travels, as a demonstration of how the Sultan should now treat the explorer. Exaggeration for career-enhancing purposes? It’s certainly possible – and a lively back-and-forth on the matter has developed around it.

It’s one hell of a story, though, and the Arab world is rightly proud of it. Today, the airport of Tangier is named after him – as is a crater on the Moon (a place Ibn Battuta might never have dreamt would be explorable). His legacy is of inspiring future travellers of all countries and all faiths to go further, take longer and go see for themselves – including the travel writers who retraced his journeys to make a name for their own, like Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Maybe the hard facts are up in the air, at least for now, maybe forever. Perhaps the tale is a little taller than some would believe. But if it’s a myth, it’s one that keeps sending us in the right direction: outwards, to contemplate the wonders of cities and the marvels of travel. Way to go, Ibn Battuta.

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