The Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah

February 19, 2008

Author: Tim Mackintosh-Smith  

The prophet Muhammad once exhorted his followers to ‘travel in search of knowledge, even though the journey takes you to China’. It was a stricture that the medieval Islamic traveler, Ibn Battutah, took vigorously to heart, spending an amazing twenty-nine years on the road – a travel feat unparalleled in history. Battutah left his native Tangier in 1325, ostensibly on a trip to Mecca to perform his Haj. He returned to Morocco in 1355 and proceeded to write the ultimate travelogue, The Precious Gift for Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel – an astonishingly vivid (and engaging) account of his years on the road. It was a journey that took him to the Volga in the north, as far down as Tanzania and, of course, China.He left in the dust, the travelers and explorers currently mythologized in the Western pantheon – Herodotus, Marco Polo, et al. In his own way, author Tim Mackintosh-Smith is perhaps just as unique. A dedicated Arabist, he has spent the last twenty years living and writing in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Over the years, he has proven himself a singular voice in the call for Battutah’s rightful place in history, churning out research and articles on Battutah’s life and work. He has recently edited an accessible collection of Battutah’s own writings, The Travels of Ibn Battutah, the first (English) collection since the nineteen-twenties. It must be said that Battutah is equally ill-served by Islamic scholars – and especially in his Moroccan homeland. In the first of a planned trilogy – Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah – Mackintosh-Smith covered Battutah’s Middle Eastern and African portion of his journey. The second volume (just published) takes in the Indian section of the journey, with a third planned on China. In many ways, Battutah’s Indian trip was pivotal to shaping his personality and the creation of his legend. Even now, it is hard to imagine one man being subjected to such a mélange of adventures and misadventures.Battutah traveled from the Indus to the Malabar coast, a swathe of land under the rule of Muhammad Shah ibn Tughluq (the eponymous “hall” is the Hazar Sutun, Muhammad Shah’s audience chamber in Delhi) – a ten-year journey that brought him wealth and prestige, robbery and destitution, the love for a slave-girl and the siring of numerous offspring. Along the way he served as a qadi to numerous sultans, earning his keep (as well as a modicum of prestige).  In tracing Battutah’s journey, the wondrously informative Mackintosh-Smith seeks to restore the validity of the great traveler’s observations. Like his contemporaries, Battutah suffered from the prevailing sense of disbelief his tales engendered. Unlike his contemporaries (Herodotus, for example, wrote of seeing gigantic ants mining for gold in India) Battutah’s writings were grounded in reality. Mackintosh-Smith juxtaposes his own witty observations with dazzling effect, creating a heady blend of both irreverence and deep respect for his subject. What comes through most though, is his passion for Battutah – and it his greatest gift that he manages to pass this on to the reader.  

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