Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ibn Battuta in Khorezm and Bukhara

Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta was the greatest Arab traveller of the Medieval times. Leaving his native city Tangier in 1325, at the age of twenty-one, he travelled to East Africa, Byzantium, Iraq, Southern Russia, Central Asia, India, Ceylon, Sumatra and China for 29 years, covering 120 thousand kilometres, getting as far north as the Volga, as far East as China and as far South as Tanzania. Ibn Battuta travelling in an era the beginning of the fourteenth century when Muslim rule had been spread over a large part of India, the Middle East and North Africa and had established a footing in China.


In the autumn of 1333 Ibn Battuta arrived in Khorezm. The city having recovered from the devastation left by the Genghis Khan hordes. "Life is thriving in the city thanks to a large number of residents, and it looks like a billowing sea" He had just spent 30 days crossing the desert after leaving Sultan Uzbek's brand new capital of Saray al-Jadid on the Volga.

He was clearly impressed: " ... we arrived at Khorezm [Urgench] which is the largest, greatest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks. It has fine bazaars and broad streets, a great number of buildings and abundance of commodities; it shakes under the weight of its population, by reason of their multitude, and is agitated by them in a manner resembling the waves of the sea. I rode out one day on horseback and went into the bazaar, but when I got halfway through it and reached the densest pressure of the crowd at a point called al-Shawr [the crossroad], I could not advance any further because of the multitude of the press, and when I tried to go back I was unable to do that either, because of the crowd of people. So I remained as I was, in perplexity, and only with great exertions did I manage to return."

The city had a new college (medresseh), recently built by its governor Qutlugh Timur in which Ibn Battuta stayed, a cathedral mosque built by the Amir's pious wife – the Khatun (queen) Turabeg, a hospital with a Syrian doctor, and a nearby hospice built over the tomb of Najm al-Din Kubra.

The city's residents also impressed Ibn Battuta: "Never have I seen in all the lands of the world men more excellent in conduct than the Khorezmians, more generous in soul, or more friendly to strangers."

The local people were also extremely pious, possibly because the muezzins of each mosque would visit the neighbouring homes and remind them that the hour of prayer was approaching. The imam would fine those who failed to attend and beat them with a whip, which was prominently displayed in the mosque as a reminder!

The city was close to the Jaiyhun River [then the main channel of the Amu Darya, now the Darya Lyk], which was navigable by boat in the summer, the journey to Termez taking 10 days.

He also received hospitality from the Sufi Order of Ahi and stayed in zaviya (Sufi tenements) where pilgrims, were warmly welcomed.

Also mentioned were a surgery where a Syrian doctor worked, and he wrote in detail about a zaviya not far from Khorezm, near the tomb of Sheikh Najm ad-Din al-Kubra. In the house of the doctor Kadi Abu Hafs Umar he was amazed by the beautiful carpets the central hall was decorated with, and the cloth-upholstered walls with numerous recesses where gilded sliver vessels and Iranian jugs stood.

Ibn Battuta also visited the Emir whose house, along with the sumptuous feast, he described in detail. He also emphasized the piety of his new acquaintances and the extravagant gifts they lavished on him: a large sum of money, a sable overcoat and a beautiful stallion.

He also mentioned that he especially admired were Khorezmian melons: '… there are no melons like Khorezmian melons, may be with the exception of Bukharian ones, and the third best are Isfahan melons. They are the best of all dried fruit.'......' Their peels are green, and the flesh is red, very sweat and hard. Surprisingly, they cut melons into slices, dry them in the sun, put them into baskets as it is done with Malaga figs, and take them from Khorezm to the remote cities in India and China to sell'

(ED: The melons grown in Western Uzbekistan are also the best I've ever tasted....)

From Khoresm, Ibn Batuta made his way to Bukhara by camel. It took 18 days. Most of the way from Urgench to Vabkent (an old settlement near Bukhara). The trip was very difficult for Ibn Battuta party as a result of the scorching sun, lack of water and good forage for camels, which were extremely exhausted by the time they reached there destination.


Medieval Bukhara was one of the most famous cities in the Islamic world, and many Arab geographers described its splendor.

However, Ibn Battuta saw Bukhara in a sorry state: 'This city had once been the capital of the cities lying across the Jaihun River, but the cursed Tatar Tinghiz (Genghiz Khan)… destroyed it so that all of its mosques, madrasahs and market-places lay in ruins, with a few exceptions. Its residents are humiliated, and their testimony is accepted neither in Khorezm nor in any other country ......'

Bukhara the once-great walled city that tried to resist the Mongols had been almost totally destroyed, by them in 1220 however it was starting to come back to life by the time Ibu Battuta visited the city.

He stayed in Fathabad, a suburb of Bukhara, where there was a large zaviya and a mausoleum, which struck him by its dimensions, near the tomb of a sacred hermit Saif at-Din al-Baharzi. The Sheikh of the Zaviya invited Ibn Battuta to his place, as well as all notables of the city, and here, '.... reciters read the holy Koran in their pleasant voices, while the preacher made a sermon. They sang wonderful songs in Turkic and Persian. That was the most wonderful night of all nights'

And there are a lot of such excerpts in the manuscript, that is why the book is considered a masterpiece of "rihla" - geographic description of a country a traveller saw with his own eyes. Biographies of historical personalities often contain data that cannot be found in other sources.

When Ibn Battuta visited the city in 1333, he reported that all but a few of its buildings still laid in ruins, and had a poor view of the people of Bukhara saying that ,"there is not one of its inhabitants today who possesses any theological learning or makes any attempt to acquire it."

But before its destruction by Genghis Khan in 1220, Bukhara deserved its reputation as a city of pious scholars. In the tenth century, under the rule of the Samanids, it became known as a centre of Islamic learning, and established a reputation that survived succeeding centuries of scholarly darkness. Bukhara had wide paved streets and a population of 300,000. Its 250 madrasahs attracted students from as far away as Arabia and Spain. One such scholar Ismail al-Bukhary who was born in 810 in Bukhara, has been renowned in Muslim world for 1000 years as the author of the hadithses "AI-Djami as-salih", or literally in English Book "Trustworthy", which is the second most important Muslim text after the Koran

Its most famous son of Samanid Bukhara was Hussain ibn Abdullah ibn-Sina, known to the West as Avicenna (whose name became the basis of the word medicine), who wrote his famous medical encyclopaedia there, making the city renowned in the Islamic world. But all that was lost when the city was overrun in 999 by the Qarkhanids (Uighurs).  Avicenna himself fled, and wandered the Islamic world for most of the rest of his life. No buildings of the Samanids remain, except, appropriately, a mausoleum.

During the next century of turmoil, however, there must have been some continued respect for learning, or at least for architecture, because it was during that time that the tall and exquisitely beautiful Kalon minaret was built, to call the faithful to prayer five times a day, to serve as a signal tower at night, and to give notice to travellers that this was a city of pious Moslems. And certainly there was a fine city there when the Khorezmshah, ruler of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva/Urgench, gave grave and deliberate offense to Genghis Khan. First, he executed as spies some 450 Mongol merchants. Then, when Mongol ambassadors were sent to seek reparation, he had one of them killed and shaved the beards of the rest. (ED: Ambassadors didn't always have protection).

In retribution, as the Khorezmshah might have expected if he'd known the Khan just a little bit better, Genghis pounded Samarkand into dust and reduced Bukhara to a level plain. "I am the scourge of God," he proclaimed in Bukhara. "If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me."

He spared only the intricately worked Kalon Minaret, the Tower of Death, from which prisoners were thrown to their deaths. Much of the rest of the once-great walled city that tried to resist the Genghiz Khan's Mongol army however was all but totally destroyed.

Kalon Minaret

On taking Bukhara Genghiz Khan had conquered the largest empire in recorded history, two-thirds of the population of Central Asia lay dead, and other cities like Farah, Urgench, Ghazni, Bamian, and Balkh were in ruins.

So much was destroyed by the Mongols in 1219 and by other Tatar armies in 1273, and 1316. It was said that in the aftermath of the conquest, civilization did for a time simply vanish.

Ibn Battuta reported that 'the mosques, colleges, and bazaars are in ruins ...' . Bukhara only started to come back to its former life some fifty years after Ibu Battuta visited the city when the great Tamerlane started to rebuilt the city, from about 1390. In time he and his decedents in the succeeding centuries were once again to turn the city into one of the most magnificent in all of Central Asia.


A few years after Ibn Battuta's return to Tangiers, the Sultan of Morocco commissioned a young writer, Ibn Juzayy, who had enjoyed Ibn Battuta's tales, to record the traveller's memoirs.

The result was the book 'A Gift To Those Who Contemplate The Wonders of Cities and The Marvels of Traveling,' or 'Travels' (Rihalah) for short.

The manuscript presents a realistic picture of political, public and cultural life of the many places he visited in the first half of the 14th century and is considered to be one of the most descriptive geographic pieces of literature to come out of the Middle Ages.

Ibn Battuta's book had a steady readership over the centuries in the Muslim world. European orientalists had heard of the' Travels' by about 1800.

An abridged Arabic version done in 17th century was translated into English by Reverend Samuel Lee and published in 1829. Several full texts of Rihalah were found and between 1893-1922 it was edited and published in Arabic/French in four volumes by Defremery and Sangunetti in Paris (Imprimerie Nationale). Further translation into English was commenced by H A R Gibbs in 1929, who completed the first three volumes. The translation of volume 4 was completed by H A R Gibbs and C F Beckingham in 1994.


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