Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

The Travels of Ibn Battutah

Tim Mackintosh Smith, Ed.
Picador (Aug. 2003) 325 pages
ISBN: 0 330 41879 3

reviewed by Ann Skea

This is a book to read and savour slowly. Ibn Battutah set off on his travels from Tangier in 1303 at the age of twenty-one. He was as full of curiosity and as attracted by novel situations and characters as any modern travel-writer, and perhaps he had a witty and ironical turn of phrase which kept those who later listened to his travel stories enthralled. So, as tales about his far-flung adventures spread, the Sultan of Morocco commissioned a young writer to take down Ibn Battutah's "memoirs": "I took down from him the names of famous people he had met, and we profited greatly from him," wrote this young man.

No doubt dictated memoirs are rather more formal than travellers tales told to a circle of friends in a garden. In any case, the style of speech and writing in Morocco was more formal in the fourteenth-century. Ibn Battutah's memoirs, then, amazing and varied as they are, do not have the jokey, caricaturing, deliberately reader-friendly sort of style that modern readers of travel-book might expect.

Below the title on the book's cover is a quote from the Guardian which suggests that it offers "A picture of medieval civilization without equal in detail and brilliance." This is true, and the picture is often fascinating, but (for me) the length of the book was also one of its problems. At times it reads like a name-dropper's long list of famous people met, or an extensive travel itinerary, and it is still a long and comprehensive account of the travels, even though Tim Mackintosh Smith has taken his knife to it. I was much more at home with Tim Mackintosh Smith's brief, easy-going, humorous style than I was with Ibn Battutah's.

Nevertheless, the mixture of anecdotes, fact, magical stories, poetry and personal detail and opinion in this book has a definite charm. And there are some thought-provoking accounts of easy travel amongst people whose differing religious beliefs, now, are a major cause of conflict. The picture of the medieval world, too, is sometimes a picture of places which still exist almost unchanged since Ibn Battutah saw them; at other times he describes things which have since vanished due to disasters of various kinds, mostly war. Battutah, as one blurb says, "dined with sultans, khans and emperors, escaped from pirates, sired children on several continents, crossed deserts, dodged the Black Death," and he travelled by every form of transport then available. Like any modern traveller, he feared for his safety on some journeys, ate unfamiliar and sometimes vile-tasting food, and suffered the resulting diarrhoea. Some things never change.

For serious readers and writers of travel books, this book is a classic—a book to keep on your shelf and dip into whenever your get itchy feet and the urge for fresh adventures.


Previous Piece Next Piece