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Globetrotters of the Middle Ages
Nov 1, 2015

Sain bina, dear readers! As-Salamu Alaikum! Or would you prefer Hello?

With this multilingual welcome I hope to get you in the mood for the subject of my essay: the first documented globetrotters in human history. But before we hurl ourselves into this adventure and follow the trails of Messere Marco Polo and Seyyid Ibn Battuta, I would like to share an observation with you. As for myself, it prompted me to write this article and so I hope that it will arouse your curiosity in these explorers, too.

With the flood of new information offered by social media and the internet, the portrait of the world and its people is constantly changing. The light of cultures that stood in the shadow yesterday may shine brighter tomorrow. The respect and the admiration of certain nations wane or grow strong, dependent on the source that describes these nations. What conventional historical sources have in common is that they represent the everyday life of people and their interactions with one another in a rather dry manner.

In this respect, travelogues, diaries, and the like are much more intimate and personal, but in turn also more subjective in their perceptions. As an example, we might cite here the description of the city of Shiraz (in present-day Iran) and its inhabitants: While Ibn Battuta focused on the boldness and courage of the local population, Marco Polo talked about the beauty of the women. So when we read their reports, there emerges an interesting landscape, which allows us to meet certain cultures and nations and learn to know them.

But what makes such reports even more attractive is the fact that they send us on an adventure. We are not only told about different cultures, but also take an active part in the experiences of these travelers. However, be prepared; everything is to be savored with a pinch of salt!

In this way, history appears as sunlight being refracted through a prism: it reveals nuances that you could not perceive before. And that's exactly what sparks the enthusiasm for the works of the globetrotters: Thanks to them, history is going through a metamorphosis, transforming itself from a wasteland into a Garden of Eden.

But enough for the advocacy: let's turn to our two globetrotters now.

Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta were no ordinary travelers. Their travels lasted 30 years and led them from the West to the Far East. They met not only the most diverse languages ​​and cultures, but also occasionally took employment and settled in some places for longer periods of time.

First, I would like to introduce you to Messere Marco Polo, who was born into a merchant family in Venice in 1254. At the time of Marco's birth his parents were already highly respected figures in Venetian society. Originally coming from Dalmatia, they quickly achieved success in Venice and it didn't take long until they were included in the "Homo Nobilis"-register. The Polos, in fact, were noblemen. When Marco was five years old, his father Nicolo set out with his brother Maffeo on a journey from which they were to return 10 years later. In the meantime, Marco befriended the port children and even spent some time in prison. Luckily for him, his father and uncle returned just in time to save him and convert his death penalty into banishment from Venice.

Under these circumstances, his father decided to take Marco with him on his next trip to the east, as far as Khanbalik (today's Beijing), the capital of the Mongol Empire of the Yuan, to visit Kublai Khan, the Khan of all Khans. This is how Marco Polo's world tour began, and it would take him about 28 years before he saw Venice again.

In his travelogues, he shared interesting facts about the city of Venice. For example, he mentioned the feast of Sensa, the annual marriage of Venice with the sea. On this occasion, the Venetians celebrated with a ceremonial ring toss into the lagoon in the port of San Nicolo, which was understood as a seal between the lagoon and the city.

Marco Polo also described the Venetian law stating that all fish caught during the day must be thrown on the ground in the evening:

They [the harbor children] lived almost exclusively on fish; because if they couldn't manage to steal other things, they could rush to the fish market at the end of each day, since the Venetian law had the fishmongers at a certain hour throwing all their goods on the ground; this should prevent them from selling fish not really fresh.

Marco Polo has provided us with many interesting insights into the world of his time. We learn that the lingua franca, or Sabir as Marco Polo called it, was the trade language of Europe, up to the Levant. From the Levant to Central Asia, the traders spoke Farsi, and even further east it was Mongolian or the Han language.

The most impressive passages of Marco Polo's travelogues are definitely his detailed descriptions of towns and places of interest. The bazaar of Baghdad took Polo nearly three pages to describe. What follows is only a brief excerpt:

The cloth merchants proudly stood under reels of thread and rolls of silk and wool and goat hair angora, of cotton and linen, fine camel hair and rough camlet. There were also more exotic fabrics such as muslin from the city of Mosul in Mesopotamia, calico from India, Buckram from Bukhara, and damask from Damascus. The booksellers offered cheap volumes of fine vellum, parchment and paper, delightfully written and decorated with gold leaf…

Marco Polo's travel reports teem with descriptions, impressions, and experiences, and are thus truly a pleasure to read – if you are ready to overlook the occasional digressions in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and arrogance towards other cultures and religions.

About a year after Marco Polo's death, in 1324, Ibn Battuta embarked upon a similar trip to China at the age of 21. But Ibn Battuta's route was presumably the most chaotic of any traveler at that time. It took him back and forth across the whole world map.

Not much can be said about Ibn Battuta's life before his departure, because the only source is his own work. His story began with a pilgrimage to Mecca. He mentioned that he was born in 1304 in Tangier, Morocco, and that his parents were still alive when he left, but that's it. What we know beyond this is that he was not specialized in a certain contemporary science, but well-versed in many areas.

Thus, Ibn Battuta headed out for Mecca at the young age of 21. On his way, he crossed almost the entire Islamic world, but his curiosity was far from satisfied.

Ibn Battuta's travel reports are characterized by a very precise description of places, traditions, and cultures. What is striking is the fact that he sometimes presented towns or attractions using poems. If possible, he let several poets come to the fore and used them to speak about the same city. This method can be very amusing at times, as one poet often praises what the other accurses.

Ibn Battuta opened doors to cultures that had remained closed for Marco Polo, in particular doors to the Islamic world, which the globetrotter from Venice had shunned. From today's perspective, the two globetrotters are close in time, but covered very different routes.

Ibn Battuta described one impressive experience in Damascus as follows:

One day, walking the streets of Damascus I saw a young slave. He carried a porcelain plate in his hands specified by the local people as "Sahan" and dropped it accidentally, and it broke. People gathered around the child and a man said to him, "Brother! Collect the broken pieces and bring it to the principal of the foundation that deals with this work!" The slave gathered the shards up and accompanied the man to the principal. When the principal saw the broken pieces, he estimated the value of the plate and gave the slave a sum of money that compensated for it. What a praiseworthy behavior! Otherwise the owner of the slave boy would have either beaten him or had his heart broken because of the broken plate. [...] This foundation has made it its mission to please people and to protect them from blame. May Allah reward those who donate money to such noble purposes!

He also mentioned the funeral rituals of certain groups:

The burial rites of the Indians are also very strange. After the Indians have buried the corpse, on the third morning after the burial they cover the ground around the grave with expensive fabrics. [...] In addition, they bring lemon or orange trees and put them on the grave, even if they do not bear any more fruit. They build tents, so that visitors can relax in the shade. Then, one after the other the emirs and the high-ranking officials come [...] and sit down. Opposite of them the Huffaz1 take place followed by the Cüz2-castes. Then the Koran is read by the Huffaz, and prayers are spoken for the soul of the deceased.

Ibn Battuta's travelogues are full of many such insights, and it is extremely amusing to learn about a rich variety of practices and traditions of the peoples he encountered. On the other hand, he also described very trivial details. Once, for example, he noticed numerous grammatical errors in a Friday prayer's Hutbe3. So he asked a judge called Hüccetüddin about it and received the following reply:

"In this city (Basra) all the institutions that dealt with linguistics in the past have been shut down, so there's nobody left now who cares for it or let alone knows how these words are to be read."

Ibn Battuta commented with regret, "What a pity that here of all places grammar experiences such decline. In this city, foundations of linguistics were once laid!"

On another occasion, Ibn Battuta was astonished about the Turks owning so many horses:

"What with us are the sheep, here are the horses."

But more than anything else, the situation of Turkish women left him in amazement:

"A strange behavior here is that the men pay their deepest respect to their women. In this country the woman is higher regarded than the man."

Later on he added another observation:

"Sometimes it turns out that the women accompany their husbands and you catch yourself saying, 'That man must be a subordinate of this woman!', because a sheepskin coat and his Küla hat is all he is wearing!"

But now I'd like to leave it to you, dear reader, to discover the worlds of these wonderful globetrotters. I certainly don't want to reveal too much. Messere Marco Polo and Seyyid Ibn Battuta are eager to tell you their stories and sharpen your view of the people of the Middle Ages!

Thus, it's my turn now to dismiss you in my mother tongue.

Auf Wiedersehen!


  1. Used here in its general sense: a scholar who knows to recite the Qur'an by heart is called Hafiz. Huffaz is the plural form.
  2. A Cüz is a booklet with a 20-page section of the Qur'an, which makes it possible to divide the Qur'an reading between several people.
  3. A Hutbe is a lecture given by the imam during Friday prayers with mostly or exclusively religious content.