According to later chroniclers, if they can be believed, the adventure of Ibn Jubayr, one of the most illustrious rahhala, or travelers, from Al-Andalus to destinations throughout the Mediterranean and farther east, began in the year 1183 with a repugnant challenge.
To name him in full, Abu al-Husayn Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr al-Kinani served as secretary in the palace of Granada’s governor, Abu Said Osman, son of the first Almohad caliph, Abd al-Mu’min. As the story goes, at one point while dictating a letter, the prince coerced him to drink seven cups of wine, forbidden to Muslims. In exchange, the prince granted him seven cups of gold dinars. To seek expiation of his sin—and perhaps to make a hasty exit from the court—this otherwise most pious Muslim scholar set out to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam by making the long pilgrimage to Makkah.
No matter Ibn Jubayr’s true motive, his two-year journey made a considerable impact on literary history. His account of his travels and tribulations in the East—which makes no mention of the wine incident—served as the foundational work of a new genre of writing, the rihla, or the creative travelogue: a mix of personal narrative, description, opinion and anecdote. In following centuries, countless people emulated and even plagiarized him.
What could have moved so many people from Al-Andalus and the North African Maghreb to undertake dangerous journeys to faraway lands, particularly those people as well heeled and comfortably accommodated as Ibn Jubayr, who had received the traditional education of the sedentary elite of Al-Andalus, trained in both religious science and belles lettres?
Faith, to answer the question most simply. “For Muslims, pilgrimage rituals are something of the sublime,” Ibn Jubayr wrote, thus setting a religious context for all the places and monuments he saw during his nine-month stay in Makkah and along his roundabout travels there and back. As an additional incentive, such a journey granted the esteemed title of hajj to whoever completed the pilgrimage. In the case of his being from the Arab West, he gained additional status by obtaining an ijaza, or religious teaching license, at the feet of scholars from the Arab East.
Ibn Jubayr, however, had an even more personal incentive: finding his family origins. Born in Valencia but descended from the great Arab lineage of Kinana, from the region of Makkah, in some ways he was going home. Still another reason may have been of a literary nature: He was fascinated by the desert world and by the romance of travel by caravan, thanks largely to the potent imagery in the Arabic poetry he learned as a boy.
Ibn Jubayr was 38 years old when he left Granada on February 15, 1183. He moved first to Ceuta in North Africa to embark for Alexandria aboard a Genoan boat. His first act upon reaching Cairo was to stand before tombs of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers. Next, he went up the Nile by boat to the town of Qus (near modern Qena), from where he mounted a camel to ride to the Red Sea port of ‘Aydhab, near the modern Egypt-Sudan border, and from there sailed across the Red Sea to Jiddah. In August he arrived at Makkah.
For his return journey, he joined a pilgrim caravan that stopped in Madinah. In circular, even backward fashion, he crossed the deserts of Hijaz and Najd in the direction of Baghdad, heading east and north. There, in the Abbasid capital, he praised “the natural goodness of its air and waters,” but he complained about the vanity of its people.
“Strangers they despise,” he wrote, “and they show scorn and disdain to their inferiors, while the stories of the news of other men they belittle ... it is as if they are persuaded that God has no lands nor people save theirs.”
He returned through the fertile lands of Mesopotamia, through Mosul and west toward Syria, via Aleppo. The city of Damascus, where he remained two months, dazzled him: “Paradise of the Orient,” he called it. He then took the road to the Mediterranean port of Saint John d’Acre (‘Akka), still occupied by a Crusader army, intending next to travel into western lands.
But this leg turned dangerous. Unfavorable winds left him shipwrecked in the Strait of Messina in Sicily, fallen into Christian hands a century earlier. There he remained for nearly four months, living under the hospitality of the Arabic-speaking King William ii (known as “William the Good”), whom Ibn Jubayr came to admire for bringing non-Christians into his court. “He has much confidence in Muslims,” he wrote, “relying on them for his affairs ... in them shines the splendor of his realm.”
When the winds again turned, he set out for home, and he disembarked back in Al-Andalus, at the port of Cartagena. He arrived at his house in Granada in April 1185. There, he set about to write down his story.
Once home, he surely enjoyed increased authority as a returned scholar and pilgrim, yet what he did next is not recorded. Four years later he returned to the Arab East, although his rihla of his first sojourn makes no reference to these later two years of travel. When he was 72 years old, he undertook his last trip, passing through Makkah, Jerusalem and Egypt, where he died in Alexandria on September 29, 1217. The rihla and two poems are all he left behind.
Ibn Jubayr’s epic story constitutes one of the most valuable testimonies about the eastern Mediterranean world in the late 12th century, which had recently been turned upside down by Crusaders in Syria and Palestine as well as by the Norman invasion of Sicily and the fall of the Fatimids in Egypt to the rising Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or Saladin.
With a writing style concise if at times pompous, with alternating citations of Qur’anic verses, brief, fervent prayers and lines of poetry, Ibn Jubayr offered suggestive images of the lands he traversed, drawing the landscapes, cities, villages and markets with an astonishing attention to detail.
His exhaustive descriptions of mosques, tombs and other monuments are still of great help to archeologists and art historians today.
His journey also makes modern readers wonder about the climate of fear along the maritime and land routes of his day. He wrote, for instance, of a traveler’s defenselessness in the face of pirates and covetous customs officers, corrupt traders and confidence men from all corners of the world, as well as Kurdish, Arab and Beja tribesmen always at the ready to assault and rob pilgrim caravans.
Ibn Jubayr’s rihla helps modern readers understand the complexity of the direct encounter between the two worlds of East and West—Islam and Christianity—that until then had been seeing each other more slantwise from across the sea, glimpsed from the corner of the eye.
He explained how these two civilizations first quarreled, then learned to accept one another and finally lived warily together, all within a single lifetime. The Second Crusade, after all, was launched in 1145, the year of Ibn Jubayr’s birth. Although he offered pro forma insults of other monotheisms, as was expected for his time, as well as denunciations of the various schisms within his own religion, he made his story accessible to all, for instance by providing both Islamic and Christian dates for the various legs of his trip.
Ibn Jubayr would be pleased to know that his manuscript was first edited and published by a westerner, and that the earliest known copy is in a library in the West, at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and it has since been translated into Russian, Persian, Urdu, Italian, French, English, Spanish and Catalan—the latter two languages of his Iberian homeland.
Christians and Muslims, he observed, were meeting both on the fields of battle and in processions for marriages. “One of the astonishing things that is talked of is that though the fires of discord burn between the two parties, Muslim and Christian, two armies of them may meet and dispose themselves in battle array, and yet Muslim and Christian travelers will come and go between them without interference... The soldiers engage themselves in their war, while the people are at peace.” Likewise, at a Christian wedding in Tyre, he noted how “the Muslims and other Christian onlookers formed two ranks along the route, and gazed on bride and groom without reproof.”
He was appreciative similarly of the European ships that carried Muslim pilgrims to their own holy places without interference, fearing bad weather more than militant unbelievers. Throughout, he praised the thriving Christian communities in Islamic lands and the similar Muslim communities in Christian lands.
Observing the favorable situation of some Muslim peasants working for Christian farmers, he lamented that “the Muslim community bewails the injustice of a landlord of its own faith, and applauds the conduct of its opponent and enemy, the Frankish landlord, and is accustomed to justice from him. He who despairs of this state must turn to God.”
In Tyre, he recounted how a Muslim army from North Africa had attacked a Christian stronghold that had previously honored a truce with its Levantine Arab neighbors, and had thus unnecessarily upset their peaceful relations. Since then, Muslims from western lands—but not their eastern coreligionists—were obliged to pay a tax as redress for such heedless trouble-making. Even though Ibn Jubayr himself had to pay the tax, his cultural circumspection allowed him to see both sides of the matter. “In the payment of this tax,” he wrote, “the Maghrebis are pleasingly reminded of their vexing of the enemy, and thus the payment of it is lightened and its harshness made tolerable.”
He explained the religious quandary he felt about this encounter between competing monotheisms, relating the religious fervor of his time in a personal voice when writing of his own pilgrimage to the land of many religions’ prophets, saints, preachers and ascetics.
Remember that Ibn Jubayr was educated under the Almohad dynasty, whose mission was to reform and revive Islam. Educated in the Maliki school of law, one of the four orthodox juridical systems, he nonetheless did not ignore or outrightly condemn even the most heterodox manifestations of his faith.
Zaydis, Qarmatians and other rafidi—rejectors, as he called them—all attracted his curious gaze. In fact, given his Almohadite demands for correct religious behavior, he seemed to indulge even the most casual Muslims as long as they were hospitable toward pilgrims such as himself. Of the Saru Bedouin of Yemen, he wrote, “the religious laws do not direct them in their affairs, and you will find among them no devotional practices beyond that of good intention.” For him, that was sufficient—and the pleasant fact that they were eloquent in their Arabic.
One might wonder which readers Ibn Jubayr had in mind when writing his rihla. He was certainly self-effacing—never once writing in the first person—and he left much room for self-doubt and contradiction, and more often than not he addressed his own idle curiosities over matters of state.
Compare this with the opening lines of the Travels by Marco Polo, the foundational travelogue of western literature written barely 100 years later: “Emperors, kings, dukes, marquises, counts, knights, and all persons wishing to know ... the kingdoms, provinces, and all the regions of the East, read this book.” What Marco Polo wanted to teach others of high estate, Ibn Jubayr was ready to set to the margin.
At other times, Ibn Jubayr seems almost chagrined by his own people’s state of affairs. The Abbasid caliph Al-Nasir, ruling during Ibn Jubayr’s Baghdad visit, died 35 years before the area was laid waste by the Mongol invasion in 1258. Ibn Jubayr had little positive to say about the city or its sovereign other than it still had a faint glow from its golden age under Harun al-Rashid four centuries earlier: “Most of its traces have gone, leaving only a famous name.”
His focus instead was on a new and rising multicultural capital, Sicily’s Palermo, full of “wealth,” “splendor” and “elegance”—words he had rarely if ever used in the Arab East—and of “well-set piazzas” and “towering palaces” like “pearls encircling a woman’s full throat.”
It is telling that Ibn Jubayr, despite acute homesickness when abroad, was unable to remain in Al-Andalus after his return. Perhaps it was because the Arab West at this time was facing the loss of much of its Iberian territory to Christian armies, beginning with the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, known to the Arabs as the Battle of Uqab, in 1212, just five years before his death.
And perhaps just as likely, he saw in Saladin’s strong hand the promise that once again Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo could be something like Palermo, “having all that you could wish of beauty, real or apparent, and all the means of subsistence, mature and fresh,” where peace, not war, prevailed.
Daniel Grammatico is a historian and writer in Granada, Spain. Louis Werner is a writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Belén Esturla is an artist and illustrator in Granada, Spain.
“Travelers of Al-Andalus” is a six-part series selected and adapted from the 41-part series “El Viajero Histórico,” an idea and production by Ana Carreño Leyva in El Legado Andalusí: Una Nueva Sociedad Mediterránea, the magazine of the Andalusian public foundation El Legado Andalusí, based in Granada, Spain, from 1990 through 2010. The original of this article, by Daniel Grammatico, appeared in issue number 2, titled “Las peregrianciones de Ibn Yubair.”