1 Introduction

This chapter takes as its starting point the writings of two western medieval travellers who journeyed into Mongol West, Central and East Asia. They are a Franciscan envoy-missionary to the Mongols, William of Rubruck,Footnote 1 who travelled from the Levant, across the Black Sea to the Pontic steppe, across Central Asia and the Altai mountains to the Mongolian court and back between 1253 and 1255, and the better-known globe-trotting North African pilgrim/scholar Ibn Battuta,Footnote 2 who between the 1320s and 50s journeyed throughout much of Africa and of West, Southern, and East Asia, encountering Mongols on the way.

Contact between East Asia and the west had declined since the ancient world, in part because of the waning of trading Empires in both regions and regular movements of displaced Central Asian nomadic groups from the steppe into Europe, further disrupting trade routes. This lack of contact should not be over-stated, as the archaeology shows, but few goods, let alone people, appear to have made the whole journey in one step, let alone to have communicated widely about it. This changed as a result of maritime advances in China and particularly the rapid Mongol expansion from the early 1220s, linking the Far East, Central, and Islamic West Asia, and Eastern Europe, for the purposes of conquest, followed more sustainably by trade and taxation. The death toll of these rapid conquests was in the millions, but the over-land infrastructure of Eurasia was hugely improved for others with the ambition and ability to traverse it.Footnote 3

After Chinggis Khan (r.1206–1227 CE) conquered the Mongolian heartlands,Footnote 4 his attention soon turned to expansion. The first campaigns to the west had destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire by 1220, and control of most of Persia and Transoxiana brought the ‘pagan’ Mongols to the frontier of the Dar al-Islam. Chinggis Khan's son Mönke Khan (r.1251–1259 CE) dispatched his brother Hülegü to subdue the rest of Persia and the Ishmaelite Nizari sect known as the Assassins, which he accomplished in 1256. Sunni Baghdad was ignominiously razed in 1258. The Abbasid dynasty was now decimated, and Mongol rule established, significantly reducing Muslim-held lands, although Islam still thrived as the dominant faith throughout. In 1260 Hülegü pressed on into Syria to attack the Mamluks, unsuccessfully, and so the Euphrates became the realistic boundary between the Mongols and Muslim-held lands. The Christians in the Levant dabbled in events, but were unable to make much of an intervention to their benefit. As the Ilkhans, the family ruled this region until 1355, but long before then had converted to Islam themselves.Footnote 5 These were the first Mongols to be encountered by Ibn Battuta, in 1336.

By 1223 the resistance of the Caucasus and of the Russian princes had been reduced, and Mongol armies returned to Europe in 1237 more definitively. The Pontic steppe and the eastern parts of Europe were allocated to Chinggis Khan’s grandson, Batu, forming what would become known as the khanate of the Golden Hoarde. In 1241 a campaign into Europe was undertaken and it was feared that central Europe would fall, except that the army withdrew to the steppe, possibly at the news of the death of Chinggis Khan’s son and successor Ögedei (r.1229–1241 CE).Footnote 6 This was the territory where William of Rubruck would first encounter the Mongols, in 1253, and begin his long journey to the Mongol heartland and back. In 1332, Ibn Batutta would also travel here to make his second contact with Mongols, by which time these khans had also converted to Islam.

After decades of warfare against dynasties in the Far East, Qubilai, another grandson of Chinggis Khan, made huge gains in China. He was famously visited at Khanbalik (Beijing) and Xanadu by the Polos in the 1260s and 70s. Song China finally fell completely by 1279. This time, Buddhist and Confucian beliefs and practices were what drove the sedentary Mongol state, designated the Yuan dynasty.Footnote 7 China was in close contact with Islamic south and south-east Asia by the time Ibn Battuta visited China in 1345–1346, but China nonetheless would dismay him.

The so-called Pax Mongolica which was established across these regions enabled rapid communications, encouraged and protected trade, and enabled the spread of major faiths systems, particularly Islam. On the ground, as a result, peoples mixed and expanded their horizons as never before, albeit ultimately to the benefit of tax collectors and religious elites.Footnote 8 Whereas to Rubruck in the 1250s the Mongols were pagan invaders from the east who threatened both Christians and Muslims in the Levant, by Ibn Battuta’s day, most of Asia was dominated by the descendants of Mongol converts to Islam.

2 Writing About Travel Writers

On this topic, see Allen (2004), Campbell (1988), Carolla (2019), Legassie (2017), Block and Figg (2000), Ohler (1989).

One of the most important aspects of travel literature as a source for the global middle ages, is that travellers recorded what was unfamiliar, strange, exciting, terrifying, or simply what they thought would be of interest to readers. As such William of Rubruck and Ibn Battuta allow us to access aspects of the Mongol world which were unremarkable to the Mongols themselves. The almost-anthropological function of these external sources is therefore as crucial to our understanding of Mongols as are political and diplomatic sources.

William of Rubruck’s and Ibn Battuta’s texts also have in common that each conveys at points a powerful sense of deep cultural loneliness. They experienced this disproportionately, but it heavily informed the knowledge they each constructed for themselves, from a sense of cultural superiority. The established historical understanding of ‘othering’ is therefore an obvious analytical framework through which to consider them. However, we need something more subtle, because neither traveller was always in the dominant culture but found themselves strangers in strange lands, where they instead were ‘other’. To help establish a more useful framework of comparison, I am applying Elka Weber’s model for identifying the ‘other’ in a more nuanced sense.Footnote 9 She suggests not only a juxtaposition between the observer (in our case, William of Rubruck and Ibn Battuta) and the most obvious ‘other’ (sky-worshipping Mongol idolators, to Rubruck; Christians and also Buddhist Mongols to Ibn Battuta). There were also ‘others’ who were conceptually and theoretically ‘closer’ to the writers’ ideological ‘homes’, but who were also obstructive, frustrating, and even dangerous to the traveller’s objective and outlook. They undermined and neutralised the ideological metanarrative within which the world encountered by the traveller was negotiated.

For both William of Rubruck and Ibn Battuta, these were ‘heterodox’, apostate, or otherwise poorly observant members of their own faith. In Rubruck’s case, the Mongols he encountered everywhere from the Black Sea to their capital at Qaraqorum, occupy the more extreme position. However, Nestorian Christians and an Armenian ‘monk’ he encounters presented evidently insurmountable obstacles to the conversion of the Mongols. Ibn Battuta’s obvious ‘others’ in a more traditional sense are Christians in West Asia and the Buddhist Mongols in China, but he is appalled also by Muslims drinking alcohol, and actively shuns Muslims of incorrect understanding, such as the Shi’a Twelvers.

Both classes of ‘other’—the obvious and obstructive other—provide a mirror before which oppositional self-identity was shaped, maintained, and tested. They help us to think about the two travellers when they understood themselves to be minorities and outsiders, however self-righteous they felt. However, when they felt out of place and out of control, lacking the sort of agency usually arising from their religious identities, both were able, to varying degrees, to return to a temporary shared ‘home’ with their co-religionists. For Rubruck, this was in the company of the other European Christians he occasionally encounters. For Ibn Battuta it was found in fellow, correctly observant Muslims including the Islamic minority in China.

Even so, we should not draw too close a parallel between the experiences of the two men. The contrasts are instructive. F. Fiona Moolla observes that, ‘(h)uman self-realization is almost universally tracked as a voyage…allowing incorporation into a new developmental state’.Footnote 10 This applies well to Ibn Battuta. He changed and developed self-consciously as part of his actual and metaphorical ‘journey’ to become a better and more successful Muslim. But the process of self-growth was, I consider, largely denied to William of Rubruck. In fact, he denied it to himself.

The contrast is not simply down to the personalities or even the specific experiences of the two travellers but is partly structural. Islamic teaching encouraged travel for religious learning even beyond the Hajj, routinely incumbent upon Muslims. Ibn Battuta excelled himself in this sense, enthusiastically visiting holy sites, holy men, and Muslim communities throughout the world that became known to him through his insatiable curiosity as a traveller, observing and interacting with what he found, but leaving it intact. Christian thinking in the period prioritised the inner journey. Whilst some journeys were necessary for Christian activity, including those of envoys or missionaries, even pilgrims might be suspected of travelling for adventure rather than out of devotion. William of Rubruck travelled not for adventure and prosperity like Ibn Battuta, but because he was instructed to by King Louis IX of France (r.1226–1270). He was unhappily dutiful, not curious. He did not experience an inner journey as he travelled, attempting instead to survive the physical journey and, hopefully, to effect changes in Mongols.

My point here is not to consider Ibn Battuta brave and outward looking in relation to Rubruck. In either medieval faith, the pilgrim-adventurer is a willing traveller but, paradoxically, is cautious and risk averse: choosing where to go; taking logistical and other practical precautions in order to get there safely; being less likely to travel if these conditions are not met. The pilgrim’s journey is not supposed to be easy, but neither should it prove seriously injurious. On the route to Medina, running west of the largely ungoverned Hijaz mountains of Arabia, pilgrims were frequently killed, sometimes in large numbers, by natural and unnatural forces.Footnote 11 Ibn Battuta faces peril on several occasions, but also provides numerous examples of how pilgrims prepared for and took measures collectively to avoid such drama. He sought patrons or paid for the best logistical help, and he chose like-minded companions. Occasions where he is robbed or where his life is threatened are the exception. His goal is to prosper in some way.

The envoy or missionary, in contrast, is literally ‘sent’, and into hostile territory. They deliberately put their life in the hands of others who have reason to harm them. During almost the whole of his journey, William of Rubruck’s safety was in the hands of people he could scarcely communicate with, let alone be allowed by them to exert agency over where and how he would travel. His ‘guides’ are in fact guards and he was frequently kept in the dark about what the next days would hold. But his enforced vocation led him to submit readily to whatever he was faced with. His goal was to be effective and to impact on the external world. He holds fast to his monastic identity, always, and does not grow or develop. This distinction, as well as the distinction between the fundamental ‘other’ and the ‘other’ who should have been an ally, will be borne in mind in considering both the external and interior worlds of our travellers resulting from contact with Asia.

3 William of Rubruck (Travelled 1253–1255)

In the early 1240s it became clear to Europeans that the mounted archers invading Catholic Hungary could bring their ruin.Footnote 12 As noted, the invasion halted there. An explanation which made some sense to European Christians and those of the crusader states of the Levant, was that some Mongol rulers were converting to Christianity and therefore backing off. This was not beyond the realms of possibility because Christianity was already widespread in the east. It was not of the sort of Christianity represented by the European and Mediterranean traditions. It was dominated by Nestorians, exiled from the West for their incorrect belief in the fifth century. By Rubruck’s time they had become very isolated from the west, and it was not they but mythical Christian kings such as ‘Prester John’ and ‘King David’ who were the focus of western hopes.Footnote 13 Crusaders in the Levant therefore lapped up the rumour that the Mongol general Sartaq, to be found on the Pontic steppe beyond the Black Sea, was Christian. This was what prompted the crusading king Louis of France to despatch William of Rubruck to the East. As we shall see, he was quickly disabused of the notion of Christianised Mongols.

We know little about the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck. He was probably French-Flemish and was familiar with France. He was probably based at a convent in Syria or at Nicosia in the 1240s, and was certainly in Cyprus in 1248–1249 when King Louis received a very encouraging embassy from the Mongol khan Eljigadei. He was still in the Levant during Louis’ unsuccessful crusade of 1248–1254.Footnote 14 His journey was one of several missions which increased European and West Asian Christian ‘knowledge’ about Mongols from Iran and the Pontic steppe eastward, which hadevidently included the news about Sartaq’s supposed conversion.Footnote 15

Before beginning his mission properly, Rubruck travelled to Constantinople where he partnered up with a Franciscan travelling companion, Bartholemew of Cremona. With a servant boy, a clerk of Louis’s called Gosset who would hold the money which the Franciscan Rule forbade the friars from carrying, and a disasterously inept interpreter, they set out across the Black Sea in Summer 1253 to begin a two-month journey to Sartaq’s camp. From there, he hoped ideally to then launch a mission to some Germans who had been captured in Hungary and were now Mongol slaves in Central Asia.Footnote 16

However, the king had dispatched Rubruck with a letter to Sartaq which caused some consternation. As a result, the friar was forced to undertake a second journey, to Sartaq’s father, Batu, ruler of the western Mongols, and finally to the latter’s cousin and ally, the great khan Mönke, four months further away in Mongolia. Rubruck returned to the Levant in 1255 by reversing the route and composed his letter to Louis, who was by then back in France. For all its lack of autobiographical information, this work, known as the Itinerary, is highly personal in style, and an unparalleled account of its type in terms of what it tells us about the thirteenth-century Mongols of the steppe and Mongolia.

3.1 Rubruck’s Observations on Mongols

To make sense of what went wrong at Sartaq’s camp and subsequently, we need to understand something of the ideology of the Mongol khans, about which William is one of our most important sources. He indicates a religious system with three core elements; worship of the sky god, Tenggeri; reverence for ancestors, represented by felt ‘idols’; and interaction with the supernatural through shamen, who determined many aspects of everyday life and predict the khans’ fortunes. However, and crucially, there was also a place for Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian concepts of the supernatural, to the extent that Mongols did not dismiss outright the existence of other gods.Footnote 17 As such, there was belief in the efficacy of other ritual specialists too. Whilst travelling to Batu’s court, for example, their Mongol ‘guide’ would take the monks to camps of elite Mongols and, Rubruck says, ‘we had to pray for them’.Footnote 18 At Mönke’s court, the Khan and, some of his wives and children dabbled in Nestorian rituals, and one wife had reputedly been Christian herself. But we should consider Mongols as eclectic rather than ‘open-minded’ in religious matters. Sartaq did seem interested in what the Rubruck had to tell him about the Christian faith, and appeared to believe some of it, but on departing from him for Batu’s court, the monk was told by officials, ‘“Do not say that our master is a Christian. He is not a Christian; he is Mo’al (Mongol)”’.Footnote 19 William finally realises that ‘they regard the term Christian as the name of a people…although they may have some belief in Christ they have no desire to be called Christians, since they want to promote their own name, Mo’al – to a level above all others’.Footnote 20

It was in this context that Mongol khans had a driving metanarrative, as powerful as that resulting from any other medieval religious system. Tenggeri had commanded Chinggis KhanFootnote 21 to conquer all other peoples of the world. It followed from this ‘Mandate of Heaven’ that all other kings were rightfully subjects of the Mongols. The logic of this meant that Christian envoys could only be understood as either conveying the submission of the ruler who had dispatched them, or that the ruler refused to submit and was, thereby, understood to be declaring war; in other words, inviting conquest. This misunderstanding meant that the khans could not understand the concept of an alliance of equals with Christians against Muslims. This was the gist of alarming and threatening communications from Guyuk Khan to Pope Innocent IV in the mid-1240s.Footnote 22 This had appeared to shift in 1248 when Eljigadei’s embassy to Louis made far more friendly overtures,Footnote 23 but Mönke would later denounce Eljigadei’s approach.

This made the task of a traveller on royal business a difficult one. At Sartaq’s court, Rubruck claimed not to know the content of the letter he carried from Louis. All he knew for sure, he said, was that Louis surely greeted Sartaq as a Christian and asked him to accommodate and support William in ministering to the German slaves. In this context, Willam’s identity was that of a missionary. On reading the letter though, Sartaq, Batu, and Mönke understood it as an appeal for military aid against the Mamluks. This made Rubruck a political envoy instead. It made all the difference in the world.

We know that to some extent William anticipated the issue. At Constantinople he met Baldwin of Hainault, a recent envoy from the Frankish Emperor of Byzantium to Qaraqorum, who had made the journey via Sartaq.Footnote 24 He advised that it would be unwise to claim to represent Louis’s political and military wishes, and that he should stick to presenting himself simply as a man carrying out his god’s work. This, Rubruck decided to do, and if that had been the only content of the letter, he might have been guided to the German slaves. Instead, from the point in the narrative where Sartaq reads Louis’ letter, the friar has to continually and unsuccessfully deny being an envoy. He trod a fine line and at Mönke’s court, he writes, officials were ‘amazed and kept repeating constantly, “Why have you come, seeing that you did not come to make peace?”’.Footnote 25

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to offer all the evidence that the letter had these dual elements, but we should understand Rubruck to have been a man in fear of his true, diplomatic identity being discovered. Yet he is no coward. Even as a missionary he feels able to say to Mönke, ‘“I tell you that he (Louis) has never done you any injury. If he had done you any, so that you were obliged to wage war on him and his people, he himself, as a man of justice, would be willing of his own accord to make amends and to seek peace”, and alternatively, “(i)f you, without good cause, intend to make war on him or his people, our hope is that God, Who is just, will aid them”’.Footnote 26

More generally, if Rubruck’s account often reads as ethnography, being apparently dispassionate and descriptive, simply recording information is not his intent. Alongside accounts of Mongol life which he thought Louis would find interesting, he signals his disapproval, for example of the drinking practices at court, which are ‘thoroughly distasteful and greedy’.Footnote 27 His most hostile passages concern his experiences of travel. Minor functionaries demand food, wine, and other gifts from the travellers, who, as Franciscans, have carried only a little with them.Footnote 28 He is not even sympathetic to the wretchedness of the poorer people he met, perhaps because they imposed on him rather than waiting for Christian charity, and also because they seemingly defecated wherever they were, even mid-conversation.Footnote 29

Such hostility was partly the result of his party being deprived of virtually all his freedom and agency on his enforced journeys between Mongol courts. For no apparent reason, for example, the party is split up by Batu, with Gosset and the boy being returned to Sartaq to await William’s return. The ‘guide’ who then takes them on their four-month journey to Mönke tells them that if they struggle to travel across the freezing steppe in Winter, he would abandon them.Footnote 30 William says, ‘(t)here is no counting the times we were famished, frozen and exhausted’.Footnote 31 Bartholemew suffered so much on the journey that he eventually asked to remain at Qaraqorum rather than return.Footnote 32 This was in spite of the fact that he had almost been executed for breaching a seemingly incomprehensible Mongol taboo in stepping on the threshold of a tent.Footnote 33 Ultimately, Rubruck’s own interest in Mongols is predicated on the fact that he would ideally ‘preach war against them’, and he advocates a military campaign again at the end of his work.Footnote 34

3.2 Rubruck and Other Christians

Rubruck met Nestorians in large numbers in Mongol courts. They were worse than a disappointment to him. He notes that they create ‘big rumours out of nothing’, having misled Europeans into believing in a Christian kingdom under ‘King John’. They are responsible for the notion that Sartaq and others had converted. William notes frustratedly, ‘(a)nd yet the fact is that they are not Christians’.Footnote 35 It seemed to him perhaps, that the Nestorians, not the Mongols, were to blame for Christian misunderstandings of Asia, and thereby for his situation.

This was possible because Nestorians were not marginal in Mongol society. They often attained good political positions. Rubruck accuses them of being sycophants, following Mongol courts ‘as flies do honey’.Footnote 36 At Sartaq’s court, he was initially aided by a Nestorian official, Coiac, whose family soon move in on the monks and deprive them of devotional objects including their priestly vestments and most of their books, including a jewel-encrusted Bible given to Rubruck by Louis’ queen, Marguerite. Rubruck later learns that the Nestorians paraded around Sartaq’s court in his vestments. On his return journey he tried to recover the items, but Coiac’s family accused him of trying to take back presents which he had supposedly offered to Sartaq. Except for the Bible, the items are eventually returned through Sartaq’s own intervention: It seems likely that it was the Nestorians and not Sartaq who coveted the items all along.Footnote 37

Worst of all, the Nestorians he meets are, in his eyes, ill-informed about the Christian faith and lax in their practice of it. They do not put a representation of Christ on their crosses, are ignorant of the meaning of most of Scripture, are drunkards even in church (making ‘a great howling as they chanted in their drunkeness’), are polygamous, feast on meat on Fridays like Muslims, play along with shamanic rituals, and charge for performing sacraments. On Palm Sunday he shuns their sacraments even though he is their co-religionist. All in all, they undermine the chance of Mongols fully understanding the real meaning of Christianity.Footnote 38

Rubruck is also vexed by a false monk, an Armenian called Sergius, who claims to have been instructed by Christ to represent the Armenian Church amongst the Mongols. He gives the impression of pious humility, yet he flaunts a great silver cross which had been given to Mönke in exchange for money to rebuild a Church in the Levant destroyed by Muslims. He claims only to eat one meal a week, but actually has a store of nuts and dried fruit which he keeps to himself. Rasputin-like, he has influence over Mönke and his family, and monopolises their understanding of Christianity even more than the Nestorians do. Rubruck discovers to his horror that Sergius has misled Mönke into believing that, should he convert to Christianity, western rulers as well as the Pope would submit to him. Sergius is also so obnoxious and aggressive in his encounters with Muslims that Mönke has him move his tent further from the court. Later, it transpires that he is not a real monk at all but is a weaver. As damage limitation, William tries to control what other Christians say. On hearing Sergius expound on the creation of the first man in a discussion with a Nestorian, he recognises a common dualist trope, which he calls Manichaean, and warns the false monk in no uncertain terms to stop talking there and then.Footnote 39

Rubruck, confounded by the Christians at court, is comforted only by his infrequent contact with Europeans. One was a woman he names as Pascha, from Metz, had who endured great hardship as a slave but kindly cooks a meal for the famished friars. Another is a hugely talented goldsmith from Paris, William Buchier, who is held in very high esteem because of his creations.Footnote 40 When William first meets him, he is crafting an astonishing silver fountain in the shape of a tree for Mönke, from which multiple kinds of alcohol could be served. At Qaraqorum itself, Rubruck eats a joyful dinner with Buchier and his Catholic wife. At Easter he encounters a crowd of Hungarians, Alans, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians who had been trafficked to the capital. They were habitually denied communion by the Nestorians unless they converted to their church. Naturally, Rubruck takes them as his flock. He tells them that acts of theft against their Mongol masters are justified if they are not given enough food but that, should they be conscripted in the Mongol army, they should let themselves be killed rather than kill a fellow Christian. They would thereby become martyrs. All of this, he said publicly, he would be prepared to defend in front of Mönke, ‘for the Nestorians of the camp were there when I was giving these instructions, and I suspected they might perhaps vilify us’.Footnote 41

What Rubruck encounters in contact with both Mongols and with non-European Christians makes him both stubborn and vulnerable. In the end, for all his stoic bravery in proselytising and defending the Christian faith, he was confounded by both the Mongols and Asian Christians. He only managed to baptise six people in total and regarded his mission as an ill-advised failure.Footnote 42

4 Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/1369; Travelled 1325–1352)

In contrast with Rubruck’s Itinerarium, the Rihla of Ibn Battuta was put into writing by a professional author, Ibn Jazayy, commissioned by the sultan of Tangiers in 1355 on the traveller’s return from Mali in 1354, some years after most of the events it describes.Footnote 43 It sometimes has a similar, semi-ethnographic feel to it as Rubruck’s account, but usually Ibn Battuta is describing different Islamic peoples rather than those of other faiths. Unlike William of Rubruck, Ibn Battuta was a willing pilgrim and scholar. By his day, Mongol rulers in west and central Asia ruled over millions of Arabs, Persians, and Turks within the Dar al-Islam, and he was planning to travel amongst these, his co-religionists. As such, his encounters with steppe Mongols were far less disconcerting and frightening than were those of Rubruck.

Ross Dunn observes of Ibn Battuta that he ‘belonged to a large class of lettered but not accomplished men who, for want of serious career possibilities in the central cities, gravitated out to the expanding Muslim frontiers, where a Muslim name, a reasonably education, and a large ambition could see a man to a reasonable job, even to riches and power’.Footnote 44 Even so, outwardly he was a pilgrim, a devotee of Sufism, a jurist, and an educated traveller expecting and receiving hospitality and gifts, including slaves and wives, from patrons of the Dar al-Islam, in accordance with the Islamic instruction to support those on pious journeys. He travelled in considerate company and often in some luxury. The Rihla indicates that before he even reached Arabia on Hajj for the first time, he was dispatched on a spiritual journey. A revered North African Sufi suggested that he visit three fellow practitioners in India and China and convey his greetings to them. He identified more and more closely with the Sufis and we are told that he almost settled down to become a full Sufi practitioner himself.Footnote 45

Ibn Battuta travelled eastward decades after the Mamluks had destroyed remains of the crusader states, with the fall of Acre in 1291. He was in Islamic-held lands entirely for his journeys through the Levant and well beyond. He had three, unconnected, periods of contact with Mongols.

4.1 Arabia to Tabriz (1326–1327)

In November 1326, Ibn Battuta left Mecca to visit Iraq as part of a comfortably accommodated intellectual entourage returning to Baghdad in a caravan paid for by the sultan Abu Sa’id Bahadur (1316–1327 or 1335), an ‘excellent and generous king’.Footnote 46 He was very much benefitting from the efficient Islamic infrastructure in the region. He detoured significantly to visit several renowned centres including Basra and Shiraz and their Sufis. Less pleasingly, he encountered Sunnis ignorant of Arabic, poorly observant Muslims, and other warlike Arabs. His money and centrality to the caravan kept him safe in the Euphrates marshes, and he is met only with generosity in the towns he visited thereafter. He arrived in Baghdad in the Summer of 1327.

Even before arriving, he would have been aware of the devastation wrought by Mongols a century earlier. Only towns which surrendered were spared the worst atrocities under Hülegu. The region had made a limited recovery and was more peacefully exploited under Gaykhatu (1291–1295) and notably Ghazan (1295–1304), under whom the Ilkhanid state had become officially Muslim. To someone of high birth like Ibn Battuta, this branch of the Mongol polity would seem to have focussed thereafter on respectable statecraft through taxation, the promotion of Islamic practices, and science. It was Sunni except for a brief, ignominious Shi’a period under Öljaitu (1304–1316), Abu Sa-id’s father. Ibn Battuta tells the Sunni version of his conversion, which portrays him as ignorant of the correct version of the faith until dogs he has set on the qadi Majd al-Din are tamed by the holy man, and the khan sees the true path of Sunni Islam.

At Baghdad, he would have met foreigners from Tibet and China, fellow Arabic-speaking North Africans, and Sufis.Footnote 47 Although it was under Mongol rule, Ibn Battuta would have found Baghdad familiar in many ways and been impressed by the global reach of the Ilkhans. As such it was not adventurous as it may at first appear to have decided to accompany Abu Sa’id’s vast malhalla on a sight-seeing journey north. Along the way, the official ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad was ordered to detour to the beautiful Mongol capital at Tabriz, in itself a cosmopolitan commercial crossroads. Ibn Battuta praises the fabulous bazaar although he is somewhat shocked by the opulence. Before journeying back to Baghdad, he rejoined Abu Sa’id’s caravan and even had a brief audience with him, was a result of which he was provisioned and entrusted to professional organisers of hajj logistics. Thus far, the world of the Mongols offered Ibn Battuta little by way of culture shock, and nothing he could not easily reconcile with his faith and identity.

4.2 The Black Sea and Pontic Steppe (1332–1333)

Ibn Jubayr encountered Mongol rulers next during a circuit which took him, along with a growing household of slaves and concubines, across and around the Black Sea and to Mongol al-Qiram (Stary Krim) in the Crimea, and then across the Caucasus onto the western Eurasian Steppe to the lands of Mohammad Özbeg (1312–1341), the Kipchak khan of the Mongol ulus which would later be known as the Golden Hoarde, and who had only recently converted to Islam.

To reach it, he had taken a ship crossing the Black Sea, and had one of his few encounters with peril and enforced self-reliance. A terrible storm hit the boat and, after a serious battering and being unable to steer, the captain limped for Kerch, at the boundary with the Sea of Azov. But the people of Kerch indicated that there was some danger in their port also. He later disembarked and was taken aback to encounter a Church containing what he is told is a statue of Ali within it. He decided to hire transport and lead his retinue to the cosmopolitan, latinised port of Kaffa. This was a mistake, he later considered. Although the town is impressive, he describes being appalled at the ringing of church bells by Christians throughout the city. He and a group of other Muslims cause a scandal by ascending a minaret and loudly issuing the call to prayer and reciting the Koran. The town’s Muslim official feared that the affront to the Christian rulers would result in violence, saying ‘“When I heard the call for prayer and chanting I feared for your safety”’.Footnote 48 Ibn Battuta left the town for the safer walls of al-Quiram a couple of days later.

It was at this point that he decided to head for Saray on the Volga, the capital of Batu’s successors. He was again anticipating the familiar within the exotic. Saray was a city choked with people and markets trading wood, furs, and slaves southwards, and luxuries to the west. It was also a stopping point for Islamic travellers of all kinds. It was to be a seven-hundred-mile journey, but he was in the safety of the retinue of a Turkish amir, who had been summoned by Özbeg Khan. Once again, he willingly undertook a huge endeavour for any traveller, but again had a military escort and logistical ease for the majority of the journey. They may have been peripheral to the Dar al-Islam, but Özbeg’s territories were vast, incorporating the Ukrainian steppe and extending south to the Oxus delta with the Aral Sea. He was then in a landscape that would have been familiar to William of Rubruck (of whom he most probably had never heard).

He first caught up with Özbeg in the region near al-Machar. He describes with astonishment his first glimpse of the mobile ordu, with its rolling palaces, mosques, markets, and even smoking kitchens, all drawn by oxen and horses, and hundreds of wagons carrying the khan’s goods. Özbeg’s own tent was covered on the outside with tiles made of gold, and those of his wives were almost as opulent. Of the khan, he notes that he is diligent in fighting Christians and has subdued Constantinople. The khan was welcoming but somewhat strange to Ibn Batutta, drinking heavily of kumiss, which, whilst alcoholic is not specifically forbidden in Islamic law, and, to his horror, appearing drunk in the Mosque.

Around this time, the traveller tells us that he had been intending to travel much further north, to the ‘Land of Darkness’, attracted by stories of fascinating economic practices, but that it would be so arduous a journey, so frozen, so expensive, that he chose to abandon the plan. Instead, he decided to accompany the Özbeg’s wife Bayalun back to her father, Emperor Andronicus III of Byzantium, in order to give birth to their son at Constantinople. Again, ibn Battuta is dependent for his protection on a patron, this time Bayalun herself. The entourage, he tells us, consisted of several hundred people, four hundred wagons, and thousands of horses and horsemen. But these only accompanied her to the Byzantine border, where Ibn Battuta again experienced a culture shock. He was once again in Christian lands with Christian laws and customs. The royal expedition takes on supplies of wine and meat including pork, and formal Islamic prayer is not observed. At the city, he and other Muslims are called Sarakínú (an implicitly derogative term) by the guards and refused entry. Eventually Bayalun intervenes and they are granted access but have to be put under the Emperor’s protection to stop them being molested, which it seems certain would otherwise happen.

Ibn Battuta is hugely impressed by Constantinople, but again chose when to be a tourist and when to stop. For example, he wishes to view the interior of a church but is told that visitors have to prostrate themselves before the cross, without exception, so he remains outside. After a brief stay in Constantinople—during which he was able to meet the emperor, Ibn Battuta returned to the steppe with Bayalun’s escorts, through a brutal Winter, and did eventually reach Saray.

Eventually the traveller set off for India via the Hindu Kush, traversing Mongol Transoxiana, during which time one of his slave concubines gave birth to a short-lived baby. He is aware that the early Mongols had ravaged this territory too, but this does not impinge upon his high regard for its Mongol ruler ‘Ala al-Din Tarmashirin, even though he is again in a land where customs are different from those he has practised at home. He leaves Tarmashin just south of Samarkand, with useful and prestigious presents from him.

4.3 China (1345–1346)

In 1345, after an extensive career in India serving Muhammad Tughluq, the Islamic ruler of India, and then dangerously falling out with him, Ibn Battuta departed by boat for China as Tughluq’s ad-hoc messenger to Sheikh Burhanuddin of Sagharj. He was tasked with delivering to him 40,000 dinars to pay for the latter’s expenses for returning to Delhi. Emperor Toghon Temur (1320–1370) was a Buddhist and had adopted Confucian principles in matters of state. At Quanzhou, we hear that the traveller was eventually given permission to travel north along the Grand Canal to the capital, Khanbalik. He then reversed the journey, afraid of being caught up in Mongol internecine warfare, and took a boat for the Strait of Malacca in 1246.

Before continuing we should address the significant issues concerning these sections of the Rilha. The journeys he claims to have undertaken in south-eastern and eastern Asia would have been by far his most extensive, but they constitute less than 6% of the book. They are also amongst the vaguest of his various accounts, and some sections on China specifically contain factual errors. The question of veracity and accuracy cannot be resolved here,Footnote 49 but it could simply be the case that he dismissed China because he disliked most of what he encountered. Furthermore, how interested was his patron in hearing about the world beyond the Dar al-Islam? Was it perhaps even a subject to be avoided? The issue is of course of real significance for the study of Mongol-ruled China, but we are not considering Ibn Battuta’s accuracy here, rather, the impression he conveys of non-Islamic lands. In terms of understanding the traveller himself and his relationship with China, it seems quite plausible that he encountered and reacted to what he says he did somewhere in China.

I say this also because there are specifics which seem unlikely to have been invented. For example, he was hugely impressed by Chinese produce and lists dozens of agricultural products which to him surpass even those of the fertile crescent; he waxes lyrical about material culture such as precious metals, silks which even the very poor wear, and paintings and ceramics; is fascinated by gender roles, and also by the economic infrastructure, for example paper money, markets, ports, canals, and also coal, which he has never seen before.

However, of Yuan China as a whole, he says, whilst it was a ‘beautiful country’, it ‘afforded me no pleasure’. Much about both elite and everyday life appalled him. In this context it indeed made a difference to him that the ruler is of the lineage of the destroyer Chinggis Khan, and it was a land of ‘infidels’Footnote 50 and idolators, where pigs and dogs were consumed, and where people took no care about their personal appearance. Whilst he was there, he witnessed a royal funeral involving the mass sacrifice of horses and inhumation of living slaves.

There are aspects of Yuan-adopted bureaucracy which he considers oppressive in ways he has never encountered in any of his previous travels. The overall impression given is of a political culture where the Muslim traveller is subjected to huge levels of suspicion and surveillance, if supposedly for their own protection and that of their goods. Highly accurate likenesses of travellers, including his own, were painted ‘without us being aware of it’ and exhibited publicly, as a record of people passing through for state records.Footnote 51 He is impressed by the safety of China’s roads and inns, but in cities, Muslims are confined to particular quarters, and only there can they guarantee being treated respectfully. The money and goods of Muslim merchants are sometimes impounded and they have their freedoms circumvented even in terms of what they might spend their money on. This was apparently because ‘the Chinese say: “We will not have it said in the Musulman countries that their people are (stripped) of their property in China, and that ours is a country full of riotous living and harlotry”’,Footnote 52 which, implicitly, it was. Furthermore, the Yuan had turned Muslim against Muslim: Burhanuddin of Sagharj spends the 40,000 dinars but refuses to return to Delhi and is instead appointed head of all Muslims in the Yuan territories.

Ibn Battuta was truly alarmed ‘by the prevalence of infidelity’, saying, ‘whenever I left my lodging I saw many offensive things which distressed so much that I tended to stay at home as much as possible. When I saw Muslims it was as though I had met my family and relatives’.Footnote 53 As such, he sought out of what he felt to be safe places and people. A Chinese ambassador he had met in Delhi, showed him around Quanzhou and secured a house for him. As a result, he was then visited by named representatives of the town’s many Muslims, including Tájuddín of Ardebil ‘a virtuous and generous person’, and Kamáluddín Abdallah of Ispahan, ‘a very pious man’. He also re-encounters a merchant, Sharif al-Din al-Tabrizi, to whom he had owed money since in India, but who does not seem to be asking for it back.

The description of Islamic life at Hangzhou is vivid. The legacy of Othmán bin Affan, the philanthropic Egyptian founder of the Muslim quarter, overshadows the rest of the town. In contrast, in Canton he visits a truly disconcerting unnamed ascetic. He had claimed to be a Muslim, but also to have said, ‘“My prayer is certainly not the same as your prayer’”.Footnote 54 The hermit claims to have met Ibn Battuta previously, and also to have known the Prophet Muhhamad. He is prone to vanishing and having people impersonate him and, implicitly, to drugging, poisoning, or hypnotising guests. Ibn Battuta is alternately reverential and frustrated by him.

Of course, such details concerning the Islamic community so far from home could have been fabricated by Ibn Battuta, but the motive for doing this, when he was vague about so much else, is unclear. It gives an impression not only that he did visit China, but that he did not trouble to say much about it which would not interest Muslims. Significantly, he could easily have been caught out in a lie, had he lied. This was in recounting in great detail his journey to Khanbalik in the company of another north African, al-Bushri of Ceuta, whom he had first met in India. He describes how the two men wept upon meeting each other again. Al-Bushri was now very wealthy, having fifty female and fifty male slaves. He gives Ibn Battuta two of each and travels towards Hangzhou with him for four days. The writer says that he had since met al-Bushri’s brother in Africa. All of this could easily have been verified or disproved from Tangiers, had he been suspected of fabrication to some end or another.

5 Conclusion

Although Ibn Battuta refers several times to the Mongol campaigns of the previous century having ravaged the lands of Islam, history did not discourage his travel within the Dar al-Islam. We have seen how easily he reorientated himself wherever he travelled in west and central Asia. Towns of the western steppe were ‘firmly linked to the international networks of judges, teachers, and scribes along which he always endeavoured to travel’.Footnote 55 He was reaping the benefits of belonging to a religious polity in which, although it was not politically united, regional differences between observant Sunnis did not alarm him. Even where lands were ruled by relatively recent converts to Islam, official ideologies and practices were the same as his own. The unexpected details about daily life which inform the reader are often the same as those of value to the historian of travel and of Asia. It also seems unlikely that he was not also aware of what he would encounter in Yuan China. Working as he did at the Indian capital for Muhammad Tughluq, he encountered Muslim envoys and merchants familiar with the country, presumably as critical of the Buddhists as he would find himself to be. If we get an impression of surprised dismay at what he found, this was surely the result of the issue concerning the entire east Asian section of the Rilha: distance from the facts but, I consider, not the experience. As such, it seems likely that he travelled to China with prejudices and, whether he recalled the exact details later or not, they were fulfilled. Otherwise, his identity as a literate, employable legalist and Sufi adherent allowed him to flourish.

William of Rubruck, in contrast, knew very little about what he would find on the steppe, where he planned to travel, and central and east Asia, where he did not, except that he hoped that it would include Christian Mongols and other Christian kings. He could proselytise under the protection of either, and, whether he knew the full extent of what King Louis had written or not, he could baptise new converts, minister to trafficked Europeans, and find allies against the Muslims of the Levant. Except for the few westerners he eventually finds at Qaraqorum, he found only non-Christians and bad-Christians in the east. Yet his self-belief as a European Christian never wavers. When he entered Mongol territory, he writes, ‘I really felt as if I were entering some other world’,Footnote 56 and compares Asia unfavourably to Europe, telling Louis that, ‘Nowhere have they any “lasting city”’, that Qarakorum and Mönke’s palace there compared poorly to St. Denis and its royal basilica, the home of Louis’ dynasty.Footnote 57 Once there, he recalls numerous bad experiences at the hands of his ‘guides’, and comes to rather expect and accept this. But ranking highly amongst his worst encounters was when Nestorians stole his Communion vestments. They had taken away Rubruck’s identity, the outwards signs that he could officially say Mass and baptise converts. His tone is markedly different once he re-enters Europe. Christians of the Don region feed the party for three days straight by collecting meat for them door-to-door because of a misunderstanding that had left him bereft of oxen and horses.Footnote 58

The potential of Elka Weber’s nuanced schema is met most obviously when William discusses Muslims. He identifies them as targets of crusades and against whom Louis wants to build an alliance. But when he encounters them in various situations with Mongols, he does not approach them in an especially hostile manner. He tries to preach to and even baptise some, unsuccessfully. It is difficult in most cases to ascertain quite what he thinks of them, but we can see that they, like Buddhists, are relatively low in the hierarchy of ‘others’. He therefore debates with Chinese Buddhists and Muslims as incidental ‘others’, in front of Mönke (the ‘other’), with the ‘help’ of Nestorians (the obstructive ‘others’): he gets nowhere.

Ibn Battuta’s observations on ‘paganism’ in China takes us to the heart of the matter. He was not travelling the world but the Islamic world. He scarcely ventures beyond voluntarily, implicitly for fear of cultural contamination. When forced to, he tries to return psychologically, for example when instructed to venture into China, where he has to seek out a ‘home from home’ amongst other Muslims. Rubruck is typically the foreigner. He is a man in survival mode, holding his nerve by clinging to a version of the world he can survive, rigidly battling foreign attempts to compromise or shape who he is internally, as he loses almost all agency over his actual fate. Ibn Battuta finds many spiritual homes because he is in Asia; William of Rubruck finds few, and does so in spite of Asia rather than because of it.