Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Twelve - Journey to West Africa (1351 - 1353)

When Ibn Battuta first visited Cairo in 1326, he undoubtedly heard about the visit of Mansa Musa (King of Mali from 1307 to 1332). Mansa Musa had passed through the city two years earlier making his pilgrimage to Mecca with thousands of slaves and soldiers, wives and officials. One hundred camels each carried one hundred pounds of gold. Mansa Musa performed many acts of charity and "flooded Cairo with his kindness." So much gold spent in the markets of Cairo actually upset the gold market well into the next century. Mali's gold was important all over the world. In the later Medieval period, West Africa may have been producing almost two-thirds of the world's supply of gold! Mali also supplied other trade items - ivory, ostrich feathers, kola nuts, hides, and slaves. No wonder there was talk about the Kingdom of Mali and its riches!

[Image from The Catlan Atlas, completed in 1375, showing Musa (King) holding a large globe made of gold and a traveler from across the Sahara, perhaps Ibn Battuta? Biblioteque National, Paris ]

Once again Ibn Battuta became restless. A trip to Mali, like all other trips, would be made easier because of already established trade routes controlled by Muslims. The rulers and many businessmen of Mali had converted to Islam a generation before and Muslim traders had come to live in Mali's business centers. Ibn Battuta could not resist another trip before he settled down. Or perhaps he thought about settling in Mali where the converts and Muslim settlers and even the king (sultan) were hungry for Islamic education and law. Mansa Musa had built mosques and minarets and established Friday prayer-days in Mali. He had brought judges to his country and became a student of religion, himself. Perhaps Ibn Battuta was looking for a job in the circle of rulers in Mali. This trip would take him 1,500 miles across the most fearsome wilderness on earth.


[Photographs of the desert towns courtesy of Professor James Miller GeoImages Project.]

Ibn Battuta set out from Fez in the autumn of 1351 and crossed the Atlas Mountains. After traveling for eight or nine days he arrived at a town called Sijilmasa on the Oasis of Tafilalt. This was the last outpost before crossing the vast Sahara Desert. Here he spent four months waiting for the winter season when the great caravans could cross the desert. It was here where he bought camels of his own while staying with Muslims who offered him hospitality.

Photo courtesy of Adventure Travel Morocco

And so he set out across the Sahara Desert for Walata in a camel caravan in February, 1352. They traveled in the early morning and late afternoon and rested under awnings to avoid the scorching midday heat. Twenty-five days later the caravan reached the settlement of Taghaza, the main salt-mining center of the Western Sahara. Here workers loaded great slabs of salt which was in great demand in Mali. Taghaza was a desolate place. "This is a village with nothing good about it," complained Ibn Battuta. "It is the most fly-ridden of places." Then he described the huge amounts of gold that changed hands there.

The caravan stayed in Taghaza for ten days where he stayed in a house built entirely of salt except for the camel skin roof! The water was salty, too, and food had to be brought from the outside.


Then began the most dangerous part of the journey - almost 500 miles of sand where only one water place exists. Fortunately there had been some rainfall that year, so there was some scattered vegetation and occasionally even pools of water for the camels. The travelers drank water from goat skin bags. Yet there were more dangers:


"In those days we used to go on ahead of the caravan and whenever we found a place suitable for grazing we pastured the beasts there. This we continued to do till a man ... became lost in the desert. After that we neither went on ahead nor lagged behind."



Ibn Battuta worried about running out of water, about his guides losing their way, and about falling prey to the "demons which haunted those wastes." In the end of April, they arrived in Walata, a sweltering little town with mud brick houses next to barren hills and with a few palm trees. Ibn Battuta regretted coming at all to this town because he had been treated so much better in other parts of the Islamic world. He resented the governor who offered the visitors a bowl of millet with a little honey and yogurt as a welcoming meal.

"I said to them: 'Was it to this that the black man invited us?' They said: 'Yes, for them this is a great banquet.' Then I knew for certain that no good was to be expected from them and I wished to depart."

Photograph courtesy of "The Salt Caravan" Documentary

He stayed in Walata for several weeks, however, but he was offended on more occasions by the local customs. After all, he must have thought, he was a special visitor that should be pampered. And even more offensive were some different customs which Ibn Battuta thought were not appropriate for good Muslims. For example, he was used to the sexes being separated. On one occasion he entered in a qadi's (judge's) house to find a young and beautiful woman to greet him. She was the judge's friend! On another occasion Ibn Battuta called on a scholar and found the man's wife chatting with a strange man in the courtyard. Ibn Battuta expressed his disapproval and the man answered, "the association of women with men is agreeable to us and a part of good manners, to which no suspicion attaches. They are not like the women of your country."




Ibn Battuta followed the Niger River to several of Mali's biggest cities and rode in a boat such as these. He mistakenly called the river "the Nile". Photo courtesy of AdventureQuest


The travelers went southward along the Niger River to the king's palaces. Along the way he offered glass beads and pieces of salt in return for millet, rice, chickens, and other local foods. After two or more weeks on the road, he arrived at the seat of government, a town with several palaces for Mansa Sulayman, younger brother of Mansa Musa who had died. (Sulayman ruled from 1341 to 1360.) The main palace was built by a Muslim architect from Andalusia (Muslim Spain) and was covered with plaster painted with colorful patterns, a "most elegant" building. Surrounding the palaces and mosques were the residences of the citizens: mud-walled houses roofed with domes of timber and reed.

Ibn Battuta must have wanted to see the ruler quickly, but ten days after his arrival, he became seriously ill after eating some yams not cooked well. One of his traveling companions died from the same food! Ibn Battuta remained ill for two months. After he finally recovered, he went to observe a public ceremony - an audience with the sultan Mansa Sulayman.

"[The sultan] has a lofty pavilion ... where he sits most of the time... There came forth from the gate of the palace about 300 slaves, some carrying in their hands bows and others having in their hands short lances and shields... Then two saddled and bridled horses are brought, with two rams which, they say, are effective against the evil eye... The interpreter stands at the gate of the council-place wearing fine garments of silk... and on his head a turban with fringes which they have a novel way of winding... The troops, governors, young men, slaves, ... and others sit outside the council-place in a broad street where there are trees... Anyone who wishes to address the sultan addresses the interpreter and the interpreter addresses a man standing [near the sultan] and that man standing addresses the sultan." [Dunn, p. ]

He described those who came to the palace:

"Each commander has his followers before him with their spears, bows, drums and bugles made of elephant tusks. Their instruments of music are made of reeds and calabashes, and they beat them with sticks and produce a wonderful sound. Each commander has a quiver which he places between his shoulders. He holds his bow in his hand and is mounted on a mare. Some of his men are on foot and some on mounts." [Hamdun & King, pp. 47 - 48]

At another session (part of a festival) he describes:

"The men-at-arms come with wonderful weaponry: quivers of silver and gold, swords covered with gold... Four of the amirs stand behind him to drive off flies, with ornaments of silver in their hands... .... The Interpreter brings in his four wives and his concubines, who are about a hundred in number. On them are fine clothes and on their heads they have bands of silver and gold with silver and gold apples as pendants. ... A chair is there for the Interpreter and he beats on an instrument which is made of reeds with tiny calabashes below it [a "balophon"] praising the sultan, recalling in his song his expeditions and deeds. The wives and the concubines sing with him... about thirty of his pages... each has a drum tied to him and he beats it. Then ...[come acrobats and jugglers of swords]..." [Hamdun & King, pp. 52 - 53]



Ibn Battuta ended his eight-month stay in Mali with mixed feelings. On the one hand he respected the parents' strict teaching of the Koran to their children: "They place fetters [ropes or chains] on their children if there appears ... a failure to memorize the Koran, and they are not undone until they memorize it." He also admired the safety of the empire. "Neither traveler there nor dweller has anything to fear from thief or usurper."

On the other hand he criticized the traditional practices: "Female slaves and servants who went stark naked into the court for all to see; subjects who groveled before the sultan, beating the ground with their elbows and throwing dust and ashes over their heads; royal poets who romped about in feathers and bird masks." He also complained about the small gift of bread, meat and yogurt given to him by the king. "When I saw it I laughed, and was long astonished at their feeble intellect and their respect for mean things." Later he complained directly to the king: "I have journeyed to the countries of the world and met their kings. I have been four months in your country without your giving me a reception gift or anything else. What shall I say of you in the presence of other sultans?" [Dunn, p. 300, 303] That evidently made a difference. "Then the sultan ordered a house for me in which I stayed and he fixed an allowance for me... He was gracious to me at my departure, to the extent of giving me one hundred mithqals of gold." [Hamdun and King, p. 46]


Mosque in Timbuktu



On his return trip, Ibn Battuta continued to explore parts of Mali. He went to Timbuktu, a town that was just beginning to flower as a center of Islamic scholarship and trade. Mansa Musa himself had a mosque built there. But Ibn Battuta was evidently not very impressed with Timbuktu - a city that would become great in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


His return journey was even more difficult. He had bought a riding camel and another to carry his supplies. But in the dessert heat one camel died. Other travelers offered to help carry his supplies, but further on Ibn Battuta fell sick again. He recovered in a small town called Takadda. Here Ibn Battuta received a message from the Sultan of Morocco commanding him to return to Fez immediately. They left Takadda on September 11, 1353 in the company of a large caravan carrying 600 black female slaves to Morocco. The slaves would be sold as domestics (house maids), concubines, or servants of the royal court.



The caravan went northward for 18 days through the wilderness and passed through the land of the veiled Berber nomads whom Ibn Battuta called "good for nothing. We encountered one of their chief men who held up the caravan until he was paid an impost of cloth and other things." They continued on and stopped at Sijilmasa where he stayed about two weeks. Then he went over the High Atlas Mountains in the dead of winter. "I have seen difficult roads and much snow [in other parts of the world], but I never saw a road more difficult than that."



At last he arrived in the capital Fez, a city that was the center of the intellectual universe west of Cairo. It was 1354. He was home - this time for good.



    What did Ibn Battuta eat in West Africa?

    Ibn Battuta complained about being given millet porridge with a little honey and yogurt by a host. He mentions eating camel meat along the way, and trading glass beads and salt for millet, rice, milk, chickens, fish, melons and pumpkins, and other local foods. He got sick from eating yams (or a similar root). From the king, he received a welcoming gift of three loaves of bread and a piece of beef fried in shea butter, and a gourd containing yogurt. (He was insulted by this meager gift, too.)

    Ibn Battuta described the fruit of the baobab tree: "like a cucumber, when it ripens it bursts uncovering something like flour; they cook and eat it and it is sold in the markets." (Actually, the women pound it into a flour.) He also told of a ground crop like beans that was fried which tastes like peas, or made into a flour and fried in 'shea butter' (which he said was harmful to white men). [Hamdun & King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 40.]

    An anecdote told by Ibn Battuta concerned visitors to the Sultan: "a group ... who eat human beings... In their country there is a gold mine. The sultan was gracious to them. He gave them as a hospitality gift a slave woman. They slaughtered her and ate her." [Hamdun & King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 462.]

    On his way back, he tells of some Berbers who live off of dates and locusts (an insect like a grasshopper). [Hamdun & King, p. 74]

    Three traditional recipes from Mali are given here. (However, watch for the modern ingredients - like pineapple and tomato which came from the Americas - and skip the ham, for Ibn Battuta's sake!)



Tuareg nomads Berber Nomads

    [Photos courtesy of Wilderness Travel]


To continue with Ibn Battuta's story, [press here].

To return to the previous section [press here].

Learn More About Mali and Morocco:
Tour Morocco with Professor James Miller's "Images of Daily Life in Morocco" GeoImages Project. This excellent site includes many of the places that Ibn Battuta visited, including the Tafilalt oasis town, oasis, Marrakech, Fez, and more.

City of Djenné (Mali) image of the "mud" mosque and here.

City of Mopti on the Niger River by AdventureQuest: image of river boats, market, and a woman wearing golden earrings
See a QuickTime video of Timbuktu
Learn more about modern Timbuktu, Mopti, Dire and other cities along the Niger River
To learn more about Timbuktu from another medieval Muslim traveler in the 16th century (1526), see Leo Africanus' Description of Timbuktu
See a historical drawing of medieval Timbuktu (early 1500s)
Learn more about the history of Islam in Africa
See a map showing Islam in Africa
See a map of Mali with its city Timbuktu


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