A Land Conquered by the Mongols -
Genghis Khan, Mongol Conqueror
About 100 years before Ibn Battuta's travels, the Mongol Invasion had been a nightmare of violence for the peoples of Persia, the lands east of the Euphrates (1220 - 1260). Into his terrible war machine, Genghis Khan incorporated tens of thousands of Turkish warriors who lived in the grasslands between Mongolia and the Caspian Sea.
"With one stroke," wrote a Persian historian, "a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert, and the greater part of the living dead, and their skin and bones crumbling dust; and the mighty were humbled..." [Juvaini, The History of the World Conquerors, vol. 1, translated by Boyle, Cambridge, 1958.] "
The Mongols wreaked death and devastation wherever they rode from China to the plains of Hungary, but nowhere more so than in Persia, where most of the great cities were demolished and their inhabitants annihilated. "The total population of this area may have dropped temporarily from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine." [J.M Smith in Dunn, p. 83] In 1256, Hulagu (1217-1265), Genghis Khan's grandson, subdued the whole of Persia. In 1258, Baghdad was captured and the caliph put to death, bringing the Abbasid Caliphate rule to an end.
Such a strategy of destruction by the Mongols was designed to crush the possibility of resistance to Mongol rule and cause whole cities to surrender without a fight. Therefore, some cities were destroyed, while others which surrendered (like Tabriz) were spared.
Once the armies had overrun Persia and set up governments, the destruction came to an end. After about 1260, trade resumed, fields were planted, and towns were rebuilt. Mongol leaders and their Turkish soldiers learned much about Islam and Persian culture, and the leaders had no choice but to put the administration and finance of this region in the hands of native Muslim scribes and officials who had been running Persia before the invasion. In fact, the Mongols and Turks were transformed into Persians. Genghis had a policy of toleration of all religions within the empire, and the promoters of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam competed like salesmen for the leaders' attention. The Mongols swung from one religious preference to another, depending upon which could gain them the most influence at court. Ghazan was the first ruler to make Islam the state religion (1295 - 1304). He required the entire court to convert, he built mosques throughout the country and gave money for the building of hospitals and schools. [Dunn, p. 86.] His successor was erratic in his religious demands for the empire. He was born Nestorian, then adopted Buddhism, next converted to Islam, and then became a Shi'ia Muslim who persecuted Sunni Muslims. His son, Abu Sa'id brought the court quickly back to Sunni and that is when Ibn Battuta (of a strong Sunni Muslim faith) arrived. Both Persian and Arabic were spoken here by the educated in this part of Dar al-Islam.
When the Mongols converted to Islam, they also became patrons of Persian art and culture. Persian culture came back to life quickly after the holocaust it had suffered, and Ibn Battuta was there to witness that. "Like their cousins in Cairo, the Mongol rulers did not hesitate to commit unspeakable barbarisms with one hand while with the other paying out large sums to promote refined craft and learning." [Dunn, p. 87 ] Examples of learning were the observatory at Margheh in which Persian and Chinese scholars collaborated to work out astronomical tables of great importance; the master historian of the age was Rashid al-Din, a Jewish convert to Islam who wrote a Collection of Histories, the first truly universal history of mankind ever written embracing all of Islam, China, Byzantium, and western Europe. Chinese cultural influence is also found in Persian miniature painting, calligraphy, and textile and pottery design.
Ibn Battuta's Travels through Persia and Iraq
On Nov. 17, 1326, Ibn Battuta left Mecca and joined a caravan of pilgrims in an official caravan of the Persian state. He was treated to a half of a "double camel litter" by a rich official who was impressed with Ibn Battuta's learning and friendly personality. They marched at night by torchlight "so that you saw the countryside gleaming with light and the darkness turned into radiant day." [Dunn, p. 89] The wife of a caliph had paid for the construction of a chain of watering tanks and wells along the trail to keep the caravans safe. The entire journey from Mecca to Mesopotamia took approximately 44 days.
In al-Najaf Ibn Battuta visited a holy site, important to all Muslims, but especially important to the Shi'a communities. In al-Najaf was the mausoleum (burial place) of Ali, the fourth Caliph (successor to Muhammad), and Muhammad's nephew and son-in-law.
It was here that Ibn Battuta met Sufi Muslims, people who tried to find God through experiences like twirling around in a trance, through music and poetry, and through dance.
"When the afternoon prayers had been said, drums ... were beaten and the [Sufi] brethren began to dance. After this they prayed the sunset prayer and brought in the repast, consisting of rice-bread, fish, milk, and dates. When all had eaten and prayed the first night prayer, they began to recite the [prayer-songs]... They had prepared loads of firewood which they kindled into flame, and went into the midst of it dancing; some of them rolled in the fire, and others ate it in their mouths, until finally they extinguished it entirely... Some of them will take a large snake and bite its head with their teeth until they bite it clean through." [Dunn, p. 91]
Ibn Battuta continued on separately from the caravan and one of his first stops was Basra - a famous city at the top of the Persian Gulf.
Ibn Battuta was disappointed in the city that had been famous because of its past beauty. The city had shrunk in population and importance. When he attended a Friday service in the mosque, he was surprised at the errors in grammar committed by the leader. He learned that "In this town there is not a man left who knows anything of the science of grammar." [Dunn, p. 92.]
And so he continued on by taking a small sailboat up river to the city of Abadan. Along the river he saw "an uninterrupted succession of fruit gardens and overshadowing palmgroves both to the right and to the left, with traders sitting in the shade of the trees, selling bread, fish, dates, milk, and fruit." Further on in a marshy area far from civilization, he looked up a famous hermit who seemed so peaceful and happy with so little. For a while, Ibn Battuta even though about spending the rest of his life in the service of this old holy man. But the next day he was back on the road to Isfahan.
Isfahan was another city that had been destroyed by the Mongol invasion. [But the future destruction by another Mongol leader, Timur the Lame (or Tamerlane) would be much worse. Tamerlane dominated all of Persia from 1387. His invasion of Isfahan alone, led to more than 70,000 deaths where the heads of his victims were heaped up into pyramids.]
He lodged for two weeks in a large Sufi center and saw the sights and met with religious and legal scholars.
At Barsian, about 42 kilometers north-east of Isfahan, there is a fine complex consisting of an old minaret, a Seljuk mosque and what is probably one of the Caravansarais built by Shah Abbas I in the furtherance of internal trade in the 12th century. (Such buildings were frequently attached to mosques.) Other caravanserai were built to encourage international trade.
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- Background image from "Genghis Khan" National Geographic, copyright 1997. All rights reserved.