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The Rihla of Ibn BaftQJa

If Ibn Jubayr’s Rihla is the prototype, then Ibn Ballula’s is the masterpiece, plagiarism and fantasy notwithstanding. For it exhibits the hajj as a vehicle par excellence for wanderlust/wonderlust. With Alice, Ibn Ballula wishes to make his readers’ “eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago.”24 And he suffers severe homesickness,25 seasickness and shipwreck26 in pursuit of that dream. He is, fundamentally, a “little” man, a minor legal scholar of the Maliki madhhab (legal school), whose enlarging ego demands more as his journey increases in length and severity and as he himself grows in self-respect and the respect of others.

His lifespan occupied more than two-thirds of the fourteenth Christian century and a large part of that was spent wandering through Asia, Europe and Africa. He brings a sense of time as well as place to each region he visits.27 At the end of his travels, his scribe, Ibn Juzayy, admiringly observes: “It is obvious to anyone of intelligence that this shaikh is the traveller of the age (rahhal al- ‘asr). If anyone were to call him ‘the traveller of this (Muslim) community’ (rahhal hadhihi al-milla) he would not exaggerate.”28 Ibn Ballula has come a long way, emotionally, physically and in terms of prestige, from the shy scholar who sets out from Tangier in AD 1325 aged 22: he has become a judge (qadl) in both Delhi and the Maldives29 and he claims to have covered a large part of the known world on his travels. How much was fact and how much was fantasy?

226 Ian Richard Netton Three arenas of fantasy

Andronicus II

There followed the Knave of Hearts, carrying the King’s crown on a crimson velvet cushion; and, last of all this grand procession, came the King and Queen of Hearts.30

The most casual reading of Ibn Battuta’s Rihla shows that he likes to mix with - and boast of having mixed with - the great and the good of the Age.31 He is an obsessive collector of people as well as places and events. A minor legal scholar, often unsure of himself - we note his tears as he leaves his native land32 - he seeks to boost his own ego by such collections and encounters, and boost his career as he collects qadiships in the Maldives and Delhi.33 And not only does he collect such secular honours; he collects spiritual honours too, by affiliating himself to Sufi orders, thus making his mark as pious pilgrim, traveller and Sufi manque.3 Together with this is his collecting of miraculous events35 and ‘aja’ib (wonders) like the sighting of the rukhkh,36 a monstrous bird of Islamic mythology. He hates the sea37 and regales us at an early stage with the whole of the Litany of the Sea (Hizb al-Bahr)3S and his shipwrecks,39 as an inveterate collector of heroics and to bolster an intrepid traveller’s mask for a future readership. Finally, he collects prestige by association; witness his service to the very dangerous Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad b. Tughluq. It is at this point that we are obliged to reconsider his alleged encounter with the ex-Emperor of Byzantium, Andronicus II.

In John Fowles’ early novel, The Collector, the heroine, who has been kidnapped and is being held against her will, says to her captor:

I hate scientists. I hate people who collect things, and classify things and give them names and then forget all about them. That’s what people are always doing in art. They call a painter an impressionist or a cubist or something and then they put him in a drawer and don’t see him as a living individual painter any more. But I can see they’re beautifully arranged.40

Of course, Ibn Battuta does not kidnap those whom he encounters, but by meeting, and later recording, those of fame, prestige and, perhaps, wealth, he organises and validates his own life with the charisms of others; he gives that life a kind of extra meaning if, by rihla in Ibn Battuta’s extreme form, we intend a solipsistic and prolonged search for identity as well as knowledge and a pilgrim satisfaction. Thus it is that Ibn Battuta “collects” the ex-Emperor Andronicus II in his RihlaAl in a city which Tim Mackintosh-Smith describes as being “in a state of terminal loucheness”.42

The encounter is briefly narrated: on arrival in Constantinople, our traveller claims to have encountered two Byzantine Emperors: a reigning one, whom Ibn Battuta, confusing name and designation,43 calls Takfur,44 and whom H. A.R. Gibb identifies as “Andronicus III (reg. AD 1328-1341), who was the grandson of his predecessor Andronicus II (abdicated l328)”, as well as Andronicus II himself.45

This first encounter is unproblematic. On the fourth day after he arrives in Constantinople, Ibn Battuta is summoned to the Palace, carefully searched on entry and taken into a grand audience hall with a tree-lined water feature. Thence he moves “to a grand pavilion” and encounters a very genial Emperor sitting on his throne (wa ’l-Sulfan ‘ala saririhi). Ibn Battuta answers all the Emperor’s questions to the latter’s satisfaction, via a Jewish interpreter. The Emperor showers him with a number of presents including a robe of honour, a horse, and a guide to show him the City of Constantinople.46

One would have thought that such a successful interview, culminating in such honour and such presents, with the highest dignitary in the land, the reigning Byzantine Emperor himself, would have been sufficient for any man. But, as we and Mackintosh-Smith have noted,47 Ibn Ba ttuta is an inveterate collector of people, and he now claims to have met the direct predecessor of Andronicus III, Andronicus II, now abdicated and become a monk.

In a section of the Rihla entitled, in Gibb’s translation, “Account of the king Jirgis, who became a Monk” (Dhikr al-Malik al-Mutarahhab Jirjis), Ibn Battuta writes:

The king invested his son with the kingdom, consecrated himself to the service of God, and built a monastery ... outside the city, on the bank [of its river]. I was out one day with the Greek appointed to ride with me when we chanced to meet this king, walking on foot, wearing hair-cloth garments, and with a felt bonnet on his head. He had a long white beard and a fine face, which bore traces of his austerities; before and behind him was a body of monks, and he had a pastoral staff in his hand and a rosary on his neck.48

Ibn Battuta’s Greek companion promptly dismounts and tells Ibn Battuta to do the same, saying that “this is the king’s father”.

Ibn Battuta is greeted by this alleged ex-Emperor and the traveller is amazed at the latter’s inter-faith civility as they discuss Jerusalem and the Christians who live there. But that inter-faith exchange only goes so far: the monk tells the traveller that anyone who wishes to enter the church “must needs prostrate himself before the great cross”, which Ibn Battuta is unwilling to do and so the monk and his entourage enter the church alone, without Ibn Battuta.49 Ibn Battuta is clearly fascinated by his two encounters, by that with the reigning Emperor and that with the alleged ex-Emperor, and he relishes the stark contrast between the two. But did he actually meet Andronicus II?

H.A.R. Gibb is absolutely adamant that he did not: “By no possible chronology can Ibn Battuta have visited Constantinople before the death of Andronicus II on 12/13 February 1332. [We may remind ourselves that the traveller left Tangiers at the start of his rihla in AD 1325.] Since, moreover, the monastic name of the ex-Emperor was Antonius, it is evident that he either misunderstood or was misled by his guide as to the identity of the monk ‘George’.”50

There is, of course, another very real possibility, and that is that the whole episode is an aspect of Ibn Battuta’s collector’s instinct whereby he claims to have encountered as many of the great and the good as his imagination can muster. This would then put the encounter with the alleged Andronicus II in the realms of invention and fantasy but would serve to underline the whole idea of voyage as adab, voyage as a text whose primary purpose is the entertainment of the reader or listener by means of retailing fantastic stories, true or imaginary, by means, in other words of ‘aja’ib, wonders. Many other notable scholars of Ibn Ballula, including L.P. Harvey, Charles Beckingham, Ross E. Dunn and Ivan Hrbek share Gibb’s profound scepticism about the whole encounter with the alleged ex-Emperor.51 Hrbek, for example, is quite dogmatic about Ibn Ballula’s capacity for invention: “He did not meet an Emperor-monk but with all probability some personage belonging to the high clergy of the Orthodox Church. And our traveler made him the ex-Emperor - of whose monastic life he certainly heard in Constantinople - to add a further item to his collection of personal acquaintances with the sovereigns and to show his readers what an important person he was on his travels.”52

Ross Dunn is only slightly kinder: “The supposed meeting with the ex-emperor Andronicus II ... is only the most egregious of his misunderstandings.” Tim Mackintosh-Smith is kindest of all, but then he is an ardent aficionado of the traveller. “Perhaps,” he suggests, “pace Gibb, the conundrum of IB’s chronology could be twisted into a solution, like a four-dimensional Rubik’s Cube.”53

Misunderstanding, possible fact, or outright fraud and fantasy? The reader is left to be the ultimate judge!

 
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