Imagine yourself a medieval traveler, perhaps-en-route from the Mediterranean to East Asia in search of exotic spices, silks, jewels, and perfumes. On the road, hundreds or thousands of miles from home, you meet your fellow travelers: merchants from the East and the West carrying trade goods, pilgrims on their way to religious shrines, knights in search of employment. You have no road map, and the travel over dirt roads, by foot or on horse or mule, is difficult. If you are fortunate enough to find an inn, you will pass an uncomfortable night curled up on the floor in a corner of a room crowded with other travelers, as well as with rats, mice, and fleas.
Despite the difficulties, however, you and many others in the 1300s have a passion for travel and exploration. There is a strong possibility you have heard tales of the two greatest world travelers of your time: Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Marco Polo began his career of world exploration when he was 17 years old. In 1271 he set out from his home in Venice, Italy, with his father and uncle, who were Venetian merchants. After three years of traveling by ship, then by camel, they arrived in China at the summer palace of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. Evidently impressed with Polo’s knowledge of four languages, Kublai Khan engaged him as an emissary. For 17 years, Polo traveled throughout China.
After 24 years and nearly 15,000 miles, the three Polos returned to Venice. Marco Polo wrote an account of his travels in a book called Description of the World, which was widely read throughout Europe. Ibn Battuta, who was born in 1304 in Morocco, North Africa, began his travels a year after Marco Polo’s death and journeyed an even greater distance than Polo. At the age of 21, Ibn Battuta’s pilgrimage to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina (Al-Madinah) sparked his enthusiasm for travel.
During the course of his travels, Ibn Battuta journeyed to Egypt, Syria, Baghdad, East Africa, Asia Minor, the Balkans, southern Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, India, and China. Twenty-four years after his departure, Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco by traveling through the East Indies. Once settled in North Africa, he described his impressions and experiences in a book called the Rihla.