Ibn Battuta set off for the Haj in 1325, and it took him almost a quarter century before he returned to his homeland (hum, I know the experience). Of course, Ibn Battuta did far more than the Haj; he traveled in virtually all of the Islamic world at the time, starting from Tangiers, going as far as China, with side-trips to southern Russia, southern modern-day Tanzania, central Asia, and he even did a stint as a judge in India, working for a despot who really would hire foreigners, since they are easier to control. (hum, again.) It really was a world-class achievement, and Ibn Battuta far exceeded the travels of the person he is most frequently compared with: Marco Polo. Once Ibn Battuta got in motion, the joys of the road, the obsession to see what was around the next bend, simply possess him as it has few other human beings. Once he returned home after the quarter century, he must have felt "the moss growing" on his stone, so he set off on a multi-year tour of north-west Africa.
The problem though is the record he left of his travels. Since he did not have the literary skills, his travels were told to Ibn Juzayy, who weaved his own story replete with dollops of pandering to the elites of the time. And there was a large "stream of consciousness" to his tale, which might be great for a novel, but the inaccuracies of time and place invalidate much of the useful knowledge that could have been obtained. That account is called the "Rihla." Enter Professor Ross E. Dunn, who is fascinated by Ibn Battuta's achievement, and tries to make the best of "a bad hand" so that this story might be available for the general reader (as well as many a specialist.) Dunn does an admirable job at this task, with excellent epigraphs from Ibn Khaldun, and others, adequate footnotes, black and white photos, and some excellent maps which define his "definite" travels, as well as his "maybes". Of the many problems with Ibn Khaldun's account is the absence of the daily life of the common man, and the exclusive attention the elites of society receive. Overall, Dunn creates a workable synthesis of the actual facts from the Rihla coupled with a factual account of the background of the Islamic High Middle Ages.
The main advantage to the Western reader in tackling this book... and that is an apt approach... is to reflect on an entirely different world view that does not have an axis that runs through Greece and Rome. And that is more important today than when Ibn Khaldun undertook his journey. Overall though, for a feel of this area, at least during a similar period, I much preferred In an Antique Land
. Both Professor Dunn and Ibn Khaldun deserve 5-stars for their efforts and achievements, but the finished product of the Ribla merits a lonely one, at least from one sitting in a Western "just the straight facts" perspective, and so I'll average out the book at 3-stars.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on July 07, 2010)