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Tourists a Millennium Ago Wanted to See the Sights — Just Like Us

Medieval texts show us the impulse to travel is enduringly human

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Tourists a Millennium Ago Wanted to See the Sights — Just Like Us
El Jem, Tunisia / Getty Images

The desire to travel is an age-old human impulse. Although many migrations from prehistoric times have been forced upon people by climatic, environmental and economic change, there have always been those keen to explore and enjoy the world for less pressing reasons. In medieval Europe, shopping, browsing and enjoying the sometimes-burlesque entertainments at a regional fair drew visitors from far and wide. Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” gives us a glimpse of the varied people, warts and all, who traveled along the pilgrim route to Canterbury, England. Others went further to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain or even to Jerusalem. Merchants and traders were also a mobile group, despite the absence of the convenient, speedy forms of transport that have opened the world to modern travelers and tourists and made a summer holiday abroad accessible to huge numbers of people.

Medieval Muslims were probably even better-traveled than their Christian counterparts because of the religious obligation to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, and the relatively extensive socioeconomic integration of the Islamic world, which enabled people to use Arabic, study and trade over a broad area, much as the widespread use of Latin and the Pax Romana had facilitated mobility in the Roman Empire.

The impetus to leave home and set off along the dusty tracks and waterways of North Africa and the Middle East could thus relate to religion, work or education, or a simple desire to get away and explore. Many people — mostly men — combined all three: buying and selling goods as they moved slowly along pilgrim routes, dallying at places of interest along the way and sometimes taking huge detours to visit the great cities of the day, which included Seville, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Bukhara and Samarkand.

Like us today, they wanted to see famed monuments, visit great mosques and churches, and return home with anecdotes to enliven their conversation. Many also wanted to study with renowned scholars abroad and come back with erudite, cosmopolitan credentials that would impress their peers. It is no surprise, then, that describing such routes was a popular form of medieval Islamic writing, designed to be read or recited aloud to listeners, just as Marco Polo’s “Travels” were a source of entertainment in Europe.

Such books took several different forms. Some were works of historical geography or road manuals that described the landscape in terms of the distance one could travel in a day, a “marhala,” and let people know the towns and villages where they could stop for the night. These books were often called books of routes and kingdoms or countries. The most practical of these manuals contained handy lists of local weights, measures and currencies for the benefit of the large mercantile class who did not want to be caught out or cheated in unfamiliar places.

These volumes might also contain imaginative accounts of weird and wonderful places or people, and err toward tall tales designed to entertain or titillate as much as to inform, forming a slightly different genre known as the books of wonders and rarities (“kutub al-ajaib wal-gharaib”). While their blending of fact and fiction might lead us to see their readers as naive, a quick glance through modern tourist guides shows that myth, legend and fact still jostle alongside each other to tempt and excite as well as instruct the traveler. Like us, medieval readers may have taken some of the more overblown details with a pinch of salt.

A third type of writing was the “rihla,” a personal travel account written in the first person that usually recounted the long journey to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, which Muslims aspire to complete at least once in their lifetime, health and finances permitting. These accounts could contain similar material to geographical works, but they were enlivened by a sense of adventure as well as personal impressions of a spiritual or cultural color, combined with dramatic tales of the very real dangers of travel, including banditry and piracy, terrifying storms at sea and shipwreck, and indignities suffered at the hands of local authorities.

One of the most famous such books is the late 12th-century travelog of Ibn Jubayr, who traveled from Granada, in southern Spain, across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, then took a long land tour around Syria and Palestine in addition to performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ibn Jubayr’s account is by turns sobering and inadvertently hilarious. He captures the desperation of landlubbers pitched back and forth in stormy Mediterranean waters and the irritations of dealing with customs officials who pat him down for contraband, and regales his readers with vivid images of the many sights he saw in the Middle East, complete with historical vignettes to show off his erudition.

He is especially keen on holy landmarks such as mosques, churches and shrines, much like other pilgrims and visitors to the Holy Land throughout the ages. He is also an observer of what we might call “power architecture;” buildings constructed by those in power to enhance their reputation. The most important examples in Ibn Jubayr’s day were the hospitals and theological colleges (“madrasas”) founded by Nur al-Din Zangi in Damascus and Salah al-Din, better known in the West as Saladin, in Cairo.

Ibn Jubayr described both carefully, triggering the construction of similar buildings by his own masters, the Almohads, rulers of a large western Islamic empire stretching from Cordoba to Tunis at its height in the 12th century. These were new, modern buildings at the time. Ibn Jubayr seems to be telling the Almohads what they needed to build in order to secure international acclaim and recognition, functions fulfilled today by skyscrapers and high-speed trains.

One of Ibn Jubayr’s lesser-known contemporaries was a man named Muhammad ibn Abd Rabbih (d. 1205) from Marrakesh, a descendant of a literary figure of the same name from 10th-century Cordoba. He also worked for the Almohads. In fact, it is quite likely that the two men knew each other. They certainly shared the sense that the empire they served was the foremost Islamic empire of the day. Ibn Abd Rabbih did not write a personal travelog like Ibn Jubayr, but he did compile a geographical handbook that covered Arabia, Egypt and North Africa, called “A Visual Exploration of the Wonders of Cities.” Like many other medieval Arabic works, it has not been translated into English, though parts were translated into French in the 20th century.

The book relies heavily on a famous work of geography written a century before in Islamic Spain, al-Bakri’s “Book of Routes and Kingdoms,” as well as other earlier works. Ibn Abd Rabbih can therefore be seen as a compiler — rather than an author per se — who added the finishing touches to the book, a process that treads close to what we would today call plagiarism. But it is his addition of Almohad-era information, suggesting personal observation of the places he describes from modern southern Spain to Tunisia, that adds immediacy and interest to his account. These details are in marked contrast to the material produced by al-Bakri, who worked from his study rather than traveling himself.

What was Ibn Abd Rabbih’s objective in writing the book, and what kinds of things piqued his interest as he traveled across these lands? Writers in the 12th century faced the same pressure to make money from their work as authors today, and that entailed finding a patron, rather than a publisher, who would reward them for delivering the manuscript. Royal courts were the ideal place to deliver a clever, flattering poem or a longer prose work in the hope that a ruler or wealthy courtier would offer money or other gifts for something that pleased them. Men like Ibn Abd Rabbih did not always receive a steady salary, and when he put pen to paper, he dedicated his work to Abu Imran bin Abi Yahya bin Waqtin, an otherwise unknown Almohad personage who, the author tells us, especially enjoyed travel accounts as well as other academic works, in the hope that he would like it and remunerate him for writing it.

Given the practical aspects of geography, the work may have been designed in part as a useful survey of the territories of the Almohad Empire, for the ruling class were often appointed to positions in corners of the empire far from home and would benefit from a bit of background before taking up a post. In the case of another 12th-century geographical work written by al-Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily, it has been suggested that it was an intelligence-gathering exercise, and this may also have been part of Ibn Abd Rabbih’s remit. In his description of the picturesque city of Constantine in eastern Algeria, he refers obliquely to having a purpose or mission (“gharad”) alongside writing historical geography. However, we may also look in other directions for reasons why Ibn Abd Rabbih traveled across North Africa.

A feature of travel and tourism in the heyday of the European Empire was competitive antiquarianism and collecting. If we look more closely at Ibn Abd Rabbih’s book from this perspective, it opens an interesting lens on travel and travel writing in medieval Islamic North Africa. Modern European or Western tourism began as an exploration of the roots of Western civilization in the ruins of Greece and Rome, and wanderings in the Holy Land to identify the locations mentioned in the Bible, both of which were perceived as somehow belonging to Western civilization. Observation of classical ruins then fed into the construction of the grand, imperial, neoclassical structures that still grace many major Western cities.

Modern tourists continue to be fascinated by the great classical sites, from the Colosseum in Rome to the Acropolis in Athens. When travel to North Africa was easier, the great Roman sites of Lepcis Magna in Libya, Carthage and El-Jem in Tunisia, and Timgad in Algeria were also popular tourist attractions. Ibn Abd Rabbih shows a familiar sense of interest and amazement in the classical ruins, while also regarding the ancients as the ancestors of his own present. He regularly refers to “our predecessors” as he comments on the impressive stone ruins, structures and fragments, whether free-standing in the landscape or embedded in contemporary towns, creating a thread of continuity from ancient pre-Islamic to Almohad times, akin to the thread tying that past to modern Western civilization.

Ibn Abd Rabbih’s masters, the Almohads, were great builders who expanded their capital, Marrakesh, founded a century before by the rival Almoravid dynasty, as well as Rabat, Seville and numerous other towns. This involved the foundation of palaces, huge great mosques with hallmark Almohad tower minarets, buildings that are themselves now on the modern tourist trail, and extensive suburban estates centered on large reservoirs. The latter involved major hydraulic works, and it is likely that Ibn Abd Rabbih’s sustained interest in the remnants of Roman waterworks such as aqueducts and cisterns reflected in part the considerable Almohad investment in hydraulic engineering. Certainly, our author describes many Almohad structures using the same adjectives — “amazing” and “wonderful” — as he uses for the Roman works still scattered across the landscape, highlighting the comparable material achievements of the Almohad age.

Returning to Ibn Abd Rabbih’s mission, the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (r. 1184-1199) may have had in mind not intelligence gathering but quite a different type of activity to bolster his imperial reputation. Recent studies have shown he presided over a fascinating period in which the weight of Mediterranean power did not lie with such better-known Middle Eastern regimes as the Ayyubid dynasty founded by Saladin, the Byzantines and Crusaders, or the eastern Seljuk sultans — but rather with the western Almohad Empire.

Al-Mansur promoted a court ideology that stressed the Islamic centrality of the Almohads and their inheritance of the caliphal mantle. It found expression first and foremost in the grand urbanistic projects mentioned above; in writing about the lands of the empire and beyond; and perhaps in antiquarianism and the collection of artifacts to embellish his court, a practice already attested for the Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba in the 10th century.

The latter were a source of inspiration for the Almohads. Chroniclers report that, on one of his own regular peregrinations through his empire, al-Mansur made a detour to the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra, a 10th-century Umayyad royal city constructed a few miles from Cordoba. While he was there, he took a statue of Venus from above the city’s old gateway, an act that greatly disturbed the local populace, who believed the statue was a protective talisman and attributed the sudden violent wind that gusted across the plain to divine wrath at its removal. More intriguing, however, is al-Mansur’s motive for taking the statue — upon which the sources are entirely silent.

The Almohads have a reputation for harshly enforcing religious rectitude upon their subjects, which has led some to speculate that the caliph’s appropriation of the artefact reflected Muslim antagonism to figural art. This is possible, but Muslim monarchs were not entirely averse to statues, and human figures appear in the paintings on the walls and ceilings of palaces, as well as on ceramic dishes, ivory caskets and woven hangings. I would suggest that al-Mansur was actually collecting a beautiful piece of antique art to display in one of his own palaces, following in the footsteps of his Umayyad forebears, the builders of Madinat al-Zahra, as part of his broader ideological program. I like to think that this antiquarian impulse may also have lain behind the mission that Ibn Abd Rabbih was on in Constantine, where he mentions rummaging around to find Roman ruins.

The book has more to offer us, too. On rare occasions, Ibn Abd Rabbih lightens its scholarly tone with asides that suddenly insert him into the narrative, hinting at experiences that have a startlingly modern feel. In writing of his hometown Marrakesh, he describes the awe-inspiring royal estates and their massive reservoirs, adding that he and other young Almohad men used to have swimming races in them. While in Constantine, a city perching on a rocky outcrop surrounded on three sides by spectacular deep-cut ravines, he admires the Roman bridge and tells us what it felt like to stand on it.

“Where the river enters the ravine, anyone nearby can hear the mighty reverberation and the startling roar of its flow. Our forebears erected a mighty bridge across this ravine, three in fact one upon another, suspended in the air near the top of the ravine providing access to the city and connected to its gate. On the edge of the bridge, adjacent to the gate, they constructed an arched building which the inhabitants of the city called the Ubur, meaning the dog star Sirius, because it appears to be suspended in the sky. If you are in the middle of this bridge, crossing to the other side, you think that you are flying in the air and you see the waters of the mighty river in the depths of the deep ravine looking like a little brook.”

He also makes a comparison between Constantine’s striking location and that of Ronda, a small town in modern Andalusia in Spain, which also perches above a ravine, showing his familiarity with both locations. He is at his most obviously touristic, however, in a delightful passage about Carthage, whose Punic and Roman ruins all writers worth their salt had to mention. After carefully describing the so-called palaces and theater of Carthage, the endless arches and the masses of white marble in a section indebted to al-Bakri, he moves on to the cisterns and his own tour of them, led presumably by a local guide.

“[Carthage] contains many water cisterns. One set are called the Cisterns of the Demons, because whoever draws near hears an echoing from within and people carefully weigh up whether to go in or not. Anyone who emboldens himself to enter knows he must be strong of heart. I entered during the daytime with friends and saw an awe-inspiring sight. Whoever utters the lowest word inside hears a mighty echo, but the most marvelous thing I saw was the water within, still there today, even though no rain water can enter due to the precision of its roofing. It consists of 18 cisterns each connected to the next, of about 200 cubits in height and great width, containing about six fathoms of water, and it is not known where this water enters from, as Abu Ubayd al-Bakri mentions in his Book of Routes and Kingdoms. The most astounding thing in Carthage is the water in the Cisterns of the Demons, which are ageless.”

We can almost hear a local guide telling the group of Almohad gentlemen about the rumored demons and warning them of the dangers of entering, while promising to take them in for a suitable price. The encounter evokes a wry smile for those of us who have been entertained by similar tales both at home and abroad, as does Ibn Abd Rabbih’s thrill at entering the cisterns, tempered by his efforts to remain the educated commentator by providing some sober statistics and referring to al-Bakri, the respected geographer whose work is the starting point for his own description of Carthage.

We know very little about Ibn Abd Rabbih beyond the few personal asides that he makes in his book. He mentions the year 1191, so he must have completed the work around that time or later, although a comment about an embassy from Saladin that occurred the following year may have been added by another hand. Did he give the book to Abu Imran, and was he pleased with it, or did it not strike the right note or fulfill its purpose? The small number of manuscripts that have survived may indicate that this book did not circulate widely, although it is cited in a late 16th-century account of an embassy to Ottoman Istanbul.

Whatever its fate and that of its author, the work provides us a small window into the world of a 12th-century traveler who used his personal experience to update the geographical work of al-Bakri and other earlier authors. It is clear that, unlike al-Bakri, Ibn Abd Rabbih did not sit in his study in Marrakesh and depict a world described to him by others. On the contrary, in the course of his career with the Almohad caliphs, he trod many routes and visited several of the sites he describes from his home in modern Morocco to the Iberian Peninsula and across the eastern expanses of the Almohad Empire to modern Algeria (Constantine) and Tunisia (Carthage).

Many men, and some women, traveled with the Almohad monarch, with Almohad princes and governors, and with the endlessly moving Almohad army. Ibn Abd Rabbih’s peripatetic life was not, therefore, unusual. On occasion he may have been required to compose poetry to flatter and entertain the tired ruler, but in Constantine he seems to have had another objective, either intelligence-gathering or rooting out the treasures of the Roman past with a collector’s eye on behalf of a monarch keen to associate his dynasty with the great achievements of the past, both Islamic and pre-Islamic, and to position the Almohad Empire as a worthy successor of Rome, in particular. Although this remains speculation, antiquarian collecting was also a feature of much European travel in the Middle East and further afield during the imperial age, as the now controversial collections of the British Museum and other national European museums show.

On a more personal note, Ibn Abd Rabbih also reveals a relish for travel that resonates strongly today. When he moves from the third to the first person, we suddenly see him standing on the bridge at Constantine, oohing and aahing at the incredible drop and the roaring of the river below, wandering through dusty city streets pointing out old stones of Roman provenance, and taking a boat tour of the cisterns of Carthage with his friends, amazed and thrilled by their huge, dark cavernous interior, which locals tell them is haunted by demons! Suddenly, we understand this man who lived a millennium ago, and share in his enduringly human enjoyment of seeing new places, a pleasure that we relish all the more after two years in which we have been forced to be “armchair” travelers ourselves.

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