The Travels of Ibn Jubayr

October 28, 2015

31upp0x-EQL._AA160_In the twelfth century, an Arab traveller from Andalusia sets off on the long journey to perform the hajj.

Ibn Jubayr is clearly a devout Muslim: this comes across through the countless prayer tag-phrases when people are named, and through his virulent verbal abuse of Christians in territories where they rule over Muslims, although he actually paints a picture of peaceful coexistence between the various peoples of the book wherever he goes. In this he is no different from other travellers of that time. It is fascinating to recall that he writes at the time of the Crusades, and before Constantinople has fallen to the Turks: the perspective is completely different.

Ibn Jubayr made me aware of numerous divisions and sects within Islam of which I had not known; sometimes the reasons behind these divisions were clear, sometimes not, but what I noticed was that they were about people rather than aspects of belief, about aspects of practice rather than theology. I was also surprised by the amount of ritual within Islamic practice and prayer which he described; here it seemed to resemble Christianity quite a lot: the past, various places associated with religious worthies and relics all seemed to receive veneration from the faithful. Again, this seems very different from what I read about current practice, where anything that might smack of idolatry is roundly condemned, and the Saudis seem to be eradicating much of the past of Islam.

Ibn Jubayr became homesick for his beloved al-Andalus, and was very glad to return home: again, to a twenty-first century reader, this appears very strange, but emphasises how much those lands were once an integral part of the Arab world.

His description of places generally left a lot to be desired; he is often vague about details, slipping frequently into generalised superlatives in praise of many things, so that eventually the impressions all become much of a muchness, and very little stands out to distinguish one place from another. This is particularly true in the lengthy chapters on Mecca and Medina: he is much better when describing actual travel, particularly the lengthy sea journeys across the length of the Mediterranean.

I was particularly saddened when I read his lengthy descriptions of the beauties of Syria, and particularly Damascus and Aleppo, given the horrific situation in that country at the moment.

As I remarked in my previous post, I think this was probably a book too far, though in the end I’m glad I’ve read it, but it didn’t add very much at all to the accounts of Arab travellers I’ve already read.  The texts is a print-on-demand one from an Indian publisher: beautifully produced, with two tipped-in maps (!) and reasonably priced: let me note this clearly, given my frequent complaints about such things…


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