Born in Tangier, Morocco some time between 1304 and 1307, at the age of (approximately) twenty Ibn Battuta went on a hajj -- a pilgrimage to Mecca. Once done, however, he continued travelling, eventually covering about 75,000 miles over the length and breadth of the Muslim world.
Note: Almost all that is known about Ibn Battuta's life comes from one source -- Ibn Battuta himself. In spots the things he claims he saw or did are provably fanciful, but in many others there is no way to know whether he is reporting or story-telling. The following account assumes the former where it is not obviously the latter.
His journey to Mecca was by land, and followed the North African coast quite closely until he reached Cairo. At this point he was within Mameluk territory, which was relatively safe, and he embarked on the first of his detours. Three commonly used routes existed to Mecca, and Ibn Battuta chose the least-travelled: a journey up the Nile, then east by land to the Red Sea port of 'Aydhad. However, upon approaching that city he was forced to turn back due to a local rebellion.
Returning to Cairo he took a second side trip, to Damascus (then also controlled by the Mameluks), having encountered a holy man during his first trip who prophesized that Ibn Battuta would only reach Mecca after a journey through Syria. An additional advantage to the side journey was that other holy places were along the route -- Hebron, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, for example -- and the Mameluke authorities put special effort into keeping the journey safe for pilgrims.
After spending Ramadan in Damascus, Ibn Battuta joined up with a caravan travelling the 800 miles from Damascus to Medina, burial place of Mohammed. After four days, he then journeyed on to Mecca. There he completed the usual rituals of a Muslim pilgrim, and having graduated to the status of al-Hajji as a result, now faced his return home. Upon reflection, he decided to continue journeying instead. His next destination was the Il-Khanate in modern-day Iraq and Iran.
Once again hooking up with a caravan he crossed the border into Mesopotamia and visited al-Najaf, the burial place of the fourth Caliph Ali. From there he journeyed to Basra, then Isfahan, which was only a few decades away from being nearly destroyed by Tamerlane. Next were Shiraz and Baghdad, the latter of which was in bad shape after being sacked by Hulagu Khan.
There he met Abu Sa'id, the last ruler of the unified Il-Khanate. Ibn Battuta travelled with the royal caravan for a while, then turned north to Tabriz on the Silk Road. The first major city in the region to open its gates to the Mongols, it had become an important trading centre after most of its nearby rivals were razed.
After this trip, Ibn Battuta returned to Mecca for a second hajj, and lived there for a year before embarking on a second great trek, this time down the Red Sea and the East African coast. His first major stop was Aden, where his intention was to make his fortune as a trader of the goods that flowed into the Arabian Peninsula from around the Indian Ocean. Before doing so, however, he determined to have one last adventure, and signed on for a trip down the coast of Africa.
Spending about a week in each of his destinations, he visited Ethiopia, Mogadishu, Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Kilwa, among others. With the change of the monsoon, he and the ship he was aboard then returned to south Arabia. Having completed his final adventure before settling down, he then immediately decided to go visit Oman and the Straits of Hormuz. This done, he journeyed to Mecca again.
Spending another year there, he then resolved to seek employment with the Muslim sultan of Delhi. Needing a guide and translator if he was to travel there, he went to Anatolia, then under the control of the Seljuk Turks, to join up with one of the caravans that went from there to India. A sea voyage from Damascus on a Genoese ship landed him in Alanya on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey. From there he travelled by land to Konya and then Sinope on the Black Sea coast.
Crossing the Black Sea, Ibn Battuta landed in Kaffa, in the Crimea, and entered the lands of the Golden Horde. There he bought a wagon and fortuitously joined the caravan of Ozbeg, the Golden Horde's Khan, on a journey as far as Astrakhan on the Volga River.
Upon reaching Astrakhan, the Khan allowed one of his pregnant wives to go give birth back in her home city -- Constantinople. It is perhaps of no surprise to the reader that Ibn Battuta talked his way into this expedition, his first beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world.
Arriving there towards the end of 1332, he met the emperor Andronicus III and saw the outside of Hagia Sophia. After a month in the city, he retraced his route to Astrakhan, then carried on past the Caspian and Aral Seas to Bokhara and Samarkand. From there he journeyed south to Afghanistan, the mountain passes of which he used to cross into India.
The Sultanate of Delhi was a relatively new addition to Dar al-Islam, and the sultan had resolved to import as many Muslim scholars and other functionaries as possible to consolidate his rule. On the strength of his years of studies while in Mecca, Ibn Battuta was employed as a qadi ("judge") by the Sultan Muhammed Tuguluq.
The Sultan was erratic even by the standards of the time, and Ibn Battuta veered between living the high life of a trusted subordinate, and being under suspicion for a variety of reasons. Eventually he resolved to leave on the pretext of taking another hajj, but the Sultan offered the alternative of being ambassador to China. Given the opportunity to both get away from the Sultan and visit new lands, Ibn Battuta took it.
En route to the coast, he and his party were attacked by Hindu rebels, and separated from the others he was robbed and nearly lost his life. Nevertheless, he managed to catch up with his group within two days, and continued the journey to Cambay. From there they sailed to Calicut. While Ibn Battuta visited a mosque on shore, however, a storm blew up and two of the ships of his expedition were sunk. The third then sailed away without him, and ended up seized by a local king in Sumatra a few months later.
Fearful of returning to Delhi as a failure, he stayed for a time in the south under the protection of Jamal al-Din, but when that worthy was overthrown it became necessary for Ibn Battuta to leave India altogether. He resolved to carry on to China, with a detour near the beginning of the journey to the Maldives.
In the Maldives he spent nine months, much more time than he had intended to. As a qadi his skills were highly desirable in the backwards islands and he was half-bribed, half-kidnapped into staying. Appointed chief judge and marrying into the royal family, he became embroiled in local politics, and ended up leaving after wearing out his welcome after imposing strict judgments in the laissez-faire island kingdom. From there he carried on to Ceylon for a visit to Adam's Peak.
Setting sail from Ceylon, his ship nearly sank in a storm, then the ship that rescued him was attacked by pirates. Stranded on shore, Ibn Battuta once again worked his way back to Calicut, from where he then sailed to the Maldives again before getting onboard a Chinese junk and trying once again to get to China.
This time he succeeded, reaching in quick succession Chittagong, Sumatra, Vietnam, and then finally Quanzhou in Fujian Province, China. From there he went north to Hangzhou, not far from modern-day Shanghai. He also claimed to have travelled even further north, through the Grand Canal to Beijing, but this is believed to be one of his tales, not an actual event.
Returning to Quanzhou, Ibn Battuta decided to return home -- though exactly where "home" was was a bit of a problem. Returning to Calicut once again, he pondered throwing himself on the mercy of Muhammed Tuguluq, but thought better of it and decided to carry on to Mecca once again. Retruning via Hormuz and the Il-Khanate, he saw that state dissolved into civil war, Abu Sa'id having died since his previous trip there.
Returning to Damascus with the intention of retracing the route of his first hajj, he learned that his father had died. Death was the theme of the next year or so, for the Black Death had begun, and Ibn Battuta was on hand as it spread through Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. After reaching Mecca, he decided to return to Morocco, nearly a quarter century after leaving it. During the trip he made one last detour to Sardinia, then returned to Tangier to discover that his mother had also died, a few months before.
Having settled in Tangier for all of a few days, Ibn Battuta then set out for a trip to al-Andalus -- Muslim Spain. Alfonso XI of Castile was threatening the conquest of Gibraltar, and Ibn Battuta joined up with a group of Muslims leaving Tangier with the intention of defending the port. By the time he arrived the Black Death had killed Alfonso and the threat had receded, so Ibn Battuta decided to visit for pleasure instead. He travelled through Valencia, and ended up in Granada.
Leaving Spain he decided to travel through one of the few parts of the Muslim world that he had never explored: Morocco. On his return home he stopped for a while in Marrakesh, which was nearly a ghost town after the recent plague and the transfer of the capital to Fez.
Once more he returned to Tangier, and once more he moved on. Two years before his own first visit to Cairo, the Malian king Mansa Musa had passed through the same city on his own hajj and had caused a sensation with his extravagant riches -- something like half the world's gold supply at the time was coming from West Africa. While Ibn Battuta never mentions this specifically, hearing of this during his own trip must have planted a seed in his mind, for he decided to set out and visit the Muslim kingdom on the far side of the Sahara Desert.
In the fall of 1351, Ibn Battuta set out from Fez, reaching the last Moroccan town (Sijilmasa) a bit more than a week later. When the winter caravans began a few months later, he was with one, and within a month he was in the Central Saharan town of Taghaza. A centre of the salt trade, Taghaza was awash with salt and Malian gold, though Ibn Battuta did not have a favorable impression of the place. Another 500 miles through the worst part of the desert brought him to Mali, particularly the town of Walata.
From there he travelled southwest along a river he believed to be the Nile (but that was, in actuality, the Niger River) until he reached the capital of the Mali Empire. There he met Mansa Sulayman, king since 1341. Dubious about the miserly hospitality of the king, he neverthless stayed for eight months before journeying back up the Niger to Timbuktu. Though in the next two centuries it would become the most important city in the region, at the time it was small and unimpressive, and Ibn Battuta soon moved on. Partway through his journey back across the desert, he received a message from the Sultan of Morocco, commanding him to return home. This he did, and this time it lasted.
At the instigation of the Sultan, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his journeys to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy, whom he had met while in Iberia. While obviously fictional in places, the Rihla (translated somewhat inaccurately into English as "My Travels") still gives as complete an account as exists of some parts of the world in the 14th century.
After the publication of the Rihla, little is known about Ibn Battuta's life. He may have been appointed a qadi in Morocco. Ibn Battuta died in Morocco some time between 1368 and 1377. For centuries his book was obscure, even within the Muslim world, but in the 1800's it was rediscovered and translated into several European languages. Since then Ibn Battuta has grown in fame, and is now a well-known figure in the Middle East.