HIS 311 Lecture on East Africa, as seen by Ibn Battuta

by Jim Jones (Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved)

This file contains notes for the lecture based on reading from Said Hamdun & Noel King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (Princeton, NJ & New York: Markus-Wiener Publishing, Inc., 1994), 13-25. For additional information on Ibn Battuta, visit

The East African Journey     (page 13)

In the spring of 1331, Ibn Battuta traveled south along the East African coast from Aden to Mogadishu, Mombasa and Kilwa. He left Aden by ship in mid-late January 1331.

His first landfall in Africa was the city of "Zaila," four days journey from Aden (The modern city of Zeila is 40km southeast of Djibouti along the coast). He described the inhabitants as "Barbara," Muslim blacks who were followers of the Imam al- Shafi'i, although Battuta notes that the majority were "rejectors," i.e. (Shi'ite) people who rejected the first three caliphs. They herded camels and sheep.

From Zeila to Mogadishu, the land was all desert and the [overland] trip took two months. The city of Zeila was "a big city and has a great market but it is the dirtiest, most desolate and smelliest town in the world. The reason for its stink is the quantity of fish and the blood of the camels they butcher in its alleyways." To avoid the smell, Battuta spend the nights on his ship, even though the water was rough.

The next leg of the sea voyage lasted fifteen nights and brought Battuta to Maqdashaw (Mogadishu). He described the town as "endless in its size" and mentioned the large number of camels and sheep slaughtered there. Mogadishu was also famous for its cloth, which was sold as far away as Egypt. [COMMENT: If the sea voyage took fifteen days and the land voyage took two months, then a ship traveled four times as fast as a person could walk. The distance along the coast from Zeila to Mogadishu is about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) and the overland distance is about 800 miles (1,200 kilometers) so a boat covered eighty miles a day and a caravan covered thirteen miles.

Upon arrival in Mogadishu harbor, it was the custom for small native boats ("sunbuqs") to approach the arriving vessel, and their occupants to offer food and hospitality to the merchants on the ship. If a merchant accepted such an offer, then he was obligated to lodge in that person's house and to accept their services as sales agent for whatever business they transacted in Mogadishu. According to Battuta, "there is profit for them [local people] in this custom." [COMMENT: This was a way for the local people to benefit from long distance trade that passed through their city.]

Because Battuta was a learned man and not a merchant, he was invited directly to the house of the "qadi" of Mogdishu.

An Account of the Sultan of Maqdashaw     (page 17)

The sultan of Mogadishu was Abu Bakr ibn Shaikh Umar. He was Barbara amd spoke the local language of Mogadishu, but he also knew Arabic. Battuta was introduced to the Sultan by the "qadi" Ibn al-Burhãn, an Egyptian. After sending a message via a student to the Sultan, the student returned with a plate containing betel leaves and areca nuts, and a sprinkler that contained Damascas rose water.

The Sultan ordered Battuta to stay in the house reserved for Islamic students, and sent him food. Battuta described the food in detail as rice topped with butter ("ghee") and a sauce containing meat, chicken, fish and vegetables. They also served unripened banana cooked in milk. sour milk with pickled lemon, bunches of pickled chillies with vinegar and salt, green ginger, and mangoes. [COMMENT: Butter (ghee) was the best method for preserving milk in areas that had no refrigeration.]

Battuta noted that the people of Mogadishu ate as much as a whole group from Arabia, and they were "extremely large and fat of body." During the three days that they were the guest of the Sultan, they were fed thrice daily.

On the fourth day of their stay, a Friday, the Sultan sent clothing for them to wear to the mosque. The clothing consisted of a silk wrapper (trousers were unknown), "an upper garment of Egyptian linen with markings, a lined gown of Jerusalem material, and an Egyptian turban with embroideries."

They went to the mosque and prayed with the sultan in his royal enclosure. After the service, the Sultan stopped at the grave of his father, and then greeted his "wazirs", "amirs", and the commanders of his soldiers. Battuta observed that the customary greeting resembled that used in Yemen: touch one finger to the ground, then to one's head, and wish "May God prolong your might."

Battuta described the procession that accompanied the Sultan from the mosque to his house, which was nearby. In addition to men who carried four canopies over his head, there were crowds of barefoot people, groups of soldiers, and musicians who played drums, pipes and trumpets.

Once he arrived at his house, the Sultan held court in the council room. He was first to enter the room and then the others followed in order of precedence: wazirs, amirs and commanders, who were then seated. The "qadi", "faqihs" and "sharifs" were seated together on mats. During the afternoon prayer (the "`asr"), the soldiers joined them and stood in lines according to their rank. Battuta observed that whenever the drums, flutes and trumpets played, no one dared move.

On Saturday, the Sultan (Battuta called him a "shaikh") held audience at his home and people came to wait outside. Religious leaders occupied the second council room where they sat on wooden platforms. The "qadi" had his own platforms and each of the other groups--"faqihs", "sharifs", "imams", "shaikhs", and "hadji"--had their own platform. Guests were seated to the right of the "shaikh".

A meal is served and it is a sign of honor when people were invited to join the meal. Afterwards, the court session began. The Sultan retired to his house while the "qadi" heard cases involving the "shari'a" (religious law) and the council of ministers ("waziers" and "amirs") heard civil cases. When the Sultan's opinion was required, the court sent a written request and he replied by writing on the back of the note and returning it.

Battuta left Mogadishu by sailing south towards the land of the "Sawãhil" (coasts) and the city of Kilwa, "which is one of the cities of the land of the Zunüj." He arrived at the island of Mombasa, which he described as "a large island with two days journey by sea between it and the land of the "Sawãhil". It has no mainland. Its trees are the banana, the lemon, and the citron. They have fruit which they call the "jammun", which is similar to the olive and its [jammun] stone is like its [olive] stone except that it is extremely sweet."

There was no grain cultivated at Mombasa; all grain was imported from the "Sawãhil" coast. Most of their diet consisted of bananas and fish.

The people of Mombasa were "Shãfi'i" Muslims, "a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built. At every door of the mosques there are one or two wells. The depth of the wells is a cubit or two." [COMMENT: What is the quality of water taken from a depth of two cubits (one cubit == roughly 18 inches) in a city on an island in the ocean?]

Battuta goes on in a stream-of-consciousness to describe the wooden device used to get water from the wells, the practice of feet-washing prior to entering the mosque. Apparently, everyone goes barefoot.

After an overnight stay in the town, Battuta continued on to Kilwa by ship. Most of the inhabitants of Kilwa were black ("Zunüj") and many had decorative scars on their faces, like those worn by the people of "the Limiyyin of Jan da." [COMMENT: Battuta actually wrote "j-n-d" and some authors have translated it to be the word from which the European word "Guinea" was derived.]

A merchant told Battuta that another great city, Sofala, was a half-month sail to the south, and that a third town, Yufi, was located a month's journey inland from Sofala. Yufi was the source of the gold dust that was traded through Sofala. [COMMENT: Sofala was located on the coast just south of the mouth of the Zambezi River, and Yufi must have been in the region of eastern Zimbabwe.]

According to Battuta, the city of Kilwa was beautiful and its houses were built of wood with reed ceilings. There was plentiful rain in the region. The people were devout "Shafi'i" Muslims and engaged in a continuous Holy War against the pagan "Zunüj" of the mainland.

Description of the sultan of Kilwa     (page 24)

At the time of Battuta's visit, the Sultan of Kilwa was Abu al-Muzaffar Hasan. He was known as Abu al-Mawahib or "father of gifts" because of his generosity. He organized many "razzias" on the mainland and set aside one fifth of his booty to spend on ways recommended by the Koran, and set aside another share for the "sharifs" from as far away as Arabia. Battuta named four "sharifs" of Hijaz whom he met during his trip while they were visiting or en route to visit the sultan of Kilwa: Muhammed ibn Jammaz, Mansur bin Lubaida bin Abu Numayy, Muhammed bin Shumaila bin Abu Numayy, and Yabl bin Kubaish bin Jammaz.

A Story concerning the sultan of Kilwa's Deeds of Generosity     (page 24)

While Battuta was there one Friday afternoon, he saw a Yemeni "faqir" ask for and receive the clothing of the Sultan. This act of generosity and humbleness increased the Sultan's prestige among his people. The Sultan's son bought the cloths back from the Yemeni "faqir" with a payment of ten slaves, and when the Sultan heard about the popular response, he added ten more slaves and two loads of ivory.

Battuta noted that these people usually made payments in ivory and never in gold. He also added that after this Sultan died, he was succeeded by his brother Da'ud, who was completely the opposite. [COMMENT: Ivory could be obtained locally, but gold could only be obtained in trade from regions to the south, notably Sofala. Gold was essential for trade with the Muslim homeland to the north.]

Battuta left Kilwa for the city of Zafar al-Hamud, at the end of Yemen in Arabia. [COMMENT: Gibb speculated that Battuta left on a southwest monsoon at the end of March, and would have required a month to reach Arabia. That meant his entire East African trip took about 2-2.5 months.]