Blog 10. Ibn Battuta, High Drama or Fake News.

On Friday morning, whilst reading the Sur in English, I read an amazing article by Patrick H. Meehan on page 33.   It was about the 14th-century traveller Ibn Battuta and how he came close to being killed in a dramatic incident on his way to Suhayl; as Fuengirola was then called.  

Before going further with the story, it’s worth stopping here and reading the story in the Sur in English.

Are you shocked? Amazed? Can you believe something like this happened to such a famous person right here?  

Of course I had read of this story in ‘Fuengirola Revisited’’ and as well as the great books written about Fuengirola by Dr. Juan Antonio Martin Ruiz and Manuel Lopez de Ayala.  However, I had not realised its significance and the importance of the man it happened to.  

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battuta or in Arabic: أَبُو عَبْدُ ٱللّٰهِ مُحَمَّدٌ بْنُ عَبْدِ ٱللّٰهِ ٱللَّوَاتِي ٱلطَّنْجِي بْنُ بَطُّوطَةُ,  known simply as Ibn Battuta was a writer and explorer who travelled the known world perhaps as far as China.  His diaries indicate he had travelled further than any other explorer in pre-modern history, perhaps around 117,000 km, considerably surpassing Marco Polo’s 24,000 km.  Over a period of thirty years Ibn Battuta cataloged visits to most of Southern Eurasia, including Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China and, of course, the Iberian Peninsula.  

This is not the place for his life story, but it is relevant to paste “Ibn Battuta” into your favourite search engine and see just how important this guy is/was.  OK, the world is full of important people, however, the point is that this important guy was right here, and spent a night in the Castle after being nearly killed.  

So with this in mind, I decided to escape the mid-day sun, and walk down to my boat near the Yaramar to go and interview the most travelled explorer in pre-modern history.  

A few people are using the boats as sunshades today but no one is near mine.  There are still people sleeping on the beach after last night’s Noche San Juan celebrations.  Ultrasound sensors encourage people to move away when I approach my boat and as I move beside it, a panel opens with stealth; I am in the vastness of my time machine.  The controls are set to intercept Ibn Battuta on the morning after this grave incident.  So I sat down to enjoy the journey.  

My boat arrives on the beach in front of the Castle, the year is 1345 on a spring day, the air is clean and the Castle looks in great condition, shining clean and fortified.  The settlements have moved back inland and up the hill.  The houses around the Castle seem mostly empty.  The Mosque still stands at the bottom of the slope behind the Castle, perfectly clean and oblivious to the desertion around it.  There are fences around the beach and defensive positions with watchtowers line the landscape.  Most significantly I notice how much of the land has been drained in the last few centuries.  

From the locations of the current Plaza de Toros to the train station, all the land to the sea has been raised and is being farmed.  Significantly, when I look across the current location of the church in the Plaza de Constitution, I see a large wooden watchtower.  One day this watchtower would be replaced by a stone one and then a larger one.  Houses would gather around it and a town would be born; for now it’s a lonely watchtower surrounded by crops.  

In his account, Ibn Battuta mentions that he had spent the night in the Castle along with the bodies of the people killed in the raid.  Under the religious traditions, the interment of the bodies would be carried out in the first hour of the next day.  So I wait at the foot of the Castle as the first light of day appears. But nothing happens – no funeral cortege, no fresh graves, perhaps I got the wrong day.  

Eager to find out why, I walk up the hill of the Castle, and with hypnosis, offer a greeting to the guard at the door, he greets me and lets me in.  

The Castle is divided into rooms and stables.  One of the stable hands sees me and asks, “do you have a horse for us to clean and feed sir?”  “No”, I reply, “I am here for the funeral of the victims of the attack.”

“Funeral for attack victims sir, we have not had one of those here for a while”, is his reply.

“Ohh”, I reply dumbfounded and thinking I may have got my time coordinates wrong so I ask, “did you have a visitor arrive last night?” 

“ Oh yes, you will be talking of the traveler Muhammad Ibn Battuta, he arrived with a troop of armed guards.  With the number of attacks we have on this shore, wealthy travellers have been compelled to take extra precautions.   Actually, Mr Muhammad Ibn Battuta was asking us about the attacks and making notes in his diary about them.”

“Well”, I asked him, seizing the opportunity, “what did you tell him?”

The stable hand thought for a while and said, “I told him about some of the raids that happened this year.  Some were by the Christians from Castile, others were by Pirates taking a break from winter in the Caribbean, sometimes you don’t know who it was.  In one, a fisherman was killed and his fish were left on the road.  In another, 2 horses were killed.  Another where 10 travellers were captured.  And yet another where 2 travellers were killed.  Sometimes it would be a lone galley or pirate dhow, sometimes as many as 4 craft would come ashore.  Would you like me to tell you more about these stories sir?”

“No”, I reply, “I have heard enough.”  This is new information which could distort time and sends me into a panic.  Even the hint of causing trouble with the Time Lords could seriously disrupt my career plans.  With absolutely no choice, I made my excuses and left ensuring that the stable hand would soon forget he saw me.   

This is the problem of time travel, unless you want to create huge holes in the future, you cannot interfere with the past.  Some of you may have heard of the ‘prime directive’ in ‘Star Trek’; in short, it means do not interfere with the development of a culture.  

For centuries, popular belief and culture have understood certain stories to be genuine and history is rewritten when they are disproved.  And whilst any species has the right to discover its own history, it is not the job of time travellers to do it for them; we should leave your history books as they are.  We are observers in the creation of your history, not participants.

Getting back to the beach, I have trouble distinguishing mine from the other dhows, but as I approach a blue light appears.  A door opens, I enter the craft to hastily leave through the gateway of time.  On the journey back I was able to do some research and be sure that I had done the right thing.  

The moment I found how the historical and actual events were unmatched other doubts were triggered. 

Since the first publication of Ibn Battuta’s works in his lifetime, there have been allegations that his travel accounts were not based on his own experiences.  These were backed by errors such as references to rulers who governed before, or after he arrived and inconsistencies in the geographical details.  He lost his diaries when robbed at sea by pirates and dictated the stories of his travels in later life.

German oriental scholar Ralf Elger claims to have discovered that Ibn Battuta faked most of his travel accounts. The professor’s theory dulls the polished image of one of the most revered figures in Arab cultural history. In his review of Elger’s book entitled ‘Contemporary Witness or Impostor?’ Lewis Gropp gives plenty of reasons why the veracity of Ibn Battuta’s work is in doubt.    

“Although Ibn Battuta is still viewed to this day by many Arabs as a great explorer and traveller of the Arab and Islamic world, doubts were raised as to the authenticity of his reports even during his lifetime. The great Arab historian Ibn Chaldun reports for example that there were several people at the court of Fez who did not believe the accounts were genuine.”

There are even allegations that he did not make it as far as China and that his writings were similar to other contemporary travellers’ descriptions.  Did he travel 5 times as far as Marco Polo and did he do the many things he claimed? the jury is out.  He will never lose his place as a cultural and intellectual Icon of the largest empire that ever existed; airports, roads, hotels, and shopping malls will continue to be named after him.  The accepted point in the discussion today is, that some of what he said is probably contentious but the culture that he promoted and embellished came to shape the modern world.  We are all guilty of a little embellishment, stories can grow with the telling and perhaps truth should not get in the way of good storytelling.  His was an important story, cultural narrative and and glowing memorial of a great age.

So why is this relevant to this incident which has become a part of the history of Fuengirola?  The story would not send you to sleep and could well give you nightmares.   You can read the whole thing in Sur in English,  or for now just check this excerpt.

When I had traversed the area of Marbala, and entered the area of Suhayl, I passed a dead horse lying in the ditch, and a little farther on a pannier of fish thrown on the ground. 

This aroused my suspicions. In front of me there was a watchtower, and I said to myself “ If an enemy were to appear here, the man on the tower would give the alarm” So I went on to a house thereabouts, and at it I found a horse killed. While I was there I heard a shout but vision denied me (for I had gone ahead of my part) and turning back to them, found the commander of the fort of Suhayl with them.  He told me that four galleys belonging to the enemy had appeared there, and a number of the men on board had landed when the watchman was not in the tower. The horsemen who had just left Marbala, twelve in number, had encountered this raiding force. The Christians had killed one of them, one had escaped, and ten were taken as prisoners. A fisherman was killed along with them, and it was he whose basket I had found along the road.”

This is high drama that did not happen often.  Speak to any journalist and ask how often they are statistically likely to witness a major incident, they are almost always a second or third hand account.   Dictating a great work from memory, at least 20 years after the event, could be difficult and the temptation of embellishing the account to make a more exciting story may be too great.

The raids by the Christian conquistadors would continue for over a century and the African Pirates would continue to plunder the coast for another 4 centuries until France took control of North Africa.  

Ibn Battuta still commands great respect because his travel journals enhance the legendary greatness of the Islamic empire.  His accounts serve as a confirmation of a grand empire, the virtuousness of a devout life and the misguided nature of the unfaithful.  His story about the incident that took place on his visit to Suhayl, if not wholly true, can serve as a metaphor for a millennium of raids now forgotten at a safe historical distance.  If they are exactly true or written with some purpose such as drama, politics and entertainmaent, they put the location on the map, a century before it became “Fuengirola”.    

My boat takes its place among those close to Hotel Yaramar, the revellers of Nocha San Juan are making a weekend of it.  The record numbers of tourists are promenading, sunbathing, swimming enjoying sophisticated soirees or watching football, golf or Rugby.  You have never had it so good.