The British-Yemeni Society

News and events


Journal articles

Book reviews

About the Society

Society officers

Annual reports


Annual appeal



A tangerine in Yemen

From Tihamah to Aden with Ibn Battutah, 
by Tim Mackinstosh-Smith

Tim Mackintosh-Smith is author of ‘ Yemen : Travels in Dictionary Land ’ (1997), and of two books about Ibn Battutah: ‘Travels with a Tangerine’ (2001), and ‘Hall of a Thousand Columns’ (2005); he is now writing a third volume. This article is based on his talk to the Society at the Middle East Association on 21 April 2005 .

Ibn Battutah (hereafter, IB) was born in Tangier in 1304. At the age of twenty-one, he set off on the pilgrimage to Mecca . Along the road he caught a serious dose of the travel bug, with the result that his journey took him far beyond the holy city. There was nothing unusual in this: Maghribis were famous for their itchy feet, and IB met compatriots in many parts of the Old World . What does make him unusual is that, as far as we know, he went much further than any other individual traveller – as far north as the Volga, as far south as present-day Tanzania, all the way to China, and back west to Mali. Just as important, he returned safely home and wrote his story; or, to be precise, dictated it to a young man of letters called Ibn Juzayy (on whom more later). The outcome was that master-work of travel literature, Tuhfat al-nuzzar fi ghara’ib al-amsar wa ‘aja’ib al-asfar – something like An Armchair Traveller’s Treasure: the Mirabilia of Metropolises and the Wonders of Wandering. We had better shorten it to the Travels.

Although IB didn’t devote many pages of the Travels to his Yemen visit of about 1330, what he has to say about the country is important (if, in a couple of places, questionable). In particular, it gives us a picture of court life under Sultan alMujahid (r. 1321–63), the longest reigning ruler of the brilliant Rasulid dynasty. Under the Rasulids Yemen enjoyed far-reaching international relations: exotic gifts, including ‘grammatically correct female parrots’, arrived at al-Mujahid’s court from India; a glass vase from the sultanic workshops in Yemen and bearing the symbol of the Rasulids, a six-petalled red rose on a white ground, has turned up in China; and you can find a brass incense-burner with the same device, and al-Mujahid’s name and titles, in the Islamic Museum in Cairo. IB himself gives a list of ten Indian destinations of ships from Aden, and mentions the Indian and Egyptian merchants who lived in the city. Aden was also his point of departure for a voyage with traders down the East African coast. From there he returned to Zafar, that other great southern Arabian emporium of the age, situated next door to present-day Salalah in the Sultanate of Oman but then part of the Rasulid sultanate. But we must backtrack and follow IB’s Yemen itinerary in the right order; and we’ll stay within Yemen ’s current borders, as you can read in detail about his visit to Zafar in my Travels with a Tangerine.

IB arrived on the Yemeni coast from Jeddah. Almost incredibly, for a native of a famous port, it had been his first ever experience of sea travel. A lesser man might have been put off sailing: IB made the passage in a jalbah, a notoriously cramped type of Red Sea tub in which the earlier traveller Ibn Jubayr had felt ‘like a chicken in a cage’ (paradoxically, jalbah has gone into English as ‘jolly-boat’). The sea was unaccommodating too, and IB was blown off course to Africa . But he eventually made it back to the right continent and (via Haly, now north of the border with Saudi Arabia ) to a small port he calls al-Sarjah. This has disappeared from the map and apparently, as I found out when I once tried to locate the site, from the memory of the local fishermen. But we know from al-Qalqashandi, who wrote a few decades after IB and calls the place al-Sharjah, that it must have been somewhere near al-Luhayyah. IB sang the praises of his hosts in al-Sarjah/Sharjah, who he says were famous for their ‘generosity and open-handedness, for feeding wayfarers and for helping pilgrims by transporting them in their own vessels’. You may recall that Niebuhr was to have a similarly encouraging introduction to Yemen, and on the same stretch of coast – he found the people of al-Luhayyah ‘intelligent and polished in their manners’.

The people of Zabid, too, were ‘courteous in their manners’ – this is IB again, who had coasted south from al-Sarjah/Sharjah – and lived in a city with ‘groves of palms, orchards and running streams, the pleasantest and most beautiful town in Yemen’. We might have hoped for a description of the buildings of the Rasulid winter capital; but IB was distracted, as he often was, by ‘the exceeding and pre-eminent beauty of its women’. (To prove that he wasn’t the first to draw attention to this, he quotes part of a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad warns Mu’adh, his missionary to Yemen, not to linger in ‘the vale of al-Husayb’ – identified by the commentators with Zabid – ‘for there are women there who resemble the black-eyed maidens of Paradise’). IB then describes the city’s subut al-nakhl, or Palm Saturdays. These were festivals held when the dates ripened and, according to the racy late-12th-century account by Ibn al-Mujawir, included mixed bathing sessions which resulted in ‘many marriages and many divorces’. Although Ibn al-Mujawir is notorious for his sensationalism, there may be some truth in what he said: the historian al-Khazraji, our best authority for the Rasulid period, tells the story of a certain scholar who blundered into a Palm Saturday and was so shocked that he ran away to Ethiopia . IB himself admits that the women of Zabid had ‘a predilection for the stranger and do not refuse to marry him’, but at the same time assures us of their ladylike virtues. (I’ve heard that a version of subut al-nakhl still takes place, now suitably genteel.)

Apart from beautiful women another major interest of IB’s was holy men, both alive and dead, and after leaving Zabid he went to visit the tomb of a very distinguished one in the village of Ghassanah . The tomb is still there, although Ghassanah is now known after its occupant as Bayt al-Faqih, the House of the Scholar of Jurisprudence. In order to understand the story IB tells about the eponymous faqih, Shaykh Ahmad ibn Musa ‘Ujayl (d. 1291), we must bear in mind that the Moroccan was a very orthodox Sunni of the Maliki rite, and one who could never resist getting in a dig at his non-Sunni brethren of whatever persuasion. To summarize, some visiting Zaydi scholars fell into a discussion with Shaykh Ahmad about predestination. At the time, Zaydi thought rejected the notion of absolute predestination and allowed created beings a certain amount of what we would call free will; or, as Shaykh Ahmad’s Zaydi visitors put it in IB’s account, ‘the creature who is made responsible for carrying out the ordinances of God creates his own actions’. Hearing this, Shaykh Ahmad said to them, ‘ “Well, if the matter is as you say, rise up from this place where you are sitting”. They tried to rise up but could not, and the shaykh left them as they were… until the heat of the sun afflicted them sorely… and they recanted their false doctrine.’ At which point, of course, they were freed from their supernatural paralysis.

As with many of IB’s taller tales, it’s hard to imagine him making it up. I’ve always been mystified by it; not because it seems to appear in no other source, but because it seems thoroughly out of character with what we know about Shaykh Ahmad from other works. IB tells the story under the heading karamah, ‘A Saintly Miracle’, and yet al-Khazraji says the shaykh was always criticized for his lack of karamat (to which he would reply, ‘Each karamah empties the vessel; I want to meet God with a full vessel’). Furthermore, al-Siraji, one of the greatest Zaydi scholars of the day, was actually a student of the Shafi ‘i Shaykh Ahmad. In short, even if Shafi‘i sultans and Zaydi imams contested political power on and off through centuries of Yemeni history, the sort of sectarian theological bickering explicit in IB’s story seems largely absent, wa ‘l-hamdu li ‘llah. I remain mystified.

If IB approved of the beauty of Zabid women and the orthodoxy of Tihami fuqaha – and, on the way there, the fertility of Jiblah – he was more equivocal about his next destination, Ta‘izz. ‘It is one of the finest and largest cities in Yemen,’ he says of the main Rasulid capital, ‘but -’ and there’s quite often a ‘but’ in IB’s descriptions ‘- its people are insolent, overbearing and rude, as is generally the case in towns where rulers have their seats.’ I hate to say it, for fear of offending the now charming people of Ta‘izz, but on this point al-Khazraji does confirm what IB says. Writing on 1330, the probable year of IB’s visit, the historian comments that the Ta‘izzis were ‘at their most horrible in contrariness, violation of dignity and abominable abusiveness’. To be fair, though, they had had to put up with years of intermittent fighting, including a siege, caused by inter-Rasulid squabbles over the succession. But by the time of IB’s visit Sultan al-Mujahid was firmly in power, and making it known: ‘The method of saluting him is that one touches the ground with one’s index finger, then raises it to the head and says, ‘May God prolong thy majesty!’ ‘IB duly made his obeisance, and was invited to a luncheon stiff with sultanic protocol.

IB gives a long, detailed and valuable account of courtly etiquette, but is infuriatingly silent on his physical surroundings. To fill them in we must turn to his exact contemporary, the Egyptian encyclopaedist al-‘Umari, who described not only the Rasulid palaces but also the court dress of their amirs, down to their akhfaf their long soft boots made of satin and tabby silk. The glory of Ta‘izz, says al-‘Umari, was the Palace of Tha ‘bat (or Thu‘bat, as the people who live there call it now). As well as the main palace buildings, gleaming with marble and gilt and lapis lazuli, there was a garden where a majlis overlooked a large rectangular pool with zoomorphic fountains. This earthly paradise joined the fruits of India with those of Syria … Nowhere could you behold a garden more beautifully comprehensive, or more comprehensively beautiful, nor one more perfect in form and content. It is a place where the breeze moves the folds of your very soul, as though you were in a remnant of Yemen from the time of Sheba…’

Today you can still follow the line of the defensive walls Sultan al-Mujahid built round the palace; inside them it’s still extraordinarily green, and hard to believe that the concrete centre of Ta‘izz is only a couple of miles away. The buildings of this Yemeni Alhambra are gone, yet not entirely forgotten: where the majlis stood are some nondescript modern houses, but the large rectangular field they overlook is still called Hawl al-Birkah, the Field of the Pool.

If IB was silent on the palatial splendours of Ta‘izz, he does have something to say about the architecture of San’a: ‘it is well constructed, built with bricks and plaster… the whole city is paved… its Friday Mosque is one of the finest of mosques’. The only problem is that he wasn’t the first person to say it or – as he also did – to talk about the predictability of its rains, its good water and its healthy climate. In fact, his single paragraph on the city looks suspiciously like a compilation of verbatim quotations from the earlier authors Ibn Rustah and al-Idrisi. And of the journey there from Ta‘izz, and the subsequent leg back down to Aden, he says precisely nothing. Granted, landscape didn’t interest him much unless it got in the way; but that jaunt would have meant about three weeks’ slog over some of the highest mountains in Arabia . Besides, if he really had been in the main Zaydi city of Yemen, and at a time when – as the Yemeni scholar Isma‘il al-Warith has pointed out – there were no fewer than four claimants to the imamate, it would have been out of IB’s character not to jump at another chance of libelling the Zaydis, their ‘false doctrines’ and political squabbles. I’m the first to admit that IB is an unusually trustworthy traveller, one who can be cross-checked both with contemporary records and – as I’ve discovered following him from Morocco to India – with the evidence on the ground; that literally ninety-nine percent of his book is undebunkable; that, as a major fan of both San’a and IB, I wish for sentimental reasons that he really had visited the city that is my home. But I don’t think he did. At least we’ve got someone else to blame for that fishy paragraph – that young and very widely-read man of letters, Ibn Juzayy, who took down IB’s dictation, edited it, tweaked the rather plain style in places and, to make it more geographically comprehensive, pasted in a couple of places the traveller almost certainly never visited. Perhaps Ibn Juzayy knew the old saying, la budda min san’a: one must visit San’a…

There’s nothing fishy about IB’s Aden. As well as shipping destinations he mentions the famous tanks, the water shortages and the merchants – all plagiarizable features, a sceptic might say, and with some justification. But IB also tells a story he heard which, for me, is proof positive that he was there. Two slaves, he says, were bidding against each other in an auction for a ram, the only one in the suq that day. Eventually the price rose to a staggering four hundred dinars, enough for a dozen flocks of rams. The victorious bidder ‘went off with the ram to his master, and when the latter learned what had happened he freed him and gave him a thousand dinars. The other returned to his master empty-handed, and he beat him, took his money and drove him out of his service.’ Those of you who know Ibn al-Mujawir’s account of his visit to Aden about fifty years before IB’s may recall that he tells almost the same story, but about a fine specimen of that excellent fish, the dayrak. More literary borrowing by IB’s editor? No; the likelihood of Ibn Juzayy having known Ibn al-Mujawir’s book is as close as possible to absolute zero. The tale is just one of those anecdotes that hangs around the quayside for generations, mutating in the telling. For all I know, the Adenis may still tell a version of it, perhaps about the last bunch of qat in the suq.

August 2005