by Heather R. Darsie
The scholar named Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battuta al-Lawati al-Tanji, or simply Ibn Battuta (meaning son of Battuta), was twenty-one years old when he set off on 13 June 1325 to travel the world. Ibn Battuta left from his birthplace of Tangier, traveling across northern Africa, across the Arab peninsula, through India, and all the way to China. His original purpose for leaving Tangier was to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey lasted over twenty years.
13th century manuscript image of a caravan of pilgrims in Ramleh, from a manuscript of Maqâmât of al-Harîrî, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ibn Battuta arrived in Mecca in late 1326 to early 1327. He decided to continue his travels after that. Ibn Battuta followed what were major trade routes at the time during his journey. Ibn Battuta went all the way to China before returning to Fez, which is almost directly south of Tangier as the crow flies.
On his way back from China in the 1340s, Ibn Battuta caught a ride to India via boat. For the first ten days of the journey, the crew and passengers encountered favorable winds. On the eleventh day, a storm with heavy rain came in and blew the boat off course. The storm lasted upwards of ten days, with no sight of the sun. Given that it was the fourteenth century, not being able to see the sun, moon, or stars made it difficult to properly navigate. The crew became disoriented and found themselves in an unfamiliar sea. The boat sailed in this unknown sea for almost a month and a half.
One morning, Ibn Battuta recorded, “a mountain became visible in the sea about twenty miles away.” There is no description of what the mountain looked like. It was an absolutely terrifying sight to all aboard the ship. Ibn Battuta recorded,
“The wind was carrying us directly towards [the mountain]. The sailors were amazed and said, ‘We are not near land and there is no knowledge of a mountain in the sea. If the wind drives us onto it we shall perish.’ Everyone resorted to self-abasement, to devotion, and to renewed repentance, supplicating God in prayer… The merchants swore to give plentiful alms, which I recorded in my own writing. The wind became somewhat calmer, but at sunrise we saw that the mountain had risen into the air and that there was light between it and the sea. We were amazed at this and I saw the sailors weeping and saying goodbye to each other. I [Ibn Battuta] said, ‘What is the matter?’ They said, ‘What we took for a mountain is the rukhkh. If it sees us, we shall perish.’ We were then less than ten miles from it. Then God Most High gave us the blessing of a favourable wind which took us directly away from it. We did not see it or know its true shape.”
The rukhkh, or roc, is a mythological bird whose wings created wind gusts and was so large that it regularly ate small elephants. The roc had a taste for human flesh, as well, hence the great fear of Ibn Battuta and the sailors. In mythology, the bird was generally believed to look like a giant eagle. Some versions of the roc’s myth said that the bird protected the entrance to a hidden treasure valley. Whatever the tale, the roc was a fearsome beast.
Another explorer, better known to Westerners, reported the roc some hundred years before Ibn Battuta. Marco Polo recorded seeing the Nichas, “which hath quills on his wings twelve paces in length.” Marco Polo described the beast as visiting the island of Madagascar from time to time, saying that the bird:
“… is of such bigness and strength, that he with his talons taketh an elephant, and carried him up into the air, and so killeth him, and the elephant so being dead, he letteth him fall, and leapeth upon him, and so feedeth at his pleasure.”
It does not appear that Marco Polo actually saw the roc, but rather was relaying the story he had heard.
Marco Polo, date unknown, from 18th century book, via Wikimedia Commons.
It is not known what Ibn Battuta saw, but could perhaps be explained as a squall-type formation, or a wall cloud. Either way, Ibn Battuta and the crew lived to sail on toward their destination.
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Sources & Suggested Reading
- Baṭūṭa, Ibn, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, and Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen. Gibb. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador (2000).
- O., C. E. A. W., John Frampton, and N. M. Penzer. “The Most Noble and Famous Travels of Marco Polo, Together with the Travels of Nicolo DeConti.” The Geographical Journal75, no. 2 (1930): 195.