“. . . If I am to die, then what better place to do so than on the road to Mecca,” declares a very young and confident Ibn Battuta to his family and friends who saw him off on his first great journey. Time and the realities of travel in the fourteenth century soon tempered his youthful bluster as Battuta made his way across the Sahara from his native Tangier towards Cairo and Mecca.
I’ve written about Battuta’s journeys before on this blog, but his story warrants attention again because of a wonderful new film: Ibn Battuta – Journey to Mecca. Last weekend we took the kids down to the Smithsonian’s Johnson IMAX theatre to see the film and were happy we did. The film chronicles Battuta’s first journey, the Hajj pilgrimage, and the trip across North Africa to the great cities of Cairo, Damascus, and Medina that led to Mecca.
The journey begins with Battuta saying farewell to his family and friends and receiving their simple gifts of a good horse and ihram a white, seamless length of cloth to wear during the pilgrimage. He is soon humbled by the hardships of the desert and an encounter with thieves. But his wanderings also lead him to find charity, friendship and protection from a Bedouin who escorts him to safety in Cairo, where he is received warmly by family friends. Determined to set out alone, he leaves his Bedu friend in Cairo and heads towards the Red Sea where he hopes to find short passage to Jeddah and then make his way overland to Mecca. As his friend warned he finds war along the seacoast has disrupted travel and is rescued from his despair by his Bedu friend who leads him to Damascus where he meets up with a fellow band of pilgrims.
The IMAX format is well suited for the sweeping beauty of North Africa’s landscapes and to their credit, the writers keep the story suitably intimate for such a personal story. My favorite part of the film comes about three-quarters through when the fimmakers start to intersperse footage from the present day of real Hajj pilgrimages with those shot depicting the 14th Century. For me, this was a powerful to visually communicate the continuity and power of the Hajj tradition and its ceremonies and a reminder of the numerous connections we all have with the past.
The film is about a great man and a great explorer, but it is also about faith, piety, determination, tolerance and charity. Battuta reaches Mecca a different, more tempered man than he was when he left his home. He fulfills his religious duty with passion and goes on to travel the world all the way to China as he did in a dream on the back of a great bird. His fortunes rise and fall as he travels and only decades later he returns to Morocco before setting out to Spain and other nearby ports.
The Muslim World is in great part synonymous with the Silk Road, and Muslim traders were important in moving, goods, ideas and ideals around the old world for millenia. In many ways the world of the Silk Road was more multicultural than our own – with Muslims from abroad serving as ministers in Chinese courts and Persian Muslim rulers showing cultural and religious forbearance to non-Muslim states in their empires.
If Ibn Battuta: Journey to Mecca is showing in your area, I urge you to see it, it is a strange combination of sweeping and intimate and teaches history, respect and understanding in each frame. (Words by Laura Kelley; All photos from the film borrowed from the “Journey to Mecca” website)