Sep 012015


Today is the birthday (1145) of Ibn Jubayr (ابنجبير‎ ), geographer, traveler, and poet from al-Andalus. His travel chronicle describes the pilgrimage he made to Mecca from 1183 to 1185, in the years preceding the Third Crusade. His chronicle describes Saladin’s domains in Egypt and the Levant which he passed through on his way to Mecca. Further, on his return journey he passed through Christian Sicily, which had been recaptured from the Muslims only a century before, and he makes several observations on the hybrid polyglot culture which flourished there.

Ibn Jubayr was born in Valencia in Islamic Spain. He was a descendant of ‘Abdal-Salam ibn Jabayr who in 740 had accompanied an army sent by the Caliph of Damascus to put down a Berber uprising in his Spanish provinces. Ibn Jubayr studied in the town of Játiva where his father worked as a civil servant. He later became secretary to the Almohad governor of Granada.


In the introduction to his Rihla Ibn Jubayr he explains the reason for his travels. As secretary for the ruler of Granada in 1182, he was forced, under threat, to drink seven cups of wine. Seized by remorse, the ruler then filled seven cups of gold dinars which he gave him. To expiate his godless act, although forced upon him, Ibn Jubayr decided to perform the duty of Hajj to Mecca. He left Granada on 3 February 1183 accompanied by a physician from the city.


Ibn Jubayr left Granada and crossed over the Strait of Gibraltar to Ceuta, then under Muslim rule. He boarded a Genoese ship on February 24, 1183 and set sail for Alexandria. His sea journey took him past the Balearic Islands and then across to the west coast of Sardinia. Whilst offshore he heard of the fate of 80 Muslim men, women and children who had been abducted from North Africa and were being sold into slavery. Between Sardinia and Sicily the ship ran into a severe storm. He said of the Italians and Muslims on board who had experience of the sea that “all agreed that they had never in their lives seen such a tempest”. After the storm the ship went on past Sicily and Crete and then turned south and crossed over to the North African coast. He arrived in Alexandria on March 26.


Everywhere that Ibn Jubayr travelled in Egypt he was full of praise for the new Sunni ruler, Saladin. For example he says of him that: “There is no congregational or ordinary mosque, no mausoleum built over a grave, nor hospital, nor theological college, where the bounty of the Sultan does not extend to all who seek shelter or live in them. He points out that when the Nile does not flood enough, Saladin remits the land tax from the farmers. He also says that “such is his (Salahuddin’s) justice, and the safety he has brought to his high-roads that men in his lands can go about their affairs by night and from its darkness apprehend no awe that should deter them.” Ibn Jubayr is, on the other hand, very disparaging of the previous Shi’a dynasty of the Fatimids.

Of Cairo, Ibn Jubayr notes, there are colleges and hostels erected for students and pious men of other lands by the Sultan Saladin. In those colleges students find lodging and tutors to teach them the sciences they desire, and also allowances to cover their needs. The care of the sultan also grants them baths, hospitals, and the appointment of doctors who can even come to visit them at their place of stay, and who would be answerable for their cure. One of the Sultan Saladin’s other generous acts was that every day two thousand loaves of bread were distributed to the poor. Ibn Jubayr was also impressed by the number of mosques, estimated at between 8 and 12 thousand; often four or five of them in the same street.

Upon arrival at Alexandria Ibn Jubayr was angered by the customs officials who insisted on taking zakat (religious tax) from the pilgrims, regardless of whether they were obliged to pay it or not. In the city he visited the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which at that time was still standing, and he was amazed by its size and splendor.

One of the greatest wonders that we saw in this city was the lighthouse which Great and Glorious God had erected by the hands of those who were forced to such labor as ‘a sign to those who take warning from examining the fate of others’ [Quran XV,75] and as a guide to voyagers, for without it they could not find the true course to Alexandria. It can be seen for more than seventy miles, and is of great antiquity. It is most strongly built in all directions and competes with the skies in height. Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle.


He was also impressed by the free colleges, hostels for foreign students, baths and hospitals in the city. These were paid for by awqaf and taxes on the city’s Jews and Christians. He noted that there were between 8,000 and 12,000 mosques in Alexandria. After a stay of eight days he set off for Cairo.

He reached Cairo three days later. In the city he visited the cemetery at al-Qarafah, which contained the graves of many important figures in the history of Islam. He noted while in the Cairo of Saladin, the walls of the citadel were being extended by the Mamluks with the object of reinforcing the entire city from any future Crusader siege. Another building work that he saw was the construction of a bridge over the Nile, which would be high enough not to be submerged in the annual flooding of the river. He saw a spacious free hospital which was divided into three sections: one each for men, women and the insane. He saw the pyramids, although he was unaware of who they had been built for, and the Sphinx. He also saw a device that was used for measuring the height of the Nile flood.

In Sicily, at the very late stages of his travels (Dec 1184-Jan 1185), Ibn Jubayr recounts other experiences. He comments on the activity of the volcanoes:

At the close of night a red flame appeared, throwing up tongues into the air. It was the celebrated volcano (Stromboli). We were told that a fiery blast of great violence bursts out from air-holes in the two mountains and makes the fire. Often a great stone is cast up and thrown into the air by the force of the blast and prevented thereby from falling and settling at the bottom. This is one of the most remarkable of stories, and it is true.

As for the great mountain in the island, known as the Jabal al-Nar [Mountain of Fire], it also presents a singular feature in that some years a fire pours from it in the manner of the `bursting of the dam’. It passes nothing it does not burn until, coming to the sea, it rides out on its surface and then subsides beneath it. Let us praise the Author of all things for His marvelous creations. There is no God but He.

Ibn Jubayr was struck by the city of Palermo. He describes it as follows:

It is the metropolis of these islands, combining the benefits of wealth and splendour, and having all that you could wish of beauty, real or apparent, and all the needs of subsistence, mature and fresh. It is an ancient and elegant city, magnificent and gracious, and seductive to look upon. Proudly set between its open spaces and plains filled with gardens, with broad roads and avenues, it dazzles the eyes with its perfection. It is a wonderful place, built in the Cordova style, entirely from cut stone known as kadhan [a soft limestone]. A river splits the town, and four springs gush in its suburbs… The King roams through the gardens and courts for amusement and pleasure… The Christian women of this city follow the fashion of Muslim women, are fluent of speech, wrap their cloaks about them, and are veiled.


Ibn Jubayr also travelled to Medina, Mecca Damascus, Mosul, Acre and Baghdad. At Basra he saw how Indian timber was carefully used to make Lateen sail ships, returning in 1185 by way of Sicily. His path was not without troubles, including a shipwreck. Frequently quoted is Jubayr’s famous description of the Muslims living well under the Christian crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem:

We moved from Tibnin – may God destroy it – at daybreak on Monday. Our way lay through continuous farms and ordered settlements, whose inhabitants were all Muslims, living comfortably within the Franks… They surrender half their crops to the Franks at harvest time, and pay as well a poll-tax of one dinar and five qirat for each person. Other than that they are not interfered with, save for a light tax on the fruit of their trees. The houses and all their effects are left to their full possession. All the coastal cities occupied by the Franks are managed in this fashion, their rural districts, the villages and farms, belong to the Muslims. But their hearts have been seduced, for they observe how unlike them in ease and comfort are their brethren in the Muslim regions under their (Muslim) governors. This is one of the misfortunes afflicting the Muslims. The Muslim community bewails the injustice of the landlord of its own faith, and applauds the conduct of its opponent and enemy, the Frankish landlord, and is accustomed to justice from him.


Ibn Jubayr travelled to the East on two further occasions (1189–1191 and 1217), without leaving any account. He died on the 29 November 1217 in Alexandria during the second of these trips.

Ibn Jubayr provides a highly detailed and graphic description of the places he visited during his travels. His book differs from other contemporary accounts in not being a mere collection of place names and descriptions of monuments, but contains observation of geographical details as well as cultural, religious and political matters. Particularly interesting are his notes about the declining faith of his fellow Muslims in Palermo after the recent Norman conquest, and about what he perceived as the Muslim-influenced customs of king William II of Sicily.


His writing is a foundation of the genre of work called Rihla, or the creative travelogue. This is a mix of personal narrative, description of the areas traveled and personal anecdotes. Ibn Jubayr’s travel chronicle served as a model for later authors, some of whom copied from it without attribution. Ibn Juzayy, who wrote the account of Ibn Battuta’s travels in around 1355, copied passages that had been written 170 years earlier by Ibn Jubayr describing Damascus, Mecca, Medina and other places in the Middle East. Passages copied from Ibn Jubayr are also found in the writings of al-Sharishi, al-Abdari and Al-Maqrizi.


The cooking of medieval al-Andalus is known from a cookbook of the 13th century whose author is unknown. Several of the recipes are translated here — This recipe is easy enough to follow. It’s rather like a very cheesy Spanish (or Argentine) tortilla.

Take soft cheese, not fresh that day but that has passed three or four days, and mash it by hand. To two pounds of this add two ounces of select flour, put it in fresh milk and break in ten eggs and sprinkle with pepper, saffron, canel (cinnamon), lavender, and coriander. Beat all this together in the frying pan and when it is thick, pour fresh milk over it and cover it all with plenty of oil. Place into it fried small birds or pigeons, egg yolks, and minced almonds. Place it in the oven on a moderate fire and leave it until it is dry and thickened and browned on top, take it out so it can cool, and serve it. This dish is also made with mint juice and water of coriander and of cilantro, without saffron, and another dish will result. And he who wishes to make this dish with cheese alone, without fowl or meat, shall do so and in each of these ways it is good.

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