Travel has not always been as easy as it is now. My journey from San Francisco to Frankfurt to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was a scant 26 hours, relaxing in Boeing and Airbus comfort. Compare this to fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta:
I left Tangier, my birthplace, on Thursday, 2nd Rajab 725 [June 14, 1325], being at that time twenty-two years of age, with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House [at Mecca] and the Tomb of the Prophet [at Medina].
I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a long-cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home.
In those days the trip to Mecca would take 16 months, across North Africa on foot or by camel, then up the Nile by boat and across the Red Sea to Arabia. For Ibn Battuta however, this was the beginning of a 29-year journey taking him throughout much of the medieval world, Egypt, Persia, India, China, Central Africa and Spain before his return to Morocco in 1354.
Anticipating the modern travel adventurer, Ibn Battuta wrote up the story of his pilgrimage in a book marvellously titled تحفة النظار في غرائب الأمصار وعجائب الأسفار or A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling (better known now as Rihla الرحلة, or The Journey).
Ibn Battuta likely did not stop in Dubai, but records sailing to neighboring Muscat in today’s Oman. He would no doubt be intrigued, however, by the homage paid him by today’s Emiratis: a gigantic theme shopping mall with hundreds of outlets, Nike, Gucci, Prada and even Woolworths, sprawling through 27-acre building with 21 cinemas and a shuttle to take you from one end to another (1.3 kilometers).
Educational displays in each of the six geographically named sections of the mall recount the travels of the Islamic scholar. The luxurious shops and opulent Arab architecture (like the tiled ceiling arch above), are in stark contrast with the rough desert environment in the rest of the country and the tribulations of Battuta so many centuries ago.
This dramatic juxtaposition of old and new, sacred and profane, culture and crassness, is the touchstone of modern Dubai. How else could you fathom the call of the Ibn Battuta mall website? “Get your Battuta Tuesday Card now and take advantage of amazing discounts.”
Timothy Mackintosh-Smith (who also edited the Rihla) notes with amusement.
In modern Anglo–Arabic, mall is mawl; the classical Arabic meaning of the word is, by a nice coincidence, “wealth.”