Of Babylon, Mandeville present details on a wide variety of subjects, from physical and geographical aspects of the land, to political and cultural information, to his version of Babylon’s history. In a rare instance of inserting himself into the narrative, Mandeville claims he once lived there as a mercenary to the Sultan.
The Sultan of Babylon to whom he refers is said to be very powerful, ruling over five kingdoms. It is specified that this Babylon where the Sultan lives is not the same as Great Babylon, the ancient city referenced in the story of the Tower of Babel. To distinguish, Mandeville refers to the present incarnation as Babylon the Lesser. Great Babylon, by Mandeville’s account, used to be a great city on the banks of the Euphrates River, but after its decimation by a Persian king, it became an uninhabitable wasteland swimming with dragons and snakes. From Babylon the Lesser, this wasteland can only be reached by a 40-day journey through the desert.
Throughout the section in The Book of Marvels and Travels on the land of Babylon, several supposed routes to the city are described in detail. It is specified that the desert conditions surrounding Babylon make travel difficult, and one must ride a camel in place of a horse. Contrary to known modern geography, Mandeville positions Babylon “at the entrance of Egypt,” and also implies that one can go straight there from Aleppo. Though he does provide these hypothetical travel routes, Mandeville does not recount any particular journey undertaken.
Among the things Mandeville chooses to communicate about Babylon, his depiction of the Sultan stands out, and in particular the Sultan’s relationships with women. First, according to this account, the Sultan of Babylon always has three wives: one who is Christian and two who are Saracen (or Muslim). One of each must live in the cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Ashkelon. In addition to having wives spread out over different territories, the Sultan has access wherever he goes to as many women as he wishes to use as lovers. In whatever new cities he visits, he has the most attractive virgins brought to him. They are said to be detained, but detained “respectfully and with dignity.” It is unclear what exactly respect for women means in the context, beyond one statement that the virgin of his choosing will be washed and dressed nicely before meeting him in his bedroom. It is also emphasized in the passage that everyone who encounters the Sultan, and foreigners in particular, are expected to demonstrate the utmost respect for him, going so far as to physically kneel before him upon meeting him.
Considering these separate details as they relate to each other, Mandeville’s portrait of this Sultan contains the idea that a man who has earned the respect that comes along with the Sultan’s political domain has also implicitly earned a dominion and authority over the bodies of women and girls wherever he goes. This is upheld further in the text when it is said that the Sultan treats these women with respect when he is holding them against their will to keep at his disposal as sexual partners.