Month: February 2022 (Page 2 of 6)

The Travels of Ibn Battutah: Jerusalem

On his travels, Ibn Battutah visits the city of Jerusalem which he refers to as Bait al-Muqaddas. Ibn Battutah spends limited time actually describing the city as a whole, comparing it with the cities of Medina and Mecca and then saying it “is large and imposing, and built of squared stones” (26). Ibn Battutah then moves on to the focus of his description which are the various religious landmarks that are located in Jerusalem. First, Ibn Battutah talks about what he calls the “Sacred Mosque” which refers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount area in the old city of Jerusalem. Ibn Battutah admires the mosque greatly, commenting on its beauty and brilliant architecture. Ibn Battutah is incredibly detailed in his description, going so far as to describe the dimensions of the mosque. After talking about the Sacred Mosque, Ibn Battutah speaks about the Dome of the Rock, which is located within the Sacred Mosque complex. Again, Ibn Battutah uses extensive details to talk about the architecture and physical makeup of the structure. He uses rich adjectives to describe the physicality of the building and the actual rock, which some Quranic commentators believe is where Muhammad began the Night Journey. Ibn Battutah finishes off his description of religious sites by talking about what refers to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus ascended into Heaven. After speaking on this and similar Christian sites, Ibn Battutah moves on in his journey from Jerusalem.

I was very surprised by how little time Ibn Battutah spent describing Jerusalem. This may be because I am coming from a Christian background but even in Islam, Jerusalem is still home to the third holiest site. It is significant that all of Ibn Battutah’s attention seems to be on the religious sites in Jerusalem, since he never talks about any of the people or geographical landmarks that he sees except in reference to those religious sites. Clearly religion is important to Ibn Battutah and his own identity. He speaks about the sites in a reverential way, highlighting their sanctity. Interestingly, Ibn Battutah does not only speak about Muslim religious sites; he also mentions Christian ones. His descriptions of Christian religious sites and Christian pilgrims provides an interesting lens into Muslim-Christian relationships in this time period. While describing his journey to Jerusalem, Ibn Battutah states that he briefly stopped at Bait Lahm or Bethlehem, which he calls the birthplace of Jesus. Ibn Battutah comments that the Christian also regard the location highly and “hospitably entertain all who alight it” (26). This implies some level of cooperation between people of different religions which is not always presented as common in the medieval period. On the other hand, Ibn Battutah also brings up interactions that seem to imply higher tensions between the two religions. Ibn Battutah mentions the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe that Christ was buried before the Resurrection. In this section, Ibn Battutah says that Christians have to pay a tax to the Muslims and “various humiliations, which they suffer very unwillingly” (28). This description sounds more stereotypical of other medieval narratives I have read where there is a lot of animosity between the two groups. It also emphasizes how Muslims have control of the Levant, which angered a lot of European leaders and religious officials.

The Book of Wanderings of Felix Fabri: The Holy Land (Jerusalem)

In his description of his second pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Felix Fabri focuses primarily on the landscape and its correlation to events detailed in the Holy Bible. Fabri says that he and the other pilgrims on the ship “began to see peaks and mountain-tops rising as it were out of the sea.” He recognizes Mount Carmel, which he associates with the prophet Elisha from the Bible who “prayed to God upon that mountain for rain, when it had not rained for three years and six months and how, while he prayed, there arose a little cloud like the print of a man’s foot from this sea, whence there came forth a great rain, as we read in the Third Book of Kings, chapter 18.” Fabri continues to describe the significance of Mount Carmel to biblical history, and he mentions other important historical landmarks that ultimately relate to the Bible, God, or Jesus Christ. Felix Fabri is clearly writing this narrative for an audience that is interested in understanding the landscape of Jerusalem from a religious perspective. While some Christians from medieval Europe had been exposed to the Bible to some capacity, most had not traveled to the land in which the setting of the New Testament is based. Felix Fabri’s description of the mountainous terrain of Jerusalem does not serve as an illustration of recreational beauty, but rather sacred landmarks that mark the life of Jesus Christ. For Fabri and his audience, landmarks like Mount Carmel and Mount Sinai are demonstrative of the physical paths that Jesus Christ and other saints of the New Testament took during their lifetimes.

Felix Fabri describes a fantastical encounter with abnormal fish: “…the fishes swam on the top of the sea and showed themselves on the surface more than their wont. There we beheld wondrous fishes. Some were large and quite round, like a winnowing-fan. Some had heads like dogs, with long ears hanging down, and we saw many dolphins that morning, and saw them more plainly them ever before.” The fish that “had heads like dogs” were probably from a group whose name is unbeknownst to him or the other European pilgrims. I believe that Felix Fabri included this excerpt about the fish in his narrative because of the importance of fish to the narrative of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, Jesus goes fishing with some of his disciples on several occasions, and he feeds fish to a large group of civilians. Fabri’s encounter with this particular fish probably allowed him to feel a physical connection to Jesus Christ, and he wanted to impart this experience to his audience so they could witness the powerful nature of such a parallel.

Felix Fabri’s subscription to the Christian faith and its values is stark, allowing for very little tolerance or acceptance of ideologies from other faiths. When he and the other pilgrims meet Moorish inhabitants of the land who express their belief in Prophet Muhammad’s divine connection, Fabri calls it a “falsehood,” discrediting the accounts known to those who subscribe to the Islamic faith. Fabri’s tone-deaf response to such an account further proves that he did not take this pilgrimage to learn about other faiths or practices in other parts of the world but to further affirm his own belief and loyalty to Christianity as a minister.

Sir John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels: Jerusalem

Sir John Mandeville writes extensively on Jerusalem, or the Holy City. He describes it’s geographical nature in the first few paragraphs; how it is “well situated amongst the hills” (39) and how it isn’t near any kind of natural water source. He notes the city’s surroundings very briefly. The kingdom of Arabia borders Jerusalem to the east. Egypt is in the south. The Mediterranean Sea is in the west. The Kingdom of Syria and the Cypress Sea are both in the north. These are very basic geographical landmarks so that a reader will be able to know roughly where Jerusalem is; much like someone from Havertown, PA would say they are “outside of Philly.” It’s interesting how this sort of tactic is used back then just as we do now, so that people know generally where things are. All of these things are very quickly mentioned right at the beginning of this Jerusalem notation. However, I would say that his main focus throughout the narrative is the importance of Jerusalem as an iconic state, especially religiously. He talks about how the city has been in the hands of many peoples from different faiths.

Mandeville has a tendency to provide a lot of historical background to cities like Jerusalem. These little facts are interspersed throughout his telling of the cities. For Jerusalem, he talks about how it used to be called “Jebus” and then later “Salem,” until Solomon came around and combined the two names to make “Jerusalem.”  Everything has to do with Christianity when it comes to Mandeville’s accounts of most of the places he notes, but especially in Jerusalem. It is, after all, the Holy City. He constantly notes places at Jesus Christ had been to, and the legends and shrines that surround them. One particularly interesting description of one of these places is the Valley of Jehoshaphat, which is outside of the city walls during his time. “Our Lord entered through that gate on Palm Sunday, riding on an ass, and the gate opened for Him when He wished to go to the Temple.” (43) Just in this phrase, you can see how important these religious events are to him through his tone, such as the way he addresses Jesus Christ as “Our Lord.” He also is clearly writing for a mainly Christian audience and assumes that people will care about these religious factoids just the same as he does. This is fitting, however, since he is a French man and everybody in France during his time was Christian in some way. There is a religious significance outlined in every single place he goes to.

The Book of John Mandeville: Babylon

At the beginning of Chapter Five, Mandeville explains that pilgrims to Jerusalem can pass through Babylon and obtain permission from the Sultan to visit Mt. Sinai before continuing their pilgrimage (19). He relates Babylon to several biblical stories and religious figures from different points in time, explaining the city’s relationship to the Virgin Mary, St. Barbara, Joseph (Exodus, not Mary’s husband), Nebuchadnezzar and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (I found it surprising that he did not mention Daniel, who was taken to Babylon with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and is arguably an even more notable figure than his three companions). By mentioning all of these figures in the first full paragraph about Babylon, Mandeville emphasizes the city’s religious heritage.

Mandeville then proceeds to describe the history of the area and how it came under Muslim rule, followed by an extended genealogy of the sultans up to his present day. This section emphasizes violence in the election process (20), perhaps as an attempt to ‘other’ a culture different than his own and paint them in a negative light; the majority of the sultans are described as having been murdered, poisoned, driven into exile, or imprisoned, so that someone else could take the throne. This violence stops with the most recent Sultan, who reigned for a long time, and governed with such great wisdom” [21]. Following this genealogy, Mandeville describes some of the Sultan’s customs, giving details about the army, the Sultan’s wives, and how foreigners should behave at court (22).

Mandeville then clarifies that he is not talking about the “Great Babylon where the confusion of tongues was made, when the Tower of Babel existed,” but about a different Babylon which is “forty days travel” away (22-23). He explains that the Great Babylon is under the rule of the Great Khan, whom Mandeville describes as “incomparably greater and stronger than the Sultan” (23). This description complements Marco Polo’s account of Kubilai Khan and the Mongol Empire, and I found that reading these two texts simultaneously provided me with a useful context in this moment!

It seems to me that Mandeville’s purpose in writing about Babylon in the way he does is to provide other travelers with a guide to what they might find there, or to help people plan out their routes and know what to expect. He repeats several times that pilgrims should travel through Babylon to Mt. Sinai and then on to Jerusalem; the religious significance of the area is extremely important to him and he gives it notable space. He is also concerned with the history of the area, which I find interesting. Generally, I would assume people do not need to know the ruling class’ family tree to travel through an area, but Mandeville spends a large amount of time explaining the history of the city and how the current Sultan came to power. The effect I see from this is to ‘other’ the Muslim rulers by focusing on the violence in the process of electing a new Sultan, which works hand-in-hand with his emphasis on Christian stories and tradition to lift Christianity above other religions. Mandeville’s text is extremely centered on Christian pilgrims (especially in the Prologue, where he explicitly states his purpose) and while the Prologue is clearly anti-Semitic, this section seems to illustrate his prejudice against Islam as well.


(pp. 19-35)

The Book of Margery Kempe: Constance

The next destination Margery Kempe travels to is Constance (most likely the town of Konstanz, Germany) which is en route to her journey to Bologna, where she ends up at the end of this chapter.  Similar to her last destination, Margery’s travel companions are not very friendly to her. She spends time talking to an English Friar, giving him a summary of her life, including her struggles with her unfriendly travel companions. After they all ate dinner, the rest of the party went to the legate and told him that Margery could not continue with them on their journey because they were so annoyed with her constant weeping, eating habits, and constant talking about God. The legate refused to make her eat meat and they leave without her. Margery goes to a church to pray for someone to accompany her on her journey . She meets William Wever and they decide to travel together. Margery prays for the travels and they leave. At the end of the chapter, they end up in Bologna.

Similar to the last destination, a majority of what is written about Margery’s stay in Constance is about her and her travel companions. No one wants to travel with her because she refuses to eat meat, drink wine and she constantly weeps and talks about God’s goodness. She is very concerned about chastity, praying for the Lord to not let her be defiled. This is interesting because she left her husband to begin her journey. They also don’t seem to be staying very long wherever they go. Like I said before, most of what is talked about at each location is how difficult Margery is as a travel companion. I find it interesting how Margery is not portrayed as very likeable in her own book. It is almost comical how the she describes herself praying and weeping all the time, as if she is making fun of herself. It makes me wonder about how mystics were viewed among the the general population. Based on my reading of these first two chapters and locations, I would say that people were incredibly skeptical and just thought that Margery, and possibly other mystics, were annoying. Their extreme devotion was bothersome, strange, and annoying to other people to the point where is was unbearable for people to travel with her. I could extend this to wonder about what that says about Christianity at this time. There isn’t a lot of sympathy for Margery except from the friar and the legate. Everyone else that is mentioned finds her to be a nuisance. The fact that this work is autobiographical complicates this a little bit because its so ironic that she doesn’t even defend herself. She is very matter of fact about her position in her travel group and how annoying she is to them, without trying to cultivate much pity for herself. I wonder if she is just used to being laughed at or if she is so matter of fact because she believes that she is so pious and she is actually making fun of them for not being as devout as she is.

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