Month: February 2022 (Page 3 of 6)

Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: The Ghuzz Turks

After leaving Bukhārā, Ibn Fadlān traveled through the land of the Ghuzz Turks. He describes the cultural practices he witnesses and situations that did not match with the practice of Islam. He begins by discussing the nomadic lifestyle of the Ghuzz Turks. He says that they move around, live in tents, “live in poverty, like wandering asses” (11). Their political regime is mentioned; Ibn Fadlān says that they have lords and a king, but that their strategy is based on “consultation among themselves” (12). This democratic policy is supported in the Quran, however Fadlān makes it clear that this is undercut by the fact that the “most wretched of them can go back and break the agreement” (12). Throughout his discussion of the Turks, Fadlān continuously mentions that that Ghuzz Turks have no religion but will copy the words of Muslim travelers in order to make a good impression (11-19). However, based on the extensive burial practices he describes and how these show that wealth and ownership in life are reflected in the experiences of the deceased in the afterlife, it seems as if he is overlooking it. He also comments on the fact that the Turks do not wash ritualistically, that the women don’t cover their hair and sometimes expose themselves in public, and that the marriage customs there are strange and immodest, apparently, in comparison to his own.   

Fadlān also describes the norms of hospitality, sharing that “no Muslim can cross their country without having made friends with one of them, with whom he stays and to whom he brings gifts from the lands of Islam” (14). Though he doesn’t explicitly state how long he and his party travelled through this land or that he stayed with anyone, this quote implies that he did make friends with at least one person and experience this hospitality himself. Fadlān describes the Ghuzz Turks as being very accommodating to their guests, from helping to make sure their food is prepared in a way that is required for them religiously to giving them possessions and money to borrow. However, they also take breaking the trust between guest and host very seriously (14-16). 

Ibn Fadlān repeats multiple times that it seems like the Turks simply repeat what is said to them rather than take an interest in Islam, or religion in general. This description makes it clear that attempts at converting and taking over this area may not be successful. However, this is packaged with descriptions of hospitality and how much the people value material possessions, especially from “the lands of Islam”. So, the purpose of this section could be to discuss important things to consider if the caliph wants to send a larger amount of people through the area and up to Bulghār, almost as a guide of what to expect. With this in mind, I find is strange that he didn’t include more information about the structure of the society or how cohesive the lords are if he is hoping to provide information to help with future military endeavors.  

The Travels of Marco Polo: Kan-chau

Marco arrived in a city called Kan-chau, the capital of the province of Tangut which lies in the Cathay region. Marco notes the people’s perception of the lunar cycle is similar to his own interpretation of how to distinguish months. He further explains how there is a five-day period during the cycle where idolaters do not kill anything or eat any meat and these people live most virtuously during this period. He mentions that the laity does not participate in this practice.

Marco continues his telling of his experience in this city by focusing on the religious affiliations and practices of these inhabitants. He notes that most are idolaters, but some are Christians and Mahometans. These pious folk erected large monasteries, churches, and an elaborate display of their many idols. The larger idols, some that were “ten paces in length”, were laid down with smaller ones set circularly around them in positions to look as though they are “paying their respects”. In particular, in Marco’s discussion of the religious practices of the people of Kan-chau, he claims that even the idolaters living under religious rule have more virtuous lifestyles. 

His emphasis on his preference for religious folk and judgment of those who do not practice the same morals as him reveals his partial identity as a religious messenger for Christianity. Additionally, his focused interest in their religious practices also suggests devout religious faith as well. Many of his comments about the practices of the people in this city carry a tone of judgment, not exclusively negative or positive, as he seems to compare their practices to his own and praises them for the devoutness that compelled them to create so many idols. 

Marco also writes about the marital and sexual practices of the people of Kan-chau. He notes that “their principle conduct” is that if a woman makes sexual advances towards a man it is acceptable. However, if the man makes the first move then it is a sin, and if people find out the man had made the first move, they condemn him to death. He details how usually the man is able to take up as many wives as he pleases, so long as he can afford to provide for all of them. If any of his wives displease him, he is able to do as he wishes in discipline, whether it be putting her away or another form of punishment he sees fit. Marco also notes that the first wife a man may take up is customarily treated with the highest status out of all the other wives. He explains these polygamous relationships as the people living like “beasts” (92). 

The aspects of the marital/sexual practices that Marco chooses to include in his account of this group’s culture denotes a tone of disapproving judgment on Marco’s part. His description of their practices is framed in the perception that Marco believes the men in this city will marry and have sexual relations with anything. Marco’s advocation for greater chastity is revealed in describing the people of Kan-chau as “living like beasts”. This comment carries a tone of Marco’s confusion with their crude sexual practices, which reveals his egotistical demeanor. His equation of these people’s marital practices and moral standards to wild animals shows Marco’s self-perception of him living a life of higher virtue in comparison.


The Travels of Ibn Battutah: Jerusalem (and his stop in Bethlehem along the way)

In his travel narrative, Ibn Battutah describes visiting the city of Jerusalem in 1326 during his pilgrimage to the Holy Mecca. Both during the trek to Jerusalem, which includes a stop in Bethlehem, as well as his week-long stay in the city, Battutah describes the religious monuments he sees and the different ways in which the Islamic and Christian faith perceive the monuments. In this section, the narrator shows his knowledge and devotion to the Islamic faith in a detailed, reverent way that reinforces the general purpose of his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Although the main purpose of Battutah’s journey is to reach Mecca, his detour to Jerusalem shows the ways in which medieval travelers would take advantage of their journey and see as many significant locations as possible. Battutah stops in Bethlehem while traveling via caravan from Ghazza to Jerusalem so that he can see the birthplace of Jesus. This event takes less than a day and does not contribute to Battutah’s main goal of reaching Mecca, but it shows that he is willing to take the time and energy to engage in meaningful, religious experiences whenever possible. Battutah even acknowledges that Jerusalem does not hold the same significance as Mecca, calling it “third in excellence after the two sacred mosques of Mecca… and the place of ascension of the Apostle of God” (26). Although it is not Mecca, Battutah chooses to make the most of his long pilgrimage and takes time to appreciate Jerusalem for what it’s worth. Visiting these smaller, but still important, cities and monuments throughout the pilgrimage shows that it is not only the final destination, but also the journey, that holds significance. Pilgrimages exist as a way to search for spiritual meaning and purpose, which cannot occur unless the journey is emphasized as much as the destination.

Once in the city, Battutah focuses on the physical beauty of religious structures and monuments. His specific word choice praises the creators of the structures in addition to the structures themselves. He claims that the roof of a particularly spectacular mosque shows “the utmost perfection of architecture and skill in execution” while the monument The Dome of the Rock shows “excellent workmanship…and such brilliance of execution as to defy description” (27). Referencing the execution and workmanship of these beautiful buildings shows that Battutah respects not only the monuments and their spiritual significance, but also the laborers who made these feats possible. Battutah does not ignore or take for granted the work of other people, and instead highly praises it. He does not let his religious status get in the way of his spiritual obligations, so he remains mindful and modest when regarding the work of others.

Throughout this section of his narrative, Battutah references several overlaps between the Christian and Islamic faith. He notes that both religions recognize Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, and that they both have religious monuments in Jerusalem regarding the ascension of religious figures. Battutah does not describe the Christian beliefs in a negative way, but he still claims that the Christian faith “lies and persuades” its followers to believe in untrue sentiments. (28). It is surprising how Battutah acknowledges the differences in Christian and Islamic faith, claiming his faith as superior, without attacking Christianity. Other religious travelers of the time negatively looked upon foreigners or those with different religious beliefs, but Battutah does not engage in this practice. Once again, this shows that he not only promotes, but also practices, the notions of respect and kindness within the Islamic faith. 

Ibn-Baṭṭūṭa Muḥammad Ibn-ʿAbdallāh, and Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. Translated by Gibb Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen, Picador, 2002.

The Wanderings of Felix Fabri: Venice

Felix Fabri stopped on his journey to Jerusalem with twelve other pilgrims, in Venice. During their stay in Venice, they stayed in an inn. Fabri primarily describes the people of Venice more so than the food or the weather and climate. I assume this is because he states that he has been there before and these aspects of Venice were not new or surprising to him. When describing the inn in Venice that he and the other pilgrims stay at from the twenty-seventh to the thirtieth of the month, Fabri starts by describing the host and the people who run the inn and then focuses on the guard dog of the inn. When describing the hostess of the inn he describes her as being a kind and good woman whom he already knew. He also states that no one within the inn was Italian but were all German. Fabri then goes on to speak about the guard dog of the inn. This guard dog is said to be large and black and has a love of the German people. This love is to the extent where the dog becomes violent with anyone who is not German who attempts to enter the inn as well as with other dogs but is sweet and lovable with anyone who is German. Fabri then tells of how he asked his fellow pilgrims if he could stay in the local convent or in the boat because he did not want to stay with secular people. While the men he had asked denied his request, he did visit the convents and his fellow religious men every day of their stay. Fabri also takes the time to describe the other pilgrims he sees in Venice who are also making their way to Jerusalem. Fabri also states several times that they had to pay off the people whom they asked to aid in their journey to protect them from being robbed, beaten, and molested. Overall, Fabri primarily discusses and brings up the characters of the people he is around or in the land of as well as the religious aspects of the lands in which he sees and his fears of the people he is not traveling with. 

Fabri’s constant focus of the religious aspects of the areas in which he travels as well as his constant reasoning of why he and the other pilgrims do aid in showing just how devoted Fabri is toward his religion. Fabri also speaks of his fears of the of the people who live within the areas that they are traveling through. Fabri mainly focuses on the negative things that these people could do to him and the other pilgrims. Fabri mainly focuses on the religions of the people of those areas and attributes their violence and the negative aspects that he associates with them to being a result of their religion. Fabri speaks very negatively of other religions as well as Christians of different regions of the world then where he is from. This shows that he does hold a prejudice against not only other religions but also other people groups in general. He also seems to view himself as better than them as a result of his belief that he is both more devout and a Christian then any of the other people in the other lands. This shows that he is not only used to the belief that there is a class system within religion bast on how devote an individual is, but also that there is turmoil and conflict between the different sects of religions. Something that I found unusual but also very helpful was that he was describing the countries of Germany and Italy in a way that seemed somewhat close to that of modern time. This caught me off guard because I was never fully sure when the borders between countries were erected but I thought they were more recent than the Middle Ages. I felt that Fabri’s purpose behind telling of these things was to not only give the readers a better understanding of where he was and what was going on but also that he was catering to the religious reader. I also am of the opinion that part of the reason that he was so focused on the religious aspects of the region was because he was possibly only expecting his work to be read by the religious or people who belong to the church, i.e.. Monks, priests, and popes.  

The Book of the Wanderings of Felix Fabri: The Alps

Felix Fabri was a Swiss theologian of the Dominican Order, a Catholic society of traveling ministers whose ultimate goal was to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout Europe and its surrounding areas. Fabri’s recounts of his multiple pilgrimages to The Holy Land include a plethora of information about the terrain through which he traveled and the religious figures whom he encountered on the way. Fabri began each discussion of his pilgrimages with Ulm, Germany as a starting point, and he travels south to Italy, covering the lands of Austria and Switzerland along. the way.

His acute focus on the terrain of The Alps indicates that much of his pilgrimage was spent in the mountainous area. Fabri describes the land of the Rhaetic Alps, as “very bad for traveling” after rainy weather (58). The Rhaetic Triangle includes the regions of what we know today as Austria, Italy, and Switzerland, so Felix Fabri seemed to be traveling south from Germany towards Italy in hopes of getting access to Jerusalem, presumably via boat. Fabri’s journey was evidently no walk in the park, as he had to travel through dry, cold, rainy, and mountainous conditions to reach the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The Alps is not necessarily a “stop” that Felix Fabri makes, but rather a continuous landscape that he must travel through to get to Italy. I find it interesting that Fabri travels south in Europe instead of traveling East to Asia, where he would have more immediate access to The Holy Land. In addition, he could share Jesus Christ and the Christian faith with non-believers in the area instead of feasting and praying with other Europeans who already identify with the Christian doctrine. His failure to do so makes me wonder if traveling east posed more danger to Europeans. If so, how?

Fabri dedicates much of his recounting to the time he spent partaking in religious practices throughout his pilgrimage. He gives a very specific description of the monasteries in which he prayed as well as the people with whom he prayed and offered alms. His food and drink are only mentioned briefly throughout the entire book; he makes passing mentions of food and red wine that he ingests on the journey, but he specifically recalls figures such as Father Nicolaus Munchberger and other religious officials. Felix Fabri’s goal on this journey is beyond clear–he wants to share his intimate religious experiences with like-minded individuals from other regions of Europe under the guise of ‘spreading the word of the Bible’.

Felix Fabri’s culture is evidently parallel with those of the people whom he encountered while traveling south of Germany to Italy. He comes from a very strict religious background and is able to relate to other religious figures of the Christian faith in different regions of Europe because of the shared experience of Catholicism.

What I found most interesting about Felix Fabri’s recount of the pilgrimage is his brief description of people who behaved in violation of the Christian code of conduct. Fabri calls Mameluke an “accursed brute” for being drunk and passing out, not just because it’s unflattering, but also because his behavior is “contrary to the law of Mahomet”, an Arab-Muslim religious figure.

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