Two Arabic Travel Books

Two Arabic Travel Books

Two Arabic Travel Books

Two Arabic Travel Books


Two Arabic Travel Books combines two exceptional exemplars of Arabic travel writing, penned in the same era but chronicling wildly divergent experiences. Accounts of China and India is a compilation of reports and anecdotes on the lands and peoples of the Indian Ocean, from the Somali headlands to China and Korea. The early centuries of the Abbasid era witnessed a substantial network of maritime trade--the real-life background to the Sindbad tales. In this account, we first travel east to discover a vivid human landscape, including descriptions of Chinese society and government, Hindu religious practices, and natural life from flying fish to Tibetan musk-deer and Sri Lankan gems. The juxtaposed accounts create a jigsaw picture of a world not unlike our own, a world on the road to globalization. In its ports, we find a priceless cargo of information; here are the first foreign descriptions of tea and porcelain, a panorama of unusual social practices, cannibal islands, and Indian holy men--a marvelous, mundane world, contained in the compass of a novella. In Mission to the Volga, we move north on a diplomatic mission from Baghdad to the upper reaches of the Volga River in what is now central Russia. This colorful documentary by Ibn Fadlan relates the trials and tribulations of an embassy of diplomats and missionaries sent by caliph al-Muqtadir to deliver political and religious instruction to the recently-converted King of the Bulghars. During eleven months of grueling travel, Ibn Fadlan records the marvels he witnesses on his journey, including an aurora borealis and the white nights of the North. Crucially, he offers a description of the Viking Rus, including their customs, clothing, tattoos, and a striking account of a ship funeral. Mission to the Volga is also the earliest surviving instance of sustained first-person travel narrative in Arabic--a pioneering text of peerless historical and literary value. Together, the stories in Two Arabic Travel Books illuminate a vibrant world of diversity during the heyday of the Abbasid empire, narrated with as much curiosity and zeal as they were perceived by their observant beholders.


This volume brings together the two oldest surviving Arabic travel books, dating from the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries. These are also two of the shortest Arabic travel books, but if they are small, their scope is huge and their vision panoramic. They set out from the heart of the Arab-Islamic empire, the hub of the Old World in their time: journeying by land from the caliphal capital of Baghdad and by sea from the great Gulf emporia of Basra and Sīrāf, they visit all seven climes of the ancient geographers, the bands of latitude encircling the inhabited earth. They take us, their readers and fellow travelers, from northern steppes, where rivers and beards freeze and trousers are lined in fur, to steamy equatorial islands, whose inhabitants lack beards, trousers, and any clothes at all. They explore a world and an age in which the political unity of the Islamic empire was fast fragmenting but in which the culture of that empire was going global. Some verses by Abū Dulaf Misʿar ibn Muhalhil, a slightly later traveler, catch the spirit of the time:

To us the whole world’s open wide,
      And all that’s in it of Islam and non-Islam.
we pass our summers on the snow,
    And winter in the land of ripening dates.

In some ways, Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga and Abū Zayd’s Accounts of China and India are very different books. One is by a single author and describes a particular journey by caravan and camel-skin raft, a diplomatic mission into the icy heart of the Eurasian landmass. the other is Abū Zayd’s compilation of fragments from multiple journeys by many travelers, most of them anonymous merchants who crossed the Indian Ocean and China Sea by dhow and then lived, traded, and sweated, often for years, on its shores. Both books are truncated: while one lacks an ending, the other lacks a beginning.

There are also some remarkable similarities. Both books are written in informal Arabic that sometimes seems closer to a spoken than to a literary record. Both portray an extraordinarily mobile world in which a tailor from Baghdad can end up as the Bulghār king’s couturier, a wanderer from present-day Pakistan can end up hanging from a tree in a northern forest, and a refugee from . . .

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