Both Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo were famous world explorers at their respective times – about a generation apart. However, the travels of Marco Polo preceded those of Ibn Batuta by a couple of decades. Therefore, in that respect, the worldview of the both the travelers are not that different since both saw more or less the same period in history. This essay shall compare the travel accounts of both these travelers and argue that the travel accounts of Marco Polo are historically more reliable than those of Ibn Batuta.
One can examine the focus of the travel writings of both these travelers. In Marco Polo’s journey from Peking to Amoy, he deals with a variety of topics in details. However, his writings focus on several commercial and, sometimes, historical aspects of particular towns and cities that lined his travel routes within China. For instance, at the very beginning of his travel accounts of China, he gives specific directions from Cho-Chau to Ho-Kien-fu. (Polo 194) In doing so, he also proceeds to describe the ruler of that region, the trade and commerce practices of people residing in these towns as well as their religious practices. One can come across another instance of the focus of his writing in his descriptions of Sinju Matu and Linju towns as well. In both these cases, Marco Polo predominantly focuses on the commercial aspects and potential of these towns and their people followed by a very short account of their religious practices. (200) In some cases, however, Polo also explains the historical significance of certain cities or places.
For instance, Polo writes about the history of Siang-yang-fu and the courageous manner in which the city held out after the others had surrendered. (207) From the instances mentioned and considering Marco Polo’s inclination towards commerce, one can surmise that his descriptions predominantly focused on factors such as commercial productivity of certain towns or cities. In his descriptions of most Chinese towns and cities, Polo is vocal about the particular product or commercial specialty of that place. He talks about cities in a more descriptive manner when they display wealth, active trade and specialty products such as silk, customized cloth et.al. Although from that particular point in time when religion took center place in thought, his writings describe religious practices with a sense of neutrality, except in certain cases where he jeers at certain practices like that of the custom of getting answers from questions from one of the eighty four idols in Cathay. (198) His statement about having found his own lost ring without the help of these idols displays a somewhat open disdain for such practices. But in his accounts, such statements are rare with the focus being more on commercial and historical aspects of the places where he travelled.
One can now consider the focus of Ibn Batuta’s travel writings. Batuta’s writings primarily read like a travel diary. His writings are more heavily tainted with religious censure beginning with the particular line, “The Chinese are infidels.” (Batuta 262) The reader of his travel accounts gets a sense that he is more comfortable in those parts of China that are under Islamic influence or have significant Muslim populations. Further, like Polo, he too describes certain aspects of Chinese social life, such as the practice of burning the dead, the use of paper for currency purposes and China pottery. Batuta also goes into some detail on the safety of the travel routes in China as well as the social and legal structures amongst the Islamic parts of China. (265) Thus, one can surmise that Batuta is biased in his writing to suit and accommodate only the Islamic aspects of China while leaving the social aspects of the non-Islamic Chinese people relatively untouched. Also, one can understand that Batuta’s descriptions are more anecdotal in nature and lack the conviction and strength that are characteristics of Marco Polo’s writing style. Also the anecdotes that Batuta provides seem rather unrealistic to a reader since they don’t prove any point. Further, these anecdotes only succeed in making this travel writing resemble a book with Batuta’s personal experiences and viewpoints in it. One could surmise that this might have been due to Ibn Batuta’s background as a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence. (Batuta, xi) This background ensured that his focus was heavily slanted towards the Islamic way of life. As a result of this, one can clearly see that Batuta’s writing focused on the social and religious details of life in China, with a particular emphasis on the Islamic aspects of the same since he refers to all others as ‘infidels,’ which indicates that he does not hold the Non-Muslim Chinese in very high esteem compared to their Muslim counterparts. With a bias of this nature having infiltrated into his writings, it is hard to take the writings of Ibn Batuta from a historic perspective.
Further, one can proceed to examine the respective writing styles of both the authors. On reading the account written by Marco Polo, one finds some distinctive factors that render his writing both neutral and succinct, yet descriptive. For instance, Polo is extremely tolerant towards the religion of the Chinese people to a very large extent. Although in rare cases, he does make slightly skewed references to certain practices, nowhere does he strongly criticize them. Such writing clearly proves that the accounts are written by an author with a clear and open worldview of different religions and people. His writing strongly lists the visuals as he sees them in front of his eyes as a traveler. When one writes in such a manner, the culture and the mannerisms of the specific civilization come alive and help the reader get a strong historical perspective of those times. There are many such instances where Polo’s accounts read much like a living history book, for instance, his description of the Khan’s methods to prevent rebellion by posting ten men on each of the 12,000 bridges, or the 3,000 baths in the province of Manzi. (Polo 220 -222). Through such illustrations, the author has succeeded in creating an excellent historical record of his travels. And lastly, the travel writings of Marco Polo have very little religious bias which makes the accounts reliable and trustworthy.
If one now examines the travel writings of Ibn Batuta, one sees that he makes the accounts of his travels in China compared to those in his own land. Be it the rivers, the food or most other aspects, one sees a spirit of comparison which renders the account biased from the outset. Although, Batuta shares some aspects with Polo in his shared admiration of the paper money, the pottery and such other things, largely Batuta views the Chinese as infidels. Once he takes this view, his travelogue seems to be largely written for the travelling Muslim of his times rather than for a secular reader or traveler. Also, unlike Polo, Batuta’s writings are largely anecdotal, especially his account of the sheikh of Sin Kalan who was two thousand years old and neither drank nor excreted. (Batuta 265) When one reads such stories, one can only wonder at the fantastic tales of those times, but this certainly does not help the reader frame an opinion on the historic happenings of those times. A reader comes across a similar experience when reading Batuta’s anecdote on his meeting with Mawlana Qiwam-al-din and the opinion about the prevalence of infidels in China. (268) Such accounts, unfortunately, do not build a favorable opinion of Ibn Batuta’s writings as a reliable historical source in the mind of a reader. These readings come across as odd bits of anecdotes, observations and rudimentary notes put together with very little detailing compared to the rather details accounts written by Marco Polo.
In conclusion, one can see clearly that for many reasons Marco Polo’s writings have an upper hand over those of Ibn Batuta. Firstly, the detailing of places and a sharp focus of Polo from a historical as well as commercial perspective make this travel writing an interesting read. Comparatively, Batuta’s writing lacks detail and is highly biased towards the prevalent Islamic society in China and the Mongolian region. Further, his own background precludes Batuta from looking beyond these narrow viewpoints, while Polo has no such compulsions. Secondly, a strong religious bias towards non-Muslims has prevented Batuta’s travel accounts from becoming a comprehensive and detailed document. On the other hand, Marco Polo, although a little biased, has more tolerance towards people of other religions in China that are easily reflected in the neutrality and, thus, the consistency of his writing. These points combined lead one to understand that the travel accounts of Marco Polo are certainly more reliable as a historical source than those of Ibn Batuta.
Batuta, Ibn. Travels of Ibn Batuta. Ed. Tim Mckintosh Smith, Paris: Picador, 2003. Print
Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Trans. Ronald Latham, London: Penguin Books, 1958. Print