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Book Review: Travel accounts of Muslims in ninth and early tenth centuries

4th May 2018
Book Review: Travel accounts of Muslims in ninth and early tenth centuries

Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India. By Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi and Ibn Fadlan. Edited and Translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E Montgomery. Pp 320. HB. 2015. New York: New York University Press. £29.99

This book brings together two of the oldest surviving travel books in Arabic. Both books are published with Arabic text on facing pages. In his Forward, Tim Mackintosh-Smith sets the scene for both books, which came into existence in ‘an extraordinarily mobile world in which a tailor from Baghdad can end up as the Bulghar king’s couturier, a wanderer from present-day Pakistan can end up hanging from a tree in a northern forest, and a refugee from Basra can drop in, apparently on a whim, on the Tang emperor of China.’ (p. ix-x)

Abu Zayd al-Slrafl, the author of the first of the two books (Accounts of China and India) wrote about ‘the Sea of India and China, in whose depths are pearls and ambergris, in whose rocky isles are gems and mines of gold, in the mouth of whose beasts is ivory, in whose forest grow ebony, sapan wood, rattans, and trees that bear aloe-wood, camphor, nutmeg, cloves, sandalwood, and all manner of fragrant and aromatic spices, whose birds are parrots and peacocks, and the creeping things of whose earth are civet cats and musk gazelles, and all the rest that no one could enumerate, so many are its blessings.’ (p. 4).

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.

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 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 gruelling 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.

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