The Marco Polo of the Middle East

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While I was travelling through Europe, people would sometimes smile and jokingly pass reference to Marco Polo, the medieval Italian merchant who brought home epic tales of Asia, now immortalised as one of history’s great adventurers, and whose experiences neither I nor anyone else stand the slightest chance of recreating in today’s world.

While I was travelling through the Middle East, people would sometimes smile and jokingly pass reference to another man, named Ibn Battuta. I’d never heard of Ibn Battuta. Some of my readers will have, but nothing like as many as who will have heard of Marco Polo.

Shobak Castle, Jordan

There is — realistically — nothing left to explore on this planet, and society is drawing ever closer to complete, branded homogenisation. The fantasy images of far-off lands are just fantasies, and can only be reinforced by signing up for guided tours that have been designed to do exactly that.

But I was intrigued by this character, so I found out more. Like Marco Polo, he journeyed for more than twenty years, but far more extensively than Polo ever did. He is as celebrated in the Middle East as Polo is in the West, judging by the number of times he came up in conversation. Why had I never heard of him?

There’s even, believe it or not, a mall in Dubai that was built in his honour. It has six themed zones, decorated in the traditional style of the regions through which Battuta travelled, and an indoor taxi service to take you from one end to the other, so you can relive Battuta’s three-decade odyssey in just five minutes while you’re out shopping.

So much for Dubai. I’ve put Ibn Battuta’s 700-year-old story on my reading list; one of the last true ways to see an unexplored, undiscovered world through the eyes of a brave, solitary wanderer.

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2 responses to “The Marco Polo of the Middle East”

  1. Fearghal avatar

    hhhhmmmmm, not sure if I agree with the tone of this piece Mr Allen. 

    I can’t agree that there’s nothing left to explore on this planet, as there’s lots left for me to explore. Sure someone’s been everywhere, and written about it. But its still there for me to discover. 

    I think its important to seperate the myth of a place- the tourist fanatasy, the landmark artifice, the travel book cliche- from the reality of going there and hanging out. If you do that there’s an infinite number of places to be explored and discovered, maybe not in the Edwardian sense. 

    But we don’t look at any other aspect of the world through Edwardian specs anymore, so why keep them on for travel.

    But then the same could be said for science, that there’s nothing left to discover.
    Or Literature, that all of the great stories have already been written. 

    But we know that’s silly, we know that our way of seeing the world is always changing thus we need to take each fresh pair of eyes to explore the world afresh.

    Anyway, thats enough seriousness.

    You didn’t feel like a bit of a “bold, solitary wanderer” yerself when you were pedaling through the sahara ; )

    1. All good points, and I will write a blog shortly on the topic — likely another rehash of the old explorer/adventurer definition debate, but anyway…

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