The Medieval Islamic World Through the Eyes of Two Travelers
By Melanie A. Clouser
Agora, Vol.3:1 (2002)
Introduction: Islamic regions, long ignored and misunderstood by many, contain integral information concerning medieval Mediterranean civilizations. Historian Henri Cordier claims, “Westerners have singularly narrowed the history of the world” to their own meager knowledge of historic Israel, Greece, and Rome, ignoring the vast remainder of the different, yet no less civilized, world. The cultures of Islamic regions drew many travelers during the Middle Ages, such as Benjamin of Tudela and Ibn Battuta, for a variety of reasons. Scholars traveled long distances to participate in “the shining prestige of the great cultural centers of the Middle East, notably Cairo and Damascus,” which contained the most substantial intellectual resources. A common misconception of the Islamic city viewed it as “neither the classical polis nor the European burg; it represented the decay of the former without the capacity to develop into the latter.” The travelogues of Benjamin of Tudela and Ibn Battuta provide firsthand knowledge of the Islamic world, which contradicts the limitations of this view. Far from being a delinquent city, the medina (Islamic city), particularly Damascus and Cairo, contributed a great deal of cultural development throughout the Middle Ages, as attested to by travel literature of the time.
Understanding earlier developments of the Islamic world provides context necessary to our exploration of the later Middle Ages. Cultural elements, far from developing independently, thrive on interaction among various societies. Scholar Ross Dunn refers to the “intercommunicating zone,” through which sedentary and urbanized populations from ancient times linked across the Middle East, India, and China, effectively sharing and borrowing cultural elements. Eventually, this relationship grew, extending across Africa, Asia, and Europe, influencing the entire Eastern hemisphere, and therefore the general human population, with great variation in effect. Throughout this exchange, rural and pastoral populations acquired some cultural elements, as well as periodically impacting urban populations, through cultural and political power. Trade relations formed a complex network across and around the Mediterranean, transporting goods and ideas. By the time of the ‘Abbasid Empire (tenth to thirteenth centuries), the two great sea basins of the world were linked, moving people and ideas throughout the Muslim Empire, contributing to the trend of communication that increased throughout history. Beginning in 1137-38 with a Genoese-Almohad treaty, European merchants developed a rigorous system of trade, extending to North Africa in the 1200s, and to the British Isles and Flanders by 1300.