Kullu ṭāʿūn wabāʾ
wa-laysa kullu wabāʾ ṭāʿūn.Footnote 1
The Riḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (and Ibn Juzayy)Footnote 2
Still in his early twenties,Footnote 3 on 2 Rajab 725 [14 June 1325] Muḥammad b. Baṭṭūṭa recounts having left his hometown of Tangier to make the Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, but in reality he spent twenty-four years travelling the length and breadth of the Islamicate world. Back home in Shaʿbān 750 [November 1349], he made two further short trips to al-Andalus and Sudan and in early 1354 he put a definitive end to his wanderings.Footnote 4 Shortly after that, at the behest of the Marinid Sultan Abū ʿInān,Footnote 5 he dictated the diary of his travels which the court scribe, Ibn Juzayy, edited. As the text says, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa finished his work on 3 Dhū ’l-Ḥijja 756 [13 December 1355] and the final version was completed a few months later, in Ṣafar 757 [February 1356]. The text bears the title Tuḥfat al-nuẓẓār fī gharāʾib al-amṣār wa-ʿajāʾib al-asfār (“A Gift to those who contemplate the wonders of cities and the marvels of travelling”)Footnote 6 – but it is known as Riḥlat Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (“The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa”). However, as we do not know how and to what extent Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Ibn Juzayy collaborated, it would be more correct to call it “The Riḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Ibn Juzayy”.Footnote 7 Ibn Juzayy probably died a few months later, in 756–8/1356–7, while Ibn Baṭṭūṭa probably lived until 770/1368–9.Footnote 8
As for the text he/they wrote, we do not know much about its fortune in North Africa and the Middle East: some manuscript compendia certainly circulated, but none of them seem to be attested in Arabic sources until the end of the sixteenth century.Footnote 9 Whereas in Europe, some manuscripts were edited and translated in the early nineteenth century: the most relevant were the works by the German Johann Kosegarten, who, in 1818, edited and translated some of its extracts into Latin, and the Englishman Samuel Lee who, in 1829, translated into English a long compendium signed by the Syrian copyist Fatḥ Allāh al-Baylūnī (d. 1632).Footnote 10 Between Reference Defremery and Sanguinetti1853–8, the Frenchmen Charles Defremery and Beniamino R. Sanguinetti relied on five Algerian manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, to edit in Arabic and translate into French the currently most complete version of the work.Footnote 11 One of these manuscripts bears the signature of Ibn Juzayy, this version is considered the “standard” one – or Editio Princeps – and is undoubtedly the most widespread edition of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla, whether in Arabic or translated into other languages.Footnote 12
The Riḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa in Indian studies
Ibn Baṭṭūṭa claims to having arrived in India in September 1333. Here he reports having interrupted his journey and stayed for eight (maybe nine) years at the court of the prodigal Turkish-Afghan tyrant of the Islamic Sultanate of Delhi, Muḥammad b. Tughluq (724–52/1324–51). A large part of the Riḥla is dedicated to this long stay and provides a wealth of historical, political, economic and social news and information, interspersed with anecdotes, mirabilia and Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's or others’ personal adventures and experiences.Footnote 13 Now, the few remaining Indo-Persian sources (i.e. Indian sources in Persian language) on the Islamic Sultanate of Delhi, and on Ibn Tughluq in particular, mainly consist of four chronicles: Táríkh-i Fíroz Sháhí, by the famous Delhi court historian Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn Baranī (d. c. 759/1358);Footnote 14 Futūḥ al-salāṭīn by the historian and court poet (of the Bahmanid Sultanate) ʿAbd al-Malik ʿIṣāmī (711/1311–?);Footnote 15 the later Táríkh-i Mubárak Sháhí, by the Delhi court historian Yaḥyā b. Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1033/1624)Footnote 16 and Táríkh-i Firishta, by the Deccan court historian Muḥammad Qāsim Firishta (d. c. 1029/1620), who mostly draws information from Baranī.Footnote 17 Therefore it is not unusual that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's work is cited as a reliable source in modern studies on Indian medieval history, even though it is a literary text.Footnote 18
Among the scholars of Indian history, Major (Reference Major1857: liv) gives a prominent place to Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla among the sources for the study of the sub-continent in the fourteenth century; Elliot and Dowson (Reference Elliot and Dowson1871, 3: 586) say that “He [Ibn Baṭṭūṭa] recounted, and no doubt honestly, the information he received from the respectable and well-informed individuals with whom he was brought in contact”; Moreland (Reference Moreland and Chetterjee1936: 169) cites him as a witness to Ibn Tughluq's cruelty, noting that it is not reported by Baranī; Dunbar (Reference Dunbar1936: 124) claims that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa gives “a reliable account of Muhammad Tughluq” and argues that Baranī, considering his role as court historian, “cannot be considered to be as good evidence as IB” (Dunbar Reference Dunbar1936: 122); Sastri (Reference Sastri1939: 35) explains that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa “gives an historical retrospect […] which is especially valuable from the additional facts which it supplies”; Venkata Ramanayya (Reference Ramanayya1942) quotes Ibn Baṭṭūṭa on several occasions comparing his information with that of Baranī; Majumdar, Raychaudhuri and Datta (Reference Majumdar, Raychaudhuri and Datta1951: 648, Index) cite the Riḥla as a source (alone or alongside others) on a dozen occasions; Smith (Reference Smith and Spear1958: 249) compares Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla with Baranī's chronicle, and remarks: “Although [Baranī] naturally does not exhibit the impartial detachment of the foreign observer, his narrative is full of vivid detail”; Bhattacharya (Reference Bhattacharya1960: 435) includes him in his Dictionary of Indian History; Raychaudhuri and Habib (Reference Raychaudhuri and Habib1982) quote Ibn Baṭṭūṭa for information about Muslim trade on the western Indian coast; Wolpert (1993: 115) and Torri (Reference Torri2000: 238) cite the Riḥla as a source for questions related to politics and the army; Jackson (Reference Jackson1999: 155) mentions it in his chapter on major sources and quotes it several times.
As regards quotations from the Riḥla in the aforementioned works, few scholars refer to the original text in Arabic:Footnote 19 most of them cite a translation, but do not always say which one it is. In the later works reference is sometimes made to the English versions of al-Baylūnī's compendium by Lee,Footnote 20 to the complete French version of the Editio Princeps by Defremery and Sanguinetti and to its partial version in English by Gibb (Reference Gibb1929), while most recent studies mostly refer to the version in English by Gibb and Beckingham (1958–94).Footnote 21
Such intensive references to Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla also concern some epidemic episodes which, mentioned in the Riḥla, took place in India in approximately 1334–1335 and in 1344 and, as we shall see, have given rise to some misunderstandings.
The epidemics that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa describes in India
The word used by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa to indicate an “epidemic”, wabāʾ, is present (with the same meaning) in both Arabic and Persian (wabā/vaba).Footnote 22 Formed from the verb wabiʾa (= to be contaminated, used for regions affected by an epidemic) it indicates any epidemic disease,Footnote 23 but in some periods was used at least for two different specific diseases: plague and cholera.Footnote 24 In medieval Arabic and Persian sources, therefore, only a description (unfortunately rare) of the symptoms can give a clear understanding of the disease to which wabāʾ refers.Footnote 25
In the Riḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, the word wabāʾ is used 14 times in reference to ten epidemic episodes that occurred in 11 places.Footnote 26 The first three occurrences are located in India and it is not clear to which diseases they refer. In addition to these, in India the Riḥla reports another event with a high mortality rate that occurred in the Sultan's army, for which the term maraḍ (disease) is used. The remaining 11 occurrences of wabāʾ are located in seven passages of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's journey home from Baghdad to Tangier and all undoubtedly refer to the plague epidemic of the “Black Death”.Footnote 27 Ibn Baṭṭūṭa uses tāʿūn, the more medically precise Arabic term for plague, only once in the Rihla, when he is giving a general description of the pandemic at the beginning of his text, as if he wants his audience to understand that the pandemic is part of the narrative frame of his whole journey.Footnote 28
This lexical confusion is compounded by the fact that some medieval – not only Arabic – sources relate, quite vaguely, that the plague came from the East and struck India before reaching the Middle East. Among the Arab chroniclers, the Syrian Ibn al-Wardī, who lived at the time of the Black Death and died from it in 1349, reports that the plague (ṭāʿūn) “began in [the land] of darkness (min al-ẓalamāt)”Footnote 29 and immediately adds that “China [al-Ṣīn] was not preserved from it.” Then he states: “it afflicted the Indians in India and weighed upon the Sind.”Footnote 30 The later Egyptian chronicler al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442) states that the plague (ṭāʿūn) originated “in the country of the Great Qān […] in the year 742/1341”, then he reports that the plague “killed most of the inhabitants of China (al-Ṣīn)” and comments: “The disruption in India was less radical than that which struck China.”Footnote 31 As on many other occasions, Ibn Taghrī Birdī (d. 874/1470) quotes, almost verbatim, al-Maqrīzī, only slightly changing the conclusion: the plague (ṭāʿūn) “destroyed the people of China (al-Ṣīn) to the point that only a few survived, and the same (happened) in India.”Footnote 32
Among the several European sources coeval to the Black Death that quote Indians among the first people affected by the plague, it is worth mentioning the account by the notary from Piacenza, Gabriele de Mussis (d. 1356).Footnote 33
Some modern scholars have considered that these sources do not prove the presence of plague in IndiaFootnote 34 – also because in some cases, when speaking of “India” they probably do not refer to what is India nowFootnote 35 – but others also relied on them to assume that the epidemics mentioned by the Riḥla in the sub-continent were the plague, thus deducing – or leading others to deduce – that the Black Death had struck that area before reaching the Middle East.Footnote 36 The presence of the medieval plague in India continues to be, in fact, the subject of much debate: while accepting the hypothesis that India may have been affected by plague epidemics in ancient times, scholars note that it is not until the seventeenth century ce that an epidemic of plague seems to be first substantiated by documentary sourcesFootnote 37 – and of course we have firm evidence for the nineteenth century, when India was hit by the so-called “Third Plague Pandemic”.Footnote 38
In the following paragraphs I will try to explain what the word wabāʾ refers to in the Indian section of the Riḥla and investigate which words have been used in its translations into European languages – which constitute the most cited versions of this text in modern Indian studies.Footnote 39 To this end, each quotation is introduced in the context of the work, commented upon, and reported in the original language and in its English translation according to the order in which it appears in the Riḥla (which is chronological). Accompanying each quotation, in the notes there is the word used for wabāʾ in the complete versions of the EP text in other European languagesFootnote 40 and – if present – the quotation from the Riḥla's compendium by al-Baylūnī, with the related translations.Footnote 41 The information given by the Riḥla will finally be compared with that given by the above-mentioned Indo-Persian medieval sources.
First occurrence: the Telangana epidemic (735/1334–35)
Immediately after describing the city of Delhi, the Riḥla devotes a long chapter to the history of the Delhi sultanate, which Ibn Baṭṭūṭa claims to have personally heard from the eminent Great Qāḍī, Kamāl al-Dīn b. al-BurhānFootnote 42 – but later in the text he specifies to have been a witness to the majority of events concerning Ibn Tughluq's reign.Footnote 43 Towards the end of this chapter there is a report of an expedition that Ibn Tughluq led against the rebel governor of Maʿbar,Footnote 44 and here the word wabāʾ appears for the first time. It is an epidemic that broke out in the army in the region of Tiling (Telangana), in central-eastern India. In the subsequent paragraph mention is made that the Sultan was also infected and fell seriously ill, but survived.
ولمّا وصل السلطان إلى بلاد التِّلنك وهو قاصد إلى قتال الشريف ببلاد المعبر نزل مدينة بَدْرَكُوت، وهي قاعدة بلاد التِّلِنك، وبينها وبين بلاد المعبر مسيرة ثلاثة أشهر، ووقع الوباء إذ ذاك في عسكره فهلك معظمهم ومات العبيد، والممالك وكبار الأمراء مثل ملك دولة شاه الذي كان السلطان يخاطبه بالعمّ ومثل أمير عبد الله الهرويّ .Footnote 45
When the Sultan reached the land of Tiling on his way to engage the Sharīf (Noble) in the province of Maʿbar, he halted at the city of Badrakūt,Footnote 46 capital of the province of Tiling, which is at a distance of three months’ march from the land of Maʿbar. At that moment a pestilence broke out in his army and the greater part of them perished; there died black slaves, the mamlūk troopers, and great amīr such as Malik Dawlat-Shāh, whom the Sultan used to address by the name of uncle, and such as the Amīr ʿAbd Allāh al-Harawī.Footnote 47
The Riḥla relates a large number of deaths in the army (the greater part of it perished in the pandemic), but does not describe any symptoms, so it is not possible to know which disease is involved. Nor is it possible to date the event, as there is no chronological information in the whole section of the Riḥla on Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's stay in India, nor is the date mentioned by Indo-Persian sources.Footnote 48 But scholars place it in approximately 735/1334–35.Footnote 49
The news of a wabāʾ during the Telangana expedition is also reported by Indian chroniclers. Baranī, like Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, fails to describe the symptoms of the disease and indicates that the Sultan himself was infected but did not succumb.Footnote 50 Unlike Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, however, he places the event in Warangal, about 250 km east of Bidar, which was the real capital of Telangana. He reports many victims, without explicitly mentioning the soldiers; and he does not mention the name of any of the dead.Footnote 51
The epidemic is dramatically described by ʿIṣāmī, who does not specify the name of the city. Like Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Baranī he quotes the Sultan's illness and his retreat from the city, but reports that the epidemic, preceded by a “poisonous wind”,Footnote 52 was a consequence of the arrival of the army – which lost approximiately half of its officers. Unlike the other chroniclers, ʿIṣāmī also reports the severity of the disease, which causes infected people to die in one night.Footnote 53
Firishta briefly relates the episode: like Baranī he places it in Warangal and quotes the Sultan's illness, and like Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and ʿIṣāmī he reports that the epidemic broke out in the army and a great part of them fell victim to it.Footnote 54
As for Sirhindī, he speaks of the arrival of the Sultan in Tiling, does not mention the name of the city and merely says that the Sultan fell ill and was forced to retreat, without speaking of any epidemic either in the army or among the inhabitants.Footnote 55
The Indian authors wrote their chronicles in Persian, and they used the term wabā/vaba which, as in Arabic, indicates an undefined “epidemic”. In spite of this, some modern scholars of Indian history assert that the Telangana epidemic was a “plague”, while others speak of “cholera”.Footnote 56 By examining the translations of both Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla and the most quoted Indian source, the one by Baranī, I am inclined to believe that these scholars’ interpretations have been at least partly influenced by some inaccuracies in the terms used by the translators. In the nineteenth century “cholera”, which had only emerged as a globally disseminated disease earlier in the century, was referred to as wabā/wabāʾ/vaba.Footnote 57 So it was with this word that Elliot translated the Persian term in his partial version into English of Baranī's work edited by Dowson in 1871.Footnote 58 As for the translations of the Riḥla, in the first French version by Defremery and Sanguinetti (who were, of course, also writing amid Europe's experiences with cholera in the mid-nineteenth century), the term wabāʾ is translated as “peste” (plague), while in English, Gibb uses “pestilence”… but titles the chapter “The outbreak of plague”.Footnote 59 This is perhaps due to the chronological proximity to the outbreak of the Black Death in the Mediterranean area and the fact that Arab authors (including Ibn Baṭṭūṭa) often designate the plague by the term wabāʾ. Be that as it may, although both Baranī and Ibn Baṭṭūṭa use a generic term such as wabā/wabāʾ and do not describe any symptoms, only a few modern scholars remain faithful to the original text and speak, for example, of “some kind of epidemic”.Footnote 60 As for the historians of the Black Death quoted in this paper, the few who relate this episode remain sceptical about it being the plague.Footnote 61
Second occurrence: again, the Telangana epidemic
The epidemic that broke out in Telangana is mentioned a second time shortly afterwards with regard to some associates of the above-mentioned Amīr al-Harawī, who attempted to flee with the Amīr's property after he died in the epidemic. Here, again, no further information is given on the disease. Furthermore, both Defremery and Sanguinetti and Gibb translate al-wabāʾ as “la peste/the plague”.
واتّفق أن مات أمير عبد الله الهروي فيالوباء بالتلنك، وكان ماله عند أصحابه بدهلي، فاتّفقوا مع أمير بخت على الهروب .Footnote 62
It happened that Amīr ʿAbd Allāh al-Harawī died in the plague at Tiling; his property was in the hands of his associates in Dihlī and they arranged with Amīr Bakht to take flight.Footnote 63
It should be noted that the idea of “taking flight” in the context of an epidemic in the Islamicate society has been associated with a “plague” almost since the time of the Prophet.Footnote 64 A famous ḥadīth attributed to Muḥammad, and reported by both al-Bukhārī and Muslim, in fact states that a Muslim must “neither enter nor flee from a region struck by the plague”.Footnote 65 This seems to me a significant detail, although it should be noted that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa uses the verb haraba – while all the versions of the ḥadīth use kharaja (firāran) (to leave (a place) escaping). In any case, in the entire Riḥla – and also on this occasion – Ibn Baṭṭūṭa never quotes this ḥadīth: not even when, in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean area, he repeatedly encounters the Black Death.
The disease during the Qarachil expedition (c. 730–734/1330–33)Footnote 66
Even if it is not included in the references to the word wabāʾ examined in this article, it is worth noting that in a previous episode the Riḥla briefly mentions the defeat of Ibn Tughluq's army during an expedition to an unidentified city called Warangal (as the capital of Telangana), placed “on top of Mount Qarachil”,Footnote 67 attributing the military loss to the spread of a deadly disease.
فلمّا كان وقت نزول المطر غلب المرض على العسكر وضعفوا وماتت الخيل وانحلّت القسيّ .Footnote 68
… when the rainy season began there was an epidemic in the army; the troops were enfeebled, the horses died and the bows became slack.Footnote 69
In this case the term maraḍ is used, which corresponds to “disease”. Again, there are no clarifying details and the text only mentions that “the troops were enfeebled and the horses died.”Footnote 70 The heavy defeat of the Qarachil expedition is reported by Baranī, Firishta and Sirhindī, and none of them mention either the city or the disease.Footnote 71 ʿIṣāmī, however, speaks of an epidemic (wabā) decimating the army to the point that when the sultan returned to Delhi, “less than a third [of the soldiers] had survived”.Footnote 72 I could not verify the English translation of this passage, but among the modern scholars of India quoted in this essay, only Fouzia Farooq quotes it using the term wabā followed by “epidemic” in round brackets.Footnote 73 As for the translators of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla, some of them rendered the term maraḍ as “epidemic”, but none of them has used the name of a particular disease, and neither the plague nor any other specific disease is mentioned, in this occasion, by modern scholars. Finally, it is worth noting that in the Riḥla, the term maraḍ appears on about fifty occasions in reference to more or less serious – but never epidemic – diseases, nor is it used in episodes where Ibn Baṭṭūṭa clearly refers to the Black Death.
Third occurrence: the Madurai epidemic (Rabīʿ II–Jumāda I 745/September–October 1344)
About eight years later, following a complex series of adventures that took him along the western coast to Malabar and from there to the Maldives, where he claims to have remained for a year and a half,Footnote 74 Ibn Baṭṭūṭa went to Ceylon and then returned to India heading for the capital of Maʿbar, Mutra, present-day Madurai. It would have been September/October 1344Footnote 75 and shortly after his arrival the spectre of an epidemic, wabāʾ, re-emerges. The Riḥla speaks of a disease with a very high mortality rate, but again does not give details of symptoms and signs that would allow identification. It relates that infected people died within a few days and the city was full of corpses.
ولما قدمتها وجدت بها وباء يموت منه الناس موتا ذريعا، فمن مرض مات من ثاني يوم مرضه أو ثالثه، وإن أبطأ موته فإلى الرابع . فكنت إذا خرجت لا أرى إلا مريضا أو ميتا. واشتريت بها جارية على أنها صحيحة، فماتت في يوم آخر. ولقد جاءت إلي في بعض الأيام امرأة كان زوجها من وزراء السلطان أحسن شاه، ومعها ابن لها سنه ثمانية أعوام، نبيل كيس فطن . فشكت ضعف حالها، فأعطيتهما نفقة، وهما صحيحان سويان . فلما كان من الغد جاءت تطلب لولدها المذكور كفنًا، وإذا به قد توفي من حينه .Footnote 76
When I arrived there [at Mutra] I encountered a plague from which people died suddenly. Whoever fell ill died in two or three days. If death was delayed it was only till the fourth day. When I went out I saw only the sick or the dead. I bought a slave-girl there on the understanding that she was healthy, but she died the next day. One day a woman came to me whose husband had been one of the wazīrs of Sultan Aḥsan Shāh,Footnote 77 she had her son with her, who was eight years old, talented, clever and intelligent. She complained of her impoverished state and I gave them a sum of money. They were both healthy and fit. Next day she came asking for a shroud for the aforesaid son who had suddenly died.Footnote 78
The disease that raged in Madurai is a vexata quaestio. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla is the only document we have that, together with a set of coins, attests to the brief history of the small Islamic Sultanate of Maʿbar,Footnote 79 so no comparison with other sources is possible. Perhaps because of the high mortality rate and the chronological proximity to the outbreak of the Black Death in the Mediterranean area, however, some scholars have considered it to be the plague.Footnote 80 But not for the first time translators may also have played a role confounding matters, for while Defremery and Sanguinetti translate wabāʾ as “maladie contagieuse” (contagious disease), Gibb and Beckingham translate it as “plague”.Footnote 81 Subsequent studies have strongly doubted – not to say ruled out – that it was the plague. Dols excludes this possibility on the basis of two main observations,Footnote 82 but neither of them is probative. The first is that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa does not give precise information about the symptoms of the disease and the second is lexical: since in Damascus Ibn Baṭṭūṭa refers to the plague by the term ṭāʿūn, what he calls wabāʾ cannot be the same disease. However, throughout the Riḥla Ibn Baṭṭūṭa never inserts a “clinical” description of an epidemic: not even when, in the Mediterranean area, he knows for certain that it is the plague. As for the word wabāʾ, Dols seems not to have noticed that, in Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla, ṭāʿūn is a hapax which only occurs in the first account of the prayer gathering in Damascus:Footnote 83 in the other 11 occurrences in which Ibn Baṭṭūṭa mentions the plague in the Middle East, North Africa and al-Andalus, he uses the word wabāʾ (even when, at the end of the work, he concisely repeats the story of the prayer gathering). What can be deduced from the lexicon, is that in this single episode in all his work, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa does not use al-wabāʾ (with the definite article, “the epidemic”), but wabāʾ, which corresponds to “an epidemic”: therefore, it could be said that this expression is too general to suggest that it might have been the plague.Footnote 84 In addition to Dols’ arguments, Anandavalli notes that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa claims to have purchased in Madurai a slave girl who was supposed to be healthy but died the following day and to have personally seen a child apparently “healthy and fit” who died of the disease in the space of a day – thus deducing that it was neither the bubonic nor the pneumonic plague, both of which have visible symptoms (buboes or expectoration of blood).Footnote 85 However, we should point out that, when talking about the plague in the Mediterranean area, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa never mentions the buboes, nor the expectoration of blood, and in Madurai he does not mention having examined the child, nor the slave girl he purchased: regarding the latter, he complains that he was deceived by the seller, since he states: “I bought a slave-girl on the understanding (ʿalā anna) that she was healthy.”
Epilogue: from which disease did Ibn Baṭṭūṭa suffer in Madurai?
Shortly after relating the epidemic, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa recounts that he had such a strong attack of fever (ḥummā) that he thought his time had come. Fortunately, the problem was remedied by taking – by divine inspiration – a massive dose of tamarind, the laxative effect of which cured him within three days.Footnote 86 The fever, however, must have debilitated him because, determined to resume his journey, he left Madurai and immediately stopped at Quilon,Footnote 87 where he says: “I still had some of my illness left in me”, staying there for three months before leaving.Footnote 88 Ibn Baṭṭūṭa does not say that he contracted the disease of the Madurai epidemic, but some scholars claim that he fell ill with that very disease, some arguing that he caught the plague, but recovered.Footnote 89 Whatever the disease that caused the Madurai epidemic, the symptom of a very high fever that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa had already suffered in the Maldives and was to suffer again in Morocco, when a bout of fever forced him to stop for another three months in Ceuta, leads me to consider the hypothesis of Dunn, that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa was not infected by the deadly disease of Madurai but, as on other occasions, he probably had a severe attack of malaria.Footnote 90 To confirm this, it should be noted that tamarind's laxative effect is also mentioned by Ibn Sīnā, who describes it as “a purgative drug, useful in vomiting and thirst in febrile states”, but does not recommend it as a treatment for plague, nor for what he calls “epidemic fevers”.Footnote 91 Tamarind leaves are still used in traditional antimalarial therapy (for treating the vomiting caused by high fevers) in the Philippines and several African countries.Footnote 92 Finally, the emphasis on laxatives also suggests that it may not have been cholera or the gastrointestinal plague, since both cause diarrhoea.
Some necessary observations
Some necessary observations should be made, that are not related to the subject of this article, but to the reliability of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's testimony which, as already mentioned, has often been questioned and is still being investigated. Over the years, a number of scholars have suggested that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and/or Ibn Juzayy may have borrowed and adapted passages, information and literary devices from other sources in several parts of the Riḥla,Footnote 93 and in this perspective the chapter on the history of the Delhi Sultanate has been investigated by Tilmann Trausch (Reference Trausch2010). Noting the concise style of this chapter, that makes it similar to a chronicle, Trausch analytically compared Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla with the Táríkh-i Feroz-sháhí by Baranī,Footnote 94 and the substantial number of similarities that he found in both the content and the structure, led him to conclude that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa had very probably never been to India since he and/or Ibn Juzayy could have written the Indian chapter of the Riḥla based on “a body of possible sources”, first of all the chronicle by Baranī.Footnote 95 Since Baranī seems to have concluded the first version of his work in 1355,Footnote 96 shortly before the conclusion of the Riḥla (February 1356), it would have been quite impossible for Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (by then settled back in Morocco, after having left India definitively in late 747 [February-March 1347])Footnote 97 and/or Ibn Juzayy, to access the text, but Trausch suggests that he/they may have had recourse to a partial version of the work or some documents by Baranī's informants.Footnote 98 It is a hypothesis that cannot be discounted with certainty, but personally it seems to me very improbable, also because, as noted by Trausch himself, “such a [partial] copy must be searched for” – and if Ibn Baṭṭūṭa had access to such a copy before his departure from India, it would involve drafts made at least eight–nine years in advance and their translation (we actually do not know if Ibn Baṭṭūṭa knew Persian). Not to mention the many and sometimes considerable differences noted by scholars of India between the information given by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Baranī about the sultanate of Delhi.Footnote 99
As for Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's account of the Telangana and Qarachil expeditions, which falls within this very chapter, Trausch compares it with that by Baranī.Footnote 100 In these cases as well, he argues his thesis that nearly all of what he calls the “hard” facts (i.e. historical events, names of rulers and governors), and also some of the “soft” ones (anecdotes, stories of holy men, accessory information) related in the Riḥla, may have been borrowed from Baranī.Footnote 101 However, Trausch does not thoroughly analyse the differences between Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Baranī's report on the Telangana epidemic, nor does he note that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa attributes the failure of the Qarachil expedition to a serious disease that Baranī does not mention.
Be that as it may, what I do disagree with Trausch on, is his conclusion that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa was not in India. Given the many well-founded criticisms of the truthfulness of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's personal testimony, it is not possible today to claim that the Riḥla is a complete personal travel diary, but I agree with the thesis of some scholars, that it is rather a work of “haute couture”, a “collage” bringing together the personal experiences and knowledge of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Ibn Juzayy, oral or written information he/they received from witnesses, met on site or elsewhere, and news extrapolated from other works.Footnote 102 As for Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's stay in India, it should be noted that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's contemporaries never questioned that he had travelled extensively in India: they just judged the stories he told about the sub-continent to be exaggerated and unbelievable – as authoritatively reported by Ibn Khaldūn, who may also have personally met him.Footnote 103 Perhaps Ibn Baṭṭūṭa was not so assiduous at court nor in confidence with the Sultan and other dignitaries as he claims – and this could explain the strange and oft quoted fact that neither the Delhi court historian, Baranī, mentions him, nor does he mention Baranī – but I do not see any clue suggesting that he had not been in the sub-continent.Footnote 104 Finally, it is worth noting that even Baranī's direct testimony to some events he claims to have personally witnessed has been questioned. So that we cannot exclude the hypothesis that, at least on some occasions, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Baranī may have drawn information from the same source/informant or from what Jackson calls “a common folk memory”.Footnote 105
The fact remains that, in this and in many other cases, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's information mostly conforms with that reported by local sources: whether he learned it, as he says, from the Great Qāḍī of Delhi, or whether he and/or Ibn Juzayy took it, as Trausch claims, from other sources, is not relevant to the aim of this paper, moreover it is probably that this question cannot be resolved with certainty.
Ibn Baṭṭūṭa reports two epidemics (in the Telangana and in the city of Madurai) and a high mortality disease (during the Qarachil expedition) that occurred in India in the 1330–40s. In Madurai he claims having personally witnessed the event, while for the other two cases he says he received the information from the Great Qāḍī of Delhi. The Telangana epidemic is confirmed by other sources and the disease of the Qarachil expedition is reported by ʿĪṣamī as an epidemic (wabāʾ), but neither Ibn Baṭṭūṭa nor the Indian chroniclers provide sufficient information to determine which diseases were involved. Despite this, in many modern studies on the Delhi Sultanate, the epidemics of Telangana and Madurai have at times been interpreted by scholars as outbreaks of the plague (because of some analogies between the description of these events and that of the almost concomitant Black Death pandemic) or cholera (because of a translation error due to the meaning assumed by the term at the time of the translators).
The reason undoubtedly also lies in a sort of lexical muddle: when reporting on epidemics in India, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa always uses the term wabāʾ, which in Arabic mostly corresponds to “epidemic” but – especially with the definite article – can also encompass the plague,Footnote 106 and with this meaning he uses it eleven times when reporting on the Black Death in the Middle East and Mediterranean area. The term is present in Persian (wabā or vaba), also defined as “epidemic”, but, starting in the early nineteenth century, shifted to indicate “cholera”; it has been translated with the name of this specific disease in some European versions of the Indo-Persian chronicles. As for the Riḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Defremery and Sanguinetti, who edited the Editio Princeps and its French version, translate wabāʾ as “maladie contagieuse” (contagious disease) for the epidemic of Madurai, but use “peste” (plague) in the account of the Telangana expedition. In their later (and much quoted) English edition, Gibb and Beckingham always translate wabāʾ as “plague”, with the exception of the Telangana epidemic, where they use a less precise term, “pestilence” – yet, at the same time they title the paragraph “The outbreak of plague”).Footnote 107 As for the account of the Qarachil expedition, the term maraḍ (disease) used in the Riḥla is translated as “maladie” (disease) by Defremery and Sanguinetti, while Gibb translates it as “epidemic”.
In such a babel of signifiers, signified and equivalence, it is not surprising that some scholars have been led to believe that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa personally witnessed – or even contracted – the plague in India before its arrival in the Mediterranean area, not least because since the time of the Black Death it has been assumed that the plague raged on the sub-continent before reaching the Middle East.Footnote 108
Unfortunately, the philological analysis of the Riḥla and other documentary sources does not allow establishing which was/were the disease(s) that caused these epidemics. Neither Ibn Baṭṭūṭa nor the Indo-Persian chroniclers mention the name of the diseases or describe their symptoms. However, some observations can be made.
Regarding the disease quoted during the Qarachil expedition, no clue suggests that it might have been an epidemic of plague. On the contrary, some details lead to excluding it. First of all, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa uses the term maraḍ, which appears dozens of times in the Riḥla in reference to non-epidemic diseases. As for the Indian chronicles, which also report on the failure of this expedition, only ʿIṣāmī mentions an “epidemic”, without providing any details about the disease. Since Ibn Baṭṭūṭa specifies that the disease occurred in the rainy season, I am inclined to think he refers to a tragic event similar to others reported during this season by Indian historians among the soldiers (and the horses), due to sudden floods and subsequent famine.Footnote 109
With regard to the other two events, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa does not mention the diseases or their symptoms and some clues suggest that they were not outbreaks of plague; but even without being conclusive, other indications do not allow us to definitively exclude this possibility. First of all, in the rest of the Riḥla, whenever the word wabāʾ appears, it indicates the plague during the Black Death pandemic: no other wabāʾ is mentioned either among men or among animals. It could be a coincidence, but since both Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and Ibn Juzayy, who personally witnessed the epidemic, unquestionably knew what the plague was, the fact that they use the same term for these epidemics might offer a lexical clue.Footnote 110 In any case, it is worth noting that, with the exception of the narrative of the Black Death in the Mediterranean area, India is the only place where Ibn Baṭṭūṭa does mention some epidemics during a journey of more than 120,000 km that took place over some thirty years in an area encompassing 44 modern states. The idea that emerges from the Riḥla, and it is likely to have been widespread, is therefore that India was a – not to say the – country of epidemics.
As for the epidemic in the Telangana, we have seen that it is confirmed by Indian sources, which report a very deadly disease (ʿIṣāmī speaks of people dying during the course of one night), and Ibn Baṭṭūṭa refers to some people fleeing, calling to mind the debate about fleeing plague-stricken areas, one that was present in Islamic legal-religious texts from the earliest times.Footnote 111
As for the epidemic in Madurai, no comparison is possible with other sources, but the terms used by both Ibn Baṭṭūṭa/Ibn Juzayy and al-Baylūnī, the high mortality rate of the disease and its very rapid course (very similar to the information in Mediterranean chronicles at the time the Black Death),Footnote 112 do not allow us to rule out the possibility that it might have been an outbreak of plague.
As we have seen, a first serious plague epidemic in the sub-continent is not attested before the seventeenth/nineteenth century, but several medieval chroniclers state that the Black Death hit India before reaching the Mediterranean area: among them, the Aleppian Ibn al-Wardī seems to be the only Arabic author coeval with the Black Death. It can thus be assumed that, given the connection (via trade routes) between India and Syria, Ibn al-Wardī could have heard the news of some deadly disease outbreaks in India from some merchants arriving in Syria in the 1330s or, as suggested to me by Monica Green (whom I thank), he may also have met Ibn Baṭṭūṭa in Aleppo during the latter's return home in June 1348, and received the information from him, or from some acquaintances they had in common. In other words, it is possible that Ibn al-Wardī (and other medieval, not only Arabic chroniclers) included India among the plague-affected countries by referring to the Telangana epidemic, whose news might have been highly widespread since the Sultan himself fell seriously ill and – maybe because of this – the news is reported not only by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, but by both coeval and posterior Indo-Persian sources.
I therefore subscribe to the evidence of other studies on medieval documentary sources and conclude that the analysis of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's Riḥla provides no firm evidence for either the presence or absence of plague in India.Footnote 113 Certainly, only genetics will be able to unequivocally establish or exclude the presence of the Yersinia pestis in medieval India, but until then, historians and philologists can try to carefully examine every detail in those places and situations where the bacillus can have arrived and even small clues can be found. Green has gathered evidence on the role the Mongols played in the spread of the plague bacillus from a long-term reservoir in – or near – the Tian Shan mountains into several new ecological landscapes – although, mainly due to the nomadism they practiced, they were rarely affected by a plague epidemic.Footnote 114 The chaotic situation in the central Mongol area in the second half of the thirteenth century,Footnote 115 allows us to suggest that plague outbreaks might have evolved in the northern areas of the Tibetan Plateau,Footnote 116 so there remains the possibility that plague was also carried south into India. Plague is not a human, but rather a zoonotic infection adapted best to rodents and transmitted by a flea vector: as Fancy and Green have recently argued in connection with the epidemic that followed the fall of Baghdad, the bacillus can arrive somewhere via fleas present in grain supplies and cause a human outbreak, but if no local rodent reservoir is established, the outbreak can fade out quickly.Footnote 117
Be that as it may, current scholars on the Black Death – Green, Varlık, Fancy, Stearns and others quoted in this paper – show that “to confidently track plague strains through time and space, we need to have as much consilient data as possible.”Footnote 118 With this study on the Indian epidemics quoted in the Riḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa – which completes my research on all the occurrences of the words wabāʾ and ṭāʿūn in this textFootnote 119 – I hope I have shed some light on the epidemics mentioned in India, the Middle East, North Africa and Andalusia in the Riḥla: one of the most cited – and sometimes misinterpreted – texts in Black Death studies. And I hope that my research can be one of the “breadcrumbs” that contribute to drawing a new map of the Black Death: the map of a story that is far more complex and global than believed so far, which incites scholars to look for all the clues that can trace the path of the plague. Even when there is no evidence because there were not widespread epidemics with a high mortality rate or because we do not have – or have few and incomplete – documentary sources.Footnote 120