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Travel and Travel Accounts in World History, Part 2


Medieval Muslim Women's Travel: Defying Distance and Danger

Marina Tolmacheva


     Women's rights in Muslim societies became an especially sensitive subject of intercultural discussion in the twenty-first century. The recent Arab awakening has made understanding Islam, explaining Muslim sacred law to non-Muslims, and interpreting the internal dynamics of Islamic countries an increasingly urgent concern for educators. This paper focuses on historical evidence of Muslim women's spatial mobility since the rise of Islam and until the early modern period, that is from the seventh until the sixteenth centuries. The Muslim accounts of travel and literature about travel created during this long period were written by men, mostly in Arabic. Muslim women did not leave behind records of their own travel, and it is only in the early modern period that some records were created by women, only a very few of which have been discovered. This means that we must rely on men's accounts of women's travel or draw on general descriptions of travel conditions that are applicable to women's travel as well as men's. Another limitation derives from the Islamic requirements of privacy and Muslim conventions of propriety: it was generally not considered good manners to discuss womenfolk or specific ladies, so medieval, and even early modern, Muslim books rarely describe living women unless it is to praise them. Historical chronicles may glorify queens, discuss important marriages made by princesses, or praise pious or learned Muslim women, but some travel books—for example, "The Book of Travels" (Safar-Nama) by the Persian traveler Nasir-i Khusraw (1004–1088)—do not speak of women at all. Some of the eyewitness evidence below explicitly related to women's travel is drawn from the author who set the pattern of the travel account focused on pilgrimage to Mecca, Ibn Jubayr (1145–1217) and from "The Travels" (Rihla) of by Ibn Battuta (1304–1368?), who repeatedly married and divorced during his travels and sought advantage from association with prominent women met on his journeys. No such reservation was practiced in the Christian writing tradition, so occasionally observations of Muslim women on the journey may be found in the records left by European pilgrims, merchants or captives in the Near East, especially in works published after 1500.

     This research draws on primary sources by Muslim authors that were mostly composed in Arabic prior to 1500. Some observations by early modern and modern European travelers are also used as appropriate. Until the age of steamship and the rail, very little changed in the conditions of travel to which Muslims were subject on a journey. Even after the Portuguese ships first appeared in the Indian Ocean in 1498 and soon after started carrying transit passengers and goods between Asian destinations, the speed of the vessel and the sailing calendar depended on the monsoon winds as they did centuries earlier. On land, caravan routes may have changed with the rise and fall of empires, but long-distance travel remained, as before, by camel. In one particular case, that of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), tradition in addition to transportation played an important conservative role, so that the observations of caravan travels in Arabia (such as those by the Swiss Orientalist Burkhardt, below) are valid for contextual information about the hajj.

     I have surveyed the early Arabic sources on geography and travel in the original Arabic, and edited and translated some of them in my other publications. For this paper, I selected the authoritative translations into English, broadly accessible to the reader and often used for anthologies on travel, exploration, and pilgrimage. As in early European travel writing, not all Muslim travel literature is trustworthy: fantasy and travel lore grew in various, sometimes distant cultures and spread across the Asian continent where many stories became part of the literary heritage of the wider world of Islam. While Arabic became the dominant language of Islamic religion, law, and scholarship, Islam absorbed the heritage of Persian and Indian science, and the literary traditions of Islamized Iranian, Turkish and Indian societies survived. Sometimes motifs and even stories from one tradition became part of a synthetic literary fabric of the travel lore, especially those that focused on the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean, such as the Sindbad stories of the Arabian Nights.

     Islam arose in a society where travel was an everyday phenomenon. Migrations of Arabian tribes, participation in long-distance trade between the Indian ocean and the Mediterranean, regular fairs in western Arabia and the annual pagan pilgrimage to the Ka`ba in Mecca – all these occasions invited or even necessitated that men and women in the Arabian peninsula journey away from home. The transformation of the early, Arabian Islamic state into a vast empire from the seventh century CE promoted long-distance migration and settlement far beyond the peninsula. Consequent administrative and commercial expansion required communication, increased the distance of the pilgrims' journey, and rewarded the adventure merchant. Also, within a few centuries, Islam spread among the neighboring nomads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, incorporating these highly mobile societies into a cosmopolitan whole. Travel by Muslims extended over the whole expanse of the Islamic domain in the Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) and beyond, reaching into the sedentary societies of China, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

     Men traveled in this domain extensively.1 Sometimes they were accompanied by women—their wives, other relatives or slaves—but there were also women who traveled on their own. This rarely meant "alone," however: as so many other facets of social life, travel is regulated by Islamic law, which prescribes male escorts for women and specifies what categories of males are suitable for the task. Women traveled on business, for family reasons, and to visit holy places. They were always a minority among the travelers, and not all travel was voluntary. Nevertheless, women's presence in caravans, hostels or on shipboard was not infrequent, and treated by others as unexceptional. This attitude is implicit in the narratives of medieval and early modern observers, including legal authorities on social norm.

     Elsewhere, I have explored the specific legal provisions concerning women's travel in Islam and discussed the cases of women who refused to travel or were compelled to travel against their will2. Although they traveled extensively, Muslim women of the premodern era did not leave descriptions of their own journeys. In this paper, I use their male contemporaries' records to discuss the actual circumstances of travel in the Muslim Middle East. Much of the information presented below goes toward explaining the reasons why travel held limited appeal to women from urban or sedentary rural societies. On the other hand, the sources partially answer the question why, this being so, they still went.3 The gleaned evidence shows that the most important journey a Muslim could perform, the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), was not only the most desirable travel experience for Muslim men and women, but the safest and, paradoxically, at the same time the most dangerous journey they could ever undertake.


     "Distance is scarcely ever taken into consideration by these pilgrims, nor indeed by any Bedouin or traders in these countries; fatigue they care little about; loss of time, still less . . ." writes the Swiss traveler and orientalist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt (1784–1817) in a reference to West African Muslims on their way to Arabia.4 His account quickly turns into a general cultural assessment broadly applied to the mode and pace of camel caravan travel. And it seems that, indeed, distance alone was never sufficient cause for not going. Pre-Islamic pilgrimage to the Ka`ba sanctuary brought to Mecca both male and female worshipers. Visitors to fairs held in the Hijaz prior to the pilgrimage season included men and women; the fairs were held in several places at distances requiring a few days' journey. Marriages arranged across tribal lines required the removal of one partner (usually the woman) to the domicile of the spouse. Prophet Muhammad's own mother Amina came to Mecca from Yathrib (Medina), situated 200 miles to the north. That location formed a safe distance later, when Muhammad was forced to leave Mecca for refuge at Medina, but it had not precluded several preliminary encounters between Muhammad and the Yathrib delegates (who were also pilgrims), nor was it an obstacle for the more than two hundred Emigrants—early converts to Islam who moved there with Muhammad (more precisely, prior to his arrival at Yathrib) in order to escape their pagan persecutors. Among them were families, single women and women who had left their pagan husbands behind. When the victory of Islam became clear to Meccans, a number of women traveled on their own to Medina to negotiate on behalf of their families and brought an oath of faith and loyalty to Muhammad (the "Women's Oath"). Prior to the great Hijra, or emigration to Medina in 622 CE, a few dozen individuals had migrated, at Muhammad's urging, to Christian Ethiopia. They went to Yemen overland and then crossed the Red Sea to Africa; this followed the route taken by merchant caravans as well as the Ethiopian invaders of Yemen in the sixth century. Among the émigré women was Muhammad's daughter Ruqayya with her husband, the future caliph `Uthman. After Muhammad's Hijra of 622, they migrated to Yathrib to join the Muslim community there, and Ruqayya died in Medinain 624.5

     These few, early examples set the stage for the prevailing types of female travel in the Islamic world: migration6, pilgrimage, and travel for family reasons. It is clear that, in the case of women, the last category might simultaneously apply to the first two as well: women followed their families to distant lands, and wives accompanied their husbands on pilgrimage. The mother of the caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809 C.E.), Khayzuran, first traveled from Baghdad to Mecca as a slave consort of his father, the caliph al-Mahdi (r. 775–785); her second pilgrimage she performed triumphantly as queen-mother. The two sisters who are credited with founding the famous Qarawiyyin mosque-madrasa complex in Fez, Morocco in the 850s, had moved there from Qairuwan in Tunisia.7 The spread of Islam among the Turkic tribes of Central Asia and subsequent Turkic migrations west added to the Middle East mosaic the formerly nomadic tribes where women traditionally shared in their men's spatial mobility (nor did they veil their faces). After the Mongol rulers of the Middle East and Central Asia converted to Islam at the turn of the 14th century, they still had to travel, with their (often multiple) wives, to the royal family's annual council which, as decreed by the law code of Chingiz Khan, was held in the steppes of Mongolia8. "The relative independence of women in the nomadic societies of the Eurasian steppe, in contrast to the restriction of women in the neighboring sedentary societies," writes Yoni Brack, "is considered to be a result of the harsh conditions of the Steppe life."9 Tamerlane's daughter-in-law Khanzada, a niece of Yusuf Sufi (d. 1379) and granddaughter of Uzbek Khan of the Golden Horde (r. 1313–1341), traveled ceremoniously in 1373–4 from Khorezm to Samarkand to marry Jahangir, the son and heir of Tamerlane (Timur, r. 1369–1405).10 Such examples abound and range from one end of the Islamic realm of Dar al-Islam to the other.

     Once a woman was married, however, Islamic law gave her the option of declining to travel with her husband if doing so endangered her life or took her away from her native country or town. The price of staying in her parental home could be divorce, but not infrequently that development was also the women's preferred alternative.11 Slaves usually had no choice but to accompany their master, but a hired servant could not be forced to travel against his or her will unless service en route had been the condition of employment.

     Commercial travel was very common among men; Muhammad himself had traveled with the Meccan caravan to Syria. Many of his foes and friends were merchants, such as the future caliphs Abu Bakr and `Uthman and many others in Mecca, including Abu Sufyan, the father of the first Umayyad caliph Mu`awiya. Arabian women could own and manage their property both before and after Islam, and Muhammad's first wife Khadija was a businesswoman. However, she had preferred hiring Muhammad as her agent to traveling and conducting business in public herself. This would seem to indicate that women avoided business travel if they could, either due to the physical rigors—Khadija was about forty years old at their marriage—or because of prestige and propriety considerations. (Under Islam, women were generally excluded from the public functions of commerce).

     On the other hand, physical danger did not stop some high-placed ladies from following armies into battle: Muhammad's bitter foe Hind (wife of Abu Sufyan) and some other Quraysh women were with the Meccan army at the battle of Uhud (March 625), in which Meccans defeated Muslims. After Muhammad's death, his widow `A'isha led the army against caliph `Ali in the 656 Battle of the Camel. It is conceivable that the women's prestige, in fact, depended to an extent on such brave gestures which were part of traditional social obligations in medieval Arabia. Such forays into the field by elite females quickly dwindled with the geographical expansion of the Islamic state and the development of the court under the Umayyads (661–755) and Abbasids (755–1258). Although individual women in general are not often mentioned in Islamic chronicles, it appears that the wives of caliphs did not routinely follow them on military expeditions, although slave concubines did. During the brief succession crisis after Mu`awiya's death in 680 CE, when Muhammad's grandson Husayn had left Medina for Kufa (his father's capital) to claim caliphal authority, he was killed at Kerbela (Karbala) in Iraq in front of the numerous women in his traveling party. With cessation of expansionist conquests and the rise of non-Arab military in the Islamic empire, the tradition of public display of female bravery died out in the Arab society, except in folk romance.12 However, in the Turkish milieu, which became subject to Islamization and sedentarization centuries later, the phenomenon continued longer. Some dynamic women from ruling families followed their sovereigns on expeditions and military campaigns. Among them were wives (e.g.,Timur's wife Tuman Aqa, whom he married in 1477–78), mothers and daughters.13 Some brave unmarried girls dressed as soldiers and carried weapons. Princess Radiyya of the Delhi Sultanate (r. 1236–40) led armies against her brothers riding a battle elephant. True, cases like hers were more exceptional than routine: stories of Radiyya were still told to Ibn Battuta when he lived in Delhi in the mid-14th century.14


     Radiyya was killed in consequence of a political conflict. The majority of women moving abroad faced lesser dangers, but these were not insignificant. Disease, lack of potable water, the elements, accidents and Bedouin attacks on land, shipwrecks and piracy at sea—all these were common occurrences. Captivity, rape, and even death could follow, sometimes at the hands of fellow Muslims15; prisoners could be held for ransom or sold as slaves. Discomfort, delays, being gouged by the locals or robbed by fellow travelers came to be expected. Bad roads, dangerous terrain, transportation mishaps—all these obstacles, perceived as particularly threatening to women, combined to make women travelers stand out, while the others stayed home. Day trips were not considered "travel," but female members of royal harems were known to accompany rulers to the battlefield both in the Mughal and Ottoman empires. The 17th-century Siyāhat-Nāmeh ("Travels") of the Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611–1682) frequently mentions the routine (and regulated) plunder of enemy camps on the Ottoman frontier. Captives were an important part of the booty, often next in value to treasure chests filled with coin and precious objects. Captive Christians were sold as slaves or traded for ransom, while harems of Muslims commanders changed hands between Ottomans and Safavids of Persia or rebels.

     One of the best sources of factual information on technical and logistical aspects of travel is the book of Travels (Rihla) by the famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta (1304–1368).16 Ibn Battuta's powers of observation and memory have earned well-deserved praise. It can be stated with confidence that of all the Arab traveler-writers he provides the most information as to the actual mode of travel. He describes draft and pack animals, conveyances, meteorological condition, schedules and various customs associated with traveling alone, in a small party or a large train. Women's travel called for special conveyances more often, both for comfort and propriety, and men traveling with women were more concerned with maintaining privacy. The Transport section below provides descriptions of the various litters employed for travel at the time of Ibn Battuta in the areas he visited; some of the same types were later noted by European travelers. In northern Islamic areas, abundance of horses for transport and food combined with the Turkish and Mongol practice allowing women long-distance riding. In Asia Minor not far from Iznik (Nicaea), Ibn Battuta witnessed an episode illustrating the dangers of little-traveled roads and small escort:

On continuing our journey from this village (Mekece), we were preceded by a Turkish woman on a horse, and accompanied by a servant, who was making for the city of Yarrija (Tarakli), while we followed her up. She came to a great river which is called Sagari (Sakarya) . . .She went right on to ford the river, but when she was in the middle of it, the horse nearly sank with her and threw her off its back. The servant who was with her tried to rescue her, but the river carried them both away. There were some men on the opposite bank who threw themselves in and swam after them, they brought out the woman with a spark of life still in her, but the man had perished – god's mercy upon him. These men told us that the ford was below that place, so we went down to it. It consists of four planks of wood, tied together with ropes, on which they place the horses' saddles and the baggage; it is pulled over by men from the opposite bank, with the passengers riding on it, while the horses are led across swimming, and that was how we crossed.17

     Travel by boat was less physically taxing but precarious in other ways. The region of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, where most Muslim sailing was done, is dominated by monsoon winds. Waiting for the right sailing season could be exhausting and expensive. Storms and coral reefs, especially numerous in the Red Sea, easily destroyed sewn-plank boats. Illustrations with sea motifs in Islamic manuscripts often show shipwrecks. The 10th-century collection of sailors' tall stories titled The Wonders of India18 describes storms sinking ships or driving them off course. The book mentions women passengers of both free and slave status. One story tells of a girl raped by a sailor in a shipwreck before she drowned.19 There could be also women onboard who were not passengers but sailors' wives. When the Arab navy was newly created and the fleet was sent to attack the Byzantines, the crew was encouraged to bring their wives along.20 The tradition apparently continued despite the legal opinion holding against it, because William Daniel, who visited Jedda in 1700, explained the "wonderful dexterity" and "great experience" of the sailors by saying that "several of those mariners are born in the vessels, which may be looked on as floating magazines."21

     Ships were generally small: a forty-ton boat was considered large. In the earlier centuries they often did not have a deck, and passengers had to huddle together amid their goods: a situation not merely uncomfortable but potentially embarrassing, especially to a free woman without male protection, concerned with maintaining her propriety and status. Piracy was common on the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, off Socotra Islands, and near the coasts of India.22 It was there that Ibn Battuta experienced both shipwreck and robbery, losing his possessions and eventually also his harem. This is how Ibn Battuta explains arrangements for providing privacy on board the Chinese junks, the largest vessels he describes, and capable of carrying a thousand men: "The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupant, who takes along with him slave girls and wives." On taking ship to China, Ibn Battuta sought a cabin like this on the junk; available space was unsuitable, and he had his companions and slave girls transferred to the smaller type of boat called kakam. A storm began; "when those on the kakam saw what had happened to the (wrecked) junk, they spread their sails and went off," leaving Ibn Battuta alone on the beach at Calicut.23

     During a voyage to Ma`bar (Coromandel), Ibn Battuta found himself as well as his companions exposed to the risk of drowning. This story is told in some detail; it shows that status and social boundaries were not so rigid as to always benefit the higher-placed. In this case, the emergency situation was resolved to the advantage of the weak, not the rich, and Ibn Battuta is shown exercising some physical courage almost despite himself:

On our voyage to Ma`bar [Coromandel] a gale sprang up and our ship nearly filled with water. We had no experienced pilot on board. We narrowly escaped being wrecked on some rocks, and then came into some shallows where the ship ran aground. We were face-to-face with death, and those on board jettisoned all that they had, and bade farewell to one another. We cut down the mast and threw it overboard, and the sailors made a wooden raft. We were then about six miles from the shore. I set about climbing down to the raft, when my companions (for I had two slave girls and two of my companions with me) said to me, "Are you going to go on the raft and leave us?" So I put their safety before my own and said, "You two go and take with you the girl that I like." The other girl said, "I am a good swimmer and I shall hold on to one of the raft ropes and swim with them." So both my companions and the one girl went on to the raft, the other girl swimming. The sailors tied ropes to the raft and swam with their aid. I sent along with them all the things that I valued and the jewels and ambergris, and they reached the shore in safety because the wind was in their favor. I myself stayed on the ship. The captain made his way ashore on the rudder. The sailors set to work to make four rafts, but night fell before they were completed, and the ship filled with water. I climbed the poop and stayed there until morning, when a party of infidels came out to us in a boat and we went ashore with them in the land of Ma`bar.24

     Rank has its privileges, and women of wealth and fame traveled in relative comfort and safety. They had slaves, hired servants, and guards. Royal women were provided with armed escort from home, as well as from important administrative centers en route: detachments sent out to meet their party and escort them out of town upon departure were meant to accord honor commensurate with their status, but also to ensure that the local governor could not be blamed for any mishap occurring in the territory under his administration. In her study of the Meccan pilgrimage under the Ottomans, Suraiya Faroqui devotes a separate sub-chapter to safe conduct for high-ranking pilgrims.25 Escort and services were sometimes provided those without wealth but esteemed for their piety; Ibn Battuta was introduced to a devout lady who had in attendance a troop of male Sufis, members of a mystic order.26 But even high-ranking women could be killed27, violated28 or greatly inconvenienced. The importunities of the Portuguese on the Indian Ocean severely hampered the ability of Indian Muslim pilgrims, including Mughal royal women, to sail to Jedda. A special passport, qartaz, was required for safe conduct; the ladies hesitated to go otherwise. The virtual monopoly exercised for a while by the Portuguese implied political humiliation as well as payment of an exorbitant fee; prevarications could mean being late for the pilgrimage season. Gulbadan Begum, the paternal aunt of the emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), had to cede possession of a village in Gujarat in 1575 to secure such funds; even so, she had to wait a year for her qartaz.29

Transport for travelers

     Most journeys involved riding animals saddleback or in litters carried by animals. Pilgrimage done on foot is considered more meritorious, but women were not expected to walk except within the sacred precincts. Queen Zubayda's charitable improvements of the pilgrims' lot seem to have been designed especially to ease the road for the foot pilgrims. Shi`ites have some special concerns over the logistics of transportation, commented on by the Iranian Shi`ite pilgrim Farahani in light of Shi`ite traditional views (on hajj in 1885–86):

Going by donkey or packhorse is very much better than by camel and litter, especially for Shi`ites. Sunnites consider it permissible to be shaded while travelling in a state of ihram [ritual purity], but the Shi`ite position about this is that it is not permissible to be shaded in a state of ihram. Thus they (Sunnites) ride in litters and covered camel-panniers and see no harm [in being in the shade] if it is sunny. Since the Shi`ite litters do not have coverings, it is a case of hardship if they travel by day.30

Pilgrims had to ride to the Hijaz due to distance, and camel was the animal commonly used on journeys in and to Arabia. Litters were an added convenience (and expense). Covers were available on litter frames for protection from the sun in hot periods or from the rain and sleet during the Arabian winter. The use of litters was particularly desirable for removing women passengers from close contact with the other travelers and for concealing them from view for reasons of privacy, enjoined by Islamic law. Litters were considered especially suitable for women pilgrims, while luxuriously appointed litters raised public awareness of the presence of important ladies riding them as well the prestige of their male relations: husbands, fathers, sons, or patrons. Several types of litters are described by Ibn Jubayr (on hajj 1183–84):

There are also round tents that are carried on the backs of camels and serve to shield one from the sun . . .They are built on wooden constructions which are called qashawat . . . and which are like hollow boxes. Similar to the cribs of children, these boxes are used indifferently by men and women and are filled with soft drapery where the traveler is seated, as if taking his ease in a large and pleasant cradle. There is a second on the other side which serves as a counter-weight, and the round tent covers both. They are carried in this fashion, sound asleep, without even knowing they are traveling; or do as they please. When they arrive at a stop that has been fixed for them, if they are people accustomed to good living or luxury, one has already put up their linen enclosure, they are brought in on their mounts and stairs are placed down to help them dismount. Thus they pass from the shade of the pavilion of their palanquin to their // round tent of their station stop without being discommoded by contact with the air or by ugly attacks by the sun. But take care of these searches for well-being. These people, when they travel, no matter how long the extent, undergo no pain; they suffer no fatigue from the length of their passage or from the great distance of their goal. There is far less comfort for the pilgrim carried in maharat, litters like the shaqduf . . . which is, however, wider and bigger. . .Those who cannot have these conveniences suffer from the fatigue of the journey, which is part of the punishment of the future life (and hence remitted if one suffers it on the pilgrimage).31

Litters are mentioned by Ibn Battuta both in camel and horse country. Camel litters are mentioned on the pilgrimage roads from Cairo and Damascus where, in addition to caravan animals, they were provided by the Mamluk sultan of Egypt al-Malik al-Nasir (last reign 1309–1341) to carry "provisions and water for those without means and the helpless, and for carrying those who cannot keep up with the caravan or are too weak to walk on foot." In Yemen, women are specifically mentioned as going out of town "riding on camel in litters" to palm groves as part of Saturday celebrations during the ripening of the dates.32 From Mecca to Kufa, Ibn Battuta traveled in one half of a double camel litter hired for him by the Amir of the caravan.

     In Central Asia, Ibn Battuta's slave girl was traveling in a camel litter, setting off during the night while he traveled in the daytime. He was loaned a tent by a merchant while camping near the market, and then was assigned a place near the camp mosque and given a tent called kharqa where he placed the women. He describes it as consisting of "wooden laths put together with pieces of felt. The upper part of it can be opened to admit light and air, like a ventilation pipe, and can be closed when required." This is the Turco-Mongolian ger, or yurt, first described for Europe by the Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck upon his 1253–55 visit to the Mongol court. After the party's arrival in India, Ibn Battuta describes various kinds of litters used in that country. One was used to transport the bride (sister of the Sultan of Delhi Tarmashirin) to the house of the groom: the man rode of horseback over the carpets strewn on the road, while she was carried in the litter placed on the slaves' shoulders. The blind mother of the sultan of Delhi was carried in a litter when her son met her after the journey and kissed her foot. This was a mahaffa, palanquin for ladies. When Ibn Battuta encountered a young man riding in a palanquin, who was a nephew of a pious shaykh, he manipulated public opinion to make the youth ride on horseback instead. The litter was suitable for a sultan alone or permissible on long journeys. The big litter called dula (Indian doli) was carried by eight men (slaves or hired porters) in two lots of four to allow rest without stopping. He recorded that "The roof of the litter is made of braids of silk or cotton and on top of these there is a curved piece of wood like that on the top of parasols in our country, made of curved Indian bamboo. . . The dulas of women are covered with silk curtains." 33 In such a dula Ibn Battuta's slave girl rode to the palace of the sultan's mother and returned laden with gifts. Mahdi Husain, writing in 1953, noted that smaller doli, requiring only two bearers, were still in use in some parts of the country.34 The larger size is alternatively called pinus or palki and connotes greater prestige.

     Transport elephants are mentioned by Ibn Battuta, but he refers only to sending his luggage across a river on one of these. Travel on foot regardless of status in a hired palanquin is recorded at Mulaybar (Malabar in southwest India) where "no one travels on an animal . . .and only the sultan possesses horses." Ibn Battuta praises the safety of Malabar roads and the respect for Muslim travelers.35

     Customs differed in Turkish wagon trains in drier flat areas to the north, such as Ibn Battuta found moving across the steppe from Afghanistan to Asia Minor. A traveler arriving at camp was placed in a hilltop tent and a flag exhibited in front of it to publicize the arrival. The fourth wife of the Mongol Khan inquired about the newcomer and gave orders that Ibn Battuta be taken under her protection. In the camp he had ample opportunity to observe the motion of the wives of the Khan, his emirs, and commonalty. When on the march, great numbers of tent-carrying wagons pulled by numerous draft animals created an impression of a town on the move. Half a century later, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo (d. 1412), the Spanish visitor to Tamerlane's court provided a singular picture of the Turkic nomad camp capital. The Turco-Mongolian name for such a camp was urdu (ordo, horde); Ibn Battuta called it mahalla. 36

     The wagons were large enough to accommodate the tent with its mistress and servants and/or visitors, or to serve as a kitchen, or storeroom, or market, or mosque. A rich person could own two or three hundred such wagons. Those belonging to nobility were covered in luxurious fabrics; all commonly kept windows open exposing unveiled female inhabitants to the public eye. It appears that wagons used for people's transport were more commonly drawn by horses; in the baggage train camels and oxen were employed. In approaching Greek (Byzantine) territory, Ibn Battuta noted that the second part of the journey (from the Greek stronghold of Mahtuli to Constantinople) required leaving wagons behind "because of the roughness of the country and the mountains." Further travel was to be made on horses and mules, and the Byzantine princess, who had her own mahalla in the Golden Horde, from here on traveled on horseback. IbnBattuta notes that travel there was secure and done mostly in the forenoon and evening.37

     On the royal journey the Mongol Khan, each of his wives, and the most prominent commanders (amirs) each had their own separate mahalla, resulting in separate encampments: when stopped, the light tents were lifted off the wagons onto the ground. The order of precedence was strictly observed on the march, each mahalla accompanied by its own luggage train and armed guards. The number of male and female attendants riding in the wagon, in front on horseback or walking on foot behind the wagons was in proportion to the official standing and prestige of each owner.38 The elaborate procedure of arrival and departure described by Ibn Battuta at the Mongol and Byzantine courts add considerably to our knowledge of royal protocol and pageantry, but shed little additional light on the subject of travel.


     The subject of pilgrimage, especially the hajj to Mecca, and the issues of travel and travel writing has been recently receiving increased attention. Many of the primary sources have become available in English at least in excerpts.39 The hajj stands out from other pilgrimages not only because it is required or adheres to a fixed calendar, schedule, and ritual prescriptions. It is unique in voluntarily and spontaneously uniting, in a highly organized and state-sponsored travel format, persons who are compelled to travel by a strong, individual desire; their wish to perform an observance and fill a spiritual need is accomplished at a point of their lives determined by themselves and is very much a consequence of personal initiative. Moreover, while outwardly expressing obedience to the will of God, the act of pilgrimage, which all Muslim governments must approve in principle, may mask a stance of disapproval or defiance; an occasional pilgrim went on hajj into dignified exile or used the opportunity for escape. These personal and individual aspects of the hajj deserve further study.40 Scholars and travelers alike credit the efforts of the state (Mamluk in the post-Mongol period and later Ottoman) expended in the service of the hajj with successfully maintaining the tradition over centuries. They describe the preparations (provisioning, staff recruitment, security arrangements, etc.), the organization of caravans, the ritual aspects of the journey, and the prestige garnered in return by the sultans. The numbers of participants and animals, expense and disciplined logistics created the spectacle of the caravan on the move which induced Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217), the pilgrim, writer and contemporary of Saladin (ca. 1137/38–1193), to exclaim: "Who has not seen with his own eyes this Iraqi caravan has not experienced one of the genuine marvels of the world worth the effort of describing and whose telling can seduce the listener by its marvelous character."41 At their destination, camel-borne palanquins "roll like a flood through the ways and crowded quarters of Mecca."42

     The requirement of pilgrimage to Mecca is equally incumbent on Muslim women and men, although women may be excused from the obligation for lack of the appropriate male escort. Women who have no husband or a male relative to accompany them are exempt from the obligations of hajj under the prerequisite of istita`a "ability" (physical and financial). Other excuses include the inability to provide transportation rahila, the want of the necessary amount of subsistence zad, and the precariousness of the journey, as cited here. The Shafi`i school of law (developed in in the ninth century and prevalent in the central Islamic lands) exempts women from walking long distances, thus allowing them to forego the travel or use transportation if they could afford it. The Maliki school (dating from the late eighth century c.e. and dominant in the Muslim west, that is North Africa and adjoining regions) is the most restrictive, waving the hajj only under life-threatening circumstances.43

     Not surprisingly, therefore, the number of women among pilgrims was higher than ordinarily on a group journey. It was advisable at all times to travel with a caravan for security, but pilgrims were particularly enjoined to travel in groups as an expression of humility and religious solidarity.44 For those intending pilgrimage, participation in caravans headed for Mecca from Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Iraq served as an important preparatory stage. The proportion is hard to guess at, but among captives taken from the caravans it could reach as high as twenty percent;45 some women brought along children.46 While the presence of women did not strike Muslim travelers as unusual—they comment only on specific, exalted personages among them—European observers were obviously impressed with the presence of women willing to undergo the hardships of a prolonged journey in a hostile environment. Burkhardt (on hajj 1814–1815) wrote: "Although the greater number of the pilgrims are stout young men, yet it is not rare to see women following their husbands on the Hajj . . . "47

     In addition to the physical rigor of the journey, there were accidents and mistakes. Although the instructions to the pilgrimage commandant amir al-hajj specifically required him to travel "easily and slowly so that the weak and the stragglers may catch up with the caravan,"48 a straggler or rider forced to dismount was in danger of losing his place in the multitude of people and animals. Procedures ensuring against leaving the unaware behind included drum beating at departure and assigning places within the caravan.49 There was also a system of reporting the missing and a crier's circuit to give alarm; still, people could be lost.50 Both Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta praised the practiced organization of caravans,51a result of "firm planning and the detailed precautions that are taken for the trip."52 Worries did not cease at reaching the destination. The city of Mecca itself presented problems unavoidable under the peculiar logistics of the hajj; alongside his descriptions of the luxurious litters for the noble ladies Ibn Jubayr speaks of "the thrust of a crowd filled with pain and fright and the knocking together of litters."53

     Provisioning the caravans was a major concern, especially in the years when crops failed in the Hijaz. In some years believers were warned by governments of their home countries to abstain from pilgrimage because of famines in Arabia;54 in addition to aggravating travel conditions, famines increased Bedouin depredations. The slow-moving congregation of thousands upon thousands of human consumers and animals to be fed generated business on the march and during stopovers. Ibn Battuta's Iraq caravan, in which a number of women are mentioned, had mobile bazaars55 and ample supplies of food and fruit. For passengers' ease in hot weather travel was done at night, with torches carried "in front of the file of camels." The day's schedule began at two o'clock in the morning, with a rest stop in the forenoon. A physician traveled with the pilgrim caravan, providing the sick with medicines and ointments as well as extra camels to carry the sick.56

Pilgrimage held hostage

     The total numbers of humans and animals during the hajj were overwhelmingly great: the combined presence at Arafat of three caravans—from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq—was estimated ca. 1575 at 200,000 persons and 300,000 cattle.57 It is hard to say whether the numbers quoted in the narratives always include the accompanying military (private guards and servants could stay behind in Mecca). The long caravan was divided in three files separated by stretches of about one mile; the first file was considered the most prestigious, in the middle traveled women and merchants who received the best protection de facto, and in the rear came the bulk of the pilgrims.58 By long-established tradition, pilgrims did not carry weapons and were therefore completely defenseless without government escort; this consisted of hundreds of the military of various ranks and services: mamluk warriors on horseback, archers, in Ottoman times janissary, sipahi (cavalry) and even portable cannon.59 Ludovico Varthema's Cairene pilgrim caravan of 1503, which included women pilgrims, had 300 mamluks to guard it (of whom he was one, having enrolled in Syria).

     Even so, full security was impossible, and the Bedouin were always more numerous.60 They required passage fees in advance and sometimes still extorted additional payments from the travelers or let caravans pass to Mecca and looted them on the return. Even women pilgrims were not safe from pillage, extortion or rape. It appears that violent encounters in the desert were routine: Varthema, who was the first European visitor to Mecca, described several skirmishes in the course of one journey, in which his troop of mounted mamluks had advantage over the nomads riding bareback.61 Extraordinary events exacerbated the "normal" level of danger. In the tenth century, at the time of the schismatic Qarmatian movement in Arabia, a caravan was attacked and the prisoners enslaved.62 In the period of the Crusades, Christian armies attacked pilgrim traffic on land and the Red Sea; a historical legend, contradicted by Arab chronicles but persistent, blames Reynaud de Chatillion (ca. 1125–1187) for attacking the caravan in which Saladin's sister was returning from pilgrimage in 1187. Local Meccan politics destabilized the situation further. In 1501–2, the brother of the Sharif of Mecca who wanted the office to himself, attacked the Syrian pilgrim caravan traveling from Medina to Mecca. His tribal allies massacred large numbers of pilgrims, including women and children. Then they attacked the returning Egyptian caravan; again large numbers of pilgrims were massacred. After this incident, the same caravan was attacked twice by desert tribes on the way back to Cairo.63 In 1700 a caravan returning to Damascus was robbed by tribesmen who "had barbarously murdered those that resisted, stripped the rest stark naked in that wild, scorching and intolerable desert, and most savagely forced their women away with them, being deaf to their imploring complaints and remediless tears."64 Sea routes were no better: about 1560 European pirates seized a returning pilgrim ship near Surat, ransacked the cargo and raped several high-born ladies among the passengers.65

     Guaranteed access to the Ka`ba and other hajj destinations for performing the required rituals during the first days of the twelfth lunar month of the Islamic calendar (Dhu 'l-hijja) has been an important government responsibility almost from the appearance of the Islamic state. Even before Mecca formally submitted to Muhammad in 630, its surrender was demonstrated by granting him permission to perform the hajj in 628, entering Mecca with a group of unarmed followers. Diversion of pilgrimage from Mecca or disruption of access in the crucially significant season was always a sign of hostility to the established order. Islamic jurists of the period of Ibn Jubayr, for example, considered the obligation to make the hajj to be void, "given the incredible vexations to which the pilgrims were submitted at the hands of the inhabitants of the Hijaz."66 About 1575 a legal scholar at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) issued a fatwa (legal opinion) to the effect that the hajj pilgrimage was no longer required of Indian Muslims in view of the persecution of pilgrims by the Portuguese at sea and the Persians (Shi`ite Safavids at war with Sunni Mughals) on overland routes.67

     We are faced with the historical paradox of the hajj as the best protected and at the same time the most dangerous and, in some sense, most vulnerable journey a Muslim woman (or man) could ever undertake. Faroqhi finds that "in spite of everything," the degree of security achieved by authorities was acceptable.68 The earlier "authorities" were caliphs. From the mid-13th century (after the Mongol conquest), Mamluk sultans of Egypt assumed the mantle of protectors and chief patrons of the hajj, delegating regional authority to provincial governors. After the Ottoman conquest of Arab countries in the 16th century, it was the Ottoman sultans who positioned themselves as patrons of pilgrims to Mecca from the world over. Nevertheless, certain integral aspects of the pilgrimage complex prevented to system from functioning better than on a merely "acceptable" level. They were unavoidable: because pilgrimage to Mecca is a universal Muslim requirement of faith, albeit modified by some economic or social concessions, all believers are potential pilgrims, and many have wished and attempted to come. Thus the multitudes (whatever the specific numbers) were all aimed toward one destination. And to be valid, the hajj must be performed at Mecca by all at a set time (an abbreviated set of rituals called `umra, can be performed at any time, but is no substitute for the hajj). Consequently, the route and time of passage were known in advance, the worshippers came—and everyone was ready.

     Many past observers have commented on "rapaciousness" and "cupidity" of the Meccan professionals living off the hajj. No wonder the pilgrims saw the situation in unflattering light: Arabian tribes made their living largely off the transit of caravans. They had this one season to provide for themselves for the rest of the year in a region that was agriculturally poor and depended on food supplies from Egypt and elsewhere for centuries. Caravan escorts were better armed, but the numbers of fighters were on the side of the Bedouin; there were more of them, and they were often literally desperate.69 Those who had no patrons in the higher administration of the holy cities to parcel out to them a share in the provisioning or servicing the caravan, resorted to plunder and extortion.

     It is therefore not surprising that attacks continued despite controlling efforts of succeeding administrations. The real question is—why, knowing all this, and being forewarned, did pilgrims still come? And more particularly, especially in view of the dispensations mentioned above, why did women come? Clearly, the answers must be sought within an Islamic framework. These questions, rarely addressed explicitly, naturally have occurred to others. European observers were puzzled, sometimes even intrigued by the motivation of the Muslim pilgrim. Burckhardt wrote: "ůmany perish in the desert through want and fatigue, and others are murdered; but as all who die on the road are looked upon as martyrs, these contingencies have little effect in diminishing the annual numbers, or in diverting then from their purpose."70 In fact, Muslim men and women who die during the fulfillment of a religious commandment are considered martyrs based on a Qur'anic verse (XXII:58) and according to the Islamic Prophetic Tradition (Hadith); in popular belief, they are accorded entry to Paradise.

     Personal expression of piety through worship, the rites, and emotional display clearly rank high as motivation for women pilgrims. Although male pilgrims perform the same rituals and also experience (and display) deep emotion,71 the overwhelmingly emotional affect the hajj has on women is explicit in the records of not only European (Christian), but also Muslim authors. Of Meccan women's worship at the Ka`ba Ibn Jubayr wrote in the twelfth century:

The women hasten so quickly to enter that the Banu Shayba (hereditary caretakers) are scarcely able to go down from the Noble House through the midst of them. The women form themselves in lines and then get all mixed and tangled as they try to get it all together. There are cries, shouts, tahlils, takbirs (religious exclamations), and their jostling repeats the spectacle of the Yemenite Sarwa Bedouin during their stay in Mecca . . . [A]fter continuing thus for half a day, they sort themselves out into circumambulating and visiting the Hijr; they find peace in kissing the Black Stone and touching the corners of the Ka`ba. It is for them a great day, their day, brilliant and radiant . . . (my emphasis – M.T.). Usually, when they are with the men, they are left apart; they look upon the Noble House without being able to go in; they contemplate the Black Stone but do not touch it at all. In all that, which is their lot, it is only looking, and chargine confuses and shakes them; they are permitted only the circumambulation, and that is segregated.72

The very existence of passages like this one in which a Muslim observer describes women's behavior and emotions at the Muslim places of worship, is extraordinary in itself because references to real-life women (especially free women) in the books destined for the mostly male readers are rare. Making them at all could be considered in poor taste, and some Muslim travelers who left us excellent descriptions of Mecca and the hajj, such as Nasir-i Khusraw (c. 1003–1072), make no mention of women pilgrims whatsoever. For these reasons I regard women's appearance in the texts highly significant and an evidence of particularly deep impressions made by women worshippers upon the men who wrote about them. I have discussed some aspects of women's piety in earlier essays (see Endnotes 2 and 3 above); here, my goal is to address those aspects of the hajj which relate most closely to women's travel.73

Freedom in Conformity

     The vivid picture of women's worship at the Ka`ba sympathetically painted for us by Ibn Jubayr is a clue to the joyful anticipation and depth of spiritual and emotional experience undergone by women fulfilling the ceremonies in the holy cities. Far from dutiful and meek, they appear in this and some other accounts almost greedy for the emotion which being in the holy grounds brought them, especially when in control, albeit brief, of the shrine.

     In his study of the anthropology of pilgrimage, Alan Morinis commented that pilgrims "tend to be people for whom the sacred journey is "a limited break from the routines and familiar context of an ordinary, settled social life,"74 The "ordinary, settled social life" of the majority of Muslim women when not on pilgrimage carried with it seclusion and confinement in the home as well as deprivation of authority. An eleventh-century manual of Muslim manners instructed men:

Let me speak frankly about daughters, my friend.

The best is if they are not born at all, or else do not survive . . . Keep women indoors at all times, for a woman inside is not like her outside. And do not bring strangers in the house, nor let your women out, for the roving eye that sees her on the street will want to possess her. . .

Do not let women mingle with men while eating and drinking, for once you do, they will go beyond the limit. And do not let women out of the house, for once they are out they will lose the straight limit . . . So treat women with respect, and give them what they ask for; but lock the door of your house, and keep other men away.75

Generally, husbands were expected to allow their wives some, if limited, freedom of travel – such as visiting their natal family at least once a year, or staying there for the birth of a child. Day trips were not considered travel, but travel without male escort for a distance of more than three days and three nights was prohibited based on the Prophetic Tradition.76 Clauses in the marriage contract could give a woman considerable freedom of movement.77 Pilgrimage was the one journey that a husband could not prohibit to his wife; however, if she went on hajj against her husband's wishes, she could be (and still can be) denied maintenance for the duration of her absence.78

     William C. Young's 1993 study of the gendered aspects of the rites centered on the Ka`ba79 argued persuasively that the hajj presented Muslim women with a ritual model which temporarily allowed them to transcend profane models of gender in ordinary life. Reversing the ordinary, the ritual model of the hajj "granted independence and authority to women, if only temporarily." In addition to the religious acts and experiences to be gained from the pilgrimage, women could transform the ritual obligation into an ideological resource if they involved it "for the right to leave their homes, assume positions of authority, and engaged in trade and wage employment." Young points out three specific aspects of gender hierarchy, noting that during the hajj "women were not secluded, were not subject to the authority of men. . ., and were not less involved in commerce than men" and correctly concludes that "the pilgrimage provided an experience of greater equality between the sexes."80

     The freedom gained under the guise of conformity with the universal requirement of Islam could be used for secular or religious purposes. The hajj also played an important pedagogical role,81 and extended stays in Mecca and Medina were used by men and some women to pursue orthodox religious education or become familiar with Sufi teachings. Although Islam enjoined "seeking knowledge as far as China," in reality women's access to education was severely limited. The hajj opened them doors to intellectual and spiritual enhancement, especially through the institution of "sojourn" in Mecca and Medina. Traveling with a caravan returning from Mecca to Iraq, Ibn Battuta joined the party of a woman mystic Sitt Zahida who had visited the holy cities several times.82 During a visit to Damascus he was introduced to the much-learned lady, Shaykha Zaynab (1248–1339),who was called "the goal of the world's travel" in reference to those who wished to study with her.83

Among secular pursuits, diplomacy and prestige loom largest; the two often mingled. Suraiya Faroqui offers a number of instances when pilgrimage provided opportunity for a diplomatic mission. Highly placed ladies of the Ottoman court came to Mecca, while no sultan (and only one prince) ever did. The visits, in a way, served as an expression of trust toward the Sharif of Mecca (or the Sultan, if the visitors were from outside the Ottoman realm after 1517). Often more than one princess came in the same train: the Saljuq princess Malika Khatun, "daughter of the king of confines of Cilicia, of Armenia and area adjoining those of Rum," was one of three "princely khatuns" (royal ladies) who arrived in 1184.84 Politically, allowing the highly placed women, rather than men, to range far from the political center of the empire was safer because they could not claim the throne. Diplomatically, their assignments could be carried out more efficiently because of the cloak of privacy surrounding them.85

Honor derived from the performance of a pious obligation, acts of charity, or splendid displays of wealth accrued to women themselves but also to their royal relations, especially heads of state. Acts of charity by the early Abbasid queens Khayzuran and Zubayda (d. 831) were famous. After the deaths of her husband Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809) and son al-Amin (r. 809–813), the latter's half-brother (and the winning rival for caliphate) al-Ma'mun (r. 813–833) apparently prevented Zubayda from going on pilgrimage until asked on her behalf by his bride Buran at their wedding in 825. Perhaps he did not wish his step-mother appearing at the place and time where her past acts of charity might give rise to undesirable political thinking.86 One of the earliest royal pilgrimages of the Mongol state centered on Iran was performed by El Qutlugh Khatun, daughter of AbaghaIlkhan (r. 1265–82) and paternal aunt of Ghazan and Öljeitu Khans.87 Acts of charity performed by important foreign visitors carried particular significance and could be intended and perceived as challenging local authorities. When the stay of two Mughal queens in Mecca extended several years, the Ottoman administration was somewhat alarmed by their distribution of alms.88

     Although spied upon by the Ottoman and Sharifian officials, the women must have enjoyed their stay away from the court to remain there from 1575 to 1582. But not everyone's activities were dedicated to the public weal. If men like Ibn Battuta could develop a solid reputation while combining "pilgrimage, wanderlust, and the desire to know,"89 some women apparently were also prepared to chance an adventure. The princess Malika Khatun who held "the most elevated rank" among the visiting ladies of Ibn Jubayr's caravan "due to the longevity of the reign of her father" had caused embarrassment, confusion, and not a small amount of gossip when she disappeared from the caravan:

On the night of Friday she departed from Batn-Marra for Mecca, with a reduced escort and her eunuchs and servants. Upon the Friday, they looked for her everywhere in the place she was to be. The emir sent trusted men of her personal guard to enquire about her absence and gave the order for the caravan to wait for him. Finally, she rejoined them, on the evening (preceding) Saturday.

Her absence gave rise to all sorts of suppositions and inflamed curiosity to discover her secret. Some said that she had left to mislead the guard into thinking that she was lost in the desert. . . 90

Such outbursts of unconformity were rare. Other princesses delighted in the worldly aspects of the hajj, using the opportunity to display en route rich wardrobes (vs. prescribed modest hajj outfit) and extravagantly decorated litters. Almost without exception, the descriptions I have seen of litters said to be distinguished in any way point to a female owner, though some men also rode in litters. The display of women's conveyances was beneficial to their menfolk and increased the prestige of and admiration for both. During the pilgrimage of 1183, Ibn Jubayr described palanquins covered with silk or fine linen, the draperies trailing so low that they dragged on the ground. He noted that the most remarkable one belonged to the daughter of the Sharif of Mecca and aunt of the reigning emir, Sharifa Jumana bint Fulayta. Her camel was followed by the palanquins belonging to the ladies of the emir's harem.91 In 1432 Bertrandon de la Brocquière observed the return of the pilgrim caravan to Damascus. A Turkish lady traveling in it, "a relation of the Grand Seigneur" (Ottoman Sultan – M.T.), rode in a litter borne by two camels "covered with cloth of gold."92 The Ilkhan princess El Qutlugh Khatun, who started on her pilgrimage in 1323, traveled in luxury accompanied with display of signs of prestige (such as a parasol) and distributed money to charity:

It is said that she gave to charity in the two holy places [Mecca and Medina] thirty thousand dinars. She travelled the way [to Mecca] on a palaquin [fastened atop a camel, mihaffa] and rode a horse, the quiver fastened at her waist and the parasol [jitr] raised above her. She led ring hunts and hunted all along the way. She was greatly respected for countless good deeds. When she arrived at Damascus, the commander [amir] Sayf al-Din Tankiz [the Mamluk governor of Syria] went out to meet her and treated her with most kindness and honour so she entered Damascus without a parasol over her head.93

Of course these rich displays increased women's enjoyment of the journey. But their function went far beyond gratification of vanity, acquisitiveness, or titillation of competition. They conferred upon their owners a mark of distinction which, while visibly carried by the females, served to reflect the piety and prestige of their male relations. For the duration of the journey, the role they publicly performed was not subservient but complementary to, as well as supportive of the men's role. That the women found it rewarding is beyond doubt: those who could, traveled the route again and again. The striking aspect of this is that the reward came in the course of performing a conformist duty which temporarily let them function on a non-conformist plane.

Marina Tolmacheva is Professor of History at Washington State University, specializing in the Middle East and Islamic civilization. She is the author and co-author of three books, over seventy refereed articles and chapters, and over ninety book reviews and abstracts. Her research interests include Arabic sources on Africa, history of Arabic geography and travel, and Islamic historiography of Africa and Central Asia. Twice a Fulbright Fellow, Tolmacheva is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, and American Philosophical Society, among others. In 2006–2009 she served as President of the American University of Kuwait. She can be contacted at


1The literature on travel and travel writing in Islam has been expanding rapidly. Most historical studies focus on men's travel both because it was mostly men who traveled and the lack of information about women's travel in the records. See for example, Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, eds., Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imaginations (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990); Ian Richard Netton, ed., Golden Roads: Migration, Pilgrimage and Travel in Medieval and Modern Islam (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1993); Roxanne L. Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Aboubakr Chraïbi, ed., Tropes du voyage: Les Rencontres (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2010). Fewer are travel studies focused on women; they usually deal with later, better documented periods; see, for example Reina Lewis, Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004). For related developments in geography and cartography see also Ralph W. Brauer, "Boundaries and Frontiers in Medieval Muslim Geography," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series, 85 no. 6 (1995), 1–73; James Mather, Pashas: Traders and Travelers in the Islamic World (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2009); Giancarlo Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2M. A. Tolmacheva, "Ibn Battuta on Women's Travel in the Dar al-Islam," in Bonnie Frederick & Susan H. McLeod, eds., Women and the Journey: The Female Travel Experience. (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1993), 119–140. Some of the evidence included in the present contribution was first discussed in M.A. Tolmacheva, "Muslim Women's Travel and Pilgrimage in the Late Middle Ages," paper presented at the conference "Women, Families and Children in Islamic and Judaic Traditions," University of Denver (Denver, October 1994).

3I address some aspects of pious motivation for travel in the essay "Female Piety and Patronage in the Medieval Hajj," in Gavin R.G. Hambly, ed., Women in the Medieval Dar al-Islam: Power, Patronage, and Piety (New York: St.Martin's Press, 1998), 161–178. See also Marina Tolmacheva, "Religious Practices: Piety," in Suad Joseph, ed., The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (Leiden: Koninglijke Brill, 2007), 5:314–317.

4Lewis John Burckhardt, Travels in Nubia (London: John Murray, 1819), 407 cited in Francis E. Peters, The Hajj: the Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 97. Burckhardt originally went to Cairo in 1814 with the intention of joining a caravan to Fezzan in Libya in order to explore Africa. He traveled up the Nile and then through the Nubian desert to Suakin on the Red Sea; from there he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca by way of Jidda in 1815. He stayed in Mecca for three months and visited Medina before returning to Cairo, where he died in1817.

5Ruqayya was married to `Utbah ibn Abu Lahab who divorced her after her conversion to Islam; she subsequently married `Uthman ibn `Affan.

6Most references to migration below imply travel away from home by individuals intending resettlement, whether related to marriage or employment. Nomadic migration is not discussed here.

7Esin Atil, "Islamic Women as Rulers and Patrons," Asian Art Spring 1993: 5. Qarawiyyin is the oldest continuously functioning university in Islam. Fatima and Maryam al-Fihri had moved to Fez with their family from Qairuwan in Tunisia. Some famous medieval scholars were associated with the Qarawiyyin either as teachers or students, among them the prominent geographer al-Idrisi (d. 1166), Maimonides (1135–1204), Ibn al-`Arabi (1165–1240), Ibn Khaldun (1332–1395), and Leo Africanus (c. 1494–c. 1554).

8Ibn Battuta was aware of this rule compelling the Mongol rulers he met to travel there from southern Russia. H. A. R. Gibb, The Travels of Ibn Battuta A.D. 13251354. 5 vols. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1958–2001, 3: 560–61. For an interpretive overview of Ibn Battuta's travels see Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986). See also Marina Tolmacheva, "Ibn Battutah" ("Abu `Abd Allah Muhammad IBN BATTUTAH") in Joseph Lowry and Devin Stewart, eds., Essays in Arabic Literary Biography (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2008), 127–137.

9Yoni Brack, "A Mongol Princess Making hajj: The Biography of El Qutlugh Daughter of Abagha Ilkhan (r. 1265–82)," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Third Series) 21 no. 3 (July 2011), 333.

10Roya Marefat, "Timurid Women: Patronage and Power," Asian Art,Spring 1993: 39.

11Tolmacheva, "Ibn Battuta on Women's Travel," 126–127.

12This form of Arabic prose literature came into its own during the Mamluk period, in the 13th–15th centuries. Its war motifs sometimes combine elements of the pre-Islamic code of nobility muruwwa with the echoes of frontier warfare in the early Arab conquests, the Crusades, and the war against the Byzantines. Strong female characters are to be found in the epic stories about male heroes (Antar, Baybars), but none is as courageous and valiant as the heroine of Sirat Dhat al-Himma, "Story of the Illustrious [Fatima]."

13Marefat, "Timurid Women," 38.

14Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 3:631. Radiyya, or Raziya Sultana, succeeded her father Shams al-Din Iltutmysh (r. 1210–1235), the first sultan ever to appoint a woman as his heir-apparent. The Delhi Sultanate is noted for being the only Indo-Islamic state to have enthroned one of the few female rulers in India.

15Islam prohibits enslavement of Muslims. Conversion of non-Muslim captives or slaves to Islam, however, did not automatically bring liberty. Prisoners of war taken captive in inter-Muslim conflicts were routinely sold as slaves. Some of the concerns over the Bedouin treatment of pilgrims are documented in Abdullah `Ankawi, "The Pilgrimage to Mecca in Mamluk Times," Arabian Studies 1 (1974), 146–170. For newer studies on slavery in Muslim societies see, for example, Shaun E. Marmon, ed., Slavery in the Islamic Middle East (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999); Madeline C. Zilfi, Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). For Western European Christian captives, see Julien Loiseau, "Frankish Captives in Mamluk Cairo," Al-Masaq 23 no. 1 (April 2011), 37–52. For sources of slaves and social variations on the Islamic frontier see Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

16The case of Ibn Battuta as a literate traveler is addressed by Ross E. Dunn: "International Migrations of Literate Muslims in the Later Middle Period: the Case of Ibn Battuta." In Golden Roads, 75–85. The genre of Arab travel literature rihla is analyzed by I. R. Netton, "Basic Structures and Signs of Alienation in the Rihla of Ibn Jubayr" in Netton, Golden Roads, 57–74 and Abderrahman El Moudden, "The Ambivalence of Rihla: Community Integration and Self-Definition in Moroccan Travel Accounts, 1300–1800" in Eickelman and Piscatori, Muslim Travellers, 69–84.

17Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 2:454.

18Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, The Book of the Wonders of India: Mainland, Sea and Islands. Trans. G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville (London: East-West, 1980).

19Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, 94.

20Fahmy, Aly Mohamed, Muslim Naval Organization in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Seventh to the Tenth Century A. D., 2nded. (Cairo: National Publication & Printing House, 1966).

21William Foster, ed., The Red Sea and Adjacent Countries at the close of the seventeenth century as described by Joseph Pitts, William Daniel and Charles Jacques Poncet (London: Hakluyt, 1940), 160.

22There was also river piracy. Pitts refers to robbers on the Nile "who rob in boats." Foster, The Red Sea, 10. For instances of combining river and sea piracy on the Muslim frontier see Marina Tolmacheva, "Cossacks at Sea: Pirate Tactics in the Frontier Environment," East European Quarterly, 24 no. 4 (1990), 483–512.

23Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 13261354 (London: Routledge&Kegan Paul, 1983), 240.

24Ibn Battuta, Travels, 261–262.

25Suraiya Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans 15171683 (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1994), 128.

26Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 2:355.

27See, for example, Ankawi, "Pilgrimage to Mecca," 156.

28See, for example, Naim R. Farooqi, "Moguls, Ottomans, and Pilgrims: Protecting the Routes to Mecca in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," International History Review 10 no. 2 (1988), 206, 209.

29Farooqi, "Moguls," 200, 204. She was joined by one of Akbar's wives,Salima, and a numerous suite. See also Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 129. A daughter of Emperor Babur (1483–1530), founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, Gulbadan Begum is known as the author of Humayun Nama, the account of life of her brother, the Emperor Humayun (1508–1556). She figures also in Akbar Nama, a biography of Akbar written by Abu 'l-Fazl (AbulFazal). When after Babur's death Humayun lost his kingdom in 1540, he fled to Lahore and then Kabul with only his pregnant wfe, one female attendant and a few loyal supporters. After 15 years in exile Humayun re-established the Mughal Empire; Gulbadan returned to Agra with other women of the Mughal harem after Akbar began his rule.

30Farahani, Shi`ite Pilgrimage, 203.

31Peters, Hajj, 124–5.

32Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 2:366–367.

33Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 3:740.

34Mahdi Husain, ed. & trans. The Rehla of Ibn Battuta (India, Maldive Islands and Ceylon), (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1953), 186.

35Ibn Battuta, Travels, 232.

36Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 2:342.

37Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 2:498–500.

38Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 2:482–498.

39Travel books by Ibn Jubayr and Nasir-i Khusraw, in addition to Ibn Battuta, are excellent sources for pilgrimage; English excerpts from both are available in Peters, Hajj. For an overview of the origins of the Meccan pilgrimage, history, and required rites see "Hadjdj" in The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Leiden: Brill, 1960–2002, 3:31–38. For conditions of travel and culturally aware authors good choices are Ibn Fadlan (921–922), al-Muqaddasi (d. c. 1000), and Abu Hamid al-Andalusi (d. 1170). For diachronical descriptions of some places in the Islamic world frequently visited by international travelers see the accounts of Afanasii Nikitin (1466–1472) on Iran and India and Evliya Çelebi on the Ottoman regions. Both are available in English; see, for example, AfanasyNikitin, Voyage Beyond Three Seas (Moscow, Raduga Publishers, 1985) and Evliya Efendi, Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa in the Seventeenth Century. Translated from the Turkish by the Ritter Joseph von Hammer (London: Oriental Translation Fund, 1884). For conditions of medieval travel in the Mediterranean see Olivia Remie Constable, Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). For travel on the Indian Ocean see M. A. Tolmacheva, "Navigation in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea" in the Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, 2nd revised and expanded edition (Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer, 2007–2008); 2:1734–1739.

40Some of the psychological aspects of pilgrimage are addressed in James J. Preston, "Spiritual Magnetism: An Organizing Principle for the Study of Pilgrimage," in Alan Morinis, ed., Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 31–46. Anthropologists have studies contemporary pilgrimages by Muslim women to local shrines. This author has observed women's emotional expressiveness during visitations to both Sunnite and Shi`ite shrines. William C. Young has offered an agenda for gender research on the Meccan hajj in "The Ka`ba, Gender, and the Rites of Pilgrimage," International Journal of Middle East Studies 25 no. 2 (1993): 285–300. For discussion of an exile on hajj see Nabil At-Tikriti, "The Hajj as Justifiable Self-exile: Şehzade Korkud's Wasilat al-ahbab (915–916/1509–1510)," Al-Masaq 17 no. 1 (March 2005), 125–146. For pilgrimage and identity see Samira Sheikh, Forging a Region: Sultans, Traders and Pilgrims in Gujarat, 12001500 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010).

41Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 75. For a full text see Ibn Jobaïr. Voyages.Traduits et annotés par Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombines. 3 vols. Paris: Geuthner, 1949–56. For a complete English translation of Ibn Jubayr's Rihla see R. J. C. Broadhurst, trans., The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952).

42Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 133.

43 Megan Reid, "The Sufi Hajj and the Rakb al-Maghribi." Paper presented at the 27th Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (November 1993, Research Triangle Park, NC), 27. See also "Hadjdj" in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1960–2001) 3:31–38. Contemporary Muslim women in some cases have grained the freedom to perform the hajj unaccompanied by male relatives. See Soraya Altorki, Women in Saudi Arabia : Ideology and Behavior among the Elite (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 45–47. However, some current websites insist that such easing of restrictions for women is not legitimate.

44Thus Ibn Battuta transgressed when he started on his hajj alone; however, he quickly joined a small group and later a large caravan. For the fine social and intellectual distinctions between secular travel and the hajj see Sam I. Gellens, "The Search for Knowledge in Medieval Muslim Societies: A Comparative Approach," in Eickelman and Piscatori, Muslim Travellers, 50–65.

45Since statistical data for the Islamic Middle Period are very poor, this estimate is derived from some narrative data. The ratio of women to men in a caravan was probably much lower; the numbers in the sources may not always include the military and service personnel, always very numerous.

46For example, Ibn Jubayr explains the need for washing the Ka`ba by the fact that many women bring there small children. Peters, Hajj, p. 135. Pilgrimage by a child is meritorious, but neither required nor fully effective before puberty. Exact (or reliable) numbers and male/female or adult/child ratios are not given in the sources, but women and children are often mentioned among the victims. See, for example, Ankawi, "Pilgrimage to Mecca," 156. Even Farahani, a modern traveler with a statistical awareness, who estimated the numbers of pilgrims in caravans coming from Turkey (5,000–12,000 annually) and Egypt (2,000–7,000 annually; 6,000 in 1886), simply states: "[T]here are many women and children with them." Mirza Mohammad Hosayn Farahani, A Shi`ite Pilgrimage to Mecca 18851886. Eds. & trans. Hafez Farmayan and Elton I. Daniel (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990), 193. Contemporary pilgrims from the West see in this primarily an economic consequence of parents' being unable to afford childcare.

47Burckhardt in Peters, Hajj, 97.

48Ankawi, "Pilgrimage to Mecca," 152–153.

49The front third of a pilgrim caravan was considered the most prestigious; see for example Bertrandon de la Brocquière in Peters, Hajj, 80–81 and Ibn Jubayr, ibid., 133. The rules for hajj administrators were laid out by al-Mawardi in the first half of the eleventh century. For a summary see Ankawi, "Pilgrimage to Mecca," 152–153. Pitts gives a description of caravan arrangements in 1685 (Foster, Red Sea, 42–45).

50The [information] officer "announces all that in a loud voice, pointing out the lost person, giving the name of his cameleers and country unit until, perchance, the cameleer happens upon him and takes the man back into his own hands." Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 75. See also Ibn Battuta, Travels, 249–250.

51Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 76 and Bertrandon, ibid., 80.

52Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 76.

53Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 75.

54Food for the indigent or improvident was always carried by caravans; it was cooked and distributed as a form of charity. The funds came from the account of the amir al-hajj or private donors. See for example Ibn Battuta, Travels, 250. Soup kitchens also existed in Mecca and Medina. For trade in foodstuffs after 1500 see Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, ch. 7 "Pilgrimage in Economic and Political Contexts."

55Commercial activity was conducted by merchants traveling with the caravans, by local suppliers, and by the pilgrims. Participation of pilgrims in commercial activity has been noted by modern and contemporary travelers as well. Young finds this to be an important socio-psychological aspect of the women's participation in the hajj ("Ka`ba," 266).

56Anonymous, "A description of the yeerely voyage or pilgrimage of the Mahumitans, Turkes and Moores unto Mecca in Arabia," in Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nations (New York: AMS Press, 1965) 342, 345. (Originally published 1599). Ankawi also lists an oculist and surgeon (Ankawi, "Pilgrimage to Mecca," 163). On the rides see Ibn Jobair, Voyages, 215.

57Anonymous in Hakluyt, Principal Voyages, 356; see also C. F. Beckingham, "Hakluyt's Description of the Hajj," Arabian Studies 4 (1978): 75–80, where the date is estimated at "not before and probably not long after 1575." The same source estimates the numbers in the Cairo caravan alone at 50,000 persons and 40,000 animals (Hakluyt, Principal Voyages, 340). A number of spare animals were taken along because many died on the road.

58See Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 129. The Hakluyt Anonym's acid comment on this arrangement is, "the occasion whereof is, for that the merchants seeke always to be in the foreward for the securitie of their goods, but the pilgrims which have little to loose care not though they come behind." (Hakluyt, Principal Voyages, 346).

59Hakluyt, Principal Voyages, 341–342.

60The numbers are unreliable. Daniel speaks of a caravan of 70,000 attacked in 1700 by about 100,000 "unnatural villains." Foster, Red Sea, 67. For the Ottoman period in toto, see Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, Chapter 3 "Caravan Security."

61Varthema describes a confrontation between his caravan and "24,000 Arabs." Denied access to water and completely surrounded, the 300 mamluks armed the merchants and confronted the nomads, killing "1,600 persons." At the conclusion of the pilgrimage, the caravan rushed back to Mecca to avoid the "20,000" Arabs who intended to rob it. (All figures are probably exaggerated). Fortunately for Varthema, this was still shortly before the Bedouin gained access to firearms. The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopia, A. D. 1503 to 1508. Trans. George Percy Badger (London: Hakluyt, 1863), 20–21, 43, and 65, note 1.

62This happened in 924 CE. Qarmatians had attacked Mecca and later secured for themselves the monopoly of escorting the caravans. They resumed their attacks when they lost the privilege. Several 16th- and 17th-century attacks are detailed by Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 65–72.

63Ankawi, "Pilgrimage to Mecca," 156.

64Pitts in Foster, Red Sea, 67.

65Farooqi, "Moguls," 209. In 1700 the number of great ships destined for Jedda was estimated at forty to fifty annually. Anonymous in Hakluyt, Principal Voyages, 360.

66David Edwin Long, The Hajj Today: A Survey of the Contemporary Makkah Pilgrimage (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1979), 34. Broadhurst, Travels, 18.

67Farooqi, "Moguls," 203.

68Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 72.

69Attacks occurred not only in Arabia. Sea pirates preyed on pilgrim ships as well. The river pirates in Egypt "are most bold at that time of the year in which the hagges are a-going from Rosetta to grand Cairo; knowing they must carry sums of money with them." Pitts in Foster, Red Sea, 10.

70Peters, Hajj, 97.

71Pitts, in Foster, Red Sea, 23: "At the very sight of the beat Allah the hagges melt into tears . . . And I profess I could not chuse but admire to see those poor creatures so extraordinarily devout and affectionate when they wer about these superstitions, and with what awe and trembling they were possessed." Little has changed today. Long's study of the contemporary hajj acknowledges the spirit of piety permeating the atmosphere of the hajj: "During the wuquf [vigil at Mt. Arafat] the air is filled with excitement . . ." Long, Hajj Today, 19.

72Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 131.

73 See also my forthcoming articles in The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Women, edited by Natana DeLong-Bas: Marina Tolmacheva, "Women's Travel, Historical Practice" and "Hajj, Women's Patronage of: Historical Practice."

74Alan Morinis, "Introduction: the Territory of the Anthropology of Pilgrimage," in Morinis, Sacred Journeys, 19.

75Khass-hajib Yusuf, Wisdom of Royal Glory (Kutadgu Bilig): A Turko-Islamic Mirror for Princes. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes by Robert Dankoff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 187.

76 Charles Hamilton, The Hedaya or Guide; a Commentary on the Mussulman Laws (Lahore: Premier Book House, 1975), 600.

77 John L. Esposito, Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982), 23.

78 Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 168.

79Young, "Ka`ba," 285–300.

80Young, "Ka`ba," 296.

81James Steel Thayer, "Pilgrimage and Its Influence on West African Islam," in Morinis, Sacred Journeys, 183.

82Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 2:355.

83Gibb, Travels of Ibn Battuta, 1:157 and note 337.

84Ibn Jobair, Voyages, 2:211.

85Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 129–130.

86Nabia Abbott, Two Queens of Baghdad: Mother and Wife of Harun al-Rashid (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 233.

87Yoni Brack, "Mongol Princess," 331–359.

88Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 131–132.

89Ian Richard Netton, "Preface" in Netton, Golden Roads, p. xiii.

90Ibn Jobair,Voyages, 2:211.

91Ibn Jubayr in Peters, Hajj, 133.

92Bertrandon in Peters, Hajj, 80. Bertrandon de la Brocquière (c. 1400–1459) was a Burgundian pilgrim to the Near East in 1432–33.

93Brack, "Mongol Princess," 332.


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