- Published on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 14:52
- Written by David Abulafia
A sea voyage in the 12th century was a perilous undertaking, as a Spanish Muslim courtier's account of his crossing of the Mediterranean demonstrates. Yet, explains David Abulafia, it was also a test of one's religious devotion, whether Muslim or Christian.
Of all the world's seas the Mediterranean, the meeting point of three continents, has seen the most intensive contact between those living on opposite shores. People, goods, gods and ideas from Africa, Asia and Europe have moved back and forth across its surface. Among its people have been missionaries, mercenaries and merchants (almost always male); slaves (very often female); pilgrims (male and female, Christian, Jewish and Muslim); and saints (long dead, like St Mark, whose bones were stolen from Alexandria by Venetian traders in AD 880). Until the coming of the steamship in the 19th century they travelled at the mercy of the winds and waves, not going far in winter if it could be helped and fearful of storms and shipwrecks, vast numbers of which litter the sea bed.
Fortunately some of these travellers recorded their experiences. There are no diaries or log-books of sea captains from the Middle Ages, but it is hardly surprising that pilgrims bound for Mecca or Jerusalem wanted to document the most important journey of their life. The appearance of ships changed over time but the stories told by these pilgrims in the 12th century are not vastly different from those told by their successors in the 15th. Pilgrimage was - and was supposed to be - physically demanding.
Felix Fabri (c. 1441-1502) was a Dominican friar who travelled from Germany to the Holy Land in 1480 and left a vivid account of the smells, discomfort and squalor on board ship: meat swarming with maggots; undrinkable water; vermin everywhere. His return voyage from Alexandria, out of season, exposed him to the winds and waves. He learned, though, that the best place to sleep was under cover, on top of hard bales of spices.
Going back to the 12th century vivid accounts survive that tell of crossing the Mediterranean, written by Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims travelling from Spain to the East. One of these was the Spanish Muslim Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Jubayr, born in 1145 in Valencia, who became the secretary to the governor of Granada, the son of the Almohad caliph, Abd al-Mu'min (1094-1163).
The Almohads proclaimed an uncompromising version of Islam which left little or no room for the Jews and Christians who had lived at peace in Muslim lands for several centuries. They regarded Sunni and Shi'a Muslims as heretics and the feeling was mutual. Yet, notwithstanding his excellent Almohad credentials, the governor liked a tipple and insisted that ibn Jubayr should try some wine. Ibn Jubayr was mortally afraid of disobeying his master and for the first time in his life he drank alcohol. But once the governor realised how upset his secretary had become he filled the cup seven times with gold coins.
Ibn Jubayr decided that the best use for this money was to pay for his journey to Mecca and he set out in February 1183; he was away from Spain for over two years. He crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and in the flourishing port of Ceuta he found a Genoese ship ready to sail to Alexandria. The first leg took him back along the coast of Spain, reaching Sardinia a fortnight after leaving Morocco:
'It had been a crossing remarkable for its speed.'
It was also a voyage across political boundaries: from Almohad Morocco to the Balearics, ruled by the inveterate enemies of the Almohads, the Sunni Almoravids, and up to Sardinia, where Pisan seapower reigned supreme.
Yet it was not man but nature that posed a threat. A great storm arose off Sardinia before ibn Jubayr's ship eventually reached Oristano, in western Sardinia, where some passengers disembarked to take on supplies. One, a Muslim, was distressed to see 80 Muslim men and women who had been put up for sale as slaves in its market place.
Ibn Jubayr's ship took advantage of a favourable wind to slip out of harbour. This was a mistake. Another tempest arose, so fierce that the ship could not use its mainsails, one of which was ripped by the strong wind, which carried away one of the spars to which the sails were fixed.
Christian sea captains who were present and Muslims who had gone through journeys and storms at sea all agreed that they had never in their lives seen such a tempest: 'The description of it diminishes the reality.'
Yet even in this foul weather they reached their target, Sicily, for the ship was following 'the route of the islands', a westward route that took advantage of the currents and winds. Had they lasted, the north-westerly winds of the winter would have favoured their journey, but the weather in early spring was unpredictable as the prevailing winds changed direction.
From Crete they jumped across the Libyan Sea to North Africa and on March 29th the famous lighthouse of Alexandria came into distant view. The whole journey had taken 30 days, which was not excessive compared with other journeys we know about in this period.
There were tribulations on land as well as on the high sea. When they arrived in Alexandria customs officials boarded and personal details of each passenger were written down as well as a list of all the cargo. Another eminent passenger, a physician from Granada, was led under guard to the government offices to be interviewed about what was happening in the West and to answer questions about the goods being carried on board.
This questioning of important passengers was standard practice in the Mediterranean ports. In Alexandria passengers were also subjected to humiliating searches by excessively thorough customs officers:
The Customs House was packed to choking. All goods, great and small were searched and confusedly thrown together, while hands were thrust into their waistbands in search of what might be within. The owners were then asked on oath if they had anything else that had not been discovered. During all this, because of the confusion of hands and the excessive throng, many possessions disappeared.
If only, ibn Jubayr complained to himself, this had been brought to the attention of the just and merciful sultan, Saladin, who would surely put a stop to such behaviour.
Yet ibn Jubayr greatly admired Alexandria. Today little remains above ground of either the ancient or the medieval city. Even in ibn Jubayr's time underground Alexandria was more impressive than the city above.
'The buildings below the ground are like those above it and are even finer and stronger' with wells and watercourses that ran below the houses and alleys of the city. In the streets he observed great columns 'that climb up and choke the skies, and whose purpose and the reason for whose erection none can tell'. He was told that they were used by philosophers in the past; the city's collective memories, once stored in the long-vanished Library of Alexandria, had turned into fables. He was enormously impressed by the lighthouse; there was a mosque on its top level, where he went to pray.
He heard that there were up to 12,000 mosques whose imams received their salary from the state. As befitted a great city of the Islamic world it was full of schools, hospices and bath-houses; the government supervised a scheme under which the sick were visited at home and were then reported to physicians, who were answerable for their care. Two thousand loaves of bread were distributed each day to travellers. When public funds proved inadequate those of Saladin (1137-93) covered the cost. Ibn Jubayr was strangely fulsome in praise of the Ayyubid sultan, whose Sunni Islam was some way removed from Almohad beliefs and whose relations with the Almohads were not easy.
From Alexandria ibn Jubayr made his way up the Nile on to the Red Sea and Mecca, only returning to the Mediterranean in September 1184 when he arrived at the coast from Damascus and travelled over the Golan Heights to Acre in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Firmly resolved to resist temptation ibn Jubayr and his fellow-pilgrims entered crusader Acre on September 18th and he expressed the fervent hope that Allah would destroy the city. Here, too, visitors were sent to the Customs House, whose great courtyard offered space in which to accommodate newly-arrived caravans. There were stone benches at which Christian clerks sat, who spoke and wrote in Arabic, dipping their pens in inkstands made of ebony and gold. They worked for a tax-farmer who paid the king a vast sum of money for the concession of running the Customs House. This was standard practice in the medieval Mediterranean.
The building ibn Jubayr visited was almost certainly the Khan al-Umdan, a substantial arcaded structure arranged around a court that still stands, though substantially rebuilt in the Turkish period. The customs officers were thorough but he had to admit that, by contrast with Alexandria, 'all this was done with civility and respect, and without harshness and unfairness'. This grudging admiration was expressed again and again as he travelled through the Christian kingdoms of the Mediterranean.
Acre had been conquered by the crusaders in 1104 with Genoese help. The Italian merchants were showered with trade privileges in gratitude and the city came to rival Alexandria as an entrepot. It was not that Acre possessed a particularly good harbour: ships anchored at its entrance, which (like most Mediterranean ports) could be closed off by a chain, and goods had to be ferried across from the shore. It 'cannot take the large ships, which must anchor outside, small ships only being able to enter,' reported ibn Jubayr. When the weather was bad, ships would need to be beached. Good harbours were not a prerequisite when medieval merchants chose their trading station - Barcelona, Pisa and Messina all lacked good harbours. Yet ibn Jubayr took the view that 'in its greatness Acre resembles Constantinople', referring not to the size of Acre but to the way in which Muslim and Christian merchants converged there so that 'its roads and streets are choked by the press of men, and it is hard to put foot to ground'.
As ever ibn Jubayr was quick to mask his admiration for what he saw with imprecations: 'Unbelief and unpiousness there burn fiercely, and pigs and crosses abound', the pigs being impure Christians as well as unclean animals.
'It stinks and is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.'
Naturally he deplored the conversion of mosques into churches by the crusaders, but he did note that within the former Friday Mosque there was a corner that Muslims were permitted to use. For the relationship between the Frankish settlers and the local population was less tense than either the Almohad ibn Jubayr or newly-arrived crusaders from western Europe may have wished. Such people were perplexed by the easy attitudes they found. The elderly sheikh of Shayzar in northern Syria, Usamah ibn Munqidh (1095-1188), left a memoir that reveals friendly relationships across the Christian-Muslim divide.
He came to know well a Frankish knight of whom he wrote that he 'kept such constant company with me that he began to call me "my brother'". Ibn Jubayr, however, was very uneasy at the presence of Muslims in this Christian kingdom. 'There can,' he wrote, 'be no excuse in the eyes of God for a Muslim to stay in any infidel country save when passing through it.'
Still, Christian shipping was regarded as safest and most reliable and for his return west ibn Jubayr chose a ship under the command of a Genoese sailor 'who was perspicacious in his art and skilled in the duties of a sea-captain'. The aim was to catch the east wind that blew for about a fortnight in October, because for the rest of the year, apart from mid-April to late May, the prevailing winds came from the west. On October 6th, 1184 ibn Jubayr and other Muslims embarked alongside 2,000 Christian pilgrims who had arrived from Jerusalem, though his estimate of numbers is impossibly high for one ship.
Christians and Muslims shared the space on board but they kept out of one another's way: 'The Muslims secured places apart from the Franks', and ibn Jubayr expressed the hope that God would soon relieve the Muslims of their company. He and the other Muslims stowed their goods and, while the ship awaited a favourable wind, they went on land every night, to sleep in greater comfort. The decision to do this almost resulted in disaster.
On October 18th the weather did not seem fair enough for the ship to depart and ibn Jubayr was still in his bed when the ship set sail. Desperate to catch up, he and his friends hired a large boat and set off in pursuit of the ship which, after all, contained their belongings. It was a dangerous journey through choppy waters but by evening they had caught up with the Genoese vessel. They soon had cause to regret their success. A west wind began to blow; the captain tacked back and forth trying to make progress but the full force of the wind fell on the ship on October 27th when a spar with sails attached broke off and collapsed into the sea. When the wind dropped the water was like 'a palace made smooth with glass', words ibn Jubayr quoted from the Koran.
At nightfall on November 1st the Christians celebrated the Feast of All Saints. All the Christians, old and young, male and female, carried a lighted candle and listened to prayers and sermons: 'The whole ship, from top to bottom, was luminous with kindled lamps.' Once again ibn Jubayr was clearly impressed but did not want to admit this.
Ibn Jubayr's diary provides an unrivalled account of shipboard life in this period. They made no stops for revictualling and many pilgrims of both faiths found themselves short of supplies after several days. Yet he insists there was fresh food for sale on board, 'as if in a city filled with all commodities'. There was bread, water, fruit (including watermelons, figs, quinces and pomegranates), nuts, chickpeas, beans, cheese and fish. Experienced Genoese sailors knew that they had a captive market for any extra supplies they could load.
November was drawing to a close and travelling became still more difficult as winter set in. Ibn Jubayr's view was that:
All modes of travel have their proper season, and travel by sea should be at the propitious time and the recognised period. There should not be a reckless venturing forth in the months of winter as we did. First and last the matter is in the hands of God.
Off southern Italy 'the swollen waves beat incessantly upon us, their shocks making the heart leap.' But they made landfall in Calabria, where many of the Christians decided that they had had enough, for in addition to the storms they were all now short of food. Ibn Jubayr and his friends were living off little more than a pound of moistened ship's biscuit each day. Those who landed sold any food they still possessed to those who remained on board and the Muslims were prepared to pay a single silver dirham for a mere biscuit. Whatever relief they felt at arriving close to Sicily soon dissipated.
The Straits of Messina were like boiling water as the sea was forced between the mainland and Sicily. Strong winds propelled the ship towards the shore; it careered forward towards shallow water with the wind behind it; ran aground and became stuck. A rudder broke; the anchors were useless; all those on board, Muslim and Christian, submitted themselves to the will of God.
Some passengers of high status were taken off on a longboat, but this was smashed as it tried to return from the shore. Small boats came out to aid the stranded passengers, though not with the best motives: their owners demanded a high price for the privilege of being rescued.
News of the shipwreck reached the Norman king of Sicily, William 11 (r. 1166-89), who had recently arrived in Messina to supervise the building of his war-fleet, and he came to watch. Displeased at the behaviour of the boatmen, he ordered that one hundred tart (small gold coins) should be dispensed to them so that they would bring to shore a number of Muslims who were too poor to pay what they were demanding. Ibn Jubayr marvelled at God's prescience in bringing the king to Messina, 'which proved a saving mercy to us'. William had truly saved the lives of those still on board because the day after the ship was grounded it broke up.
Despite his terrifying experience ibn Jubayr was struck by how accessible the port of Messina was. Ships could approach right up to the shore and there was no need for lighters to transport passengers and goods to shore - all that was needed was a plank. The ships were 'ranged along the quay like horses lined at their pickets or in their stables'. In order to reach Andalusia, however, he had to travel across the island through Palermo (which impressed him and where he was closely questioned for news about the eastern Mediterranean) and then on to Trapani where he looked for a Genoese ship bound for Spain. Normally this would have been no problem, but the king had imposed an embargo on all sailings:
'It seems that he is preparing a fleet, and no ships may sail until his fleet has left. May God frustrate his designs, and may he not achieve his ends!'
He began to realise that the destination of this fleet was Byzantium, for everyone in Sicily was talking about the young man whom William kept at his court and whom he intended to set on the Byzantine throne. Ibn Jubayr's suspicions were justified: not long afterwards William launched a devastating attack on Byzantium, capturing Thessalonika. Ibn Jubayr managed to find a place on one of three vessels that were travelling together to the west and its Genoese owners bribed a royal officer who turned a blind eye to their departure. The ships departed on March 14th, 1185.
Passing through the Egadian isles to the west of Sicily they stopped in the little port of Favignana where they crossed the path of the ship of Marco the Genoese bringing North African pilgrims from Alexandria, people ibn Jubayr had met months ago in Mecca itself. Old friends were reunited and they all feasted together. Four ships now set out for Spain, but the wind seemed to be playing games with them as they were blown to Sardinia, then southwards and eventually made headway back past Sardinia to Cartagena where ibn Jubayr set foot on Spanish soil once again, finally reaching his home in Granada on April 25th, 1185.
He concluded his narrative with the weary words of an Arab poet: 'She threw away her staff and there she stayed, as does the traveller at his journey's end.'
Ibn Jubayr no doubt exaggerated the dangers he had faced and the numbers and travails of those on board. Yet in many respects his voyage was probably quite typical of the times, notably the use of Genoese ships by both Muslim and Christian pilgrims. He writes about Genoese captains who 'ruled' their ships, though these large vessels would not normally be owned by their captain. Genoese investors bought shares, often as little as one 64th part, so that ownership of trading vessels was spread widely. An active investor would spread the risk and buy shares in several vessels. The word used for these shares was loca, 'places', and they could be traded and inherited rather like modern equities.
Everything and everyone on board was tightly packed together; travellers slept under the stars, using their possessions as pillow and mattress. By the 13th century goods might be kept below deck and cabins were built up at each end of the ship, so there was space for those willing to pay for a more comfortable journey in medieval 'club class'. In the dire conditions of sea travel, what carried many of the sea-voyagers across the Mediterranean was the faith of the pilgrims for whom adversity at sea was a test of their devotion that would earn them God's approval.
Further reading R.J.C. Broadhurst (trans), The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (Jonathan Cape, 1952); H. Prescon, Jerusalem Journey: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 15th century, (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954).
For further articles on this subject, visit: www.historytoday.com/mediterranean
David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and the author of The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane, 2011)