Lately my hobby/research has been reading ancient travel narratives. Ibn Battuta (whose books are frustratingly hard to find in English — I was lucky to be able to borrow them from a friend), Marco Polo, John Mandeville and the Buddhist monk Xuanzang are a few of the major ones I’ve read recently.

Basically, I’m interested in what was the idea of ‘foreignness’ or ‘weirdness’ to these different authors. To use academic language that I generally consider incredibly boring, I’m only interested in exotic descriptions of The Other. -_- Battuta and Polo came from opposite ends of the Christian-Muslim divide of the European/Mediterranean region, and Battuta does handle his travels with a bit more worldliness befitting the greater level of learning in the Islamic world at the time, but they both find plenty of strangeness to marvel at both in one another’s cultures (approximately speaking, since Battuta never went to Venice, nor Polo to North Africa) and in the other peoples dotting India, China and the Silk Road.

Battuta’s narrative is more of a first-person one, describing the many times he gets sick, the times his companions die on the road, the times he buys slaves, etc. Polo, on the other hand, doesn’t write about himself directly, focusing on just the places he traveled, with a little rose-colored description of the court of Kublai Khan (either Polo really thought the Khan was the greatest, or he was afraid that the Khan would get word of what he’d written, with potentially disastrous consequences for Polo and/or his descendants. The Khan’s empire didn’t much outlive Polo, so it turned out to not matter so much). Polo’s work is a bit shorter and more to the point, while Battuta’s is lengthened by the mostly boring digressions of the scribe who wrote them down, Ibn Juzayy.

Interestingly, both of them are writing from a period before the concept of ‘race’ really existed, before Charles Darwin and the colonial slave trade, and thus (although of course they’re perfectly willing to say things like “the people here are savages” or “everyone in this town are a bunch of a**holes”) they don’t really describe the world from a racialized perspective like colonialist 19th and 20th century explorers. They care more about religion: Christian, Muslim, the various varieties of idolators and heretics. Battuta was a religious scholar, so he focuses more thoroughly and critically on religious minutiae, whereas Polo was a merchant, so he spends less time on religion, but always writes about the commerce and exports of everyplace he visits. Then you have John Mandeville, whose writings are mostly more obviously fictional and fanciful, who is writing what he expects his readers want to read: there’s gotta be a land of giants, a land of dog-headed people, etc. Either Mandeville or his Medieval Christian audience apparently also craved tons of Anti-Semitic Medieval legends about the evils of Jews, something mostly absent in both Battuta and Polo, even though they take occasional pot shots at Christianity and Islam respectively.

Xuanzang, writing almost 1000 years earlier, is a bit of a different case. Though he describes the places he passes through, he doesn’t care as much about strange customs and unknown sights: he’s writing about India as the birthplace of Buddhism, and regions inbetween, inasmuch as they are properly Buddhist or not. There is much information here, about the local place-names and the local “scaly monsters” and dragon-spirits, but Xuanzang is most fascinated by the countless moral legends of all the places visited by Buddha and his companions.

Unfortunately, from a modern, non-Buddhist perspective, it can get boring sometimes. Xuanzang’s book (hard to find in English apart from the 1884 two-volume translation by Samuel Beal titled “Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World”) is more about religious history than about exploration, and Xuanzang himself is basically absent from the narrative, his personal adventures apparently filled in by later biographers. (Unlike Fa-Hian, whose much shorter China-to-India travel narrative is also included in volume 1 of Beal’s book.) Xuanzang’s “Great Tang Records of the Western Regions” reminded me a bit of Pausanias’ “Description of Greece” (a book I haven’t yet been able to finish) in that they’re both basically motivated by patriotic/religious glorification of the past: giving little heed to the day-to-day lives of the people they encounter, they instead fill their pages with countless myths and origin stories related to Buddhism (in Xuanzang’s account) or Greece (in Pausanias’). It’s the difference between going out into the world to discover what’s “weird” and “different” out there, and going out into the world to find your “origin” and reaffirm your roots: the difference between exoticism and nationalism. Between the two, exoticism is always much more entertaining. Thus Polo and Battuta’s works are still exciting and accessible 500+ years later, whereas Xuanzang and Pausanias are a bit of a drag.

NEXT UPDATE: Wednesday!