Rihlas and Travelogues

Arabic Journals and European Travel Logs

Maps were not the only things during the fourteenth century that promised gold and Paradise in Africa, India, and within the Ocean Sea. Arabic journals, known as rihlas, and the journals of European pilgrims and explorers, known as travelogues, were extremely popular throughout Europe – best sellers.

Like old maps, these journals reveal to us how much Europeans knew about the Atlantic and the Far East. The invention of printing in Europe was still a hundred years in the future. For distribution, men produced copies of journals by hand with quill and ink. Copies of the books were owned only by the very important and the very wealthy.


The word rihla is Arabic for journey. Rihlas were diaries written by Muslim pilgrims. [Our English word journal also comes from journey.] An Arabic pilgrimage is called a hajj. As we mentioned in our article about Islam, every healthy and financially capable Muslim man was, and is, required to participate in at least one of the annual hajjs to Mecca on the Arabian peninsula during his lifetime. The advanced system of roads developed by the Persians and Asians for collecting taxes and transporting silks and spices, also connected Muslims from all corners of their world to Mecca.

Most Europeans never left their hamlet, let alone their country or continent. Arabs and other Muslims saw places Europeans never saw. Arabs had been sailing south along the east coast of Africa through the Indian Ocean since ancient times, an area of the globe that was out of reach to Europeans. Egyptian Arabs had access to the Red Sea. The map we showed you earlier by Muhammad al-Idrisi recorded many of those hajjs.

Muhammad Al-Idrisi, Tabula Rogeriana [Detail of the Mediterranean], Sicily, 1154.(1)

Ibn Jubayr(2) from Valencia, when it was still a Muslim city, wrote a journal about the hajj he made from Iberia to Mecca between 1183 and 1185. The journal is simply known as the Rihla [Journey].

In 1289, a Moroccan named Mohammed al-Abdari al-Hihi wrote The Moroccan Journey [Al-Rihlah al-magribiyyah] describing places in Palestine.

In 1354, Muhammad ibn Battuta(3) from Tangier in Morocco wrote A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling [also shortened to Rihla]. Muhammad ibn Battuta copied many of his stories from other journals such as Ibn Jubayr’s.


The earliest known travelogue written by a Christian is titled Itinerarium Burdigalense [Bordeaux Itinerary]. We can see where the word itinerary came from to mean a travel agenda. The travelogue was written in either 333 or 334 CE by an anonymous Pilgrim from Bordeaux [France] about his journey to the Holy Land. He described traveling through northern Italy, following the Danube River Valley to Constantinople, and then traversing Asia Minor and Syria to Jerusalem. The Pilgrim returned to Bordeaux via Macedonia, Otranto [at the heel of Italy], Rome, and Milan.

We have already told you about the Travels of Marco Polo.

A lesser known travelogue that Christopher Columbus would know about was titled Inventio Fortunatae [Fortunate Discoveries] and was supposedly written in the 1360s by a Franciscan priest or friar from Oxford, England. No copy is known to exist today, so historians only know about it from secondhand references. The friar made six or seven journeys on behalf of King Edward III of England, including a visit to islands in the Atlantic beyond 53 degrees north latitude, i.e. Iceland and Greenland. [The southern tip of Greenland is at 60 degrees N.]

Historians suspect the book was a technical report to King Edward regarding his prospects for colonizing Iceland and Greenland as the Norwegian presence diminished, rather than a personal journal of the friar’s experience. Inventio Fortunatae was important to mariners who explored the northwest. It included speculated geographical information about the layout of the North Pole that appeared on Medieval charts of the north Atlantic.

Even though the Norwegian [Viking] colonies in Greenland were no longer active, there are records in Norway submitted by a church official named Ivar Bardarson to the King of Norway in 1364 with a social and geographical description of Greenland. Therefore it is likely the author of Inventio Fortunatae also visited the island.

One of the ways we know about Inventio Fortunatae is from a description of it in another travelogue written in 1364 by Jacobus Cnoyen(4), a scholar from the Duchy of Brabant in northeast Burgundy [the dark pink in the map below].

Cnoyen’s book is simply known as Itinerarium. He wrote that in 1364, the “priest” who wrote Inventio Fortunatae was on one of the Atlantic Islands [Greenland or Iceland], where he met up with a priest from Norway, with whom he traded his astrolabe for a religious book. The Norwegian priest then returned to Norway with the astrolabe. [We will describe the astrolabe in our article on Tools of Navigation.]

Cnoyen wrote, “in A.D. 1364, eight people who penetrated the northern regions in the first ships came to the King’s Court in Norway. Among them were two priests, one of whom had an astrolabe, who was descended in the fifth generation from a Brussels citizen [Brussels was also part of Burgundy]. Leaving the rest of the party who had come to Greenland and Iceland, the priest from Brussels journeyed further, through the whole of the North etc, and put into writing all the wonders of those islands, and gave the King of England this book, which he called in Latin Inventio Fortunatae.

Probably trying to convince King Edward III that he had rights over the Norwegians to settle in Greenland and Iceland, the priest in Inventio Fortunatae described how the legendary King Arthur was the first to settle those Atlantic islands. Back in the early sixth century, King Arthur led the British against the Saxons when they invaded England. After he conquered the northern islands of Scotland in 530 CE [and after he pulled the sword from the stone and killed the dragon, but before he met and married Guinevere], he crossed over to Iceland and then to Greenland, where he left a small colony of people. The story was probably the basis for the legend that Arthur was buried on the mysterious, fog-shrouded Isle of Brasil.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

Second in popularity to Marco Polo’s Travels was The Travels of Sir John Mandeville written some time before 1371. Even before the invention of printing, it was published by hand in many languages and circulated widely. After printing was invented in 1452, Sir John Mandeville’s Travelogue joined the top three best seller list with the Bible and a compilation of The Plays of William Shakespeare.

The journal is written by an imaginary English knight from St. Albans named Sir John Mandeville. No real person of that name is known to have existed. In the hajj tradition, he traveled around the Ecumene, describing each stop along the path in great detail. He traversed Turkey, Armenia, Tartary, Persia, Arabia, lower and upper Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Chaldea, Amazonia, India the Lesser, India the Greater, India the Middle, and more. He visited Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Paris, Constantinople, and Cansay [aka Quinsay, today’s Hangzhou, China]. Mandeville was even offered a princess in marriage and a great estate if he would renounce Christianity for Islam. But he declined.

Historians think that in real life, the anonymous author made it no farther east than the Holy Land. He borrowed most of his material from Marco Polo and Mohammad ibn Battutu. Two of his tales are known to come from Ptolemy: the story about the Indian ants that were as large as cats guarding caverns filled with gold; and the story about people living off the smell of wild apples. Some of the tales were factual, some were fictional. But most of the places the author described were real. The courts of Europe gobbled the book up.

The Book of All Kingdoms

Only slightly later, in 1385, an anonymous Castilian [Spaniard] wrote The Book of Knowledge of All Kingdoms [Libro del Conosçimiento de Todos los Regnos] categorized by one historian as a geographical and armorial manual. Though the author did not state his name, he gave his birth year as 1305.

The story-teller was an imaginary friar. Similar to the journey described by Sir Mandeville, the friar traveled throughout Europe, the Far East, and Africa. Different from Sir Mandeville, the friar visited islands in the Atlantic. What most interested future explorers was the friar’s description of his trip to Ethiopia.

As we described, many Europeans, especially the Portuguese, believed Prester John resided in Ethiopia, known in the Bible as Abyssinia. The only known path to Ethiopia was to sail to the eastern end of the Mediterranean and then travel by land through Egypt. But this friar entered Libya [Africa] by traveling west through the Strait of Gibraltar, southwest along the coast of Libya and then entering the continent through a huge bay at the south end called Sinus Aethiopicus [sinus meant bay]. This bay might remind you of Ptolemy’s Sinus Magnus [Great Gulf] described in the article about technology moving west. The anonymous cartographer who drew the Medici Portolan in 1351 included Sinus Aethiopicus and the rivers that he thought connected it to the end of the Nile in Egypt.

Anonymous Genoese, Medici-Laurentian Atlas, 1351.(5)

Historians wonder, “Does this story confirm that some Europeans already had knowledge of the South African coastline? Did they already know, in 1385, over a hundred years before the Portuguese claim they first reached the equator, that the coast of Africa turned eastward after Cape Verde to what at first appears to be a huge bay?”


  1. Al-Idrisi, Mohammad. Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154. {{PD-old}} Public Domain in the USA and Italy, Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a1/
  2. Historians do not seem to know ibn Jubayr’s first name. Ibn means of or from. So ibn Jubayr would mean the man from Jubayr.
  3. Battutu’s full Arabic name was ‘Abū ʿAbd al-Lāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Lāh l-Lawātī ṭ-Ṭanǧī ibn Baṭūṭah
  4. Jacobus Cnoyen was also known as James Cnoyen, Jakob van Knoyen, and James Knox.
  5. Anonymous Genoese author, second of eight plates known as the Medici Atlas (Atlante Mediceo) or the Laurentian-Gaddiano Portolan (Portolono Laurenziano-Gaddiano). Original held at Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana, Florence. Facsimile published 1881 as Portolano Laurenziano-Gaddiano di anonimo dell'anno, Illustrated by T. Fischer, Venice, 1351. {{PD-Old}}, Public Domain. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medici-Laurentian_Atlas_1351.jpg

Next article: The Struggle for Power between Portugal, Castile, and England