Travelling further than any other pre-modern explorer, Ibn Battuta set out as a twenty-one year old law student from Tangiers in 1325 to make Hajj. He did not return home for nearly thirty years, travelling across the medieval world from China to Timbuktu. Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta is a sweeping biopic following his eventful and moving first journey as a pilgrim.
The docudrama begins with Ibn Battuta setting out alone from Morocco towards Mecca on a perilous three-thousand mile journey, in which he was to meet with banditry, dehydration in the desert, sandstorms and war. Rescued from near-death by a Bedouin man who had robbed him, he then employed him as his guide to help him reach Cairo. There he was determined to follow the route across the Red Sea he had seen in a dream, rather than joining the Hajj caravan in Damascus, which would add a thousand miles to his journey. Told he was taking a foolish risk, he nevertheless stubbornly made his way through the Egyptian desert to take the shortcut and sail across the Red Sea to Jeddah, only to find the boats at the port of Aydhab had been destroyed in the war raging in the area.
Thus he was made to retrace his steps and make his way to join the great Damascus caravan. This he describes as “a moving city of ten thousand with one purpose – to reach the holy city of Medina and then Mecca.” Describing the people he meets in the caravan he says, “There are architects, physicians, poets and even bee-keepers. I could never have imagined such a community of the road.”
Dramatic desert sequences of camels and pilgrims making their way across the sands bring home the dangerous nature of the pilgrimage in a time before roads, cars and planes. Travelling was a risky undertaking in Ibn Battuta’s time. When he leaves home he is unsure whether he will ever return to see his loved ones again. Journey to Mecca effectively captures the hardship of journeying across the desert, depicting the dust, heat, vulnerability and exhaustion, as well as other dangers of the road such as bandits, wars and sandstorms.
Arriving in Medina after an arduous journey from Damascus, Ibn Battuta opens the gift from his mother, two lengths of pure white cloth to serve as his Ihram. Finally arriving in Mecca, the film cuts between cinematic shots of Ibn Battuta’s Hajj and modern-day footage of Hajj today, as he describes the rites of the pilgrimage, interspersed with the mesmerising chant of labbaik Allahumma labbayk, the talbiyah repeatedly said during the Hajj, meaning “Here I am, O Allah, here I am.”
Describing the day of Arafat Ibn Battuta says, “In the morning I join a great procession. Like a river, it flows towards the plain of Arafat and the Mount of Mercy. Aerial shots of mount Arafat in modern times, covered in pilgrims wearing their white ihram, their hands raised in prayer, highlight the continuity of the rites of Hajj through the ages, with Ibn Battuta’s Hajj seven hundred years ago depicted side by side with present-day footage.
Filmed in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, the film is narrated by Ben Kingsley and was first shown in IMAX and other giant screen cinemas. It received favourable reviews from both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, who were moved by the stunning cinematography of the vast desert landscapes, the spiritual and physically challenging nature of Ibn Battuta’s journey, and the correspondence of his story to breath-taking footage of the performance of the Hajj pilgrimage today. Tragically, the lead actor who played Ibn Battuta, Chems Eddine Zinoun, died in a car accident in Casablanca the year before the film was released.
Ibn Battuta was to travel on from performing Hajj to more than forty other countries, only returning home to Morocco after almost thirty years. This absorbing film dramatises the first perilous journey he made to Mecca, filled with risk and adventure, and presents an unforgettable picture of Islamic civilisation and the travels of a Muslim scholar during the fourteenth century.