Hangzhou had a Jews’ Gate

Jews’ Gate 犹太门 in Hangzhou [Zane Archives]
Jews’ Gate 犹太门 in Hangzhou [Zane Archives]

Ibn Battuta (伊本白图泰) was one of the greatest medieval Muslim travellers

Ibn Battuta (1304–1368) was of Berber descent, born into a family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier (Tangier), Morocco (摩洛哥). His most commonly used full name was Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battuta.

He was perhaps the most extraordinary medieval Muslim traveller, covering a distance of some 120,000 kilometres in 30 years. In comparison, Marco Polo covered roughly 24,000 kilometres and Chinese explorer, Zheng He, covered 50,000 kilometres.

Ibn Battuta started his travel in 1325 when he was 20 years old. His original goal was to make a Pilgrimage to Mecca. However, in order to satisfy his wish to study Islamic law, the trip was extended by 29 years, covering the equivalent of 44 modern countries, mainly within the world of Islam.

After losing everything in the Maldives and India due to pirates and shipwrecks, he decided to go to China. At the time, journeys were not difficult for Muslim travellers, as they could find Muslim hospitality in most of the major seaports.


Muslims were active in Quanzhou and Guangzhou

Ibn Battuta arrived at one of the main port cities of the Yuan Dynasty — Quanzhou (泉州), in Fujian Province. He was welcomed by the head of the local Muslim merchants.

The Mongols ruled the Yuan Empire, and they welcomed the Muslims, as well as other foreigners, into their country. The semuren (色目人), or people with coloured eyes, as opposed to the Chinese who have black pupils, were offered jobs such as finance officer, tax collectors or high-level government administrators.

The Mongols had an open-door policy when it came to foreign trade. In the large southern port cities, there were so many Muslim merchants that they lived in their own separate neighbourhoods where they had their own mosques, markets, and even medical clinics. They traded actively with the Chinese and the ships that came to shore from as far as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

Ibn Battuta enjoyed the presence of those who shared his belief system. He said, “During my stay in China, whenever I saw any Muslims, I always felt as though I were meeting my own family and close kinsmen.”


Muslims referred to Quanzhou as Zaitun, meaning Olives

Ibn Battuta noted that the Muslims referred to the city of Quanzhou as Zaitun, meaning olives; but he could not find olives anywhere.


Portraits of foreigners were drawn for security purposes

In Quanzhou, Ibn Battuta mentioned that the local artists made portraits of the newly arrived foreigners for security purposes.


Silk, porcelain, fruits, chicken, cuisine, shipyards

Ibn Battuta admired much of what he saw. He was shocked that “silk is used for clothing even by poor monks and beggars” and noted that porcelain was “the finest of all makes of pottery.”

He praised the fruits of the land, such as plums and watermelons, and commented that “the hens … in China are … bigger than geese in our country.”

He noted that Chinese cuisine used animals such as frogs, pigs, and even dogs sold in the markets.

He further described the manufacturing of large ships in Quanzhou.


China was the safest country in the world for travellers

Ibn Battuta arrived in China during the last few peaceful years before the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty. He commented, “China is the safest and most agreeable country in the world for the traveller. You can travel all alone across the land for nine months without fear, even if you are carrying much wealth.”

He also praised the country’s natural beauty.


First to mention of the Great Wall of China

Ibn Battuta took a boat along the Grand Canal (大运河) and reached Beijing.

He presented himself as the envoy from the Delhi Sultanate (德里蘇丹國, 1206–1527) and was invited to the Imperial Court of Emperor Shun of Yuan (元顺帝, reign 1333–1368). He noted that the palace was made of wood and that some of the people in China actually worshipped the emperor himself.

According to Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb (吉布爵士, 1895–1971), Professor of Arabic at Oxford University, Ibn Battuta believed that Dhul-Qarnayn built the Great Wall of China to contain Gog and Magog as mentioned in the Quran.

Ibn Battuta is believed to be the first to mention the Great Wall of China, although he did not see it. He then travelled from Beijing to Hangzhou.


Hangzhou was the biggest city on earth

In Fuzhou (福州), Ibn Battuta met a fellow countryman, Al-Bushri of Ceuta, a wealthy merchant in China, who travelled north with him to the city of Hangzhou (杭州).

According to Ibn Battuta, Hangzhou was “the biggest city I have seen on the face of the earth,” and that it had a beautiful lake surrounded by green hills; he was possibly talking about West Lake (西湖).


Hangzhou had six sections, one had a Jews’ Gate (犹太门)

Hangzhou, surrounded by a large city wall, was divided into six smaller cities.

In the first city lived the city guards and their commanders, numbering roughly 12,000 in total. They spent the night here.

On the second day, Ibn Battuta and Al-Bushri entered the second city via a gate known as the Jews’ Gate. In this city lived Jews, Christians, and Turks who worshipped the sun. There were a large number of them, but the exact number was unknown. The streets were well kept, the men were wealthy, and this was the most beautiful of the six cities.

On the third day, they entered the third city, which the Muslims occupied.

The fourth city was the government house.

The fifth city was the biggest and inhabited by ordinary people.

In the sixth city lived sailors, artisans, and infantry troops.

Travelogue, Rihla (游记), was published in 1355

From Hangzhou, Ibn Buttuta went back to Quanzhou and began his journey home, which took three years.

In 1355, while in Tangier, the Sultan of Morrocco, Abu Inan Faris (伊南法里斯, 1329–1358), insisted that he dictate the story of his travels to a scholar, Ibn Juzayy (伊本猶札, 1294–1340) who then turned it into the book, which was originally titled Tuhfat al-anzar fi gharaaib al-amsar wa ajaaib al-asfar (A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling); or generally referred to as Rihla (The Journey).

About the Author
I was born in Hong Kong, completed my secondary education in the United Kingdom and now pursing higher education in the United States. I am fascinated by Jewish history, particularly in China; this points towards Jewish communities in Shanghai, Harbin, Hong Kong, and above all Kaifeng. This is a fairly niche area of interest and I would like to share what I learn on my academic journeys with everyone. For more, please check out our website
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