'There and Back' review: A history of famous travellers and their sojourns

WALKS OF LIFE: Each chapter in the book is based on actual memoirs of travellers who had followed historic routes. The Rhine river. Photo: Reuters
In There And Back, Steward Gordon has written about twelve vital routes in human history that over the centuries have seen the movement of goods, books, scrolls, art, armies, ambassadorial delegations, slaves and pilgrims, and which in turn generated innovations in ideas, religions, technology and cuisine. Gordon has divided the twelve into four groups — rivers (the Rhine, the Nile, the Mississippi), pilgrimages (the Silk Road, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Haj), “tribute” routes (the Appian Way in Italy, the Grand Canal in China, the Inca route in South America — so called because they were used for transporting grain and other tribute) and trade routes (the Indian Ocean, the Trans-Sahara, and the Erie Canal in the United States).

Gordon, an independent research scholar at the University of Michigan, has chosen these routes on the basis of four criteria: the route must have had name and fame; geographically and historically, it must have been part of common human experience; each route needed a memoir or other documentation (in fact, each chapter in the book is based on an actual memoir or letters of a man or woman who followed a route); and the memoirs and letters must be supplemented by archeological evidence.

The book rests on the theory of “cognitive geography”, which is centred on people’s mental expectations and their reactions to their surroundings. And the only way of allowing succeeding generations to experience the “hopes and fears, trials and triumphs” of people who lived centuries or millennia ago, Gordon explains, was to base each chapter on an actual memoir of an individual who had followed a route.

The Haj pilgrimage

The memoirs enable the reader to realise that Hugo did find natural beauty, but he found, too, that modern industry had come to the Rhine valley and factory smokestacks were abundantly in evidence. The memoirs of Fa Xian, who starts out from north-eastern China on the Silk Road, and reaches the Buddhist monasteries of modern-day Patna after three years, where he copies out original texts to take back to China, returning by sea 15 years later, reveal the privations he experienced when traversing the dangerous mountainous terrain in extreme cold; his tears of joy on seeing a compatriot in Patna after mingling with strangers for years on end, and his terrifying voyage back home by sea, when he almost lost his manuscripts in a storm that raged for 13 days. Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveller of medieval times, figures in two chapters. In the first he undertakes the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, starting from his home in Tangier in Morocco and returning home after a near 30-year absence that saw him travel to Mecca, Constantinople, the Crimea, the East African coast, India, Southeast Asia and China; in the second he crosses the trans-Sahara trade route, then returns home to write his memoirs. 

The third Indian connection after Fa Xian and Ibn Battuta (who, during his stay in India, served seven years as a judge in the Delhi Sultanate) is Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian slave who led the army of the Nizamshahi dynasty of Ahmednagar in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, who arrived in India by the Indian Ocean trade route.

The chapter on tribute routes describes the experiences of a Korean official, the victim of a shipwreck, who is washed up on the shores of China, and who after some years spent virtually under house arrest, sails home on China’s Grand Canal; and those of a Spanish scribe who marvels at the Inca empire’s network of more than 22,000 km of roads built over a 50-year period high in the Andes.

Silk Road. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Gordon writes that a “route” brought together people and ideas in a unique way. Along the Silk Road, for example, Buddhism spread from city to city and eventually to China, changing and developing along the way. Similarly, the rise of Sufi Islam was also largely a product of the western reaches of the Silk Road, preached first in caravans and inns. Second, river routes also made possible the growth of tourism: the Rhine was hosting masses of tourists by the end of the 18th century, as were the Mississippi and the Nile during the heyday of steamboat travel in the 19th century. 

THERE AND BACK; Twelve of the Great Routes of Human History; Author: Stewart Gordon; Publisher: Oxford University Press; Pages: 265; Price: Rs 595
Gordon concedes that routes had negative impacts as well. First, they were places of conflict; major battles were fought along routes, such as the Roman civil war, fought after the assassination of Julius Caesar, or the momentous Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War. Second, the establishment of routes and trade did not necessarily benefit those along the route. The appearance of Europeans along the Mississippi led to the extinction of the beaver and the bison and the decimation of several Native American tribes through disease and war initiated by the Europeans. Likewise, the Erie Canal in the US benefited settlers, but displaced Native Americans.

Gordon has made skilful use of his protagonists’ memoirs, letters and travelogues. But There and Back is a broad survey that skims the surface. A little more detail and a little less concern to fit the facts to the theory of cognitive geography would have yielded an even more absorbing narrative.