International Ibnu Batuta Conference on Travel, Trade, Tradition and Trajectories

Mehrdad Shokoohy

Emeritus Professor of Architecture and Urban Studies, The University of Greenwich

Born in Tehran, Mehrdad Shokoohy studied architecture at the National University of Iran. While Head of the Architectural Department of the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, his architectural projects included libraries and cultural centres in Iran. He also designed institutional buildings and private houses.

After travelling in Africa he studied Environmental Conservation at Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh College of Art and read for his doctoral thesis there (supervised by the late Professor A. D. H. Bivar at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) on the topic of the early mediaeval architecture of Iran and Afghanistan. His post-doctoral studies at SOAS concentrated on the twelfth to sixteenth-century architecture of South Asia, in collaboration with his architectural historian wife Dr Natalie H. Shokoohy. At the University of Greenwich alongside with teaching, he took part in founding an Urban Design course at the School of Architecture and established and edited the University’s annual Urban Design Studies. The Shokoohys’ research focus has been on little-known sites and monuments in India and Nepal, published in numerous learned papers, contributions to books, and nine monographs, covering material from historical inscriptions to architecture, archaeology and mediaeval urban planning.

Mehrdad pioneered the study of the remains of the early Muslim maritime settlements in the subcontinent. In 1977 he recognised the twelfth-century settlement of Bhadreśvar (Bhadreshwar) preserving two mosques, many tombs and a shrine dated 554/1159-60, the earliest dated Muslim building in India. Later, in 1981, he and Natalie identified the mosque dated 685/1286-7 of yet another early settlement in Junagadh. In 2001 he was awarded the prestigious degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) by Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh College of Art (Edinburgh University) for his extensive and pioneering work in his field, in particular his work on the Indian littoral and the Muslim architecture of South India. His publications on these topics have set the standard for research in the area. For more information on his research and publications please visit www.Shokoohy.com.


An archaeological outline of Calicut through Ibn Battuta’s and other historical accounts

Calicut’s population in 2018 is estimated to be over 3.5 million and is increasing by over 8% a year. The expansion of the city only in the last century has made a small coastal town into a metropolis and today the built environment covers not just the site of the early Calicut, but many neighbouring villages. Ibn Battuta and other travellers are short on physical descriptions of the historic Calicut, as they were more interested in the people, their traditions, their beliefs and their conduct. Yet here and there they give brief but enlightening notes on how the town and the port was organised and operated; how the Zamorin’s palace and residences were laid out and their possible locations; as well as the distinguishing characteristics of the houses of the local population contrasted with those of the Muslim merchants.

Ibn Battuta’s Calicut was not entirely the same as the city after the appearance of the Portuguese. The quarrels between Calicut and the neighbouring states before the Portuguese incursions did not necessitate serious defensive consideration.  Between the fourteenth and seventeenth century Calicut evolved. It seems that the fourteenth-century town consisted of a well-constructed and relatively dense Muslim neighbourhood set between the thinly scattered mud huts roofed with thatch of the predominantly fishing and agrarian Hindu population. Between these dwellings were the solidly built temples, the palace of the Zamorin away from the sea and his house by the coast. But later the town seems to have developed into a more compactly built environment to give protection to the people. Nevertheless, the true defence of the town was the ocean.  

How far the creek to the south of the present town was utilised requires investigation, but unlike many ancient ports Calicut did not rely on the creek for its international navigation. Some smaller Arab ships might have been able to use the creek, but it was far too small for the Chinese junks, which according to Ibn Battuta had crews of six hundred along with four hundred armed soldiers as well as storage space for merchandise, necessitating anchorage away from the town at some distance from the coast, well out to sea. They were so large that they even had private cabins for distinguished passengers.  During the course of time and with the constant threat of the Portuguese the built environment seems to have become increasingly more compact. In addition to the travellers’ narratives, there are occasional sketches which when analysed enhance our understanding of such gradual change.