Ahmad ibn Fadlan

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Ahmad ibn Fadlan

fl. 920s

Arab Traveler

A theologian in the court of the Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir (fl. 908-932), Ahmad ibn Fadlan in the early 920s participated in a diplomatic mission from Baghdad to what is now Russia. Over the course of his journey, he encountered a number of Turkic peoples, as well another group that left a strong impression on him: the Vikings. He recorded these events in a volume that has yet to be fully translated into English; yet thanks to best-selling novelist Michael Crichton (1942-), Ibn Fadlan—at least, a fictionalized version of him—has become known to a number of Western readers.

The circumstances of Ibn Fadlan's life prior to 921 are almost entirely unknown. By judging from certain specifics in his writing style, it has been surmised that he was not an Arab, and it appears certain that prior to his departure on his historic mission, he had already been serving for some time in the court of al-Muqtadir. The rest, however, is a mystery.

On June 21, 921, a diplomatic party led by Susan al-Rassi, a eunuch in the caliph's court, left Baghdad. Ibn Fadlan served as the group's religious advisor, a crucial role: among the purposes of their mission was to explain Islamic law to the recently converted Bulgar peoples, a Turkish tribe living on the eastern bank of the Volga River. (These were the Volga Bulgars; another group of Bulgars had moved westward in the sixth century, invading the country that today bears their name, and became Christians.)

The travelers made their way along established caravan routes toward Bukhara, now part of Uzbekistan, but instead of following that route all the way to the east, they turned northward in what is now northeastern Iran. Leaving the city of Gurgan near the Caspian Sea, they crossed lands belonging to a variety of Turkic peoples. Among these were the Khazars, who in the previous century had adopted Judaism. Ibn Fadlan provided a rare portrait of the Khazar Khanate, one of the few places other than ancient and modern Israel where Judaism was the majority religion. He also chronicled his encounters with the Oghuz on the east coast of the Caspian, the Pechenegs on the Ural River, and the Bashkirs in what is now central Russia.

On May 12, 922, the group arrived at the Volga Bulgars' capital. There Ibn Fadlan read aloud a letter from the caliph to the Bulgar khan, and presented the latter with gifts from the caliph. The Bulgars in turn introduced the Arab visitors to the Varangians, local Vikings who had come to be known by a term that would eventually become the name of the country itself: Rus.

Ibn Fadlan provided a memorable account of these Vikings, for instance describing a ship burial for a dead chief. The most shocking part of the funeral ceremony involved ritual sexual intercourse between various Viking males and a female slave, who was then stabbed to death and placed in the boat. After launching the vessel bearing the dead chief and his slave girl, the Vikings set the craft alight to send it and its contents into the next world.

His description of the Vikings, who he called the "filthiest of God's creatures" yet the most physically beautiful people he had ever seen—"tall as date palms, blond and ruddy"—was but one of many notable passages in the writings of Ibn Fadlan. He also discussed the existence of Gog and Magog, beastly creatures mentioned in the biblical Book of Revelation and associated with the end of the world. Throughout the Middle Ages, travelers and pseudo-authorities claimed to have located Gog and Magog somewhere in Central Asia; Ibn Fadlan, at least, reported this tale merely as a legend he had heard from others.

Upon his return to Baghdad, Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of his journey. The final portion—the part that presumably would have told about his journey back and his later life—has been lost, but the fragments that survive make for highly informative and sometimes powerful reading. The version known in the West today comes from the work of a Russian scholar, C. M. Fraehn, who in 1823 translated the text from Arabic to German. More than 150 years later, in 1976, Crichton published Eaters of the Dead, a novel that features Ibn Fadlan as its main character and uses fragments of his account as a point of departure for a fictional narrative.