Ibn Fadlan: An Arab Among the Vikings of Russia
Ibn Fadlan: An Arab Among the Vikings of Russia
In 921, the Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan (fl. 920s) went on a diplomatic mission to what is now Russia. There he encountered numerous Turkic peoples, among them the Khazars, one of the few groups in history outside of Israel to adopt Judaism. But perhaps the most memorable passages in the Risala, his account of his journeys, concern the Varangians, a group of Vikings known by a term that would eventually become the name of the surrounding country itself: Rus.
Ibn Fadlan traveled on orders from al-Muqtadir (r. 908-932), ruler of the Abbasid caliphate. Though by Ibn Fadlan's time the influence of the caliphs—imperial leaders who possessed religious as well as political authority—had declined somewhat, the Abbasid dynasty still remained the single most powerful force east of the Byzantine Empire and west of China. Through military might, combined with their fervent belief in Islam, the soldiers of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750) had extended Arab influence from Spain to India; and though the Abbasids (750-1258) proved less aggressive militarily, they were nonetheless eager missionaries for the Muslim faith.
Hence the purpose of Ibn Fadlan's mission: to explain Islamic law to the recently converted Volga Bulgars. The Volga Bulgars had moved into Eastern Europe from the frontiers of China during the sixth and seventh centuries, part of a great wave of migration that brought various Turkish peoples westward. ("Turks," a term that encompasses a number of nations, all speak languages of the Turkic family, and share origins in the far eastern reaches of Central Asia.) One group of Bulgars had continued moving to the western shores of the Black Sea, becoming Christianized and settling in the land that today bears their name. By contrast, the Volga Bulgars, as their name implied, had settled along the eastern shores of the Volga River in what is now Russia.
Another notable Turkic nation in the region were the Khazars, who in the eighth century had converted to Judaism. The Khazars lived on the southern end of the Volga, and as early as 568 had sent an ambassador to Byzantium. In time their realm came to be known as the Khazar Khanate, or simply Khazaria. It was one of the few lands in history, other than ancient or modern Israel—and a few Semitic states at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula during the early centuries a.d.—where Judaism was the majority religion. Khazaria would flourish until its destruction by Kievan Rus or Russia in the eleventh century.
Russia in Ibn Fadlan's time had not yet earned its present name, though the people who came to be known as "Rus" had already arrived. They were Vikings, part of the vast group of nations that had burst onto the pages of history late in the eighth century. In the years that followed, they had fanned out across Europe, heading as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and later North America. Some even moved into southwestern Europe, where they came to be known as Normans in France and Sicily.
Then there were the Varangians, a group of Vikings who in 862 sailed out of their homeland in Sweden, eastward across the Baltic Sea and up the rivers of Eastern Europe, working their way further inland. Drawn by myths of a rich city of gleaming gold—no doubt Constantinople—they founded a great city of their own, Novgorod. They also established their control over Kiev, founded earlier by the Slavs, the people who first gave the Varangians the name "Rus." (In the context of early medieval Russia, the terms Viking, Varangian, and Rus are interchangeable.) Eventually one of the Varangians, a chieftain named Rurik (d. c. 879) emerged as their leader, founding a dynasty that would remain influential in Russian affairs until 1598.
Other than the fact that he was a theologian who served in the court of al-Muqtadir, little is known about Ahmad ibn Fadlan. From certain aspects of his writing style, scholars have guessed that he may not have been an Arab, but there is no certainty on this point. As for the purpose of his journey, it was a diplomatic mission: the actual leader of the group was a eunuch named Susan al-Rassi, and Ibn Fadlan went as a religious advisor charged with educating the Volga Bulgars on Islamic law.
The group set out from the Abbasid capital at Baghdad (now in Iraq) on June 21, 921, and followed established caravan routes eastward toward Bukhara, now part of Uzbekistan. Bukhara lay well to the east and south of their destination, however, and at Gurgan near the Caspian Sea in what is now northeastern Iran, they began heading northward on March 4, 922. The group moved along the Caspian's eastern shore, all the way around the sea, which is actually an inland lake. The Caspian is by far the world's largest inland lake, at 143,000 square miles (370,370 square km), or about the size of Montana. They skirted the Caspian's northern shore, finally reaching the delta of the Volga River.
Among the tribes Ibn Fadlan encountered along the way were the Oghuz Turks on the eastern shore of the Caspian, ancestors of the people who inhabit modern-day Turkmenistan. On the Ural River at the northern tip of the Caspian (today the Ural and the mountains of the same name are recognized as the boundary between Europe and Asia), the Arabs met the Pechenegs, another Turkish tribe. At the southern end of the Volga were the Khazars, and in what is now central Russia the party found yet another Turkish group, the Bashkirs. Finally, on May 12, 922, the group arrived at the Volga Bulgars' capital on the shores of the great river. There they were presented to the Bulgar khan, and Ibn Fadlan read aloud a letter from the caliph before presenting the khan with presents from the ruler in Baghdad.
But the Volga Bulgars, though they provided much of the purpose behind Ibn Fadlan's mission, do not occupy the most memorable passages in Ibn Fadlan's narrative. Rather, his focus is on a group of people he met during his time among the Bulgars, a strange blond-haired and blue-eyed race who had settled in the region, and with whom the Bulgars traded. These were the Varangians, who he described thus: "They are the filthiest of God's creatures. They have no modesty in defecation and urination.... they are like wild asses." Yet as he wrote elsewhere, "I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy...."
The ways of the Varangians—for instance, their practices with regard to sex, hygiene, and religion—seem to have filled Ibn Fadlan, a highly educated member of what was perhaps the world's most advanced civilization at the time, with a weird fascination. Particularly noteworthy was Ibn Fadlan's description of the ritual surrounding the burial of a Viking chieftain. The dead man's belongings were divided into three parts, one part for the wife and daughters of the deceased, one part to buy clothing for the corpse, and one part to pay for the vast amounts of alcohol that would be consumed by the men taking part in the 10-day-long funeral.
The female slaves of the deceased were asked, "Who among you will die with him?" and one eventually came forward and said "I." Presumably the volunteer was compelled by fear, combined with only a vague notion of what awaited her. She participated in gruesome rituals and then was killed. Her corpse was then placed alongside that of the deceased in a boat, which would be launched on the river and set ablaze. "If in this moment a wind blows and the fire is strengthened," Ibn Fadlan wrote, "...the man is accordingly one who belongs in Paradise; otherwise they take the dead to be one unwelcome at the threshold of bliss or even to be condemned."
These and other recollections of the Vikings appear in the Risala, Ibn Fadlan's account of his journeys, which he wrote upon his return to Baghdad. In some places, he appears to have exaggerated. For instance, he wrote that the Vikings all washed from a common bowl, and that it was typical for them to blow their noses and spit into the same basin in which they would wash their hands and faces. This was probably hyperbole occasioned by the shock with which a medieval Arab, to whom cleanliness was a necessity of religious faith as well as of health, would have viewed the habits of unhygienic Europeans.
In other places, however, Ibn Fadlan exhibited a cool-headedness that served him well as a travel writer. For instance, he adopted a somewhat skeptical tone when discussing reputed sightings of Gog and Magog, beastly creatures mentioned in the biblical book of Revelation and associated with the end of the world. Later in the Middle Ages, European scholars would write confidently that the monsters had been located somewhere in Central Asia; Ibn Fadlan, at least, reported such rumors merely as legends he had heard from others. All in all, his book constitutes an invaluable travelogue and a priceless source of ethnographic information concerning the peoples of Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
The final portion of the Risala, which presumably would have told about Ibn Fadlan's journey back and his later life, has been lost. 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. Though fragments have made their way into English, the book as a whole remains untranslated for English speakers.
While still in college during the 1960s, future best-selling author Michael Crichton (1942- ) read the translated fragments, and was fascinated by the story of Ibn Fadlan. The result was his novel Eaters of the Dead, a highly fictionalized account of Ibn Fadlan's adventures. Published in 1976, the book was reissued in 1993, and in 1999 became the basis for the film The 13th Warrior, which starred Antonio Banderas as Ibn Fadlan.
Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
Dunlop, D. M. The History of the Jewish Khazars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954.
"Risala: Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus." http://www.realtime.net/~gunnora/ibn_fdln.htm.
The 13th Warrior. Touchstone Pictures, 1999.