Jorvik Viking Festival

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An Arab traveller and chronicler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan encountered Viking traders in Volga and described them in great detail – he was fascinated by their appearance and behaviours.

Ahamd Ibn Fadlan

Little is known of Ibn Fadlan’s origins, ancestry or education, but we know he was a 10th Century traveller and theologian, who served in the court of Al-Muqtadir, the Caliph of Baghdad. He wrote extensively about his travels and the people he encountered, as documented in his Risalah.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan journeyed from Baghdad to the camp of Bulghar khan, on the river Volga (Russia), in AD 921. His mission was to deliver a message and gifts from the Caliph, who wished to forge an alliance with the Abbasids.

He travelled towards Bukhara, northward through modern day Iran and then crossing lands that belonged to a variety of peoples, including the Volga Vikings (who were known as The Rus). In his writings, which are unique in Arab literature, he detailed his encounters with the Viking traders he met – who were pioneering trade routes along the Russian rivers. They had established themselves in these areas as trading raiders, selling furs, wax and slaves they had captured in northern Europe.

The Volga Vikings made a great impression on Fadlan. He wrote about them with great fascination – particularly regarding their practices in sex, hygiene, and religion, which were different to his own. He viewed the Vikings from the perspective of a well-educated representative from the capital of Islamic civilisation.

“I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil [Volga River]. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor kaftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.”

Ibn Fadlan, on the Rus merchants at the Volga River, 922.

Viking sword

Fadlan also described their hygiene as filthy and disgusting (whilst noting with some astonishment that they comb their hair every day) and considered them vulgar and unsophisticated. He also witnessed the burial of a Viking chieftain, describing how 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 for the men taking part in the 10-day funeral.

Whilst many scholars have interpreted Fadlan’s descriptions of the Rus to be about Vikings, some historians disagree. Some practices certainly match what we understand about Viking-Age Scandinavia such as the funeral being a ship burial, but others do not – such as the use of basil, which is unlikely to have been available in Scandinavia at this time. Some practices Ibn Fadlan describes were common in Scandinavia, but were also common among the Turkic peoples in this area at this time.