This island housed Birka, one of the earliest and most important trading centers in Northern Europe before its decline in the 10th century CE. To understand the history of Birka is to understand the Viking history of Sweden and the Viking world.
The first urban settlement in Sweden?
We tend to think of Vikings as destroyers, not builders.
However, lying a short distance from the hustle and bustle of one of the pearls of Northern Europe, Stockholm, lie the remains of a Viking-era trading center and one of the earliest urban settlements in Scandinavia: Birka.
This was a thriving trading center, buzzing with the exchange of goods and ideas, and even people, between the 8th and 10th centuries CE.
As people from Viking societies expanded from the mid-8th century CE onwards, Birka experienced steady growth.
Due to its prime location as the endpoint of the lucrative Eastern European river routes connecting Scandinavia, polities in Eastern Europe (which would become the Kievan Rus), the Byzantine Empire, and the broader Islamic world, it became a significant economic hub.
Traditionally said to be Sweden's oldest town, it is believed to have been founded in about 750 CE.
This was an era when the medieval kingdom of Sweden was still centuries in the future, and petty kings and local rulers exerted significant control and influence throughout the region.
Regrettably, there are no contemporary accounts of its founding, and, as is common in early medieval history, we must rely on accounts from a later period.
The introduction of Christianity into the region provides our first glimpse of Viking-era Birka.
The intricacies of early medieval Birka come to life in a model showcased at the Swedish History Museum, located in Stockholm. Photo: Szilas (Public domain)
For the record: Christianity arrives
We owe a debt of gratitude to countless medieval monks who sat down, with quill in hand, and wrote, chronicled, and detailed much of early medieval history.
Whilst these chronicles and histories are not without flaws – sometimes they border on fiction rather than historical truth – they are still invaluable documents that capture the mood, the milieu of events and times for which we have no other records.
Birka is a classic example of this. Contemporary Viking societies, though they were literate and had developed their own alphabet, have left us no descriptions of this great trading town.
We must turn, however, to the later medieval historians and chroniclers, like Rimbert and Adam of Bremen. It is thanks to these medieval chroniclers that we have our first glimpses of Birka.
Both accounts detail the life of the legendary missionary (and later saint) Ansgar, credited with being one of the first to introduce Christianity to Scandinavia.
Ansgar journeyed to the trading hub of Birka, where he attempted to proselytize members of all levels of Viking society.
According to Rimbert, emissaries from certain "Swedish kings" had come to the court of the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious, expressing their desire to embrace the Christian faith.
Ansgar took on this mission, and after an extensive journey, including "twenty days on a ship," he arrived in Birka.
Ansgar appears to have been so successful in winning over a new flock that, in the decades following his initial missionary efforts, a church was built.
This church is believed to be the first constructed in Sweden, if not Scandinavia, a topic of ongoing academic debate.
Soon, Birka emerged as a Christian stronghold in the Viking world, closely connected to those who wielded economic and political power.
The island of Björkö, home to the ancient trading hub Birka, celebrates the legacy of Ansgar, a legendary missionary and later saint, with a monument erected in 1834. Photo: Roland Magnusson / Shutterstock
An economic hub of activity
Why, then, for over two centuries, was Birka, this birch-riddled island, such a focal point of activity? What positioned it as arguably the first urban settlement in Swedish history?
The answer lies with trade. Located at the terminus of a trade route that spanned much of Northern and Eastern Europe, as well as vast regions of West Asia, trade was the driving force behind its expansion.
Underlying much of this growth were conspicuous consumption items like furs, highly prized and priced. Obtained from the indigenous Sami peoples in northern Scandinavia, bear, fox, otter, and beaver furs could fetch a considerable sum of money.
Other items, such as walrus ivory, amber, and honey, were also traded with merchants from cultures and civilizations to the south.
It is highly likely that Birka was also involved in the slave trade. Slavery was a crucial component of the Viking economy, and as Viking societies expanded outward, so did the trade in human beings.
In return for these precious items, goods were traded back to local merchants from abroad and afar.
Items unavailable in Viking-era Sweden were highly valued. These included Byzantine textiles, intricate jewelry, Frankish pottery and weapons, Islamic silver (particularly dirham coins), and even Chinese silks.
Thus, Birka served as the final trading port for many goods that traveled what historians would later term the Silk Roads spanning across Eurasia.
- READ MORE: Viking money and economy: How did they work?
Today, the Birka museum showcases full-scale reconstructions of Viking houses and boats, immersing visitors in the historical craftsmanship of the period. Photo: Aastels / Shutterstock
Decline and fall
Not only was this a hub of economic activity, but according to the chronicles, Birka also hosted Swedish kings.
Mentioned in the life of Ansgar, two Swedish kings of the 9th century – Bjorn Anund Uppsale and Olof – are said to have resided in Birka.
The former king is said to have met Ansgar on his first trip there in 829 CE, with the latter meeting him on his last, almost three decades later in 852 CE.
It also appears that Birka served as a temporary seat of power, where a significant Ting (a kind of Viking-era assembly and proto-parliament) was occasionally convened during the 9th century CE.
Given its economic prosperity and role as a temporary political base, Birka was inevitably a coveted prize for envious eyes. A fortress, believed to have been built by King Olof, repelled one attack by Danish Vikings but couldn't fend off all invaders.
Archaeological records suggest that Birka was abandoned around 960 CE.
Several theories surround its decline, including the rising prominence of Sigtuna, a new Christian town, and the island of Gotland. Both were siphoning off Birka's spiritual, political, and economic activity.
Increased raiding by Vikings and climate change are also considered factors.
Scientists speculate that shifting water levels might have isolated Birka from the Baltic Sea during this period. A chronicle from 1069 CE notes how "one can hardly find vestiges of the city."
A silver ring, thought to read "Allah" in Kufic inscription on its glass stone, was discovered in a grave north of the Fort of Birka, Sweden, and is now on display at the Swedish History Museum. Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Whilst Birka may have fallen into disrepair and ruin by the 11th century CE, its story does not end there. Its exact location was lost for centuries until the late 17th century when archaeological excavations began.
The Björko Archaeological Site now encompasses some 7 hectares (17 acres), including over 3,000 gravesites.
Some of the more controversial Viking-era items have been discovered here. A textile said to bear the Arabic words "Allah" and "Ali" was uncovered in 2017.
Annika Larsson, a textile researcher, said this proved that there was an Islamic influence in some Viking societies. Many of Larsson's academic colleagues disagree with her on this interpretation.
Over a century earlier, a ring from the 9th century CE was discovered in a woman's grave. An inscription on the ring's glass resembles the Arabic word "Allah."
This has sparked decades of speculation regarding the connections between the Islamic world and Viking societies during the early medieval period.
Aside from these modern academic controversies, Birka continues to draw people from diverse cultures, civilizations, and countries as it did more than a millennium ago.
For more information on the ring discovered at Birka, visit the BBC here.
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