His travelogue, popular for over a millennium, contains colorful stories about strange new people, including a group of Vikings.
The Dark Ages for some, a Golden Age for others
Following the civilizational heights that much of Europe achieved under the Roman Empire – straight roads, hot baths, and running water – the collapse of the Empire, from the late 5th century CE, plunged much of the continent into a dark age.
Whilst much of Europe was slowly picking up the broken pieces after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Islamic world was very much on a civilizational high.
Overlapping with the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100 CE) was what modern historians have dubbed the Islamic Golden Age.
Undoubtedly, one of the remarkable historical events of the entire medieval period was how Islam exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula in the late 7th century CE.
Soon extending from the Pyrenees to the Persian Gulf, encompassing the Iberian Peninsula, the Maghreb, and much of West Asia, it soon became an economic, political, cultural, social, and religious force to the many fractured polities of Western Europe.
By the turn of the 10th century CE, scholars in the Islamic world, in Toledo or Baghdad, had built upon the work and knowledge of Antiquity to make considerable advances in the fields of science, medicine, politics, law, philosophy, and art.
Whilst much of Scandinavia consisted of small settlements, fishing towns, and rural villages, the Islamic world boasted huge metropolises, like Baghdad with its fabled "House of Wisdom."
It was in this heady milieu that Ahmad Ibn Fadlan was born.
Amidst the cultural and intellectual zenith of the Abbasid Caliphate, the Abu Dulaf Mosque of Samarra, built in the 9th century CE, still stands today as a testament to the architectural prowess of the era. Photo: Omarfox ali / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Early beginnings and life
Somewhat infuriatingly for historians and writers at The Viking Herald, we do not actually know whether the details we have about the life of Ibn Fadlan are historically accurate.
Though it is recorded that he was born in 877 CE in Baghdad, Iraq, and there is an assumption that he is Arab, this cannot be accurately confirmed.
We know nothing of his formative years or what it must have been like growing up and coming of age in what was once one of the world's centers of culture and power.
What we can assume is that Ibn Fadlan was of high intellect (or, perhaps, highly connected) as he entered the record books as a faqih – an expert on Islamic jurisprudence, the philosophy of law.
It was in his role as a faqih that he served in the court of the Abbasid caliph, al-Muqtadir.
The Abbasid Caliphate was established in 750 CE – around the same time as the first probable Viking raids in Salme – following a revolution against the ruling Umayyads.
This movement saw the Abbasids present themselves as champions of social justice, leading a broad coalition of groups, including religious scholars, Persian nationalists, and the disenfranchised and oppressed.
They defeated the Umayyad forces at Zab and established their caliphate from the city of Baghdad.
Their governing creed was that of a universal Islamic state that encompassed the world and transcended ethnic or cultural divisions.
The ruling caliph, Al-Muqtadir bi-Ilah, was the 18th caliph who ruled between 908 and 932.
Coming to the throne at the tender age of 13, thanks to palace intrigues, he was uninterested in the everyday running of an empire and chopped and changed 14 viziers.
It appears that Ibn Fadlan entered his service sometime in the first two decades of the 10th century CE, though we have little knowledge of the work he undertook there.
To the edges of the world
As part of the Abbasids' divine mission, religious and spiritual help was offered to those cultures, civilizations, and peoples who had adopted Islam.
Lying deep in what is now central Russia is the mighty Volga River.
Over 3,500 kilometers (2,000 miles) in length, this watery expanse connects central Russia to the Caspian Sea, which was, in the 10th century CE, only a (relatively) short trip away from the Islamic world.
Sometime in late June 921 CE, a diplomatic caravan left Baghdad, including Ibn Fadlan. Their mission was to aid the recently converted Bulgar people with the finer points of Islamic law.
The Bulgar people lived on the eastern edges of the Volga River, meaning that Ibn Fadlan and the diplomatic mission would travel for months through the Islamic world and into what they perceived as the very edges of the "civilized" world.
Traveling from what is now modern-day Iraq, Ibn Fadlan served as the mission's religious scholar, advisor, and Islamic legal expert.
Throughout the entirety of the diplomatic mission, we are fortunate that Ibn Fadlan managed to record his thoughts, opinions, and memories of the people, cultures, and civilizations he encountered on his travels.
Part travel writer, part cultural anthropologist, and ethnographic observer, his observations and thoughts were later transcribed onto manuscripts and passed down to us, known as the Risala.
Following established trade routes, they traveled across Iran, Uzbekistan, and over the Caspian Sea, eventually reaching the shores of the Volga River.
It was here that he first encountered what he called the Rus (whom the Byzantines labeled as Varangians) – peoples from Viking societies who had settled along the Volga trade route.
- READ MORE: What you need to know about the Kievan Rus
Ibn Fadlan's chronicles vividly capture his encounters along the Volga River, a lifeline of trade and culture during the 10th century. Photo: Alexey Tisarev / Unsplash
Dirty, stinky Vikings
Reaching the Bulgar capital, on the Volga, a year after leaving Baghdad, the diplomatic mission with Ibn Fadlan presented their credentials and gifts to the Bulgar Khan.
They were, however, scolded for not bringing enough funds to build fortifications against the Bulgar's perpetual enemy, the Khazars.
Despite this shaky start, the Arab mission was soon welcomed for their religious and legal expertise.
Ibn Fadlan patronizingly and cruelly wrote that most of these recent Islamic converts are like "asses" who know little of the faith they have converted to. What little doctrine or practices they did know had been taught incorrectly.
Whilst not secretly chiding the Bulgars, Ibn Fadlan was able to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the area.
Coming across a Viking trading camp, Ibn Fadlan was, in parts, equally repulsed and enthralled by the Vikings.
Somewhat creepily, he wrote that he had "never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy."
The stereotypical depiction of Vikings being laden with a small arsenal of weapons seems to have some historical basis, as Fadlan noted that "each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times."
Meanwhile, the women were said to be resplendent with gold, silver, and jewelry.
Clearly, these Volga Vikings were making a tidy business plying the trade routes that connected the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world with Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
Making matters even more unsettling are Ibn Fadlan's descriptions not only of the poor hygiene of the Rus – this was an era where many in the Islamic world bathed daily, a practice not widespread in Europe until a millennium later – but also of their open engagement in group sex.
He was not above taking a discreet look!
They were, he said, "the filthiest of all of Allah's creatures" and did not wash themselves "after excreting or urinating" or even "after coitus."
Creepiness aside, Ibn Fadlan left us with one of the most detailed descriptions of Viking funeral rites and practices.
A Viking funeral
One of the most famous descriptions of the Volga Vikings from Ibn Fadlan's writings involves the death of a Viking chieftain and his burial.
When the chieftain had died, Fadlan describes funeral rites that conform to similar rituals found further north with people in Viking societies throughout Scandinavia during this period.
Back in the Volga, the recently deceased chieftain had his possessions divided into three, of which "one third for his household, one third with which to cut funeral garments for him, and one third with which they ferment alcohol they drink on the [funeral] day when his slave-girl kills herself and is burned together with her master."
There is significant mention of the intoxication of relatives, subordinates, and onlookers as preparations were made for the great chieftain's body to be placed in his final resting place, an elaborate Viking ship.
Ibn Fadlan does not delve into details about the ship itself, but the use of one as a funeral pyre aligns well with Viking funeral practices.
The final part of the funeral resembled scenes from a Hollywood epic.
After the deceased chieftain's slave-girl was shared among his male subordinates, she was taken to a Viking ship, strangled with a rope, and simultaneously stabbed in her ribs with a knife as part of an elaborate (though gruesome) ritual murder.
Finally, a male relative of the chieftain set the ship ablaze with a piece of burning wood... whilst naked!
Bolgar's architectural complex in Tatarstan, dating back to the 13th-14th centuries, offers a glimpse into the world that Ibn Fadlan explored during his diplomatic mission. Photo: Indeikin / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
His travels continue to inspire a millennium later
Following these somewhat disturbing recollections of Volga Vikings, we have little recorded detail of Ibn Fadlan's life.
Aside from his written account of his travels, he disappears from the historical record following his journey.
We do not know when or where he perished, but many modern historians assume that he did get to see Baghdad again after the diplomatic mission.
Ibn Fadlan is celebrated as one of the most significant medieval travel writers for his cross-cultural and civilizational insights and anecdotes.
He is also credited with having played a role in the inception of ethnographic writing and the science of anthropology.
Perhaps he is best remembered in the late 20th century for his travels, which inspired the 1999 movie "The 13th Warrior."
His travel writings were also released in an English edition titled Ibn Fadlan in the Land of Darkness by Penguin Books in 2012, a work this author highly recommends.
For more information on Ibn Fadlan's travel writings, visit Science Norway here.
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