Whilst much of Western academia has traditionally focused on the westward push of the Vikings, from the late 8th century CE onwards, the pendulum has swung back lately for a renewed emphasis on their eastward exploits.
Rome didn't fall in a day
Let me ask you a question: when did the Roman Empire fall? If you answered sometime in the late 5th century CE, I'm afraid you'd only be partly right.
Between 235 and 284 CE, the Roman Empire suffered a series of near-fatal crises resulting from civil war, economic depression, the mass migration of "climate change refugees," and a good old dose of the bubonic plague. Ascending to the purple, Emperor Diocletian needed a solution to these crises.
He felt that the Roman Empire, stretching from what is now Scotland to the Euphrates River, was too big for one Emperor (even if they were a living God) to rule.
He divided the Empire into two, with the eastern half to be ruled from the ancient city of Byzantium, which would be renamed 330 CE after Diocletian's later successor, Constantine.
This "New Rome," Constantinople, would become the de facto capital of the Roman Empire when Rome itself "fell" in 476 CE and was a continuation of the Empire until its capture by Seljuk Turks in 1453 CE... Almost a millennium after the "original" Rome fell!
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern half (later dubbed the "Byzantine Empire" by 19th-century historians... but for the people living in this Eastern half, they were simply "Romans" and their entity was the "Roman Empire") thrived.
It was, during the early medieval period, right up until its sack by the Crusaders in 1204 CE, the preeminent cultural, economic, and military power in Europe, if not West Asia.
The Vikings are coming
By the time of the first Viking raids, in the late 8th century CE, the Eastern Roman Empire (henceforth "Byzantine Empire" for clarity's sake) had seen centuries of cultural and political change transform it beyond recognition from being simply the half of the Roman Empire that didn't collapse.
Yes, there were still recognizable institutions – from the Emperor and the Pretorian Guard to the famed chariot races at the Hippodrome, but by the late 8th century, the Romans now spoke Greek, not Latin, and worshipped an Orthodox version of Christianity.
The new century would see missionaries from Constantinople spread out to the Slavic peoples, especially in Eastern Europe.
When people from Viking societies were not raiding westward, they crossed their "pond" (The Baltic Sea) to traverse the many river systems that dot Eastern Europe.
Following these river systems downstream, they brought traders, raiders, and settlers with them to as far away as the shores of the Black Sea.
From here, it was only a short sail to what was then Europe's biggest and busiest metropolis, Constantinople. The Vikings had another name for it, inspired by awe. For them, it was Miklagard, the Great City.
Expeditions and raids
Like the Byzantine missionaries who had traveled northward to the lands of the Slavic people, a huge swathe of Europe between what is now eastern Germany and Russia, peoples from Viking societies had traveled there too.
By the 9th century, these people – who were called "Rus" were slowly establishing the foundation of what would become, by the century's end, the Kievan Rus.
These Rus had begun to dominate the local population and establish trading networks between Miklagard and their ancestral homelands back in Scandinavia.
Our first interaction of the Vikings with what is now Türkiye is said to have occurred during the 830s CE when a series of raids on cities on the shores of the Sea of Marmara and Paphlagonia (the Black Sea region of Anatolia) was undertaken by some of these Rus.
Over the course of the next century, these Rus would go on to lay siege to Miklagard twice (860 and 907 CE), Bithynia (941 CE), Lemons (1024 CE), and finally throughout much of the eastern Aegean Sea.
The Rus attacked Miklagard twice. Illustration: The Viking Herald
All of these raids were in what is now the territory of Türkiye but then was under the rule of the Byzantine Emperor. Remember that the Vikings were happy with the (relatively) small pickings of raiding remote monasteries of the British Isles, so imagine the aspirations for going on to raid Europe's most sophisticated culture, housing that great "Golden City" of Constantinople with its numerous churches and their treasure-laden icons.
With much of our knowledge of the "Rus-Byzantine Wars" mostly from later Russian chronicles, especially the Primary Chronicle compiled in the 12th century CE, there is serious academic debate about whether any of these raids and conflicts even occurred and, if they did, at the scale described.
The largest of these attacks, in 907 CE, saw the first Rus prince of Kiev, Oleg, lay siege to the walls of Constantinople with as many as 2,000 ships, but there are no contemporary accounts of any attacks this size.
The current academic consensus is that raiding and border conflicts did occur frequently but never as what we would think of as a war in the modern sense.
Inside the Theodosian Walls
Given much less publicity than the Vikings' often bloody raiding and pillage is the economic prowess of peoples in Viking societies.
Helping to piece together the economic links shattered by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, commerce underpinned the Viking expansion throughout much of the early medieval period.
After first encountering the Byzantine Empire via river routes throughout Eastern Europe, trade flowed both ways. Soon, the marketplaces of Constantinople were filled with traders and merchants from Viking societies who were there to sell slaves, furs, or honey, all much-prized commodities.
The Dnipier and Dniester River routes, which connected the east coast of Sweden to western Russia, then down through eastern Europe to the Black Sea and Constantinople, was soon full of what the Byzantine would call "Varangians."
Only recently have Turkish archaeologists uncovered what they believe to be a neighborhood inhabited by these Varangians near Lake Küçükçekmece in Istanbul.
These Varangian traders not only came to dominate much of the trade networks linking Northern and Eastern Europe to the larger economies of the Byzantine Empire and Abbasid Caliphate but also much of the Imperial City itself.
With the help of missionaries sent from the Byzantine Empire, the Rus underwent a long process of conversion to Christianity by the late 9th century CE which saw some warriors head southward to take up arms for the Byzantine Emperor.
Yet it was in 988 CE, after a military agreement between Byzantine Emperor Basil II and the ruler of the Kievan Rus, Vladimir I of Kiev, that a huge number (supposedly 6,000) Varangian warriors formed a new Norse Pretorian Guard for the Byzantine ruler.
The "Varangian Guard" would go on to play a legendary part in both the court politics of Byzantine and as a "release valve" for Scandinavian rulers to send their outcasts and troublemakers to.
In fact, one of the most important Viking warriors and later King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, spent years living and fighting throughout much of the regions surrounding Türkiye when he was part of this elite Varangian Guard.
A legacy written in stone
From Viking merchants plying their trade in the streets of Constantinople to Viking longboats ominously raiding the coastal communities of the Turkish coast to one of the Byzantine Emperor's most trusted sources of personal protection being, quite literally, Vikings, the history of Türkiye, during the early medieval period, has a strong Norse flavor.
Yet the history of the Viking experience in Türkiye is, quite literally, carved into stone.
In the glorious Hagia Sophia mosque (originally constructed as a Christian church in the 4th century CE before, more recently, reconsecrated as a mosque after spending many years as a museum), there is some graffiti sprawled in... runes.
Much of this graffiti is illegible, but it appears that a person from a Viking culture, who knew runes, carved the name "Halfdan" on one of the mosque's gallery walls.
Further north, there are as many as 30 runestones in Sweden, carved during the Viking Era (c. 793 – 1066 CE), that detail the adventures and exploits of Vikings who went south to what is now Istanbul and Türkiye.
To read more on how a Viking warrior has inspired a Turkish couple in the hunt for a name for their newborn child, read an article on it by Daily Sabah here, whilst all the latest on the Viking neighborhood unearthed in Istanbul is available on the Hurriyet Daily News website here.
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