Mark Twain famously quipped that history does not repeat itself; it rhymes, and this certainly seemed the case when Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech in Astana, Kazakhstan, back in 2013. 

President Xi announced to the world that China would fund a massive new infrastructure project to facilitate global trade, technically known as the "Belt and Road Initiative," but widely referred to in newspapers worldwide as the "New Silk Road." 

After more than a decade of investment in 150 countries across the globe, this new Silk Road has delivered untold wealth to China and fueled the global economy like never before. 

With President Xi's mention of a "new" Silk Road, one might wonder what fate befell the old one. 

In 1877, German historian and Sinophile Ferdinand von Richthofen, the uncle of the famous WWI German Ace known as The Red Baron, helped popularize the term. 

Richthofen described the many overland and maritime trade networks that connected Europe to Asia from about the 2nd century BCE to the late 15th century. He called these networks the Silk Road. 

Silk, originating in China, served as a significant commodity along the numerous trade networks linking China with Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe. 

These networks interconnected regions abundant with diverse peoples, cultures, religions, and civilizations. 

Though in the singular form, the term was a catchall for the multiple overland and maritime trade routes that connected the East Asian region with the rest of the Classical world, encompassing Central and Western Asia, Africa, and Europe. 

At the very end (or beginning) of these trade networks lay Europe, which, for much of this period, was considered a backwater of poverty, ignorance, and squalor when compared to the magnificent polities and economies of the Islamic and Asian world. 

The most renowned European who traded along these Silk Roads was the Venetian merchant Marco Polo. His famous account, The Travels of Marco Polo (available to buy on Amazon, here), not only pioneered the genre of travel writing but also ignited the imaginations of Europeans for centuries. 

In fact, many individuals today journey eastward in search of fame, fortune, or self-discovery. 

However, nowadays, a significant portion of these travelers are the socks-and-sandals type of Euro backpackers. 

Formerly known as Constantinople, Istanbul played a vital role in connecting Viking traders with the Silk Road, serving as a bustling center of commerce and cultural exchange during the medieval period. Photo: aslan ozcan / Shutterstock


Historians believe that the first Europeans to travel and trade along the Silk Roads were from the Roman Republic and, later, the Roman Empire.

After the "fall" of the Western Roman Empire, its Eastern half, known as the Byzantine Empire (a term coined by a 19th-century German historian, though not Richtofen), emerged as an economic powerhouse. 

This was partly fueled by its strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, serving as a key point of intersection for various cultural and geographic perspectives. 

Constantinople became a key gateway onto the Silk Roads and an entry point into Europe for travelers from Asia or the Islamic world. 

Throughout the early medieval period, we know that people from Viking societies were fond of embarking on eastern adventures.

From the 8th century onwards, they headed eastward across the "Viking Pond" (the Baltic Sea) to utilize the many river networks that snake across Eastern Europe

Continuing their journey downstream, which often involved settling and conquest along the route, they eventually reached the Black Sea. 

Positioned at the crossroads of cultures and civilizations, with the Byzantine and Islamic worlds lining its shores, the sea offered Viking traders and merchants access to societies far more economically advanced than their own. 

Bordering Europe was, of course, the Islamic world – a vast swathe of the globe stretching from the Pyrenees to the Pacific Ocean, encompassing North Africa, West, Central, and East Asia and stretching down into the Indian Ocean and beyond. 

For much of the early medieval period, Baghdad was the cultural, economic, and political heart of the Islamic world, a great metropolis of trade, knowledge, and commerce. 

Like all roads that were said to have led to Rome, Baghdad was a significant destination for those plying their wares on the overland trade. 

Coinage from the Islamic world has been discovered throughout Scandinavia, often as part of Viking hoards. This suggests at least indirect contact with regions along the Silk Road. 

Goods flowed northward to the Viking homelands, but what about the reverse? Did Vikings visit Baghdad or other famous cities along these trade routes? 

In short, did the Vikings journey along the Silk Roads? 

The discovery of a silver ring bearing a Kufic inscription, possibly signifying "Allah," within a grave near Birka, Sweden, illuminates the intricate web of trade and interactions between Viking settlements and the Islamic world. Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Caspian expeditions and onto the "City of Peace" 

We know that the Black Sea was not the end of the road (pun intended) for people from Viking societies. 

Viking adventurers, traders, and merchants helped establish the Kievan Rus, which straddled huge swathes of Eastern Europe. From here, they branched out further eastward into West Asia. 

We know of several Rus expeditions into the Caspian region between 913 and c. 1041. 

The term Rus refers to people from Viking societies who settled in Eastern Europe, believed to derive from an Old Norse word meaning "to row." 

These expeditions led them into what is now Azerbaijan, Iran, and southern Russia

10th-century Muslim scholars mention several Rus merchants selling their wares in the markets of towns that lined the Caspian shore, many of which were stops on the Silk Roads. 

According to some historians, evidence of Viking merchants in Baghdad as early as 800 has been found. 

It is claimed that Viking merchants made it as far as Baghdad and returned with their loot to what was then part of the Kievan Rus, as evidenced by several Islamic coins found in Peterhof, Russia. 

Despite this evidence, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and we have no widespread records or archeological evidence that supports more than a few Viking traders making it to the "City of Peace." 

Sö 281 is one of the twenty-five runestones in Uppland, Sweden, honoring the warriors who embarked on a historic journey with Ingvar the Far-Traveled to the Saracen lands. Photo: Berig (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ingvar the Far-Traveled, runestones, and Viking warriors abroad 

Thanks to more than 26 runestones scattered around the Lake Mälaren region in Uppland, Sweden, we know the stories of many people from Viking societies who traveled eastward into the regions intersected by the Silk Roads. 

One such Viking was a man named Ingvar the Far-Travelled. He was said to have been responsible for a Viking expedition against the medieval Kingdom of Georgia, possibly in the mid-11th century. 

According to one of the runestones, Ingvar, like his brother, headed East to make his fortune but died before returning to Scandinavia. 

More than 24 of the 26 runestones describe various others who ventured into Western Asia and beyond. 

Beyond these runestones, the historical record suggests that Vikings, possibly hired as mercenaries, were active participants in events in this region. 

During the 1040s, many Varangians (the term used by the Byzantines for these Vikings heading eastward) were reportedly involved in numerous battles of a civil war within the Kingdom of Georgia. 

Undeniably, these Vikings were not the first Scandinavians to venture into this region. They likely followed in the footsteps of Viking merchants and traders who traversed the Silk Roads. 

Minor players on major trade routes 

Overall, while people from Viking societies were not major players on the Silk Road like some other civilizations, there were instances of Viking involvement in regions connected to Silk Road trade routes, primarily through trade, mercenary service, and exploration. 

These interactions demonstrate the interconnectedness of different cultures and civilizations during the early medieval period. 

The archeological record, supplemented by sagas, provides limited evidence of Viking interactions in regions traversed by the Silk Roads. 

However, they did not dominate these regions through commerce or conquest as in other regions further west. 

We can safely assume that some people from Viking societies did indeed tread the fabled Silk Roads, but we cannot answer with historical certainty if any went further than Baghdad or the Caspian region. 

For more information on the Vikings' experience along the Silk Road, visit UN Tourism here

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