Think of Vikings, and you think of Nordic hordes raiding the windswept coastlines of north-western Europe, pillaging the villages of Britain, Ireland, and Normandy. 

But two Vikings led their own doomed assault on a territory much further south than that: Morocco.

At the time of these seemingly random attacks, the Moors controlled the whole of Iberia, apart from a remote corner of northwest Spain, Galicia. 

"Moors" is a common name used for people of Arab or Berber descent who had lived in an area known as Mauretania since Roman times. 

This wasn't the country of the same name we know today, but a great swathe of northern Morocco. By the time the Vikings were venturing further south, North Africa was Muslim.

The saga of Björn and Hastein

In 859, a fleet of 62 Viking ships left the Loire bound for Iberia. Leading the flotilla were two chieftains about whom little is known. 

One was Björn Järnsida, his name usually Anglicised to Björn Ironside, the other was a shady character named by most sources as Hastein.

Björn Ironside was the son of Ragnar Lothbrok, a Danish and Swedish king who led many raids around the British Isles in the 800s. As was the custom at the time, Lothbrok dispatched his younger offspring so that he wouldn't cause any disruptions at home. 

Ironside duly set out with a large fleet to West Francia, a territory covering most of modern-day France excluding Brittany and Provence, and witness to countless Viking raids in the early Middle Ages. 

He led an assault on Paris and built his own fortification overlooking Rouen. He was mainly based around the Seine.

Hastein is referred to as Ironside's foster father. We know little of his earlier life, except that he was Danish, and the two men were side by side on many raids around West Francia.

Their venture beyond first took them to the Asturias, the lush area of northern Spain, where feisty locals soon saw them off. Hoping for better luck further south, they sailed round the whole of Iberia, perhaps incurring skirmishes around Lisbon, until reaching Andalusia, where they headed inland towards Seville.

They were stopped by Moorish forces at Niebla, so they carried on further south towards the tip of Iberia, and Algeciras. There, they met lesser resistance, so they burned down the local mosque and proceeded to sail through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar that divide Europe from Africa, the gateway to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic.

Defined and named after the Rif mountains, Nekor epitomized the Muslim civilization the Vikings had been fighting at the time. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The road to Morocco

This was when the Vikings' brief Moroccan adventure began. By now, it was late 859 or early 860, and the Saharan winter. 

Hastein, Ironside, and their men continued to raid and pillage deeper into the heart of Morocco, until they came to a developed town then known as Nekor.

Founded 200 years before by Idris ibn Salih, in turn acknowledged to be the historic founder of Morocco itself, Nekor was the cultural, if no longer political hub, of the Rif region. Defined and named after the Rif mountains, Nekor epitomized the Muslim civilization the Vikings had been fighting against now for months.

The marauders attacked Nekor with a vengeance, rounding up citizens to be enslaved and transported all the way to the far edge of Europe. 

Many ended their days in Ireland, whose chronicles are used as historical records to piece together the hazy details of this little-known footnote in Viking history.

There is nothing to see of the city of Nekor today, the site lining the shores of the reservoir of the Abdelkrim Khattabi dam, under which any further remains lie buried. The nearest modern-day town is Bni Bouayach, halfway between Tangier and the present border with Algeria. 

All told, the Norsemen stayed in Nekor for eight days, decided they had taken all they needed, and made for the coast in the direction of southern France. 

Crossing the width of the Mediterranean, they reached the Camargue to see out the rest of the winter before raiding towns such as Narbonne and Nîmes. 

The aftermath

The crew then wreaked havoc across Italy, tricking their way into the town of Luni, in south-eastern Liguria, but not going as far as Rome, the original intention. 

They continued east, then back along the coast of North Africa. Details of this return journey are scant, except that the Vikings picked up more slaves but then ran into storms around the Straits of Gibraltar.

When they returned to their base in the Loire, only 20 ships remained of the original 62. Many more people had been uprooted, either taken as slaves to Ireland or were Viking prisoners from the battles in Andalusia who converted to Islam. 

These former Vikings were allowed to settle in Jerez de la Frontera, near Cádiz. It is pure conjecture, but 500 years later, perhaps descendants of these sea-faring Vikings were among the sailors who set off with Columbus from nearby Palos de la Frontera for the New World in 1492.

As for Hastein and Björn Ironside, both headed to England after France. They ended their days back in France, where Hastein lived to a ripe old age, and in Friesland, northern Netherlands. 

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