Connected Histories

Ibn Fadlan's Journey to the Land of the Rus

About This Resource

Arabic and Persian coins found in Viking hoards prove that commerce existed between the Muslim and Slavic worlds a thousand years ago. In 921 CE an Iraqi diplomat, Ibn Fadlan, set out on a journey from Baghdad to the north as an ambassador appointed by the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir (ruled 908–32 CE) to the king of the Slavs, ruler of the land that is now Russia. The king had sent the caliph a letter asking him to send funds to build a mosque. Thanks to trade routes down the Dnieper and Volga Rivers to the Black and Caspian Seas, Viking ships had long carried amber, furs, honey, and handicrafts to trade for textiles, pottery, spices, metal, and glassware from Muslim and Byzantine lands. Now the Rus, descendants of the Vikings, were trading partners with the great empires ruled from Baghdad and Constantinople. The manuscript of Ibn Fadlan’s report on his mission to the Rus has been lost, but scholars have reconstructed his account from geographic works such as those of Syrian merchant Yaqut (1179–1229 CE). Ibn Fadlan is one of the voyagers discussed in Gordon Stewart’s When Asia Was the World, a Muslim Journeys Bookshelf title. The coins in the photograph by Bengt A. Lundberg are from a Viking hoard recently discovered in Sweden, which includes Persian and Arabic currency from the ninth century and before, attesting to the Vikings’ wide-ranging trade connections.

 

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I saw the Rusiya when they came hither on their trading voyages and had encamped by the river Itil. I have never seen people with a more developed bodily stature than they. They are as tall as date palms, blond and ruddy, so that they do not need to wear a tunic nor a cloak; rather the men among them wear a garment that only covers half of his body and leaves one of his hands free.

Each of them has an axe, a sword, and a knife with him, and all of these whom we have mentioned never let themselves be separated from their weapons. Their swords are broad bladed, provided with rills [grooves], and of the Frankish type. Each one of them has from the tip of his nails to the neck figures, trees, and other things, tattooed in dark green.

Each of the women has fastened upon the two breasts a brooch of iron, silver, copper, or gold, in weight and value according to the wealth of her husband. Each brooch has a ring to which a knife is likewise fixed, and is hung upon the breast. Around the neck the women wear rings of gold and silver.

The man, if he possesses ten thousand dirhams, has a neck ring made for his wife. If he has twenty thousand in his possession, then he has two neck rings made for her. And so his wife receives another neck ring with the addition of each ten thousand dirhams. Accordingly it often happens that there are a number of neck rings upon the neck of one of them. They consider as the most highly prized ornaments the green glass beads made out of clay, which are formed on the polishing stone. They bargain for these beads, and buy a bead for a dirham apiece, and string them into necklaces for their women. . . .

They come from their own country, moor their boats on the strand of the Itil, which is a great river, and build on its banks large houses out of wood. In a house like this ten or twenty people, more or less, live together. . . .
When their boats come to this anchorage, each one of them goes ashore with bread, meat, onions, milk, and mead, and betakes himself to a tall wooden pole set upright, that has a face like a man. Around it are small images and behind these are long, tall poles driven into the earth. And he comes to the great image and prostrates himself before it. Then he says: "O my lord, I have come from a far country and have with me so many slave girls for such a price, and so many sable pelts," until he has enumerated all the goods which he has brought for sale. Then he continues: "I have brought this offering to Thee." Then he lays down what he had brought before the wooden image and continues: "I wish that Thou shouldst provide me with a merchant who has many dinars and dirhams, and who would buy from me at the price I desire, and will raise no objection to me to aught what I may say!” Then he departs.
If he has difficulties in his trading, and the days of his stay are prolonged, then he makes a second and a third offering. Should difficulties again arise over what he hopes to attain, he then brings a gift to each of these little figures, and begs them to intercede, saying: "These are the wives, daughters, and sons of our Lord." And so he continues to approach each image, one after the other, and to beg them and implore them to intercede, and prays before them in abasement.

His dealings often go on more easily, and he sells everything he has brought with him. Then he says: "My lord has fulfilled my desire. I must repay Him." He gathers a number of sheep and oxen, slaughters them, gives away a part of the meat as alms, and brings the remainder and casts it before that great wooden image and before the little wooden images which stand around it. He hangs the heads of the cattle, or those of the sheep, on the poles, which are erected in the earth. In the night the dogs come and devour all, and he who has made this sacrifice says: "Verily my lord is content with me, and he has eaten up my gift."

Source

Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad. Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River. Translated by Richard N. Frye. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2005, pp. 63–66. Image: Untitled photograph by Bengt A. Lundberg at “Photo: Huge Viking Hoard Discovered in Sweden,” National Geographic News, October 28, 2010, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/bigphotos/95087014.html.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #152: Ibn Fadlan's Journey to the Land of the Rus", July 23, 2018 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/152.

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