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Volume 30, Number 2March/April 1979

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Ibn Fadlan and the Midnight Sun

'On ...going back to my house, I looked at my beard. It was a single lump of ice and I had to thaw it in front of the fire.'

Written by Caroline Stone
Illustrated by Michael Turner

Early in A.D. 920, the Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir received a letter from the king of the Slavs, who ruled in an area of Russia north of today's Kazan. The king asked the caliph to send someone to instruct him in the True Faith, to teach him the laws of Islam, and to build him a mosque. As the Slavic lands in those days were both distant and unknown, the caliph pondered the request for more than a year. At last, however, he decided to grant it and on June 21, the next year, the caliph's ambassador Nadhir al-Harami and his retinue set out from Baghdad. Not much is known about the results of the mission; the ambassador's official report has not survived. But the expedition did produce one fascinating document: a detailed chronicle of the 2,500-mile trip written by the ambassador's secretary, Ibn Fadlan. This account is one of the first since Roman times to provide a description of the harsh and arid steppes of Russia. It includes, as Ibn Fadlan himself said, "all that I witnessed in the countries of the Turks, the Khazars, the Rus, the Slavs, the Bashkirs and others, regarding their religious beliefs, their kings, and the general state of their affairs." He also described the personal experiences of the trip, particularly the extremes of weather - astonishing to a man from the hot lowlands of Baghdad.

After leaving Bukhara, now in the Soviet Union, Ibn Fadlan was hardly able to believe the cold as they headed north - some 400 miles - and spent three months in "al-Jurjaniya" near modern Kungrad just south of the Aral Sea.

"I was told that two men had set out with a dozen camels intending to load them with wood in the forest, but they forgot to take flint and steel with them. They had to spend the night without fire and by morning they and their camels were dead from the violence of the cold. I saw how much the intense cold makes itself felt in this country...the streets and markets are empty and one can walk almost anywhere without meeting a soul. On leaving the hammam and going back to my house, I looked at my beard. It was a single lump of ice and I had to thaw it in front of the fire. I slept...wrapped in clothes and furs, but in spite of that my cheek stuck to my pillow In this country I saw...the earth split and great crevices form through the intensity of the cold, and I saw a huge tree split into two halves for the same reason."

At last, in February the Amu-Darya River began to thaw and Ibn Fadlan's party made preparations to set out northeastwards. They bought shaggy Bactrian camels and huge quantities of food and, despite the warnings of the locals, who said they would never return, set out again. They soon found, Ibn Fadlan admits, that the locals had not exaggerated. When they reached the area north of the Caspian Sea they found that the cold of the journey made the previous months seem "like the days of summer." They also found that they had to dress more warmly: "Each of us had on a tunic and over that a kaftan and over that a sheepskin robe and over that a felt cloak and over that a burnoose - after which only our two eyes showed. We also wore a pair of ordinary trousers and a pair of fur lined ones, slippers, light boots, and over those boots more boots, so that each of us on mounting his camel found he could hardly move because of all the clothes."

So they traveled until they came into the land of the Oghuz Turks, between the Caspian Sea and the Ural Mountains. The Oghuz, Ibn Fadlan said, "were nomads, possessors of tents of hair, who move from place to place. Their tents are to be seen now here, now there, as is the way of nomads, depending on their wanderings. They live in the greatest poverty..."

On the other hand, Ibn Fadlan noticed, the Oghuz owned vast herds of animals. "I saw people who owned 10,000 horses and 100,000 sheep," he wrote. Ibn Fadlan was also distressed to learn that the Oghuz knew little of Islam and attempted to Bead them the Koran and explain the rudiments of the faith to them. Later, when he reached the tents of Etrek, the Oghuz general, Ibn Fadlan presented letters urging Etrek to convert to Islam; the letters were from Nadhir al-Harami, who was traveling by another route.

Etrek's response was not very satisfactory. He said to the interpreter: "I don't want to say anything until your return journey when I will write to the caliph and tell him what I have decided to do." It isn't known what he eventually decided, but the final outcome was satisfactory. About 100 years later the Oghuz embraced Islam and became one of the most staunchly Muslim of the Turkish tribes.

Moving northwest into the area between the Ural and the Volga rivers, Ibn Fadlan came into the territory of the Pechenegs, another Turkish tribe, and eventually, on May 12, 922, after nearly 11 months of travel, reached the tents of the king of the Slavs and presented the caliphs letter. He also distributed gifts, including "scents, cloth and pearls intended for his wife..''

During the following days, the Baghdad mission discussed religion - and money. The king wanted the caliph to give him money for a fortress as well as for a mosque. Ibn Fadlan pointed out that the country was rich. The king countered that money which was given him by the caliph would be blessed and the castle built with it would be sure of victory. They agreed to disagree.

During this period, Ibn Fadlan also observed and explored the surroundings, and obviously believed in finding explanations for phenomena new to him. He was very much impressed by the Northern Lights, for example, and asked the king about them. "He maintained that his ancestors used to say: 'They are the believing jinns and the infidel jinns; every night they fight and have done so since the Creation..'"

In this land of the midnight sun, Ibn Fadlan was struck by the short Arctic nights - and the impact this had on the Muslim need to pray five times a day. "One day I went to my tent in order to talk with the king's tailor, who was originally from Baghdad. We talked for less time than it takes to read a seventh of the Koran, while we waited for the call to evening prayer. Suddenly we heard the call and went out of the tent; day was breaking. I said to the muezzin: 'What prayer did you call?' 'The dawn prayer', he said. 'And the evening prayer?' 'We say it with the sunset one.' 'And during the night?' 'The night is as you see. It has been even shorter than tonight, for it has already begun to lengthen.'"

Ibn Fadlan goes on to give a great deal more interesting information on the country its flora and fauna, its social customs, the food and drink and dress of the various tribes and so on. His descriptions are extremely lively and his accuracy wherever it can be checked, amazing. Unlike later medieval travelers, whose accounts tend to run riot with implausible detail, Ibn Fadlan mentions only one marvel: the bones of a "giant" - possibly the remains of a mammoth. But the most interesting sections of his chronicle deal with another people who traded with the Slavs: "the Rus" - probably one of the Scandinavian tribes and in any case a tribe later involved in the founding of the city-states of Novgorod and Kiev, the heartland of Old Russia. The most famous of these tribes were the Vikings, who at that time were terrorizing the coasts of England and Ireland and even raiding as far as North Africa and the Mediterranean.

By the time of Ibn Fadlans journey the Vikings were also trading fur, amber and other goods over a huge area of Europe. It is reasonably sure too that they were already sailing the Atlantic to the New World by 922; just last year, an amateur archeologist, a British historian and a British numismatist identified a coin found in Maine in 1961 as an 11th-century Viking penny. By then too the Vikings had established themselves in Normandy - from where, as the Normans, they would invade England again in 1066 and, not much later, conquer Sicily (See Aramco World, November-December, 1978) and parts of Spain and Italy. Ibn Fadlans description of the Rus, however, is one of the few that treats them as traders rather than bloodthirsty raiders and was written just before the time of their greatest expansion.

"I saw the Rus who had come to trade. I have never seen men with bodies as beautiful as theirs - they were like palm trees. They are fair and their skin white and red. They wear neither tunics nor kaftans, but the men have a garment which covers one side of their bodies and leaves one hand free. Each of them has an axe, a broadsword and a knife, and they are never without these things... Their swords have very broad blades, grooved, like the Frankish broadswords. From the tips of their fingers to their necks they are tattooed in green with trees, figures, and so on. "All of the women wear on their bosom a kind of box [perhaps the enormous embossed brooches which secured their dresses and cloaks] of iron, silver, copper, gold, or wood, depending upon the wealth of their husband and their social position. In each box is a circle to which a knife is attached, which hangs at their breast."

Like other writers after him, Ibn Fadlan was fascinated by Viking funerals and describes at length a dead chieftain who was laid in his longship, his sword at his side and all his worldly goods beside him; how his dogs, cattle, horses, and slave girls were sacrificed to keep him company; and finally how the boat and its contents were set on fire. When only ashes were left, they built a barrow "like a round hill, and in the center they set up a great tablet of wood with the name of the man and that of the king of the Rus; and then they went away."

Ibn Fadlans observant account agrees very well with other evidence about the Northmen but is much more vivid and detailed. As with the rest of his chronicle, his story recreates the barbarous splendor of life 1,000 years ago as seen through the eyes of a sophisticated diplomat from Baghdad - a man whose reactions were in many ways just like our own.

Caroline Stone contributes frequently to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the March/April 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1979 images.