“I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They were fair and ruddy. They wear neither coats nor caftans but a garment that hangs on one side and leaves one hand free. Each of them carries an axe, a sword, and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned. Their swords are broad-bladed and grooved like the Frankish ones. From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs and so forth. All their women wear on their bosoms circular brooches, made of iron, silver, copper, or gold according to their husbands’ wealth … around their necks each woman wears a torc of gold or silver, for each man as soon as he accumulates 10,000 dirhams has a torc made for his wife… every time he increases his wealth 10,000 he has another torc made for his wife, so one woman may wear many torcs.”
- Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (from Lunde and Stone, pp. 45-46).
Ibn Fadlan was a diplomat from the Abbasid court in Baghdad to the Turkic Bulgars who lived along the Volga River. On his embassy to their king around 921, he met numerous Viking trading groups described above.
Not everything Ibn Fadlan said about Vikings was nice. He also described strange customs, odd priorities, savage temperaments, and ungodly rituals of these fearsome people from the wild North. His account culminates in a lurid description of a Viking boat burial featuring animal and human sacrifices. This account has served as the basis for most “Viking burials” in film or fiction ever since.
But Ahmed Ibn Fadlan was only one of many Arabs who wrote about Vikings. Other Arabic Viking accounts came from travelers, diplomats, soldiers and administrators.
Throughout the 8th-11th centuries, Vikings eagerly took advantage of the disorganization and weak rule of the European west. The East at this time, however, was enjoying a Golden Age of wealth, growth, and sophistication under the Abbasids (Baghdad), Fatimids (Egypt), and Cordoban (Spain) caliphates. Drawn by the ready wealth of these societies, Vikings sometimes tried their luck at raiding these places. They had far more success, though, establishing strong trade networks with the East, which brought the riches of the Silk Roads all the way into Scandinavia, Britain, and beyond. Archeologists have found vast caches of Arabic dirhams (silver coins) in Viking treasure hordes, along with fine imported clothing, jewelry, glassware, and other high-status items. The trade networks Vikings established with the East would lay the groundwork for later trade and exploration in the centuries to come.
So there was much contact between the urbane, literate, and cultured East and the rugged warrior traders from the Northwest. But what did medieval Arabs say about the Vikings? Quite a lot. Due to the East's effective record keeping and linguistic conservativism, many of these writings have survived for historians to examine. This article will discuss a few of these sources, their pros and cons in terms of reliability, and what we can conclude from them about one of the more unlikely partnerships in history.
Below is just a small cross-section of what Arab writers recorded about Vikings. There are several full books on the subject. An excellent one is Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North, by Lunde and Stone, 2012. The following quotes are lifted from this book.
On the Viking Attacks on Seville and the Coast of Spain (circa 844)
“They used to come from the sea … large ships with square sails that can sail forward or backward. They were manned by men called Majus, who were big, brave, and strong, and excellent seamen. When they attacked, the coastal peoples fled in fear of them. They only appeared every six or seven years, and never in less than 40 ships and sometimes up to 100. They overcame everyone they met at sea, robbed them, and took them captive.” (p. 110)
On the Vikings found in Eastern Europe (circa 903-913)
“When a son is born, the father throws a naked sword in front of him, and says ‘I leave you no inheritance. All you possess is what you can gain with this sword.’
“Their clothing is always clean… They have many cities. They are generous hosts, treating their guests well. Strangers who take refuge with them or visit them receive a warm welcome, and no one is allowed to harm them or treat them unjustly. A stranger who has a complaint or who has suffered an injustice is certain to find protectors and defenders.” (p. 126. Note how this description matches the Icelandic sagas quite closely).
On Viking Raids in the Caspian Sea Region (early 10th Century)
“They are a formidable nation [people], the men huge and very courageous. They do not recognize defeat; no one turns back until he has killed or been killed… the warrior fights with lance [spear or hewing spear] and a shield. He carries a sword and a knife-like dagger. They fight on foot, especially these invaders.” (p. 147).
The account goes on to describe the cunning of the Vikings, their prowess in battle and ability to kill many times their number, their ruthlessness when crossed, their shrewd eye for business, and their refusal to surrender even in the face of certain death.
At Home in Denmark
A merchant named Ibrahim Ibn Ya’qub visited Germany and Denmark. Ya'qub wrote of the large festivals Vikings held to worship their gods. He said that while a few of them were Christian, most revered Sirius, the Dog Star. We have no evidence whatsoever of the Vikings worshipping any celestial bodies besides the sun and moon. Ibn Ya’qub is most likely engaging in some coded speech for his audience here. Sirius was associated with a masculine fertility god/god of plenty in Hellenistic belief and a female deity of fertility and plenty in both Hindu and ancient Egyptian religion. Ibn Ya’qub would have been familiar with either or all of these traditions. He is likely describing Freyr or Freyja (or both) while avoiding going into a degree of detail that would be improper for the religious world he came from.
Ibn Ya’qub goes on to say,
“[The city] is poor in grain and the climate is bad. The citizens eat mostly fish, which are plentiful there … Women take the initiative in divorce proceedings. They can separate from their husbands whenever they choose. Both men and women use a certain indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes. There is no uglier song than the groans that come out of their throats. It is like the baying of hounds only worse.” (p. 163.) Editors Note: If you are a fellow fan of "Norse themed" bands (such as Heilung) than you would agree with us that this is a matter of opinion. Read about Viking music here.
Pros and Cons of Arabic Sources on the Vikings
No historical sources may be taken uncritically. This is undoubtedly true of medieval Arabic accounts of Vikings. These sources have sometimes been controversial amongst Viking enthusiasts and scholars because they do not always jive with Norse sagas or other Western sources. However, when they agree, they offer some exciting confirmation of these sources that may have otherwise seemed legendary. Indeed, Arabic sources provide advantages to offset the disadvantages they may also have.
- Arabic sources are written by eyewitnesses. Most Norse sources, by contrast, were written down only after many years of oral transmission. Substantial evidence demonstrates the Norse oral tradition of the Vikings and their descendants preserved an astonishing degree of accuracy. But it would be impossible not to have some flaws, changes, or missing information. An added benefit of the Arabic eyewitness written sources is that – because Arabic is a ceremonial language and a living language – it has not changed very much, so these works are easily translated.
- Arabic writers describe new things for readers who are not familiar with them, so they go into detail. European sources from monks, court historians, or others usually focus on events. Sometimes an entire year in the life of a kingdom is summed up in just a paragraph or two. These clerical writers were very familiar with Vikings and assumed that their readers would be, too. They did not imagine that a thousand years later, we would be combing their works looking for answers to such strange questions as “what did Vikings look like?” or “what did Viking rituals entail?" Therefore, while European chronicles are full of Vikings, they are often not very forthcoming with details. The Arabic sources, by contrast, are happy to talk about daily life, habits, customs, and culture of the strange Vikings they met in their travels.
Some Arabic sources do not differentiate Northern peoples very well. To use a later example, all the Crusaders (that vast array of international invaders from all over Europe) are simply called “the Franks” in many Arabic sources. The Arabs called the Vikings “Rus,” which would later be taken more generally for the Scandinavian-Slavic hybrid people that would eventually give their name to Russia. The Arabs also called Vikings “Majus” (their word for people with a structured but pagan faith, applied initially to the Zoroastrians of Iran, but here in this context essentially, “Heathen”). Slavic peoples they called Saqaliba. However, some sources differentiate Rus from Saqaliba very clearly, while others tend to lump them all together.
This over-generalization is not just a pitfall of the writers but also the readers. It is not uncommon to find quotes on the internet or elsewhere attributed to Arab travelers speaking of Vikings when the quotes pertain to other peoples mentioned in the texts.
- Because of the hybridization of the actual cultures the Arabs were interacting with, and because of the overgeneralizing of the writers, it can be difficult (or impossible) to tell whether a described custom is common to Scandinavians of that period or if it is something that these particular Vikings picked up in their travels. Some of the glaring differences between Arabic and Icelandic sources may not be the fault of the respective writers, but simply that these sets of Vikings varied significantly from each other.
- Arabic writers are doing the best they can to describe the strange sights they are witnessing. Still, they are as prone as anyone is to cultural bias and faulty conclusions. Cultural differences can always cause misunderstandings. The urban, literate, formally religious Arab diplomats, administrators, and merchants contrast significantly with Vikings trading and raiding in the field. For this reason, we see things that could be exaggerations, sensationalized, or simply faulty conclusions. The degree to which these things are a factor is a matter of scholarly debate.
Arabic writers in the 9th and 10th centuries left for us some of the most colorful and memorable accounts of the Vikings. However, when the Abbasid Caliphate started to fall on hard times and their coinage became debased, the Volga trade route's importance diminished in favor of the Dnieper trade route – which led not to the Islamic East but instead to Constantinople and the Byzantine South. Likewise, the Cordoban Caliphate in Spain proved to be far too organized for the Vikings to exploit. Thus, the Arab accounts of the Vikings were limited in time. However, their words – with their characteristic balance of wonder and practicality, respect and revulsion – remains for us to study, answering many questions while perhaps raising many more.
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- Rodgers, D. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings. KDP. The United States. 2018.
- Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
- Lunde, P. & Stone, C. (translators). Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North. Penguin Classics. London. 2012.
- Frankopan, P. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Penguin Random House. New York. 2015.