Book review: Ibn Fadlan And The Land Of Darkness: Arab Travellers In The Far North

WHEN I first started collecting Penguin Classics in the 1980s, they had different categories, indicated by a coloured flash at the top of the spine.

Red was for the English language, whether the “English” was Anglo-Saxon or Mark Twain’s; purple was the Greek and Roman classics; yellow was anything in “European” languages – from Portugal’s Camoens to Russia’s Dostoyevsky – and the exotic green ones were basically everything else: Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Akkadian, Egyptian, Tibetan and more. It was a piece of moderately unthinking Orientalism, and yet it also left me with an indefinable sense that there was something special and rare about these texts. This year is the 65th anniversary of the Penguin Classics imprint, and one of the most significant changes in their list is the attention now paid to what were once the “green flash” volumes. The history of engagement with non-Judeo-Christian cultures has been sketchy at best. Notoriously, the 1956 translation of the Qur’an (as The Koran) by NJ Dawood reorganised the order of the suras and omitted certain sections. It was as if they had published the Bible, but in a version that started with Acts and ended with Ezekiel, and missed out the repetitive bits of 1 and 2 Chronicles. Since then there has been a concentrated effort to have a more representative selection: the “greatest stories ever told” set of epics included both an extract from The Ramayana and tales from the Gambian oral tradition.

This exceptional little anthology – translated and introduced by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone – brings together extracts from various Islamic travellers, thematically concentrating on the relationship between Islam’s Arabic heartlands and “the Land of Darkness”. That land is northern Europe. It is a fascinating book, with a nugget of curious information on each page, adding up to a picture of that turns preconceptions on their head. If the classics range in the past could be accused of a degree of Eurocentrism, then this book is the perfect antidote and riposte.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The selection is divided into three parts. The first collects together Ibn Fadlan’s account of his journey in 921-2 AD as an envoy of the caliph Muqtadir in response to a request from the recently converted ruler of the Volga Bulghars, Almish. Ibn Fadlan left Baghdad, then the most civilised city on earth outside of China, for the remotest regions north of the Caspian Sea, a place where, as he records, “if they see a man whose mind is lively and who knows many things, they say: ‘This man deserves to serve our Lord’. And then they take him and put a rope around his neck and hang him in a tree until he falls to pieces”.

The second section is from the work of Abu Hamid, who in his long lifetime travelled from his birthplace in Al-Andalus (modern day Spain) to Alexandria, Mosul, Mecca, Hungary, Kiev, and modern day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. His journeys in the north took place between 1130 and 1155. The final section gathers references to these places from a range of authors, including the greatest Islamic historian and geographer, Mas’udi, as well as from Ibn Rusta’s encyclopaedia, extracts from intelligence reports, and, by way of contrast and context, a piece by Marco Polo.

Ibn Fadlan is important as one of the earliest Islamic writers to write a first person account of his travels. From what can be gathered, he was an alert and inquisitive individual, noting customs and habits like a modern ethnographer. His diplomatic mission was rather fraught, as he was cheated out of the cash payment he was due to deliver to Almish, leading to some testy exchanges between them. He notes foodstuffs – he is entranced by blueberries and disgusted by fish oil – and pays attention to inheritance laws, facial hair, punishments and odd taboos (such as urinating while holding weapons). The most remarkable section is a description of the funeral of a “great man” of the Rus tribe – an eyewitness account of a Viking boat-pyre. Certain details – such as an old woman described as “the Angel of Death” who strangles the slave girl being burned with the dead ruler, or the slave having sex with the relatives of the dead man – are unattested in European sources.

The title of Abu Hamid’s book, The Gift Of The Hearts And Bouquet Of Wonders, indicates his interests: compared to Ibn Fadlan he is far more curious about the exceptional, the monstrous and the unusual. He describes, with relish an enchanted mosque, his meeting with a giant (and he hears about the giant’s sister, whose embrace cracked her husband’s ribs), a story about a girl who came out of a fish’s ear, a place where the snow is red and blue, and an island of snakes. Among all this, there are accounts of skiing, praise for the taste of sturgeon and notes on taxation and conversion. By far the most bizarre section concerns beavers. Although Abu Hamid had clearly seen beavers, his interpretation of their behaviour reflects his own world-view: supposedly the beaver’s wife and children live in separate houses, and the beavers who gnaw down trees are the “slaves” of the chief beaver. Abu Hamid backs up his observations by noting that the traders can tell the difference between “slave” beaver pelts and “master” beaver pelts.

One fascination with these countries is expanded in the third section, especially Ibn Khurradadhbih’s narrative about the interpreter Sallãm. In the Qur’an, mention is made of Gog and Magog, who have been imprisoned by Dhul-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) behind a wall of copper and iron in the far north. Sallam was sent to investigate the wall (possible a memory of the Great Wall of China) when the caliph Wathiq had a dream that it had been breached – a sign of the apocalypse in Islamic eschatology. The accounts of Gog and Magog differ hugely – they are either giants or dwarves, eat crocodiles and have enormous ears.

The other intriguing aspect of this book is the sources it provides for the mysterious Khaganate of the Khazars, the Jewish kingdom comprising parts of Azerbaijan, the northern Caucasus, parts of Georgia, north-west Turkey, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and which was recently fictionalised in Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of The Road (which was to be called “Jews With Swords”). Ibn Fadlan’s mission was to provide Amlish with funds to defend himself against the Khazars. By the time of Abu Hamid’s journey, the Khazars were a distant memory, having been conquered by the Vikings and Russians to the extent that “not a grape, not a raisin remains in that country”. The Khazar language is now represented by only a single word, written in their alphabet at the bottom of the “Kievian Letter”. Ironically enough, the word is “OKHQURÜM” – “I have read this”.

Many of the comments by the Islamic travellers concentrate on the unusual system of governance among the Khazars. There were two rulers: the Bek and the Khagan. The Bek appeared to have executive power, but was subordinate to the figurehead of the Khagan. In one source it is said that the person being made khagan is strangled to within an inch of his life and then released and asked for how many years he would like to rule. He then fulfils this term, and is killed after the relevant period.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ibn Fadlan says there was fixed term of 40 years, after which the khagan was killed since “his reason has diminished and his opinions are confused”. The khagan also had a harem of 60 women, kept in teak alcoves and who only ever saw their attendant eunuch and the khagan. In the century after the fall of the khaganate, calling someone a “khazar-face”, as the Byzantine emperor did to archbishop Photius, was an insult. The entente with Constantinople meant Khazaria acted as a buffer zone against Islamic expansion to the north: without it, the history of Europe might have been very different indeed.

Reading this delightful and intriguing volume reinforces a sense that Christian Europe was, at the end of the first millennium, rather less than a key player in geopolitical terms. Silver dirhans – the currency of the Islamic empire – have been found as far afield as Dublin and Iceland. When Mas’udi is discussing the funeral rites of the Vikings, he is able to compare it to the practice of sati among Hindus; when he is discussing the military prowess of the Rus, he gives an account of a Viking invasion of Seville. This was a world-spanning empire. One traveller, a Jewish merchant called Ibrahim Ibn Ya’qub, expressed utter astonishment at finding cloves and galangal when he visited Mainz.

Hopefully, Penguin Classics will continue to publish more work in this vein: certainly a selection of Mas’udi would be very welcome, and it seem unaccountable that the first life of the Prophet, the Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq, has not been included. These are not just interesting books: they go a long way towards undermining the stereotypes about Islam that have become such a toxic part of our current discourse.

• Ibn Fadlan And The Land Of Darkness: Arab Travellers In The Far North, by Ibn Fadlan and others, Penguin Classics, 240pp, £12.99