28 August 2015

Great Explorers: What the Arabs Knew

By Lisa J. Yarde

Ahmad ibn Fahdlan (born AD 877, date of death unknown): Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (Vintage - 1976) and the 1999 film The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas re-introduced the exploits of Ibn Fahdlan. Much of Crichton's version of Ibn Fahdlan's later adventures are fictionalized and parallel the story of Beowulf, but this doesn't make the traveler unremarkable. One hundred years after writing about his historic travels, no one remembered Ibn Fahdlan, and another nine hundred years would pass before analysis and recognition of the importance of his journey occurred. He was one of the first Arab travelers to provide a firsthand depiction of Vikings in eastern lands. 

Born in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid empire, Ibn Fahdlan's writings reveal little of his family's origins or status. He was a faqih, an expert in Islamic law. On June 21, 921, the Abbasid caliph Muqtadir sent Ibn Fahdlan as an envoy to the Muslim ruler of the Bulgars, who had converted in 900. The Bulgar ruler wanted instruction in Islam and the construction of a mosque, as well as help against the Khazars who had taken his son as a hostage and treated the Bulgars as vassals. 

Although he failed to provide the Bulgar king with a promised 4,000 dinars, Ibn Fahdlan achieved his goal of their meeting on May 12, 922, a journey of almost a year, which covered 2,500 miles.  Afterward, while traveling along the Volga River, Ibn Fahdlan met a group of Scandinavian traders, known as the Rus among Arabs and the Vikings in the west. They had raided in fifty-four longships as far as Seville during 844, so Muslims were aware of them. Ibn Fahdlan wrote in his account, "I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy.... Each of them carries an ax, a sword, and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms.... 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.... All their women wear on their bosoms a circular brooch made of iron, silver, copper, or gold, depending on their husband's wealth and social position." He was less impressed with their manners. "They are the filthiest of God's creatures. They do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex. They do not wash their hands after meals." 

Ibn Fahdlan remained at the encampment for an unspecified duration that allowed him to witness everyday life among the traders. How they burned their dead in ships, particularly the rich sent on their way to the afterlife with the help of an old crone called the Angel of Death, who strangled a slave girl to be burned alongside her master. Ibn Fahdlan also detailed the power of their Scandinavian kings and his companions, the pagan sacrifice of animals, and capital punishment. Upon his return home, Ibn Fahdlan wrote about the journey in his Risala.    

Abu'l-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi (AD 896-956): Another Baghdad native, the historian and geographer Al-Masudi also wrote about the Khazars, Bulgars and the Vikings. Called the Herodotus of the Arabs, he first studied poetry, philosophy, medicine, law and history. In describing foreign lands, he likely drew on earlier works such as Ibn Fahdlan's Risala. Yet Al-Masudi gave more details, suggesting that his accounts of most of Persia, Syria, Arabia, Central Asia, eastern Africa, and India also offered hand knowledge.

Of the Khazars he wrote, "The king and his court and all those of the Khazar race practice Judaism, to which the king of the Khazars was converted during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (Abbasid caliph 786 - 809).... The pagans who live in this country belong to many different races, among which are the Saqaliba (for slaves kidnaped throughout Europe) and the Rus, who live in one of the two parts of the city. They burn their dead on pyres along with their horses, arms and equipment. When a man dies, his wife is burned alive with him, but if the wife dies before her husband, the man does not suffer the same fate." In writing of the Bulgars, he mentions, "...the king of the Bulgars is a Muslim, converted as the result of a dream during the caliphate of Muqtadir.... The Bulgars are a large, powerful and warlike nation, which has subjected all the neighboring peoples. One of the Bulgar cavalrymen, who had embraced Islam along with their king, held off one or even two hundred infidel horsemen." He also described a Viking raid on the Caspian Sea. "The Rus spilled rivers of blood, seized women and children and property, raided and everywhere destroyed and burned." 

In 941 Al-Masudi moved to Cairo, Egypt and wrote the first draft of his enduring work, The Meadow of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, which he revised up until a year before his death.

Muhammad al-Idrisi (AD 1099-1166): Born in Ceuta, North Africa, the geographer and cartographer Al-Idrisi is best remembered for his maps of the then known parts of the world, including Europe, India, and China. From his youth until his service of eighteen years to the Norman Christian king Roger II of Sicily, Al-Idrisi explored Anatolia, Moorish Spain and Portugal, Viking York, France, Hungary, and Finland. He also relied on earlier work, particularly that of the second century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy, preserved in an Arabic translation.

His royal family, the dynasty of the Hammudids, originally came from Malaga, Spain. Al-Idrisi's great-grandfather fled when the Granadan Zirid dynasty conquered the family's homeland. Al-Idrisi made the return to Spain where he studied at the University of Cordoba. At the age of 39 in 1138, he received and accepted an invitation to the court of King Roger (1097-1154), who wished Al-Idrisi to create the most accurate map of the known world. Since Sicily had such busy ports, Al-Idrisi first focused on gathering the knowledge of sailors and traders. It took fifteen years for the compilation of all available sources. In his initial drawing, Al-Idrisi made some corrections to Ptolemy's calculations. Then Al-Idrisi reproduced the map for Roger on an engraved silver disk more than six feet across and weighing in excess of three hundred pounds. The disk signified the geographer's belief that the world was round, a common belief among scholars."The earth is round like a sphere, and the waters adhere to it and are maintained on it through natural equilibrium which suffers no variation." To him, it was also, "...stable in space like the yolk in an egg. Air surrounds it on all sides.... All creatures are stable on the surface of the earth, the air attracting what is light, the earth what is heavy, as the magnet attracts iron." A book, the Tabula Rogeriana, with regional maps, descriptions of climates, and the approximate distances of travel between cities accompanied the development of the disk, kept in Roger's palace from 1154 through the reign of his successor, until the Norman barons' unrest in 1160.  

Al-Idrisi fled the court but preserved the Arab version of the Tabula Rogeriana. The famous Ibn Batutta, Christopher Columbus, and Vasco da Gama all took inspiration for their subsequent voyages from Al-Idrisi's maps.

Images are authorized from Wiki Commons.

Sources include Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, (Penguin Books), and The Bibliographic Encyclopaedia of Islamic Philosophy (Bloomsbury Acadamic) 

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.