[written December 2015]
Arab travellers and Vikings coming together… sounds like fiction (and Crichton did create a decent story out of this premise in Eaters of the Dead), but not the case. This book compiles accounts by Arab travellers detailing various Turkic people who populate northern regions where the nights are so short “there is no time for the water to boil before the dawn prayer.”
Both introduction and appendices to this book should be read as they give greater context and information regarding the travellers, the Khazars, the Rus, the Samanids and the fur trade in general. Ibn Fadlan’s travel account takes up the majority of this book, and there is also a big section regarding a later traveller called Abu Hamid who keeps mentioning his concubines and does a Byron in trying to take a Greek girl back home with him. He writes a lot about Gog and Magog, and so do other writers included in this collection, from description of the people to the wall itself that contains them, etc. which is fascinating given this isn’t a real place or people as such. Out of the various writers included, only Masudi’s writings were very satisfying to read and I’ll probably read more of his work if I ever come across them.
I really did enjoy ibn Fadlan’s account the most though, not just because it truly was interesting and informative to read (his is the only written account of a Scandinavian Viking funeral), but it was also hilarious. This is a pious man, educated theologian, fastidiously clean and he is from a civilised world travelling to insure that the practical laws of Islam are imparted to the newly converted tribes in the North… and he just runs into horribly dirty people again and again. He writes as impartially as he can, but he is just so horrified by these uncivilised Turkic/Rus people especially when it comes to hygiene and modesty.
There are so many Ibn Fadlan Astaghfirullah moments, but here are a select few from quickly flicking through the book:
“We took every precaution against [the Bashghirds], for they are the worst of the Turks, the dirtiest and the readiest to kill. When one of them meets another, he cuts off his head and carries it off with him, leaving the body. They shave their beards and eat lice. A man will pursue one through the seams of his coat and crack it with his teeth. We had with us a man of this people who had converted to Islam and who served us. One day, I saw him take a flea from his clothes and, after having crushed it with his fingernail, he devoured it and on noticing me, said: ‘Delicious!’”
“[The Rus] are the filthiest of 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. They are like wandering asses.”
“One day, we went to the home of one of [the Ghuzz Turks] and sat down. This man’s wife was with us. As we were talking, she bared her private parts and scratched while we stared at her. We covered our faces with our hands and each said: ‘I seek forgiveness from Gd!’”
Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s journey summarised: