A Viking Burial on the Volga

Ahmad ibn Fadlan was a faqih, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, who accompanied an embassy dispatched by the Abbasid caliph to the Bulgars living along the river Volga, in today’s Russia. The Volga Bulgars had only recently been converted to Islam and the purpose of the mission was to explain the tenets of the faith to them and to instruct them in the proper ritual. This was why Ibn Fadlan was coming along. The embassy set out from Baghdad in June 921 and traveled towards the Caspian Sea, covering some 4,000 kilometers before they reached the Bulgars in May 922. They encountered many interesting peoples along the way, but Ibn Fadlan’s account is most famous for what he says about the “Russiyah,” a group of people which historians have identified as Varangians or Vikings. In the tenth-century, Vikings from today’s Sweden relied on the rivers of Russia – the Dniepr, the Don, and the Volga – to travel and to trade, and their commercial contacts reached as far as Constantinople, Baghdad, and the Silk Road. Ibn Fadlan was both fascinated and horrified by the Volga Vikings. “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs,” he insisted – they are “fair and reddish” and tall “like palm trees,” and tattooed “from the tip of his toes to his neck.” Yet they are ignorant of God, disgusting in their habits and devoid of any sense of personal hygiene. Ibn Fadlan went on to describe a Viking funeral which he personally witnessed. The dead chieftain was placed in a boat, together with his swords and possessions; a number of cows, horses, dogs and cockerels were sacrificed; finally, a slave-girl was dressed up as his bride, ritually raped by all the warriors, and then placed on the funeral pyre, while the members of the tribe were banging their shields so as to drown her screams.

In 2007, a Syrian TV station produced Saqf al-Alam, “The Roof of the World,” a 30-part series, starring Qais al-Sheikh Najib, which uses Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Volga Vikings as a way to discuss relations between Islam and Europe both in Ibn Fadlan’s own time and today. The background to the series was the controversy stirred up when Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, on September 30, 2005, published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad which some Muslims regarded as offensive. The publication led to diplomatic protests, a boycott of Danish goods, and to demonstrations and rioting in which some 200 people were killed. It is easy to see why Saqf al-Alam might appeal to an Arab audience: Ibn Fadlan was a sophisticated intellectual, of urbane tastes and refined manners, and the Scandinavians he encountered were little more than savages. The task of today’s Muslims, the Syrian TV series argued, is to explain the true meaning of Islam to Europeans, and to Scandinavians in particular.