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Make Trade, not Raid: The Story of Vikings in the Middle East
The popular perception of the Vikings is that of the fearsome raiders who plundered their way across Europe during the Dark Ages, ransacking villages and terrorizing the townsfolk before returning to their long ships and disappearing into the mists.
But the Vikings traveled far and wide, and their behavior in the east shows that they were capable of more civilized conduct if they deemed it worthwhile. It would have quickly become clear to them that the riches of Baghdad and Constantinople could not be acquired by the same methods they used in the West.
A Trail of Silver
It was the lure of silver that brought them East, namely the Durhams minted from ore found in the mines near Baghdad. They used weights and scales to measure their value (caring little for the actual face value of the coins), and in exchange offered furs, finely crafted weapons, and slaves acquired during raids.
The venture was no small undertaking for Norse traders. Their journey took them across the gulf of Finland and into the rivers that flow throughout the land now referred to as Russia; with one trade route leading to the Caspian sea and the other to the Black Sea.
From the Caspian Sea they could travel by camel to Arabia, which they called “Serkland” (silk lands), while the Black Sea granted them access to “Miklagård” ("Great City," their name for Constantinople) - the hub of a trade network that spanned Africa, Arabia and the Far East.
Navigating the rivers of Russia was a task fit only for hardy and experienced sailors. They often had to drag the ships up rapids or carry them overland, battling bandits and hostile natives along the way; and since the Russian winter would freeze the rivers before they could make the return journey, it would be awhile before any of them saw home again.
So they would set out from Scandinavia in the summer and return the following year. An alternative was to conduct trade along the frozen rivers during the winter, transporting the goods on sledges drawn by horses. This was actually quicker than travelling by boat, though the sledges could not hold so heavy a load.
Over time, trading posts and fortified towns were established along the river, while kingdoms founded by powerful Viking chieftains rose up in the lands around them. The people of Arabia referred to all the denizens of these lands, whether Scandinavian or Slavic, as “Rus.”
Arab Descriptions of the Vikings
Though their activities in the Middle East were more mercantile in nature, their reputation as fighters remained intact. Historian and philosopher Miskawayh described them as possessing “vast frames and great courage,” as well as “an impressive arsenal of weapons.”
Those who preferred the warrior's life could easily find work as sell-swords and caravan guards, or even spend time serving on the Varangian Guard (the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor, made up entirely of Norsemen).
Astronomer and geographer Ibn Rustah, who visited the Rus state of Novgorod, saw them as a heroic people who displayed admirable loyalty to each other, but noted that “they have no villages, no cultivated fields.” He wrote “when a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, "I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.""
Some of the texts describe the wares traded by the Scandinavians, expressing particular admiration for the quality of their weapons and furs. Slaves were another valued “commodity,” and geographer Ibn Hawkal wrote in 977 that the Rus had a slave trade that flourished “from Spain to Egypt.” Ibn Rustah wrote “They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and…sell them." However, he did observe that they were “clean in their dress and kind to their slaves.”
Some of the most influential texts on the Vikings come from a writer named Ibn Fadlan, who was sent as an emissary to the king of the Bulgars in 921. His account of the journey, and the Rus encountered along the way, provided the inspiration for Michael Crichton's novel “Eaters of the Dead” and its film adaptation “The 13th Warrior.”
"...they are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating, or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food," he wrote, clearly not impressed by their personal hygiene. Apparently this did not diminish their physical appearance, which he greatly admired. “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy.”
He wrote that the men were tattooed with dark green figures from fingernails to neck, and that each had “an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times.” The women wore “neck-rings of gold and silver,” and “on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife.”
He provided a powerful eye-witness account of a Viking funeral, describing the ritual suicide of a slave-girl and the burning of her body together with that of her master. He wrote of the prayers and sacrifices that the Norsemen offered their gods, thanking them for safe completion of a voyage and beseeching them to send merchants rich in silver.
There were even those among the Rus whose contact with Muslims led them to convert to Islam, though according to Ibn Fadlan, “They are very fond of pork and many of them who have assumed the path of Islam miss it very much.”
Legacy of the Rus
Viking trade in the area began to drop off around the 10th century, as by that time the silver mines were near depletion, and the value of the Durham severely degraded as a result. But the wealth acquired through trade had led to the rise of kingdoms in both Scandinavia and Russia.
The Iron Curtain made it difficult for archaeologists to obtain as much evidence of Viking activity in Eastern Europe as in the West, but hoards of Arab silver have been discovered in burial mounds throughout Russia and Scandinavia, with an estimated 100,000 Durhams being dug up in Sweden alone.
Since Norse writing amounted to little more than runes inscribed on gravestones and place-markers, historians are dependent on what people from other cultures wrote about them. Western European monks mostly describe them in the context of being on the wrong end of their raids, but writers in the Middle East were able to provide a more objective view.
In this light, it seems the Vikings were not only exceptional navigators, but adaptable as well. They were the great explorers of their time, and wherever they went, they could enrich themselves through military or commercial means. They were extremely efficient with either approach, as shown by the devastating hit-and-run tactics they used to plunder Western Europe, and the intricate trade networks they established on the rivers of Russia.