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The Vikings and Their Impossible Route to the Middle East

Updated on November 8, 2014
The Rus
The Rus | Source
The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga. by Viktor Vasnetsov
The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga. by Viktor Vasnetsov | Source
Varangian Guard 12th century manuscript
Varangian Guard 12th century manuscript | Source
Major trade routes of the Rus
Major trade routes of the Rus | Source

The Vikings and Their Impossible Route to the Middle East

The Vikings were divided into three groups. The Danes went to England with the Norwegians. The Norwegians settled Iceland, and Normandy in France. The Swedish Vikings went east to Russia and down to Byzantium and the Black Sea.

Swedes, Normans, Angles and Goths among the many, they were all known as Varangians. In Norse, "Var" meant oath because they had sworn to help one another. They had no problem conquering where they needed to, and plundering where it was easy, but essentially Vikings were traders abroad and dairy farmers at home.

Rus is a Finnish term for Sweden. The name is derived from their word for rowing because the Swedes rowed their ships when there was no wind. In the 9th century the Rus came for silver. They had no silver or gold in Sweden.

The Vikings conquered the area around 860 AD. The first King was a Viking named Rurik who set up his court at Novgorod. Scribes at the time said the Norsemen had very good physiques but were filthy.

Twenty years later the Swedish king Olaf set up the first trade routes from Sweden to the Black Sea. The route went through Latvia and Lithuania, and the newly established Smolensk in 882. Smola means tar. Smolensk was to become a way station for the Vikings to repair holes and leaks in Rus ships after they were hauled overland from the Western Dvina River to the upper Dneiper.

King Olaf was on route to Kiev because the people there had silver. They obtained it in trade from the much richer countries of Asia. The Vikings went from there to trade with Turkey, then called the Byzantine Empire. There they encountered riches they had never dreamed of, for which they traded wax, honey, furs, and slaves. Their ultimate intention was to conquer the area. The route connected Sweden to Kiev and Constantinople. The connection to Scandinavia was the strongest it would ever be at this point.

The Rus tried to take Constantinople several times, in 860, 907, 911, 942, 1024 and 1043. They never succeeded in conquering the area. When they were not fighting the Byzantine Empire they were trading.

The route established was impossibly difficult. It took five days to cross the Baltic in open ships from Sweden. Then coming to land, they sailed the river Neva to Lake Ladoga. Peter would later establish his capital there. This route was so cold that in winter there are only four hours of twilight.

The rest of the trip was 1,947 km (1209) miles. They had to change ships twice. Twenty kilometers down the Volkhov River they encountered rapids, and sandbanks so they had to change into smaller ships. They would follow the Lovat River down to the Kunya River and the Seryozha River, where they had to disembark with their cargo and carry their boats overland to the Toropa River.

They sailed from there down the Western Dvina getting out of the water and carrying their cargo, pulling their boats from the Kasplya River to the Katyn River. Then they arrived at Kiev on the Dneiper.

To continue to Byzantium they would transfer to larger boats. Groups of boats started out in from Kiev in June. They had to pass through three rapids with poles to avoid rocks. The forth was too large and once again had they had to go overland for six miles; the boats were pulled by slaves in chains to be sold in Byzantium. Then they sailed on the river again encountering seven more rapids, after which they were shot at with arrows by the Pechenegs, a Turkic tribe. After this they arrived at a safe island, and those that were still alive would do a live bird sacrifice below an oak.

At this point it was said that those who remained were afraid of nothing. Many who tried to make the journey did not return.

The Dniester River took them to the Black Sea. They sailed, clinging to the west coast, until they arrived at Constantinople.

Trade was later formalized. Old Ladoga 80 miles north of the present St. Petersburg, became a center for Swedes going to and from the mother country. Vikings were allowed to enter Constantinople at one designated gate, accompanied by a city official. The traders were brought without their weapons. They were to avoid violence while living in the city; also they had to register with the city officials and stay in the housing provided.

Many stayed as the personal bodyguard of the Emperor. They became known as the Varangian Guard. Traders who made the trip back were provided with six months of food, baths while in the city and provisions for the trip back.

The Rus were pagans at that time. They did animal and human sacrifice. Near Stockholm in Old Uppsala a large temple with a gold roof was constructed so people could make sacrifices to Thor, Odin, and Frey. The priests were often more powerful than kings. These priests were also judges. If both parties were dissatisfied they could hold armed combat. But in 988 the Rus became Christian when Prince Vladimir converted in order to marry a Byzantine princess.

This was the beginning of assimilation. For the first two centuries the Rus and Slavs were very distinctive. The Slavs wore linen shirts and leather boots. The Rus wore short caftans and wide pants. The Rus had no property and lived by the sword. Rus women wore brooches of precious metal to signify the wealth and status of their husband. Over three centuries the Rus married Slavs and lost their traditions. By the thirteenth century they were one people.

At that point the Mongols took over Kiev and remained more or less for the next two centuries. Belarus and Smolensk joined the Lithuanian-Polish Empire for protection from the Asian invaders. The Teutonic Knights took over in Latvia.

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