Sometime after 1342, and before his death in 1346, Ibn Fadl Allah Al ‘Umari, an Arab official in Mamluk Egypt and author of the fabulously titled Book of the Paths of the Eye Through the Kingdoms of the Countries, wrote the following description:
Beyond Yughra there is no trace of habitation except a tall tower, built by Alexander, beyond which nothing is found but the Darkness. The traveler, asked what he meant by this expression, answered that this land consists of deserts and mountains where eternal cold and snow hold sway and where the sun never shines, where no plant grows and no animal lives. These lands border a Black Sea shrouded with fog where sun never appears.
Geographically and culturally remote—it was quite literally off the map—Al ‘Umari’s “Land of Darkness” was a subject of fear and fascination. It also confirmed what was by then a centuries-old Arab perception of northern Eurasia. Beyond the mythical wall of exclosure built by Alexander the Great lived the tribes of Majuj and Yajuj, known in the Bible as Gog and Magog. Alexander’s Wall kept at bay the terrifying hordes that would one day break out, spreading terror and destruction throughout the world, heralding the Apocalypse and the end of all mankind.
Al ‘Umari was also operating within firmly established stylistic conventions, set down by the earliest Arab geographers, in which copying, quotation, adaptation, synthesis, and outright plagiarism were acceptable practices. To an educated medieval reader, Arab geography wore its sources on its sleeves. And while such delicate reliance on fact often made for extraordinary literature, in truth we have no reliable proof that Al ‘Umari ever left the vicinity of Cairo, let alone made the long and dangerous trek to the far northern lands. We do know, however, that Ahmad Ibn Fadlan did four centuries earlier. And it’s Ibn Fadlan’s account of his remarkable journey that takes up the larger part of Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone’s newly translated anthology Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North.
In 922 Ibn Fadlan set off from Baghdad as the envoy of caliph Muqtadir, bound for the upper Volga River and the Turkic-speaking court of Almish ibn Yiltawar at Bulghar. His mission was simple: to instruct the newly converted Almish and his people in the Islamic faith, to oversee the building of a congregational mosque, and to assist in the construction of a defensive fortress.
Ibn Fadlan’s encounters with and description of the Turkic tribes inhabiting the Eurasian steppe is itself a fascinating and important historical document. He provides, for example, one of the few firsthand accounts of the Ghuzz, a largely nomadic warrior tribe, in a period before their conversion to Islam and at a time contemporary with events in the great Turkish literary epic, Dede Korkut, The Book of the Oguz. Ibn Fadlan describes the Ghuzz punishment for adultery thus:
Adultery is unknown, but if they learn that someone has committed an act of that kind, they split him in two in the following way: they bend down the branches of two trees, tie him to the branches and let the trees spring back into their original position. Thus the man who has been tied to the two trees is split in two.
Because of their richness, Ibn Fadlan’s detailed observations retain an authentic power to shock. He maintains a coolly dispassionate sense of importance and breadth, documenting a dizzying range of anthropological gems, from Turkish marriage customs to hospitality, from hygiene and the Ghuzz taboo on washing to horse sacrifices.
It was while in the Bulghar encampment of Almish that Ibn Fadlan met with a tribe of Rus—Viking traders who had no doubt sailed down the Volga from Kiev. His graphic description of their dress, their physical appearance, their customs and sexual habits forms one of the earliest written records of Viking life and leaves little to the imagination. It is more remarkable still for giving us the only eyewitness account of a Viking ship cremation, in all of its shocking ritual brutality. When the dead warrior’s warship is dragged ashore and loaded with a bewildering array of slaughtered animals, an old woman called the Angel of Death brings forward a slave girl who will accompany the warrior in death. After fornicating with each of the senior masters, the slave girl is led to her place of death and restrained by six men while the remainder beat their shields with staves to drown out her screams. The Angel of Death puts a cord around the girl’s neck:
She gave the ends to two of the men, so they could pull on them. Then she herself approached the girl holding in her hand a dagger with a broad blade and [plunged it again and again between the girl’s ribs], while the two men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.
She is then placed on a bed beside the dead warrior and the ship, with all of its bloodied contents, torched. It is a scene of spectacular horror.
While this unique account of the Vikings is no doubt the chief reason why Ibn Fadlan takes center stage in the anthology, and rightly so, we shouldn’t overlook the remaining selections. The Travels of Abu Hamid Al Andalusi Al Gharnati (1080-1170), which forms Part II, is equally rich in firsthand accounts of such humble and ingenious tools as skis. The many Arab encounters documented here challenge a long-held view that Eurasia was, at the time, hostile to trade. The passage of goods and slaves witnessed by Abu Hamid and others provides considerable evidence of international exchange on a vast scale. As Abu Hamid reports, in the far north, on the shores of the Sea of Darkness, trade could take the simplest form, when one party to the exchange is forever unseen and trades only through a ritual of silent barter:
Each merchant sets his wares out in a particular place, marked with his sign. Then they all withdraw and when they come back again, everyone finds something left beside his goods. If he approves the exchange, he takes these wares. If not, he picks up his own merchandise and leaves the other things, without ever transgressing or cheating. No one knows who it is that exchanges goods with them.
Even in Abu Hamdi’s time the Eurasia encountered by Ibn Fadlan was unrecognizable, and that first Arab embassy to Bulghar, not even a memory. By 1155 much of the steppe was settled, its formerly pagan tribes converts to Islam, and its swelling cities fat with the riches of commerce.
On his homeward trek Abu Hamid passed through Merv, Nishapur and Rayy, cities that would soon be erased from history as the tribes of Gog and Magog finally breached the Alexander Wall, in the very earthly form of the Mongol hordes. So much would be lost, as the libraries of those once great cities of culture and learning were thrown into pyres and burnt, along with the corpses of their readers. Miraculously, these important and fascinating records survive, haunting fragments from a time more savage but no less human.
George Messo is a translator living in Saudi Arabia. His reviews have appeared in World Literature Today, The Adirondack Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, and New York Quarterly Review.
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