Archaeologists have uncovered a silver ring with an Arabic inscription in a Viking grave, adding support to the theory that the two cultures had fascinating connections.
“I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs. As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades.”
That’s how the Arab traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan recorded his meeting with a strange race he calls “Rusiyyah” – the Vikings – over 1,000 years ago. Ibn Fadlan met the Vikings while they were traveling across the Russian steppes, sailing their impressive longships and ultimately trading with the developed Arab world.
Fadlan was rather surprised to note that women also traveled alongside men, each wearing “a small box made of iron, silver, brass or gold, depending on her husband’s financial worth and social standing, tied at her breasts. The box has a ring to which a knife is attached, also tied at her breasts.” He continues:
“The women wear neck rings of gold and silver. When a man has amassed 10,000 dirhams, he has a neck ring made for his wife. When he has amassed 20,000 dirhams, he has two neck rings made. For every subsequent 10,000 dirhams, he gives a neck ring to his wife. This means a woman can wear many neck rings.”
Fadlan, who was an experienced man and met many different cultures in his travels, viewed the Vikings with a mixture of fascination and horror. While he lavishly praised their physical appearance and some of their habits, he was shocked by some of the things they did. Like most accounts about Vikings, he noted that they were cruel, performing rituals which often involved killing female slaves. They also had tattoos, and both men and women wore artificial make-up.
But this wasn’t the only known Arab-Viking meeting; at about the same time, Ibrahim Ibn Yacoub Al Tartushi, from what was then the Muslim kingdom of Al Andalus in Spain, reached the city of Schleswig, now the town of Hedeby on the border of Germany and Denmark. He noted a completely different civilization than what he was used to seeing in Southern Europe or in the Arab World. He noted that women could freely divorce, something which was unimaginable for most people at the time, but the thing that disturbed him the most was the singing – brutal, roaring, out of this world singing:
“I never heard any more awful singing then the singing of the people in Schleswig. It is a groan that comes out of their throats, similar to the bark of the dogs but even more like a wild animal.”
A Big Impact
But even though they were surprised by Vikings, the Arab’s didn’t care that much, and they weren’t very impressed. However, they themselves made a big impression on the Norsemen, as new archaeological finds indicate. A rare ring with an inscription in Arabic has been uncovered at a Scandinavian site. This is the only ring of its type, as Professor Sebastian Warmlander explains:
“The ring may therefore constitute material evidence for direct interactions between Viking Age Scandinavia and the Islamic world,” says Prof Warmlander. “There are written sources speaking of Viking and Arabic travellers visiting each other. But it is difficult to know if these written documents are true. Finding physical objects of Islamic origin in Viking Age Sweden means that these written sources become more trustworthy.”
Tjhe silver allow ring was found in a woman’s tomb, at the Viking trading centre in Birka, Sweden. This ring is not the first evidence to link the two cultures, but it’s the first one to suggest that they actively engaged in trade, or at least had strong connections.
“The ring went straight from the Caliphate to Sweden,” says Prof Warmlander. Silver dirham coins have also been found in Viking-era archaeological sites, but the wear on the coins showed they had travelled far and wide.
The research paper on the Birka ring concludes: “It is not impossible that the woman herself, or someone close to her, might have visited – or even originated from – the Caliphate or its surrounding regions.”
The fact that both cultures were very interested in trading also seems to support that idea.
“The relationship was primarily one of trade,” says Prof Montgomery. “The Vikings were obsessed with silver dirhams coined in Muslim lands. They traded weapons, furs and slaves for money.”
It’s also a much more reliable evidence than the stories of Arab travelers, which should always be taken with a grain of salt.
The black eye make-up, for instance, has a practical function to avoid being blinded from strong sunlight, such as when on a ship at sea or in a white snow-covered landscape. I would expect people living in a desert to use similar black eye make-up,” he says.
However, for all this, the cultural exchange was likely very limited. Vikings just took lots of goods and traded them with the Caliphate. But it wasn’t all fun and games – Arabs and Vikings sometimes engaged in fights and skirmishes, though relations were generally good.
“Contacts between Vikings and Arabs/Muslims were both peaceful and violent. Since most of the contacts took place via trade, the relationship was mostly peaceful, but we also have accounts of Viking raids in the Caspian Sea which resemble accounts we have from Europe in a similar period,” says Prof Hraundal Jonsson.
The discovery also highlights one of the more neglected aspects in Viking studies – they didn’t only come in contact with Christianity, they came in contact with many other religions. Prof Warmlander says:
“In the Scandinavian research tradition, there is a tendency to focus on the Scandinavian transition from Viking Age paganism to Christian Catholicism. Contacts with other religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has largely been neglected. But such contacts must have taken place, and most likely influenced the Viking culture. Objects of Islamic origin tell us that the Vikings must have been aware of many other cultures and belief systems.”
It’s also another reminder that we don’t really understand the Vikings, and maybe no one really did. The Arabs themselves considered them barbarians, but then again there’s this account written by Ibn Fadlan:
“One of the Rusiyyah said: ‘You Arabs, you are a lot of fools,’ and when Ibn Fadlan asked him why he said that, the man replied: ‘Because you purposefully take your nearest and dearest and those whom you hold in highest esteem and put them in the ground, where they are eaten by vermin and worms.’
“‘We, on the other hand, cremate them there and then, so that they enter the Garden on the spot.’”
Source: Arabs and Vikings in the Middle Ages, Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Saturday, 16.45-17.30pm. With Prof Thorir Hraundal Jonsson and Prof James Montgomery.