Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vikings and the Islamic World

More than a millennium ago, as fleets of Viking raiders were striking fear into the hearts of coast and river-dwellers throughout western Europe, other Norsemen of more mercantile inclination were making their way east. With no less boldness and stamina, bearing luxurious furs and enticing nodules of amber, they penetrated the vast steppes of what is today Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and entered Central Asia. There they met Muslim traders who paid for Norse wares with silver coins, which the Viking themselves did not mint, and which they coveted.

Their routes were various, and by the ninth and 10th centuries, a regular trade network had grown up. Some Norsemen traveled overland and by river, while others sailed over both the Black and Caspian Seas, joined caravans and rode camelback as far as Baghdad, which was then under Abbasid rule and populated by nearly a million souls. There, the Scandinavian traders found an emporium beyond their wildest dreams, for their fjord-rimmed homelands had only recently seen the emergence of a few rudimentary towns.

To the Arabs of Baghdad, the presence of the Norsemen probably didn't come as much of a surprise, for the Arabs were long accustomed to meeting people from different cultures and civilizations. They were also keen and literate observers. Abbasid historians and caliphal envoys put to paper eyewitness accounts of the roving Scandinavians, leaving a historical legacy that is shedding new light both on Viking history and on a little-known chapter of early Islamic history.

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