Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Ahmad ibn Fadlan: The Historical Roots of "The 13th Warrior"

Ever since I was a child I have loved ripping yarns and tales of adventures in far off, forbidding lands. One of my favorite tales early on was Robert Nye’s classic Beowulf. When my Aunt learned of this she lent me her dog-eared copy of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead. What imprinted itself upon my young mind was that the book was not simply a work of high fantasy, but based in fact. Crichton based his novel upon the rihla (an Arabic term for a travel narrative [Dunn x-xi]) of Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rašīd ibn Hammād, commonly referred to as ibn Fadlan. I could scarcely believe that an Arab emissary from Baghdad travelled up the Volga River, met Vikings, and then went off to fight cannibalistic Neanderthals.

More than a decade later (c. fall 1997) I saw the teaser trailer for director John McTiernan’s screen adaptation of Eaters of the Dead. I was ecstatic; one of my favorite action movie directors was helming one of my favorite childhood books. A few days later I picked my own copy of Eaters and tore through it one lager filled afternoon. This time reading it I was fascinated by the time and research Crichton had put into the book. I felt compelled to track down information about the Vikings, the Age of Classical Islam, and revisited Beowulf all in the efforts to prepare myself for what would surely be one of the great sword swinging movies to be released. I waited eagerly for Eaters to be released but it had seemed to have dropped off the radar. Nearly a year later I saw an extended preview for the movie and was confused to say the least. The rip-roaring title Eaters of the Dead had been replaced by the milquetoast The 13th Warrior. The rousing piece of classic music that had been used in the teaser trailer had been replaced by ethereal European electronic music. What had happened to the tour-de-force I had been promised? Sullenly, I packed away my copy of Eaters of the Dead, my reference books and hopes for a rousing Hollywood period piece.

Disappointed as I was by the failure of Eaters of the Dead to appear when I wanted it to, I did not come away empty handed. As I had dug further into the history of ibn Fadlan, I learned that while the man did not join a hearty band of adventurers and battle Neanderthals he did have a fascinating tale of his own. On June 21, 921 AD (11 Safar 309 H) ibn Fadlan set forth from Baghdad on a diplomatic mission regarding a funding request from Almish, king of the Volga Bulgars (though Almish was a vassal king under the Khazar), to the Abbasid Caliph al-Muktadir of Baghdad in order to build a mosque and a new fortress. In exchange, Almish offered to convert to Islam and to, “enter into a formal subordinate alliance to the caliph, political ruler of the Islamic Empire” (Gordon 21). While ibn Fadlan was not in command of the mission (according to P.H. Sawyer the leader “was a eunuch called Susan al-Rassi” [Sawyer 27]) he did play a vital role as presenter of gifts and the Caliph’s letter and was, “to supervise the lawyers who had been sent to teach the Bulghars Islamic law”(Sawyer 27).

Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s journey to the court of Almish would range over 5000 miles through Central Asia. The caravan was made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of camels and extended for miles along the ancient trade route. By fall 921 AD they had crossed the river Amu Darya and reached Bukhara (now in modern Uzbekistan), a major trade city on the Silk Road with a fascinating history that will have to await further investigation by this author. In Bukhara, ibn Fadlan learned that what lay ahead in his journey was roughly 2000 miles of desolate grassy steppes and a fast approaching winter. A decision was made to return to the Amu Darya and travel north (approximately 400 miles) to the city of Khwarizm (site of modern day Khorezmskaya). Ibn Fadlan writes about this part of the journey being so cold that they were only able to travel part of the day (Gordon 27). By the time the caravan reached Jurjaniyah (on the Southeastern edge of the Aral Sea from which the Amu Darya feeds) it was cold enough for ibn Fadlan to have ice in his beard in the time it took him to walk from the public bath to his abode. The mission wintered in Jurjaniyah and when the thaw came in February ibn Fadlan found that he had to go on alone. The rest of the diplomats had been told by the emir of Jurjaniyah that civilization stopped there (civilization meaning Islamic influence) and that between Jurjaniyah and Almish was filled with infidels, bandits, and Allah knows what else.
Ibn Fadlan continued his journey, joining a caravan heading north. Over the next few months he bribed, coerced, and occasionally escaped death by the skin of his teeth across 3000 miles of steppes. He forded the Ural River and finally reached Almish’s camp May 12, 922 (12 Muharram 310 H), “at the three lakes of the Volga north of the Samara bend” (Muslim Heritage). While ibn Fadlan received a warm welcome from Almish at first, the King’s mood soured when he found out ibn Fadlan had not been able to bring any of the requested money with him. The diplomatic mission was a complete failure.

Ibn Fadlan’s journey was not a total loss. As Stewart Gordon writes in When Asia Was the World:

Ibn Fadlan remained a keen observer of everything around him: clouds, snakes,
local fruits and cuisine, clothing, and the complexities of the five required
daily Muslim prayers during long summer days. The later portion of the memoir
includes an account a people he terms the Rus (probably Norse, though the issue
has been debated by scholars for more than a century) when they arrived to trade
at Almish’s capital. (Gordon 30)

It is the section of ibn Fadlan’s memoir that describes the Rus which has drawn the most academic attention and debate in regards to the Normanist Controversy. James E. Montgomery sums up the Normanist Controversy neatly, “the principal, but by no means the only, controversy concerns the extent of Viking involvement in the Viking involvement in the creation of Russia” (Montgomery 1). To some Normanist scholars it is “a remarkably valuable source of information about one of the areas of Scandinavian activity in the early tenth century” (Sawyer 28). For anti-Normanist (those who support the Slavic development of Russia) views about ibn Fadlan’s memoir, most works on the subject are unavailable in English. Regardless of which side of the Normanist Controversy may be correct, ibn Fadlan’s memoir remains a central text, “for the history, ethno genesis and polity formation of a number of tribes and people who populated Inner Asia”(Montgomery 1).

In ibn Fadlan’s description of the Rus he paints a picture of a noble savage. He says he has never seen more perfect physiques, tattooed, and richly adorned. Then again, he calls them “the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures: they do not clean themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity (i.e. after coitus) and do not even wash their hands after food.” He goes on to describe (at length) their trading habits, social habits, love of strong drink, and most interestingly ibn Fadlan is privy to a chieftain’s funerary rites (complete with human sacrifice).

Of ibn Fadlan’s return to Baghdad, he luckily survived the trip to pen his memoirs, and his later life there is sparse information. A large section of his manuscript (of which a complete copy was found in 1923 however; this manuscript was dated around the 13th Century AD [Muslim Heritage]) has disappeared or has been destroyed. It is doubtful the missing sections involve ibn Fadlan fighting Neanderthals.

Works Cited:
Crichton, Michael. The Eaters of the Dead. New York: Random House, 1988.

Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. University of California Press, 1986.

Gordon, Stewart. When Asia was the World. Da Capo Press, 2007.,M1

Montgomery, James E. “Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah”. Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3 (2000)

FTSC Limited, “Ahmad ibn Fadlan in Northern Europe: A Survey of his Account of Russian Vikings in the 10th Century.” Muslim Heritage.03-04-08

Sawyer, P.H. Kings & Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700-1100. New York: Methuen & Co, 1982.

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