For much of Europe, the Vikings were terrifying warriors bent on nothing but rape and pillage as they stormed ashore from their longships. Now new research reveals that the Norsemen were also familiar faces in the Islamic world, but as peaceful merchants and traders prepared to travel thousands of miles from the snow and ice of Scandinavia to the searing heat of Baghdad and beyond. According to the historian Farhat Hussain, the Vikings were drawn to the region, like so many others past and present, by the lure of the dirham. In a new book to be published later this year, Dr Hussain contends that this previously little known trade relationship was based on the silver used to make the dirham, the currency which emerged in the Islamic world in the 7th century.
"The Vikings were very interested in silver, not so much in gold," he said. "It was a status symbol for Viking men and women, they even wanted to be buried with silver." According to Dr Hussain, silver in Europe at the time was scarce and of poor quality, in contrast with the Islamic world where silver coins were the foundation of the currency. "These were the US dollars of the day, and they were all over the place."
The two worlds were very different. The Vikings were at the height of their power and influence between the late 8th and early 11th centuries. There is evidence of their travels as far from their homeland as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia to the East, and Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland to the West. At the same time Islam was entering its golden age, with a renaissance of unprecedented intellectual and economic heights that would eventually reach from China to what is now modern-day Spain.
When the two cultures first met, it was in battle. The first Viking expeditions to the Islamic sphere of influence were pillaging raids. But the Norse raiders found they were no match for the organised and disciplined armies of the Caliphs who ruled al Andalus, the region of the Iberian Peninsula that included the cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. Other expeditions pushed overland through what is now Russia, to meet the same fate on the border with the Caspian Sea.
"When the Vikings went to Spain, they got to Seville," said Dr Hussain. "The Emir knew they were there and didn't let them leave, and they eventually got killed. They came back 40 years later and still got killed. On the Caspian Sea they were all wiped out. "There is no point raiding for silver when you don't come back home at all, so they decided on trade relations with the Muslim world." When they put aside their helmets and battle-axes, the Vikings turned to honey and fur as goods they could trade for the coveted silver. Soon they established trade routes with the Islamic world, with the Baghdad-based Abbasids as well as the Andalusians ready to pay in silver.
It wasn't long before the Vikings became involved in another, highly lucrative business: the slave trade. Dr Hussain says that the slave trade operated between the Vikings and the Islamic world was less brutal than the trans-Atlantic "middle passage" that would later see the mass abduction of millions of Africans. "Some of these people were later turned into servants and paid-for labour," said Dr Hussain. "Some even became high officials, so it's hardly the same thing. But slavery is slavery and it shouldn't have happened.
"Nonetheless, some of the Viking activities, their raids, were undertaken in order to have people available to sell in the East. The Vikings wanted dirhams from Al Andalus and Baghdad. Some of the people captured by the Vikings were taken to Scandinavia as slaves and some were sold on to Russia, then on to Baghdad." At the time, the Islamic world was demanding slaves for a wide range of roles, including servitude, concubinage and soldiering. The Abbasids created the Mamluks - from the Arabic for "owned"; a disciplined force of former slaves upon which the Caliph could rely to defend the land. The Caliphs purchased thousands of boys who were captured in battle from Central Asia, where the Turkic tribes had a reputation for military discipline. Many were also taken by Viking raiding parties in central Europe, this time travelling overland rather than in their longboats.
The boys were brought to Baghdad and trained to be soldiers for the Abbasids and many later rose to high positions in the Caliph's court. Before Dr Hussain began his work, very few studies on the links between Arabs and the Vikings had been carried out, by either Western or Islamic scholars. Many ignored the connection or refused to acknowledge its existence, the historian says. "In Europe, when they look at history, it's very much Eurocentric, and the same in North America. They start with the ancient Greeks and the Romans. Same with the Vikings, the approach is that they're from Europe and that's European history.
"We have the same problem in the Arab world. Most Arab historians when they teach, look at what the main Arab historians in history such as Ibn Khaldoun and al Masoudi wrote. And those scholars didn't write anything about the Vikings." Still, the evidence is there. Artefacts that include Arabic weighing scales, beads, women's jewellery and, of course, coins have all been discovered in Denmark and Norway.
Dr Hussain keeps some of the coins for his travels on the lecture circuit and produces a selection from his pocket. They are thin, made from silver and date from the Abbasid caliphate, which existed from the 8th to 13th century and included the Arabian peninsula. They carry the Arabic inscription, "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet". "This is a silver coin, a typical coin found in Scandinavia," he said holding one up. "In Sweden alone, archaeologists found 100,000 of these coins. They're found in the Baltics, Norway and Denmark.
"Most Nordic archaeologists in their books mention very briefly the Arabic coins and speculate. They don't dwell on the subject. There are photographs, but some books show the coins without captions, with nothing mentioned. In the state museum in Norway they have some Arabic coins and books with pictures of these coins and in some of these Norwegian books there's no single mention of having any relations with the Islamic world."
This, he says, "is very naughty". Some English churchmen, who were pillaged by Vikings, left basic accounts about such encounters, which, in Dr Hussain's words, amounted to: "'The pagans came. They burnt our church. We hate them. They are horrible and they have horrible helmets', and that's it." Muslim scholars, on the other hand, left detailed records of Vikings that European historians later relied on. One such scholar was the 10th-century poet Yahya al Ghazal of Cordoba, who rose to high stature in the Caliph's court because of his skills at improvised prose and poetry.
"Al Ghazal writes - the thing I find humorous - is that when the Vikings sing, 'they sound like wild dogs'. He wasn't trying to insult them - he writes an excellent account of their life - but to his ear, compared to the melodies of Cordoba and Seville, that's what they must have sounded like." Dr Hussain's new book, to be published later this year, sheds light on a multifaceted relationship between two cultures on extreme ends of the same spectrum. One a red-headed pagan tribe that wore horned helmets and pillaged for a living, the other a cosmopolitan Islamic civilisation that spanned continents, at the height of its Golden Age.
The trade relationship between the Vikings and the Islamic world may have resulted in millions of silver coins for the Vikings, but it had all come to an end by the mid-11th century, when Christianity was established in most of Scandinavia. As more Vikings converted, there was less trade with the Muslim world. "The Pope didn't encourage them to have strong commercial interests once they became Christian. He encouraged them to become crusaders instead," said Dr Hussain. "So that's how their relationship ended, and they melted most of the Islamic silver they had, which is another reason we don't have the millions of coins that they must have taken."
Echoes of the relationship, however, can be found in today's geopolitical landscape, shaped by the trade routes the Vikings forged to trade with their new partners in Baghdad. "To get down to Baghdad, traders used to go through Russia, and those days no country was named Russia. The Ruse of Sweden gave their name to Russia and the only reason they were there is because they were trading with Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic world then," said Dr Hussain. "Kiev, the Ukraine and Moscow later on, these were founded by Scandinavians who settled in the midway point with the Islamic world. So the Muslim dirham influenced not only the Vikings of Scandinavia, but Russia as well."