When the Arabs met the Vikings: New discovery suggests ancient links

An Arabic ring discovered in a Scandinavian tomb suggests ancient links between the Vikings and Muslims.

Rurik the Oarsman (830-879), the Viking prince who conquered Novgorod – Medieval Russia. Illustration by H. Koekkoek / Getty Images
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The discovery of a silver ring with an Arabic inscription in a Viking grave has added credence to the ancient accounts of Arab travellers in their encounters with the Norsemen, and points to a fascinating trade and cultural exchange.

“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.”

So the Arab traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan recorded his meeting more than 1,000 years ago with a strange race he called the “Rusiyyah”, now commonly known as Vikings.

Ibn Fadlan first met the Norse warriors as they travelled across the Russian steppes, sailing their longships down the Volga river and looking to trade with the Arab world.

There were women as well, who each wore “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.

“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.”

Among the Arabs who encountered Vikings, the reaction was a mixture of horror and fascination. The knife worn by the women may have actually been a scoop for ear wax. The men were tattooed and performed brutal burial rituals that included killing female slaves.

Almost as bad, they were seen washing their faces and heads each day with “the filthiest and most polluted water”.

Travelling north at about the same time was Ibrahim Ibn Yacoub Al Tartushi, from what was then the Muslim kingdom of Al Andalus in Spain.

Reaching Schleswig, now the town of Hedeby on the border of Germany and Denmark, the Vikings lived in a society in which women could divorce whenever they liked and where both sexes wore “artificial eye make-up”, Al Tartushi wrote.

Even worse, was their 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.”

The Arabs might have been largely unimpressed with the Vikings, but they made a big impression on the Norsemen, new archaeological discoveries show.

A rare ring with an inscription in Arabic has been uncovered at a Scandinavian site.

Professor Sebastian Warmlander, a biophysicist who is part of the research team that published its findings in March, says it is the only ring of this type ever found.

“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.”

The non-gilded silver alloy ring was found in a 9th century woman’s grave at the Viking trading centre in Birka, Sweden.

It is set with a violet stone inscribed with Arabic Kufic writing, interpreted as reading “il-la-lah” (for “or to Allah”).

The angular script was developed in the 7th century, dominated Arabic writing in the 8th to 10th centuries and waned in popularity during the 12th century when it was replaced by the cursive Naskh style. The ring is not the first evidence of its kind regarding links between Vikings and the Muslim world, but “is arguably so far the best evidence for direct contacts”.

“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.”

As for the 1,000-year-old written accounts from Arab travellers, Prof Warmlander says they should 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.

The connection between the Vikings and Arab Muslims has long been neglected. One exception was the Hollywood film The 13th Warrior made in 1999, with Antonio Banderas as Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a fictional character based on the real-life traveller.

A mysterious character, the real Ibn Fadlan was a key member of a diplomatic mission sent by Abbasid Caliph Al Muqtadir in 921 from Baghdad to the upper reaches of the river Volga, in answer to a request for diplomatic assistance from the king of Volga Bulgaria.

The king had recently converted to Islam and needed help in training jurists, instructing his people in how to pray properly, and in financial assistance to build a mosque and a fort. Visitors to this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which runs from today until Wednesday, will be able to discover more about Ibn Fadlan and the story of Vikings and the Arabs.

Professor James Montgomery, who will be one of the speakers at a session dedicated to this topic on Saturday, says hundreds of thousands of Islamic silver coins have been excavated in Scandinavia.

“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.”

Prof Montgomery will discuss his work in the recent volume of the NYU Press Library of Arabic Literature: Two Arabic Travel Books, where his section is a translation of the travel account of Ibn Fadlan’s Volga mission.

“There is little evidence of cultural exchange. Occasionally a group of Vikings is described as raiding the lands they visited, although the sources that describe them as peaceful in their dealings with the Muslims outnumber those that describe them as violent,” he says.

Professor Thorir Hraundal Jonsson, the other guest speaker on Saturday, says the archaeological evidence, such as the ring and other finds – that include Arabic weighing scales, beads, vessels, censers (incense burners) and over a quarter of a million Islamic silver coins – “are evidence of a cultural exchange”.

“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 Vikings took goods such as honey, furs, iron, amber and slaves from the Baltic region to the Caliphate.

“I believe the topic is very relevant today because it evokes a time when Europe and the Middle East maintained a special relationship, predating the Crusades,” says Prof Hraundal Jonsson, of the University of Iceland, whose work has focused on how medieval Arab texts reflect the expansion of Vikings into the Islamic world.

“It is also important for the study of the Vikings in that it shows that they enjoyed much more diverse cultural contacts than previously thought.”

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.”

While the Arabs generally regarded the Vikings as barbaric, there is still much to discover. Ibn Fadlan’s account gives a peek into what the Vikings thought of their visitors.

“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.’”

• 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.