Posts Tagged ‘Ibn Fadlan’

Adventures in Bookland: Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

In the 10th century, an Arab traveller named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan went, as part of an embassy, from Baghdad into the far north, to visit the newly Muslim king of the Bulghars who lived on the Volga River where it flows into the Caspian Sea. On his return, he wrote an account of his journey that is remarkable for its precision, dispassion and curiosity. Ibn Fadlan was genuinely interested in the peoples and customs he encountered along the way, and went out of his way to find out more about them. The most obvious example of this is how he set out to learn more about the burial customs of the pagan Rus (Vikings originally from Sweden), going to visit one of their settlements when he learned that one of the leaders there had died recently. His account of the burial is both remarkable and deeply troubling – and should give modern-day pagan fantasists pause. There is a tendency nowadays to ascribe a purer, simpler, more noble or more spiritual culture to pre-Christian pagan societies, such as Neil Young’s idealisation of Moctezuma, king of the Aztecs, in Cortez the Killer. Ibn Fadlan’s chilling description of the ritual sacrifice of one of the dead man’s slave girls should be enough to make anyone rethink idealising pagan cultures.

Going on, the book also contains extracts from other Arab travellers. While none are as interesting as Ibn Fadlan, their varied testimonies add to a patchwork quilt of impressions of which, for me, the chief was the realisation of just how large a part the slave trade played in linking the economies of Asia, and in particular the links between the Caliphate and the pagan cultures of the steppes. Much of war was, in fact, slave taking expeditions, with a huge market waiting for the captured slaves in the Islamic world and among the shot lived kingdoms of the steppes. But what is particularly eye opening for the modern reader is how women and girls were such a significant part of this trade. Slaving expeditions would raid neighbouring tribes, capturing young women and girls, and these would be sold on as concubines to rich and powerful men in the Islamic world. One of the other writers in the book, Abu Hamid, notes in passing how he buys two slave girls, ages 8 and 15, and gives them various jobs before saying that one of them had a child but it died.

To put it bluntly, in this world, women were currency: they were bought and sold and became the trophies that accompanied the worldly success of rich and powerful men. Modern-day feminists have little use for Christianity, but that religion’s refusal to countenance concubinage contributed more to the decline of the trafficking of women than any of other factor.