Traveling runs in the Viking blood

Even before Leif Erikson, the Norse visited Baghdad and beyond as merchant warriors

Image: Public Domain
Nicholas Roerich, “Guests from Overseas,” a painting depicting the “Rus.”

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

More than a millennium ago, the greatest travelers in all of Europe were the Vikings. Fleets of Viking raiders were striking fear into the hearts of coast and river-dwellers throughout western Europe, while other Norsemen of more mercantile inclination were making their way east—going as far as Baghdad and beyond.

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.

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 with a population of nearly one million.

From the time of the first Viking attacks on England in the late eighth century, the 300-year epoch known as the Viking Age found Scandinavians venturing farther afield than any other Europeans. They colonized nearly the entire North Atlantic, even establishing a short-lived settlement in North America about the turn of the millennium. It was largely Vikings from Norway and Denmark who made these western voyages, but waves of “Eastern Vikings,” predominantly Swedes, headed southeast to establish trading centers in Kiev and Novgorod, where the elite among them became princes and rulers.

It was in trading that these Vikings, or Rus, excelled. The Arabs, for their part, were eager to have caps and coats made of black fox, the most valued of all the furs. From the Rus one could obtain furs of sable, Siberian squirrel, ermine, marten, weasel, mink, fox, and colored hare.

Other wares traded by the Rus included wax and birch bark, fish teeth, honey, goat skins and horse hides, falcons, acorns, hazelnuts, cattle, swords, and armor. Amber was highly prized in the East and became a mainstay of Scandinavian trade. Also valued in the East were the slaves that the Rus captured from among the Eastern European peoples—Slavs, from which English has derived the word slave. According to the gewkal, writing in 977, the Rus ran a slave trade that flourished “from Spain to Egypt.”

While the usual relationship of the Rus with Baghdad, Khazaria, and other Muslim lands was one of peaceable trade, this was not always so. Along the shores of the Caspian Sea, Rus tribes turned their prized weapons against Muslims twice in the 10th century, once attacking Abaskun on the eastern Caspian in 910, and then penetrating the oil country around Baku in 912, taking rich spoils and killing thousands.

But the Rus were primarily explorers, colonizers, and tradesmen, and although they were well-armed, Muslim accounts describe them as merchant-warriors whose primary business was trade. They were after the Abbasid-issued dirhams flooding the region, and though at times they procured these by exacting tribute, they largely traded with Muslims.

We would in fact know little about these Norsemen in the East were it not for Muslim chroniclers. Ibn Fadlan, whose 10th-century Risala (letter) is the richest account of all, kept a journal that details his encounters with the Rus along the Volga. A few decades later, al-Tartushi, a merchant from Cordoba, described a Danish market town, passing down to us a rare glimpse of the Norsemen in their domestic setting.

Unlike Europeans, Arab chroniclers bore no grudge against the Vikings, and thus their reports are more detached and, in the eyes of many scholars, more credible. Experts today acknowledge that the Vikings were, in general, victims of a medieval “bad press,” for the military excursions of Charlemagne and other Europeans were no less ruthless. Yet the Norsemen had only a runic alphabet, suited for no more than inscribing grave-stones and place-markers, and were hardly in a position to set the record straight.

Hundreds of Viking Age graves and buried hoards, it turns out, contain caches of still-gleaming Arab dirhams, the coin that helped fuel the Viking Age. It was largely the dirham that lured the Scandinavians eastward in the first place. Silver had become their favored medium of exchange, but with no sources of the precious metal in the northern forests, they went in pursuit of it far and wide. Arab merchants had started circulating silver coins in the Volga region in the late eighth century, and Scandinavian traders, intent on finding the source of the lucre, set a course across the Baltic in their shallow-draft longboats.

Partly excerpted from an article written for Aramco World Magazine, Vol. 50, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1999.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.