In the 10th century, the Abbasid Caliph – the ruler of what was arguably the greatest empire of its time sent an emissary to the Volga Bulgars – not to be confused with the Christianized Bulgars who would form Bulgaria, further to the West. These were a people who were important at the time as they controlled trade routes between Asia and Europe, and also, being Muslim, were potential economic and political allies for the Arabs against the still-mighty Byzantine Empire. Ahmad ibn Fadlan was that emissary.
He was tasked with making sure that the newly converted Bulgars were properly instructed in the religion, and also with making sure that they remained allies to the Caliph. For their part, the Bulgars sought Arab help against the Khazars, another group of horse-bound Turkic people from Central Asia.
Ibn Fadlan’s account is most notable, though, for its descriptions of the Rus – Viking raiders who, rather than sailing west across the North Sea to England, went south and east along the Volga. They were also of concern to the Caliph, as the Vikings both posed a risk in their raiding activities as well as potential trading partners and mercenaries. The descendants of the Rus were to become assimilated into local Slavic traditions and become a part of the present-day Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian peoples.
Most striking is Ibn Fadlan’s account of a Viking ship burial. Here, a great man was put on board a ship, along with his prized belongings and a human sacrifice, his concubine. This sacrifice in turn was said to be able to see into heaven before she was killed, allowing a glimpse of the dead man waiting for her in fields of green. Before meeting him there, though, she was brutally strangled and stabbed, and the ship set afire.
Ibn Fadlan’s account serves not only as a portrait of Viking society on the cusp of the Viking Age, but also as a way to look at the tense political and economic negotiations surrounding the Arab place in the world. As Rome – Byzantium, at this point – declines and power shifts eastward, Ibn Fadlan points out how trade routes east-west and north-south become drawn away from Constantinople and towards Baghdad.