On his return to Baghdad in , Sallam recounted his adventures to Ibn Khurradadhbih, who incorporated the story of his journey in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms.
The next official mission sent by a caliph to northern lands was that accompanied by Ibn Fadlan in , whose account is featured in this volume. Almish had asked the caliph to send someone to instruct him and his people in the Islamic faith, to help build a mosque and to construct a fortress to defend his kingdom against his enemies. These enemies were the Khazars, to whom he was a reluctant tributary.
Judging by coin finds, the bulk of northern trade was already passing through Bulghar rather than Itil. Economic power was in the process of shifting from master to vassal. Since the early tenth century Almish had been coining imitation Abbasid dirhams in great quantities, and continued to do so throughout the reign of the caliph Muqtadir, who is mentioned by name on both the coins and in the khutba, the sermon delivered before communal prayers on Fridays.
The embassy set out from Baghdad on 21 June Two other freedmen accompanied the mission, Tikin the Turk and Bars the Saqlab, 6 both of whom were chosen for their knowledge of languages and the customs of the countries through which the mission would be travelling. The caravan followed the old Khurasan road to Rayy and Nishapur, then crossed the river Oxus to Bukhara, where the travellers were received by the Samanid vizier al-Jayhani, almost certainly the famous geographer whose lost Book of Roads and Kingdoms was probably the main source for information on northern peoples found in the later geographers.
Disappointingly, Ibn Fadlan says little of this remarkable man. The revenues from this property, valued at 4, dinars, were intended to defray the costs of constructing the fortress Almish had requested. Ahmad ibn Musa had not left Baghdad with the rest of the caravan, but was supposed to follow five days later. Unsurprisingly, the 4, dinars was never forthcoming, to the chagrin of Ibn Fadlan and the rage of Almish. The party had spent twenty-eight days in Bukhara and winter was setting in. They decided not to wait any longer for Ahmad ibn Musa to join them; they were still unaware that he was in jail.
They returned to the Oxus and rented a boat to take them to Khwarazm, a distance of farsakhs, about miles. The capital was Kath, on the eastern bank of the Oxus, not far from modern Khiva in Uzbekistan.
Although geographically isolated by steppe and desert, ancient irrigation works made the area around Kath immensely productive, and Khwarazm had long enjoyed close commercial relations with the Khazars. The Khwarazmians were great merchants and travellers; Ibn Hawqal says they journeyed as far as the lands of Gog and Magog - that is, well into subarctic regions - in their search for fine furs. As a loyal vassal of the Samanid amir Nasr ibn Ahmad, the Khwarazmshah also feared that Tikin, for reasons of his own, was trying to bypass the Samanids and establish direct contact and, perhaps, trade between Baghdad and the Bulghars.
Nevertheless, the Khwarazmshah finally gave them permission to proceed, and the travellers continued by river to Jurjanlya Gurganj , a distance of fifty farsakhs. They intended to stay only a few days, but the river froze and the weather became too cold to travel.
They were forced to spend three months in Jurjanlya December to early March awaiting the spring thaw. They dismissed his fears, and the party set off with a hired guide on 4 March , joining a caravan headed north. The travellers rode for twenty-five days through what is now Kazakhstan, wrapped in so many layers of clothing against the bitter cold that they could barely move.
On the far side of a mountain chain, they came to the Ust-Yurt, the grazing lands of the Ghuzz Oguz Turks. The travellers pressed on, crossing seven more rivers until at last they reached a Peceneg camp, probably near the Ural River. However, the Pecenegs too were destined to play an important role, serving the Christian rulers of Hungary as border guards in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
After only a day in the yurts of the Pecenegs, the party continued north, crossing the Jayikh Ural River , the largest and swiftest flowing river so far encountered. One of their skin boats was lost fording the river and many men and camels drowned.
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They crossed seven more rivers and entered the lands of the Bashghird, a warlike, violent and dirty people. They were clean-shaven, wore wooden phallic charms round their necks, worshipped nature gods, had clan totems representing fish, snakes and cranes, headhunted and ate lice. Despite their fearsome reputation, however, they did no harm to the travellers. This, of course, was extremely shocking to a Muslim, for Muslims prostrate themselves only before God. It was the custom that most upset Ibn Fadlan, and was ubiquitous among the peoples of the steppes.
The king scattered dirhams over his visitors as a sign of welcome; these were probably locally-coined imitation Samanid dirhams, maintaining the weight and purity of the originals. When the day came, the envoys, carrying banners, presented the king with a horse and saddle which they had brought with them as a gift, and dressed him in black robes and turban, the Abbasid dynastic colour.
Very much aware of his position as a visitor from a more advanced and sophisticated civilization, Ibn Fadlan insisted that everyone, including the king, who was very fat, stand while the letter was read out. A translator rendered each phrase into the Bulghar language as the letter was read, and when it was completed, the audience roared Allcihu akbar!
An hour later they were summoned to dinner, and Ibn Fadlan describes the manner in which this was done, for everything he witnessed was new and strange. The king himself cut a piece of meat for each of the guests and served them in order of precedence. As each was served, he was brought his own individual little table.
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Mead was offered, and Ibn Fadlan is careful to point out that the drink was licit, since it had only been allowed to ferment a day and a night, so did not qualify as an alcoholic drink. Three days later, and just as Ibn Fadlan had feared, Almish demanded his money. Ibn Fadlan was not only placed in an embarrassing and humiliating position, but a very dangerous one: Almish was an imposing figure, and Ibn Fadlan was a long way from home.
Almish agreed, and the new call was adopted for the next few days. He continued, however, to badger Ibn Fadlan about the money, and when he saw he was getting nowhere, ordered the muezzin to resume the Hanafi call to prayer.
When Ibn Fadlan protested, Almish responded with a splendid display of analogical reasoning, showing why Ibn Fadlan, by his refusal to hand over the money, had lost all authority to admonish him over matters of religion, for in refusing he was disobeying the caliph, his master. The dialogue is beautifully reported, and as Ibn Fadlan engagingly admits, reduced him to silence.
He adds that henceforth Almish nicknamed him Abu Bakr the Truthful Abu Bakr al-Siddiq , after the sobriquet of the first caliph, who never told an untruth. The sarcasm was not lost on him, and it is much to his credit that he reports it. The battle of wits between the two men continued, Almish apparently seeking to frighten his visitor by rather pointedly having his interpreter tell him the fate of a particularly intelligent visitor from Sind, who was hanged by his travelling companions as a most suitable sacrifice to Tengri, the sky god. Then Almish increased the pressure on Ibn Fadlan by taking him to a dark forest to view the remains of a giant that he had had hanged.
The giant had been found swimming in the river, could not speak and was so hideous that pregnant women miscarried when they saw him.
Apparently, he was from the lands of Gog and Magog, the threatening realm that featured so prominently in contemporary Islamic conceptions of the Apocalypse. Then I went away. He describes their dress, looks, sexual behaviour, customs, hygiene - or lack of it - and religious practices, and also gives a fine description of a Viking funeral.
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The Rus had long been trading in Baltic, Slavic and Finnish lands and had evidently incorporated practices from local cultures with whom they lived and traded. He was clearly a sacral ruler, modelled on the Khazar khdqan, suggesting the influence of the Khazars on the Rus and on this point confirming other Arabic sources.
He was surrounded by a retinue of warriors, who were sacrificed when he died. In another example, a lieutenant, corresponding to the Khazar bak or beg, led the men into battle. His description of the aurora borealis, as a vision of armies battling in the heavens, follows, as James Montgomery has pointed out, a tradition of description of such phenomena that stretches back to classical times; however, he is also trying to communicate an impression of a real event. The short days of winter posed a real problem for Muslims, for it was difficult to fit the five stipulated prayer times into winter days that lasted only 4V6, or farther north, 3 V 2 hours.
The giant from the land of Gog and Magog was certainly wondrous, but Ibn Fadlan is careful to indicate that he is only relating what he was told by Almish. Perhaps the skeleton Almish showed him in the forest was really that of a bear.
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This would appear to be unknown to science, for the only large snake in Russia is the Amur rat-snake, which grows to the length of cm. However, the fact that Almish assured him that it was harmless shows that it probably was a ratsnake, magnified by terror. The three plates of onyx-like material, which Almish showed him and claimed came from the horn of a rhinoceros, may have been made of the material called khutu, fossilized mammoth tusk; this was much sought after for making knife handles because of its durability.
Much that he saw appalled him, particularly the open sexual congress of the Rus with their slave girls and the always shocking beliefs and practices of pagans. He nevertheless made every effort to understand, despite the language barrier, what was going on round him. His attitude is almost scientific in its detachment as he describes food, drink, dress, manners, beliefs, customs, laws, taxes and burial rites - exactly the subjects a modern anthropologist would observe. His lack of condemnatory comment is striking, for these practices surely seemed very outlandish to a Muslim from Baghdad.
Viking group sex and mixed bathing must have deeply shocked him, but he gamely records what he saw. He tried and failed to get the women of the Muslim community to veil, but refrains from derogatory remarks; later travellers, like Ibn Battuta, would not show such restraint. At the time he wrote, there was no established genre of travel writing in Arabic, so Ibn Fadlan had no model. He seems simply to have jotted down his impressions as they occurred to him, and his book is all the better for it.
He writes simply and without affectation, and most unusually in an Arabic work, never refers to written sources.
Ibn Fadlan bore the hardships of his journey with great stoicism; indeed, his only complaint, on what was after all a difficult and dangerous mission, was about the bitter cold. Nor is the complex relationship between Almish and Ibn Fadlan resolved, as it surely must have been in the fuller version, since we know from other sources that diplomatic ties remained intact. The geographer Dimashqi mentions that the caliph Muqtadir sent a faqih to teach the principles of Islam to the recently converted Bulghars, and that afterwards a party of Bulghars came to Baghdad intending to make the pilgrimage to Mecca; this suggests that relations between the envoy from Baghdad and the Bulghars were resolved amicably.
Abu Hamid was born in and left al-Andalus in , never to return. He spent more than ten years in North Africa, then in sailed for Alexandria, passing the island of Sicily on the way and observing Mt Etna in full eruption. While there he took the opportunity of visiting the famous lighthouse, the Pharos, which he describes in detail in his Gift of the Hearts Tuhfat al-albab.
He continued his studies in Cairo, where he spent the years , taking time off to make a trip up the Nile to Ikhmim and gather information about the peoples of the Sudan and beyond.
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In he left Cairo for Damascus, where he taught hadith and continued his studies. Abu Hamid left in for unknown reasons, and found him in the town of Abhar in Iran. He mentions in passing in the Tuhfat that he had visited Khwarazm three times; he may have made his first visit sometime this year. The following year, , found Abu Hamid in Saqsin, a great trading centre and the successor city to the old Khazar capital of Itil; this was to be his home for almost twenty years. He visited Bulghar in , but does not tell us why or how long he stayed, and in he set out for Hungary, or as he calls it Bashghird.