Friday, 31 August 2012

Something for the Weekend.. Ibn Fadlan & the lands of Darkness

Arabs and Vikings

Written records of historical encounters invariably run north to south or west to east: we discover 'them'; they remain 'the other'; so Penguin Classic's new collection 'Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North' Ibn Fadlan & the lands of Darkness is a welcome corrective to the westocentric tomes of exploration we're used to. Actually the sub-title is a little misleading as most of the journeys described take the 9th and 10th century Arab scribes to what we now call Central Asia, the lands of the stans: Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Bashkortostan: lands we imagine to be hot and dry but which to the Arab voyagers from Baghdad were the farthest extremities, terrifying lands full of fabulous beasts and races of heathen giants called Gog and Magog, who occasionally break through a wall raised by Alexander the Great to raid the lands to the south.

It is on one of these voyages that Ibn Fadlan, perhaps the most famous of these travellers, encounters Vikings: the Rus, Swedish Vikings who head east to trade with the Byzantine empire and Muslim realms using the Volga River to navigate. This encounter forms the centrepiece of the first part of the book offering us the only eyewitness encounter of that old cinematic standby, the Viking ship burial, an account far more bloodthirsty than Hollywood has ever let on. While leaving us in no doubt who is civilised and who are 'the filthiest of God's creatures', Ibn Fadlan finds much to admire in the violent and physically striking Scandinavians.
Other titles of a similar vein here in Charing Cross Road's history department feature the more renowned Ibn Battuta, a later 14th century traveller:  the adventures of Ibn Battuta and The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta


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