Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part three

Sassanian Persian coins in the Sundveda hoard, Sweden
When most of us think of Viking voyages, we think of them travelling to Scotland, Ireland, England and further west, past Iceland and Greenland and all the way to Canada. But there were eastern routes, too, along rivers, sometimes involving portage, there were routes that went to Istanbul and to the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq.

People traveled these routes in both directions but calling them "trade routes" gives only one function: these were diplomatic routes as well where leaders could also cultivate allies, hire troops and tax the populations. one of the most important rivers on these routes was the Volga and an early visitor to Viking lands was the Persian, Ahmad ibn Rustah. He wrote about visiting the Rus, who most scholars identify as Vikings, and travelled with them to Novgorod.

While it would be wonderful to associate the pre-Islamic Sassanian Persian coins in the Sundveda hoard with this explorer, the hoard is dated to the previous century. We are lucky to have some surviving texts from Arab explorers, but there must have been many other similar interactions which are lost to history. One of the common methods of securing alliances was through marriage and it seems fairly likely that the owner of the Islamic ring at the Viking site would have been a Muslim woman who had married a Viking. Talking about the site to my friend, Robert, who is far more knowledgeable about the Medieval period than myself, he said that a silver ring would indicate someone, while not necessarily extremely wealthy (the Vikings loved silver), nevertheless, would have had some status. As I said in the last episode, minor items usually do not get traded very far and it taxes the imagination to suppose that such a long-distance trading expedition would be made to bring such culturally specific objects to the Vikings.

The name most commonly associated with Arab/Viking contact is Ahmad ibn Fadlan who also visited the Rus, and his stories inspired a very strange work of "fiction" in our time. That will be tomorrow's topic.

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