Category: Ibn Fadlan

Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Jayḥūn

When he enters Jayhun, Ibn Fadlan talks mostly about the overall environment and how cold it is, as well as the people and some of their customs. First, he mentions the river freezing over for 3 months, and how because of this it was difficult to cross because all the cargo animals kept slipping and sliding over it. He goes on to say that him and the other men he was traveling with “saw land which made [them] think a gate to the cold of hell had opened up before [them],” (8) which evidently expresses just how cold it is to them.

In reference to the people who live there, he talks a lot about their social gestures and customs. For instance, he mentions that in the country they’re in, a friendly gesture would include something along the lines of , “ ‘Come to my house where we can talk, for there is a good fire there,’” (8) which in turn shows their generosity and kindness. Also, a beggar is not supposed to wait outside at the door, but should instead come inside to warm up by the fire. He then goes back to talking about how cold it is, and how the camels even died from the intenseness of the weather. He also mentions that “the roads and markets were so empty that one could wander through most of them without seeing a soul or coming face to face with another living being,” (9). Even walking from the bathouse to the main house, Fadlan mentions that his beard was a “block of ice” (9), and that he had to actually thaw it out in the fire. By the middle of February, Fadlan states that the ice began to melt, but it was still cold enough for them to have to layer more clothing—which they were encouraged to do by the locals.

I thought it was interesting the way the narrator described how cold it was; it made the contrast of where he was from seem that much more obvious. I also think that goes into who might be his intended audience. For him to focus so much on the harshness of the weather, and how despite being dressed in so many layers from their home, they still suffered from the cold—I think it says something about who he is writing to. It seems as though parts of his travel narrative serves as a sort of warning for the people back home in Baghdad, who might be reading about the places he’s been to. It is as if he is recording all these terrible things because of how much of a culture shock it is, but also because he wants his people to be aware of just how bad it would be for someone like them.

Both Fadlan and his people’s customs and environment are very different from that of the place he is in, and his travel narrative shows just how different it is. However, it seems to go beyond just showing the difference, and instead resembles a sort of cautionary guide for Muslims.

Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Bukhārā

In Bukhārā, Ibn Fadlan focuses his writing almost entirely on his interactions with Nasr ibn Ahmad, whom ibn Fadlan describes as “a beardless youth.” After Nasr ibn Ahmad inquires after “the Commander of the Faithful,” the letter commanding him to transfer funds from al-Fadl ibn Musa to Ahmad ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi via Ibn al-Furat is read to him, but Ahmad ibn Musa cannot be found. Here, Ibn Fadlan makes clear that the Christian, Fadl ibn Musa has played a trick by having the agent, Ahmad ibn Musa arrested in Merv and inhibiting the transfer of money. Ibn Fadlan waits in Bukhara for twenty-eight days before concluding that to wait any longer would be to risk the cold of winter and prevent further travel, and so they leave for Khwarazm. However, before continuing the narrative in Khwarazm, Ibn Fadlan dedicates a short passage to describe trade methods in the city. He relates how copper, brass and bronze dirhams are used to settle dowrys, buy and sell property, and the trade of slaves.

What appears to surprise Ibn Fadlan most is that those in Bukhara “don’t use any other type of dirhams for [the purposes of property and slave trading].” This implies that dowries are handled differently in Baghdad, which is surprising considering the manner in which Nasr in Ahmad inquires after the caliph Muqtadir, indicating that the city is under the same rule as Baghdad. Ibn Fadlan’s reaction almost seems to indicate he thinks it inappropriate or incorrect to treat marriage, essentially the trading of a “free” woman between a father and a husband, as the same or a similar transaction of property and slaves. This gives insight into the position of women in Baghdad as very hierarchal, depending on their status as slave or free.

Ibn Fadlan also makes his prejudices against non-Muslims clear in his representation of the agent who sabotaged his mission to transfer funds. He writes the name of Ibn al-Furat’s agent twice, and both times, the name is accompanied by the appositive “the Christian.” Not only is this the only mention of religion in the entire passage dedicated to Ibn Fadlan’s time in Bukhara, but it also serves to isolate Fadl ibn Musa from the other participants, making it easier to land the blame on him. The use of this appositive also indicates that Ibn Fadlan anticipates that his audience or readership will find this tidbit of information important and, perhaps, clarifying; with parchment as such a precious commodity in this time, Ibn Fadlan would not have wasted a word. This not only reveals Ibn Fadlan’s own prejudices against non-Muslims, but also confirms the stereotypes and prejudices of his audience and those for whom he was writing. This covert attack on Fadl ibn Musa on the basis of his Christianity is further cemented with the use of the word “trick” to describe his tactics in handling his employer’s affairs, a word which not only derogates his actions but also clears Ibn Fadlan of blame. He was tricked, and so he is therefore not responsible for the failure of the expedition, nor can he be written off as an irresponsible delegate.


The Travels of Ibn Battutah: Timbuktu (Sample Post)

Here you will write an annotation about the location named in the post’s title, according to the following guidelines:

Guidelines: For each post, you will choose a location featured in your travel narrative. You will then answer two factual questions to the best of your ability (some locations or narratives may not include all of this information):

  • What kinds of things does the author describe there? Is (s)he focused on the buildings, the culture, the people, the environment?
  • What do we learn about the practical or physical aspects of the traveler’s journey (food, lodging, weather, terrain)? When did they arrive, and how long did they stay?

Once you have summarized the factual information about the traveler’s stay, you must also interpret these facts in some way that is interesting to you. Example questions might be:

  • What might we assume about the traveler’s own culture based on the observations noted here?
  • What aspects of this location, or this description of the location, are particularly unusual to you as a modern reader? Which are unusual to the medieval traveler? Are these the same?
  • What do you think is the writer’s purpose in recording this information? To whom is s(he) writing?

You should not attempt to answer all of these questions, and you do not have to choose any of them. The point of this assignment is to move from facts to an interpretation of the facts. What do you find particularly interesting or significant about this stop on the traveler’s journey?