Ibn Fadlan does not decisively say precisely when he enters Bulghar, but he does relate the crossing of many rivers on his journey there, after which he tells of how he interacts with the King of the X. He recounts his failure to deliver the money his journey was intended to do, reminding the reader that he had “warned [his companions] about this [situation]” (29).
Ibn Fadlan also describes the northern lights, which he counts as one of “uncounted marvels”(31). He is also struck by the people’s relationship with the vast number of snakes in the area, which he recounts as “twisted about…tree[s]” but emphasizes that they “do no harm” (33). Ibn Fadlan also describes evergreen trees, saying how they are “narrow leaves like palms, but grouped together,” commenting on how the “trunk is leafless.” (34).
Most troublesome to him, however, is the shortness of the nights, which make for a difficult prayer routine. He relates the tale of the muezzin, who says that “a month earlier, he had not slept at night, for fear of missing the dawn prayer” (32). The varying lengths of day and night create an obvious strain on the Muslim prayer rituals, which is reflected in this passage of ibn Fadlan’s travel narrative.
In Bulghar, ibn Fadlan also encounters the Rūs, or, as we know them today, the Vikings, who travel down the River Itil for trading purposes. Interestingly, ibn Fadlan says that he has “never seen bodies more perfect than theirs” while also describing them as the “filthiest of God’s creatures” (45, 46). This apparent contradiction of beauty within filthy disgustingness indicates that hygiene and appearance are utterly distinct and separated from the idea of the “perfect body.” Unlike today, beauty and cleanliness were not nearly as closely associated in ibn Fadlan’s time as this description on the Rūs demonstrates.
In addition to describing their lack of hygienic habits, mainly the absence of ritual washing, ibn Fadlan juxtaposes the “filthi[ness]” of the Rūs with their habit of public sex with slave girls. Ibn Fadlan writes that when “slave girls’ are on sale for the merchants at Bulghar, “each of the men has sex with his slave, while his companions look on. Sometimes a whole group of them gather together in this way, in full view of one another. If a merchange enters at this moment to buy a young slave girl from one of the men and finds him having sex with her, the man does not get up off her until he has satisfied himself” (47). This passage immediately follows ibn Fadlan’s observations around the filthiness of the Rūs, implying that their public sex is a part of or, at the very least, related to their filthiness.
This perception is very much in line with ibn Fadlan’s previous observations and outrage at women bearing their genitals, however, in describing the Rūs, the Arabic traveller takes on a more neutral, objective tone. Perhaps the habits and customs of the Rūs are so astonishing that ibn Fadlan feels that the facts alone speak for themselves, in the eyes of a Muslim audience, or perhaps ibn Fadlan respects the Rūs for their strength and beauty, counteracting his previous judgmental writing on other non-Muslim communities. Either way, there is something about the Rūs that captivates ibn Fadlan and consumes a significant portion of his travel narrative, reflecting his interest in other cultures and people.