Author: Payton Hull (Page 1 of 2)

Comparing Modern and Medieval Maps: Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness

The impact of mapping Ibn Fadlan’s journey on a modern map and Medieval map is striking because of the differing proportions of the two maps. I used the Charta Rogeriana, a compilation of the smaller maps from the Tabula Rogeriana, to approximate Fadlan’s journey on a map that would be as close as possible to what his group would have used to navigate. What is immediately noticeable is the orientation of the two maps. Modern maps are oriented with north at the top but Medieval Islamic maps orient with south at the top. Fadlan comments multiple times about the “cold of hell” that he experiences as he moves farther north. This idea is compounded by the extreme distance Fadlan appears to have travelled. Baghdad, his starting point, is very close to the center of the world on this medieval map, since it is close to Mecca. In comparison, Fadlan’s final destination of Bulghar appears to be close to the edge of the world. This creates a powerful visual of how differently Baghdad and Bulghar are thought of. Map makers of the time were well aware that the Earth is a sphere and the world was simply flattened in order to be viewed better on a piece of paper, just as we used different map projections to do today. However, the symbolic nature of medieval maps cannot be ignored. The power of the Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad, is emphasized due to its position close to the center of the world. In this way, the distance between Baghdad and Bulghar is real spatially, but possibly also spiritually in the beliefs of people living near Baghdad, where the map would have been created. In the modern map the proportions of the continents are more accurately depicted with Eastern Asia, Russia, and Siberia taking up huge swaths of land to the East. In the Medieval map, the East, in general, could be described as squished in comparison. The Abbasid caliphate, which Ibn Fadlan served, influenced the creation of this Medieval map and this is very clear since it’s seat, Western Asia, dominates the map because of its primary position at the center of the world and size in comparison to other areas. The leg of the journey shown between Baghdad and Bukhara also emphasizes this point. In the modern map, constrained to about the same size and viewpoint of the Charta Rogeriana, visually takes up about 1/6th of the width of the map. On the Medieval map this leg takes up about 1/4th of the map. This demonstrates the importance of the land owned by the Abbasid caliphate and their allies; it is shown as expansive and central to travel throughout the world. In comparing the two maps, it is also clear that the Arabian Peninsula is also the most accurately mapped. This speaks to the fact that geographers of the time would know their own land the best, but also to the enduring legacy of the Abbasid caliphate. The lost map of Al-Khwārazmi, a geographer that worked for the Abbasid in the 9th century, informed the creation of the Tabula Rogeriana and therefore the Charta Rogeriana. The Tabula was created in Sicily in the 12th century and the Arabian Peninsula is still the most accurate portion of the map in comparison to modern standards.  


Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: The Bāshghirds

The description of the Bāshghirds is one of the shortest in Fadlān’s account and in it he focuses on violence, war, and religion. The first thing he says about these people is that they “took every precaution against them, for they are the worst of the Turks, the dirtiest and the readiest to kill” (23). He discusses three different religious sects within the Bāshghirds, which could all be considered different “clans” (24). The first carry around wooden phalluses that they pray to for thigs such as, in Fadlān’s example, protection or luck on a journey or when they run into an enemy. When Fadlān asks why they pray to this kind of idol the answer he receives is that they “came from such a thing and cannot imagine anything else to be [their] creator” (24). This supports the idea that physicality is important to this group, as well as the idea that creation and protection go hand in hand. The role of masculinity in this society could be easily extrapolated from this information. The second clan that Fadlān describes view the world as being ruled by twelve different lords that control the season, day and night, men, horses, etc. He comments that the lord of the sky is the most powerful, but that “he is in concord with the others, so that each approves what his companion does” (24). This describes a very organized, democratic religion which could host a detailed understanding of how the world works based on the interactions of the domains of each lord. It might suggest that this clan has democratic government, too, but Fadlān fails to comment on it. He ends his description with a quote from the Quran that, in this context, is very dismissive of other religious beliefs and this value judgment makes them seem silly in comparison. Finally, Fadlān mentions three clans that worship snakes, fish, and cranes, respectively. The crane worshipping clan shares the story of how they accepted the cranes as a deity, saying that when they were going to be defeated by some enemies “the cranes began to give their call behind their opponents. Their enemy was frightened and turned and fled” (24). As with the first clan, it seems that protection is very important to this group. Unlike the clan that worships many lords, Fadlān does not say anything negative about the more monotheistic groups he describes. He simply says things like, “and they worship them for that reason” (24). This gives the impression that monotheistic religions are more palatable for Fadlān. However, he does call all these people “the worst of the Turks,” so the respect is limited. The first thing Fadlān reports is the violent, war-like tendencies of the Bāshghirds before giving more specific religious information about them. It could be that he is scoping out possible northern allies and providing information pertaining to how their religion comparing to Islam to give the caliph an idea about how their working relationship could work or how hard it would be to convert them. Though, this seems unlikely since this section is so short and lacks a lot of information. It may be that Fadlān thought it would be amusing to share this religious information, especially polytheistic example.  


Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Jurjānīya

On their way to “the Gate of the Turks” (10), Fadlān and his group stop in Jurjānīya and were forced to stay there for three months because the Jayhun river froze and the “ice was seventeen spans thick” (8), though the notes show that this is an exaggeration. In this section, Ibn Fadlān describes the cold environment, how it seems to impact hospitality, and the group’s preparations for the next part of the journey. Fadlān states: “We saw a land which made us think that a gate to the cold of hell had opened before us”. In this environment, Fadlān notes, hospitality is built on warmth and sharing “a good fire”. This society also does not leave beggars out in the cold; they can come into the houses to warm up by the fire (8). Though not much information is given, it could be interpreted that being generous towards others in culturally important in Jurjānīya. In February, when the ice began melting, the group was able to start preparing for their journey. Some of the supplies they needed were camels, folding boats, “three month’s supply of bread, millet, and dried and salted meat”, and much warmer clothes (9). The group stayed in Jurjānīya from December 921 through February 922. Fadlān describes the weather as being quite dire, mentioning camels that die out in the cold and his beard freezing into a block of ice. He describes his living situation during this stay, saying that he “slept in a house, inside which was another, inside which was a Turkish felt tent” but even in this insulated state his “cheek froze to the pillow” (9).  

One arguable cultural difference that Fadlān encounters here is the treatment of beggars. He says that “it is a rule among them (the people from Jurjānīya) that beggars do not wait at the door, but come into the house…” (8). This implies that in Baghdad, and other places Fadlān has visited, that this is not the case. He writes without judgment and in a very neutral way in this section, so his style doesn’t make it seem strange to take care of beggars but, rather, that this custom is particular to the area. Given this idea, maybe beggars are well taken care of in Baghdad, but they don’t just enter someone else’s home. This is a concept that is interesting enough to Fadlān as a medieval traveler to mention, but also is strange enough for the modern reader to be made uncomfortable by. For many modern cultures, it would be unthinkable to walk into someone else’s home since there are now such strong ideas of property and ownership, along with what could be considered, in this way, a more individualist approach to life. Fadlān also calls the weather that he is experiencing “the cold of hell”. This begs the question; how does this theologian conceptualize hell? In Islam, there is a belief that some parts of hell are hot and others are cold. Because he was raised in a warm climate, does the idea of a cold hell hold more sway for Fadlān?  


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