Author: walrondl (Page 1 of 2)

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

The differences between Ibn Hawqal’s KMMS world map and my modern Google map are almost immeasurable. More than millennium separating their creation dates, my modern Google map and Hawqal’s KMMS map could not be more different. The first and probably most obvious difference is the style of illustration. The Google map is a more accurate representation of the land. It has details regarding the terrain, tan indicating hot deserts, dark green indicating mountains, and white for areas covered by snow. Bodies of water drawn to size, relative to one another, with each bend in a river noted. The Hawqal map uses geometric shapes and minimal color. The bodies of water are rough estimates if anything. Seas, Gulfs, and Oceans grouped together because their distinction was not important. Their purpose was to indicate that there was water over in that direction, not to tell a reader what river they are crossing. Although rivers were dark blue, seas and oceans were a green-blue color. The land was not denoted with any color. This speaks to the purpose of the Hawqal map to not be used for exact navigation, but to be paired with a manuscript describing the distances and cities on the map. Another noticeable difference is the orientation of the maps. The Google map place North at the top and South at the bottom. The Ibn Hawqal map orients oppositely. The Google map also features the entire world if you were to scroll further in any direction. The Hawqal map, features just the reaches of the Muslim world, then drawn around is an “encompassing sea.” This was not necessarily to indicate the end of land in the world, just simply the end of knowledge of it. How the maps portray a nation or country’s borders is another significant difference between the two maps. While the Google map is exact and precise, the Hawqal map remains geometric. The Hawqal map draws out rectangular like boxes with the nations written in Arabic inside them, no specific cities are labeled. Medieval cultures understood the world differently than modern day cultures in that they understood people to be separated by cultural nations rather than borders. Borders were irrelevant to them if the people did not consider themselves of that nation.  

Ibn Fadlan And the Land of Darkness: Jurjanya

After leaving Khwarazm, Ibn Fadlan and his caravan journey to Jurjanya. The distance between these two cities is about fifty farsakhs by boat according to Fadlan. He initially writes that his stay in Jurjanya was just more than a couple of days, however in later entries he accounts for a little over three months in Jurjanya. Since the Jayhun river froze over, inabling any travel by water, Fadlan’s stay in the city was extended for almost the entire winter.  

During his time in Jurjanya, Fadlan is overwhelmed by the facets of cold weather, calling the land “a gate to the cold of hell,” (8). He takes note of the thickness of the ice that covers the river, claiming it was “seventeen spans thick,” and that “horses, mules, donkeys and carts slid over the ice as if on roads,” (8). It is unclear what measuable unit he means by “spans,” though it is assumed to be a gross exaggeration. Fadlan also accounts for practices relating to the cold weather. He writes that it is customary for friends to invite each other to sit by a fire, even beggars are treated to the fire before exchanges. This is relevant to Fadlan because in his culture, with customs and gestures centered around material gifts, there is no value placed on warmth, let alone a moral obligation. He is appalled by the danger that the cold imposes to people, specifically travelers. For example, the threat that forgetting tools to make a fire could cost travelers their life. He describes the country as empty in the face of the cold, and that people would rather stay inside at the expense of their economic welfare than go outside to the markets. His novice around the cold reflects his inexperience with northern regions, which is indicative of a southern origin. 

Despite his most likely privileged lodgings, Fadlan makes no account of his host. This is unlike his other accounts of cities he stayed in. In addition, Fadlan makes little to no account of the culture of the people of Jurjanya, not even their religious status. He only says that they were on “friendly terms.” This could be due to the lack of society during the cold months. 

Once the weather began to warm during the month of Shawwal (Febuary), the Jayhun river melted, prompting Fadlan and his caravan to begin preparation for the next par of thier journey. Fadlan says that his caravan commissioned camel skin boats to be made for their journey through rivers. These “folding boats” (9) made from camel skin would have been used to easily alternate from land travel to nautical. Fadlan writes that he was greatly unprepared for the cold despite the people of Jurjanya offering advice on how to dress for the cold. His cold weather attire, which was layers upon layers of clothing, constricted him so much that he “could hardly move,” (10). Relying entirely on body heat and the insulation of his layers, Fadlan sets out for the “Gate of the Turks,” (10) 

Ibn Fadlan And the Land of Darkness: Saqaliba

When Ibn Fadlan and his caravan are approaching the Kingdom of Saqaliba, they are met with an envoy of lesser kings (under the command of the king of Saqaliba). An envoy rode with Fadlan and at about two farsakahs away, the king of Saqaliba met the group (25). He immediately got off his horse, fell to his knees, thanked his God, and then showered Fadlan with some of the kingdom’s coinage. Fadlan’s caravan slept in tents pitched away from the king’s tent for four days while advisors, military leaders, and more, arrived to hear the caliph’s letter. Upon the king’s summoned, Fadlan and his crew presented the king with extravagances before reading the letter which had to be translated by an interpreter. In the letter, the caliph asks its readers to stand, to which the king and company did. Next, Fadlan read letters from Hamid ibn al-Abbas and Nadhiral-Harami, and the king was showered with coinage after the letters were done being read. Then, Fadlan presented the king and his wife with many gifts from his travels. The king and his wife were showered with coins after receiving their gifts (26). 

Later that night, Fadlan attended a formal dinner with the king. The king sat on an ornate throne with the lesser kings to his right, his children in front, and told Fadlan to sit on his left. A table with only meat was brought to the king; then, in accordance with Saqaliba custom, the king cuts and serves everyone meat as small tables are brought to dinner guests. The order of accommodation goes as follows: the king himself, his envoy Sawsan, Fadlan, the lesser kings, and his children. Days later, Fadlan is criticized for not bringing the money from the caliph. However, the king seems to take this lightly as he remains generously hospitable and gives Fadlan an ironic nickname, “Abu Baker the Truthful” (31). 

Fadlan recounts marvelous things like the northern lights, changing hours of daylight, tree sap and fruit, snakes, rhinoceroses, and a giant (31-42). He also records law practices that appear strange or incorrect to him. For example, he notes that inheritance laws dictate that a man’s brother receives his inheritance rather than his sons. Fadlan said that he explained the fault in this law to the king thoroughly enough that the king understood (36). Despite accounting for many punishments and practices of law, inheritance law is the only one Fadlan confronts the king about. 

While generous gifts and prayer are normal customs of Muslim societies, Fadlan is particularly conscious of how extravagant the king of Saqaliba and his company are in their customs. He notes that the women refuse his urges to veil. He notes on the volume and timing of exclamations to God. He notes many times about the coin (dirham) showers, which suggests that he is confused about the purpose of this practice and possibly thinks it is unnecessary.  

Fadlan is constantly bothered by the incorrect or imperfect practices of Islam during his travels. His criticism for those who do not practice Islam “correctly” allots him a sense of superiority, that even extends to the king. It seems that Fadlan gives the king of Saqaliba all due respect and follows the customs of Saqaliba, but he does so out of duty not genuine respect for the culture. Fadlan’s attitude towards foreign customs indicates that his own culture places emphasis on Islamic practices to be strict and takes pride in the correctness of their practices. This is conducive with an imperialist culture 

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