Category: Ibn Fadlan (page 1 of 3)

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Medieval Map v. Modern Map

Though the Tabula Rogerianais incredibly accurate for the time period, mapping ibn Fadlan’s journey onto it has significantly altered the visual representation of his journey.  On the modern map, ibn Fadlan’s path takes him much further North that it does East.  His journey takes an abrupt turn at Bukhara where the main direction of travel transition from East to North.  In the medieval map, however, ibn Fadlan’s journey takes him farther East than it does North, completely altering the perspective of the viewer as to which direction was more applicable.  On the medieval map, ibn Fadlan’s travels are more aptly described as his travels East, whereas on the modern map, he mostly traveled North.

As such, in the medieval map, the Caspian Sea, or bahr al hozaras it is labeled on the Tabula Rogeriana, appears to be a significantly more relevant landmark for ibn Fadlan as his journey appears to more closely circumvent the body of water. Ibn Fadlan appears far closer to the Caspian Sea at the Northern most point of his travels, having passed more or less around the circumference of the Caspian Sea.  In the modern map, however, the Caspian Sea has no impact on his actual path and is much further West and South of his journey than it appears in the medieval map.

Finally, the proper South-up orientation of the Tabula Rogerianadepicts ibn Fadlan’s travels as going down around the Caspian Sea instead of up into the treacherous mountains and rivers of what is now called Russia, relatively close to Moscow.   Not only does this shift the visualization of his journey, but the end of the Northern side of the medieval map cuts off the top of that northern Eurasian landmass, about halfway through what is today’s Russia.  Ibn Fadlan’s final destination, Bulghar, is incredibly close to this northern edge of the map, making it appear as though he traveled nearly to the most northern, or bottom, edge of the world.  This greatly contrasts with the modern map, which reveals that he made it just about half way through Russia at the western edge, far from the Barents Sea.  As such, ibn Fadlan’s journey appears to take him to the edge of the known world on the Tabula Rogeriana, while on the modern map, his travels take him significantly north, but well within the confines of the Eurasian landmass.

Modern Map vs. Medieval Map: Ibn Fadlan

When comparing both versions of the map, I found it interesting that it was much easier to pinpoint the different locations on the modern map, than it was on the medieval map. To be more specific, I believed that by using the Tabula Rogeriana map, I would be able to find the locations that Ibn Fadlan traveled to, since it is closer to the map he would have used during his travels. Because Fadlan was a well-known Muslim traveler, the Rogeriana map would be something he might find useful during his travels. This is because it was very detailed, and highlighted many major cities from different countries. It was also created by a Muslim geographer, and had certain middle-eastern places as the center of the map, as well as the south being in the direction of the north in modern day maps. Therefore, when looking up the different locations that Fadlan traveled to, I believed it would easily coincide with the major cities and points indicated on the Rogeriana. However, when trying to find the different cities, it was difficult to connect them. For instance, some of the names of the different locations were not spelled the same way, or they were not located around the same area as they would be on the modern map. However, when doing it on the modern map, it was much easier to find the different places he traveled to, since they were in the same locations, and had some of the same names, just different variations. As I compared the two side by side, the direction in which Fadlan traveled did not match up, although I tried to map them as closely together as possible. For the modern map, the direction of his travels seem to be consistent, whereas with the medieval map, it goes a bit out of order.

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Medieval Map

Medieval Map (Rogeriana): Ibn Fadlan

Nahrawan to Sawa (orange); Sawa to Simnan (green); Simnan to Danaghan (blue); Danaghan to Sarakhs (yellow); Sarakhs to Marw (red); Marw to Bukhara (purple); Bukhara to Khwarazn (brown); Khwarazn to Jurjaniya (black); Jurjaniya to Bulghar (grey)

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Bulghar

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.


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