Ibn Fadlan’s journey approximated on the Charta Rogeriana.
Ibn Fadlan’s journey approximated on the Charta Rogeriana.
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)
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
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.
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?