Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness

January 11, 2015

51mLvOhFsNL._AA160_Strange that the title sounds like a slightly scary children’s book…

Anyway, I’ll get my complaints in first: the title’s a bit of a cheat since less than a third of it is actually Ibn Fadlan’s travels. The rest is excerpts – very interesting, too – from other Arab travellers of the period. There’s also an awful lot of wasted paper, with nearly blank pages at the end of lots of sections, and fourteen (!) pages of puffs for other Penguin books at the end.

However, a wide range of otherwise unobtainable Arab travel writing is made accessible here, in a good translation, to a wide readership; the accounts are fascinating in different ways, and the maps (several) are excellent, clear and detailed, which is very unusual for today’s publications. So in the end, the book is a good effort.

Educated, literate men from various parts of the Arab world, curious and questioning, were travelling very widely in the years up to the end of the first millennium and after. They seem to cover most of Europe, including Baltic lands, Sweden, Poland and other places, before some of these attained nationhood, even. Places are named and described. Some voyagers penetrate into the depths of present-day Russia (before that nation was even named) and as far as the fringes of Siberia. Ibn Fadlan is noted as the only traveller to have witnessed and described in detail, a Viking ship burial. I’m aware of fewer Western travellers who wrote similar accounts in what are commonly misnamed the Dark Ages.

It’s clear that more than a thousand years ago there were extensive trade routes all across these regions, because of the market for furs. The customs and lifestyles of tribes and their religious practices are described in some detail, sometimes with an impartial eye, sometimes rather more critically and disparagingly. There is the clear impression of Jews, Christians, Muslims and pagans managing to co-exist reasonably peaceably.

What struck me most was the surprise expressed by several of the writers at the varying length of the days and nights according to the seasons in the far north: they had scientific explanations for the phenomenon, but clearly found such things as observing the Ramadan fast, and the five daily prayers a challenge in such regions; the core Muslim lands are closer to the equator and therefore don’t experience the variation in day length that we are familiar with…

I enjoyed these fascinating glimpses into the lives and travels and perceptions of intelligent and curious people of a thousand years ago. At that time, other countries and peoples seemed to be more advanced than the West, and perhaps one day, it may be so again…

2 Responses to “Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness”


  1. Thanks, think I will pick up a copy and have a look at this. I visited the Islamic Science Museum in Istanbul and came away with a firm impression that we should ditch, one and for all, our western concept of ‘The Dark Ages’.

    Like

    • litgaz Says:

      Now that sounds like my sort of museum, if I ever get to Istanbul. There are more books appearing both about Arab travellers and Islamic science, fortunately, and all interesting.

      Like


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