Posts Tagged ‘Arab travellers’

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…


Other Routes: 1500 Years of African & Asian Travel Writing

December 19, 2014

4167G5VQ1VL._AA160_I’ve just re-read this important and challenging anthology. Challenging, because it counters so many of the Eurocentric claims to have ‘discovered’ places, and been the first travellers to ‘explore’ somewhere, as if everyone else in the world just stayed put, cultivating their gardens…

It’s a well-edited anthology with an excellent, detailed, serious academic introduction which develops a clear context for the anthology: travellers from Africa and Asia, from China and Japan, from the Arab world, were all visiting new lands many centuries ago, and writing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the new things they found there, sometimes in a prejudiced and dismissive way, often in a very open-minded and wondering way.

It suffers from the obvious problems with all anthologies, that you never get enough of something you find really interesting, just small gobbets, tantalising but insufficient. And with this sort of writing, often newly ‘re-discovered’, tracking down further helpings can be either really difficult or completely impossible. Some ancient translations can be found via Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, but a lot has never been translated into English (or any European language, for that matter). Certainly, there is plenty for me to try and hunt down and enjoy (probably in my next existence). The editors do, successfully, demonstrate the range and breadth of the travelling done in the centuries they cover.

So, many people travelled and explored and wrote intelligently and analytically whilst we in the West were in the midst of our ‘Dark Ages’ (whatever they really were); it’s a sobering and necessary reminder that, although we may now be in the ascendant (?) other peoples were once, and often our West was not part of their thoughts or their travels, either because they didn’t know about us, or because we were boring barbarians devoid of interest to intelligent people…

Times were different then, clearly, and often the writers do not touch upon the kinds of detail about foreign lands that I would find interesting, particularly in terms of their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the lands they visited. There are some brilliant glimpses – the Arab traveller who provides the only existing account of a Viking burial, probably somewhere in present-day Russia, thus also raising questions about the origins of the local populations; an angry Arab traveller ranting about how dreadful Cairo is, would give any negative reviewer in today’s Lonely Planet guides a run for their money; a fascinating perspective from an Indian traveller who visits London and Scotland. Of course, the usual suspects like Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus also turn up.

Highly recommended if you want something completely different.

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