It's funny how one thing leads to another. I watched the most enjoyable Viking romp "The 13th Warrior", a feature film that starred Antonio Banderas as an improbable and clean shaven Ibn Fadlan the 10th century Arab traveller. I then discovered the film was based on "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton's book "Eaters of the Dead". Turns out that Crichton was so impressed with reading a passage from Ibn Fadlan's travels whilst on an anthropology course that he decided to write his first book. This little book interweaves some of Fadlan's observations with the Beowulf legend, and is a most entertaining read. That Crichton's first book was so successful owes much to Ibn Fadlan. Anyway to get back on track, this of course lead me to read "Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness", and it was a case of leaving the very best till last!
Fadlan's book is a priceless piece of work, if only for it's incredible eyewitness account of a Viking ship cremation, involving the ritualistic killing of a slave girl to accompany her dead master into paradise. The killing is carried out by the haunting figure of the "Angel of Death", who resembled the Incan executioners of young children on high Andean mountains. This makes for genuinely shocking reading. One has to be impressed by Fadlan's objectivity. Much of what he saw appalled him, such as the Viking habit of openly copulating with their slave girls in public. He was a devout Muslim, but none the less shrugged aside his own prejudices to give a clear and truthful account of what he saw. Whilst expressing disapproval he always gets straight back to his unblinkered observations. Fadlan is refreshing in comparison to the other Arab travellers accounts in this book, who are more restricted by their strong faith. His account is also remarkably free of the 'mirabilia' so beloved of medieval readers in the tradition of that great father of lies Herodotus. No unicorns or minotaurs in this little book thankfully!
Part 2 of the book is the "Travels of Abu Hamid Al-Andalusi Al-Gharnati, 1130-1155. This man who lived to the venerable age of 90 was an incredible traveller, who travelled from Spain to North Africa and thence onto Alexandria, Cairo and Baghdad. It is his journey north from Baghdad that is covered in this book, where he travels to the frozen upper reaches of the Volga via Bukhara. The author gives interesting accounts of such varied subjects as Sturgeon, beaver, the practical use of skis, mammoth ivory and slave girls. Whilst he is not quite as objective or as entertaining as Fadlan, it is still a fascinating read.
Part 3 of the book is "Passages From other Geographers, Historians and Travellers". This contains an extract from perhaps the most famous medieval traveller of them all Marco Polo, who talks about dog sleds and life in the far north. This was of course information gleaned from a second party. The rest are all accounts from Arab writers, the pick being perhaps Ibn Hayyan's account of the Viking sacking of Seville in 844 and Mas'udi's account of of a Viking raid in the Caspian in 913. The book has a useful introduction by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, and contains six useful maps to give a quick overview of the journeys undertaken with the geographical areas in question. There is a small glossary at the back and a set of notes that I devoured as I read the book. Although not a cheap book by any means you do get a lot for your money. This one is up to the usual very high standards that Penguin classics have been maintaining since 1946. For what it is worth it has my hearty seal of approval!
on 16 April 2016
probably one of the best books on the orient. you look at the world in that age as if you are Ibn Fadlan and it gives little anecdotes of life and the way life was 1000 years ago around Turkey and Russia in a respectful way but really hilarious. everything is described, food, love, sex, wealth, religion but in the most unique way. I 100% recommend this book.
on 5 September 2014
Clear, detailed and absorbing account of a, relatively, unknown period of history. This tome contains much firsthand information and should be a must for any interested in the period and cultures covered within.