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The popular perception of the Vikings is that of the fearsome raiders who plundered their way across Europe during the Dark Ages, ransacking villages and terrorizing the townsfolk before returning to their longships and disappearing into the mists.
But the Vikings traveled far and wide, and their behavior in the Middle East was far removed from the typical image of the ax-wielding savage. It turns out they were extremely adaptable and willing to resort to more civilized conduct if they deemed it worthwhile.
It would have quickly become clear to them that the riches of the East could not be acquired by the same means they used in the West; so they took a different approach and established an impressive trade network that stretched from Scandinavia to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Arabia.
How Desire for Silver Drove Viking Trade
It was the lure of silver that brought the Vikings east, namely the Durhams minted from an ore found in the mines near Baghdad. Viking traders cared little for the actual face value of the coins, and instead used weights and scales to measure their worth. In exchange, they offered furs, finely crafted weapons, and slaves acquired during raids.
Though the denizens of those regions did admire the Vikings for their warrior-like stature, they viewed them mostly as expansive traders. This is in stark contrast to the way Vikings were perceived by the monks of Western Europe, whose monasteries were frequently on the wrong end of their raids.
The journey from Scandinavia to the lands of silver was no small undertaking for Norse traders, taking them across the Gulf of Finland and into the rivers that flow throughout Russia. From there, they could sail via the Caspian Sea, followed by an overland trip on camels, to Arabia (which they referred to as Serkland, meaning "Silk Lands"), or via the Black Sea to Constantinople (known as Miklagårde, "Great City").
Constantinople—one of the great cities of the Middle Ages—was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (the western portion had already fallen by this point), and the hub of a trade network that spanned Africa, Arabia, and the Middle East.
Riding the Rivers of Russia
Navigating the icy rivers of the region was a task fit only for hardy and experienced sailors. Viking traders had to drag the ships up rapids or carry them overland, battling bandits and hostile Slavic tribes along the way. By the time they reached their destination, the Russian winter would have frozen the rivers over, making a return journey impossible until the following summer. So Viking traders setting out from Scandinavia knew it would be at least a year before they saw home again.
An alternative approach was to traverse the trade route during the winter, transporting the goods along the frozen rivers using sledges drawn by horses. This was actually quicker than traveling by boat, but the downside was that the sledges could not hold as heavy a load.
Over time, the Vikings founded trading posts and fortified towns at various points along the trade route, some of which would grow into kingdoms ruled by powerful Viking chieftains. The people of Arabia referred to the denizens of these lands, whether Viking or Slavic, as “Rus."
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Viking Warriors in the East
Though their main purpose in the East was to trade, the Vikings remained warriors to the core. The difference is that their warrior-like stature was admired in the East, whereas in the West it was feared.
Not all Vikings in the East operated as merchants. Many sought work as swords-for-hire or bodyguards, and some were even recruited into the illustrious Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguard of the emperor at Constantinople.
Furthermore, Vikings who had settled in Slavic lands treated the Slavs much as they did the Western Europeans; raiding, plundering and carrying many of them away to be sold on the slave market. Slavic settlements such as Novgorod and Kiev were seized by Viking chieftains.
Since Norse writing amounted to little more than runes inscribed on gravestones and place-markers, historians are dependent on the writings of those who encountered them for insight into their culture. Western European monks generally considered them to be heathens without conscience, but Islamic writers provide a different perspective, as some of them had the opportunity to travel with "the Rus" and visit their settlements.
This includes several well-known Islamic writers. Nora Kershaw Chadwick's The Beginnings of Russian History: An Enquiry into Sources, records some of their observations.
"...vast frames and great courage..."
One particular source is Persian historian and philosopher Ibn Miskawayh, who wrote: "They are a mighty nation with vast frames and great courage. They know not defeat, nor does any of them turn his back till he slay or be slain".
"...no cultivated land..."
Some sources can also be found in Gwyn Jones' A History of the Vikings, such as the 10th-century Persian explorer named Ibn Rustah, whose travels included a visit to Novgorod. He wrote of the Vikings, "they have no cultivated land but depend for their living in what they can obtain from Saqalibah's land (meaning the land of the Slavs)".
He also wrote: "They were hospitable and protective of their guests; were quarrelsome among themselves and frequently resorted to single combat to settle disputes". But he admired the way they closed ranks and "fought as one man" when facing a common enemy.
"...a grave like a big house..."
He mentions the sacrifices they made to their gods, which included human sacrifice; and he describes the funeral of a Viking chieftain, writing: "they made a grave like a big house and put him inside", along with treasure and, most disturbingly, "they put his favourite wife or concubine inside with him, still living, then closed the door of the grave, so that she died".
"...perfect physical specimens..."
Some of the most influential writings come from Arab writer Ibn Fadlan, who was sent as an emissary to the king of the Bulgars in 921. His account of the journey inspired Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, and its film adaptation The 13th Warrior.
He didn't think much of the Vikings' personal hygiene, which is understandable considering his own culture's emphasis on cleanliness. He wrote: "...they are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures"..." and that they did not purify themselves after excreting or urinating, nor wash their hands after food. This was mixed with admiration for their physical appearance, as he wrote: “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy.”
He describes men tattoed with dark green figures from fingernails to neck, and women wearing neck-rings of gold and silver, along with a small box of iron, silver, copper or gold on each breast. The value of the box indicated the wealth of the husband.
Like Ibn Rustah, he witnessed a Viking funeral, describing the ritual suicide of a slave girl and the burning of her body along with her master.
He also mentioned Vikings who had converted to Islam, writing “They are very fond of pork, and many of them who have assumed the path of Islam miss it very much.”
Viking trade in the area began to drop off around the 10th century, as by that time the silver mines were near depletion, and the value of the Durham severely degraded. But the wealth acquired through trade had led to the rise of Viking kingdoms in Russia, significantly influencing the development of that region.
The image of the Vikings as great warriors and raiders may be the most enduring in popular culture, but their exploits in the East show that they were exceptional navigators and traders; the great explorers of their time. The intricate trade routes they established throughout the East significantly altered the course of history in those regions, as did their military exploits in the West.