In this blog post, Mohamad Ballan, Assistant Professor of Medieval History at Stony Brook University, writes about his experiences using Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga to teach about travel in the medieval world.
Travel was a central feature of the medieval world. Whether the motivation was exploration, piety, diplomacy, knowledge, survival, or profit, the act of travel involved the travelers in larger processes of interaction and exchange between cultures and contributed to the diffusion of ideas between Europe, Africa, and Asia. These travelers’ surviving writings and accounts illuminate the realities of the medieval world and provide windows into the travelers’ own worldviews, providing students with the tools to question assumptions about a “clash of civilizations” and the supposed uniformity of either Latin Christendom or the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.
For the Early Middle Ages, in particular, an emphasis on interconnectedness, mobility, and exchange undermines and problematizes antiquated notions of “the Dark Ages.” This endeavor to better understand medieval travelers and their world has been facilitated by the translation and publication of medieval texts over the past several years, which has contributed to the emergence of the field of the “Global Middle Ages.” One such text is Mission to the Volga by Ibn Faḍlān, translated by James E. Montgomery, which I have used in courses with my students at Stony Brook University over the past two years.
The courses that I have taught have explored the interconnected histories of the medieval world, focusing primarily on the various societies of the Mediterranean world between roughly 500 and 1500 AD. Through a critical examination of the lives and accounts of pilgrims, merchants, diplomats, scholars, enslaved peoples, refugees, and soldiers, my students and I have investigated what motivated people to travel in the medieval world and thought more broadly about the importance of travel at the time. We read and analyzed the writings of a diverse group of travelers, including Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga, and situated them within their larger social, cultural, and political contexts, while coming to terms with their reasons for travel and their particular worldviews.
Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga constitutes a unique account of the journeys of Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān (fl. 921 AD), a Muslim from Baghdad, across Iran and Central Asia to modern-day Russia, where he met both the Volga Bulgars and the Rūs, Swedish Vikings who had established trading outposts and settlements on the Volga River. The book takes readers on a journey from tenth-century Baghdad, the cosmopolitan heart of the classical Islamic world, to the complex political landscape of northern and eastern Iran, to the Central Asian steppe and lands of modern-day Russia. The journey covered a distance of about 3000 miles (for perspective, this is roughly the distance between Boston and San Diego) over the course of 325 days. This means that Ibn Faḍlān and his entourage managed to travel (on foot and horseback) an average distance of ten miles a day. Over the course of Ibn Faḍlān’s journey across such a vast and unforgiving terrain, which he documents in detail, we encounter the varied array of peoples and cultures of Central Asia.
Ibn Faḍlān’s account is immensely rich and allows readers to appreciate the Volga River as a dynamic center of transregional trade and the convergence of a multitude of cultures, religions, and political traditions. The journey illustrates the importance of borderlands in the medieval world as sites of contact and cultural exchange, as well as confrontation and conflict.
Among the many peoples and communities described by Ibn Faḍlān, the Khazars, a powerful Turkic confederation that had converted to Judaism, loom particularly large. Regarding this polity with both fear and awe, Ibn Faḍlān dwells at length upon the power and wealth of the Khazar khāqān, who is described as ruling over a diverse populace (including Muslims) from Itil (“a great city”), where he possessed a vast royal residence carpeted with silk and gold brocade. The khāqān is represented as a capable and effective ruler who commanded a powerful military force and the obedience of neighboring kings, including the Volga Bulgars. It is this polity’s expansion in the region that may have provided the impetus for Ibn Faḍlān’s mission to the Volga Bulgars, whose recent conversion to Islam and recognition of the suzerainty of the Abbasids was part of a larger strategy of counteracting Khazar hegemony. Ibn Faḍlān reserves his true fascination (and ire) for the Rūs, and provides a detailed account of their customs and society, placing his cultural prejudices, curiosity and bewilderment on full display. Although the Rūs were, according to Ibn Faḍlān, “the filthiest of God’s creatures,” whose conduct he often found scandalizing, this did not prevent him from remarking that he “had never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs,” expressing interest in their worldview, and attending a funeral of one of their chieftains. The result is a detailed (and, at times, disturbingly vivid) description of a Norse ship burial, which provides important insight into the cultural and social world of the Volga Vikings.
During the past year, I have taught Mission to the Volga in two separate courses at Stony Brook University: HIS 235. The Heirs of Rome: The Early Medieval World, 300–1000 and HIS 401. Silk Roads and Spice Routes: Travel, Exploration and Discovery in the Premodern World, an undergraduate survey course and capstone seminar respectively. While designed for different levels and groups of students, both courses aimed to introduce students to a highly interconnected medieval world characterized by cosmopolitanism, mobility, mercantile and intellectual networks, cultural encounters, violence and conflict, and political transformation. Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga, which many of the students read in its entirety, provided them with the opportunity to think carefully and critically about these themes. The text also introduced them to larger issues in medieval (and global) history: frontiers and borderlands, varied religious identities and experiences, ethnographic writing, and intercultural encounters.
The translation, which is annotated and complemented by a glossary and maps, is both accessible and enjoyable. As a historical figure and author, Ibn Faḍlān provides a rare opportunity for the students to immerse themselves in the history and culture of the Islamic world in courses otherwise dominated by European sources and voices in translation. The text constitutes a remarkable introduction to the classical Islamic world and its relationship to the world around it during a key moment of transition and transformation during the early tenth century. This was facilitated by Montgomery’s introduction, which provides insight into the major cultural and political transformations taking placing across the Abbasid world. From the outset, and even before we encounter Ibn Faḍlān himself, the reader is immersed in the world to which he belonged, one which included viziers, harem eunuchs, Turkic slave-soldiers, and multilingual translators, a reflection of the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and social diversity of Iran and Central Asia during this period.
In my undergraduate survey course of the Early Middle Ages, which I taught in Fall 2020, we read Ibn Faḍlān as a way of bringing together the various themes discussed throughout the semester. By the time we engaged with this text, the students had thought extensively about the question of travel writing and ethnography in late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages; the diversity of cultural, political, and social traditions in the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Near East; the importance of trade; and the interrelationship between coexistence and conflict. They had also read a wide array of ethnographic and travel writing from antiquity and the early medieval world, including Tacitus, Priscus of Panium, Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī, and Abū Rayḥān al-Birūnī. As such, we attempted to situate Ibn Faḍlān within a broad continuum of travel writing and ethnographic literature that extended over three continents and a millennium of history. This close engagement with Ibn Faḍlān as an example of early medieval ethnography provided students with the opportunity to critically discuss descriptions of the various lands and peoples that appear throughout Mission to the Volga and to reflect upon the ways in which the travel account revealed his own biases and prejudices. It opened a fruitful avenue of discussion about the power of representation (and misrepresentation) in historical texts, notions of authorship, and the complex agency exercised by writers such as Ibn Faḍlān in shaping our own (modern) understandings of the early medieval world. The importance of representation led us to modern receptions and fictionalizations of Ibn Faḍlān, such as Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (1976) and the film it inspired, The 13th Warrior (1999) directed by John McTiernan, which facilitated an engaging set of conversations about modern American popular attitudes and perceptions of the early medieval world.
As anyone who has taught the text will know, the most popular passages among students are those dealing with the Rūs. By the time that the students read Ibn Faḍlān, we had spent the preceding two weeks discussing Norse voyages, raids, and settlement across Europe. Mission to the Volga provided students with an expansive view of the “Viking Age” that enabled them to appreciate the transregional dimensions of Norse expansion and networks, and allowed them to compare Ibn Faḍlān’s representation of the Rūs with Latin Christian accounts of the Vikings during the ninth and tenth century, which they had previously read. Many students found it particularly productive to listen to the In Our Time podcast episode “The Volga Vikings,” which features James E. Montgomery, prior to reading the translation. This allowed them to situate the text, but also to hear the voice of the translator as he discussed the importance of Ibn Faḍlān and his world. The podcast provided students with an important set of perspectives about the manner in which history was interpreted, debated, and understood; the different understanding of evidence; and the depth of research and understanding required to produce a translation such as Mission to the Volga.
While they found the travels and adventures of Ibn Faḍlān himself to be engaging and exciting, many students also found the story of the text’s journey to be equally fascinating. The students were astounded to learn, for example, that the Mashhad manuscript of the text—which forms the basis of the edition and translation—was only brought to modern scholarly attention by A. Zeki Velidi Togan (d. 1970) in 1923, over a millennium after Ibn Faḍlān and his companions set out on their journey. For many students, this discussion was their first exposure to the fact that the survival of medieval texts into the modern era was far from inevitable. It introduced them to the processes and mechanisms through which medieval writings are eventually made available to a modern reader: the initial discovery of a manuscript, its careful edition and study, and its translation and publication. This allowed them to appreciate the efforts of the many individuals and institutions that have worked hard to ensure that this history is preserved and communicated to new generations of readers. As a parallel to the role of medieval travelers as cultural mediators and bridges between civilizations, historians and literary scholars have been called upon to serve as emissaries tasked with conveying the richness and complexity of the premodern world to modern audiences. The fact that Mission to the Volga can be read in a language that Ibn Faḍlān would never have heard spoken in his lifetime, on a continent that he never knew existed, only serves to highlight the incredible power of translation in bringing the medieval world to life.
Mohamad Ballan is Assistant Professor of Medieval History at Stony Brook University.