Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 3

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THE DEPARTURE FROM THE CITY OF PEACE

PRAISE BE TO GOD, THE MERCIFUL, THE compassionate, the Lord of the Two Worlds, and blessing and peace upon the Prince of Prophets, our Lord and Master Muhammad, whom God bless and preserve with abiding and continuing peace and blessings until the Day of the Faith!

This is the book of Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, ibnal-Abbas, ibn-Rasid, ibn-Hammad, a client of Muhammad ibn-Sulayman, the ambassador from al-Muqtadir to the King of the Saqaliba, in which he recounts what he saw in the land of the Turks, the Hazars, the Saqaliba, the Baskirs, the Rus, and the Northmen, of the histories of their kings and the way they act in many affairs of their life.

The letter of the Yiltawar, King of the Saqaliba, reached the Commander of the Faithful, al-Muqtadir. He asked him therein to send someone who would instruct him in religion and make him acquainted with the laws of Islam; who would build for him a mosque and erect for him a pulpit from which might be carried out the mission of converting his people in all the districts of his kingdom; and also for advice in the construction of fortifications and defense works. And he prayed the Caliph to do these things. The intermediary in this matter was Dadir al-Hurami.

The Commander of the Faithful, al-Muqtadir, as many know, was not a strong and just caliph, but drawn to pleasures and the flattering speeches of his officers, who played him the fool and jested mightily behind his back. I was not of this company, or especially beloved of the Caliph, for the reason that follows.

In the City of Peace lived an elderly merchant of the name ibn-Qarin, rich in all things but lacking a generous heart and a love of man. He hoarded his gold and likewise his young wife, whom none had ever seen but all bespoke as beautiful beyond imagining. On a certain day, the Caliph sent me to deliver to ibn-Qarin a message, and I presented myself to the house of the merchant and sought entrance therein with my letter and seal. Until today, I do not know the import of the letter, but it does not matter.

The merchant was not at home, being abroad on some business; I explained to the door servant that I must await his return, since the Caliph had instructed I must deliver the message into his hands from mine only. Thus the door servant admitted me into the house, which procedure took some passing of time, for the door to the house had many bolts, locks, bars, and fasteners, as is common in the dwellings of misers. At length I was admitted and I waited all day, growing hungry and thirsty, but was offered no refreshments by the servants of the niggardly merchant.

In the heat of the afternoon, when all about me the house was still and the servants slept, I, too, felt drowsy. Then before me I saw an apparition in white, a woman young and beautiful, whom I took to be the very wife no man had ever seen. She did not speak, but with gestures led me to another room, and there locked the door. I enjoyed her upon the spot, in which matter she required no encouragement, for her husband was old and no doubt neglectful. Thus did the afternoon pass quickly, until we heard the master of the house making his return. Immediately the wife arose and departed, having never uttered a word in my presence, and I was left to arrange my garments in some haste.

Now I should have been apprehended for certain were it not for these same many locks and bolts which impeded the miser's entry into his own home. Even so, the merchant ibn-Qarin found me in the adjoining room, and he viewed me with suspicion, asking why I should be there and not in the courtyard, where it was proper for a messenger to wait. I replied that I was famished and faint, and had searched for food and shade. This was a poor lie and he did not believe it; he complained to the Caliph, who I know was amused in private and yet compelled to adopt a stern face to the public. Thus when the ruler of the Saqaliba asked for a mission from the Caliph, this same spiteful ibn-Qarin urged I be sent, and so I was.

In our company there was the ambassador of the King of Saqaliba who was called Abdallah ibn-Bastu al-Hazari, a tedious and windy man who talked overmuch. There was also Takin al-Turki, Bars al-Saqlabi, both guides on the journey, and I, too. We bore gifts for the ruler, for his wife, his children, and his generals. Also we brought certain drugs, which were given over to the care of Sausan al-Rasi. This was our parry.

So we started on Thursday, the 11th of Safar of the year 309 [June 21, 921], from the City of Peace [Bagdad]. We stopped a day in Nahrawan, and from there went swiftly until we reached al-Daskara, where we stopped for three days. Then we traveled straight onward without any detours until we reached Hulwan. There we stayed two days. From there we went to Qirmisin, where we remained two days. Then we started and traveled until we reached Hamadan, where we remained three days. Then we went farther to Sawa, where we remained two days. From there we came to Ray, where we remained eleven days waiting for Ahmad ibn-Ali, the brother of al-Rasi, because he was in Huwar al-Ray. Then we went to Huwar al-Ray and remained there three days.

This passage gives the flavor of Ibn Fadlan's descriptions of travel. Perhaps a quarter of the entire manuscript is written in this fashion, simply listing the names of settlements and the number of days spent at each. Most of this material has been deleted.

Apparently, Ibn Fadlan's party is traveling northward, and eventually they are required to halt for winter.

Our stay in Gurganiya was lengthy; we stayed there some days of the month of Ragab [November] and during the whole of Saban, Ramadan, and Sawwal. Our long stay was brought about by the cold and its bitterness. Verily, they told me that two men took camels into the forests to get wood. They forgot, however, to take flint and tinder with them, and hence slept in the night without a fire. When they got up the next morning, they found the camels had been frozen stiff from the cold.

Verily, I beheld the marketplace and streets of Gurganiya completely deserted because of the cold. One could stroll the streets without meeting anyone. Once as I came out of my bath, I entered my house and looked at my beard, which was a lump of ice. I had to thaw it out before the fire. I lived night and day in a house that was inside another house, in which a Turkish felt tent was pitched, and I myself was wrapped up in many clothes and fur rugs. But in spite of all this, my cheeks often stuck to the pillow at night.

In this extremity of cold, I saw that the earth sometimes forms great cracks, and a large and ancient tree may split into two halves from this.

About the middle of Sawwal of the year 309 [February, 922], the weather began to change, the river thawed, and we got ourselves the necessary things for the journey. We bought Turkish camels and skin boats made out of camel hides, in preparation for the rivers we would have to cross in the land of Turks.

We laid in a supply of bread, millet, and salted meat for three months. Our acquaintances in the town directed us in laying in garments, as much as was needed. They depicted the coming hardships in fearful terms, and we believed they exaggerated the story, yet when we underwent this, it was far greater than what had been told to us.

Each of us put on a jacket, over that a coat, over that a tulup, over that a burka, and a helmet of felt out of which only the two eyes could look. We also had a simple pair of underdrawers with trousers over them, and house shoes and over these another pair of boots. When one of us got on a camel, he could not move because of his clothes.

The doctor of the law and the teacher and the pages who traveled with us from Bagdad departed from us now, fearing to enter this new country, so 1, the ambassador, his brother-in-law and two pages, Takin and Bars, proceeded.

The caravan was ready to start. We took into our service a guide from the inhabitants of the town whose name was Qlawus. Then, trusting in the all-powerful and exalted God, we started on Monday, the third of Dulqada of the year 309 [March 3, 922] from the town Gurganiya.

That same day, we stopped at the burg called Zamgan: that is, the gateway to the Turks. The next morning early, we proceeded to Git. There so much snow fell that the camels plunged in it up to their knees; hence we halted two days.

Then we sped straight into the land of the Turks without meeting anyone on the barren and even steppe. We rode ten days in bitter cold and unbroken snowstorms, in comparison with which the cold in Chwarezm seemed like a summer day, so that we forgot all our previous discomforts and were about at the point of giving up.

One day when we underwent the most savage cold weather, Takin the page was riding next to me, and along with him one of the Turks, who was talking to him in Turkish. Takin laughed and said to me, "This Turk says, 'What will our Lord have of us? He is killing us with cold. If we knew what he wanted, we would let him have it.' "

And then I said, "Tell him He only wishes that you say, 'There is no God save Allah.' "

The Turk laughed and answered, "If I knew it, I would say it."

Then we came to a forest where there was a large quantity of dry wood and we halted. The caravan lit fires, we warmed ourselves, took off our clothes, and spread them out to dry.

Apparently, Ibn Fadlan's party was entering a warmer region, because he makes no further reference to extreme cold.

We set out again and rode every day from midnight until the time of the afternoon prayer – hastening more from midday on – and then we halted. When we had ridden fifteen nights in this manner, we arrived at a large mountain with many great rocks. There are springs there, that jet out from the rocks and the water stays in pools. From this place, we crossed on until we reached a Turkish tribe, which is called the Oguz.

THE WAYS OF THE OGUZ TURKS

THE OGUZ ARE NOMADS AND HAVE HOUSES OF felt. They stay for a time in one place and then travel on. Their dwellings are placed here and there according to nomadic custom. Although they lead a hard existence, they are like asses gone astray. They have no religious bonds with God. They never pray, but instead call their headmen Lords. When one of them takes counsel with his chief about something, he says, "O Lord, what shall I do in this or that matter?"

Their undertakings are based upon counsel solely among themselves. I have heard them say, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah," but they speak thus so as to get close to any Muslims, and not because they believe it.

The ruler of the Oguz Turks is called Yabgu. That is the name of the ruler and everyone who rules over this tribe bears the name. His subordinate is always called Kudarkin and so each subordinate to a chieftain is called Kudarkin.

The Oguz do not wash themselves after either defecation or urination, nor do they bathe after ejaculation, or on other occasions. They have nothing whatever to do with water, especially in winter. No merchants or other Muhammadans may perform ablution in their presence except in the night when the Turks do not see it, for they get angry and say, "This man wishes to put a spell on us, for he is immersing himself in water," and they compel him to pay a fine.

None of the Muhammadans can enter Turkish country until one of the Oguz agrees to become his host, with whom he stays and for whom he brings garments from the land of Islam, and for his wife some pepper, millet, raisins, and nuts. When the Muslim comes to his host, the latter pitches a tent for him and brings him sheep, so that the Muslim may himself slaughter the sheep. The Turks never slaughter; they beat the sheep on the head until it is dead.

Oguz women never veil themselves in the presence of their own men or others. Nor does the woman cover any of her bodily parts in the presence of any person. One day we stopped off with a Turk and were seated in his tent. The man's wife was present. As we conversed, the woman uncovered her pudendum and scratched it, and we saw her doing so. We veiled our faces and said, "I beg God's pardon." At this her husband laughed and said to the interpreter, "Tell them we uncover it in your presence so that you may see it and be abashed, but it is not to be attained. This is better than when you cover it up and yet it is attainable."

Adultery is unknown among them. Whomsoever they find to be an adulterer, they tear him in two. This comes about so: they bring together the branches of two trees, tie him to the branches, and then let both trees go so the man who was tied to the trees is torn in two.

The custom of pederasty is counted by the Turks a terrible sin. There once came a merchant to stay with the clan of the Kudarkin. This merchant stayed with his host for a time to buy sheep. Now, the host had a beardless son, and the guest sought unceasingly to lead him astray until he got the boy to consent to his will. In the meantime, the Turkish host entered and caught them in flagrante delicto.

The Turks wished to kill the merchant and also the son for this offense. But after much pleading the merchant was permitted to ransom himself. He paid his host with four hundred sheep for what he had done to his son, and then the merchant hastily departed from the land of the Turks.

All the Turks pluck their beards with the exception of their mustaches.

Their marriage customs are as follows: one of them asks for the hand of a female member of another's family, against such and such a marriage price. The marriage price often consists of camels, pack animals, and other things. No one can take a wife until he has fulfilled the obligation, on which he has come to an understanding with the men of the family. If, however, he has met it, then he comes without any ado, enters the abode where she is, takes her in the presence of her father, mother, and brothers, and they do not prevent him.

If a man dies who has a wife and children, then the eldest of his sons takes her to wife if she is not his mother.

If one of the Turks becomes sick and has slaves, they look after him and no one of his family comes near him. A tent is pitched for him apart from the houses and he does not depart from it until he dies or gets well. If, however, he is a slave or a poor man, they leave him in the desert and go on their way.

When one of their prominent men dies, they dig for him a great pit in the form of a house and they go to him, dress him in a qurtaq with his belt and bow, and put a drinking cup of wood with intoxicating drink in his hand. They take his entire possessions and put them in this house. Then they set him down in it also. Then they build another house over him and make a kind of cupola out of mud.

Then they kill his horses. They kill one or two hundred, as many as he has, at the site of the grave. Then they eat the flesh down to the head, the hooves, the hide, and the tail, for they hang these up on wooden poles and say, "These are his steeds on which he rides to Paradise."

If he has been a hero and slain enemies, they carve wooden statues in the number of those whom he has slain, place them upon his grave, and say, "These are his pages who serve him in Paradise."

Sometimes they delay killing the horses for a day or two, and then an old man from among their elderly ones stirs them up by saying, "I have seen the dead man in my sleep and he said to me: 'Here thou seest me. My comrades have overtaken me and my feet were too weak to follow them. I cannot overtake them and so have remained alone.' " In this case, the people slaughter his steeds and hang them up on his grave. After a day or two, the same elder comes to them and says, "I have seen the dead man in a dream and he said: 'Inform my family that I have recovered from my plight.' "

In this way the old man preserves the ways of the Oguz, for there might otherwise be a desire for the living to retain the horses of the dead.  

At length we traveled on in the Turkish kingdom. One morning one of the Turks met us. He was ugly in figure, dirty in appearance, despicable in manner, and base in nature. He said: "Halt." The whole caravan halted in obedience to his command. Then he said, "No single one of you may proceed." We said to him, "We are friends of the Kudarkin." He began to laugh and said, "Who is the Kudarkin? I defecate on his beard."

No man among us knew what to do at these words, but then the Turk said, "Bekend"; that is, "bread" in the language of Chwarezm. I gave him a few sheets of bread. He took them and said, "You may go further. I take pity upon you."

We came to the district of the army commander whose name was Etrek ibn-al-Qatagan. He pitched Turkish tents for us and had us stay in them. He himself had a large establishment, servants and large dwellings. He drove in sheep for us that we might slaughter them, and put horses at our disposal for riding. The Turks speak of him as their best horseman, and in truth I saw one day, when he raced with us on his horse and as a goose flew over us, he strung his bow and then, guiding his horse under it, shot at the goose and brought it down.

I presented to him a suit from Merv, a pair of boots of red leather, a coat of brocade, and five coats of silk. He accepted these with glowing words of praise. He removed the brocade coat that he wore in order to don the garments of honor I had just given him. Then I saw that the qurtaq which he had underneath was fraying apart and filthy, but it is their custom that no one shall remove the garment that he wears next to his body until it disintegrates. Verily also he plucked out his entire beard and even his mustache, so that he looked like a eunuch. And yet, as I have observed, he was their best horseman.

I believed that these fine gifts should win his friendship to us, but such was not to be. He was a treacherous man.

One day he sent for the leaders close to him; that is, Tarhan, Yanal, and Glyz. Tarhan was the most influential among them; he was crippled and blind and had a maimed hand. Then he said to them: "These are the messengers of the King of the Arabs to the chief of the Bulgars, and I should not let them pass without taking counsel with you."

Then Tarhan spoke: "This is a matter that we have never yet seen. Never has the ambassador of the Sultan traveled through our country since we and our ancestors have been here. My feeling is that the Sultan is playing us a trick. These men he really sent to the Hazars to stir them up against us. The best is to hew these ambassadors in twain and we shall take all they have."

Another counselor said: "No, we should rather take what they have and leave them naked so that they may return thither whence they came."

And another said: "No, we have captives with the King of the Hazars, so we ought to send these men to ransom them."

They kept discussing these matters among themselves for seven days, while we were in a situation similar to death, until they agreed to open the road and let us pass. We gave to Tarhan as a garment of honor two caftans from Merv and also pepper, millet, and some sheets of bread.

And we traveled forth until we came to the river Bagindi. There we took our skin boats which had been made from camel hides, spread them out, and loaded the goods from the Turkish camels. When each boat was full, a group of five, six, or four men sat in them. They took birchwood branches in their hands and used them like oars and kept on rowing while the water carried the boat down and spun it around. Finally we got across. With regard to the horses and camels, they came swimming across.

It is absolutely necessary when crossing a river that first of all a group of warriors with weapons should be transported across before any of the caravan, in order that a vanguard be established to prevent attack by Baskirs while the main body is crossing the river.

Thus we crossed the river Bagindi, and then the river called Gam, in the same way. Then the Odil, then the Adrn, then the Wars, then the Ahti, then the Wbna. All these are big rivers.

Then we arrived at the Pecenegs. These had encamped by a still lake like the sea. They are dark brown, powerful people and the men shave their beards. They are poor in contrast to the Oguz, for I saw men among the Oguz who possessed 10,000 horses and 100,000 sheep. But the Pecenegs are poor, and we remained only a day with them.

Then we started out and came to the river Gayih. This is the largest, widest, swiftest that we saw. Verily I saw how a skin boat overturned in it, and those on it were drowned. Many of the company perished and a number of the camels and horses were drowned. We crossed the river with difficulty. Then we went a few days farther on and crossed the river Gaha, then the river Azhn, then the Bagag, then the Smur, then the Knal, then the Sub, and then the river Kiglu. At length we arrived in the land of the Baskirs.

The Yakut manuscript contains a short description of Ibn Fadlan's stay among the Baskirs; many scholars question the authenticity of these passages. The actual descriptions are unusually vague and tedious, consisting chiefly of lists of the chiefs and nobles encountered. Ibn Fadlan himself suggests the Baskirs are not worth bothering with, an uncharacteristic statement from this relentlessly curious traveler.

At length we left the land of the Baskirs, and crossed the river Germsan, the river Urn, the river Urm, then the river Wtig, the river Nbasnh, then the river Gawsin. Between the rivers that we mention, the distance is a journey of two, three, or four days in each case.

Then we came to the land of the Bulgars, which begins at the shore of the river Volga.

FIRST CONTACT WITH THE NORTHMEN

I SAW WITH MY OWN EYES HOW THE NORTHMEN  HAD arrived with their wares, and pitched their camp along the Volga. Never did I see a people so gigantic: they are tall as palm trees, and florid and ruddy in complexion. They wear neither camisoles nor caftans, but the men among them wear a garment of rough cloth, which is thrown over one side, so that one hand remains free.

Every Northman carries an axe, a dagger, and a sword, and without these weapons they are never seen. Their swords are broad, with wavy lines, and of Frankish make. From the tip of the fingernails to the neck, each man of them is tattooed with pictures of trees, living beings, and other things.

The women carry, fastened to their breast, a little case of iron, copper, silver, or gold, according to the wealth and resources of their husbands. Fastened to the case they wear a ring, and upon that a dagger, all attached to their breast. About their necks they wear gold and silver chains.

They are the filthiest race that God ever created. They do not wipe themselves after going to stool, or wash themselves after a nocturnal pollution, any more than if they were wild asses.

They come from their own country, anchor their ships in the Volga, which is a great river, and build large wooden houses on its banks. In every such house there live ten or twenty, more or fewer. Each man has a couch, where he sits with the beautiful girls he has for sale. He is as likely as not to enjoy one of them while a friend looks on. At times several of them will be thus engaged at the same moment, each in full view of the others.

Now and again, a merchant will resort to a house to purchase a girl, and find her master thus embracing her, and not giving over until he has fully had his will; in this there is thought nothing remarkable.

Every morning a slave girl comes and brings a tub of water and places it before her master. He proceeds to wash his face and hands, and then his hair, combing it over the vessel. Thereupon he blows his nose, and spits into the tub, and, leaving no dirt behind, conveys it all into this water. When he has finished, the girl carries the tub to the man next to him, who does the same. Thus she continues carrying the tub from one to another, till each of those who are in the house has blown his nose and spit into the tub, and washed his face and hair.

This is the normal way of things among the Northmen, as I have seen with my own eyes. Yet at the period of our arrival among them, there was some discontent among the giant people, the nature of which was thus:

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