Library of Arabic Literature Blog: A Connected World: Exploring the Early Middle Ages with Ibn Faḍlān

The following is a short blogpost that I wrote on the Library of Arabic Literature’s blog about my experiences using Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga to teach about travel in the medieval world. The following is a short excerpt, and the full blog can be read here:

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 Catalan Atlas, ca. 1375, produced by Abraham and Jehudà Cresques in late fourteenth-century Majorca, provides a vision of a highly connected medieval world characterized by ethnic, cultural, and political diversity woven together through a web of trade routes and mercantile networks. The full manuscript has been digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France:

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.

Map from Mission to the Volga

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.

Read the full post here:

1 thought on “Library of Arabic Literature Blog: A Connected World: Exploring the Early Middle Ages with Ibn Faḍlān

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s