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Reviews of Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveler From Baghdad to the Volga River

“Most of our students, with mixed results, were introduced to the medieval Arab traveler, Ibn Fadlan, through Antonio Banderas’ portrayal in the 1999 movie The 13th Warrior (based on Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead). This film, in an unfortunate and fruitful anachronism, pairs the historical Ibn Fadlan, who traveled northwards in the tenth century C.E., with the mythical figure of Beowulf, whose story is set in the sixth century. This pairing of the canonical hero of the Anglo-Saxon tradition with the historical Arab traveler opened the field of medieval studies, particularly in its Eurocentric aspect, to the realities of cultural interpenetration. And it points the serious student of the era toward an invaluable source for understanding these pre-modern encounters across disparate terrains, cultures, languages, and religions: Frye’s translation and commentary on Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia. This volume, which combines accessibility and scholarliness, belongs in undergraduate and graduate classes on early British literature and history, as well as in courses on Russian, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern literatures and histories more broadly.

“Frye, who is Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Harvard University, brings his vast knowledge of the Islamic East and Central Asia to the task of translating the journey of Ibn Fadlan, a representative of the highly refined ‘Abbasid caliphate centered in Baghdad, through the progressively more primitive populations between the Caspian and Aral Seas, including the Oghuz Turks and the Bulghars, as far as the regions along the Volga River occupied by the Rus (misnamed the Vikings). This edition, billed as ‘the first complete English translation’ of Ibn Fadlan’s text (p. viii), is framed with a scholarly introduction and glossary. Throughout, it provides maps, illustrations, and further glosses to guide the non-specialist reader. It concludes with a commentary and several appendices that engage debates among specialists in early Islamic, Byzantine, and Central Asian studies. It thus strikes a productive balance between multiple readerships.

“Ibn Fadlan’s journey to the north was motivated by a civilizing mission as much as a call to faith. As Frye emphasizes, during Ibn Fadlan’s era, ‘the Islamic religion had not yet been codified or frozen into the formal schools of law, and the seal of finality had not been set upon further thought and development in theology or philosophy’ (p. 7). The Muslim communities he encountered, mostly new converts, challenged his attempts to enforce his juristic interpretations. Moreover, his encounters were not limited to Central Asian Muslims or to his oft-cited encounters with the ‘Vikings,’ but included his engagement with the kingdom of the Khazars, whose political elite were Jewish. In one illuminating episode, Ibn Fadlan expresses his fury that the King of the Bulghars’ ‘mu’adhin [caller to prayer] used to double the iqama [exhortation] when performing the call to prayer’ (p. 47), even though Ibn Fadlan had clearly instructed him on his error (at least, according to the Shafi’i school to which Ibn Fadlan adhered). In turn, the King of the Bulghars rebuked the overbearing and punctilious Ibn Fadlan for failing to protect him from his political enemies, the Khazars, a matter much more essential to the preservation of Islam in his realm: ‘I will not accept [guidance] from you in a matter pertaining to my religion until there comes to me a man who cherishes my welfare in what he says’ (p. 49). Hence, this is ‘a historical as well as an ethnological document’ (p. ix), as Frye points out, but its force derives from the unfolding character of the narrator, Ibn Fadlan, whether in the frustrations of his imperious sense of bringing Islamic civilization to those he deems savages or in the sheer endurance required to travel in this ‘most savage cold’ (p. 33). The genre of the diplomatic travel narrative, which sought to provide a detailed rather than an eloquent record of the journey, allows for these complex renderings of co-existence and resistance in the region.

“The importance of this volume also speaks to our present geopolitical concerns. As Frye establishes in his introduction, ‘In the tenth century, two new religious faiths emerged in present-day Russia’ (p. ix). These faiths—Greek Orthodox Christianity and Islam (Sunni and Shi’ite)—have emerged as central to highly contentious theories about the so-called ‘clash of civilizations.’ One of the major flaws in these theories is their tendency to reduce complex histories into simplistic and antagonistic categories. Ibn Fadlan’s journey through Central Asia during this formative period counters this fallacy by foregrounding the ongoing and necessary negotiation of culture, ethnicity, language, and religion in an economic and political context.” — Bernadette Andrea, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin

“This is the first complete English translation of one of the great documents of world history—Ibn Fadlan’s account of his journey to Baghdad to the King of the Bulghars of the middle Volga (921 C.E.). This historical as well as ethnological document contains observations uncharacteristically devoid of flattery and exaggerations. As such, it represents the earliest notice of the customs and beliefs of the so-called Rus people. Invaluable commentaries by translator Frye (emer., Harvard), a distinguished specialist in the history of the peoples of Middle East and Central Asia, [accompany] the original text. Frye’s background enables him to correctly interpret the passages referring to the Rus as covering a mixture of Slavs and Vikings preoccupied in mutually gainful trade. Another benefit to having both original text and commentaries are the eyewitness examples of certain ways of life of the ancestors of other people of Russia, such as the Bulghars (modern Tatars) and Alans (modern Ossetians), as well as the historical Khazars. Especially significant are the descriptions of burial customs, which help specialists to draw reliable ethnological parallels. The reconstruction of historical trading connections is another attraction of this edition. Highly recommended.” — Choice