The Book of Ahmad ibn Fadlān

Information and Questions for Reading

Ahmad ibn Fadlan is famous for this narrative, the first to describe the part of the world that shades into the spaces we will study. We are reading ibn Fadlan for several reasons: first, as a demonstratiom of relative levels of literacy: literacy often enters a population along with a religion, and as you know Rus' had not yet accepted Christianity in 921.  Second, this voyage brings him into contact with a wide range of peoples, with various cultural levels, economic prosperity, and religious beliefs. Do note that ibn Fadlan does not get as far as the regions referred to in the Primary Chronicle, and the "Rus" he describes sound like Vikings rather than Slavic Rusians.


1) How many toponyms or ethnonyms do you recognize? How does seeing different versions of a place's name impact your thinking about a place?

2) What kind of person is Ibn Fadlan? Can you tell much about his character from something written so long ago, when people thought and wrote about themselves quite differently? How does he react to the various people and peoples they meet?

3) What can you say about the presence and nature of Islam to the south and east of the Kievan state from which Russia claims its cultural, linguistic and religious roots?

4) What is your experience of reading a text where you don’t understand why a lot of the information given is important? It is partly the difference between data and information (where the latter is informative), but it also indicates how much our education and familiarity with certain times and places enables us to see and evaluate the information.



James E. Montgomery's article "IBN FALĀN AND THE RŪSIYYAH" is available here. Other scholarly books can be found through Tripod.

On the Khazars:

Literary fun: Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars (in McCabe, PG1419.26.A78 H313 1988), presents an unusual view of the Khazars, offering three different takes: one by a Jewish narraotr, one by a Muslim, and one by an Orthodox Christian. (Interestingly, he does not bring in a Roman Catholic.)

Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road (2007) is set largely in Khazaria and also offers an unusual take on the place, with some very interesting gender issues.