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Volume 30, Number 5September/October 1979

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Treasures of the North

Written by Barry Hoberman
Illustrated by Neville Mardell

"It would seem to be a fact," wrote the Greek historian Herodotus, "that the remotest parts of the world have the finest products."

Herodotus' observation probably says far more about human nature than about the natural resources of far-off lands. Since recorded history began, the desire for rare and unusual goods has been well-nigh universal. Western man, for example, traditionally turned to the Orient for exotic luxuries-references to "the silks of Cathay" the fabled "Spice Islands," and "caravans bearing frankincense and myrrh from Arabia Felix" are frequent in medieval literature.

But where, one wonders, did the Orient look for exotic treasures? Where, for instance, did the Arabs - who themselves traded frankincense and myrrh - go for Herodotus' "finest goods?" Curiously, they went north.

The world of Islam certainly traded with the Far East too - India, Indonesia and Malaysia - but, especially in medieval times. The Arabs and Persians also looked to the north - to eastern and northern Europe – as a source of precious commodities. From early Islamic times, and especially in me ninth and tenth centuries, a flourishing trade linked the Arab East and Central Asia with the distant North, a land of fearsome cold and long winter nights.

Although this was the period when the Abbasid Caliphate attained its cultural zenith, it was also the era when the Samanid dynasty ruled almost autonomously in Central Asia. Much of the impetus for the northern trade, therefore, came from the Samanids, whose domain included the great cities of Nishapur, Merv, Balkh, Bukhara, Samarkand, and - an all-important region - Khwarizm.

Located south of the Aral Sea and close to some of the major emporia of eastern Europe, Khwarizm's role in international commerce was pivotal. Its caravans skirted the northern shore of the Caspian Sea to reach Atil, at the mouth of the Volga and controlled by the Khazars - Turks who ruled the entire lower Don-Volga area, just north of the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian. Although it was an exceptionally barren and resource-poor country, the Khazars nonetheless succeeded in amassing substantial wealth on the basis of the trade which passed through the markets of Atil, where foreign merchants filled Khazar coffers with transit tolls and customs dues until the second half of the 10th century, when the Russians apparently won control of the local trade.

Khwarizmian merchants also journeyed to the country of the Volga Bulgars, Muslim Turks who originally formed part of the same people for whom Bulgaria is named. The Bulgar country lay far to the north of Khazaria, around the intersection of the Volga and Kama Rivers - near the present-day Russian city of Kazan. It could be reached via a direct caravan route from Khwarizm, or by sailing up the Volga from Atil.

Except for the famous account of Ibn Fadlan, a member of the embassy sent by the Caliph al-Muqtadir to the Bulgars in 921 (See Aramco World, March-April 1979), very little was known in the Islamic world about the peoples of eastern and northern Europe. Muslim geographers tended to classify the remaining groups under the rubrics Saqaliba, Rusor Turk, and they were not, in fact, clear about who the Saqaliba and Rus were. Scholars have shown that the word Saqaliba was used to designate not only Slavs, but on occasion Finns, Turks, and Germans as well. As for the term Rus, some interpreters say it meant the native Slavs who founded the early Russian state, but others say it refers to bands of Scandinavian interlopers - the eastern European equivalent of the people known in Western history as the Vikings. Recent investigations suggest, however, that the Rus of Arab authors should be understood not as a single ethnic group, but as a multinational association of nomads of the sea."

But if Muslim writers were unfamiliar with the people of eastern and northern Europe - what is now the Ukraine, European Russia, Poland and Scandinavia - they were totally familiar with the area's treasures. From numerous accounts - Ibn Khurradadhbih, in the ninth century Ibn Rusta, Ibn Fadlan, al-Istakhri, al-Mas'udi, Ibn Hawqal, the anonymous author of Hududal-'Alam - and al-Maqdisi, all in the 10th century; al-Biruni, Gardizi, and al-Bakri in the 11th century; Marvazi and Abu Hatnid al-Gharnati al-Andalusi, in the 12th century and Muhammad 'Awfı in the 13th century - experts have pieced together a picture of a booming commercial network that brought the treasures of the North to all the major centers of Islamic civilization.

Foremost among these treasures were furs - sable, ermine, mink, marten, fox, beaver, squirrel, and otter. Furs were in demand above all in Central Asia and on the Iranian plateau, but even in the warmer Arab lands fur was used to trim the garments of the well-to-do.

Fur-bearing animals were so numerous in eastern and northern Europe, that pelts served as a basic unit of exchange in these regions until the 12th century, if not later. In the heartlands of Islam, however, furs remained a precious luxury, esteemed and coveted no less than Chinese silks. Muslim merchants journeyed to the markets of Atil, Bulgar, and Suwar, perhaps even as far afield as Kiev, to obtain pelts in exchange for cash - silver dirhams - or such items as silver and copper plates, bowls, cups and jewelry, silk and cotton textiles, weapons and fruit. The furs were transported back to Khwarizm, and from there routed throughout the Islamic East, or west to Baghdad, the political, intellectual and economic hub of the Abbasid Caliphate, and from there to the furthest limits of the Muslim world.

In addition to its role as an emporium for the fur trade, the country of the Volga Bulgars was itself a key reservoir of furs - sables in particular. Another country renowned for its splendid furs was that of the Burtas - Finns who dwelled in the forests along the banks of the middle Volga, between the Khazars and the Bulgars. Ibn Rusta, whose account of the Burtas is the most detailed to have survived, notes that most of their wealth derives from marten pelts. The versatile traveler, historian, and geographer al-Mas'udi discusses the fox fur of the Burtas in two of his works, Muruj al-Dhahab ("The Meadows of Gold") and Kitab al-Tanbih ("The Book of Admonition").

In the first book, he relates that a single black fox pelt from the Burtas country may be worth more than 100 gold dinars. "Arab and non-Arab kings wear the black ones, and take extraordinary pride in doing so. They regard them as being more valuable than sable, weasel, and similar furs. The kings also have these pelts made into hats, kaftans, and mantles. In fact, it is impossible that there would be a king who does not own a kaftan or mantle lined with this black fox fur of Burtas."

In the second work, al-Mas'udi adds that the distinctive Burtas fox fur "is not found anywhere in the world except in this district and its environs." He also narrates the account of an experiment by which the Caliph al-Mahdi determined to his own satisfaction that the black fox fur of Burtas was warmer than all other furs.

Two rather enigmatic fur-producing territories were the land inhabited by a people whom the Muslim geographers call Wisu or Isu, and that of another people named Yura or Yughra. Various authors report that Bulgar merchants journeyed to these snowbound precincts in dogsleds, returning after many months with the finest quality furs. Marvazi writes that the Yura "are a savage people, living in forests and not mixing with other men, for they fear that they may be harmed by them." The Wisu and Yura have been successfully identified with groups who to this day occupy areas in northern Russia where fur-bearing animals are plentiful. They deserve mention here not only for their part in the fur trade, but because they represent the northernmost limits of medieval Arab and Persian geographical knowledge.

Though furs were the major commodity in the trade with the North, many other goods also achieved the status of luxury items. Amber, the mysterious substance capable of imprisoning unwary insects and attracting straw like a magnet, found its way to the Arab East all the way from the shores of the Baltic. It was commonly used for both ornamental and medicinal purposes. Al-Biruni, himself a Khwarizmian, declares that many Turks employ amber as a talisman, to insure protection against the evil eye, and though some writers offered fantastic theories to explain the occurrence of amber in nature, the majority of those who mentioned it had a fairly accurate understanding of its origin.

Perhaps the most exotic of all the northern products were walrus and narwhal tusk ivory, carried from Arctic seas via a lengthy chain of intermediaries. Once again the encyclopedic al-Biruni furnishes colorful information on the subject at hand. He identifies the "fish-teeth" brought from the "Northern Sea" by the Volga Bulgars with the rare and precious material khutu, out of which were carved elaborate sword hilts and dagger handles. Al-Biruni adds that the Egyptians would sometimes purchase this substance for up to 200 times its actual value, so highly did they esteem it.

Like amber, khutu - usually walrus or narwhal ivory but perhaps including mammoth ivory from Siberia -was reputed by Muslim authors to have therapeutic and magical properties. Throughout the Middle Ages, walrus tusks were referred to as "fish-teeth" in a variety of languages, including Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Russian. It is also interesting to note that the unique spiraled tusk of the narwhal - like the horn of the oryx - resembles that of the legendary unicorn.

Chief among the remaining goods imported from eastern and northern Europe were honey and wax, the twin products of bee-keeping. Honey was a more popular sweetener than sugar, which was already known to the Muslims but was still extremely scarce.

Dried fish and hazelnuts were two other foodstuffs regularly procured from the North. The Rus merchants also dominated the brisk trade in sword blades, and texts also mention trade in arrows, spears and armor, and scattered references to leather, birch bark, isinglass and lead help to provide a fuller idea of the range and diversity of northern commodities appreciated in the Muslim world in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Besides the literary documentation, there is ample archeological evidence of extensive trade with the North. Hundreds of hoards of Islamic silver dirhams have been uncovered in eastern, northern and central Europe, particularly along the Volga and around the Baltic. These finds have been concentrated in European Russia, the Baltic republics of the U.S.S.R., Poland, Finland and Sweden - especially the island of Gotland - and have extended as far as Germany, Denmark, Norway, Great Britain - and even Iceland. In 1960 it was estimated that some 200,000 coins had come to light in these parts and the total now must be considerably higher.

From these hoards, which occur in such surprising quantities and over such a wide area, it is apparent that for many centuries, Islamic silver coins were accepted - or even preferred - as currency in regions of Europe that were never touched by the religion and civilization of Islam. That dirhams were used as genuine currency, and not simply as merchandise to be exchanged, is implied by the fact that many halves and quarters of coins have been found.

Additional silver in the form of bracelets, plates, bowls, and cups was often buried along with the coins. It appears that the practice of hoarding silver represents a medieval precursor of the modern savings account. The discovery of Sassanian silver objects in the extreme northeast of European Russia further suggests that this custom antedates the rise of Islam.

The caches of Islamic silver found in eastern, northern, and central Europe serve to complement and corroborate written accounts of Muslim trade with the North. The dates on the coins - the majority of which are ninth and tenth century coins - coincide with the dates of the geographers' reports.

A large percentage of the coins originate from Samanid mints in Central Asia, emphasizing what was said previously about the Samanid role in the northern trade.

Some archeologists have argued that by pinpointing on a map all the places where coin hoards have been discovered, one can trace the routes followed by Muslim traders, but it is doubtful that Arab, Persian, and Khwarizmian merchants themselves often ventured beyond Bulgar and Suwar in the country of the Volga Bulgars. The Rus - whether Scandinavians, Slavs, or both - clearly controlled the inland water routes, reaching the Islamic world via the Volga and the Caspian as they did Byzantium via the Dneiper and the Black Sea. The Khazars traditionally exercised sovereignty over land routes in the North Caucasus and the area of the present-day Ukraine, and the Bulgars probably handled much of the trade with the distant Wisu and Yura. Finally, the Vikings were masters of the entire Baltic, and as such are probably responsible for the massive numbers of coin hoards found on its coasts.

Nor can it be assumed that a given cache of silver was necessarily buried along a trade route. Here the quantity of evidence is important, and plotting the finds on a map is helpful. A rough idea of at least certain routes can be gained by tracing through the regions in which hoards have been most densely concentrated. Occasional finds of camel bones have also been utilized in locating caravan routes, but unfortunately, a camel bone cannot furnish the identity of that camel's rider.

The last comment, however facetious it might sound, raises a serious question. It has proven terribly difficult to integrate the spectacular archeological discoveries into an overall synthesis of the data concerning Islamic trade with the North. Coin hoards, in spite of the undoubted fascination they hold and the speculation they inspire, are mute. They tell us nothing about the human side of trade, about the social conditions that created a substantial demand for sable or amber in the medieval Islamic world. Only a literary source - such as al-Mas'udi's statement that it would be impossible to find a king who did not own a garment lined with black Burtas fox fur - can do that. A coin hoard cannot reveal the nationality of the person who hid it, his precise reasons for doing so, or the circumstances under which he obtained the coins in the first place. We can try, of course, to imagine what colorful tales of human initiative are suggested by a cache of Arab coins in Norway or Iceland, but without written evidence there can be only surmise.

The hoards of coins have led to another significant conclusion, however: a decline in trade in the 11th century. Almost no Muslim coins bearing dates beyond the early 11th century have been found, although hoards containing Byzantine and western European money from this period do appear. Even in hoards dating from the late 10th century, there are increasing proportions of Christian coins. This supports suggestions in written sources that there was a dramatic ebb in the trade between the Islamic lands and eastern Europe after the year 1000.

The reasons for this decline are but imperfectly known. A key factor was obviously the fall of the Samanids in A.D. 999. Their realm was carved up between the Karakhanid Turks in the north, and the Turkish Ghaznavid house of Mahmud of Ghazna in the south. The general upheavals in Central Asia at this time, and specifically the failure of the Karakhanids to cultivate good relations with other Muslim dynasties, must have had a tremendous impact on international commerce. The meteoric rise of the Russian state, with its capital at Kiev on the Dneiper, altered time-honored economic patterns in eastern Europe. A further explanation for the falling off of trade pins much of the blame on an internal silver shortage that developed in the Islamic East toward the end of the Samanid period.

Whatever the reasons for the downturn, it should not be assumed that trade ground to a complete halt. Northern products continued to reach the world of Islam, albeit with less frequency. But for all practical purposes, our story ends here.

In every age of history, the romantic image of rare and unusual luxuries from distant lands has exerted a unique hold over men's minds. Medieval Islam, demonstrably no exception, was thus drawn by the exotic lure of treasures from the North. The record of Islamic trade with eastern and northern Europe is a spellbinding saga of sable and ermine pelts, of amber from the Baltic and ivory from the Arctic, of doughty Muslim merchants and obscure Finnish forest dwellers. It is the story of a faraway time, and of desires that are timeless.

Barry Hoberman, now a freelance writer, has a B. A. degree from Duke University, an M.A. from Harvard, where he began his study of Arabic, and another M.A. - in Central Asian history -from the University of Indiana, where he continued his study of Arabic, specializing in medieval texts.

This article appeared on pages 22-27 of the September/October 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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