Migrations to the north
A new translation of mediaeval Arab travel narratives may herald further English translations of classical Arabic literature, writes David Tresilian
Speaking to the Weekly in an interview late last year, the British orientalist Robert Irwin suggested that while more works of modern Arabic literature were now being translated into English than ever before, western readers were still sometimes ill served when it came to translations from the classical literature.
Irwin himself is the author of a useful Companion to the Arabian Nights, a kind of extended commentary on the stories making up the Thousand and One Nights, and editor of a widely used anthology of classical Arabic literature in English translation. Yet, English-language publishers, he said, "don't really know where to start as far as classical Arab writers are concerned," and they can turn a deaf ear to pleas for better, more modern translations as a result.
"I keep telling publishers they should do Jahiz," the polymath Abbasid writer, Irwin explained, as "he's so witty and so interesting, or the pre-Islamic poets, but they are not very receptive. When I suggest Jahiz, people look blank." At the moment, non-Arabic-speaking readers wanting to read the works of Jahiz have few options aside from older French or German translations, unavailable except in larger research libraries.
However, the decision by Penguin Books to bring out a new translation of works by mediaeval Arab geographers, among them the 10th century writer Ibn Fadlan, in its familiar Penguin Classics series may be a sign that things are changing and that English-language publishers are at long last beginning to cater to western readers curious to know more about mediaeval Arab civilisation.
Entitled Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, Arab Travellers in the Far North, the book contains some of the earliest accounts in any language of the Viking traders who penetrated Central Asia down to the Caspian Sea in the mediaeval period and of the indigenous inhabitants of the region. It has been expertly translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, and it is full of fascinating details about the Abbasid caliphs' northern neighbours and how these appeared from the perspective of a writer from the caliphal court in Baghdad.
As Lunde and Stone explain in the introduction to their translation, nothing is known of the life of Ibn Fadlan, more fully Ahmed bin Fadlan bin al-Abbas bin Rashid bin Hammad, aside from his authorship of an incomplete account of an embassy sent by the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir to the ruler of the Bulghars, "semi-nomadic, horse-riding, Turkic-speaking shamanists," who had set up camp on the Volga River far to the north and east of Abbasid territory.
Al-Muqtadir seems to have been a rather ineffectual ruler (reigned 908-932 CE), having been proclaimed caliph when he was only 13 and presiding over "a period of unparalleled impotence and disaster for the central power of the caliphate," according to the article about him in the Encyclopaedia of Islam. However, it was during al-Muqtadir's rule that the Bulghars seem to have decided to free themselves from the domination of their neighbours the Khazars by sealing an alliance with the caliph in Baghdad, and an envoy, Sawsan al-Rassi, was sent out from Baghdad in June 921.
Ibn Fadlan was a member of the delegation, and his particular responsibility seems to have been to read the caliph's letter to the Bulghar king. In his account of the overland journey to the Bulghar encampment, eastwards from Baghdad to Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan and then northwards through the territories of the Pecenegs and Bashgirds, Turkic peoples, before reaching the Ural Mountains and the Bulghars in May 922, he gives details, sometimes picturesque, sometimes alarming, of the nomadic tribes encountered on the way.
These tribes were for the most part not Muslim, and Ibn Fadlan describes, usually without further comment, their religious and other beliefs. One sticky moment came as the embassy was crossing the territory of the Ghuzz Turks to the west of the Aral Sea, when a local commander, pointing out that "never in our whole lives, nor in the lifetimes of our fathers, has an envoy of the caliph come to us," concluded that "this is some trick of the caliph's“ê¶ [and] the thing to do is to have each of the envoys cut in two and to take everything they have."
Fortunately, the embassy was allowed to continue. On its arrival in the land of the Bulghars, it was kept waiting for four days while the local dignitaries gathered. When they had done so, banners were unfurled and the letter produced.
Ibn Fadlan writes that "I got out the caliph's letter and said, 'It is not permitted to remain seated during the reading of the letter.' Then the king rose and the principal men of his kingdom who were present did likewise. The king was a very fat man with a large belly. I started to read the first part of the letter. When I reached the formula, 'Peace be upon you, for in addressing myself to you I praise God, beside whom there is no god,' I said, 'Return the greeting to the commander of the faithful.' He returned the greeting as did all the others without exception. Then the interpreter continued to translate the letter word for word, and when we had finished reading, they pronounced Allahu Akbar so loudly that the earth shook."
Ibn Fadlan's account of the caliphal embassy to the Bulghars is preserved in a later work by the traveler Yakut al-Rumi (c. 1179 -- 1229), who apparently came across the original while visiting Merv, now in Turkmenistan, and in a manuscript discovered in Mashhad in Iran in 1923. It may have been intended as a report to the chancellery in Baghdad, or it may have been intended for a wider audience. Whatever the case, according to Lunde and Stone what marks it out from other mediaeval travel narratives is its "almost scientific detachment" and objectivity. Ibn Fadlan does not embellish his text with stories of the "wonders" to be seen at the limits of the known world at the time, and while "much that he saw appalled him," being "very outlandish to a Muslim from Baghdad," he "made every effort to understand what was going on around him."
Among the outlandish practices that Ibn Fadlan reports on is a Viking ship burial, carried out by Viking traders, probably from Kiev, on the upper reaches of the Volga River. A young girl was sacrificed in this ceremony, strangled by an old woman named the "angel of death," and the ship, containing lavish grave goods as well as the body of the deceased, was burned. According to one of the Viking bystanders, "you Arabs are fools“ê¶ you put the men you love most into the earth“ê¶ but we burn them in an instant, so that all at once and without delay they enter paradise." Without commenting on the matter, Ibn Fadlan adds "and indeed, not an hour had passed before ship, wood, girl and master were no more than dust and ashes."
In addition to Ibn Fadlan's account of the Abbasid embassy to the Bulghars, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, Arab Travellers in the Far North also contains a later account of the same region by Abu Hamid al-Andalusi al-Gharnati (1080 -- 1169), along with shorter extracts from other mediaeval Arab travelers who visited this and similar northern areas. Al-Gharnati left his native Granada in southern Spain at an early age and travelled widely throughout the Mediterranean, staying in Cairo in 1118 -- 1122, as well as in central Europe, today's Hungary, and central Asia. His narrative is less distinguished than his forebear's, being concerned more with the "wonders" to be seen at the edges of the known world and less useful as veridical documentation. However, it also includes material on areas not visited by Ibn Fadlan, including Anquriya, today's Hungary.
The Hungarians were descended from Turkic tribes, al-Gharnati says, adding, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, that they included "uncountable thousands of the descendants of the Maghribis," in other words North Africans. In fact, much of what al-Gharnati says is doubtful, to say the least, such as when he claims that the inhabitants of Central Asia "are Nestorian Christians, like the Byzantines," both statements being obviously untrue. While al-Gharnati's book has charm, for example in his comments on beavers, found in Central Asia, but not in the Middle East ("some beavers are jealous of others, and take them prisoner"), for the most part it sets off the altogether superior qualities of Ibn Fadlan's earlier narrative, according to Lunde and Stone standing "almost alone in Arabic literature for its immediacy, personal flavour and balanced description of the lives and customs of the peoples of the north at a critical stage in their history."
Lunde and Stone's English translation of the work of these early Arab travelers has been provided with an informative introduction, useful notes, and a set of bibliographical and textual references. It will appeal particularly to anyone whose knowledge of mediaeval Arab travellers stops with the much later and very different Ibn Battuta, and it may signal an intention on the part of its publishers to make other works of classical Arabic literature available in readable modern translations.
Paul Lunde & Caroline Stone (trans.) Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, Arab Travellers in the Far North, London: Penguin, 2012. pp239