Sunday, January 5, 2014

Oh Magog: Ibn Fadlan, the Land of Darkness, and the Mystery of Gog and Magog

Happy New Year, History Fans! Welcome to 2014! How the hell are we still here?! Why hasn’t the earth imploded yet? What gives?! Well, until it does, we here at History Books will continue to solve mysteries and explore histories. And when things look really grim, we’ll probably take part in all kinds of end-time debauchery. 

This post is about just that: the end times! With maybe a little debauchery thrown in. But first: let’s talk about Vikings, baby!

For Christmas this year, my wonderful mother bought me a very nice and warm coat. The old H&M pile of rags just wasn’t cutting it anymore. This left little room for other, more scholarly gifts. My mom, however, believes in the Christmas spirit so much, she bought me a delightful book about Arab travelers in Northern Europe during the Viking Age and Middle Ages. Most important among these is Ibn Fadlan’s chronicle of his trip up to the mouth of the Volga where he came in contact with the Vikings. 

Ibn Fadlan’s observations on the Vikings are invaluable, but they are but a small piece of his greater story. Fadlan was sent by the caliph of Baghdad to the ruler of the Bulghars who recently converted to Islam. The ruler of the Bulghars, who we will call Yiltawar because he has a very long name indeed, wrote to the Caliph after his conversion and requested that someone come show them how to be Muslims. This is incredibly telling because it probably meant that Yiltawar’s conversion was more political than religious. With barbaric and pagan tribes on all sides, including the Oguz Turks, an alliance with the powerful caliphate meant not only protection from their enemies but also a connection to the wealth and learning that streamed from the capital. So, Fadlan was sent to help Yiltawar understand the rules and traditions of Islam. 

The kingdom of the Bulghars was in eastern Russia and sat between the Volga and the Kama rivers. This map will give you some idea of just how far Fadlan had to travel:

The envoy consisted of Fadlan and about three or four other representatives. And here is where the story gets interesting: There was a vizier who fell out of favor with the caliphate. His name was Ibn al-Furat. The caliphate commanded that al-Furat was to hand over a huge amount of money to his agent, Ahmad ibn Musa, who was supposed to meet up with Fadlan and his companions. The revenue was to help the King of the Bulghars to build a new fortress. This was to be a main part of the envoy’s duty. However, Ibn al-Furat had some of his cronies arrest Ahmad ibn Musa on false charges. Therefore the money was never collected and the fellowship left on their journey without Musa and the funds needed for the fortress. 

Fadlan wrote detailed notes on everything he encountered on the journey to the Bulghars. And even though his notes on the Vikings are what he is known best for, he also gives us great insights into the kingdom of the Khazars, the Bulghars rival neighbors. Fadlan is almost comical, gawking at their lack of hygiene and their barbaric ways. When he finally arrives at his destination, he is received warmly by the fat King Yiltawar. But things do not go well. After they observe the niceties, the king demands the money that was promised him. Fadlan tries to explain the circumstances to the king but was met with cold resistance. Fadlan instructs the king on how and what to pray, but the king, in rebellion, changes prays his own way to show his disdain for Fadlan and his broken promise. From Fadlan’s writing, there is no indication that things were patched up between he and the king. We have only later documents that allude to a healthy relationship between the Baghdad caliphate and that same area. The real treasure comes from when Fadlan visits the Viking trading post located on the Volga.

The accounts of Ibn Fadlan and his contemporary writers, as well as the writers who followed after, are incredibly helpful on two accounts. First, it is easy to forget about the Swedish Vikings who trickled into Russia and Eastern Europe. They get lost in the furious and well documented attacks on Western Europe. The assimilation and conquering of England is romantic and brutal. The Danish and Norse Vikings who pushed west were much easier to document with the Christian writers scared out of their wits throughout Europe. The Arab journals are helpful to recount just how much of an impact the Vikings had in the east as well. The east-faring Vikings, or the Rus as they were known, set up a small trading post in the Slavic areas of Eastern Europe that soon flourished. As it grew, it developed into one of the leading cities of that area and is known today as Kiev. Did you get that?! The Vikings planted the city of Kiev!! What can’t these guys do?!

The second reason these accounts are great is how much they differ from the exaggerated and terrifying accounts by the Christian chroniclers. In England, 30 ships turned into 80 ships. And the handful of citizens that were killed turned into piles of bodies that clogged the streets. That’s not to say that the Vikings were not violent. The Arabs, though, take a much more annoyed outsider approach. Fadlan is both intrigued and disturbed by the Rus. The other Arab chroniclers seem frustrated with the Vikings. Any time they mention the Rus –God destroy them all!—they use awesome asides just like that. The observations are much more objective, much cleaner and to the point. These rascals from up north are bothering everybody and we won’t put up with it!

The most important piece of Ibn Fadlan’s writing is his description of the Viking funeral. In modern culture, the term Viking funeral usually brings to mind a deceased body being set onto a ship, setting the ship on fire, and letting it out to sea. That whole idea can be traced straight back to Fadlan. Nowhere else do we see as vivid a description of a funeral, nor do we see the details that Fadlan provides. It is really quite harrowing, and quite beautiful in a somber sort of way. The Vikings, saying goodbye to a leader, will kill his horses, his slave girls, even some of them could volunteer to follow his master into the afterlife. And then they set it all on fire. Fuckin’ A.

In the midst of Fadlan’s story, and scattered throughout the other Arab accounts, were references to a strange people or place: Gog and Magog. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what exactly Gog and Magog were, other than fun words to say. But I’ve been doing some digging, and with the help of some brilliant minds and old books, I think I’ve kind of figured it out.

Gog and Magog pop up in both the Koran and the Bible. That in itself is interesting but not unheard of. The two texts share quite a few of the same names and stories. While the Christian references seemed aloof, the Islam references were explained by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone in the Introduction to Ibn Fadlan’s text. According to the Koran, the Muslim belief or “myth” of the end of time involves the people of Gog and Magog breaching a wall and laying destruction to the earth. The wall, or barrier, is commonly called Alexander’s Wall, in reference to some great piece of masonry that Alexander the Great built in order to keep some dangerous tribe at bay. This wall was never built, which makes me want to place this story into the “myth” category. But it is mentioned in the Koran, which, just like the Bible, is mysterious and infallible.
Why did these names or names of places, keep popping up in this book about the Arab travels in northern Europe? Were they referring to the Vikings? From what I’ve gathered, the people or place attributed to Gog and Magog is very vague. Alexander’s wall was thought to be near the Caucus area. But the names have come to define any number of peoples that live to the north of the original Muslim empire. The Turks, Chinese, Slavs, all of which could be considered Gog and Magog. 

Gog and Magog came to exemplify any tribe or group of peoples that posed a threat to the Muslim world and was built into the end of the world scenario. The references in the Bible seem to have come from a similar thought process. Magog is first mentioned in Genesis as a son of Japheth, who was a son of Noah. This could just be a coincidental name. Later, in Ezekiel and again in Revelations (The Bible’s own version of the end times), Gog is mentioned as the ruler of a place called Magog. In this prophecy, Gog is to gather up his forces, as well as his neighbors, which included Persia and surrounding nations, for an attack on Israel. Not too far off from the Muslim idea, huh? In both end-time accounts the Jewish nation and the Muslim nation, respectively, are to be attacked by Gog and Magog. 

With the help of Pastor Marc Buwalda, Ashley Sullivan, and Eastern Orthodox expert Brian Whirledge, I got some idea of where exactly the nation of Magog could have been. The great historian Josephus connects Gog and Magog to the Scythians. He too agrees that Alexander the Great had holed up these people behind a barrier in the mountains throughout the Caucus. There is also a reference in classical works that Magog was within the Armenian kingdom, which would place it right around the modern-day Iraq and Turkey borders. But a question remained: Could Gog and Magog be a reference to the Vikings? There was at least one line of thinking that was spelled out by Shaykh Dr. Ridhwan Saleem:

Now, after watching Dr. Saleem talk, it became pretty clear that he was stretching some of the Koran’s verses to fit his theory. But I thought that he had some pretty interesting points. According to him, the Vikings more or less ushered in the “end times.” As the Viking age ends, around 1000-1100 AD, what begins? The CRUSADES! Why, he asks, did Europe suddenly become obsessed with taking Jerusalem? Why, after years of relatively safe passage into the Holy City, did the Christians demand that the city be handed over to them? Many of the Crusades can be traced back to Normandy, which, of course, is a Viking settlement. It’s a stretch. And it’s an even bigger stretch when he claims that the mountains in Norway must have been the barrier described in the Koran. The patriarch of the Scandinavian Normandy, Rollo, could very well have been Danish, totally debunking Saleem’s theory. His origin is unknown. Another reason I have trouble with Saleem's theory is that if the Vikings did in fact usher in the end of the time, the last days sure have been going on for a while, huh?!

So, could the prophecies about Gog and Magog in both the Bible and the Koran mean the attacks of the Vikings? Sure! It could also have referred to a dozen other peoples throughout eastern and northern Europe. And, if you read your classical and Arabic histories, you will find out that often times it did! In the end, we find a pretty anit-climatic answer—we don’t really know who Gog or Magog really was or where it was. Scholars and researchers like Dr. Saleem have used the Koran, the Bible, and other texts to fit their theories as to who Gog and Magog really were. As Pastor Marc Buwalda so eloquently stated, “. . . nobody seems to know.  Gog was probably a ruler; Magog was likely where he was from.  Your idea that Magog could refer to Europeans in general may have some merit, but only because generally speaking, modern Europe is north of Israel.”

Was it all for nothing? Did we end up at square one? Did we wine her and dine her, only to discover she is saving herself for marriage? I don’t think so. The mystery of Gog and Magog is intriguing. I had a lot of fun snooping through Ashley’s Bible land books and watching kooky Muslim YouTube videos. Plus, I think there is some research to be done, some connection to be made, not in who Gog and Magog really were, but how the Bible and the Koran ended up with a common enemy when our time on earth runs out. And so we keep digging, History Fans. The truth is out there. And who says we can’t enjoy the bumps and obstacles along the way?

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