Explorations during the Middle Ages, despite not harboring many discoveries as it did during the Ancient Age, were riddled with long journeys and very detailed chronicles.
The maritime dominance of the Vikings in the waters of northern Europe, together with the Arab expansion in the Middle East and Africa, were the main factors that conditioned this new period of history.
In the middle of the 9th century, a new stage of migratory concern began on the Scandinavian coasts. Unlike land movements, Viking sea voyages were more discrete in number due to the limited capacity of their vessels. However, they threatened for many years the western coasts of Europe and any land in the interior accessible by river. The most powerful empires of the time, the Carolingian and the Umayyad in Al-Andalus, had to endure their onslaught.
In the Iberian Peninsula, the Vikings plundered Seville for seven days, destroyed the mosque and captured many of its inhabitants. Under the government of Abd al-Rahman II (792-852), emir of Cordoba, administrative and military measures were adopted to face the incursions of the Nordic peoples. They forced the emir to organize two fleets: one based in Seville to defend the Atlantic, and the other in Almeria to do the same with the Mediterranean.
The Vikings used especially light and maneuverable ships called drakkars, ideal for going up the course of rivers and carrying out lightning attacks called strandhögg. Thanks to their ability to navigate in shallow waters, they managed to lay siege to the city of Paris through the River Seine, and they reached Pamplona through the river Ebro.
But the Vikings didn’t live by looting alone. They also settled in different coastal regions such as Seville, southern Italy and Normandy, from where years later they would pounce on the island of Great Britain.
The North Atlantic
Another migratory current came to the Faroe Islands around 670, along with some Irish monks, and from there they continued their trips to the North Atlantic, reaching Iceland around 795. Later, Erik the Red arrived in Greenland in 982, and his son Leif Erikson did it on the American continent in the Labrador peninsula around the year 1,000, calling it Vinland. On the island of Newfoundland, the Vikings maintained contact with the Inuit tribes, whom they called Skræling -barbarians or outsiders-, and hostile relations with these Native Americans are believed to be one of the reasons why they abandoned the idea of colonizing the territory. On the trip back to Europe they found the Spitzbergen islands (1,194), leaving some settlements that had an ephemeral life.
All these routes were collected in the medieval Nordic sagas, and were of great help to geographers in later centuries to prepare maps of the Arctic regions.
On the other hand, the trips that were undertaken to the east by waterway through the Baltic rivers, took the Vikings to the Black Sea through the Dnieper River, and to the Caspian Sea through the Volga River. On this trip they founded the Kiev Rus and even attacked Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Unable to match the Byzantine naval power, they were overcome by the fearsome Greek fire and ended up becoming city mercenaries or merchants.
Muslim control of the Middle East and its rapid political-military expansion brought the confines of the East and West into contact, with Mecca as the center of the Islamic world. The Muslim religion forces all its faithful to visit the holy city at least once in their lives, and the authorities took care to organize caravans and provide their pilgrims with geographical knowledge through itineraries and maps about the trip.
This sea and land trip could last for months -even years- and was usually full of complications. Luckily, the Arab conquest of Lebanon’s Mediterranean ports allowed them to use their knowledge and navigation techniques to exercise dominance in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, keeping the Byzantine fleet at bay.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, control over the port of Siraf, located on the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf, facilitated the possibility of regularly trading with China and the rest of the countries along the way. In fact, the scope of his business trips expanded to more remote locations such as the island of Madagascar, the Korean peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, and the Philippines. Geographer Ibn Jurdadbih describes how Arab and Jewish merchants bought furs and slaves in the Central European markets of Verdun and Prague, and then took them to the shores of Almería. From there they were finally redistributed to Egypt, the Red Sea, and finally India, Indonesia, and China.
Documentation and logistics
These routes were collected in geographical works such as that of Abu Zayd al-Sirafi (920), which describes the shores of the Indian Ocean from Zanzibar to Canton (Guangzhou), in the South China Sea. The wonders of India and China provide a great deal of detail on the stopovers made by ships from the ports of Siraf or Aden sailing along the Canton route.
Obviously, the transcontinental dimension of the businesses that were carried out could not be sustained without effective and consistent communication. That is why the extensive network of correspondents, warehouses and the media that connected almost all parts of the known world, and especially in the Arab world, was of paramount importance.
Pilgrimage and trade travel
The desire to prosper and find better business opportunities led Arabs to unsuspected corners. Abu Hamid al-Gharnati, Andalusian traveler from Granada, made one of the most notorious journeys of the time in his search for new markets and driven by his pilgrimage to Mecca.
This citizen of Granada, began his adventure by first heading to Uclés, where he lived to continue the studies he started in his hometown. Once his stay was over, he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to visit Morocco and Tunisia, where he embarked for Alexandria, and on whose journey he was lucky enough to contemplate the eruption of Etna in Sicily. Upon arriving in Cairo, he was able to explore the middle stretch of the Nile River to retrace his steps and head towards Damascus, Palmyra and Baghdad, where he lived for four years.
From this point on, he left the regions best known to Islam and entered territories that were totally unexplored to him. He crossed Persia to Derbent, in what is now the Russian Dagestan, on the Caspian Sea’s shore, where he collected abundant information about the Caucasus mountain range and the steel industry that its people worked. He continued his journey in a boat that took him to Saysin, in the delta of the Volga River, and then went back east and reached Bolgar, in Russian Tatarstan, near Kazan. This was the last commercial center accessible to Muslims, but Abu Hamid continued on his way to Kiev in the west, crossed the Carpathians and reached Hungary, ending his foray into European territory.
Return to the middle east
The way back to him took him back to Saysin, where he would embark again to cross the Caspian to the Mangyshlak peninsula, on the east coast of this inland sea. From here, he toured several towns in the Middle East, passing through Bukhara, Merv, Nishapur, Rayy -in Tehran-, Isfahan and Basra, a city located at the interfluvium of the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers, until reaching Mecca. In his last trips, he went to Baghdad, Mosul, Aleppo and Damascus, where he died at the age of ninety.
Abu Hamid devoted almost all of his life to commerce and travel, spending the last fifteen writing up his experiences as a traveler. The descriptions provided by the Andalusian traveler exceed those of predecessors such as Ahmad ibn Fadlan or Ibrahim ibn Jakub, who also toured eastern Europe.
India and Africa
The Muslim states of Central Asia were concerned with maintaining good relations with their eastern neighbors. Historically, they always had difficulties to penetrate Chinese territory, since they exercised strong control at their borders against any exogenous element. But on the other routes in Asia they were more fortunate, and in the 10th century Abu Dulaf managed to join an Indian embassy where they crossed Tibet to reach the Indian subcontinent. He returned to Medina by visiting the regions of Kashmir, Afghanistan and Sistan, which he collected in a book called Wonders of the countries.
In Africa, the Arab conquest resulted in the Islamization of the Berber tribes of the Sahara, and the introduction of mining products from Niger and the Congo on the world market. Thanks to these Berber tribes they were also able to reach Timbuktu, Ghana and Takrur, an ancient state that flourished on the banks of the Senegal River.
The Islam Traveler
All these trips, both African and Asian, can be summed up in the life of Ibn Battuta, known to many as ‘the traveler to Islam’. In his book called Rihla he describes a journey of around 80,000 miles through all the countries of Islam to China and Sumatra.
He left from Tangier, his hometown, at the age of 21 to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and also complete his studies at the most prestigious universities in the Arab world. He toured North Africa through Tunisia and Tripoli until he reached Egypt, where he was amazed by Alexandria. It was at this point in his journey that he decided to dedicate his life to visiting as many places as he could, trying not to use the same path more than once.
From Cairo he entered Upper Egypt following the Nile and crossed the desert to Aidab, on the western shore of the Red Sea. He returned to the Egyptian capital and crossed Sinai, reaching Gaza, Jerusalem, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus, where he joined a caravan that would take him to the end of his pilgrimage in 1,326: Medina and Mecca.
However, he did not stop. He restarted his way, eager to see the world, crossing the Arabian desert to Iraq, and continued through southern Iran, Azerbaijan and Baghdad. His path took him to the coasts of Yemen, after passing through Jeddah, and then navigated the eastern coast of Africa to Kilwa, in present-day Tanzania. He returned to Mecca in 1,332, but not to stay long.
Journey to the eastern edge
His new route took him north, crossing the Middle East until he reached the Anatolian peninsula, where he had contact with the Seljuk tribes that populated Asia Minor and with the rise of the Ottoman people. He embarked in Latakia to sail the Aegean and the Black Sea, arriving in Crimea and later in Constantinople. He continued his journey to India through the Middle East through Bukhara, Samarkand, Nishapur, the Hindu Kush and Kabul, finally reaching the Indian cities of Deli and Calcutta.
In the Asian subcontinent he decided to go further and visited the Maldives and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From the island, he crossed the Gulf of Bengal to Sumatra, entering eastern Asia to reach Canton and Beijing, the furthest point of his journey and the end of his adventure -although this is discussed. He returned to Tangier in 1,349, mainly by sea.
Two great trips, although small compared to the previous one, later led him to the Kingdom of Granada and the Kingdom of Mali, in Central Africa. In total, 30 years of his life traveling the world, collected in his book: Rihla.
Continue reading the second part.
- Gonzalbes Cravioto, Enrique; Algunos datos sobre el comercio entre Al-Ándalus y el norte de África en la época omeya (I): los puertos de contacto.
- Vernet, Juan (1970), La Conquista de la Tierra, La Edad Antigua, Salvat Editores S.A. y Alianza Editorial S.A. Depósito Legal M. 22.903 – 1970
2 Replies to “Travel in the Middle Ages (I): Vikings and Arabs”
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Thank you Akash, I appreciate your kind words. I really hope you enjoy the reading 🙂