Last month saw the fascinating claim by Annika Larsson of Uppsala University in Sweden that patterns thought to be Viking on funeral clothing could be Kufic inscriptions reading ‘Allah’ and ‘Ali’.
The fragments made of silver and fine silk thread had to come from the east, according to the researcher whose discovery made headlines across the globe.
Larsson came across the words when she was reconstructing fragments historically excavated at Birka and Gamla Uppsala for a Viking Couture exhibition. The patterns she was examining had previously been dismissed as typical Viking ones. The discovery is part of a long line of finds that suggest Vikings and Muslims had a history of cultural exchange.
The Estonian Museum of History is in a quaint, typically Nordic yellow building with a pointed roof. It was once the Tallinn’s Great Guild Hall, and now houses fascinating artefacts concerning the history of the Baltic and Nordic people. One of the most interesting collections is a set of coins displayed on blue felt. These are silver coins minted by the Abbasid, Samanid and Karakhanid Muslim empires, with the earliest dating back to the 8th century.
Islamic coins are more common in Northern Europe than one might think. In the 2007 ‘Vale of York Horde’, amongst 617 coins found, several were Islamic. A year later, near Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, 470 coins minted between the 7-9th century, from places as far afield as Baghdad, Damascus, Persia and N. Africa were found in a 9th century Iron Age burial. In total, more than 100,000 Islamic coins have been unearthed in the region.
These coins are said to have been part of ‘booty’ acquired by Vikings when raiding Muslim lands or the result of trade. According to 10th-century Muslim historian and geographer, Al Mas’udi, whilst the Vikings developed a fondness for the silver coins and fine silk cloth – as seen with the Uppsala University discovery – the Muslims had a fondness for their hats and coats made from the ‘fur of black foxes’. In al Mas’udi’s hometown of Baghdad – one of the most culturally advanced cities at the time – the Vikings were seen as ‘Merchant Warriors’ and known as the ‘Rus’ people, (which some link to Roslagen, near east Uppsala). ‘Rus’ or ‘Rusiyya’ is also the name used by the 10th-century traveller, and fellow Baghdadi, Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, when describing the Vikings he saw trading in the Volga region. Ibn Fadlan was largely unimpressed by the Norseman, especially with their personal hygiene, yet he marvels at their appearance, describing them as ‘perfect physical specimens’ who were as tall as ‘date palms’.
The Viking contact with European Muslims was less convivial. The Moors referred to them as ‘Al-Majus’ or fire worshippers and often had to fend off their famous raids. However, after one such raid, a fascinating incident shows how sometimes Islamic artefacts ended up in Scandinavia because they were sent as gifts.
In 844 AD, the governor of Lisbon, Wahballah Ibn Hazm describes a Viking attack and the fear they evoked; “Majus arrived in about 80 ships. One might say they had, as it were, filled the ocean with dark red birds, in the same way as they had filled the hearts of men with fear and trembling”. After landing at Lisbon, Ibn Hazm says they sailed to Cadiz, Sidona and finally to Seville, a city “they besieged … and took by storm”. The Vikings continued to wreak havoc for several days in this region before reinforcements arrived from Cordoba to finally drive them away. In the wake of this attack, a Viking ambassador arrived at the court of the Emir of Al Andalus, Abdur Rahman II, to make peace. In response, the Emir sends his own ambassador, Al-Ghazal to the court of King Harek of Denmark (historians believe Harek is the most likely monarch). Al-Ghazal arrives laden with eastern gifts for King Harek, before spending an unusually long period of time in the company of Harek’s queen during his stay.
In 2015, a re-examination of another historical find at Birka also made global headlines. A silver ring from a 9th-century noblewoman’s grave was said to have the Kufic inscription ‘for Allah’ on it – its appearance suggesting it was not booty spoil. The ring now sits in the collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm.
Another intriguing observation can be made on the astronomical face of the late 14th-century clock inside Lund Cathedral in southern Sweden. Each corner of this clock face has four intriguingly carved figures in blue robes. Whilst three wear crowns, the figure in the bottom left is quite clearly wearing a turban – resembling a Muslim scholar.
There is also DNA analysis of certain Viking-era graves that suggest the inhabitants could be of eastern origin – though these claims remain disputed. Meanwhile, Larsson’s discovery adds a further dimension. If she is right, then her discovery is the first time artefacts mentioning the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son in law ‘Ali’ have been found in Scandinavia. Given Ali’s status in Shi‘a Islam, this could suggest that the original items of clothing were inspired by Shi‘a culture.
The history books are not yet being re-written but one thing is certain: Muslims and Vikings had relations that were far more interesting than traditionally assumed.
Where in the world: The Estonian Museum of history is in the oldest part of Tallinn on Pikk 17, whilst the Lund Cathedral is on Kyrkogatan 4 in the centre of Lund.
In and out: The easiest way to get into Tallinn is to fly into Lennit Mari Tallinn Airport and grab local bus 121 from Lindakivi to Baltic on the northern edge of the old town, and then walk for ten minutes to Pikk. For Lund Cathedral, fly into Malmo International airport and get the Fylgbussarna airport coaches that will take you directly to Lund town centre in 35 minutes and drop you off within walking distance of the cathedral.
Top tips: Tallinn’s only mosque is on the outskirts of the city, within a ten-minute walk from the airport at Keevise 9. The small industrial site where the mosque is located is next to the Ulemiste train station that takes you straight into town, making it an ideal stopover en route to or from the airport. The nearest mosque to the Cathedral is Lund Islamic Cultural Centre on Aldermansgatan 14. The red brick building is a 20-minute walk towards the city’s northeast or can be reached by hopping on Bus no. 4.