The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road of Furs

At its peak, Baghdad was a magnificent city to behold. With its parks, markets, mosques and bathhouses – as well as schools, hospitals and charitable foundations – it was home to mansions ‘lavishly gilded and decorated, and hung with beautiful tapestries and hangings of brocade and silk’, their reception rooms ‘lightly and tastefully furnished with luxurious divans, expensive tables, exceptional Chinese vases and innumerable gold and silver trinkets’. Down by the River Tigris were the palaces, kiosks and gardens which served the elite; ‘the scene on the river was animated by thousands of gondolas, decked with little flags, dancing like sunbeams on the water, and carrying the pleasure-seeking inhabitants of the city from one part of Baghdad to another’.1

The vibrancy of the markets and the spending power of the court, the wealthy and the general population were magnetic. The impact of the boom extended far beyond the frontiers of the Islamic world, where the Muslim conquests created new routes that snaked in all directions, bringing goods, ideas and peoples together. For some, the extension of these networks was a cause of some anxiety. In the 840s, the Caliph al-Wāthiq sent an expedition to investigate his dream that cannibals had breached a legendary wall that popular consent held had been established by the Almighty to hold back fierce savages. It took nearly a year and a half for a reconnaissance party, led by a trusted adviser named Sallām, to report back about the state of this wall. He explained how the fortification was maintained. Guarding it was a serious business, with one family entrusted with the responsibility of conducting an inspection on a routine basis. Twice a week a hammer was struck against the wall three times in order to check the wall. Each time, the inspectors would listen for any deviation from the norm: ‘if one applies one’s ear to the door, one hears a muted sound like a nest of wasps’, one account reports; ‘then everything falls silent again’. The purpose was to let the savages who might bring the apocalypse with them know that the wall was guarded and that they would not be allowed to pass.2

The account of checking the wall is so vivid, so convincing that some historians have argued that it refers to a real expedition and to a real wall – perhaps the Jade Gate, marking the entry to China to the west of Dunhuang.3 In fact, fear about destroyers of the world being contained behind the mountains of the east was a theme that linked the antique world with the Old and the New Testament as well as the Qurimageān.4 Regardless of whether Sallām’s journey actually did take place, terror of what lay beyond the frontiers was very real. The world was divided in two: a realm of Iran where order and civilisation prevailed; and one of Turan that was chaotic, anarchic and dangerous. As a plethora of reports from travellers and geographers who visited the steppe lands to the north make clear, those who lived outside the Muslim world were strange, and while in some respects weird and wonderful, mostly they were terrifying.

One of the most famous correspondents was Ibn Faimagelān, who was sent into the steppes in the early tenth century in response to a request by the leader of the Volga Bulghārs for learned scholars to come and explain the teachings of Islam. As Ibn Faimagelān’s account makes clear, the leadership of this tribe – whose lands straddled the Volga north of the Caspian Sea where the great river intersects with the Kama – had already become Muslims, but their knowledge of its articles of faith was rudimentary. Although the Volga Bulghār leader wanted assistance in building a mosque and learning more about the revelations of Muimageammad, it quickly emerged that what he really wanted was to garner support in countering the competition posed by other tribes on the steppe.

Ibn Faimagelān was in turn bemused, amazed and horrified as he made his journey north. The life of the nomad, constantly on the move, stood in sharp contrast to the urbane, settled and sophisticated metropolitan culture of Baghdad and other cities. The imageimageuzz tribe were among the first peoples Ibn Faimagelān encountered. ‘They live in felt tents,’ he wrote, ‘pitching them first in one place and then in another.’ ‘They live in poverty, like wandering asses. They do not worship God, nor do they have any recourse to reason.’ He went on: ‘They do not wash after polluting themselves with excrement or urine . . . [and in fact] have no contact with water, especially in winter.’ That women did not wear a veil was the least of it. One evening they sat down with a man whose wife was present. ‘As we were talking, she bared her private parts and scratched while we stared at her. We covered our faces with our hands and each said: “I seek forgiveness from God.”’ Her husband simply laughed at the prudishness of the visitors.5

The practices and beliefs of others on the steppe were no less surprising. There were tribes who worshipped snakes, others who worshipped fish and others still who prayed to birds after becoming convinced that they had triumphed in battle thanks to the intervention of a flock of cranes. Then there were those who wore a wooden phallus round their necks that they would kiss for good luck before setting out on a journey. These were members of the Baimageimagegird tribe – a people of legendary savagery, who would carry the heads of their enemies around with them as trophies. They had appalling habits, including eating lice and fleas: Ibn Faimagelān saw one man find a flea in his clothes, ‘and having crushed it with his fingernail, he devoured it and on noticing me, said: Delicious!’6

Although life on the steppes was hard to fathom for visitors like Ibn Faimagelān, there was considerable interaction between the nomads and the sedentary world to the south. One sign of this was the spread of Islam through the tribes – albeit somewhat erratically. The imageimageuzz, for instance, professed to be Muslims and would utter suitably devout phrases ‘to make a good impression on the Muslims who stay with them’, according to Ibn Faimagelān. But there was little substance to their faith, he noted, for ‘if one of them suffers an injustice or something bad happens to him, he lifts his head up to heaven and says “bir tengri”’ – not invoking Allah, in other words, but Tengri, the supreme nomad celestial deity.7

In fact, religious beliefs on the steppes were complex and rarely uniform, with influences from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and paganism jostling and blending to create composite worldviews that are difficult to disentangle.8 Part of the spread of these shifting, adaptive spiritual views was carried out by a new type of Muslim holy men acting as a form of missionary; these mystics, known as sufis, roamed the steppes, sometimes naked but for a set of animal horns, tending to sick animals and impressing onlookers with their eccentric behaviour and wittering about devotion and piety. They seemed to have played a crucial role in winning converts to Islam, fusing the shaman and animist beliefs that were widespread in Central Asia with the tenets of Islam.9

It was not just sufis who had an impact. Other visitors made interventions that were decisive in spreading ideas about religion. A later account of the conversion of the Volga Bulghārs records how a passing Muslim merchant cured the tribe’s ruler and his wife from serious illnesses after all other attempts to do so had failed. After making them promise to adopt his faith if he healed them, he gave them medicines, ‘and cured them, and they and all their people embraced Islam’.10 It was a classic conversion story: the acceptance of the leader or those close to him of a new faith was the decisive moment in large-scale adoption of a set of practices and beliefs.11

It is certainly true that expanding the faith into new regions became a badge of prestige for governors and local dynasties, helping them gain the attention of the Caliph as well as winning kudos within their own communities. The Sāmānids, based in Bukhara, for example, were passionate in championing Islam. One way they did so was by introducing a system of madrasas or schools, borrowing the concept from Buddhist monasteries, to teach the Qurimageān properly, while also patronising research into the imageadīth tradition – sayings and actions attributed to Muimageammad. Giving money out liberally to all comers also ensured that mosques were full to bursting.12

However, the steppes were much more than a Wild North, a frontier zone filled with savage people with strange customs, a void into which Islam could expand and where untouched populations could be civilised. For while accounts by visitors like Ibn Faimagelān paint a picture of barbarianism, the nomadic lifestyle was in fact both regulated and ordered. Moving from place to place was not the result of aimless wandering, but rather a reflection of the realities of animal husbandry: with large herds and flocks of livestock to tend to, finding good pasture as a fact of life and doing so in a structured way was vital not just to a tribe’s success but to its very survival. What looked chaotic from the outside was anything but from within.

This is perfectly captured in a remarkable text compiled in Constantinople in the tenth century which sets out how one of the principal groups that lived to the north of the Black Sea was structured to give the optimum chances of success. The Pechenegs were subdivided into eight tribes that were in turn split into a total of forty smaller units, each with clearly demarcated zones that were theirs to exploit. Moving from place to place did not mean that life in tribal societies was disordered.13

Although contemporary commentators, travellers, geographers and historians who took an interest in the steppe world were fascinated by the lifestyles and habits they observed, their interest was also triggered by the economic contributions made by the nomads – especially with regard to agricultural produce. The steppes supplied sedentary societies with precious services and produce. There were members of the imageimageuzz tribe who in Ibn Faimagelān’s reckoning owned 10,000 horses and ten times as many sheep. Even if we should not set too much store by specific numbers, the scale of operations was clearly substantial.14

Horses were a vital part of the economy, something that is clear from the references across a range of sources about the large number of cavalry that some of the major tribes of the steppes were able to put into the field. These were reared commercially, to judge from the account of the destruction of substantial stud farms by an Arab raiding force in the eighth century and from bones found by archaeologists north of the Black Sea.15 Farming also increasingly became an important part of the steppe economy, with crops being planted across the Lower Volga region, which included ‘many tilled fields and orchards’.16 Archaeological evidence from the Crimea from this period attests to farming of wheat, millet and rye on a substantial scale.17 Hazelnuts, falcons and swords were some of the other products sold to the markets to the south.18 So too were wax and honey; the latter was thought to provide resistance to the cold.19 Amber was also brought to market in such quantities, not only through the steppes but from western Europe, that one leading historian has coined the term ‘the amber trail’ to describe the routes bringing the hardened resin to keen buyers in the east.20

Above all else, however, was the trade in animal pelts. Furs were highly prized for the warmth and status they bestowed on their wearers.21 One caliph in the eighth century went so far as to conduct a series of experiments to freeze a range of different furs to see which offered the best protection in extreme conditions. He filled a series of containers with water and left them overnight in ice-cold weather, according to one Arabic writer. ‘In the morning, he had the [flasks] brought to him. All were frozen except the one with black fox fur. He thus learned which fur was the warmest and the driest.’22

Muslim merchants distinguished between different animal pelts, setting prices accordingly. One writer in the tenth century mentions the import from the steppes of sable, grey squirrel, ermine, mink, fox, marten, beaver and spotted hare among the varieties that were then to be sold elsewhere by traders with an eye to making good money from marking these up.23 Indeed, in some parts of the steppe, pelts were used interchangeably with currency – with fixed exchange rates. Eighteen old squirrel skins were worth one silver coin, while a single skin was the price of ‘a great loaf of magnificent bread, large enough to sustain a big man’. This was incomprehensible to one observer: ‘in any other country, a thousand loads wouldn’t buy you a bean’.24 And yet there was an obvious logic to what was effectively a system of currency: having a means for exchange was important for societies that interacted with each other but lacked central treasuries that could oversee large-scale minting of coins. Skins, pelts and furs therefore served an obvious purpose in an unmonetised economy.

According to one historian, perhaps as many as half a million pelts were exported from the steppes every year. The emergence of a sprawling Islamic Empire created new channels of communication and new trade routes. The creation of a ‘fur road’ into the steppe and forest belts to the north was the direct result of the surge in disposable wealth in the centuries following the great conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries.25

Not surprisingly, proximity counted for everything: being able to bring animals, pelts and other produce easily to market was crucial. The wealthiest nomadic tribes were inevitably those that were well located and able to trade actively and reliably with the sedentary world. Likewise, towns that were closest to the steppes experienced sharp upswings in their fortunes. Merv was a prime beneficiary, expanding to the point that it was described by one contemporary as the ‘mother of the world’. Situated on the southern lip of the steppe, it was perfectly located to deal with the nomad world while also serving as a crucial point on the east–west axis running across the spine of Eurasia. In the words of one author, it was a ‘delightful, fine, elegant, brilliant, extensive and pleasant city’.26 Rayy, located to the west, meanwhile was known as the ‘gate of commerce’, the ‘bridegroom of the earth’ and the world’s ‘most beautiful creation’.27 Or there was Balkh, which rivalled anything in the Muslim world; it could boast splendid streets, magnificent buildings, clean running water – as well as low prices for consumer goods, thanks to the bustling trade and competition in the city.28

Like ripples from a stone thrown into the water, those nearest to these markets felt the greatest effect. Inevitably there was a premium in being able to gain access to markets and to benefit from them. The scale of the riches at stake was such that pressures developed between tribal groupings on the steppe. Competition for the best pastureland and water sources was intensified by rivalry over access to the cities and best trade emporia. This was bound to produce one of two reactions: tensions would either escalate, resulting in violent fragmentation, or there would be consolidation within and between tribes. The choice was to fight or co-operate.

Over time, a finely balanced status quo developed, providing stability and considerable prosperity across the western steppe. Its linchpin was a part of the Türk tribal grouping that had come to dominate the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas. The Khazars, as they were known, ruled the steppes north of the Black Sea and became increasingly prominent because of the military resistance they put up during the period of the great conquests in the decades following Muimageammad’s death.29 Their effectiveness against the Muslim armies won them the support of a constellation of other tribes who united under their leadership. It also caught the attention of the Roman emperors in Constantinople who understood that there were mutual benefits to be had from striking an alliance with the dominant force on the steppes. So important were the Khazars as allies that in the early eighth century two marriage alliances were arranged between the ruling houses of Khazaria and Byzantium – the name normally given to what remained of the Roman Empire in this period.30

From the point of view of Constantinople, Byzantium’s capital, imperial marriages with foreigners were rare; alliances with steppe nomads were all but unprecedented.31 The development is a clear indication of how important the Khazars had become in Byzantine diplomatic and military thinking at a time when pressure on the empire’s eastern frontier in Asia Minor from the Muslims was acute. The rewards and prestige given to the Khazar leader, the khagan, had a significant impact on Khazar society, strengthening the position of the supreme ruler and paving the way for stratification across the tribe as gifts and status were handed down through the tribe to chosen elites. It had the further effect of encouraging other tribes to become tributaries, paying tribute in return for protection and rewards. According to Ibn Faimagelān, the khagan had twenty-five wives, each a member of a different tribe and each the daughter of its ruler.32 A source written in Hebrew in the ninth century likewise talks of tribes that were subject to the Khazars, with the author uncertain if there were twenty-five or twenty-eight tributaries.33 Peoples like the Poliane, Radmichi and Severliane were among those who recognised the overlordship of the Khazars, enabling the latter to strengthen their position and become the dominant force on the western steppe in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia.34

Rising levels of trade and long periods of stability and peace triggered profound transformation within Khazar society. The way the leadership of the tribe functioned underwent a change, with the role of the khagan becoming increasingly removed from day-to-day affairs and his position evolving into a sacral kingship.35 Lifestyles also changed. With strong demand in neighbouring regions for the produce grown, managed and produced by the Khazars and their tributaries, as well as for the fruits of long-distance commerce, settlements began to spring up that eventually developed into towns.36

By the early tenth century, the bustling city of Atil served as a capital, and permanent home to the khagan. Straddling the Lower Volga, it was home to a cosmopolitan set of inhabitants. So sophisticated was the city that there were separate courts to resolve disputes according to different customary laws, presided over by judges who would rule on disputes between Muslims, between Christians or even between pagans – while there was also a mechanism in place for how to resolve the matter if the judge was unable to reach a verdict.37

*   *   *

Atil, with its felt dwellings, warehouses and royal palace, was just one of the settlements that changed how the nomads lived.38 Other towns grew up in Khazar territory as a result of rising commercial activity, such as Samandar, where wood buildings were characterised by their domed roofs that were presumably modelled on traditional yurts. By the early ninth century, there were sufficient numbers of Christians across Khazaria to merit the appointment not only of a bishop but of a metropolitan – effectively an archbishop – to minister to the faithful.39 Evidently there were also substantial Muslim populations in Samandar and Atil as well as elsewhere, something that is clear from reports in the Arabic sources of large numbers of mosques built across the region.40

The Khazars themselves did not adopt Islam, but they did take on new religious beliefs: in the middle of the ninth century, they decided to become Jewish. Envoys from Khazaria arrived in Constantinople around 860 and asked for preachers to be sent to explain the fundamentals of Christianity. ‘From time immemorial,’ they said, ‘we have known only one god [that is, Tengri], who rules over everything . . . Now the Jews are urging us to accept their religions and customs, while on the other hand the Arabs draw us to their faith, promising us peace and many gifts.’41

A delegation was therefore dispatched with the aim of converting the Khazars. It was led by Constantine, best known by his Slavonic name Cyril and for the creation of the eponymous alphabet he devised for the Slavs – Cyrillic. A formidable scholar like his brother Methodius, Constantine stopped on his way east to spend the winter learning Hebrew and familiarising himself with the Torah in order to debate with Jewish scholars also heading to the khagan’s court.42 When they arrived in the Khazar capital, the envoys took part in a highly charged series of debates against rivals who had been invited to present Islam and Judaism. Constantine’s erudition carried all before him – or so it seems from the account of his life which drew heavily on his writings.43 In fact, despite Constantine’s brilliance – he was told by the khagan that his comments about scripture were as ‘sweet as honey’ – the embassy did not have the desired effect, for the Khazar leader decided that Judaism was the right religion for his people.44


A similar version of this story was being told a century later. News of the Khazar conversion had been received by astonished Jewish communities thousands of miles west, who eagerly tried to find out more about who the Khazars were and how they came to be Jewish. There was speculation that they might be one of the lost tribes of ancient Israel. The polymath imageasdai b. Shaprūimage, who was based in Córdoba in al-Andalus – that is, Muslim Spain – finally managed to make contact with the tribe. His endeavours to establish whether the Khazars were indeed Jewish or whether this was simply a tall tale put out by those wanting to win his favour had hitherto drawn a blank. When he finally received confirmation that it was indeed true that the Khazars were Jewish and, moreover, that they were wealthy and were ‘very powerful and maintain numerous armies’, he felt compelled to bow down and adore the God of heaven. ‘I pray for the health of my lord the King,’ he wrote to the khagan, ‘of his family, and of his house, and that his throne may be established forever. Let his days and his sons’ days be prolonged in the midst of Israel!’45

Remarkably, a copy of the khagan’s reply to this letter survives, with the Khazar ruler explaining his tribe’s conversion to Judaism. The decision to convert, wrote the khagan, was the result of the great wisdom of one of his predecessors, who had brought delegations representing different faiths to present the case for each. Having pondered how best to establish the facts, the ruler had asked the Christians whether Islam or Judaism was the better faith; when they replied that the former was certainly worse than the latter, he asked the Muslims whether Christianity or Judaism was preferable. When they lambasted Christianity and also replied that Judaism was the less bad of the two, the Khazar ruler announced that he had reached a conclusion: both had admitted that ‘the religion of the Israelites is better’, he declared, so ‘trusting in the mercies of God and the power of the Almighty, I choose the religion of Israel, that is, the religion of Abraham’. With that, he sent the delegations home, circumcised himself and then ordered his servants, his attendants and all his people to do the same.46

Judaism had made considerable inroads into Khazar society by the middle of the ninth century. Apart from references in Arabic sources to proselytisation by Jews in the decades before the arrival of the delegations at the khagan’s court and the fact that burial practices underwent a transformation during this period too, the recent discovery of a series of coins minted in Khazaria provides strong evidence that Judaism had been formally adopted as a state religion in the 830s. These coins bore a legend that provided a fine example of how faith could be packaged to appeal to disparate populations. The coins championed the greatest of the Old Testament prophets with the phrase Mūsā rasūl allāh: Moses is the messenger of God.47

This was perhaps less provocative than it sounds, since the Qurimageān after all explicitly teaches that there should be no distinction between the prophets and that the message brought by all of them should be followed.48 Moses was accepted and revered in Islamic teaching, so praising him was in some ways uncontroversial. On the other hand, however, the evocation of Muimageammad’s special status as God’s messenger was a central element in the adhān, the call to prayer made from mosques five times a day. As such having Moses’ name on the currency was a defiant statement that the Khazars had an identity of their own that was independent of the Islamic world. As with the confrontation between the Roman Empire and the Muslim world in the late seventh century, battles were fought not just between armies, but also over ideology, language and even the imagery on coins.

In fact, the exposure of Khazars to Judaism had come about through two sources. First, there were long-standing Jewish communities that had settled in the Caucasus in antiquity which must have been galvanised by the economic development of the steppe.49 According to one tenth-century writer, many more were encouraged to emigrate to Khazaria ‘from Muslim and Christian cities’ after it became known that the religion was not only tolerated and officially sanctioned but practised by much of the elite.50 The correspondence between the Khazar ruler and imageasdai in Córdoba in the tenth century reports that rabbis were actively recruited, while schools and synagogues were built to ensure that Judaism was taught properly – with many chroniclers noting religious buildings dotted across the towns of Khazaria, as well as courts where decisions were reached after consultation with the Torah.51

The second trigger for the rise in interest in Judaism came from traders who were drawn in from much further away, attracted by the emergence of Khazaria as a major international trade emporium – not only between the steppe and the Islamic world, but between east and west. As numerous sources attest, Jewish merchants were highly active in long-distance trade, playing much the same role that the Sogdians had played when connecting China and Persia around the time of the rise of Islam.

Jewish merchants were highly adept linguists, fluent in ‘Arabic, Persian, Latin, Frankish, Andalusian and Slavic’ according to one contemporary source.52 Based in the Mediterranean, they appear to have travelled regularly to India and China, returning with musk, aloe wood, camphor, cinnamon ‘and other eastern products’ which they traded along a chain of ports and towns that serviced markets in Mecca, Medina and Constantinople, as well as towns on the Tigris and the Euphrates.53 They also used overland routes, heading through Central Asia to China either via Baghdad and Persia or passing through Khazar territory on their way to Balkh and east of the Oxus river.54 One of the most important points on this axis was Rayy, just to the south of the Caspian (modern Iran), a city that handled goods coming from the Caucasus, from the east, from Khazaria and other locations on the steppe. It appears that these were first cleared through the town of Jurjān (Gorgan in northern Iran), presumably where customs duties were collected, before being taken to Rayy. ‘The most amazing thing’, wrote one Arabic author in the tenth century, ‘is that this is the emporium of the world.’55

Merchants from Scandinavia were also drawn by the opportunities on offer. When we think of the Vikings, we invariably conjure up images of attacks across the North Sea on Great Britain and Ireland, of longships with prows shaped like dragons, appearing through the fog, filled with armed men ready to rape and pillage. Or perhaps we think of the question whether the Vikings managed to reach North America centuries before the expeditions of Christopher Columbus and others. But in the Viking age the bravest and toughest men did not head west; they headed east and south. Many made fortunes and won fame not just at home but in the new lands that they conquered. The mark that they left, furthermore, was not minimal and transient, as it was in North America. In the east, they were to found a new state, named after the traders, travellers and raiders who took to the great water systems linking the Baltic with the Caspian and Black Seas. These men were known as Rus’, or rhos, perhaps due to their distinctive red hair, or more likely thanks to their prowess with the oar. They were the fathers of Russia.56

It was the lure of trade and riches in the Islamic world that initially spurred Vikings to set off on the journey south. From the start of the ninth century, men from Scandinavia began to come into contact with the steppe world and also with the caliphate of Baghdad. Settlements began to spread along the Oder, the Neva, the Volga and the Dnieper rivers, with new bases springing up as markets in their own right and as trading stations for merchants bringing goods to and from the south. Staraya Ladoga, Rurikovo Gorodische, Beloozero and Novgorod (literally ‘new town’) were new points that extended the great Eurasian trade routes into the furthest reaches of northern Europe.57

The longships, so celebrated in popular imagination, were adapted and made smaller by the Viking Rus’ to enable them to be carried over short distances from one river or lake to another. These single-hulled boats set out in convoy on a journey that was long and dangerous. A text compiled in Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century and based on information gathered by Byzantine agents, records the treacherous conditions that had to be negotiated on the voyage south. A set of rapids on the Dniester was particularly perilous: a narrow barrage had a lethal set of rocks in the middle of it, ‘which stand out like islands. Against these, then, comes the water and wells up and dashes down over the other side, with a mighty and terrific din.’ This obstacle had been nicknamed with dry humour ‘Do Not Fall Asleep’.58

As the same text notes, the Rus’ were intensely vulnerable to being picked off by aggressive raiders who could see the chance for quick rewards as exhausted travellers passed through the rapids. Pecheneg nomads would lie in wait as the boats were hauled out of the water and then attack, seizing the goods and disappearing into the landscape. Guards were ordered to be on the highest state of alert against sudden assault. So relieved were the Scandinavians to get past these dangers that they would convene on an island and sacrifice cockerels or stick arrows into sacred trees as a way of giving thanks to the pagan gods.59

The men who made it safely to the markets around the Caspian and Black Seas needed to be robust, to say the least. ‘They have great stamina and endurance,’ noted one Muslim commentator with admiration.60 The Rus’, wrote Ibn Faimagelān, were tall ‘like palm trees’, but more importantly they were always armed and dangerous. ‘Each of them carries an axe, a sword and a knife.’61

They behaved like gangs of hardened criminals. For one thing, although they fought alongside each other against their enemies, they were deeply suspicious of each other. ‘They never go off alone to relieve themselves,’ one writer observed, ‘but always [go] with three companions to guard them, sword in hand, for they have little trust in each other.’ None would hesitate to rob a colleague, even if it meant murdering him.62 They regularly took part in orgies, having sex in front of one another with abandon. If anyone fell ill, they were left behind. They looked the part too: ‘from the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green, with designs and so forth’.63 These were tough men for tough times.

They were involved in the trade of wax, amber and honey, as well as fine swords which were widely admired in the Arabic-speaking world. However, it was another line of business that was the most lucrative, the source of vast quantities of money that washed northwards, back up the river systems of Russia towards Scandinavia. This is demonstrated by the many fine silks from Syria, Byzantium and even China that have been found in graves across Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway. These must have represented only a tiny fraction of the textiles that were brought back that have not survived.64

It is the coin record, however, that speaks loudest about the scale of business conducted with faraway regions. Astonishingly rich coin finds line the great rivers heading north and have been recovered all over northern Russia, Finland, Sweden and above all in Gotland (Sweden’s largest island), which show that the Viking Rus’ made enormous sums from commerce with the Muslims and the fringes of the caliphate of Baghdad.65 One leading specialist in the history of currency estimates that the amount of silver coins brought back from trading with the lands of Islam numbered in the tens and perhaps even hundreds of millions – in modern terms, it was a multi-billion-dollar industry.66

Rewards needed to be substantial to merit the distance and the dangers involved in travelling as far from Scandinavia as the Caspian Sea – a journey of nearly 3,000 miles. So it is perhaps not surprising that goods had to be sold in large volumes in order to generate substantial profits. There were several commodities shipped south, but the most important were slaves. There was money to be made from human trafficking.