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


The Slave Road

The Rus’ were ruthless when it came to enslaving local populations and transporting them south. Renowned for ‘their size, their physique and their bravery’, the Viking Rus’ had ‘no cultivated fields and they live by pillaging’, according to one Arabic writer.1 It was the local population that bore the brunt. So many were captured that the very name of those taken captive – Slavs – became used for all those who had their freedom taken away: slaves.

The Rus’ were careful with their prisoners: ‘they treat the slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade’, noted one contemporary.2 Slaves were transported along the river systems – remaining chained while the rapids were negotiated.3 Beautiful women were particularly highly prized, sold on to merchants in Khazaria and Volga Bulghāria who would then take them further south – though not before their captors had sexual intercourse with them one last time.4

Slavery was a vital part of Viking society and an important part of its economy – and not just in the east. Considerable literary and material evidence from the British Isles shows that one of the most common purposes of longship attacks was not the indiscriminate rape and pillage of popular imagination, but taking captives alive.5 ‘Save us, O Lord,’ one ninth-century prayer from France implores, ‘from the savage Norsemen who destroy our country; they take away . . . our young, virgin boys. We beg you to save us from this evil.’6 Shackles, manacles and locks have been found along slaving routes especially in northern and eastern Europe, while new research suggests that holding pens previously thought to have been for livestock were in fact designed to corral people who were due to be sold in places like Novgorod, where the market lay at the intersection of the High Street and Slave Street.7

So rampant was the desire for profit from slavery that, although some Scandinavians obtained licences from local rulers to plunder new regions and take prisoners, others were more than willing to put each other in bond – ‘as soon as one of them catches another’, recorded one well-informed cleric writing in northern Europe in the eleventh century. He would have little doubt what to do next: at the first opportunity, ‘he mercilessly sells him into slavery either to one of his fellows or to a barbarian’.8

Many slaves were destined for Scandinavia. As one famous Old Norse poem, ‘The Lay of Rigr’ (‘Rígsþula’), puts it, society was divided into three simple categories: aristocracy (jarlar), freemen (karlar) and slaves (ðrælar).9 But many others were sent to where good money was paid for fine specimens, and nowhere was there greater demand, nowhere was there greater spending power than the buoyant and wealthy markets in Atil that ultimately fed Baghdad and other cities in Asia, as well as elsewhere in the Muslim world, including North Africa and Spain.

The ability and willingness to pay a high price provided rich rewards and laid the basis for stimulating the economy of northern Europe. To judge from the coin finds, there was a surge in trade in the latter part of the ninth century, a time of major growth in the Baltic, southern Sweden and Denmark, with towns like Hedeby, Birka, Wolin and Lund expanding rapidly. Find-spots spread over an increasingly wide area along the rivers of Russia show a sharp intensification in levels of exchange, with a marked rise in the number of coins found that were minted in Central Asia – above all in Samarkand, Tashkent (al-Shāsh), Balkh and elsewhere along the traditional trade, transport and communication routes into what is now Afghanistan.10

Demand for slaves in these cash-rich locations was intense, and not just from those from the north. Huge numbers were imported from sub-Saharan Africa: one trader alone boasted of selling more than 12,000 black slaves in markets in Persia.11 Slaves were also taken from the Turkic tribes of Central Asia, whom one author from this period notes were highly prized because of their courage and resourcefulness. When it comes to choosing ‘the most precious slaves’, noted another commentator, the best came ‘from the land of the Turks. There is no equal to the Turkish slaves among all the slaves of the earth.’12

Some idea of the likely scale of the slave trade can be deduced from a comparison with slavery in the Roman Empire, an area that has been studied in much greater detail. Recent research suggests that at the height of its power the Roman Empire required 250,000–400,000 new slaves each year to maintain the slave population.13 The size of the market in the Arabic-speaking lands was considerably larger – assuming the demand for slaves was analogous – stretching from Spain through to Afghanistan, which would suggest that the numbers of slaves being sold may have been far greater even than those for Rome. Although the limitations of the source material are frustrating, some idea of the likely scale comes from the fact that one account that talks of a caliph and his wife owning a thousand slave girls each, while another was said to own no fewer than four thousand. Slaves in the Muslim world were as ubiquitous – and silent – as they were in Rome.’14

Rome also provides a useful comparison for the way that slaves were bought and sold. In the Roman world, there was keen competition between the wealthy for prize captives taken from beyond the empire’s frontiers – curios valued for their unusual looks and as talking points. Personal preference also played a part, with one well-appointed aristocrat insisting on having matching slaves, all equally attractive and all of the same age.15 Similar ideas prevailed with rich Muslims, as later guidebooks to help with the slave-buying process make clear. ‘Of all the black [slaves],’ wrote one eleventh-century author, ‘the Nubian women are the most agreeable, tender and polite. Their bodies are slim with a smooth skin, steady and well proportioned . . . they respect their master as if they were created to serve.’ Women of the Beja people, whose home was in what is today Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt, ‘have a golden complexion, beautiful faces, delicate bodies and smooth skins; they make pleasant bed-fellows if they are taken out of their country while they are still young’. A thousand years ago, money could not buy love, but it could help you get what you wanted.16

Other guidebooks offered equally helpful pointers. ‘When you set out to buy slaves, be cautious,’ wrote the author of another eleventh-century Persian text best known as the Qābūs-nāma. ‘The buying of men is a difficult art because many a slave appears to be good’ but turns out to be quite the opposite. ‘Most people imagine that buying slaves is like any other form of trading,’ the author added; in fact, the skill of buying slaves ‘is a branch of philosophy’.17 Beware of yellowness of complexion – a sure sign of haemorrhoids; be careful too of men blessed with good looks, floppy hair and eyes – ‘a man having such qualities is either over-fond of women or prone to act as a go-between’. Make sure to have a possible purchase lie down; then you should ‘press on both sides and watch closely’ for any signs of inflammation or pain; and double-check ‘hidden defects’, such as bad breath, deafness, stutter or hardness at the base of the teeth. Follow all these instructions (and plenty more besides), the author declared, and you will not be disappointed.18

Slave markets thrived across central Europe, stocked with men, women and children waiting to be trafficked to the east – and also to the court at Córdoba, where there were more than 13,000 Slavic slaves in 961.19 By the mid-tenth century, Prague had become a major commercial centre attracting Viking Rus’ and Muslim merchants to buy and sell tin, furs and people. Other towns in Bohemia likewise were good places to buy flour, barley and chickens – and slaves, all of which were very reasonably priced, according to one Jewish traveller.20

Slaves were often sent as gifts to Muslim rulers. At the start of the tenth century, for example, an embassy from Tuscany to Baghdad brought the imageAbbāsid Caliph al-Muktafī a selection of high-value gifts, including swords, shields, hunting dogs and birds of prey. Among the other presents offered as a token of friendship were twenty Slavic eunuchs and twenty particularly beautiful Slavic girls. The flower of youth from one part of the world was exported to indulge those in another.21

The engagement with long-distance trade was so extensive that when Ibrāhīm ibn Yaimageqūb passed through Mainz, he was astonished by what he found in the markets: ‘it is extraordinary’, he wrote, ‘that one should be able to find, in such far western regions, aromatics and spices that only grow in the Far East, like pepper, ginger, cloves, nard and galingale. These plants are all imported from India, where they grow in abundance.’ That was not all that surprised him: so too did the fact that silver dirhams were in use as currency, including coins minted in Samarkand.22

In fact, the impact and influence of coins from the Muslim world had been felt much further away – and would continue to be so for some time to come. Around 800, King Offa of Mercia in England, constructor of the famous dyke to protect his lands against the incursions of the Welsh, was copying the design of Islamic gold coins for his own currency. He issued coins with the legend ‘Offa rex’ (King Offa) on one side and an imperfect copy of Arabic text on the other, even though this would have meant little to those handling coins in his kingdom.23 A large hoard found in Cuerdale in Lancashire and today held in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford also contains many imageAbbāsid coins minted in the ninth century. That the currency had reached the backwaters that were the British Isles is an indication of just how far the markets of the Islamic world had sprawled.

It was the sale of slaves that paid for the imports that began to flood into Europe in the ninth century. The silks, spices and drugs that become increasingly visible in the sources as highly desirable luxury objects or as medical necessities were funded by large-scale human trafficking.24 And it was not only the Viking Rus’ who profited from the almost insatiable demand for slaves: merchants in Verdun made immense profits selling eunuchs, usually to Muslim buyers in Spain; Jewish traders who dealt with long-range commerce were also heavily involved in the sale of ‘young girls and boys’ as well as eunuchs, as Arabic sources from this period suggest.25

Other sources likewise note the role played by Jewish merchants in bringing ‘slaves [and] boys and girls’ from Europe, and carrying out operations to castrate young men on arrival – presumably as a form of gruesome certification procedure.26 The slave trade promised good returns, which was one reason why it was not only European slaves that were brought east: Muslim entrepreneurs reportedly also got in on the act, raiding Slavic lands from eastern Iran – although enslaved captives pointedly ‘had their manhood left intact, their bodies unspoiled’.27

Such captives were also turned into eunuchs and were highly valued. If you took Slavic twins, wrote one Arabic author in this period, and castrated one, he would certainly become more skilful and ‘more lively in intelligence and conversation’ than his brother – who would remain ignorant, foolish and exhibit the innate simple-mindedness of the Slavs. Castration was thought to purify and improve the Slavic mind.28 Better still, it worked, wrote the same author, though not for ‘the blacks’, whose ‘natural aptitudes’ were negatively affected by the operation.29 So great was the scale of traffic of Slavic slaves that it impacted the Arabic language: the word for eunuch (imageiqlabī) comes from the ethnic label referring to the Slavs (imageaqālibī).

Muslim traders were highly active in the Mediterranean. Men, women and children were brought from all over northern Europe to Marseilles where there was a busy market for buying and selling slaves – often passing through subsidiary markets such as Rouen, where Irish and Flemish slaves were sold to third parties.30 Rome was another key slave-trading centre – though some found this repugnant. In 776, Pope Hadrian I decried the sale of humans like livestock, condemning the sale of men and women to ‘the unspeakable race of Saracens’. Some, he claimed, had boarded ships bound for the east voluntarily, ‘having no other hope of staying alive’ because of recent famine and crushing poverty. Nevertheless, ‘we have never sunk to such a disgraceful act’ of selling fellow Christians, he wrote, ‘and God forbid that we should’.31 So widespread was slavery in the Mediterranean and the Arabic world that even today regular greetings reference human trafficking. All over Italy, when they meet, people say to each other, ‘schiavo’, from a Venetian dialect. ‘Ciao’, as it is more commonly spelt, does not mean ‘hello’; it means ‘I am your slave’.32

There were others who viewed the bonding of Christians into captivity and their sale to Muslim masters as indefensible. One such was Rimbert, bishop of Bremen, who used to tour the markets in Hedeby (on the borders of modern Germany and Denmark) in the late ninth century ransoming those who professed their Christian faith (but not those who did not).33 This sensibility was not shared by all. Among those with no compunction about human trafficking were the inhabitants of an unpromising lagoon located at the northern point of the Adriatic. The wealth it accumulated from slave trading and human suffering was to lay the basis for its transformation into one of the crown jewels of the medieval Mediterranean: Venice.

The Venetians proved to be singularly successful when it came to business. A dazzling city rose up from the marshes, adorned with glorious churches and beautiful palazzi, built on the lucrative proceeds of prolific trading with the east. While it stands today as a glorious vision of the past, the spark for Venice’s growth came from its willingness to sell future generations into captivity. Merchants became involved in the slave trade as early as the second half of the eighth century, at the very dawn of the new settlement of Venice, though it took time for the benefits and the profits to flow through in volume. That they eventually did so is indicated by a series of treaties drawn up a century later, in which the Venetians agreed to be bound by restrictions on the sale of slaves, including returning slaves to other towns in Italy who had been brought to Venice illegally for sale. These negotiations were in part a reaction to the growing success of the city, an attempt to clip Venetian wings by those threatened by its affluence.34

In the short term, the restrictions were circumvented by raiding parties that captured non-Christians from Bohemia and Dalmatia and sold them on at a profit.35 In the longer term, however, normal business was resumed. Treatises from the late ninth century suggest that Venice simply paid lip-service to local rulers who were concerned that it was not just slaves that were being sold but also freemen. The Venetians were accused of willingly selling the subjects of neighbouring lands, whether Christians or not.36

Eventually, the slave trade began to dwindle – at least from eastern and central Europe. One reason for this was that the Viking Rus’ shifted their focus from long-distance trafficking to the business of protection rackets. Attention focused on the benefits that the Khazars enjoyed from the trade that passed through towns like Atil, thanks to the levies raised on all merchandise transiting Khazar territory. The famous Persian geographical treatise Hudūd al-imageĀlam states that the very basis of the Khazar economy lay in its tax revenues: ‘the well-being and wealth of the king of the Khazars are mostly from maritime duties’.37 Other Muslim commentators repeatedly note the substantial tax receipts collected by the Khazar authorities from commercial activities – which included levies charged on inhabitants of the capital.38

Inevitably, this caught the attention of the Viking Rus’, as did the tribute paid to the khagan by the various subject tribes. One by one these were picked off and their loyalties (and payments) redirected to aggressive new overlords. By the second half of the ninth century, the Slavic tribes of central and southern Russia were not only paying tribute to the Scandinavians, but were being forbidden to make any further payments ‘to the Khazars, on the grounds that there was no reason for them to pay it’. Payment was to be made to the Rus’ leader instead.39 This mirrored practices elsewhere – such as in Ireland, where protection money gradually replaced human trafficking: after being attacked year after year, records the Annals of St Bertin, the Irish agreed to make annual contributions, in return for peace.40

In the east, it was not long before the increasingly heavy presence of the Rus’ resulted in outright confrontation with the Khazars. After launching a series of raids on Muslim trading communities on the Caspian Sea that ‘spilled rivers of blood’ and continued until the Viking Rus’ were ‘gorged with loot and worn out with raiding’, the Khazars themselves were attacked.41 Atil was sacked and completely destroyed in 965. ‘If a leaf were left on a branch, one of the Rus’ would carry it off,’ wrote one commentator; ‘not a grape, not a raisin remains [in Khazaria].’42 The Khazars were effectively removed from the equation, and profits from trade with the Muslim world flowed in even greater volumes towards northern Europe – as the quantities of coin hoards found along the waterways of Russia show.43

By the end of the tenth century, the Rus’ had become the dominant force on the western steppe, controlling lands that stretched from the Caspian across the north of the Black Sea as far as the Danube. One source talks of the vibrancy of the markets they now oversaw, where it was possible to buy ‘gold, silks, wine and various fruits from Greece, silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia, and from Rus’, furs, wax, honey, and slaves’.44 However, the authority they exerted over these lands was not absolute. Relations with the nomadic peoples were often tetchy because of the competition for resources, as the ritual execution of one prominent Rus’ leader in this period by Pecheneg steppe nomads shows: the capture of the prince was gleefully celebrated, and his skull was lined with gold and kept as a victory trophy, to be used to celebrate ceremonial toasts.45

Nevertheless, in the course of the tenth century Rus’ control of the waterways and of the steppes continued to strengthen, and the communication routes running southwards became increasingly secure. This process was accompanied by a gradual transformation of commercial, religious and political orientation. One reason for this was that after nearly 300 years of stability and affluence, the caliphate in Baghdad underwent a series of dislocations. Prosperity had served to loosen ties between the centre and outlying regions, which in turn opened possibilities for friction as local potentates built up power and came into conflict with each other. The dangers this could pose were graphically shown when Basra was sacked in 923 by Shīimagea insurgents, before Mecca was attacked seven years later and the sacred Black Stone looted from the Kaimageba.46

A series of unusually severe winters between the 920s and 960s made matters worse. Conditions were so bad that food shortages became increasingly regular. It was not unusual for people to be forced ‘to pick the grains of barley from the dung of horses and asses and eat them’, wrote one author; rioting and civil disorder broke out frequently.47 As one Armenian chronicler put it, after seven successive years of crop failure in the 950s, ‘many went mad’, and attacked each other senselessly.48

Internal unrest enabled a new dynasty, the Būyids, to establish political control over much of the caliphate’s core territory in Iran and Iraq, retaining the Caliph as a figurehead with greatly reduced powers. In Egypt, on the other hand, the regime was toppled entirely. In a tenth-century version of the Arab Spring, Shīimagea Muslims who had previously managed to establish an emirate in North Africa that was more or less independent of the mainstream Sunnī caliphates of Baghdad and Córdoba moved on the Egyptian capital, Fusimageāimage. In 969, taking advantage of the catastrophic failure of the annual Nile floods that left many dead or starving, revolution spread through North Africa.49 The new masters were known as Fāimageimids – who as Shīimagea Muslims had very different views about legitimacy and authority, and about the true legacy left by Muimageammad. Their rise had serious implications for the unity of the Muslim world: rifts were opening up, with fundamental questions being asked about the past, present and future of Islam.

The upheaval, and the resulting decline of commercial opportunities, was one reason why the Viking Rus’ increasingly turned their attention to the Dnieper and Dniester rivers feeding into the Black Sea, rather than moving along the Volga and towards the Caspian. Their attention began to turn away from the Muslim world to the Byzantine Empire and to the great city of Constantinople, fabled in Norse folklore as ‘Mikli-garðr’ (or Miklegarth) – that is, ‘the great city’. The Byzantines were wary of the attentions of the Rus’, not least since a daring raid in 860 had taken the city’s inhabitants – and its defences – completely by surprise. Who are these ‘fierce and savage’ warriors, ‘ravaging the suburbs, destroying everything’, wailed the patriarch of Constantinople, ‘thrusting their swords through everything, taking pity on nothing, sparing nothing?’ Those who died first were the lucky ones, he went on; at least they were spared knowledge of the calamities that followed.50

Rus’ access to the markets of Constantinople was tightly regulated by the authorities. One treaty from the tenth century notes that a maximum of fifty Rus’ were allowed into the city at any one time, and had to enter through a given gate; their names were to be recorded and their activities in the city monitored; restrictions were set on what they could and could not buy.51 They were recognised as dangerous men who needed to be treated carefully. Nevertheless, relations eventually began to normalise as towns like Novgorod, Chernigov and above all Kiev evolved from trading stations into fortified strongholds and permanent residences.52 The adoption of Christianity by the Rus’ ruler Vladimir in 988 was important too, both because it led to the creation of an ecclesiastical network ministered at the outset by clergy sent from Constantinople, and because of the inevitable cultural borrowings that flowed northwards from the imperial capital. These influences eventually affected everything from icons and religious artefacts to the design of churches and to the way that the Rus’ dressed.53 As the Rus’ economy became more mercantile, the warrior-like society became increasingly urban and cosmopolitan.54 Luxury items like wine, oil and silks were exported from Byzantium and sold on, with traders recording invoices and receipts on birch bark.55

The redirection of the gaze of the Rus’ from the Muslim world towards Constantinople was the result of a pronounced shift in western Asia. For one thing, successive emperors had taken advantage of the unrest and uncertainty in the imageAbbāsid caliphate. Many of Byzantium’s eastern provinces had been lost during the Muslim conquests, and this led to a fundamental reorganisation of the empire’s provincial administration. In the first half of the tenth century, the tide began to turn. One by one, bases that had been used to launch assaults on imperial territory in Anatolia were picked off and recovered. Crete and Cyprus were retaken, restoring stability to the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, which had been at the mercy of Arab pirate raids for decades. Then in 969 the great city of Antioch, a major commercial emporium as well as a centre for textile production, was also seized.56

This reversal of fortunes spurred a sense of revival in the Christian world. It also represented a significant redirection of assets and revenues away from Baghdad and towards Constantinople: tax and customs revenues that had previously flowed towards the caliphate now filled the imperial treasuries. This heralded the beginning of a golden age for Byzantium, a period of artistic and intellectual renaissance among philosophers, scholars and historians, of large-scale building of churches and monasteries, and the founding of institutions such as a law school to train judges who could oversee the running of an expanded empire. Byzantium was also a prime beneficiary of the breakdown in relations between Baghdad and Egypt in the late tenth century. In the late 980s, Emperor Basil II came to terms with the newly proclaimed Fāimageimid Caliph, establishing formal trade links and promising to have his name proclaimed in the daily prayers said in the mosque in Constantinople rather than that of his imageAbbāsid rival in Baghdad.57

Buoyant markets in the imperial capital, fuelled by economic and demographic growth, were mirrored by introspection and uncertainty in the imageAbbasid caliphate. The result was the reorientation of trade routes from the east, with a clear shift away from the continental hinterland through Khazaria and the Caucasus to the Red Sea. The land routes that had made Merv, Rayy and Baghdad blossom were supplanted by shipping along the maritime lanes. The boost to Fusimageāimage, Cairo and above all to Alexandria was unmistakable, with the middle classes mushrooming as these cities thrived.58 Byzantium was well placed, and soon began to enjoy the fruits of its new relations with the Fāimageimids: from the later tenth century, as Arabic and Hebrew reports make clear, merchant ships were putting in and sailing off from Egyptian ports around the clock, heading for Constantinople.59

Egyptian textiles became prized across the eastern Mediterranean. Linen produced at Tinnīs was so sought after that Nāimageir-i Khusraw, one of the great Persian writers and travellers of the period, reported: ‘I have heard that the ruler of Byzantium once sent a message to the sultan of Egypt that he would exchange a hundred cities of his realm for Tinnīs alone.’60 The appearance of Amalfitan and Venetian merchants in Egypt from the 1030s and from Genoa three decades later reveals that others from further afield than Constantinople were alert to the opening up of new sources of goods.61

From the point of view of the Rus’ and the new northern trade networks, the changes in the principal routes to market for spices, silks, pepper, hardwoods and other items brought from the east had little impact: there was no need to have to choose between Christian Constantinople and Muslim Baghdad. On the contrary, if anything, having two potential sources for buying and selling goods was better than having one. Silk reached Scandinavia in considerable quantities – as testified by the recovery of more than a hundred silk fragments from a remarkable ship excavated at Oseberg in Norway, and also from Viking graves where silks from the Byzantine world and Persia were buried as prestige objects alongside the men who had owned them.62

There were still those in the mid-eleventh century who thought that they would make their fortunes in the Islamic lands of the east, just as their forefathers had done. A rune-stone by Lake Mälar near Stockholm in Sweden set up in the middle of the eleventh century by a woman named Tóla to commemorate her son Haraldr and his brothers-in-arms provides one example. ‘Like men, they went a long way in the search for gold,’ it states; they had their successes, but then died ‘in the south, in Serkland’, that is to say, in the land of the Saracens – the Muslims.63 Or there is the stone set up by Gudleif in memory of his son, Slagve, who ‘met his end in the east in Khwarezm’.64 Texts like the saga of Yngvar the Wayfarer, Haraldr’s brother, likewise commemorate ambitious escapades that took Scandinavians to adventures in the Caspian and beyond. In fact, recent research suggests that a permanent Viking colony may even have been established in Persian Gulf in this period.65

But attention was increasingly focused on the Christian east and on Byzantium. As western Europe’s horizons expanded, there was rising interest in visiting the land where Jesus Christ had lived, died and risen from the dead. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem became a source of understandable kudos.66 Exposure to the Holy City also underlined the paucity of the Christian heritage of western Europe – particularly when compared to the Byzantine Empire. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, had begun the process of bringing relics to Constantinople in the fourth century. By the eleventh century, the astonishing collections in the city were widely held to include relics such as the nails that had been used to crucify Jesus; the Crown of Thorns; the clothes over which lots had been cast; and parts of the True Cross, as well as hair of the Virgin Mary, the head of John the Baptist and much more besides.67 By contrast, there was little of note in the reliquaries of Europe: although kings, cities and church foundations were becoming richer, they had little physical connection with the story of Jesus Christ and his disciples.

Jerusalem and Constantinople as the home and guardian of Christianity drew growing numbers of men to the Christian east, and to the imperial capital in particular – in order to trade, to take service or to simply pass through on the way to the Holy Land. Men from Scandinavia and the British Isles were welcomed into the Varangian guard, an elite corps entrusted as the bodyguard of the Emperor himself. It became a rite of passage to serve in this brigade, with men such as Haraldr Sigurðarson, later King of Norway (and better known as Harald Hardrada), serving in the brigade before heading for home.68 The call of Constantinople echoed loudly around all of Europe in the eleventh century. Documents record that in the eleventh century it was home to men from Britain, Italy, France and Germany – as well as from Kiev, Scandinavia and Iceland. Traders from Venice, Pisa, Amalfi and Genoa set up colonies in the city in order to buy goods and export them home.69

The places that mattered were not in Paris or London, in Germany or Italy – but in the east. Cities that connected to the east were important – like Kherson in the Crimea or Novgorod, cities that linked to the Silk Roads running across the spine of Asia. Kiev became a linchpin of the medieval world, evidenced by the marriage ties of the ruling house in the second half of the eleventh century. Daughters of Yaroslav the Wise, who reigned as Grand Prince of Kiev until 1054, married the King of Norway, the King of Hungary, the King of Sweden and the King of France. One son married the daughter of the King of Poland, while another took as his wife a member of the imperial family of Constantinople. The marriages made in the next generation were even more impressive. Rus’ princesses were married to the King of Hungary, the King of Poland and the powerful German Emperor, Henry IV. Among other illustrious matches was Gytha, the wife of Vladimir II Monomakh, the Grand Prince of Kiev: she was the daughter of Harold II, King of England, who was killed at the battle of Hastings in 1066. The ruling family in Kiev was the best-connected dynasty in Europe.

An ever growing cluster of towns and settlements fanned out in every direction across Russia, each a new pearl added to the string. Towns like Lyubech, Smolensk, Minsk and Polotsk rose as Kiev, Chernigov and Novgorod had done before them. This was precisely the same process that had already seen Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi rise in wealth and power: the key to their growth was business with the east.

The same held true for southern Italy. In one of the most striking achievements of the early Middle Ages, Norman mercenaries who had first been attracted by Apulia and Calabria in the early eleventh century managed to become a leading force in the Mediterranean. In the space of a generation, they overthrew their Byzantine paymasters and then turned their attention to overwhelming Muslim Sicily – a lucrative and strategically vital staging post that linked North Africa with Europe and controlled the Mediterranean.70

What had propelled the rise to power in each case was trade and access to desirable goods. And in this sense it ultimately mattered little where the dividing line was between Christianity and Islam, and whether the best markets were in Constantinople, Atil, Baghdad or Bukhara – or, by the eleventh century, in Mahdia, Alexandria or Cairo. Despite the insistence of many sources that high politics and religion mattered, for most merchants and traders such issues were complications that were better avoided altogether. In fact, the problem was not where to trade or whom to trade with, but how to pay for luxury objects that could be sold on for healthy profit. In the eighth to tenth centuries, the base commodity for sale had been slaves. But as the economies of western and eastern Europe became more robust, galvanised by huge influxes of silver coinage from the Islamic world, towns grew and their populations swelled. And as they did so, the levels of interaction intensified, which in turn led to the demand for monetisation, that is to say, trade based on coinage – rather than, for example, on furs. As this transition happened and local societies became more complex and sophisticated, stratification developed and urban middle classes emerged. Money, rather than men, began to be used as currency for trade with the east.

In a neat mirror image, the magnetic forces that drew men from Europe were being felt in the east as well. The frontiers that had been established by the Muslim conquests and the expansion into Central Asia began to dissolve in the eleventh century. The various Muslim dynasties across Central Asia had long employed men from the steppes in their armies, as had the caliphate in Baghdad – just as the emperors in Constantinople were doing at the same time with men from northern and western Europe. Dynasties like the Sāmānids had actively recruited soldiers from the Turkic tribes, usually as ghulām, or slave troops. But as these began to be relied on increasingly not only in rank-and-file positions but in command positions, it was not long before the moment came when senior officers began to cast an eye on taking power for themselves. Service was supposed to offer opportunities to the ambitious; it had not been supposed to deliver the keys to the kingdom too.

The results were dramatic. By the start of the eleventh century, a new empire centred in Ghazna (now in eastern Afghanistan) had been established by descendants of a Turkic slave-general which could put so large an army in the field that one contemporary compared numbers to a myriad of ‘locusts or ants, innumerable and immeasurable as the sand of the desert’.71 The Ghaznavids conquered lands that stretched from eastern Iran into northern India, becoming great patrons of visual arts and literature. They championed the work of outstanding writers like Firdawsī, author of the glorious Shāhnāma, one of the jewels of early medieval Persian poetry – even if recent research suggests that the great poet probably did not travel to the court in Afghanistan to present his work in person, as has long been presumed.72

The Qarakhānid Turks were other beneficiaries of the weakening centre in Baghdad, establishing control over Transoxiana by carving out a realm to the north of the Amu Darya (the great Oxus river which flows across the border of modern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), agreeing with the Ghaznavids that the river should mark the boundary between their respective territories.73 Like their neighbours, the Qarakhānids championed a flourishing school of scholars. Perhaps the most famous surviving text is the Dīwān lughāt al-turk (The Collection of Turkish Dialects) by Maimagemūd al-Kāshgharī, which takes the centre of the world to be the Qarakhānids’ capital of Balāsāghūn in Central Asia, set out in a beautiful map that tells us much about how this brilliant polymath saw the world around him.74

Many other fabulously rich texts were produced, works that give a flavour of the refinement – and concerns – of a vibrant and wealthy society. One text that stands out is the Kutadgu Bilig (The Book of Wisdom that Brings Eternal Happiness) written in the late eleventh century in Qarakhānid Turkish by Yūsuf Khāimageimage imageājib. It is filled with advice that ranges from stressing how much more sensible it is for a leader to respond to problems calmly than in anger to recommendations on how a magnate should host a good banquet. Where modern books on etiquette grate with facile statements of the obvious, it is difficult not to be charmed by this author, writing a thousand years ago, urging rulers to prepare well for a good dinner party. ‘Have cups and serving-cloths cleaned. Purify the house and hall, and set out the furnishings. Choose food and drink that is wholesome, tasty and clean so that your guests may eat to their hearts’ content.’ Be sure to keep glasses topped up, the advice continues, and look after any latecomers graciously and generously: no one should ever leave a feast hungry or cursing.75

Arriviste potentates were in need of such advice – as uncomfortable in their own skin as newly rich tycoons of today wanting the right interior design and the right food and drink on the table for when guests arrive (you cannot go wrong, assures the author of the Kutadgu Bilig, with water flavoured with conserve of rose). Some of the more determined, however, eschewed the idea of setting up their own court and eating fancy food, and instead set their minds on the greatest prize of all – Baghdad. From the late tenth century, the Seljuks, descendants of a leader originally from the imageimageuzz tribal constellation (mainly based in modern Kazakhstan), started to build up momentum. They proved adept at switching sides at opportune moments, offering their services to local rulers in return for appropriate rewards. It was not long before this began to translate into real power. Between the late 1020s and late 1030s, the Seljuks skilfully brought one city after another under their own control, with Merv, Nīshāpūr and Balkh submitting in turn. Then, in 1040, they defeated the Ghaznavids in battle, inflicting a crushing defeat on the numerically superior enemy at Dandanakan.76

The meteoric rise of the Seljuks from slave soldiers to power-brokers extraordinaire was confirmed in 1055 when they entered Baghdad at the invitation of the Caliph, driving out the unpopular and ineffective Būyid dynasty. Coins were minted in the name of the leader, imageughrıl Beg, while the order was given to say the imageuimageba in his name – that is, to invoke blessing for his rule during daily prayers. In a further mark to show the dominance of his position in Baghdad and across the caliphate, Ṭughrıl was awarded two new titles: al-Sulimageān Rukn al-Dawla, and Yamīn Amīr al-Muimageminīn – Pillar of the State, and the Right Hand of the Commander of the Faithful.77

This was not without irony. The names of the sons of the eponymous founder of the dynasty suggests that the Seljuks were originally Christian or perhaps even Jewish. With names like Michael, Israel, Moses and Jonah, it is likely that they were among those on the steppes who had been evangelised either by the missionaries referred to by the Patriarch Timothy, or else by merchants who had introduced Judaism to the Khazars.78 Although the timing and circumstances of their conversion to Islam are unclear, it was evidently difficult to hang on to religious beliefs that were a minority among the Muslim masses without losing legitimacy as they advanced rapidly. Had their successes been won more slowly, the world might have started to look very different, with a state emerging in the east led by rulers that were either Christians or Jews. As it was, the Seljuks chose to convert. But it was non-Muslim upstarts from the fringes of the caliphate who found themselves guardians of Muimageammad’s legacy, champions of Islam and masters of one of the most powerful empires in history.

Even before their seizure of power in the imageAbbāsid capital, the Byzantines had become concerned by the rise of the Seljuks. Their inexorable rise had stirred other nomads on the periphery to launch increasingly daring raids deep into the Balkans, in the Caucasus and Asia Minor, startling local populations with the speed of their attacks. Their horses, noted one commentator, were ‘swift as eagles, with hooves as solid as rock’. They pounced on cities ‘as insatiably as hungry wolves devouring their food’.79

In a misguided attempt to shore up defences in the east, the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes set out from Constantinople with a large army, meeting with disaster in 1071 at Manzikert where the Byzantine forces were caught by surprise and humiliated. In a famous battle still celebrated today as the moment of the birth of the state of Turkey, the imperial army was surrounded and crushed and the Emperor taken prisoner. The Seljuk ruler, Alp Arslan, made the Byzantine leader lie on the ground and placed his foot on his neck.80

In fact, the Seljuks and the regime in Baghdad were much less concerned with the Byzantine Empire than they were with the Fāimageimid caliphate in Shīimagea Egypt. The two forces quickly locked horns, wrestling over control of Jerusalem. While this was going on, relations were established with Constantinople that were not so much cordial as positively supportive, thanks to the overlap of mutual interests that both had in curtailing the bands roaming Asia Minor who were using the classic steppe strategy of raiding and seeking payments in return for peace. For the Byzantines, this threatened dislocation to the fragile provincial economy; to the Seljuks, it represented a challenge to the authority of the leader as warlords emerged with ideas above their station. For the best part of two decades, the Emperor and the Sultan co-operated, with high-level discussions going so far as to discuss a potential marriage tie to bind the two rulers together. In the 1090s, however, the balance collapsed as the Seljuk world descended into a succession crisis, leaving upstart leaders in Asia Minor to raise the stakes by creating fiefdoms for themselves that made them virtually independent of Baghdad – and serious thorns in the side of Byzantium.81

With one calamity following another, the Christian Byzantine Empire was rapidly brought to its knees. With few cards left to play, the Emperor took drastic action: appeals were sent to leading magnates all over Europe, including to the Pope, Urban II. Appealing to the papacy was a last-ditch attempt to stop Byzantium teetering over into the abyss, and it was not without risk: forty years earlier, an escalation in tension between the churches of Rome and Constantinople had resulted in a schism that saw patriarchs and emperors excommunicated and priests threatening each other with the burning fires of hell. While part of the argument turned on doctrine, and particularly on the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father, at the heart of the issue was a wider competition for control of the Christian faithful. Reaching out to the Pope meant glossing over division as well as looking to rebuild relations – both of which were easier said than done.82

The Emperor’s envoys found Pope Urban II at Piacenza in March 1095, where they ‘implored his lordship and all the faithful of Christ to bring assistance against the heathen for the defence of this holy church, which had now been nearly annihilated in that region by the infidels who had conquered her as far as the walls of Constantinople’.83 The Pope immediately grasped what was at stake, and took action. Making his way north of the Alps, he held a church council at Clermont where he announced that it was the duty of Christian knighthood to march to the aid of their brethren in the east. Urban then began an exhausting tour to rally support from leading magnates, above all in France, cajoling and persuading them to take part in a great expedition that would end up in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The hour of need in the east looked like it might deliver unity to the church.84

The call to arms lit well-set tinder. Increasing numbers of Christian pilgrims had made their way to visit the Holy Places in the decades before the Pope’s appeal for help. News travelled fast in a world where there were extensive links between western Europe and Constantinople. With pilgrim routes all but closed because of the dislocation in Asia Minor and the Middle East, and alarming reports circulating about the advances being made by the Turks in Anatolia which provided graphic accounts of the sufferings of Christians in the east, many were convinced that the apocalypse was nigh. Urban’s call to arms met with a massive response: in 1096, tens of thousands of men set off for Jerusalem.85

As the copious source material shows, most of those who set off for the east were motivated by faith and by reports of horrors and atrocities that had substance to them. But while the Crusade is chiefly remembered as a war of religion, its most important implications were worldly. The first great struggle between the powers of Europe for position, riches and prestige in faraway lands was about to begin, triggered by the realisation of the prizes on offer. Things had shifted in such a way that, suddenly, the west was about to drag itself closer to the heart of the world.