Edited by Gillian Terzis
It’s the year 921 and Ibn Fadlān, a theologian in the court of Abbasid Caliphate al-Muqtadir, is making a 4000-kilometre journey from Baghdād to the encampment of the semi-nomadic Bulghār khan on the Volga River. He is serving as secretary to the caliph’s envoy.
Rare for his time and later—fabulator Marco Polo will come centuries afterwards—he doesn’t invent wonders in the account he jots down in spare moments.
The party comes across people with a language like the cries of starlings. The Amu River freezes, and horses and carts slide over the ice as if on roads. They reach a land so cold that beggars don’t wait at the door but step inside, a land where his beard turns into a block of ice. His face freezes to his pillow. The cold splits trees in two.
When the ice melts, they buy camels and boats made from camel skin, three months’ supply of millet, bread and salted meat. Each of them wears plain trousers, padded trousers, a tunic, a caftan, a cloak of sheepskin, a felt outer garment and head covering, and two pairs—one over the other—of horse-hair boots. They can hardly move because of all the clothing. The camels flounder in snow up to their knees.