Skeletons of giants, Viking long ship funerals and medieval statecraft – ‘Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness’ widens the eyes in many ways. Superbly translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, it recounts several Arab travellers’ experiences in Russia, Central Asia and Hungary between the 9th and 14th centuries. What particularly drew my attention was Sallām the Interpreter’s voyage which followed Caliph al-Wāthiq’s dream of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj escaping their prison in 831 CE.
Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj are magical beings featured in Islamic eschatology, transmitted from early Christian sources about Gog and Magog. This tribe was imprisoned beneath mountains in the far North and sealed behind a barrier built by the ‘two-horned one’, commonly associated with Alexander the Great. Each day the creatures tunnel from beneath the earth using their teeth, allowing them to penetrate just enough soil to glimpse the world above them. Before falling into torpor at night, Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj promise to break through this hole once they awake. To this day they wake up to their work undone by the will of God; giving mankind reprieve from their pestilence. During the end of times, it is through God’s will that they shall finally leave their subterranean prison to consume every living creature until there is nothing but themselves.
We can see why, upon dreaming of the world’s end, the Caliph al-Wāthiq commissioned Sallām the translator and fifty companions on an eighteen month journey to determine whether it was an imminent premonition. In the ninth century, Arab and Persian geographers divided the world into seven climes, beyond which was the domain of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj. The region and people associated with this realm would change depending on historical realpolitik; with Mongols, Turkic tribes, and later Napoleon and the Soviets equated to Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj .
In our ninth century travellers’ case, Sallām and his companions made their arduous expedition from Baghdad to outer China via Iran and Central Asia. Arriving at the fabled barrier, Sallām remarked of ‘a high mountain surrounded by fortifications’, a reference to the Great Wall of China. Sallām returned to the Caliph to assure him that the damage to the barrier was no wider than a thread. With his fears allayed, the consoled Caliph granted the fatigued travellers gifts and provided alms to the poor.
The interpreter’s odyssey is a vivid description of an interconnected world of caravansaries. Both overland and maritime routes linked the worlds between Andalucía and the Far East. More importantly, these travels present the reader with an imagined world tamed by physical verification. To trek beyond the pale of human settlement, prior to air travel, in order to satiate a dream, is an astonishing feat.
Featured image: Alexander the Great oversees the building of the wall to fend off Yajuj and Majuj. A miniature from a Book of Divinations (Falnama) [of Ja’far al-Sadiq] made for Tahmasp I (r. 1524–76), via Wikimedia Commons Schmidt, Andrea B. and van Donzel, Emeri Johannes Andrea B. Schmidt. ‘Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest’, Brill (2010) pp. 95-97  Ibid., 98  Ibid., 4  Lunde Paul and Stone, Caroline E.M., ‘Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North’, Penguin Classics (2011), p. 101  Ibid., Xviii