Friday, 29 April 2011

The Real 13th Warrior

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Shaykh Ahmad ibn Fadhlan was a faqih.  He was sent from Baghdad in 921 CE to serve as the secretary to an ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph, al-Muqtadir to the Iltabar, a vassal-king under the Khazars, of the Volga Bulgaria, Almıs.  The embassy's objective was to have the king of the Bolğars pay homage to Caliph al-Muqtadir in return for money to pay for the construction of a fortress.  Although they managed to reach Bolgar, the mission failed because they were unable to collect the money intended for the king.  Annoyed at not receiving the promised sum, the king refused to switch from the Maliki madzhab then practised to the Hanafi madzhab practised in Baghdad.

The embassy left Baghdad on 21st June, 921 CE / 11th Swafar, 309 AH.  It reached the Bulgars after much hardship on 12th May, 922 CE / 12th Muharram, 310 AH.  This day is an official religious holiday in modern Tatarstan.  The journey took Shaykh ibn Fadhlan from Baghdad to Bukhara and Khwarizm, south of the Aral Sea.  Although promised safe passage by the Oghuz warlord, Kudarkin, they were waylaid by Oghuz bandits.  They were able to bribe their attackers.  They spent the winter in Gorgan, Iran before travelling north across the Ural River until they reached the towns of the Bulgars at the three lakes of the Volga, north of the Samara bend.

A substantial portion of Shaykh ibn Fadhlan's accounts are dedicated to the description of a people he called the ‘ar-Rus’ or ‘ar-Rusiyyah’.  Most scholars identify them with the Rus or Varangians, which would make Shaykh ibn Fadhlan's account one of the earliest portrayals of Vikings.  The Rus were major figures in the history of early Russia, founding Kyiv and Muscovy.  They gave their name to the country whose monarchs were descended from them - Russia.  According to the accounts of Shaykh ibn Fadhlan, several of them converted to Islam.

The Rus appear as traders who set up shop on the river banks nearby the Bolgar camp.  They are described as having bodies tall as date palms, with blond hair and ruddy skin.  They were tattooed from "fingernails to neck" with dark blue or dark green "tree patterns" and other "figures" and that all men are armed with an axe and a long knife.  Shaykh ibn Fadhlan describes the Rus as "perfect physical specimens" but the hygiene of the Rusiyyah as disgusting.  He noted with some astonishment that they comb their hair every day.  He considered them vulgar and unsophisticated.  In that, his impressions contrast those of the Persian traveler ibn Rustah.  He also described in great detail the funeral of one of their chieftains, a ship burial involving human sacrifice.  This was amongst the earliest descriptions of such.

Elements of Shaykh ibn Fadhlan's account were used in the Michael Crichton novel ‘Eaters of the Dead’.  It was adapted to film as ‘The 13th Warrior’. The movie starred Antonio Banderas as Shaykh ibn Fadhlan.  Like many Hollywood scripts, they never let the facts get in the way of a good story.


Story Summary

The 13th Warrior is a 1999 fantasy action film starring Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadhlan.  In the movie, Ahmad ibn Fadhlan is a court poet to the Caliph of Baghdad - until his amorous encounter with the wife of an influential noble gets him exiled as an "ambassador" to "Northern barbarians."  Travelling with Melchisidek, a family friend, his caravan is saved from Mongol Tatar raiders by the appearance of Norsemen.  This is despite the fact that the Tartars were already Muslim at that time.  In reality, the Arabs of that time were as fierce a warrior as the Tartars and renowned horsemen in their own right.

It is interesting to note that Mechisidek (Melchizedek) is the name of a person mentioned in the Book of Genesis and Psalms.  This Melchizedek is claimed to be immortal by some traditions.  He is synonymous with ageless wisdom.  Some Muslim commentators liken him to Khidhr (a.s.).  And Allah (s.w.t.) Knows Best.

The Muslim caravan takes refuge at the Viking settlement on the Volga.  Communications are established through Melchisidek and Herger, a Norseman who speaks Vulgate Latin.  Ahmad and Melchisidek are in time to witness the fight which establishes Buliwyf as heir apparent, followed by the Viking funeral of their dead king, cremated together with a young woman who agreed to 'accompany' him to Valhalla.  This Buliwyf could be the legendary Beowulf of Norse mythology.

A youth enters the camp requesting Buliwyf's aid: his father's kingdom in the far north is under attack from an ancient evil so frightening, the bravest warriors dare not name it.  The "angel of death," an oracle, determines the mission will be successful if thirteen warriors go to face this danger - but the thirteenth must not be a Norseman.  Ahmad is recruited against his will.

Ahmad learns Norse during their journey by listening intently to their conversations.  He is looked down upon by the huge Norsemen, who mock his physical weakness and his small Arabian horse, but earns a measure of respect by his fast learning of their language, his horsemanship, ingenuity and ability to write.

Reaching King Hrothgar's kingdom, they confirm their foe is indeed the ancient 'Wendol', fiends who come with the mist to kill and eat human flesh.  In a string of clashes Buliwyf's band establishes that the Wendol are humanoid cannibals who appear as, live like and identify with bears.  Their numbers dwindling and their position all but indefensible, an ancient wise woman of the village tells them to track the Wendol to their lair and destroy their leaders, the "Mother of the Vendol" and the war leader who wears "the horns of power."

Buliwyf and the remaining warriors infiltrate the Wendol cave-complex and kill the Mother, but Buliwyf is poisoned by her.  As the last remaining warriors return to the village and prepare for a final battle they do not expect to survive, the Wendol attack.  Buliwyf succeeds in killing the Wendol war leader, causing their defeat, before succumbing to the poison.  Ahmad ibn Fadhlan witnesses Buliwyf's royal funeral before returning to his homeland, grateful to the Norsemen for helping him to "become a man, and a useful servant of God".


2 comments:

  1. Crichton admitted he made the whole thing up. There never was any real person.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The text and the person existed. Crichton used it for his story and changed some details without crediting the source material.

      Delete

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