The British Isles According To Medieval Arabic Authors – Part Two

Several critics have placed the court of the `King of the Norsemen’ in Jutland (Denmark).”1″ The late Professor Levi-Provencal, a high authority in all matters connected with Muslim Spain, expressed the opinion in more than one place that the narrative was unhistorical, in fact `imagined in the 12th or 13th century’ “2″ i.e. in the time of Ibn Dihyah (544/1149-633/1235).

The rest of the narrative gives an account of the reception of the ambassadors. Yahya al-Ghazal, speaking through an interpreter, informed the `King of the Norsemen’ of the contents of a letter from `Abd ar­Rahman. Then bales from Spain were opened, and the `King of the Norsemen’ is represented as well satisfied with the presents (rich garments and vessels), which they contained. Much of the narrative purports to recount conversations between Yahya al-Ghazal and the consort of the `King of the Norsemen’, called in the text Nud, perhaps for Thud, Theuda, who is represented as taking a sympathetic interest in the stranger. Finally, his mission (very indistinctly indicated) accomplished or not, Yahya al-Ghazal left his hosts and sailed back to St. James of Compostella in the Asturias (north-west Spain). After travelling overland through Christian Spain, he reached Cordova, according to the account, after an absence of twenty months.”3″

There appears to be nothing here decisive for or against the authenticity. Two further points may be made. A poem attributed to Yahya al-Ghazal, incorporated in the narrative like the verses on the storm already mentioned, speaks of shining buttons (azrdr) as part of the dress of the queen. It is somewhat remarkable that a few decades later the traveller Ibn Fadlan also speaks of the gold buttons (azrur dhahab) on the khaftdn of a Germanic chief, whose funeral he had witnessed on the Volga. “4″ If, on the other hand, `the mountain known as Aluwiyah’-not apparently mentioned elsewhere, and nowhere explained-is the same name as Aluya above (§ 1), then `mount Albion’ would evidently be imaginary, and we should have a strong argument against the authenticity. In any case, this narrative clearly cannot be regarded as an unexceptionable account of a visit to the British Isles by Arabs from Spain in the ninth century, but it has not yet been proved not to be such.

Measures taken after the descent of the Norsemen in 229/844 (see § 2), which was scarcely the first of its kind, appear to have included the patrolling of the Atlantic coast of Spain by Umayyad squadrons, as far even as the Bay of Biscay.”5″ The Norsemen appeared again in 245/859, first in Galicia, then farther south, also in Africa and on the east coast of Spain.”6″ It is apparently to this raid that al-Mas’udi refers in the following passage.”7″ `Before the year 300 A.H. there came to Spain certain ships by sea in which were thousands of people, and they raided their coasts. The people of Spain supposed that they were a nation of Norsemen, who appear against them every two hundred years, and that they come to z heir land from a gulf of the Ocean, which is not that on which is the watch-tower of brass “8″ (SC. Strait of Cadiz or Gibraltar). I think, and God knows better, that the strait from which they came is connected with the Sea of Maeotis and Nitas (i.e. modern Sea of Azov and Black Sea, or Pontus), and that this nation are the Rus, whom we previously mentioned (as having recently descended the Volga to the Caspian) “9″ in an earlier art of this book, since none but they traverse these seas which are connected with the Ocean.’ Al-Mas’udi was wrong about direct communication between the Atlantic and the Black Sea, but he has grasped the general connexion between Viking raids in the extreme west and the extreme east of Europe. One of the commanders of the Muslim fleet which operated in the Atlantic against the invaders was a certain Khash­kash, a name which will meet us later.”10″

Al-Kindi, who died c. A.D. 87o, knew Ptolemy’s Geography in a translation specially made for him, as mentioned in the Fihrist, which characterizes the translation as a poor one.”11″ Al-Mas`udi says”12″ that he had seen in the books ascribed to al-Kindi and his pupil as-Sarakhsi the statement that at the extremity of the inhabited land in the north is a great lake under the North Pole (taht qutb ash-shimal), and that in its vicinity is city beyond which is no habitation, called Tuliyah (Thule, usually taken = the Shetlands). He had seen also that the Banu’l- Munajjim, i.e. the Banu Musa b. Shakir”13″ in one of their treatises, had mentioned this lake.

Another reference to Thule about the same time is in the Ta’rikh al-ya’qubi,”14″ who analyses the Kitab fi dhdt al-halaq (On the Armillary Sphere) attributed to Ptolemy, chapter by chapter. Chapter 25 deals with the shortest day and longest day-four hours and twenty hours respectively- at 63 degrees north. This is the farthest habitable point. It is an island called Tuli (Thule) in the land of Europe (Uriba), and is north of the land of the Greeks. The Ta’rikh is dated to about 260/873-4.


So Dozy, G. Jacob (Arabische Berichte von Gesandten an germanische Fiirstenhofe aus dem 9. und 10. Jahrhundert, Berlin and Leipzig, 1927, p. 38), and H. Munis.

Hist. de l’Espagne, p. 178; `Une echange d’ambassades entre Cordoue et Byzance au ix’ siecle’ Byzantion, xii (1937), p. 16.

In the passage first named in the previous note Levi-Provenral gives nine months.

A. Zeki Validi Togan, Ibn Fadldn’s Reisebericht, A.K.M., xxiv. 3 (Leipzig, 1939), § 89, Arabic text, , p. 40.

Levi-Provencal, Hist. de l’Espagne, pp. 157, 218, 224 H. Munis, `Contribution’, pp. 66-67, cites Ibn ‘Idhari, Bayan, ii. 99 for the year A.H. 245.

Levi-Provencal, op. cit., pp. 218-19; H. Munis, Op. cit., pp. 64-73. (The date 238/853 of the section-heading on p.64 there is confusing.)

Muruj, i. 364-5.

Cf. ibid. i.257.

The reference here is to Muruj, i. 273-4. A full account is in Muruj, ii. 18-23. See D. M. Dunlop. Hist. of the Jewish Khazars (Princeton, 1954), PP. 209-12

§§ 13, 20.

Ed. Flugel, p. 268.

Muruj, i. 275. Cf. also Yaqut, Buldan, i. 5oo.

For them see Fihrist, p. 271.

Ed. Houtsma, i. 156. The Islamic Quarterly, London 
April- July1957