Ibn al-Athīr’s Accounts of the Rūs: A Commentary and Translation

Ibn al-Athīr’s Accounts of the Rūs: A Commentary and Translation

By William E. Watson

Canadian/American Slavic Studies, Vol.35 (2001)

The evidence on the early Rūs contained in medieval Arabic geographical literature has long been part of the Normanist/anti-Normanist controversy.1 The evidence in this literature has most frequently been used by Viking specialists to argue that the Rūs were culturally and ethnically linked to the inhabitants of the Scandinavian Peninsula. For example, the descriptions of the Rūs funerary customs along the Volga in the writings of Ibn Rustah and Ibn Fadlān have been connected with the peculiar burial customs of Viking-age Scandinavia.2

Most recently, scholars have focused on the statement of Ibn Khurdadhbih that the Rūs were a jins (“kind, sort, variety, class, category, race, or nation”) of the Saqāliba.3 The traditionally-held view that the word Saqāliba referred exclusively to Slavs has been abandoned by many scholars, such as D. M. Dunlop, I. Boba, O. Pritsak, and P. B. Golden, who prefer to translate the word to include Scandinavians and Finno-Ugrians along with various Slavic groups.4 Clearly, a comprehensive reassessment of the use of the word Saqāliba by medieval Arabic and Persian authors is needed.

The concentration on Arabic geographical literature, inspired by the Normanist controversy, has led to some neglect of the Arabic historical literature by those interested in the Rūs. This neglect is unfortunate, however, since the Arabic historical record contains much information on the Rūs and especially the Rūs campaigns to the south (the Caucasus and Byzantium) which is not found in the geographical literature. Consequently, in this paper I will examine what Ibn al-Athīr, one of the greatest medieval Arabic historians, tells us about the Rūs. For the convenience of the reader, an English translation of the relevant passages has been provided in an appendix.

One of the most important Arabic historical works is al-Kāmil fī ‘t-Ta’rīkh (hereafter referred to as al-Kāmil), composed ca. 1231 by the Iraqi scholar Izz ad-Dīn Ibn al-Athīr (1160-1233). Some of Ibn al-Athīr’s accounts of the Rūs have been utilized by scholars (including I. I. Krachkovskii, V. Minorsky, D. M. Dunlop, and C. Huart), but no comprehensive study of his material on the Rūs has been done.5 The work of Arabic historians such as Ibn al-Athīr naturally focused on the expansion of the Islamic state.6 The lands of the Rūs were outside of the dār al-Islām (literally, “the house of Islam,” the area of the world under the control of the Muslims) and were thus of peripheral interest to them.

The scope of Muslim historical enterprise widened considerably in the Abbāsid period. Universal histories were written by al-Balādhūrī (d. 892), al-Ya’qūbī (d. 897), and al-Tabarī (d. 923), which included material on some of the peoples of the dār al-Harb (literally, “the House of War,” the area of the world which was controlled by non-Muslims).7 Ibn al-Athīr’s contribution to this genre is primarily in his reworking of a great deal of material into one of the first Arabic annalistic histories. 8 As al-Kāmil does not utilize the isnād (the line of authorities upon which a tradition is based in Arabic histories, which is derived from the study of the Hadīth), it is not always clear whence Ibn al-Athīr received his material.9

Arabic and Farsi geographical literature contains a great deal of information concerning the customs and economic activities of the Rūs beginning in the ninth century.10 Ibn al-Athīr does not discuss any of the peculiar characteristics of the Rūs in al-Kāmil, but he depicts them primarily as a war-like people who raided the Caspian region and who served the Byzantines as mercenaries or allies. Several references to the Rūs in al-Kāmil are connected with Byzantine military operations. Arabic authors recognized the significance of the military and cultural ties between the Rūs and the Byzantines at least as early as the time of al-Muqaddasī (ca. 945-1000), who curiously wrote that the Rūs were a jins of the Byzantines (jinsān min ar-Rūmī).11

Ibn al-Athīr’s earliest references to the Rūs in al-Kāmil are two consecutive entries for the year 332 A. H./943 A. D., in which a campaign by the Rūs in the Caucasus is discussed.12 This was a large naval expedition whose focus was on the southwestern shore of the Caspian Sea and whose purpose was the acquisition of booty. The purpose and geographical focus of this expedition was similar to that of an earlier Rūs campaign (ca. 913) in the Caspian region described by al-Mas’ūdī, in which the Khazars granted the Rūs permission to use their territory as a point of departure.13 Ibn al-Athīr’s account of the Rūs seizure of the town of Barda’a and their eventual defeat by the forces of al-Marzubān Ibn Muhammad (the Musāfrid ruler of Azerbaidjan) is partly derived from Ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030).14 As his account differs in some respects from that of Ibn Miskawayh, Ibn al-Athīr must have used at least one other source for this campaign, perhaps some Būyid correspondence which is no longer extant.15

The account 332/943 expedition begins with the journey of the Rūs through the Caspian Sea and up the Kura River, and their landing near Barda’a. The expedition’s point of departure cannot be ascertained from either Ibn al-Athīr or Ibn Miskawayh, although it may have used the lower Volga (as did the expedition of 913). The Rūs had been familiar with the Caspian Sea (the Jurjān) and the adjacent territory since the mid-ninth century, as Ibn Khurdadhbih’s description of the trade routes of the Rūs merchants demonstrates.16 In an important battle of the 943 expedition, the Rūs defeated a force of some five thousand soldiers which had been promptly assembled by the representative (nā’ib) of al-Marzubān Ibn Muhammad. The narration of this battle is essentially the same in Ibn al-Athīr and Ibn Miskawayh, but the numbers and composition of the Muslim force are different in the two works.17 Following the battle, the Rūs encamped in the town. They were provoked to action against the populace by stone-wielding townsmen, and both Ibn al-Athīr and Ibn Miskawayh emphasize that the subsequent barbaric behavior of the Rūs towards the populace was the result of this action. Ibn Miskawayh notes that the belligerent townsmen were actually lending support to a Muslim force which had surrounded the town, but Ibn al-Athīr omits this point.18

The Rūs held the town for some time, and al-Marzubān was compelled to devise a stratagem in order to expel them. Al-Marzubān, however, testified that his plan to ambush the Rūs almost failed because the Rūs warriors struck such fear in his men. 19 Ibn Rustah, among other Arabic authors, had noted the military discipline of those Rūs who were governed by a Khāqān Rūs (probably located near Khazar territory) in the early tenth century.20 For this battle, as with the earlier battle, the numbers and composition of the Muslim force are different in Ibn al-Athīr and Ibn Miskawayh.21 The position of the Rūs was not undermined by the military tactics of al-Marzubān, but rather by an epidemic which broke out in their camp after many Rūs warriors had consumed tainted fruit.

The Rūs left Barda’a with some of their booty because the maintenance of their position became untenable. Their ranks were thinning from the epidemic and they had lost their prince (amīr) in the Muslim ambush. After the Rūs sailed back along the Kura River to the Caspian Sea, the Muslims unearthed a great many Rūs weapons which had been buried with the dead warriors. Abū al- Hasan Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Malik al-Hamdānī added a brief version of these events to al-Tabarī’s Ta’rīkh ar-Rusul wa ‘l-Maluk, in which he mentioned that the Rūs also buried the wives and slaves of the dead warriors with the bodies at Barda’a.22 This Rūs practice had earlier been described by Ibn Rustah and Ibn Fadlān.23

Ibn Miskawayh’s account of the Rūs seizure of the town of Barda’a includes some interesting material which was not included in al-Kāmil by Ibn al-Athīr. For example, the former begins his account with the following description of the Rūs:

They (the Rūs) are a powerful people who are naturally strong and who are very courageous. They do not know defeat, and none of their men turns away [from battle] until he is killed or kills [his opponent]. Among their customs is that each of them carries a pounding weapon and fastens it to himself. They are most skillful in wielding the axe, the saw, the hammer, and similar things. A Rūs [warrior] does battle with the spear and the shield, and he wears the sword, which he fastens to himself in a sheath. They fight mainly on foot.24

The military impact of the Rūs on the Muslims of the Caspian region, which continued into the eleventh century, made a distinct impression on contemporary Muslim authors such as al-Mas’ūdī, and later compilers of Islamic history such as Ibn Miskawayh and Ibn al-Athīr.25 These military expeditions obviously had an economic motive, namely, the acquisition of plunder (and also possibly the attempt to force commercial privileges from the Muslims, or deal a blow to commercial rivals or potential rivals). The expeditions should be placed within the broader context of Rūs commercial enterprise in the Near East.26

The first entry in al-Kāmil mentioning the participation of the Rūs in Byzantine military operations dates to the year 343/954-55 when “al-Dumustaq” (Emperor Bardas Phocas) led a punitive campaign against the Hamdānid amīr of Aleppo, Saif al-Dawla (d. 967). Ibn al-Athīr enumerates the various groups which served the Byzantine emperor as mercenaries in the resulting battle of Hadath. In addition to Byzantine Greek troops, al-Dumustaq had Rūs, Bulgars, and “others” in his forces.27 Although the chronology of the campaign is different in the account of Ibn Zāfir (d. 1226), this author also lists Rūs, Bulgars and Armenians, in addition to Byzantine Greek troops.28 It is clear that this reference by Ibn al-Athīr and Ibn Zāfir to the presence of Rūs mercenaries at Hadath comes from al-Mutanabbī (d. 955), who was the personal poet of Saif al-Dawla, or from Abū Firās, (d. 968), who was the cousin of Nasīr al-Dawla and Saif al-Dawla.Abū Firās mentions that al-Dumustaq led Byzantine Greeks, Armenians, Rūs, and Saqāliba in the battle against Saif al-Dawla.29 Similarly, al-Mutanabbī writes that al-Dumustaq led Byzantine Greeks, Armenians, Rūs, Saqāliba, Bulgars and Khazars in the battle.30

The second entry in al-Kāmil mentioning Rūs participation in Byzantine military operations in for the year 463/1070-71, and concerns the famous battle of Manzikert (Malāzkird). This was the decisive battle fought north of Lake Van, in which the Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV was defeated by the Seljuk Turks under Sultān Alp Arslan. The battle resulted in the termination of Byzantine control over a significant part of Anatolia; it had a major impact on the development of Transcaucasia, and in addition, it was disastrous for the subsequent careers of Romanos and the Varangian guard.31 Ibn al-Athīr lists a great number of foreign mercenaries who served the Byzantines in his account of the battle. In addition to Byzantine Greeks, Romanos led Franks, “Westerners,” Rūs, Pechenegs, Georgians, and “other units from that country.”32 The Franks (al-Franji) mentioned here were perhaps the Normans who are known to have served in the East even before the Crusades. The “Westerners” (those min al-gharbi) may have been Anglo-Saxons who fled to the Byzantine Empire after the defeat of Harold of Wessex at Hastings-Senlac Hill in 1066. The author of the Hudūd al-‘Ālam (among others) knew of the Roman occupation of Britain and considered the island (al-Baritiniya) to be a part of the Byzantine realm: “[it is] the last land of Rum on the coast of the Ocean.”33

According to Ibn al-Athīr the Rūs played an important role in the battle. He writes that the Rūs contingent of about twenty thousand men was in the vanguard of the Byzantine forces.34 The Rūs were defeated in the course of the battle along with the rest of the Byzantine army. The leader of the Rūs contingent was subsequently taken before the sultān and his nose was cut off.35

The composition of the Byzantine army at Manzikert is similar in Ibn al-Athīr and other Muslim sources. Ibn al-Qalānisī (d. 1160) lists Byzantine Greeks, Rūs, Bulgars, and Khazars.36 ‘Imād al-Dīn (d. 1201) lists Byzantine Greeks, Rūs, Khazars, Alans, the Turkic Ghūzz and Qipchaq, Georgians, Armenians, and Franks.37 As C. Cahen pointed out, a number of other sources attest to the large variety of foreign mercenaries present in the Byzantine army at Manzikert.38 It is well-known that Ibn al-Athīr borrowed liberally from the historical works of his contemporaries, and this material was borrowed from several of them.39

Even though they served the Byzantine emperors as mercenaries, the Rūs are known to have attacked their sometime host on several occasions.40 Ibn al-Athīr mentions the 1043 Rūs attack on Constantinople in al-Kāmil, sub anno 435.41 He describes the battle in some detail, and emphasizes the importance of Greek fire in the Byzantine victory. Many of the Rūs either died from burns sustained by the Greek fire or were drowned when their burning ships sank.42 The Rūs who had departed their ships fought a pitched battle with the Byzantines and were defeated. The Byzantines then cut off the right hands of some of the captured Rūs. Only those Rūs who were taken captive with the son of the Rūs “king” were permitted to depart from Constantinople. The Rūs “king” (malik ar-Rūsiya) mentioned here is Yaroslav of Kiev (d. 1054).43

Ibn al-Athīr included an account of the conversion of the Rūs to Orthodox Christianity in al-Kāmil. The account is entered sub anno 375/985-86, and thus his chronology here is imprecise. This is not surprising, considering that he is relating an episode which occurred outside of the dār al-Islām, the news of which may have taken several years to reach the Islamic lands. The account begins with the approach of Waradīs Ibn Lāwn towards Constantinople and his harassment of Basil and Constantine, the two “kings” of Byzantium. In this time of crisis, they sought aid from an unnamed Rūs “king” (malik ar-Rūsiya), offering their sister to him in marriage.44 This Rūs leader is Vladimir of Kiev (d. 1015), who actually did provide troops to the Byzantine Emperor Basil II Bulgaroctonos for use in suppressing the revolt of Bardas Phocas.

Vladimir’s decision to convert is connected in the Russian Primary Chronicle with the capture of the city of Kherson, located on the Crimean coast. Furthermore, according to that source, his subsequent demand for the hand of the sister of Basil and Constantine (Anna) precipitated the actual conversion.45 According to Ibn al-Athīr, Anna “refused to hand herself over to one whose faith differed from her own.”46 The Rūs “king” (Vladimir) then converted to Christianity, and Ibn al-Athīr states that “this was the beginning of Christianity among the Rūs.”47 Although the previous conversion of Vladimir’s grandmother Ol’ga (d. 962) was not known to Ibn al-Athīr, he was one of the few Muslim authors to recognize the significance of Vladimir’s conversion.48

An Egyptian Melkite Christian, Yahya Ibn Sa’īd (d. ca. 1066), also mentions the conversion of Vladimir (the malik ar-Rūs) in his Ta’rīkh.49 Having access to Greek and Syriac chronicles in Antioch, he is better informed than Ibn al-Athīr. He mentions the metropolitans (matārina) and bishops (asāqifa) sent to Russia by Basil to convert the Rūs, and the construction of a great number of churches in the land of the Rūs.50 Significantly, he describes the Rūs as enemies of the Byzantines before this sequence of events (wahum a’dā’ahu).51 The opposite seems true in Ibn al-Athīr’s account, in which the Rūs leader appears almost eager to become allied with the Byzantines (he was certainly eager enough to convert to the Byzantine faith in order to marry Anna).

The conversion of the Rūs is also mentioned by the Central Asian author al-Marwāzī in his Tabā’i’ al-Hayawān (The Nature of Animals), composed in Arabic ca. 1120.52 Although al-Marwāzī mentions Vladimir’s name (Wladmīr), he is much less informed than Yahya or Ibn al-Athīr, and he describes the subsequent conversion of the Rūs to Islam, because Christianity had “blunted their swords” and “closed the door to their livelihood” (i.e., warfare).53 Al Marwāzī adds that the Rūs could recover under Islam because, as Muslims, “it would be lawful for them to conduct raids and holy war.”54 The same account is related by the Persian author ‘Awfī in his Hikayāt (Anecdotes), composed in Farsi before 1236.55

The conversion did not prevent the Rūs from attacking Constantinople in 1043, and the Rūs nevertheless provided mercenaries to the Byzantine army after this date, some of whom served, for instance, at Manzikert. Ibn al-Athīr also mentions in passing that Emperor Michael V (Mīkhā’īl) called upon Rūs and Bulgar military units during the domestic troubles that plagued his brief reign (1041-42).56

It is the military prowess of the Rūs which seems to have impressed Ibn al-Athīr. His references to the Rūs deal exclusively with their military activities. For his own time, when the Rūs became less active militarily in the south, he mentions the land of the Rus only parenthetically. This came in an entry sub anno 602/1215 describing the siege of Trebizond (Tarābzūn) by the Seljukid Ghayāth al-Dīn Khusruw Shāh, which indicates that a commercial link existed between that city and Russia: “He therefore blocked the roads from the land of ar-Rūm, ar-Rūs, al-Qifjāq (Qipchaq), and other roads.”57

Ibn al-Athīr was fascinated by the Tatars and a detailed description of the Tatar destruction of Kievan Rus’ is included in al-Kāmil. The Rūs assembled upon hearing of the Tatar victory over the Qifjāq (Qipchaq), and readied themselves to meet the Tatar army. They were overconfident, however, and were caught off guard, resulting in their defeat in a great battle and in their massacre. Many of the important Rūs merchants and wealthy men then sailed away from Russia to the Islamic lands.58

Some scholars argue that the Muslim geographers used the term Rūs as an occupational term describing the multi-ethnic groups of merchants and mercenaries from northeastern Europe who traveled the Volga, Oka, and Dnepr rivers.59 It is clear that Ibn al-Athīr did not use the term in quite the same manner. He made no reference whatsoever of Rūs commerce in the tenth and eleventh centuries. This is surprising, considering that the trade routes and trade goods of theRūs had been the primary focus of attention for most of the earlier Muslim authors. For him, the Rūs were simply a warlike people of the dār al-Harb who attacked the Muslims of the Caspian region and were willing to serve in Byzantine military operations.

We can learn a great deal about the Rūs from Ibn al-Athīr. The geographical focus of his notices of Rūs military ventures is to the south of Rūs territory in Eastern Europe, those regions where Rūs activities became of immediate importance to the Arabs. Although some of Ibn al-Athīr’s material is available in other sources, he chronicles Rūs participation in a variety of campaigns which are collectively unavailable elsewhere. While we can discern the sources of some of his accounts of the Rūs (such as Ibn Miskawayh, Abū Firās, and al-Mutanabbī), we find that he adds material from non-extant sources, and this makes al-Kāmil an invaluable source, which is as worthy of examination as the earlier geographical literature. Recognition of al-Kāmil as an important source for the early history of the Rūs is long overdue.

Appendix: Ibn al-Athīr’s Accounts of the Rūs

1. al-Kāmil fi ‘t-Ta’rīkh, viii, 412-415

“The Rūs Seizure of the Town of Barda’a” (332 A.H./943-944 A.D.)

In this year (332) armed bands of Rūs went by sea (the Caspian) to the region of Adharbayjān, going from the sea up the Kūr River (the Kura), which is a large river. They eventually landed at Barda’a. The representative of al-Marzubān in Barda’a met them when he gathered a force from the Daylamis and [other Muslim] volunteers, which force numbered more than five thousand men. He engaged the Rūs, and it was only a short time until the Muslims were routed, and the Daylamis were killed to the last man. The Rus then entered the town and the representative of al-Marzubān fled on whatever riding animal he could find. The Rūs encamped in the area and policed it for security. They were good in their conduct. The Muslim warriors drew near to the Rūs from every direction, and the Rūs were quarreling with each other, but the Muslims (the Muslim warriors) did not attack them. The masses of people in the district then came out and attacked the Rūs with stones, and injured them.

The Rūs forbade this action, but the inhabitants did not refrain [from the assault], only the sensible ones who held back their inclinations, and it is known that neither the masses nor the mob can master their appetites. After this lasted for a long time, they ordered the people of the town to depart and [they said that] they would not attack the townsmen for an interval of three days, and an individual was free to leave with whatever possessions he could carry. Most of the townsmen remained [in Barda’a] after the appointed time, and the Rūs then killed many people, and they took some ten thousand souls captive. They gathered those who remained in the Friday Mosque, and they said to the remaining townsmen: “You can either ransom yourselves or we will kill you.” A Christian came forth and settled on twenty dirhams for each man. But the Rūs did not keep to their bargain, except for the sensible ones, after they realized that they would not receive anything for some townsmen. They massacred all of those [for whom they could receive no ransom], and only a few fled from the massacre. The Rūs then took the valuables of the people and enslaved the remaining prisoners, and took the women and enjoyed them.


“The March of al-Marzubān to the Rūs and His Victory Over Them” (332 A.H./943-944 A.D.)

The Muslims regarded the control of the people of Barda’a by the Rūs to be an important matter, and they assembled [another] army. Al-Marzubān Ibn Muhammad gathered the people and he led them to war. He commanded as many as thirty thousand men, but he did not attack the Rūs [directly]. He skirmished with them in the mornings and the evenings, but he returned defeated from the battles. This continued in the same manner for many days. The Rūs then advanced in the direction of Marāgha. They ate a great deal of fruit which made them ill, and the number of Rūs who became sick and died from the tainted fruit steadily grew.

When al-Marzubān saw that this situation continued, he devised a stratagem. He decided to conceal an ambush, march towards the Rūs with his army, and then recoil. The Rūs would engage in a pursuit, and his men who were concealed would fall upon the Rūs. He explained the plan to his followers and he set up the ambush. He then went out to engage the Rūs. He and his men attacked the Rūs and then recoiled. The Rūs pursued them until they arrived at the site of the ambush. They army of al-Marzubān maintained a unified front, and did not fight the Rūs one on one.

It is reported that al-Marzubān said: “I told my men to return to the charge, but they did not move forward because they feared the Rūs. I understood that if my troops continued in their retreat, the Rūs would kill most of them. Then the Rūs arrived at the site of the ambush. They uncovered the men who were waiting in ambush and they killed those who had left [their positions]. Then I personally returned to the charge, with my brother and my minister following me. I prepared myself mentally for martyrdom. Then most of the Daylamis returned to help us, feeling ashamed [of their cowardice]. They came and did battle with the Rūs, and we called the signal for our other men who were still hidden in the ambush to come out and assist us. They attacked the Rūs in the rear, and we took the initiative against them in battle. We killed many of the Rūs, including their prince. The rest of the Rūs retreated to the citadel of the town, which is called Shahristan. This is the location to which they moved their many possessions, and where they placed their prisoners and their booty.”

Al-Marzubān then surrounded them and strengthened his forces. He then received news that Abū ‘Abd Allah al-Husayn Ibn Sa’id Ibn Hamdāni had gone to Adharbayjān and proceeded to Salmās. Abū was the cousin of Nāsir ad-Dawla, and was sent by the latter to take possession of Adharbayjān. When news of this reached al-Marzubān, he left his men, who were maintaining a blockade of the town, and he marched to Abū Ibn Hamdāni. They fought a battle, but snow began to fall and Ibn Hamdāni’s troops disbanded because most of them were Bedouin. Then Abu Ibn Hamdāni received a letter from Nāsir ad-Dawla, informing him of the death of Tūzūn and of his intention to go to Baghdād. Nāsir ordered Abū Ibn Hamdāni to return to him and he did so.

As for the followers of al-Marzubān, they continued to give battle to the Rūs. When the Rūs buried one of their men, they buried his weapons with him. The Muslims thus found many things after the departure of the Rūs. The Rūs spent the night in the citadel, and then they took what [moveable items] they wished from their booty on their backs and went to the Kūr River (Kura), and sailed away in their ships. The followers of al-Marzubān were were too weary to pursue them, so they gathered their things and they left Barda’a. And so Allah cleansed the Rūs from the land.


2. al-Kāmil fī ‘t-Ta’rīkh, viii, 508

“The Battle of Hadath” (343 A.H./954-955 A.D.)

In this year, in the month of Rabī’a al-‘Awwal, Saif ad-Dawla Ibn Hamdān raided the country of ar-Rūm (Byzantium). He took male and female captives, and booty. Among those killed was Constantine, son of ad-Dumustaq (Bardas Phocas), which was distressing ar-Rūm and to ad-Dumustaq. Ad-Dumustaq then gathered his troops from among ar-Rūm, ar-Rūs, al-Bulghār, and others, and went towards the frontier. Saif ad-Dawla marched towards him and they met at Hadath, in the month of Sha’bān. The battle between ad-Dumustaq and Saif ad-Dawla became intense, and the troops stoutly endured [the conflict]. Then, Allah, the Exalted One, granted the victory to the Muslims. Ar-Rūm was defeated and a great number of men were killed. Relatives of ad-Dumustaq were captured, namely, his daughter’s sons, as well as many of his patricians. Ad-Dumustaq returned [to ar-Rūm] utterly defeated.


3. al-Kāmil fī ‘t-Ta’rīkh, ix, 43-44

“The Conversion of the Rūs” (375 A.H./985-986 A.D.)

Waradīs Ibn Lawn went to Constantinople and in it were the two kings who were the sons of Armanus (Romanos), Basil and Constantine. Waradīs harassed them and they called upon the Rūs king, asking for his help and offering their sister to him in marriage. She refused, however, to hand herself over to one whose religion differed from her own. The Rūs king then converted to Christianity and this was the beginning of Christianity among the Rūs. He married her. Then he went to Waradīs, and they engaged in battle. Waradīs was killed and the two kings were established in their dominion.


4. al-Kāmil fī ‘t-Ta’rīkh, ix, 521

“The Rūs Attack on Constantinople” (435 A.H./1043-1044 A.D.)

In this year, also in [the month of] Safar, a great multitude of Rūs arrived at Constantinople by sea. They communicated with Constantine, the king of ar-Rūm, whereupon they did not conduct business with him and they returned [to their ships]. And ar–Rūm gathered together against their enemies. Some of the Rūs had departed their ships to the mainland, and some of them remained on [board] the ships. Ar-Rūm shot fire at the Rūs ships. The Rūs did not know how to extinguish the flames, and many of them were burned to death or drowned.

Those Rūs who were on the mainland fought and were hard-pressed [by ar-Rūm]. They bore [their predicament] stoutly, but then were put to flight and did not have any place to which they could flee. Those who submitted at once were enslaved, and were thus safe [from death], but those who refused to surrender were taken by force and ar-Rūm cut off their right hands. And the Rūs appeared as apparitions in the countryside. Only a few Rūs warriors who were [held as] captives with the son of the Rūs king were allowed to leave [unharmed]. And this is enough of the evils of ar-Rūm.


5. al-Kāmil fī ‘t-Ta’rīkh, x, 65

“The Battle of Manzikert” (463 A. H./1070-71 A.D.)

In this year, Armanus, the king of ar-Rūm, left with 100,000 warriors from ar-Rūm, al-FranJ, al-Gharb, ar-Rūs, al-Bajanak, al-Kurj, and other military units from that country. They came in a great array, and [wearing] magnificent costume, heading towards the lands of Islām. Part of the confused military operation arrived at Malāzkird. News of this reached Sultān Alp Arslan when he was in the city of Khuwayya in Adharbayjān…

When Alp Arslan approached the enemy, he came upon their advance guard. The mass of men swerved, and in the front of the enemy’s advance guard were approximately 20,000 Rūs warriors. They engaged in battle and the Rūs were defeated. The Rūs leader was taken captive. He was taken before the sultān and his nose was cut off. The booty of the king’s retinue was taken and Alp Arslan ordered that it be sent to Baghdād.


6. al-Kāmil fī ‘t-Ta’rīkh, xii, 387

“The Tatar Invasion of Rūs Territory” (620 A. H./1223-1224 A. D.)

The Tatars took possession of the land of the Qifjāq (Qipchaq), and the Qifjāq became dispersed. Many Tatar military units went into the land of the Rūs, which is a large country, elongated and broad, and which shares a common border [with the Qifjāq]. The religion of the Rūs is Christianity. When [news of the Tatar advance] reached the Rūs they all assembled and agreed to do battle with the Tatars when the latter marched towards them. After the Tatars [had] remained in the land of the Qifjāq for some time, they went to the land of the Rūs in the year 620. When the Rus and the Qifjāq [who had fled their land] learned of the news, they readied [themselves] for the battle.

The Rūs went onto the road to confront the Tatars before the Tatars reached their country. They reached the Tatars on the march, and the Tatars pulled back. The Rūs and the Qifjāq were overconfident; they thought that the Tatars had withdrawn out of fear of them, and because the Tatars lacked adequate strength for the battle. But the Tatars now began to pursue the Rūs earnestly, and [it was they who] were now withdrawing. And those Tatars followed right after the Rūs for twelve days. Then the Tatars suddenly fell upon the Rūs and Qifjāq. The Rūs and Qifjāq previously had felt safe from the Tatar warriors, and they suddenly realized the strength of the Tatars. Many of the Rūs were not prepared for the battle, but a great number of Tatars had come upon them. The two armies vigorously persisted [in the battle, the like of which struggle has not been heard of before.

The battle continued for many days. Then, however, the Tatars were victorious and vanquished the Rūs and Qifjāq, putting them to flight in a great rout which was followed by a massacre. The slaughter was great in this defeat of the Rūs, and only a few Rūs warriors escaped death. All [the baggage] that the Rūs had brought with them was taken by the Tatars as plunder. Those who escaped the battle fled to the lands of Islām, travelling along the roads in a desperate manner. The Tatars followed them, killing and plundering, and laying waste to the land until most of it was devastated.

Then, most of the important Rūs merchants and wealthy men gathered together, carrying their precious possessions with them. They traversed the sea to the lands of Islām in a number of ships. When they approached the port in which they wished to stop, one of their ships crashed [and sank]; the Rūs on that ship drowned except for some whom they could rescue. It is the habit of the sultān to take a slave girl from every ship which crashes in the port. He took many things from that one. The remaining ships were safe. The survivors notified him of the Tatar invasion.

End Notes

1 A brief summary of the Normanist and anti-Normanist arguments is included in O. Pritsak,”The Origins of Rus’,” The Russian Review (July 1977), 249-273; for a good summary of the Normanist question with particular regard to the Varangians, see A. V. Riasanovsky, “The Varangian Question,” I Normanni e la loro espansione in Europa nell’alto medioevo. Settimane di studio del centro Italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo 16 (Spoleto: Centro Italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo, 1969), 174-204. See also G. Vernadsky, Ancient Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), v. 1. A number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century East European and expatriate Arabists and Turkologists have closely examined the Islamic geographical sources on the Rus’, and a vast literature concerning this evidence has been produced. From the many works, see in particular V. V. Bartol’d, “Novoe musul’manskoe istvestie o russakh,” in his Sochineniia ii, 1 (Moscow: Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1963); A. E. Harkavy, Skanzaniia Musul’manskikh Pisatelei o Slavanakh i russkikh (The Hague: Mouton, 1969); B. N. Zakhoder, Kaspiiskii svod svedenii o vostochnoi Europe (Moscow: Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1962-1967).

2 Ibn Rustah, Kitāb al-A’lāk an-Nafīsa, ed. by M. J. De Goeje, Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum [BGA] (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1892) vii, 145-47; James E. McKeithen, The Risalah of Ibn Fadlān: An Annotated Translation with Introduction (Ph. D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 1979); Z. V. Togan, “Ibn Fadlan’s Reisebericht,” in Abhandlunzen fur die Kunde des Morzenlands xxiv/3 (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1939). For the typical treatment of these texts with regard to Rus’ funerary customs, see J. Brondsted, The Vikings (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1980), 293-305; P. H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings (New York: Methuen, 1982), 40. For an alternative interpretation of these customs by a Viking specialist, see G. Jones, A History of the Vikings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 256.

3 Ibn Khurdadhbih, Kitāb al-Masālik wa ‘l-Mamālik, ed. by M. J. De Goeje, BGA (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1889), 154. For the meaning of jins, see H. Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic ed. by J. M. Cowan (Beirut: Librarie du Liban, 1980), 141; E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (Beirut: Librarie du Liban, 1980), book 1, part 2, 470-471; R. P.-A. Dozy, Supplement aux Dictionnaires arabes, third edition (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), v. 1, 224-225.

4 D. M. Dunlop, The History of the Jewish Khazars (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 99 n. 44; I. Boba, Nomads, Northmen and Slavs (The Hague: Mouton, 1967), 61; O. Pritsak, “An Arabic Text on the Trade Route of the Corporation of ar-Rus in the Second Half of the Ninth Century,” Folia Orientalia 12 (1970), 248-250; P. B. Golden, “The Question of the Rus’ Qağanate,” Archivum Eurasiae Media Aevi 2 (1982), 90.

5 I. I. Krachkovskii, Istoria Arabskoi Geografichevskoi Literatury (Moscow: Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1957-60), v, 127, 182; V. Minorsky, “Rus, ” Encyclopaedia of Islam, (Leiden and London: E. J. Brill, 1932), 1st ed., vi, 1182; idem, A History of Sharvan and Darband (Cambridge,U.K.: W. Heffer, 1958), passim; D. M. Dunlop, History of the Jewish Khazars, 239-240; C. Huart, “Les Mosâfirides de l’Adherbaidjan,” in T. W. Arnold and R. A. Nicholson, eds., A Volume of Oriental Studies Presented to Edward G. Browne (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 228-256.

6 For some of the early historians, see A. A. Duri, The Rise of Historical Writing Among the Arabs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983); B. Lewis and P. M. Holt, eds., Historians of the Middle East (London: Oxford University Press, 1962); H. A. R. Gibb, “Tarikh,” in his Studies on the Civilization of Islam (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1962), 108-137; D.S. Margoliouth, Lectures on Arabic Historians (Delhi: Adarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1977); N. Faruqi, Early Muslim Historiography (Delhi: Adarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1979).

7 A. A. Duri, The Rise of Historical Writing, 60-71.

8 According to F. Rosenthal, al-Kamil “represents the high point of Muslim annalistic historiography.” See F. Rosenthal, “Ibn al-Athir,” Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden and London: E. J, Brill, 1971), 2nd ed., iii, 723-725; B. Lewis and P. M. Holt, Historians of the Middle East, 88-90.

9 For the use of isnād, see N. Faruqi, Early Muslim Historiography, 196; A. A. Duri, The Rise of Historical Writing, 69-71.

10 For the geographers, see A. Miquel, La geographie humaine du monde musulman jusqu’au milieu du 11e siecle (Paris: La Haye, Mouton, and Company, 1967), 2 vols.; S. M. Ahmad, “Djughrafiya,” Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden and London: E. J. Brill, 1965), 2nd ed., il, 579-582.

11 A1-Muqaddasi, Ahsan at-Taqāsīm fī Ma’rifat al-Āqālīm, in A. Seippel, ed.,Rerum Normannicarum Fontes Arabici (Oslo: A. W. Brogger, 1876-1928), 76.

12 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil fī at-Ta’rīkh, ed. by Dar Sader and Dar Beyrouth, after the edition of C. J. Tornberg (Beirut: Dar Sader and Dar Beyrouth, 1965), viii, 414. Among the translations into European languages of the parts of al-Kāmil dealing with the Rus’ are P. K. Zhuze, Materialy po istorie Azerbaidzhanie iz Tarikh-al-Kamil’ (polnogo svoda istorie) Ibn-al-Asira (Baku: Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1940); A. A. Vasilev, Byzance et les Arabes (Brussels: Instsitut de philologie et d’histoire orientales, 1950), ii, passim.

13 A1-Mas’ūdī, Murūj adh-Dhahab wa Ma’ādin al-Jawāhir, C. Barbier de Meynard and P. de Courteille, eds. and trans. (Paris: Société asiatique, 1863), 11, 18-25.

14 A number of points of convergence and divergence between Ibn al-Athīr and Ibn Miskawayh are discussed by C. Huart, “Les Mosafirides,” passim.

15 For a discussion of Ibn Miskawayh’s sources for the period 340-369 A. H., some of which are no longer extant, see M. S. Khan, Studies in Miskawayh’s Contemporary History (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1980).

16 Ibn Khurdadhbih, Kitāb, 154-155. “Sometimes ar-Rūs go in behind of ar-Rūm into the land of as-Saqāliba, then they go to Khamlīj, the city of the Khazars, then to the Jurjān Sea, then to Balkh and Transoxiana, then to Wurut Tughuzghur (Oghuz Turks), and then to China.” See O. Pritsak, “An Arabic Text on the Trade Route of the Corporation of ar-Rus in the Second Half of the Ninth Century,” 241-259.

17 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, viii, 412; Ibn Miskawayh, Tajārub al-Umam, H. F. Amedroz, ed. (Baghdad: n.d.), ti, 62.

18 Ibn Miskawayh, Tajārub, 11, 63.

19 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, viii, 414.

20 Ibn Rustah, Kitāb, vii, 145-147. For a discussion of the location of this polity, see P. B. Golden, “The Question of the Rus’ Qağanate,” 77-97.

21 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, viii, 414; Ibn Miskawayh, Tajārub, 11, 65-67.

22 C. Huart, “Les Mosafirides,” 239, n. 1.

23 Ibn Rustah, Kitāb, 146-147. The source of Ibn Rustah’s account is unknown, but some of his material was later repeated in the anonymous Hudūd al-‘Ālam, written in Farsi ca. 982, as well as by the Persian author Gardīzī (fl. ca. 1050). See V. Minorsky, Hudūd al-‘Ālam; The Regions of the World. A Persian Geography (Karachi: Indus Publications, 1980), 159; Gardīzī, in V. V. Bartol’d, “Otčët o poezdke v sredniuiu aziiu s naučnoi tsel’iu 1893-1894 gg,” Zapiski Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, ser. viii, t. 1, n. 4 (St. Petersburg: Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, 1897), 100-101. A number of the similarities between these sources are discussed by P. B. Golden, “The Question of the Rus’ Qağanate,” 89-93. Ibn Fadlān witnessed a ship burial involving cremation. See James E. McKeithen, The Risalah of Ibn Fadlān.

24 Ibn Miskawayh, Tajārub al-Umam, ii, 62.

25 For some of the Muslim authors who mentioned later Rus’ military ventures in the Caspian region, see Minorsky, Sharvan and Darband, 112-116.

26 The Arab and Persian geographers paid particular regard to the commercial activities of the Rūs, and provided abundant information on trade routes and trade goods. The ample documentation in Muslim sources on the Rūs fur trade perhaps reflects a particular interest in furs on the part of the inhabitants of the Near East. Among the many Muslim authors who mention the fur trade conducted by Rūs merchants are al-Istakhrī, Kitāb al-Masālik wa ‘l-Mamālik, Muhammad al-Hini, ed. (Cairo: Turathuna, 1961), 132; al-Idrīsī, Kitāb Nazha al-Mashtāq fī Akhtirāk al-Āfāq, A. Seippel, ed., Rerum Normannicarum Fontes Arabici , 86. See Elizabeth Bennigsen, “Contribution à 1’étude du commerce des fourrures russes,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 19 (1978), 385-399; Janet L. B. Martin, Treasure of the Land of Darkness: The Fur Trade and Its Significance for Medieval Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

27 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, viii, 508.

28 Ibn Zāfir, Kitāb ad-Duwul al-Munqatī’a, M. Canard, trans., in A. A. Vasiliev, Byzance et les Arabes, ii, 125.

29 Abū Firās, Diwān in Ibid, ii, 364.

30 Al-Mutanabbī, Diwān in Ibid, ii, 331. See also M. Canard, “Mutanabbi et la guerre byzantino-arabe: Interet historique de ses poesies,” in Byzance et les musulmanes du proche orient (London: Variorum, 1973), vi, 105.

31 For standard assessments of the battle, see S. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey (Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978), i, 6-7; A. A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952), 356-357. The significance of the battle in the larger Transcaucasian context is discussed by P. B. Golden in “Cumanica I: The Qipčaqs in Georgia,” Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi IV (1984), 55-57. The impact of the battle on the Varangian guard is discussed in S. Blondal, The Varangians of Byzantium (Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 113-114.

32 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, x, 65.

33 Minorsky, Hudūd al-‘Ālam, 158. See A. A. Vasiliev, “The Opening Stages of the Anglo-Saxon Immigration to Byzantium in the Eleventh Century,” Annales de 1’Institut Kondakov 9 (1937 ), 39f f .

34 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, x, 65.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibn al-Qalānisī, Ta’rīkh Dimashq, H. F. Amedroz, ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1908), 43.

37 C. Cahen, “La campagne de Mantzikert d’apres les sources musulmanes,” Byzantion 9 (1934), 629.

38 Ibid, 629-630

39 Ibid.

40 For the Rus’ attack on Constantinople in 860, see A. A. Vasiliev, The Russian Attack on Constantinople in 860 (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1946).

41 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, ix, 521.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid, ix, 43.

45 The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, S. H. Cross and O. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, eds. and trans. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1953), 112-113.

46 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kamil, ix, 43-44.

47 Ibid, ix, 44.

48 V. Minorsky, “Rus” in Encyclopaedia of Islam (London and Leiden: E. J. Brill,1932), 1st ed., vi, 1182.

49 For the text, see I. I. Krachkovskii and A. A. Vasiliev, eds. Patrologia Orientalis (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1932), t. xxiii, fasc. II, 423. Yahya’s account of the Rus’ conversion is placed between a discussion of Bardas Phocas’s revolt during the reign of Emperor Basil II Bulgaroctonos. The sources of his account are Greek and Syriac chronicles which he found in Antioch, the Byzantine-held city to which he and a number of Egyptian Christians and Jews fled during the persecutions of the eccentric Fatimid Caliph al-Hākim (ruled 996-1021). For commentary on Yahya and his career, see H. Gregoire and M. Canard in Vasiliev, Byzance et les Arabes, 11, 80-86.

50 Yahya Ibn Sa’īd, Ta’rīkh in Patrologia Orientalis, t. xxiii, fasc. II, 423.

51 Ibid

52 For the Arabic text and English translation, see V. Minorsky, Sharaf al-Zamān Tāhir Marvazī on China, the Turks, and India (London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1942), *23 (Arabic) and 36 (English). Other material in his account of the Rus’ comes from the common source(s) of Ibn Rustah, the Hudūd al-‘Ālam, al-Muqaddasī, Gardīzī, and al-Bakrī. See Minorsky’s comments, p. 118.

53 Ibid, *23 and 36.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid, 118, n. 3.

56 Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, ix, 499. This material is entered sub anno 433, but his chronology is incorrect here.

57 Ibid, xii, 242.

58 Ibid, xii, 387-388

59 See the works of Boba and Golden already cited (above, note 4), as well as O. Pritsak, “The Name of the Third Kind of Rus and of Their City,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1 (1967), 2-9.


This article was originally published in Canadian/American Slavic Studies v.35 n.4 (2001). We thank Canadian/American Slavic Studies and William Watson for their permission to republish this article.

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