In the 9th Century a Moorish ambassador named al-Ghazal set sail for foreign lands to study a people called the Majus. His account tells of his voyage across the ocean to a splendid island described as having lush, flowering plants and abundant streams leading to the ocean. For years historians struggled to gather consensus on who these Majus may have been, but more recently it has become accepted that they were indeed the Vikings. Unfortunately, the consensus ends there. Some scholars believe the embassy of al-Ghazal to have taken place in Denmark, specifically in Zealand, whereas others propose he had visited Ireland. His account is compelling and offers a tremendous volume of information about the Majus many scholars believe no chronicler of the time could have fabricated.
The source for al-Ghazal’s embassy to Ireland is a document produced by Abu-l-Kattab-Umar-ibn-al-Hasan-ibn-Dihya, who was born in Valencia in Andalusia around 1159 A.D. The source for the story of al-Ghazal’s embassy is cited by Abu-l-Kattab-Umar as a text by Tammam-ibn-Alqama, vizier under three consecutive amirs in Andalucia during the ninth century who died in 896. The original work is lost to history, and so we must trust Abu-l-Kattab-Umar when he says that it existed. Tammam-ibn-Alqama allegedly learned the details of the embassy to the Viking world directly from al-Ghazal and his companions. The only surviving manuscript of ibn-Dihya’s work was acquired by the British Museum in 1866. It is titled Al-mutrib min ashar ahli’l Maghrib, which translates to An amusing book from poetical works of the Maghreb.
Since the 1960’s, the general academic consensus is that the account of al-Ghazal’s embassy is, in fact, valid, and has been given support by Scandinavian and English scholars on the Viking Age. However, the location of the embassy remains somewhat of a mystery. A lack of consistency among chroniclers of the day, particularly among the Scandinavians, but also the Irish, has made the task of discovering where al-Ghazal had traveled quite problematic. In his account, he visited a powerful king named Turgeis, but there is no mention of such a figure either in Ireland or in Denmark at the time. Therefore, candidates for who this Turgeis may have actually been were chosen, but a lack of evidence means there is no certainty for one over the other.
Allen, W.E.D. The Poet and the Spae-Wife. Titus Wilson and Son, Ltd. London, 1960.