Islam spread quickly across the southern Mediterranean Basin during the life of its prophet Muhammad, and even faster after his death. Under the Umayyad Caliphs, their territorial expansion eventually created an empire that bordered China in the east and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. The Abbasid Caliphs, who rose to power to replace the Umayyads, took a particular interest in the arts and sciences, with an intense fascination for Hellenistic (i.e., Ancient Greek) and Persian history and culture. Their infatuation led to a sort of cultural revolution, which profoundly influenced the writings of the leading Islamic scholars of the day. The rapid expansion of Islam also led to a keen curiosity about all the peoples who were either conquered or encountered in this new global empire. Significant advancements in the sciences, particularly in cosmology and mathematics, occurred throughout the 7th and 8th Centuries.
A key feature of this new empire was their advanced postal system, used to relay information across the vast expanses of their territory. It connected the furthest reaches of the empire with its administrative center, Baghdad. Through this postal system, the Islamic world was able to keep track of one particular people they encountered on the fringes of their lands. These were the Vikings, although the Muslims did not refer to them as such. In Arabic writings of the time, the Vikings were referred to by two names: ar-Rus and al-Madjus.
The name ar-Rus was used to describe the Swedish Vikings who sailed the Dnieper and Volga rivers, and who the Islamic world encountered on the shores of the Black Sea. The name al-Madjus described the Vikings in the West, those who terrorized the coasts of Ireland and France. It was not the Vikings who gave them this name. Arab scholars used the name al-Madjus as a means to describe the culture of the Vikings as they perceived it; a culture of fire-worshipers. They likened the al-Madjus to the Persian Zoroastrians, who they believed cremated their dead. The thirteenth-century chronicler Ibn Said explained, “nothing seems more important to them than fire, for the cold in their lands is severe.” Ibn Said’s logic is a testament to the general ignorance of the Vikings’ culture in the Islamic world, but it does help to give us a glimpse into how this foreign culture was perceived.
From the earliest sources, we know that the Muslims of the 9th and 10th Centuries understood that they were dealing with a single people, whether they encountered them on the shores of Spain, in the Mediterranean, or in the Eastern Steppes. The historian al-Yaqubi wrote in his geographical study of the Mediterranean that the attack on Seville, in 844 A.D., was carried out by, “the Magus, who are called the Rus.”
Although there is evidence to suggest earlier incursions into Iberia by the al-Madjus, the currently accepted historical start of Viking raids in Spain date to the attack on Seville in 844 A.D. Using a mixture of Christian and Muslim Chronicles to track the Vikings’ movements, historians have over the years pieced together a fairly coherent narrative of the events that marked the opening of raids in Moorish lands. It must be noted that the Muslim Chronicles, while interesting and helpful, are a mosaic of reconstructed works that had been previously lost to history. The first chroniclers, such as the historian Ahmad al-Razi, his son Isa-ibn-Ahmad, and the scholar Ibn al-Qutyyia, have no surviving works to draw upon for study. We know their names only because later historians reference their works in their own reconstructions of the events of 844. The two most authoritative works about the attack on Seville that have survived to today are the anonymous meeting about the doctrines of the 10th-century scholar, Ibn Al Qutiyya, and Ibn Hayyan’s Al Muqtabis II-I, and II-II. To complement the Arabic sources, historians also have Christians sources, chiefly the Annales Bertinian from the Carolingian Empire and the Asturian Chronicles from Galicia. Additional references from Christians include Dudo of Saint Quentin, William of Jumièges, the Annals of St-Bertin, the Chronicle of Regino de Prüm, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The First Wave of Vikings in Spain
From what the sources tell us, a fleet of ships which had raided in the Carolingian Empire sailed along the coasts of the Bay of Biscay into Northern Spain. There they attacked a few settlements before encountering a large force of Asturians under the command of King Ramiro I. The Vikings suffered a crushing defeat and retreated back to the Bay of Biscay where it is surmised they had a base. There is much debate over the location of the base, but it may have been as close as Bayonne.
It did not take long for them to gather their forces. A few short months after the first excursion, a more massive fleet of eighty ships appeared off the coast of Lisbon where they fought three sea battles with Muslim vessels over the course of nearly two weeks. They then headed south to the mouth of the Guadalquivir. From there, they made their way inland via the river and sacked the city of Seville, which they also occupied. The attack was so unexpected that Cordova, the administrative center of Islamic Spain, known as al-Andalus, responded slowly to the news. It took them quite some time to muster forces and equipment to drive out the Vikings from the city. On the heels of their victory, Muslim troops pursued and engaged their enemy, resulting in a decisive victory for the Emir Abd al-Rhaman II. Following the Vikings’ bold incursion into his lands, al-Rhaman ordered the construction of a new fleet of ships specifically to counter al-Madjus raids.
In response to this first raid, the Emir sent a Moorish ambassador named al-Ghazal to find and study the al-Madjus. His account tells of his voyage across the ocean to a beautiful island described as having lush, flowering plants and abundant streams leading to the sea. For years historians struggled to gather consensus on where he had actually traveled. Some believe he visited Ireland, while others think he visited Denmark. 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 Andalucia, about 1159 A.D. The facts and anecdotes in the story were derived from Tammam-ibn-Alqama, vizier under three consecutive amirs in Andalucia during the ninth century who died in 896. Tammam-ibn-Alqama had allegedly learned the details directly from al-Ghazal and his companions. The only 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.
al-Ghazal was not the only ambassador to travel north to meet the Vikings, although he is thought to have been the only Muslim ambassador to have launched from Spain. Others, such as Ibn-Fadlan, visited the Rus in the East and studied them in detail. Ibn-Fadlan’s account is one of the most universally known and well-studied documents about the Vikings produced by a Muslim.
The Second Wave
There is no record of any other attacks by the al-Madjus from 844 until 859 when an ambitious man by the name of Hastein made one of the most infamous Viking incursions into the Mediterranean. In 859 with the help of a man named Bjorn Ironside, a supposed son of Ragnar Lothbrok, Hastein sailed to Iberia where he hoped to gain fame and fortune by pillaging al-Andalus. At first, the expedition did not fare well. The Asturians of Northern Spain successfully fought them off, forcing the journey to continue southward without any loot. They successfully pillaged coastal settlements until they arrived at the straight of Gibraltar where they encountered a sudden storm, which blew them off course. They landed in North Africa where they raided for slaves before resuming their original intended route into the Mediterranean. From there, they continued on toward Italy.
According to the chronicler Dudo of St. Quentin, Hastein was ambitious and sought to sack Rome itself. Unfortunately, the walls of the city were too tall and too well fortified. Thus he hatched one of the more notorious plans to take the city by creating a ruse to trick the “naïve” Christians. They arrived at the city and sent a messenger to inform the bishop that their leader had been mortally wounded and, in his dying moments, wished to be baptized so that he may reach salvation. The bishop took pity on him and organized the ceremony. A day later, the Norsemen returned to the city to inform the bishop that their chieftain had died and that he had requested to be buried in the city. Again, the bishop took pity on them and organized the funeral. Hastein’s body was placed on a bier and carried by his men into the city. A gathering of noblemen and clergymen joined them to begin the ceremony when Hastein rose from the dead, snatched the sword beside him, and cut down the bishop. His men, of course, followed suit and slaughtered the rest of Christians present.
The ruse had proved successful, and the Vikings under Hastein loaded their ships with loot, proud that they had sacked the famed city of Rome. Yet as they sailed from the city, they realized they had made a navigational error. The city they had sacked was not Rome, but rather the smaller city of Luna some two hundred miles north of their intended target. Nevertheless, their ships were filled to the brim with plunder, so Hastein ordered a return to his base on the Loire. As they attempted to sail past Gibraltar, however, the Muslim fleet intercepted them, destroying a significant portion of the Viking fleet. Their chieftain survived and returned to his base on the island of Herius (today called Noirmoutier) with twenty ships, a mere third of the ships he had departed with three years earlier.
The Third Wave
Arabic sources tell of a third wave of attacks beginning in 966 A.D., over 100 years after the end of Hastein’s expedition. Where this fleet came from is not entirely clear, but there is substantial evidence to suggest they launched from Normandy after having helped Duke Richard I suppress a rebellion in his duchy. They arrived in Galicia and did what they are known best for: they pillaged. In response to their attack, the bishop of Santiago de Compostela, already a significant pilgrimage site, gathered an army to fend off the attackers. They experienced an initial success against the Vikings, but by sheer bad luck, the bishop took an arrow to the neck and died during their second battle. Devastated, his troops retreated, and the Vikings continued their terrorizing of the surrounding countryside. For three years they attacked and plundered Galicia. Historians disagree over why their long-term presence did not turn into a settlement, as it had in Ireland, Britain, and Normandy. But in 972 they appear to have made one last major push for plunder, then returned home.
The Fourth Wave
Beginning in the year 1008, a new threat emerged from the north with its sights on Galicia. Again, regular seasonal raids struck terror in the hearts of the Spaniards. In 1038, a renewed assault hit the town of Tui, led this time by Olav Haraldsson, heir to the throne of Norway. They captured at the bishop and held him for ransom, though the sources do not give us much detail on this interaction. Olav’s chroniclers, Sigvat and Ottar, heavily reference their patron’s successes in Galicia, earning him the name “the Galician Wolf.”
Ultimately, Spain experienced less of the brunt of the Viking Age than other areas such as Ireland, Britain, and France. But they did experience a fair share, and both the Christian kingdoms and Muslim territories in Iberia suffered terrible wounds from the raids. Arguably, it was the Viking attacks on al-Andalus that encouraged the Muslims of Spain and North Africa to fortify their seaborne fleets, which helped the Islamic world maintain naval supremacy in the Mediterranean over Christendom until the high middle ages. This may have directly affected the course of the crusades, and indeed the course of history in Europe. Spain is not often the focus of Viking Age events, but their experience is crucial to our understanding of the Viking Age as a whole.