Were Some Vikings Muslim? A New Discovery Raises Questions

A controversial discovery shows how Islam could have influenced the Vikings. 

Viking re-enactors
Locals dressed as Vikings march through the streets of Lerwick on January 31, 2006, in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

A Swedish researcher discovered Arabic characters that spell out the word “Allah” on Viking burial clothes. Annika Larsson, an expert in textile archaeology from Uppsala University, who made the finding, called it a “staggering thought” that these designs appeared in Viking territory.

Larsson saw geometric Kufic characters in typical Viking Age patterns woven with silver threads onto silk. Kufic is an ancient calligraphic script, used in copying the Quran. Some of the patterns may be invoking the word “Ali” - the name of the revered  fourth caliph of Islam, and the word “Allah” when looked at in a mirror image. Larsson thinks the characters may be an attempt to write prayers in such a way that they’d be readable from left to right but using the correct Arabic characters. 

“That we so often maintain that Eastern objects in Viking Age graves could only be the result of plundering and eastward trade doesn’t hold up as an explanatory model because the inscriptions appear in typical Viking Age clothing that have their counterparts in preserved images of Valkyries,” said Larrson. 

Narrow bands of silk and silver with geometric Kufi script. Credit: Annika Larsson

The patterns appear woven on at least 10 silk bands in burial costumes located in boat graves in an area near Gamla Uppsala. Similar designs appear in clothing in other central Viking era chamber grave sites like Birka in Mälardalen. Patterns that look like this have also been found in mosaic grave monuments in Central Asia.

The presence of the characters may indicate an influence Islam on Viking burials, proposes Larsson. 

“Presumably, Viking Age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in Paradise after death,” said the researcher. “Grave goods such as beautiful clothing, finely sewn in exotic fabrics, hardly reflect the deceased’s everyday life, just as little as the formal attire of our era reflects our own daily lives. The rich material of grave goods should rather be seen as tangible expressions of underlying values.”

She also thinks that the widespread appearance of silk in Viking graves may be due to the passages in the Quran that say the inhabitants of Paradise will wear silk garments. Larsson theorizes that the Viking settlements in Sweden’s Malar Valley could have been a Western outpost of the Slik Road, an ancient trading route that connected East and West. 

Analysis of the Kufic characters on bands found in Sweden. CreditAnnika Larsson

As archaeologists found many Arabic coins in Viking settlements, it is actually known that Vikings traded with the Arab world. This went on for at least 150 years, starting in the early ninth century. But the silk and the woven patterns suggest a deeper connection.

“My opinion is that those who wore the fabrics must have understood the symbolism,” said Larsson to the New York Times. “But certainly, the person who wove the fabrics could read and write and knew what the characters meant… I’m not saying that these are Muslims. But they are partaking in a worldview shared by people living in Central Asia.”

Larsson’s discovery was made as part of trying to recreate burial garment patterns for a Viking Couture Exhibit at Enköping Museum in Sweden. But the researcher’s study is still ongoing and is yet to be peer-reviewed and published. This and the sensational implications of her findings have prompted some criticism from other experts in the field.

The Guizer Jarl or Chief of the Jarl viking squad is silhoutted by a burning viking longship during the annual Up Helly Aa Festival, Lerwick, Shetland Islands, January 26, 2010. (Photo credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

The seeming possibilities that the Vikings were in contact with Islamic culture, could have been influenced by it and could have even had Muslims among them did not sit well with many in the conservative media either. The myth of the Nordic warrior is important to white supremacists but that doesn’t mean we need to try to fit history into convenient narratives just to disprove them, says Stephennie Mulder, an associate professor of Islamic art and architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. 

She tweeted that, according to existing knowledge on the topic, the style of the Kufic script identified by Larsson was not used in the 10th century. She also thinks the word “Allah” looks more like “Illah” - a nonsensical word. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be surprising if Vikings did have Arabic inscriptions on their clothing, said Mulder to the Atlantic. 

“It would be like, for us, buying a perfume that says ‘Paris’ on it,” she explained. “Baghdad was the Paris of the 10th century. It was glamorous and exciting. For a Viking, this is what Arabic must have signaled: cosmopolitanism.”

Larsson, however, is not willing to back down from her claim and thinks more research will reveal supporting details, saying “this discovery opens new questions.” 

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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