On Presence of Scandinavians in Caspian Sea
during Middle Ages (9th-11th Centuries)

PhD, Professor of History

International Medieval Congress: IMC 2004 (12-15 July 2004)
Special Thematic Strand: Clash of Cultures.

Leeds, UK - Paper 1123-c.

Institute of Manuscripts, Baku


Until recently the question about presence of Northmen in the Caspian region during the 9th-11th centuries was not sufficiently investigated. To study this problem, a number of medieval chronicles in Persian, Arabic and Russian have been analyzed by the author of the present paper. According to the medieval historian Al-Tabari, Vikings appeared in Caspian in the 7th century. Other medieval authors don't confirm it and show other dates: between the 9th and 10th centuries. Al-Masudi describes a Northmen invasion in Azerbaijan and Shirvan in 912-913. A poem by Khagani Shirvani (1121-1199) about the battle between the Northmen and the Shirvan fleet has been analyzed for the first time.


Vikings, which were known also as 'Norsemen' or 'Northmen', were members of the Scandinavian seafaring warriors who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the 9th to the 11th century and whose disruptive influence profoundly affected European history.

These pagan Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish warriors were probably prompted to undertake their raids by a combination of factors, ranging from overpopulation at home to the relative helplessness of victims abroad.

The greatest eastern movement of the Scandinavians was that which carried them to the lands of ancient Ukraine, called at that time Rus (which mistakenly has been transcribed as the modern word "Russia"). The “conquering" of Ukraine-Rus was much less violent. Later, the Rus attacked the western shores of the Caspian Sea, including the territory of the Shirvan state.

Medieval Arabic and Persian sources kept in the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku provide rich information about these voyages of the Rus. This information is analyzed in the present paper.


Despite all these evidences, the debates around ethnic origin of the Rus still continue. According to books published in the former USSR during the Soviet period, the Rus who came in Caspian in the 9th-12th centuries AD were the pure Slavs and had no any relations with Scandinavia (Huseynov, 1958; Ribakov, 1966; Prokopov, 1975; Mirzoyev, 1988, etc.). This explanation was the result of nationalism typical of the Communist leaders of USSR who dictated how the history of the country should be written [5, 12].

As to the Rus attacking Azerbaijan, there are various theories about their origin in modern historiography. Some Azeri scholars still believe that they were a Slavic people living in the territory of the Kiev Russia. It is supposed that they came to Azerbaijan by a marsh route “the Dnepr River, Black sea, Don River and carrying their vessels overland to the Volga River and then the Caspian” [4].

Some researchers believe that the Rus who invaded Azerbaijan were a people of mixed ethnic origin (Turks, Slavs and Scandinavians). Alekperov A. referring to the Arabian historian Ibn Miskaveih writes that the Rus (“the Urus”) first adopted Christianity and then Islam. He cites the medieval historians Stepanos of Taron (Asohic) and Aristakes Lastivertsi and names Ruses according to the following terms: Ruz, Aruz, Vrangs. He also points out that some of them served the Georgian king and Byzantine emperor.

Actually, it is known that 700 warriors of the Rus participated in military raids of Byzantine in 911, and 629 Rus warriors participated the raids in 949 AD and 955 AD. Two ships of the Rus participated in battles on the shores of Italy in 968 AD. Alekperov, citing Ibn al-Asir and Nizami Ganjavi, describes the domination of the Turks in complex ethnic constitution of Ruses and asserts that separate tribes of the Ruses lived in the North coast of Black sea, too.

The Azerbaijani authors N.A.Aliyev and S.A.Ahmadov (Baku, 2003) write that there was a state of Ruses on the northern shores of Caspian. According to these authors, the Rus were a nation of the mixed Slavic-Turkic-Scandinavian origin in all stages of their history [3]. However, the facts cited above prove that it is a mistake. How could the Rus have their state on the northern shores of Caspian, if this land was under power of the Khazar state? Besides if this is true, why didn’t the Arabian historians write anything about the Caspian state of the Rus?

We know precisely who the Ruses in Ukraine were in the 9th AD. Undoubtedly, they were Normans. The Rus signatories of this period have indoubtably a Scandinavian name – “We, who are of the Rus origin: Karl, Ingelot, Farlav, Veremid, Rulav, Gudi, Raul, Karn, Flelav, Ruar, Aktutruyan, Lidulfost, Stemid”. Therefore in the 10th-11th AD, the Rus in Kiev Russia were Scandinavians. However, their existence as a separate people did not continue past 1050 at the latest. Vikings (“Variags” as they were called in Slavic) merged with the local Slavic population. Chieftains married daughters of nobles, while "druzhyna" (footmen, small army in Slavic) blended with freemen, so that by beginning of 1000s, only names remained as reminders of Variags presence.

The Eastern Normans also penetrated in the Caspian floating in the marsh route—the Baltic Sea, Riga Bay, The Western Dvina River, The Dnepr and the Volga, and coming then to the Black and Caspian seas. Old Scandinavian treaties and of the 12th-14th centuries compiling on the basis of the practical experience of Vikings contain many information about Caucasian Albania and Caspian (Girkan) sea. A number of Swedish runic stones record the names of men who went with Yngvarr on his journeys. These journeys were to the East, but only legendary accounts of their precise direction and intention survive.


I am convinced that the early invasions in the Caspian (880, 913- 914 AD) were undertaken by the Scandinavian warriors, the Vikings. However, during companies of 943-944 and 1031, the Rus military forces had a multinational composition. Their army included the Scandinavian and Slavic warriors and the Turkic cavalry (Kipchaks, Khazars and Savirs). Over time, the Scandinavians in Kiev were completely assimilated by Slavs. The Slavic warriors adopted the Scandinavian self-naming “Rus” and continued to use Viking helmets, shields, battle axes and chain arms. However, they were Slavs and spoke Slavic. These Slavic Rus (the ancestors of Russians and Ukrainians) together with the Nomadic Turkic tribes and war-like peoples of the North Caucasus undertook the military companies to the shores of Caspian in 1175 AD. Therefore, we must distinguish between:

(1) the early Rus - Scandinavians (the 9th-10th AD);

(2) the middle Rus - the united military forces of Vikings, Slavs and Turks (the 10th-11th AD)

(3) and the late Rus - the Slavic people in Ukraine (the 12th AD).

However, there is a possibility that the name “Rus” was used by the medieval Arab historians very freely. By this name they could have meant not only the Ruses, but also a number of peoples living in the neighbourhood with the Kiev Russia - Kipchaks, Khazarians, and even Caucasian peoples. The medieval historians were not very precise in such situations.

For example, the Greek and Roman authors called “Barbarians” all tribes which did not speak Greek or Roman. Arabs often called Slavs by the name “Turks”. Therefore, they could mistakenly have named some Turkic and Northern Caucasian tribes by the name “Rus”. This would explain why the feudal rulers of Azerbaijan often called the Rus for help in wars, and the Rus would appear immediately. It’s hardly imaginable that the Azerbaijani rulers might have asked for help from such distant country as the Kiev Russia. Therefore, these Rus were not real Rus, but only allies of the Rus – such as Kipchaks, Alans, Avars, Khazarians and other warlike nomadic tribes.


Information from the Arabic sources allow us to reconstruct the external look of the Rus attacking Azerbaijan: stout body; great height; white or pink faces; tattoo; clothes and arms of Scandinavian-Slavic-Turkic style, mustaches and beards. It is written about them also “they are brave and never run away from the battle field” [8].

Their armament consisted of the shirt of metallic rings, helmet (usual, whole-metallic or made from strips), javelins (occasionally), shield, sword, dagger, wooden stick with a heavy metallic ball on the end, and battle-axe (the most usual arm of Vikings). Usually, they fought on land and were distinguished by their solidarity, deep rows in defence and rapid attack.

The poet Nizami Ganjavi (12th AD) even cites the name of one of the chiefs of the Rus—Kintal [9].

Ibn Fadlan was an Arab chronicler. In 921 A.D., the Caliph of Baghdad sent Ibn Fadlan with an embassy to the King of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga.

During the course of his journey, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, a group of Swedish origin, acting as traders in the Bulgar capital. The fragments from this description is given below [8]:

§ 80. I has seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free.

§ 81.Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tattooed from finger nails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc.


Information about the ships of the Rus is extremely limited. It is known only that each ship of the Rus was able to hold up to 100 persons. To identify the external look of ships of the Rus which attacked Azerbaijan, the ships sailing in the Volga (“Itil” in Turkic) River have been studied.

As a result, it has been established that despite the fact that all Volga ships of Vikings were known as “strugs” or “ladyas” (the Slavic name for the Scandinavian boats), between the 9th-13th centuries, they were divided into two categories. The ships of the first type were typical mostly of the northern part of the river. These were sailing ships 40 meters in length and 6 meters wide. This type of ship was distinguished by the head of dragon on the bow of the ship and had an appropriate name. In Scandinavian countries such ships were named Drakar.

Drakar appeared under influence of the Scandinavians from Volga and this type of ships was not used during attacks to Azerbaijan. Had Drakars be used by the Rus in Caspian, the medieval Arab historians would have pointed out this as unusual event. However, this issue was not represented in sources. Therefore, the Rus used types of ships familiar to local people. This type of ship could only be the Shneka (the Slavic version of the Scandinavian “Shneker”). This type of ship was widely used in the Southern Volga mostly for military and pirate invasions. The Shneker had a length of 20-24 meters and a width of 4.2-5.1 m with rectangular sail and masts. The ship was constructed from wood planks which partially overlapped each other. The helm oar was placed in the right side of the stern (poup). The ship had right-angled sails and oars. To protect the rowers, the sides of a ship were covered with shields. The ship had a ballast of 1 ton and had draught of 1 meter and could take on board 100 people [4].


Information about the number of the Rus is insufficient and incomplete. Thus, in a raid in 909 AD 1000-1700 people were involved. In a raid in 943-944 at Barda it is said that 3000 people participated. From them, 1500 died in battle for Barda (700 peoples were captured and brought inside a circle and killed), and others were killed in the delta of the Volga River.

In the raids of 10th-11th century AD, 1.5-3.5 thousands warriors were involved. Absolutely unreal information is given about the raid in 913-914. Thus, a number of researchers without critical approach just repeat the words of medieval chronicles who asserts that 50,000 warriors of the Rus came from the Dnepr River and attacked Aran (a province between the Kur and Araz rivers in Azerbaijan). It is known from olden times that medieval historians easily exaggerated the number of warriors when they had no any information and how easily they wrote about tens and hundreds thousands of enemies.

Exaggeration of the number of the enemy’s army and the number of the enemy soldiers who were killed, while minimizing of number of soldiers in national army and minimizing the number of killed national warriors often was dictated by patriotic feelings or feelings of devotion to the king and, therefore, it is necessary to deal with these facts cautiously. It is proved that all United Europe sent not more than 8,000 warriors in Crusade wars to Palestine, and the army of the Muslim states of Salahaddin (“Saladin” in the Medieval European sources) was not more than 15,000. The army of Atabek Jahan Pehlevan in Azerbaijan(Eldegizid dynasty, 12th AD) in years of its greatest strength was about 25,000. The Mongolian army of Chingis khan in his best days was not more than 127 000 warriors.

Such facts make us sceptical about 50,000 warriors of the Rus. The main problem of the army in medieval times was the problem of food supply. Just to feeding of 50,000 warriors during a day would require 100 tons of dry food, and during a month – 3,000 tons of dry food. It would not possible to acquire so much food by robbing the local population.

Nomads were escaped owing to their herd of domestic animals, but Ruses did not have them. It is necessary to take into account that 3,000 warriors of the Rus in the raid of 943-944 could penetrate deep inside territory of Azerbaijan and overwhelmed one of biggest cities of Middle East—Barda. That same army was liquidated only after a year with accumulation of all national forces and with great tension and difficulty. How could it have been that in the raid of 913-914 AD, 50,000 warriors of the Rus captured only a few islands around Baku and went away without great success? We see that information about 50 000 warriors of the Rus was substantially exaggerated. Analyzing sources we may conclude that the army of the Rus in their major raids consisted from 1,500 to 5,000 warriors.


After weakening of the Arabic Caliphate in the 9th-10th centuries AD, the independent states appeared in Azerbaijan. At that time especially the Shirvan state became strong. At the same time, invasions of conquerors from the North, especially the Rus, started taking place. Starting in the 9th century, the appearance of the Rus in the Caspian was quite usual. Ibn Khordadbeh (9th century AD) and Ibn Fakih (10th century AD) write about this. Thus, Ibn Khordadbeh in his book, “The Book of Roads and States” (840-850) writes that the Rus merchants move in the Jurjan (Caspian) Sea and arrive at any coast that they want [6]. The Rus were clearly in the main traders, and two of their commercial treaties with the Greeks are preserved in the Primary Chronicle under 912 and 945.

Occasionally, however, the Rus attempted voyages of plunder like their kinsmen in the West. Towards the end of the 9th century, the Rus, along with civil sea traders sea travelling undertook several major military attacks in the Caspian. The densely populated south-western shores of the Caspian had always attracted the attention of conquerors. When merchants of the Rus sailed in their ships along the Caspian shores, they saw that Azerbaijan was a rich country.

It was a new event for a local people living on the shores of this sea. Thus, Masudi in his work points out that the peoples living on the shores on this sea were crushed because they had never experienced such an attack before by an enemy from sea as only fishery and commercial ships sailed the Caspian [3].

On the whole, the naval attacks by the Rus in Caspian and Southern Caucasus are divided into two stages. The first stage was until 10th century, when the coming of the Rus was related mostly to trade and rarely was of military nature. The second stage starts from the middle of the 10th century when the Rus tried to capture the western shores of the Caspian sea. All the invasions of the Ruses were associated with destruction and robbery.

The first significant invasion of the Rus occurred in 880 A.D. when they attacked the Abeskun Island which is situated on the Southern shores of Caspian nearby in the Astarabad Gulf. However, they were defeated in the battle with Hasan ibn Zeyd . In 909, they again attacked Abeskun Island with 16 ships. Then, in 910, the Rus undertook a new invasion, but were overwhelmed by the fleet of shirvanshah Ali Ibn Khaisam.

“Shirvanshahs” were rulers of Shirvan, the state in the Northen Azerbaijan existing from the 8th-century to 1534 AD. During this period the shirvanshahs already had a fleet in Caspian. In turn, the Rus had their own wooden ships with oars and sails. During sea travels, they always tried to sail along the coastline.


The greatest attack of the Rus in this period occurred in 913-914. According to medieval chronicles their fleet consisted of 500 ships having 100 warriors each. As we already noted above, this information is absolutely unreal, fantastic exaggeration. In fact, there might be only a few thousands warriors. During this expedition, the Rus made a raid on the Southern coast of the Caspian and continued to undertake rivers along the Shirvan coast and, perhaps, landed on the Boyuk Zira Island. Shirvanshah Ali Ibn Haysam along with his army approached these islands nearby Baku. However, the Rus who had more sophisticated vessels could overwhelm the Shirvan troops and killed and drowned thousands of them.

Masudi writes that the Ruses remained at sea for several months and no one nor any form of vessel in the Caspian was able to stop the Rus who had captured islands nearby the Absheron Peninsula and caused danger for commercial ships. Having taken great booty on the Absheron Peninsula, the Rus returned to the Khazarian region (North Caspian), the delta of Volga and Northern Caucasus where Khazars (a Turkic people) attacked them. Even though Khazars had no ships they attracted the Rus to land and, after three days of fighting were able to overwhelm them. Only an insignificant number of the Rus were able to return to their native land.

The next great voyage was of the Vikings to the Caspian which occurred in 943-944 and was described in such sources as “The Book of Examining of the People”, “Geographical Dictionary” by Yakut Hamavi [10], “Chronography” by Abu Faraj [1] ,“History” by Abu al-Fada [2], “The Chronicle” by Ibn al-Asir [6], as well as by Nizami Ganjavi [9], the great poet from the Ganja city in Azerbaijan.

The Rus reached the delta of the Kur River and anchored their ships along the river. Soon, they approached the Mubaraki village near the city of Barda and established a base for their ships here. The army of the Rus was bigger than the army of the Barda defenders. As a result of attack the Rus were able to capture Barda. As distinct from the previous robbery raids, this voyage of the Rus aimed creation of political centre in the Southern Caucasus and shore of the Kur River with its capital in Barda. Such a colony had been founded by the Rus earlier on the Taman Peninsula on the delta of the Kuban River and with its centre in the city of Tmutarakan.

However, the Rus could not stay in Barda. After several bloody battles with Marzuban Ibn Muhammad of the Salarid Dynasty, at which time, the Rus lost many warriors and after epidemia in their camp, the Rus left Barda in haste. The next attempt was made by the Rus in 958, when they arrived in 18 vessels in the Kur delta. As a result of strong resistance by the local people, the Rus could not stay here for a long time.

After several decades, the Rus again came to the Caspian. In 38 ships they undertook a raid on Shirvan. Shirvanshah Manuchehr (1027-1034) met them with his army near Baku. As a result of severe battle, the Shirvan army lost many soldiers and the Rus sailed up the Kur River and reached the Araz River. The shirvanshah tried to stop the movement of the Rus by closing off Araz by special dam, but it didn’t work. Nevertheless, the resistance of Shirvanis prevented the Ruses from moving along the Araz. However, the ruler of Ganja, Musa Ibn Fadl Shaddadid hired the Rus and used them to stop the uprising in the city of Beylagan. After this, the Rus left the territory of Aran and went to Byzantium and then returned to their native land.

In 1031, the Rus again appeared near Baku, but this time they were defeated by the ruler of Aran Abulfat Musa ibn Fadl and most of them were killed. In 1032, the united military forces of the Rus, Savirs and Alans attacked Shirvan, but while returning back they were attacked by Mansur, the ruler of the Darband city. Only a small detachment of Alans were able to escape.

The main force that prevented aggression from the North was the Shirvan state in Azerbaijan, which possessed a sufficiently strong military system including both the land and navy forces. On the whole, the army of shirvanshahs (i.e., kings of Shirvan) had a sufficiently complex structure, as the military history in this country is associated with ancient Caucasian Albania dating back to the 4th BC. The army consisted of land warriors, cavalry and military ships. Resistance of the Shirvan army prevented Caucasian countries from the possibility of being captured by Ruses. Especially great was the victory of the Shirvan navy in 1175 AD when the Shirvan fleet overwhelmed the fleet of the Rus nearby the Sara Island in the vicinity of Baku. Most of the Rus were killed and their vessels sunk. The poet Khagani Shirvani describes the victory of the shirvanshah Akhsitan I with such words:

"Your victory on the troops of Ruses opened a new era,

For those who are high like Heavens (i.e., kings),

One of your arrows like an arrow of the prophet Khidr,

Completely overwhelmed the 73 enemy ships"[11].

It was the last documented raid of the Rus to Caspian and they never tried to attack Southern Caucasus again.


1. Abu al-Faraj. Bar Hebraeus' Chronography. Translated from Syriac by E. A. Wallis Budge (London, 1932)

2. Abu al-Fida . Tarikh Abu al-Fida, (The Concise History of Humanity), Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah, Beirut 1997

3. Al-Masudi. Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems. Translated into English by Aloys Sprenger. London, Allen, 1841

4. Aliyev N.A., Ahmadov S.A. The History of the Shirvanshah Fleet. Baku, 2003.

5. Azərbaycan tarixi. I cild, Red. H. Hüseynov və b. Bakı, Azərbaycan Elmlər Akademiyasının Nəşriyyatı, 1958

6. Ibn al-Asir. The Chronicle of Ibn Al-Athir for the Crusading Period from Al-kamil Fi'l-ta'rikh: The Years 589-629/1193-1231: the Ayyubids after Saladin and the Mongol Menace. D.S. Richards, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2010

7. Ibn Khordadbeh. Ubayd Allāh ibn Abd Allāh Ibn Khurradahbih. Kitab al-Masalik wa al-mamalik (Liber viarum et regnorum). Lugduni-Batavorum, E.J. Brill, 1889.

8. Ibn Fadlan's journey to Russia : a tenth-century traveler from Baghad to the Volga River. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005.

9. Nizami Gəncəvi. İsgəndərnamə. (Şərəfnamə). Bakı, “Lider”, 2004

10. Yaqut al-Hamavi, Kitab Mujam Al Buldan, Wustenfled F. (ed.) vol.1, Leipzig, Brockhaus, 1866

11. Xaqani Şirvani. Töhfətül-İraqeyn (Seçilmiş parçalar) / Nəşrə hazırlayan: M.Sultanov. Bakı: Azərnəşr, 1959, 136 s.

12. Рыбаков А. Киевская Русь.В кн.: История СССР. Том 2, Москва, Наука,1968.


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