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“Havorn I Austerveg” expedition

Viking ship Havorn


Austerveg — The silver road and the road to Greece

The fantastic voyages in open, square-rigged boats across the North Sea to the Islands in the West have come to be the hallmarks of the Vikings’ ability and desire for colonization. However, the vikings were able to tackle quite different obstacles in their voyages east and south along the Russian rivers on their way to the silver treasures of the Bhagdad Caliphate and the riches of Byzantium.

Most historical records relating to the vikings give extensive accounts of living in terror of the Scandinavian marauders. To some extent this can be ascribed to the fact that so many churches and monastries were the targets for the vikings’ attacks, and it was the churches’ and the monastries’ men who wrote the chronicles. The viking era was marked by Scandinavian trade routes being established both to the west and to the east. Especially in Eastern Europe the picture appear less violent Arabian sources mention the Scandinavians principally as traders. All the same there are also reports of looting and of taxes being levied by them.

What we understand by the viking era is usually the time from around A.D.800 until the middle of A.D, 1000. The purposes of the voyages were many. Be it looting or trade, the treasures from outside could bring hope of power and position at home. Later ’sagas’ tell of several throne pretenders going into exile with relatives in ’Gardarike’ (part of present-day western Russia), while accumulating both fame and guards.

Archaeology has revealed that silver coins flowed into Scandinavia all through the viking era. In the ninth and tenth century Arabian silver coins were in the majority. More than 60,000 Arabian silver coins have been found in Scandinavia. Coins from Samarkand, Tashkent and Bhagdad are well represented. The Arabian silver was however rarely preserved in the form of coins. At the time an economy based on money was unknown in most parts of Scandinavia. Silver and gold were precious metals weighed according to demand by the merchant on his travelling (and collapsible) scales.

Scandinavian finds from the early viking period have been registered at the Ladoga lake and further east along the river Volga, confirming the tales of traders travelling regularly to the trading centre of Bulghar at the bend in the river where it turns south. This is where the “silk route” from Tashkent came to an end, and this is where traders from muslim countries gathered with bagloads of silver to buy furs as well as young beautiful slavegirls for the Caliph’s harem. Ibn Fadlan met some Nordic tradesmen by the Volga and recounted that they traded in furs, honey, wax, weapons and slaves. Passage on the Volga was controlled by Bulgarians and Kazars and contacts with Arab merchants were therefore only possible by making tributes to these tribes. The contacts appear to have been largely peaceful. But there are stories of pirates roaming the Caspian Sea in A.D.910-912. and around the middle of the century.

From the year 900 finds have been made south along the Dnjepr. The Volga route was losing its importance so that from the eleventh century there are no Scandinavian finds along the Volga. One reason given for this is that the silver mines of the Caliph were exhausted and new sources were being mined closer to Scandinavia. Towards the end of the ninth century the Old Russian Realm was established with its capital in Kiev. The Scandinavian interests therefore were transferred to the Dnjepr route which led to Byzantium.

The significance of the political and cultural influence wrought by the Scandinavians in the Kiev area is disputed. The debate has been between the “Norsemenists” who attach great importance to the Scandinavians (the Norsemen) and the “anti-Norsemenists” who attach greater importance to the role of the indigenous people.

A major source of information is the Old Russian chronicle, also known as the Nestor chronicle. It tells how Slavic and Finnish tribes at first chased away the varjags (the Scandinavians) who came to tax them. But because of strife between these tribes they later decided to call in a prince from the outside, from the varjags. “Our country is large and fertile, but there is no order. Come and be our rulers.” They chose three brothers, of which the oldest, Rjurik, settled in Novgorod. In the legend, the word “rus” is introduced as the name for these tribes. There is still dispute as to whether the word “rus” originally referred to the Slav or the Scandinavian people. Naturally enough the anti-Norsemenists have found their greatest support m Russia, whereas the Norsemenists have found theirs in Western Europe.

From their base in Kiev the Rus attempted at least three times to attack Byzantium with a fleet of several hundred. After some time the new faith took hold even in the Kiev realm, but the riches of the imperial city tempted the Rus to attach as late as 1043. In Byzantium Scandinavian mercenaries rose to trusted positions in the life guard of the Emperor, which was soon to be known as the “vaering” guard, named after the Norsemen. On opposite sides Scandinavians or their descendants could be fighting.

The Nestor chronicle describes the route followed by the Nordic merchants on their way home from Byzantium (Greece). “That route starts by the Greeks and continues along the river Dnjepr; afterwards, the ships have to be hauled over to Lovat. On following the river Lovat one reaches the big lake llmen. The river Volkhov flows from this lake into the big lake Nevo (Ladoga). The estuary of this lake (the river Neva) runs out into „Vaeringhavet“ (The Baltic Sea).”

The annals of the Byzantine emperors give us more details about the southern part of the route. The journey down the Dnjepr took at least six weeks. One had to pass nine rapids. Some of these meant cumbersome transport of boats and goods across land. Besides, it was necessary to protect oneself against enemy tribes. It was common to start from Kiev in June when the spring floods had receded sufficiently to make the journey safe. At the estuary of Dnjepr they halted at the island of Berezanj before sailing across the Black Sea to arrive at their goal Miklagard (Istanbul). On Berezanj is the only rune-stone found in Russia.

The early route from the Baltic to the Black Sea went across Ladoga. Aldeigjuborg of Viking times, later on Staraja (old) Ladoga, was situated near the lake, about 12 km upstream the river Volkhov. It is unclear to which group of people the first inhabitants of Staraja Ladoga belonged. But the oldest ever Scandinavian find in Russia, a forge from around A.D.760, came from the first cultural layer of the town. Scandinavian influence on the early development of the city therefore seems evident.

The population in the south-eastern part of the Lagoda area is assumed to have been mainly Finnish. During viking times there was an immigration of Scandinavians, Slavs and Baits. Burial mounds show that there were Scandinavians around. The large number of women in the graves suggests that there must have been a permanent or semi-permanent Scandinavian settlement living under peaceful conditions.

In Novgorod, known as Holmgard to the vikings, few finds have been made of Nordic origins. Still, the sagas and the Nestor chronicle give the impression that the town was a centre for Scandinavian influence in Gardarike. The influence also went in the opposite direction. This is where Olav Tryggvason grew up. He later laid claim to the throne of the kingdom of Norway and won it Olav Haraldson found a refuge by his mage (brother-in-law) after having been expelled from Norway in 1028 where he returned and died in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030.

Harald Hardrade, half brother of Olav Haraldson, did well in the “vaeringgarden” in Byzantium, where he rose to the rank of colonel. Also later did mercenaries from Norway serve in Miklagard. In the Gulating law there is a section on how to deal with the property of a man who has left for Greece and dies there.

From the Baltic to Dnjepr there was also a more direct route, into the Bay of Riga, up the Daugava (western Dvina) and from there across land to Dnjepr. This route came to attain increasing importance towards the end of the viking era. Semgallen, near the mouth of Daugava is mentioned on a Swedish rune stone from the eleventh century and in the saga of the Swedish chieftain Ingvar “vidtfarne”. At Polotsk, further up Daugava there ruled a Scandianvian king by the name of Ragnvald. Presumably he had arrived there with his ships. This route was also of great importance to the Gotlandic trade on Russia.

Even though Norway and Denmark largely concentrated on expeditions westwards, and let the Swedes travel east, this shows that there were many points of common interests between Norway and Gardariket, between Norway and Byzantium, and between the “Russian” and the Norwegian royal houses.

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