Istanbul, Turkey: Surprising Visitors

N.B. with thanks to Professor Neil Price, whose lectures I am shamelessly cribbing.

So instead of waxing lyrical about the timeless qualities of the East-meets-West city that I’ve been sleeping in bus stations and crossing Turkey in fantastic time to see, I’m going to show you the single most mindblowing thing in the entire metropolis, which basically has nothing to do with Greeks or Turks.

Preserved under glass now which is cool.

That right there, on the upper level on the right hand side of the Hagia Sophia, the grandest achievement of Byzantine Christendom, scratched into the stone, is a nice little set of Nordic runes.

Bet you didn’t see that coming.

So this leads to the obvious question: what on Earth are Vikings doing hanging out in Constantinople?  The answer is surprisingly simple, but in explaining it we’re going to have to zoom out a little.

Courtesy of Celtic Attic

We all know the Norse were fantastic seafarers, second only to the Polynesians in my book.  They discovered Iceland, Greenland and America, settled the British Isles (York and Dublin are both Norse in origin, and the dialects of Orkney and Shetland still relate to Old Norse), conquered Normandy and Sicily, and generally showed up everywhere, killed everyone, and took their stuff.

But you might be wondering about those lines crossing Russia.  Isn’t Russia, well, land?  A lot of land, in fact?  The Norse were tough, but even they couldn’t sail across a solid continent.  Right?

Well, actually, they did.

Courtesy of Russian River Cruises

If you want to blame someone for this madness, I suggest you blame the Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba, now southern Spain, who controlled the Straits of Gibraltar from 750 CE – when they were deposed as caliphs of Islam and fled to Spain.  For the first time since Rome a power was in the position to close the entire Mediterranean, which they promptly did to non-Islamic shipping.  If you wanted a go at the Levant and the Middle East, it wasn’t going to be easy.

Longboats were of course built for river work: it’s what made their raids so unpredictable and so wide-reaching.  The Russian thing is basically what happens when someone tries to tell a Viking that some sea is closed off.  Those rivers – the Dniepr and Volga – between them are a route from the Baltic to the Black Seas with a surprisingly short distance in between.  Short enough to carry, oh, a lightweight boat.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out the next bit.  Norsemen streamed along this new path (along the way forging the city-states that would form the Russian Empire five hundred years later).  At the same time, a variant on the route was leading them into the Caspian, from where they found their way to Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled most of the Islamic world.  Here they confused the hell out of Arabic chroniclers who reasonably enough thought Europeans came from the west.  The ones who went through the Black Sea, however, found themselves in the back garden of the grandest city in Europe: Constantinople.

This was the last thing that the Byzantine Emperors needed.  Since the rise of the Islamic Caliphate their empire was on the downward slide, having lost their Middle Eastern holdings and being pressed in Anatolia by the Turks and in Italy by the Lombards.  An influx of guys from the north was not ideal.

Unless, they realised, they hired them, and the Varangian Guard took shape.

Varangians depicted in an 11th century Byzantine history (image – Wikipedia).  Note the huge axes, known as ‘Daneaxes’, which rather give the game away.

You couldn’t ask for better than a personal honour guard of exceptionally fierce warriors.  Loyal to the office of the Emperor rather than the man, the Varangians can be compared to the Roman Praetorian Guard, except that the Varangians fought in battles.  In their first few centuries working for the Byzantines, Varangians fought in Anatolia against the Turks and in Italy against the Lombards and the Normans (Norsemen who, amusingly, had forced their way through Gibraltar to appear on the other side).

The prestige a Norseman obtained from this service was almost as important as the fantastic sums of money.  Miklagarðr, the Old Norse name for Constantinople, literally means ‘the big place’ (Old Norse has no concept of cities), and the Norse kingdoms even began to ban Varangians from inheritance in an attempt to stem the flow of young men out of the country.  The Byzantines still styled themselves as Romans, a name which itself commanded respect.  The amount of time the higher ranks spent with close contact with emperors also gave them an insight into the operational end of warfare and how to run a state.

The best example of this is Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway (d. 1066).  Having served in the guard, he returns with the money, prestige and experience to seize the Kingdom of Norway and to press his own claims to England: if Stamford Bridge had gone his way England would have had a king who knew Byzantium intimately.

Which brings us back to our graffiti.  The Hagia Sophia was the emperor’s personal cathedral: the Varangians protected the emperor; and what you got was a bunch of Vikings standing around a church on a regular basis listening to services in Greek, a language they didn’t understand in the slightest.

So Halvdan gets bored, and scrawls his way into history.


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2 responses to “Istanbul, Turkey: Surprising Visitors”

  1. jmmcdowell says :

    Ah, but what would Harald Hardrada have done when William the then Bastard came calling? 😉

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