The surprising discovery of Arabic script on Viking funeral clothes sheds new light on the contact between the Viking and Muslim worlds.
A strip of Viking silk bearing Arabic script. [Photo by Annika Larsson]
While the discovery of the letters was new, the discovery of the garments themselves wasn't. The garments were from graves in Birka and Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, and had been in storage for over a century. No one thought to look closer into them. They were, after all, thought to be just typical funeral clothes from the ninth and 10th centuries. However, when a new investigation placed the garments under scrutiny again, researchers found the words “Allah” and “Ali” embroidered onto silk bands with silver thread.
The presence of Islamic influences during the Viking Age isn't that surprising. It's highly probable that Vikings traded with Arabic communities, and even invaded and looted them. However, the embroidery on the clothes hints at a deeper link between the two cultures. The embroidered Kufic script isn't the only indication of this, but the material of the cloth itself.
An enlarged image of the embroidered script [Photo by Annika Larsson]
“In the Quran, it is written that the inhabitants of paradise will wear garments of silk, which, along with the text band’s inscriptions, may help explain the widespread occurrence of silk in Viking Age graves,” says Annika Larsson, the researcher who discovered the script. Thus, it's entirely possible that Viking interactions with Islamic communities went beyond trading and looting.
Upon examination of the embroidery on the Viking funeral clothes, Larsson realized that the embroidered design wasn’t like any other Scandinavian patterns she’s ever seen. According to Larsson, she became interested in studying the garments after learning that they came from Persia, China, and Central Asia. She then discovered that the designs were actually ancient Arabic Kufic script. She had to enlarge the text and examine them from all sides and angles in order to come to her conclusions.
The designs were actually quite small, at less than 1.5 centimeters high. Larsson said that she remembered seeing similar designs in Moorish textiles, prompting her to examine the embroidery even closer. She discovered that the words “Allah” and “Ali” kept recurring in the design, Ali being the fourth caliph of Islam and the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law. So far, Larsson has found both “Allah” and “Ali” on at least 10 of the 100 or so pieces of cloth she was studying.
This ring, found in a Viking grave excavaed in 2015, also bears an Arabic inscription [Photo by Gabriel Hildebrand/The Swedish History Museum]
So what do these findings mean? Did some of the ancient Vikings hold Islamic beliefs? How deeply did the influence of Islam take root in Viking culture?
According to Larsson, it’s not out of the question that the people who wore the funeral clothes were themselves Muslim. Through DNA analysis, other Viking tombs have been found to have contained people from Persia, where the dominance of Islam is well-known. So is that the case with these garments in Larsson’s research?
While she’s open to the possibility, she’s more convinced of another likelihood. Larsson thinks that her findings indicate that Islamic beliefs influenced or informed Viking beliefs in eternal life after death. To confirm her theories, Larsson and her team plan on finding out the geographic and genetic origins of the people who wore the Viking funeral clothes.
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