Swedish researchers have discovered Arabic letters on the burial clothes of Vikings.
The funeral clothes originate from 9th and 10th century Viking boat graves in the Birka and Gamla Uppsala region and have offered a truly fascinating insight into an unexamined connection, between Vikings and the Islamic world.
Rather than showing Viking patterns, the material was adorned with words from ancient Arabic Kufic script.
Woven into the fabric were intricate geometric patterns, with the word ‘Allah’ being embroidered repeatedly – Allah is the God of the Islamic faith.
Fellow fans of Vikings might have expected to see a mention of fiercesome Viking warrior gods Thor or Odon instead?
The clothes were originally excavated back in the 19th and 20th century, but nobody at the time realised their significance.
The surprising discovery was made by textile archaeologist (what a cool job though…) Annika Larsson, from Uppsala University, who realised there was much more to the garments than first met the eye.
At first, Larsson couldn’t make head nor tail of the mysteriously out-of-place designs, until she recalled she had seen similar designs on Moorish textiles in Spain.
Once Larsson was able to conclude she was looking at words woven in ancient Arabic Kufic script, she set about deciphering the meaning crafted from those silver and silk threads.
There were two words which were shown to repeat – she was able to decipher one with the assistance of a colleague from Iran.
This word was ‘Ali’, which is the Fourth Caliph of Islam.
The second word was ‘Allah’, which Larsson figured out by enlarging the letters and examining them closely.
Don’t forget that Vikings served in the Emperor’s Varangian Guard in Constantinople so would have had Middle Eastern links..??
— Love Battersea (@LoveBattersea1) October 12, 2017
Larsson’s interest in the mysterious clothes intensified further after she realised the fabric itself had come from Asia, Persia and China.
As reported by the BBC, Larrson made the following statement:
The possibility that some of those in the graves were Muslim cannot be completely ruled out.
We know from other Viking tomb excavations that DNA analysis has shown some of the people buried in them originated from places like Persia, where Islam was very dominant.
However, it is more likely these findings show that Viking age burial customs were influenced by Islamic ideas such as eternal life in paradise after death.
Could this find point towards substantial similarities between Islamic and Viking notions of the afterlife?
This breakthrough marks the very first time a historic item mentioning Ali has been found in Scandinavia and so a range of intriguing possibilities have unfolded for historians to explore.
According to Larsson, this has changed the way she examines Viking patterns:
Now that I am looking at Viking patterns differently, I am convinced I will find more Islamic inscriptions in the remaining fragments from these excavations and other Viking era textiles.
Who knows? Maybe they appear in non-textile artefacts too.
This historic first has now led Larsson and her team to examine the bodies dressed in the clothes to establish their origin – could this open up a new understanding of the influences within the Viking world?
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.