In May 922, an Abbasid diplomat named Ibn Fadlān reached the camp of Khan Almish ibn Shilkī Yiltawār of the Volga Bulgars, a semi-nomadic people who lived north of the Caspian Sea, along the Volga River. The khan, a new convert to Islam, had asked the Abbasid caliph for theological and financial aid. Ibn Fadlān’s arrival among the Volga Bulgars was the caliph’s response to the khan’s request. The mission of the Abbasid diplomats was to offer instruction on the ways of Islam, to construct a new mosque for the khan, and to also fund a fortress to help defend the Volga Bulgars. Unfortunately, the 4,000 dīnār budget allotted to the mission never reached the diplomats and therefore the promised construction projects went unfulfilled. Consequently, the relationship between Khan Almish and the diplomats were strained from the get-go. Ibn Fadlān, however, made the best of his situation and devoted himself to writing a detailed account of his journey from Baghdad to the Volga. He commented on landscapes he saw and people he met, also adding some cultural observations, folklore and history, to tie it all together.
One tale that Ibn Fadlān included in his account (called the Risāla) featured a giant who had a fondness for swimming in the Volga River. Ibn Fadlān claimed to have been tipped off to this story by a fellow diplomat named Tikīn the Turk. He had heard that an incredibly tall man was then living within the territory of Khan Almish. When this information was passed to Ibn Fadlān, the curious diplomat went straight to the khan to ask if the story was true. Interestingly, Khan Almish humored Ibn Fadlān’s curiosity, telling the diplomat many details of the story and even personally took him sightseeing to a spot involved in the tale.
The highly embellished yarn that Khan Almish laid out for Ibn Fadlān was an interesting mix of Volga Bulgar culture and apocalyptic ideas from Abrahamic religions. Khan Almish began by informing Ibn Fadlān that the giant was no longer alive, but that the khan had personally known him. The giant was apparently first discovered when sections of the Volga River overflowed. Concerning this flooding, rumors began to circulate from travelers and merchants that the cause of the river’s odd behavior was a giant that was wading in the water. Hearing these reports, Khan Almish set out to investigate the Volga where the river had broken its banks.
Upon arriving at the flooded section of the river, the khan supposedly saw with his own eyes a huge humanoid figure. The size of the giant, Khan Almish claimed, was a remarkable 12 cubits tall (18 feet). In addition to sheer height, the giant reportedly had such an extremely ugly or fierce demeanor that simply witnessing him could cause the viewer great distress. The Volga Bulgars attempted to speak with the giant, but the man/monster was apparently unable to speak. After assessing the situation, Khan Almish decided to recruit the giant and bring him back to the Volga Bulgar camp, if only to keep the giant from joining the ranks of an enemy.
After successfully bringing the towering stranger back to camp, Khan Almish set about researching the identity of the giant. After asking around among his own people and sending inquiries out to neighboring regions, the khan concluded that the giant was none other than a rogue member of the apocalyptic Gog and Magog end-time invasion force that is featured in Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts. When Ibn Fadlān, either with curiosity or skepticism, asked for further details about the Gog and Magog giant, Khan Almish escalated the tale to a new level of embellishment and gave the giant an abrupt and tragic end. According to Ibn Fadlān, Khan Almish said the following about life with a giant in the Volga Bulgar camp:
“He stayed with me for a time, but no child could look at him without dropping dead and no pregnant women without miscarrying. If he took hold of a man, his hands squeezed him until he killed him. When I realized that, I had him slung from a high tree until he died” (Ibn Fadlān, Risala, Penguin ed. pg. 41).
After delivering this bizarre account of the giant’s effect on the Volga Bulgar people, Khan Almish offered to show Ibn Fadlān the spot where the giant was hanged. The diplomat, hearing that the remains of the giant could actually be seen there, decided to take the khan up on the offer and the two traveled to the supposed tree from which the 18-foot tall giant was strung. On this eerie trip, Ibn Fadlān wrote:
“He rode with me into a great forest filled with immense trees and shoved me towards a tree under which had fallen his bones and head. I saw his head. It was like a great beehive. His ribs were like the stalk of a date cluster and the bones of his legs and arms were enormous too. I was astonished at the sight. Then I went away” (Ibn Fadlān, Risala, Penguin ed. pg. 41).
After the scene above, Ibn Fadlān made no further commentary about the giant. As might be expected, the tall tale told by Khan Almish to Ibn Fadlān is considered to be folklore, and it has been proposed that the remains in the forest may have been that of a bear. It should also be kept in mind that the khan still begrudged the Abbasid diplomat for failing to bring the caliph’s promised money. Therefore, when the irritated Almish forcefully brought Ibn Fadlān to a secluded, bone-scattered forest where not even a mighty giant could escape, the act was likely meant to be a veiled threat or a means of intimidation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene of a chained giant from the Gest Danorum, illustrated by Louis Moe (1857-1945), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Risala by Ibn Fadlān, translated by Paul Lunde and Catoline Stone. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012.