A 12th-century Granadan traveler named Abū Hāmid al-Gharnātī left his original homeland of Spain far behind to explore distant regions, such as the Aral Sea, the Volga River and the Hungarian kingdom of Geza II (r. 1141-1162). He wrote about his experiences in at least two books, the Gift of the Hearts and an Exposition of Some Wonders of the West. As the title of the latter book suggests, he was greatly interested in ‘wonders’—bizarre, otherworldly and folkloric animals, peoples and places that could supposedly be found on the frontier regions in which he traveled. Some wonders were reported to Abū Hāmid by informants, other wonders he read about in texts, yet there were a few wonders that he claimed to have witnessed with his own eyes. Of these oddities that Abū Hāmid personally witnessed, one of the most peculiar was a pair of sibling giants living around the city of Bulghār, on the Volga River.
Tales of giants were nothing new for Muslim travelers along the Volga. An Abbasid diplomat named Ibn Fadlān reached Bulghār in 922, and he reported that the khan of the Volga Bulgars had shown him a skeleton of a recently-killed giant, allegedly measuring 12 cubits in height (18 feet). Curiously, the account of Ibn Fadlān had reportedly been lost by the time of Abū Hāmid and would not be rediscovered until the 13th century. Despite the probability that Abū Hāmid never read Ibn Fadlān’s report, the Granadan traveler also would claim to see evidence of giants in the Volga region. Yet, while Ibn Fadlān saw only skeletal remains of dubious origins, Abū Hāmid claimed to have personally seen two living giants.
As the story goes, Abū Hāmid traveled to Bulghār around 1135 or 1136. While there, he claimed to have seen a man called Danqa, who was over 7 cubits (10.5 feet) tall. In addition to his height, the giant was reported to have been extremely strong. With only the use of his hands, Danqa was said to have had enough strength to snap in half the leg of a muscular horse, as if the horse’s bone was a mere bundle of herbs. Such size and strength made him a coveted prospect for the army of Bulghār, and, indeed, Danqa was said to have been successfully enticed to join the military through gifts of armor. Abū Hāmid wrote: “The king of Bulghār had a cuirass made for him, which he carried to battle with him in a cart, and an iron helmet like a great cauldron. He fought with a great wooden mace, thick and long, made from a massive oak which no man could lift, but in his hand it was like a stick would be in ours” (Exposition of Some Wonders of the West, Penguin ed. pg. 86). Despite the giant’s height, strength and enlistment into the military, Abū Hāmid claimed that the towering man was of the mildest and kindest of dispositions.
Besides Danqa, there was reportedly one more giant living in Bulghār at the time that Abū Hāmid paid the city a visit. The other giant was Danqa’s unnamed sister, who was said to have equaled her brother’s size and strength. Despite her physical prowess, very few feats of strength were attributed to her. As may be expected from a medieval text, marriage was considered her greatest accomplishment. The giantess’ marriage was said to have ended tragically, however, when she accidentally caused her husband’s ribs to implode during a passionate bear-hug.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Giant Skrymir and Thor, depicted by Louis Huard (1813-1874), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Exposition of Some of the Wonders in the West by Abū Hāmid al-Gharnātī, translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012.