Around 912 or 913, a huge fleet of Vikings, recruited primarily from the emerging Rus communities, entered the Caspian Sea for the first time, giving the locals on that shore a taste of the danger that Britain, France and Spain had already been dealing with for around a century. Mas’ūdī (d. 957), a traveler and scholar from Baghdad, claimed that the fleet of raiders numbered around 500 ships, a force that no one would want to see on their coastal waters. Interestingly, the fleet struck a deal with the Khazars, who, at that time, dominated the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Khazars reportedly gave the raiders access to their river systems in exchange for a cut of the future plunder that would be looted from the Caspian Sea communities. As the story goes, the leaders of the Viking fleet agreed to the deal and they sailed unobstructed through Khazar land, reaching the Caspian Sea without any difficulty.
Upon arriving at the Caspian, the Vikings did what they did best. Using their well-honed raiding strategies, the fleet sought out small islands to set up camps from which to assault nearby settlements. Mas’ūdī described the scene: “The Rus spilled rivers of blood, seized women and children and property, raided and everywhere destroyed and burned. The people who lived on these shores were in turmoil, for they had never been attacked by an enemy from the sea” (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, Penguin ed. pg. 145). The raiders continued their operations in the Caspian region for many months, accumulating a great amount of plunder, but also giving the local authorities time to gather forces against the invaders. By the time local armies began commandeering merchant and fishing vessels in order to launch attacks on the island camps of the Vikings, the raiders knew it was about time to start heading home.
With the local forces around the Caspian Sea mobilized, the situation became a race to Khazar territory. The Khazars, it seems, were playing both sides—they wanted their cut of the plundered loot, but they also did not hinder their angry neighbors from setting up ambushes at the mouths of Khazar-controlled rivers that connected to the Caspian. When the Vikings sent the prearranged cut of the loot to the Khazars, they were tipped off about the ambush that had been arranged along the river.
Despite being warned, the fleet of raiders continued on their path and engaged the forces that were lying in wait. The ambushers, according to Mas’ūdī, numbered around 15,000, and, despite losing the element of surprise, they were said to have still won the day. Yet, it was not a complete victory for the local forces—thousands of the raiders were able to break through the hostile lines and continue sailing up the river to friendlier territory. Unfortunately for the Caspian Sea region, the ambush did little to disincentivize further raids, and fleets of Rus warriors would return to pillage the region several more times in the 10th century.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Sadko painted by Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Mas’ūdī’s Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems in Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, translated and edited by Paul Lunde and Catoline Stone. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012.