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Ancient garments reveal Islamic influence among Vikings

October 13, 2017
MIRRORED, the word Allah appears in Viking Age patterns found in Birka, Sweden.
MIRRORED, the word Allah appears in Viking Age patterns found in Birka, Sweden.

KARACHI: Work carried out by a Swedish researcher on garments found in graves dating back to the ninth and 10th centuries has thrown up groundbreaking insights into linkages between Vikings and the Muslim world.

Patterns woven into the garments with silk and silver threads have been found to spell the words “Allah” and “Ali”.

According to a BBC report, the researcher responsible for the breakthrough is textile archaeologist Annika Larsson of the Uppsala University. She got her “Eureka moment” when she was re-examining the remnants of burial costumes from male and female boat and chamber graves originally excavated in Birka and Gamla Uppsala in Sweden in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.

The discovery has raised new questions about the influence of Islam in Scandinavia, says journalist Tharik Hussain.

The garments used in the research were kept in storage for more than 100 years, dismissed as typical examples of Viking Age funeral clothes.

Larsson became interested in the forgotten fragments after realising the material had come from central Asia, Persia and China.

She says that tiny geometric designs on the garments — no more than 1.5cm high — resembled nothing she had come across in Scandinavia before.

“I couldn’t quite make sense of them and then I remembered where I had seen similar designs — in Spain, on Moorish textiles.”

Larsson then realised she was not looking at Viking patterns at all, but ancient Arabic Kufic script.

But the realisation came rather slowly, as initially she couldn’t decipher the two recurring words. To unlock the puzzle, she enlarged the letters and examined them from all angles, including from behind.

“I suddenly saw that the word ‘Allah’ [God] had been written in mirrored lettering,” she says.

Larsson has so far found the two names on at least 10 of the nearly 100 pieces she is working through. The finding raises fascinating questions about the graves’ occupants.

“The possibility that some of those in the graves were Muslim cannot be completely ruled out,” she says. “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.”

Contact between the Viking and the Muslim world has been established by historic accounts and the discovery of Islamic coins across the northern hemisphere.

Two years ago, researchers re-examined a silver ring from a female tomb at Birka and found the phrase “for Allah” inscribed on the stone.

But what makes Larsson’s discovery so interesting is that it is the first time historic items mentioning “Ali” have been unearthed in Scandinavia.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2017