Arabic scripts engraved in burial costumes have been discovered from Vikings boat graves by researchers in Sweden, implying a connection between the Viking and Muslims worlds.
Garments, from the ninth and tenth century graves, woven with silk and silver thread, were found to spell the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Ali’.
Kept in storage for more than a century, these clothes were dismissed as typical Viking Age funeral fabrics until textile archeologist Annika Larsson of Upssala University realised during reexamination that the material originated from central Asia, Persia and China.
But 1.5 centimetre geometric designs did not make sense to the researcher. “I couldn’t quite make sense of them and then I remembered where I had seen similar designs – in Spain, on Moorish textiles.” Further investigation revealed that the patterns were not Viking at all but ancient Arabic Kufic script –developed in Kufah, Iraq in the 7th century.
Larsson noticed two recurring words in the pattern, one of which she identified with the help of an Iranian colleague. It was ‘Ali’ ie Hazrat Ali (RA). The second word was harder to decipher.
After enlarging the letters and examining them from different angles, she “suddenly saw that the word ‘Allah’ had been written in mirrored lettering.”
The names have appeared on at least 10 of the nearly 100 pieces she is going through. And they always appear together.
This new discovery raises question about the origin of the grave occupants. “The possibility that some of those in the graves were Muslim cannot be completely ruled out,” said Larsson. “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,” she adds.
“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.”
Connections between Muslim and Viking worlds have been previously established by historic accounts. Two years ago, researchers working on a silver ring from a female tomb at Birka found the phrase “for Allah” inscribed on the stone. That script was Kufic as well.
But what makes this finding the first of its kind is that items inscribed with ‘Ali’ were never unearthed in Scandinavia before.
“The name [Hazrat] Ali [RA] is repeated again and again beside Allah,” she says. “I know he [Hazrat Ali (RA)] is highly revered by the largest Muslim minority group, the Shia, and have wondered if there is a connection.”