Caspian expeditions of the Rus'

The Caspian expeditions of the Rus' were military raids undertaken by the Rus' between 864 and 1041 on the Caspian Sea shores,[1] of what are nowadays Iran, Dagestan, and Azerbaijan. Initially, the Rus' appeared in Serkland in the 9th century traveling as merchants along the Volga trade route, selling furs, honey, and slaves. The first small-scale raids took place in the late 9th and early 10th century. The Rus' undertook the first large-scale expedition in 913; having arrived on 500 ships, they pillaged in the Gorgan region, in the territory of present-day Iran, and more to the west, in Gilan and Mazandaran, taking slaves and goods. On their return, the northern raiders were attacked and defeated by the Khazars in the Volga Delta, and those who escaped were killed by the local tribes on the middle Volga.

During their next expedition in 943, the Rus' captured Bardha'a, the capital of Arran, in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan. The Rus' stayed there for several months, killing many inhabitants of the city and amassing substantial plunder. It was only an outbreak of dysentery among the Rus' that forced them to depart with their spoils. Sviatoslav, prince of Kiev, commanded the next attack, which destroyed the Khazar state in 965. Sviatoslav's campaign established the Rus's hold on the north-south trade routes, helping to alter the demographics of the region. Raids continued through the time period with the last Scandinavian attempt to reestablish the route to the Caspian Sea taking place in 1041 by Ingvar the Far-Travelled.

Background and early raids

Map showing the major Varangian trade routes: the Volga trade route (in red) and the Trade Route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the 8th–11th centuries shown in orange.

The Rus' first penetrated to the Muslim areas adjacent to the Caspian Sea as traders rather than warriors. By the early 9th century, the Norsemen settled in northwestern Russia, where they established a settlement called Aldeigja (Slavic: Ladoga) about 6 miles (9.7 km) south of the Volkhov River entry into Lake Ladoga. From there, they began trading with the Byzantine Empire along the Dnieper trade route and with the Muslim lands around the Caspian Sea along the Volga trade route.[2] In the late 9th century, ibn Khordadbeh described the Rus' buying goods from the Khazars in the market areas on the lower Volga and selling them on the markets of Caspian towns;[3] these merchants brought furs, honey, and slaves.[2] Small groups of the Rus' even went on camels as far as Baghdad to sell their goods; their European slaves interpreted for them.[3]

Thomas S. Noonan suggested that the Rus' reached Baghdad as early as 800; this argument is supported by the finding of Sassanid, Arab, and Arabo-Sassanid dirham coins dated no later than 804–805 at Peterhof, near Saint-Petersburg.[4] In ibn Khordadbeh's account, the Rus' are described as "a kind of the Saqaliba", a term usually used to refer to Slavs, and anti-Normanist scholars have interpreted this passage as indicative of the Rus' being Slavs rather than Scandinavians. In the interpretation of the Normanist scholars, the word Saqaliba was also frequently applied to all fair-haired, ruddy-complexioned populations of Central, Eastern, and Northeastern Europe, so ibn Khordadbeh's language is ambiguous here.[5]

The first Caspian raid of the Rus' occurred sometime in the reign of Hasan ibn Zaid, ruler of Tabaristan between 864 and 884. The Rus' sailed into the Caspian Sea and unsuccessfully attacked its eastern shore at Abaskun.[6] This raid was probably on a very small scale.[1] The second raid took place in 909 or 910[7] and was likewise aimed at Abaskun;[5] just like the previous attack, this expedition was a minor one with only sixteen ships participating in it.[1] The third minor raid took place in 911 or 912.[5]