Birka at the Silkroad
© 1997, Mats Philip <>

A port of transit and an outpost in Sweden of the Silkroad to northern and western Europe!

Alas, Birka in central Sweden, "the town of the Vikings", might not have been inhabited by "Vikings" at all, in spite of the popular view, nor was it governed by the local "king" or his retinue. The development of Birka would then eventually be understood as a consequence of the development of the Silkroad to the North.

This route of trade, mainly of silk and silver, went from the turkic Khazarian empire in the southeastern Europe along the Volga river system and across the Baltic Sea, to the Frankic and Anglosaxon kingdoms and, at a later stage, to the German-Ottonian kingdom, in the northwestern Europe. Its era of prosperity, during a couple of hundred years from around 770 to 970 AD, was abruptly cut off by an attack from the Kievan realm, duly followed by a cataclyzmal change of the existing economical, social, mercantile as well as political positions and structures in northern Europe.

"Vikings" or Khazars?

A town of "Vikings" or merchants?

The usual and popular story!

The marketing of Birka, as performed by the ideologists of its museum, shows a hardly digestible and even offensively ethnocentric (nationalistic-scandinavianistic, that is) interpretation of the role, development and ending of Birka. Birka is thus reduced to the private "souvenir boutique" of the local "king". Nobles buried in splendid khazaric dress, and in a typical turkic manner, are made the "kings" courtiers by depiction. The general geological elevation of land and the fancy of the local "king" become the exclusive and mutually contradictive explanations to the recession and decline of Birka!

These regionalistic archaeologists avoid the very international historical context, they evidently should relate to. They are ignorant of the significance of the development of the Silkroad in the Baltic area, during the early medieval period (the so called "Viking era"). The leading role of the Khazarian empire, as its originator, organizer, instigator and subsequently as a general model for mercantile, military and political organisation of society in the area, is continuously and often voluntarily neglected. They also seem reluctant or unable to comprehend the following crisis and turbulation of the post-birka period from around 970.

We may hope that this is more due to a general lack of archaeological traces of silk, than to a general tendency among these archaeologists to embrace national romanticism, or worse, to an opportunistical adjustment to the demands of the markets of tourism, sponsors and media.

However, the ancient and honourable archaeologists like Holger Arbman, T. J. Arne & Co, and also professor Hugo Valentin, had, due to a congenial tradition of the early 20th century, a perspective of international exchange, thus very correctly interpreting Birka as part of a broad international economo-political context, betwixt east and west. Who, alas, will cherish their scientifical legacy again?

Who is a the "Viking"? Who is the Khazar nobleman?

Joint places of trade

The word birka may, from khazaric Turkish, be translated directly to the medieval latin word vicus of the chronicles. Both words do roughly mean "site (on the shore) for joint trade" (Turkish bir[li]ki[yiev], composed by birlik - "cooperative trade" from bir - "unity, joint" and kiyi - "on the shore" and ev - "site"). The ending of the word -ka is a traditional form of grammatical locativus and in early Swedish representing a location. Bir, in early Swedish, may be interpreted as "[joint] trade". There are, of course, other official interpretations, obviously biased by nordic romanticism and the poetry of nature, e.g. birch (birk), bear (bjarn), beaver (bjur) and hill (bjark). However, there was a measuring system, once originated in Persia, in use along the Silkroad called birkivitch and the interpretations of birlighi (Turk. "trading unity") and birlak (Turk. "trade") still seem actual regarding modern Turkish.

Birka of central Sweden, the very Byrca of the medieval European chronichles, was founded along with other similar trading places in eastern and northern Europe, during the late 8th century. One such place was the present Staraja Ladoga, at the eastern connexion of the eastern river systems to the Baltic, in the chronicles called Aldeigjuburg or Ostroburg (Turk. Altevkiyibir or Aldoghubir, that is "the lower trading place" or "the trading place of the red east"). Another was the present day Hedeby, called Haithabu-Tängrilbyr in the chronicles (Turk. Tängribir, that is "The trading place of the Lord"), at the southwest corner of the Baltic.

The significance of Birka

Birka comprised a strategically placed port of trade, in a secluded and secure bay midway in the Baltic, but still perfectly reachable for all kinds of eastern and western ships of trade. According to Rimbert, an eyewitness and chronicler of the time, Birka was the place where "negotiatores et populi", that is intermediary merchants and several different peoples, from the East to the West, met in trade and handicraft. At Birka large loads of silk and other important merchandise were negotiated and subsequently handed over to the buyers.

When convenient and accounted for hundreds of thralls would transport the merchandise between the several separate harbours. They would then take it through the separate domestic areas (Swe. Hemlanden of Swe. ta hem, "bringing home areas") of the houses of trade, for storing, inspection and pricing and then reload it for new destinations. This trade of commerce had the function of a primitive bourse of exchange, where all the main commodities probably were continously quoted.

Many imperial emissaries and agents were sent there, like e.g. Ansgar and Rimbert from the Frankic empire. The merchants and the imperial emissaries ruled the Silkroad and probably any other traderoute of significancy, like those of iron, fur, hides and skins. Hence they ruled Birka, by means of an imperial prefect (Lat. prefectus regis), Hergarius (Turk. hergar - "jack of many trades"), and their own and separate legislation and court of law.

The local countrymen and their "king" probably payed tax and tribute to the rulers of the Silkroad in exchange for privileges of trade. The local "king" had, at that time, a very limited political power even in "his" own domain north of Birka and none at all at Birka. The "apostle to the North" Ansgar had explicitely been invited by both the "king" and the prefect. Yet he had to obtain permission to exercise his overt task, the christian mission, from both the court of Birka and the regional court of the locals at their capital Uppsala. When christianity did not suit the management of Birka the missionaries were cast out or slaughtered. There was no intervention to their favour, neither from the "king" nor the (christian frankic?) prefect.

The commercial attraction of Birka was however so eminent to both the local "king" and his retinue, that they established a place and a harbour for their own private mercantile and representative reasons just across the narrow waters from Birka. Their traditional cremational burial mounds are still there to be seen.

Evidence in findings

The archaeological material in Birka brings a strong impression of a freeport of trade and a small factory activity. A broad track of a relative concentration of phosphate in the soil, outside the settlement and between the harbours, indicates a large and intensive activity of loading ships and handling of loads of merchandise. Significant findings like e.g. the khazaric ceramic jar, other objects of fine eastern art and especially the khazarian imperial eagle in bronze, give, in parallel with the total lack of runic inscriptions, the evidence and impression of a manifest presence of external and prestigious cultures, from east and west, and of their economical and political dominance during the whole period.

The striking or rising eagle, Togrul or Togarmah (Turk. "the powerful eagle"), represents for Khazars the messenger and mediator of Tängri (Turk. "The Lord-God-The sun"). It also represents the sacred royal imperial power (Hebr. Malchut Ha-Shmayim), since more than three thousand years and is the heraldic symbol of the two merged royal clans (Hebr. Ha-Shechina and Turk. Ashina). Thus it is the very emblem of any Khagan (Turk. "King of Kings, Emperor") of Khazars. This is also described on a Swedish runic stone, telling us about the inglorious defeat some Swedes experienced from the Khazars and their "eagle", the Khagan, in "Khazarland" in their distant quest for the riches of the Silkroad: "They went manly, far for gold, and in the eastern lead fed the eagle. They died eastward in Sarkland".

The structures of streets, houselots and houses in Birka seem unique for the context of Birka, Hedeby and Staraja Ladoga, but indicates a connection to other places of trade in the southeast along the Silkroad. The imperial emissaries and the foremost merchants evidently lived in fine houses, the craftsmen and the servants in the surrounding chacks, within the absolute town, and the thralls and the seamen in the peripheral collective halls nearby their work and ships.

The balance of exchange was, when necessary, measured in silver and coins of silver. The terms of trade for silver, from the Khazarian empire to Scandinavia, went increasingly positive. Dirhems from the moslem Caliphates were brought north, in even greater quantities. They were often hidden as deposits into the riverbanks and at the seashores by travelling traders, all around the Baltic and the eastern river systems. Now and then, these deposits are still discovered and then of course regarded as the most spectacular treasures.

Remarkable burials

The traditional cremations of the serving common people constitute most of the more than two thousand burials at Birka. However, a couple of hundreds are exclusive chamberburials with a strong eastern turkic touch or very plain coffinburials in a continental christian-jewish style, let be with a completely natural Scandinavian adaption. It seems impossible to regard these as representing anything else, than the last resorts of some of the nobleborn imperial emissaries and esteemed merchants from the Khazarian and Frankic empires.

A chronicler of the time, the arabic emissary Ibn Fadlan, tells us about a critical commentary given by a northman he meets at Volga about turkic and arabic burial customs,: "You arabs are all stupid! You put the man you love and respect the most to the earth, where insects and worms may eat him. We instantly burn him in fire and he travels immediately to paradise!". Ibn Fadlan also tells us about the turks and their burial customs: "When a man has died, they dig him a large grave, big as a dwelling. They tend to him, dress him in a jacket, a belt, a bow......then they bring his horses..... They all wear pointed hats....".

"Viking" or Khazar?

Roughly, a hundred very rich chambergraves, especially those around twenty featuring the ancient scythian-altaic custom of offering horses, comprise an overwhelming amount of eastern and khazaric features. These are e.g. short hussar jackets, kaftans, furbrimmed and pointed hats, balloon trousers, probably dubble bent altaic bows with quivers and arrows, buttons and other dress mountings, horse garments and mountings such as stirrups and bridles, personal weapons such as spears, axes, daggers and frankic and other swords, occasionally featuring Togrul, the eagle, at the sheath.

Eventually there are findings of equipments for balance of weight, maybe conforming to the birkivitch weight system. These would be the very attributes of the foremost merchants and tallymasters, indicating their powers of trade, but also for quoting the balance of exchange in silver. Silvercoins are occasionally present in the graves, as the so called Birka or Hedeby coinage (Scand. arch. Nordiska Mynt, Område II, Engl. "Nordic Coinage, Area II"), of a so far unknown origin. However, they may very well be stamped on Khazarian demand by the often jewish minters, somewhere along the Silkroad, from frankic and arabic models. Thus loads of faked arabic dirhems were produced within the Khazarian empire.

The symbols on these "Nordic" coins may very well be interpreted as khazaric: sunsymbols, representing God, originally the traditional sungod Tängri-Khan, yurts (traditional nomad tents), ships of trade, fine horses and the two confronting roosters, representing the two rival Khagans of the Khazarian empire and the Kievan domain. Occasionally one is able to read hebrew characters, also very well understood by the jewish merchants and nobles of the Khazarian empire. The most significant character is the shin (Hebr. Sh or S) for Sha (Pers. "Emperor, Khagan") and shma [israel] (Hebr. "Hear[ O Israel]!").

The symbol shin, when interpreted as a stylized khazaric image, represents Togrul, the eagle, and thus the Khagan. It may stand for gathering - calling together in a jewish context. In combination with the other interpretable characters, beth and cheth, we are able to read this, as a typical jewish magical anagram and abbreviation, forming a call to mobilize against the Kievans and the Danes: "Sh[ma] - ChS - ShChS - ChBhS" (Khaz. Hebr. "Attention Chas [that is Khazars]! Sha Chas [that is the Khagan] [wants you to] gird [yourselves]!").

Warrior burials in chambergraves, along with sacrified horses, point straightly to eastern Europe and all those kurgans and sopkis of the eastern steppes, thus, already at that time, representing several thousands of years of tradition among the scythian, sarmatic, altaic and turko-tartaric tribes. Examples of this, for Scandinavia and northern Europe scarce and alien form of burial, are also present, in the same limited amount as in Birka, at other localities in the North, when comprising a prerequisite for organized trade.

This custom of burial is however much more represented along the russian river systems. These noble graves then represent an exclusive momentum of the general culture of nobles among the ethnical Scandinavians, Slavs, Crimean Goths and Khazars, especially of the Khazarian, but also Varangian, houses of trade and in the emerging Kievan domain.

The significance of the Khazarian empire

In the beginning of the 7th century the Khazars founded a double khaganate north of the mountains of Caucasus in, what is now, southern Russia. Khazars soon gained fame as the most effective warriors and experts on mounted warfare. Initially they were frequently engaged at large as mercenary troops by most of the great powers around.

Towards the middle of the 8th century the Khazarian empire was consolidated to a fully developed, polyethnical, cosmopolitical, and openminded feudal state, featuring a splendid noble linage, a military chivalry, a great mounted force and a higher middle class of merchants and administrators. The Khazarian empire now covered an area from the Carpatians in the west, to the Aral sea in the east, and from Kiev at the Dnepr and Bulgar at the Volga rivers in the north, to the Black and Caspian seas and all the way to Sogdiana in the south.

The Khazarian empire had established a network of trading places, it had seized and moved the Silkroad away from Persia, it had restricted and regulated the Scandinavian penetration and put an end to the eastern moslem expansion. The nobility openly had admitted their belonging to mosaism (prerabbinical judaism) to significantly emphasize their neutrality to and independence of christianity and islam. The Khazars taxated all the peoples in the area. They collected duty of customs from alien and cooperative trading companies, such as the Varangians from the island of Gothland and the center of mainland Sweden. "Pax Khazarica" ruled.

The Khazars contributed to the glory of Byzantium with a couple of emperors and empresses of Khazarian origin. Khazarian emissaries were treated with the greatest respect at the highest diplomatical level. They were often engaged as mediators between Byzantium and the Caliphates. Their mounted force was feared with reason by all parties. The Khazarian empire was obviously treated as the match and equal to Byzantium and other great powers.

Their houses of trade represented the Khazarian empire all over the then known world. They had permanent representations in e.g. Constantinople and Baghdad and other cities and places of trade around the Mediterranean and the Black and Caspian seas, along the Dnepr and Don-Volga river systems and the caravan roads. When they moved the Silkroad to the north they founded the ports of transit, Staraja Ladoga, Hedeby and Birka.

Concentrating the Silkroad

During the 8th century the Silkroad across the Mediterranean was exposed to severe disturbances. The moslem Caliphates had freed themselves from Byzantium and was expanding along the southern shores of the Mediterranean and finally to Spain. Byzantium and the other christian states around the Mediterranean blocked the trade from the Caliphates and there was an extensive piracy. There was however an increasing demand for silk from the emerging Anglosaxon and Frankic kingdoms in northwestern Europe. Silk was primarily needed for the exquisite robes of the new clerical and feudal elites and for the adornment of the churches and palaces. The Silkroad was then increasingly diverted to the northbound river systems of Dnepr and Don-Volga.

The town of Kiev (Turk. "the site at the shore"), at the Dnepr river, had been founded by the Khazars around the beginning of the 8th century, as a trading and administrative center in the western part of the Khazarian empire. The Scandinavians accordingly called it Changard or Könugård (Swe. "The stronghold of the Kha[ga]n). A process of defection rose among the western Khazars during the 9th century primarily as a result of a harsh rabbinisation and an extensive immigration of jews from mainly Byzantium to the Khazarian empire. Hence, the cultural and ethnical fusion between the western Khazars and the other peoples of that area, like Slavs, Scandinavians and Magyars increased. The emerging Kievan state showed itself as a fullscale competitor to the Khazarian empire towards the latter part of the 9th century.

The Khazarian empire then had a good political excuse to concentrate the Silkroad to the Don-Volga route. Byzantium exercized restrictions of trade against the Kievan state and preferred the safe-route through the Khazarian empire for its own trade and export of silk. The great caravanroad to Kiev was cut off and the Kievans did not reach the markets in the Caliphates, with their speciality, the slaves (mamlucks). The Kievan state was set aside from the Silkroad.

The Khazarian tradecenter Sarkel was fortified in the year 833 as a protective action against the progressing Kievan aggression. In the year 839 a couple of Varangian traders, accompanied by a couple of jewish radhanite traders, complained to the Frankic emperor that they could not travel the Dnepr route through Kiev anymore. Thus the Khazarian empire had full and practical control over the Silkroad routed along the Volga river. Ibn Fadlan tells us that the great silk loads reached the Khazarian empire on five thousand camels at a time!

Hence, the great Silkroad to the northern and western Europe was routed from Byzantium, the Caliphates, Sogdiana nd China, along the Don-Volga river system and the Baltic sea through the sites of support and transit Sarkel, Itil, Bulgar, Staraja Ladoga, Birka and Hedeby to the final destinations of Dorestad and London. This trade was run jointly by the Khazarian, Frankic-Frisian, Varangian and later German houses of trade and closely monitored by the foremost merchants, bankers, emissaries, tally masters and other commanding officers, as well as, at call, a small, but harsh, mounted detachment of warriors to support the diplomacy.

The Silkroad also produced a widespread secondary and local activity of trade of mostly supply, fancy goods and as a service to the long-distance trade. Thus many local and regional centers of trade of an ambiguous and manyfold ethnical, social and political origin, emerged around the Baltic sea and the North Sea. Another dominating organisation for trade would later emerge from this trade, namely the Hanseatic League.

The ending

The Danes, the western Slavs and the Kievans were kept off the Silkroad. Still they grew in power, mainly due to the local and internal trade, an extensive piracy on the Baltic and a likewise extensive looting and extortion to the west. They went more and more aggressive and desperate to capture the Silkroad. The Danes did, for some periods of time, dominate Hedeby and they made certain thrusts in the directions of Birka and Staraja Ladoga.

The strategic significancy of Birka, as a secure and neutral meeting place for the entrepreneurs of the Silkroad, grew in pace with the Danish threat. In the latter part of the 10th century, the Frankic empire had diffused, the German had emerged and Birka was properly armed and fortified. The local "king" surely comprehended his co-interest with the management of Birka and probably contributed to the defence with a permanent garrison of freed thralls and to appoint his sheriff and thrall master the "bryte" (Swe. "work and bread breaker") as head of the garrison.

Suddenly, a khazaric featured Kievan mounted force, lead by a likewise khazaric looking "Khagan Rus" (Turk. "the Khagan of the Reddish"), prince Svyatoslav (To the right! - The assumed Khazarian nobleborn and adoptive son of the aged royal couple, the Scandinavan Igor "The Wise" and the Khazarian christian noble lady Olga "The Holy"), in a greedy but abortive attempt to subdue the structures of the Silkroad and in a treacherous collaboration with a timorous Byzantium, succeded to penetrate the Khazarian empire and to seize Sarkel in the year of 965 and destroy the capital Itil in 967. Some wild turkic peoples, that the Khazars till now had managed to neutralize, now run amuck all over the Northern domain. The diminished Khazaria was cut off from the Don-Volga route and was unable to maintain any effective and organized long-distance trade to the North and ceased to be an empire.

Birka, Hedeby and Staraja Ladoga were abandoned by the Khazars. The Varangians of Staraja Ladoga managed to conduct a small rill of silktrade with the former Khazarian subjects, the Bulgars of Volga, and their city of trade Bulgar. At times small camel caravans from China managed to get there. There was no one to maintain Birka and Hedeby. The recently flourishing Birka was soon to be totally deserted, Hedeby some time later. They were never to be rebuilt!

The breaking down of the Khazarian dominance, their withdrawal and the following devastating consequences in economical loss and organizational vacuum, meant a collapse to the Silkroad. This became a starting point for a desperate and revolving attempt to reorganize trade. A troubled time of conflict and economo-political change emerged in the whole affected area from around 970.

New national states formed around the Baltic. The silk found in due time new ways to western and northern Europe through other routes across the inner continent of Europe and Spain, not least by the grand provision of the Khazar-Jewish houses of trade. The absolute coreland of Khazaria around the Crimea, the Sea of Asov and on the northern slopes of Caucasus survived, but was later incoperated with the Golden Horde in the mid 13th century and for some time constituted a fairly autonomous khaganate there.

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© 1997