Volga trade route

In the Middle Ages, the Volga trade route connected Northern Europe and Northwestern Russia with the Caspian Sea and the Sasanian Empire, via the Volga River.[1][2] The Rus used this route to trade with Muslim countries on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, sometimes penetrating as far as Baghdad. The powerful Volga Bulgars (cousins of todays Balkan Bulgarians) formed a seminomadic confederation and traded through the Volga river with Viking people of Rus' and Scandinavia (Swedes, Danes, Norwegians) and with the southern Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) [3] Furthermore Volga Bulgaria, with its two cities Bulgar and Suvar east of what is today Moscow, traded with Russians and the fur-selling Ugrians.[4][5] Chess was introduced to Old Russia via the Caspian-Volga trade routes from Persia and Arabic lands.[6]

The route functioned concurrently with the Dnieper trade route, better known as the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks, and lost its importance in the 11th century.


The Volga trade route was established by the Varangians (Vikings) who settled in Northwestern Russia in the early 9th century. About 10 km (6 mi) south of the Volkhov River entry into Lake Ladoga, they established a settlement called Ladoga (Old Norse: Aldeigjuborg).[7] Archaeological evidence suggests Rus trading activities along the Volga trade route as early as the end of the 8th century. The earliest and the richest finds of Arabic coins in Europe were discovered on the territory of present-day Russia, particularly along the Volga, at Timerevo in the district of Yaroslavl. A hoard of coins found at Petergof, near Saint Petersburg, contains twenty coins with graffiti in Arabic, Turkic (probably Khazar) runic, Greek, and Old Norse runic, the latter accounting for more than half of the total. These coins include Sassanid, Arab, and Arabo-Sassanid dirhams, the latest of them dated to 804-805.[8] Having examined major finds of Arabic coins in Eastern Europe, Valentin Yanin conclusively demonstrated that the earliest monetary system of early Russia was based on the early type of dirham minted in Africa.[9] Furthermore Iranian lusterware was already discovered in the Oka and Upper Volga regions (more precisely, it is spread in Rostov, Yaroslavl, Suzdal, Tver, Moscow and Ryazan).[10]


From Aldeigjuborg, the Rus could travel up the Volkhov River to Novgorod, then to Lake Ilmen and further along the Lovat River. Taking their boats around 3 kilometers over a portage, they reached the sources of Volga. The traders brought furs, honey, and slaves through territory held by Finnish and Permian tribes down to the land of the Volga Bulgars. From there, they continued by way of the Volga, to the Khazar Khaganate, whose capital Atil was a busy entrepot on the shore of the Caspian Sea. From Atil, the Rus merchants traveled across the sea to join the caravan routes leading to Baghdad.[7] In 9th and 10th centuries the river was also major trade route between Russians, Khazars and Volga Bulgars.[11][12] Furthérmore the Volga connected merchants from Volga Bulgaria with people from Scandinavia and the southern Byzantine Empire, as well with Russians and Ugrians.

Around 885-886, ibn Khordadbeh wrote about the Rus merchants who brought goods from Northern Europe and Northwestern Russia to Baghdad:

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 population of Central, Eastern, and Northeastern Europe, so ibn Khordadbeh's language is ambiguous here (see Rus' (people) for details of the dispute between Normanists and Antinormanists).[13]

Modern scholars have also clashed over the interpretation of ibn Khordadbeh's report that the Rus used Saqlab interpreters. Anti-Normanists construed this passage as evidence that the Rus and their interpreters shared a common Slavic mother tongue. Slavic, however, was a lingua franca in the Eastern Europe at that time.[13]

The Persian geographer ibn Rustah described the Rus communities living along Volga:

In 921-922, ibn Fadlan was a member of a diplomatic delegation sent from Baghdad to Volga Bulgars, and he left an account of his personal observations about the Rus of the Volga region, who dealt in furs and slaves. Johannes Brøndsted interpreted ibn Fadlan's commentary as indicating that these Rus retained their Scandinavian customs regarding weapons, punishments, ship-burials, and religious sacrifices.[15] Ibn Fadlan's account includes a detailed description of the Rus praying and making sacrifices for success in trade:

On the other hand, the Rus came under foreign influence in such matters as dead chief's costume and in the habit of overloading of their women with jewelry:[15]



The Volga trade route lost its importance by the 11th century due to the decline of silver output in the Abbasid caliphate, and thus, the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks, which ran down the Dnieper to the Black Sea and the Byzantine Empire, gained more weight.[18] The Icelandic saga Yngvars saga víðförla describes an expedition of Swedes into the Caspian launched around 1041 from Sweden by Ingvar the Far-Travelled (Ingvar Vittfarne in Norse), who went down the Volga into the land of the Saracens (Serkland). The expedition was unsuccessful, and afterwards, no attempts were made to reopen the route between the Baltic and Caspian seas by the Norsemen.[19]


  1. "COMMERCE iii. Parthian and Sasanian periods – Encyclopaedia Iranica". www.iranicaonline.org. Retrieved 2019-08-13.
  2. Squitieri, Andrea, author. Revolutionizing a World : From Small States to Universalism in the Pre-Islamic near East. UCL Press. p. 171. ISBN 9781911576648. OCLC 1050964552.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. "Bulgar | people". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-08-10.
  4. Winroth, Anders, author. The conversion of Scandinavia : Vikings, merchants, and missionaries in the remaking of Northern Europe. p. 96. ISBN 9780300205534. OCLC 857879342.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. "Bulgar | people". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-08-10.
  6. "History of Chess". www.nejca.co.uk. Retrieved 2019-10-13.
  7. Brøndsted (1965), pp. 6465
  8. Noonan (1987-1991), pp. 213219.
  9. Денежно-весовые системы русского средневековья: домонгольский период, 1956
  10. Muqarnas : an annual on the visual culture of the islamic world. Volume 16. Necipoğlu, Gülru. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1999. p. 102. ISBN 9004114823. OCLC 44157164.CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. Noonan, Thomas S. (1978). "Suzdalia's eastern trade in the century before the Mongol conquest". Cahiers du Monde Russe. 19 (4): 371–384. doi:10.3406/cmr.1978.1335.
  12. "Vikings as Traders". History. 2014-06-08. Retrieved 2019-08-10.
  13. "Rus." Encyclopaedia of Islam
  14. Brøndsted (1965), p. 268
  15. Brøndsted (1965), p. 267
  16. Brøndsted (1965), p. 266
  17. From ibn Fadlan. Brøndsted (1965), p. 265
  18. Brøndsted (1965), p. 117
  19. Logan (1992), p. 202; Brøndsted (1965), p. 117


  • Brøndsted, Johannes (1965). The Vikings. (transl. by Kalle Skov). Penguin Books.
  • Golden, P.B. (2006) "Rus." Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill Online). Eds.: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill.
  • Logan, Donald F. (1992). The Vikings in History 2nd ed. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-08396-6
  • Noonan, Thomas Schaub (1987–1991). "When Did Rus/Rus' Merchants First Visit Khazaria and Baghdad?" Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 7, pp. 213219.
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