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East: Modern-Day Vikings Retrace Sailing Trip Through The Caucasus

  • Antoine Blua

A group of modern-day Vikings is currently sailing the Black Sea en route to the Caspian via the Rioni and Kura rivers in the Caucasus. They are retracing part of a trip that Scandinavian explorers might have made nearly 1,000 years ago.

Prague, 4 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In 1036, the Viking chief Ingvar den Vittfarne, or "Ingvar the Far-Traveled," is believed to have led an expedition from Sweden to the far-flung Caspian Sea.

Almost a millennium later, a crew of nine modern-day Vikings -- sailing in a replica Viking ship -- is retracing part of what was believed to have been the original route.

"We are [tracing the path] of the Viking king named 'Ingvar the Far-Traveled,' and we are trying [to find out] which way he went from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea," said Hakan Altrock, the expedition's leader. "There are several ideas about how he managed to get [there]."
The original journey might have been to seek trade routes, or possibly could be related to wars between Russia and Constantinople.

The expedition began about a month ago from a village on the Dnieper River in Ukraine, not far from the city of Kherson. It has already passed the Crimean Peninsula. The Vikings intend to follow the Russian and Abkhaz coasts to the Georgian port of Poti.

From Poti, the expedition will proceed to the village of Zuare via the Rioni River and its tributaries. The Vikings will then have to haul their boat on logs -- most probably using oxen -- and relaunch it in the Kura River that flows to the Caspian Sea. The final destination is Azerbaijan's capital, Baku.

Altrock pointed out the expedition has already suffered delays because of bureaucracy and suspicion from local authorities in Ukraine. Initially, the Vikings had hoped to reach the Russian port of Novorossiisk at the end of May, Poti in mid-June, Tbilisi in early July, and Baku by mid-August.

Nevertheless, the expedition's leader remains optimistic.

"[There have been] some complications," Altrock said. "Probably the old [communist] system is still living in some way. But mostly it's okay. The people of Ukraine we have met were very friendly -- everybody. And we hope it will be the same in Russia."

Swedish archaeologist Mats Larsson says stories from Vittfarne's original expedition can still be found on runic stones in Sweden.

"The runic stones tell about their fight to the east [from Sweden], probably for some Russian prince," Larsson said. "[It] was very, very common for Swedish warriors to go to Russia and fight as mercenaries. They also say they went to the south to a place called 'Serkland,' which probably is the land of the Saracens -- the Muslim areas around the Caspian Sea."

Some 20 years ago, Larsson presented a theory saying the expedition might have reached the Caspian Sea via the Rioni and Kura rivers. He based this belief on descriptions enclosed in the Icelandic saga. Larsson said the saga mentions a place that resembles Kara-Boghaz, on the Caspian shore of today's Turkmenistan.

Larsson explained the possible motivations for Vittfarne to travel to the region.

"It could be to find trade routes. But it could also be connected with the wars between Russia and Constantinople at that time," Larsson said. "The Georgian king was [also] an enemy of the Byzantine state. Ingvar and his men would [have gone] to Georgia to fight for the king."

Larsson said this theory is based on an old Georgian chronicle that says a Scandinavian armed force came to the Rioni River in the beginning of the 1040s.

After an agreement had been made with the Georgian King Bagrat, the military expedition proceeded further east and took part in a battle near Tbilisi. The Georgian king lost the battle and the Scandinavian force retreated west.