ibn hawqal


This is an excerpt from my post: KIEVAN RUS: PART 1 – NORTHERN ENIGMA OF THE MIDDLE AGES.

In the early medieval period of Russia’s history, there was a small dominion known as ‘Kievan Rus’. This realm was inhabited by Norsemen, Finns, Balts and especially Slavs. The greatly feared and loved princess Saint Olga had a son named Sviatoslav who was mentored by a famed Varangian warlord named Sveneld.

When Prince Sviatoslav had grown up and matured, he began to collect a numerous and valiant army. Moving light as a leopard, making many wars, he did not take wagons on his travels, nor kettles, neither did he have his meat boiled. But he would cut off a strip of horseflesh, game or beef, roast it on the coals and eat. There was no tent for him, but he spread out a horse-blanket under him, and set his saddle under his head; and all his druzhina did likewise. He sent messengers to the other lands announcing his intentions to attack them.” – Rusian Primary Chronicle.

^ The Kievan Rus under Prince Sviatoslav’s reign (red), sphere of influence in 972 (orange).

Sviatoslav dressed and styled himself differently than previous rulers; “he shaved his head completely, except for a lock of hair that hung down on one side, as a mark of his nobility of his ancestry” and “on one ear was fastened a gold earring, adorned with two pearls with a red gemstone between them”. Similar hairstyles were sported by the Turkish Bulgarians, Magyars and Khazars. Unlike those before him, he acted out a form of chivalry in which he would send envoys before him warning of his intentions (“I march on you”) so they could meet in open battle rather than resorting to ambushes and guerrilla warfare. Also, he took on a military approach similar to that of the steppe nomads; using silent, rapid and deep infiltration of enemy territories.

^ Osprey – ‘Men-at-Arms’ series, issue. 333 – Armies of Medieval Russia 750-1250 by David Nicole and Angus McBride (Illustrator). B1: Sviatoslav of Kiev, 971 AD.


The Khazars (Jewish Turks) and the Byzantines had a relatively positive relationship for most of their history but all this changed under the Byzantine king, Romanos I Lekapenos (920–944 CE), who was persecuting Jews. In response to this Joseph, khagan of the Khazars (Jewish Turks), began “doing away with many Christians” (Schechter Letter). Romanos I Lekapenos is believed to have incited the Rus into warring with the Khazars; the Rus already held an uneasy relationship with the Khazars since they held sway over the Volga River with its rich access to the Caspian Sea and the treasures of the Muslim world while some speculate that the Rus were tributaries of the Khazar Khaganate at this time.

In the past (944 CE) the Khazars had proven how deceitful they could be when they granted the Rus safe passage through their land in exchange for half of the spoils but decided to instead attack and rob the Rus force as it was returning from their successful raid of the Caspian Sea regions. Close ties with the Byzantine Empire is often seen as a strong excuse behind the Rus war against the Khazars as the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963–969 CE) convinced Sviatoslav into assisting him in a war against Bulgaria years later.

^ Sviatoslav’s Council of War by Boris Chorikov.

Despite this entire backdrop, one thing that is believed by scholars is that the expansions made by Sviatoslav against the Khazar Khaganate and the Empire of Bulgaria were attempts to rid the Kievan realm of the limitations and handicaps imposed onto them by these two nations. If they could conquer or subdue the Khazars to their east and south then they would attain safe access and control of the trade routes to the Black Sea and the rich Byzantine Empire as well as Caspian Sea and the prosperous Muslim world. 

By defeating the Bulgarian Empire, the Kievan realm would be in close proximity to the Byzantines and access to the Danube River. The Danube River the second longest river in Europe which happens to cut through the greater part of Europe in a horizontal fashion – attaining this would allow them to trade with other great empires that were previously out of reach.

At this barrage (Rus. Aeifor, Slav. Neasit) all put into land, prow foremost, and those who are deputed to keep watch for the Pechenegs

It is at this point (a pass called Ford Vrar), therefore, that the Pechenegs come down and attack the [Rus].”

“–until they are passed the river Salinas, the Pechenegs keep pace with them. And if it happens that the sea casts a monoxyla on shore, they all put to land in order to present a united opposition to the Pechenegs.” – Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus explaining the voyage taken by the Rus from Kiev to Constantinople.

^ Khazaria during the reign of Joseph, c. 950 CE.

With his eye set eastward, Sviatoslav focused mostly on martial affairs, he began by expanding eastward into the regions around the Volga river. Sviatoslav persuaded the Eastern Slavic tribes allied to the Khazars to aid him instead, and armed himself with Pecheneg (Turkish) and Oghuz (Turkish) mercenary cavalrymen. Twenty-one year old Sviatoslav subjugated the Viatichi (Slavs), the Volga Bulgars (Turkish) and the Burtas (Finno-Ugric). 

Sviatoslav then made war against the Khazar Khaganate (Jewish Turks), and several Eastern Slavs; ravaging the fortress of Sarkel, he devastated the Khazars in an open battle before sacking and ravaging their capital of Atil (or Itil) and their coastal port city by the Caspian Sea known as Samander; on his march back he subjugated the Ossetians (descendants of the Sarmatian Alans).

Today not a trace remains of Bulghar (Volga), nor of Burtas, nor of Khazar because the Rusians destroyed them all, took from them all their lands and made them their own. Those who survived fled to neighboring cities in order to remain close to their homes in the hope that they would make peace with the Russians and submit to them.” – Ibn Hawqal, Muslim geographer in the 970’s.

In one fell swoop Sviatoslav had taken down the greatest threat in their immediate area and with the Khazars weakened the Rus gained control over the Volga River and access into the Caspian Sea. Rus trade strengthened as we see an influx of silver coins (famed Baghdad silver) from the Islamic world which they attained in exchange of furs, wax and, most importantly, slaves of Slavic descent. Slavic slaves or Saqaliba, in the Muslim world served as bodyguards, mercenaries, artisans, craftsmen, servants, concubines and eunuchs. Sviatoslav also moved against peoples of the northern Caucasus region, therefore also attaining the trade route that led over the Caucasus Mountains. The realms immediately south of the Caucasus mountains exported textiles, jewelry, armors, leathers, furs, wool, cotton, horses, cattle, honey, wine, raisins, spices, salt, timber, grain and silk.

^ Osprey – ‘Elite’ series, issue 30 – Attila and the Nomad Hordes by David Nicolle and Angus McBride (Illustrator). H2: Khazar cavalryman, 9th-10th centuries – “Full mail hauberks of a type that would become common in 12th century Europe were used by Khazars as well as Byzantines and western Muslim troops. Here a heavily armoured cavalryman also has a helmet forged from a single piece of iron with a mail coif or more probably aventail plus splinted arm and leg defenses similar to those found in early medieval Scandinavia. Only his slightly curved sabre puts him in a Turkish steppe tradition.”


Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963–969 CE) was in conflict with the First Bulgarian Empire but he, like many of the Byzantine Emperors before him, had most of his forces in the Middle East. Emperor Nikephoros II was able to do little more than march his forces northward toward Bulgaria where he took many strongholds along the way. Emperor Nikephoros II’s last gambit was to send a messenger named Kalokyras (Chief Magistrate of Cherson in Crimea) to offer to pay Sviatoslav 1,500 lbs. of gold to in exchange for his help against the Bulgarians.

^ Territory of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 9th century CE.

Kalokyras assisted him by leading a large army of Greek auxiliaries while Sviatoslav assembled a massive one accompanied by Turkish steppe nomads (Khazars and Pechenegs). Sviatolsav departed towards the northern territories of Bulgaria where they, upon coming ashore, were met by a Bulgarian force. The Rus raised their swords and shields before launching a raucous and fierce charge towards and cutting through the outnumbered (Battle of Silistra, spring 968 CE) and then took their fortress. Eighty fortresses fell to Sviatoslav, as did the cities of Dobrudja, the capital city of Preslav (modern Veliki “Great” Preslav) and the great trade city of Pereiaslaviets (Little Preslav) which controlled the Danube delta. While occupying Bulgaria, the Pecheneg (Turkish) nomads decided to attack the Rus at their rear, as they did so they also laid siege to the Rus capital of Kiev.

^ Osprey - ‘Men-at-Arms’ series, issue 491 - Armies of the Volga Bulgars and Khanate of Kazan 9th-16th Centuries by Viacheslav Shpakovsky & David Nicolle, Illustrated by Gerry and Sam Embleton. Plate A: Bulgars & Subjects, 9th–10th centuries.

The Bulgars, the Magyars and the Rus were frightened of them (Pechenegs): ‘So long as the emperor of the Romans is at peace with the Pechenegs, neither Rus nor Turks can come upon the Roman dominion by force of arms, nor can they exact from the Romans large and inflated sums in money and goods as the price for peace, for they fear the strength of this nation (Pechenegs) which the emperor can turn against them while they are leagued in friendship with the emperor and won over by him through letters and gifts, can easily come upon the country both the Rusians and the Turks, and enslave their women and children and ravage their country.” – De Administrando Imperio (“On the Administration of the Empire”) by Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus c.950.

^ Sviatoslav invading Bulgaria, Manasses Chronicle.

Sviatoslav rushed back to Kiev and defeated the Pechenegs besieging Kiev, forcing them back to the steppes. Within Kiev was Sviatoslav’s mother, Olga, elderly by now and on her deathbed; Sviatoslav stayed beside her until her death.

It is not my pleasure to be in Kiev, but I will live in Pereiaslavets on the Danube. That shall be the center of my land; for there are all good things flow: from the Greeks gold, precious cloths, wines, and fruits of many kinds; silver and horses from the Czechs (Western Slavs) and Hungarians; from the Rus furs, wax, honey and slaves.” – Russian Primary Chronicle.

In his absence the Bulgarian city of Pereiaslaviets rebelled against him, the above quote was said by Sviatoslav before leaving. Sviatoslav returned to Bulgaria and retook the city, moving the capital from Kiev to Pereiaslaviets. Like the Vikings  and other migrating ‘barbarians’ that came before them, the Rus brought women along with them, signifying there interest was not solely raiding and warfare but also colonization and settling.

To quell ideas of rebellion in Bulgaria Sviatoslav sent them a message by having about twenty thousand Bulgarian captives impaled in the city of Philippopolis and he allowed Boris II of Bulgaria to remain in Prislav as a puppet king. The Rus revitalized trade along the Danube River as there was an evident economic trade boom at this time. The Byzantines only wished for the Rus to weaken Bulgaria but had instead replaced one neighboring threat with another. They had invited a wolf to their doorstep as Rus had neared Constantinople. As the Rus moved ever closer, the Byzantines attempted to sway them into peace.

As for Sviatoslav, the leader of the Rus army, he (Byzantine Emperor Tzimskes) decided to negotiate with him; and he sent ambassadors to tell him that he should take the pay promised by the Emperor Nikephoros for attacking the Mysians (Bulgaria), and should return to his town territory and the Cimmerian Bosporos (the Strait of Krech)” – Leo the Deacon.

Sviatoslav doubled down as he demanded to not only receive the promised payment, but also added that in return for the captured cities and persons that they had to pay a greater amount and “if the Romans were not willing to pay, then they should quickly withdraw from Europe, which did not belong to them, and move to Asia.” The Romans responded with threats so Sviatoslav retorted:

I see no urgent need for the emperor of the Romans to come to us. Therefore let him not tire himself out by coming to this land; for we will soon pitch our tents before the gates of Constantinople, will surround this (city) with a mighty palisade, and will meet him bravely when he sallies forth, if he should dare to undertake such a struggle. We will teach him with very deeds that we are not mere laborers who live by the work of our hands, but bloodthirsty warriors who fight out foes with weapons, although the emperor believes in ignorance that Rus soldiers are like pampered women, and tried to frighten us with these threats, as if we were suckling infants to be frightened by hobgoblins.

^ Svyatoslav’s Warriors sacrificing prisoners to the Pagan gods during the Siege of Dorostolon by Henryk Siemiradzki.

The Byzantine Emperor fortified his defenses and gathered his men, one gambit held by the Byzantines were the heavily armored cavalry units known as cataphracts referred to by him as “immortals”. With the well trained Byzantine force a swift advance was lead against the city of Preslav while a fleet of Greek dromone warships armed with Greek Fire blocked any chance of a Rus naval retreat via the Danube River which led to the Black Sea. The Byzantines besieged the Rus held city of Dorostolon; holding out, the inhabitants began starving, losing morale, deserting and were suffering from casualties sustained from indecisive skirmishes outside the city walls. Sviatoslav wished to have one last battle in which “they would either win, having fought well and triumphed over the enemy, or lose, having preferred a noble and happy death to a life of shame and disgrace”.

“– Romans fell on them again, the [Rus] were put to flight and ingloriously sought refuge in the city. Many of them fell that day, trodden underfoot by others in the narrow defile and slain by the Romans when they were trapped there. Sviatoslav himself would have been taken too, if night had not fallen and delivered him. When those who escaped danger were within the defense-work, they raised a mighty lamentation over the death of Ikmor. When the Romans were robbing the corpses of the barbarians of their spoils, they found women lying among the fallen, equipped like men; women who had fought against the Romans together with the men. – A synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057 by John Skylitzes (Byzantine historian).

In the end the Rus and Sviatoslav were corned and pressured into ending this conflict with a truce. Sviatoslav’s terms was for the Byzantines to grant them with provisions, the Rus would keep their spoils of war and for the Byzantines to allow them safe passage back home (safe from the Pecheneg threat). In exchange the Rus would become allies, commence trade relations with one another and agree to surrender the eastern Crimea (peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea) and Bulgaria.

^ Svyatoslav Meeting with Emperor John i Tzmiskes by Klavdy Lebedev.

After peace had been agreed upon, the two great rulers met and this is where we received some of the physical descriptions of Sviatoslav which previously mentioned. Sviatoslav spoke of how he wished for a safe return home free from threat of attacks from the Pechenegs (Turkish steppe nomads). Since the war didn’t end with the complete destruction of Rus forces and as they kept the spoils of war, Sviatoslav would once again be able to war against the Byzantines if he so wished. The Byzantine emperor was rumored to have secretly asked the Pechenegs to destroy the returning Rus army and rob them of their spoils of war; others claim the Bulgarians were the ones who conspired with the Pechenegs.

While attempting to sail up the Dnieper River rapids he and his men were intercepted by the Pechenegs twice, the second time Sviatoslav was killed and his skull was turned into a gold-plated drinking cup. Sveneld, the famed Caspian raider, survived the skirmish and was able to relate the news back to Kiev, with this Kievan Rus had lost the Crimea, the Danube River trade route and the Bulgarian lands they had conquered.

With this grave disaster Kievan Rus had lost the Crimea, the Danube River trade route and the Bulgarian lands they had just recently conquered. Sviatoslav’s grand realm of Kievan Rus would now be held by his three sons who would fight for sole rule, a conflict which would mark the beginning of an era plagued by civil wars, wars of succession and familicide. These troubles sent Kievan Rus into a down spiral as it fractured and gave birth to numerous principalities, most of which were rivalrous. Despite these misfortunes the Rusians reached their peak under leaders like Vladimir the Great (who unified the Rus and made Greek Orthodox Christianity their official religion) and Yaroslav the Wise (while Europe was in the dark age, he made Kievan Rus a beacon of knowledge, literacy, trade and faith).

See Also:

  • KIEVAN RUS: PART 1 – NORTHERN ENIGMA OF THE MIDDLE AGES: In this post I will be covering the early portion of the medieval realm known as Kievan Rus (pronounced ‘Roos’); a multiethnic and cultural realm incorporating the Norse, Slavs, Turks, Balts and Finno-Ugrians. A realm centered around the many rivers that were riddled throughout its domains and led them to the riches of the Byzantine Empire, Silverland (Islamic Middle East) and the Baltic Sea. The culture, battle tactics and armaments of the ancient Slavs are addressed as well as the Druzhina (personal bodyguards and standing army). Also mentioned are some of the conflicts the Rus had with one another, the Greeks (Byzantine Empire), Bulgarians and Turkish steppe nomads.
  • KIEVAN RUS: PART 2 – DYING LIGHT IN A DARK AGE: In this post I will cover some of the civil wars, wars of succession and familicides that plagued Kievan Rus; their peak under leaders like Vladimir the Great (who unified the Rus and made Orthodox Christianity their official religion) and Yaroslav the Wise (while Europe was in a dark age, he made Kievan Rus a beacon of knowledge, literacy, trade and faith); Kievan Rus’ shattering into various feuding states, their clash against the Mongols and their rarely spoken of religion. The Chernye Klobuki (Turkish mercenaries) and the Varangian Guard (Norse, Slavic, Germanic, etc.) are also noted; the latter were warriors employed by the Byzantine Empire to act as the Emperor’s trusted personal guard and on occasion they acted as pirate hunters, policemen, jailers, prison guards, torturers and interrogators.