Historians stunned by ‘cheeky’ Viking graffiti etched into ancient wall

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In communities up and down the country, many see graffiti as a form of vandalism, something that damages property and causes public safety issues.

You may be forgiven for thinking it is a modern-day phenomenon, helped by cheap paint and the rapid rise of urbanisation.

But you’d be wrong, as humans have, for hundreds of thousands of years, engaged in some form of graffiti — Stone Age cave paintings perhaps the best example of this.

In the subsequent years, humans from across the world sought to make their mark on both old and new lands, ensuring that it was known that this or that belonged to them.

Perhaps nowhere better is this displayed than at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, where more than 1,000 years ago, a visiting Viking left a cheeky message etched into one of the monument’s walls.

The story goes that on a balmy Thracian Sunday, 1,100 years ago, during a liturgy given inside what was then a Greek Orthodox Church, a bored soldier carved his name into the wall.

Except he wasn’t Greek or even from any nearby lands, but a Viking mercenary travelled from Scandinavia.

His signature is something you would find replicated anywhere around the world and is extremely cheeky: “Halfdan carved these runes,” it reads, or, more simply, “Halfdan was here”.

Today, a transparent plastic casing protects the inscription, which can be found in the gallery on the second floor of the Mosque, which before 2020 had been a museum.

Many Vikings travelled to Istanbul after a long and arduous journey down the Dnieper River from Scandinavia in search of trading partners and riches.

Those brave enough to make the journey were known as the Varangian Guard, after the Greek word for Viking or Norseman.

In the 9th century, they joined forces with the Byzantine Empire after it and Kievan Run settled a peace treaty that allowed some Russian warriors to join the empire’s army.

There are many instances of the Vikings fighting alongside the Byzantines, with some legendary warriors having made their names in that era.

Harald Hardrada, one of the later Varangians, fought with the Byzantines against the Muslims in Sicily before becoming King of Norway.

The Varangians and Vikings in general were noted for their large stature and ability to deftly use an axe.

It is thought that when the Norwegian King first visited Constantinople he travelled with 6,000 warriors, but after agreeing on a security pact with the Byzantines, returned to Scandinavia with just 100.  

They were able to flourish because they had no connections in the region and thus were not suspected of wanting to overthrow the Emperor with his enemies.

The warriors helped to defend the great city right up until 1204 when the Crusaders successfully sacked and captured Constantinople. 

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