Intrigued by a mention in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (see this post), I turned to the long extract from “Afanasy Nikitin‘s Journey Across Three Seas” in Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, by Serge A. Zenkovsky, and was struck not only by Nikitin’s audacious and open-minded journey to Persia and India (and return by way of Ethiopia, Arabia, and Armenia — alas, he died in Smolensk in 1472 before he could reach his native Tver) but by his linguistic accomplishments. In his introduction, Zenkovsky discusses the “pious and lyric digressions that sometimes take the form of a prayer or appeal to the Creator, or an evocation to his beloved Russian land”:
Curiously, part of these digressions were written by Nikitin in the language of the Koran, or in the “basic Islamic” business dialect of the Near East in which Arabic, Turkic, and Persian words are interwoven. One may presume that he did this to protect his notes from unwanted readers. It may be added that some intimate and practical observations of Indian women are given in the same dialect.
The presence of Near Eastern linguistic and stylistic elements, together with descriptions of unknown, fairy-tale-like lands, lends Nikitin’s story a particularly exotic touch. The writer obviously enjoyed the profuse use of foreign words and sonorous Oriental names of cities and lands, and played unremittingly with them. […]
The statement that there is just one and the same God in Islam and Christianity, as well as the use in Christian prayer of the word, “Allah,” […] are a most unusual and unexpected demonstration of religious tolerance in both medieval Russian and Western writing. […]
(Nikitin ended his report with a long Christian prayer in Arabic.)
A very interesting-sounding fellow; I’d like to have had a chance to talk with him.