Thursday, 19 June 2014

Anatomy of an Empire

As Iraq slides into turmoil once more to the dismay of the West, this particular post, which I hadn't written with the specific intention of drawing a parallel with the present, nevertheless serves as a reminder that this volatile region has been a seat of conflict from the earliest days of Islam. The Arab conquests resulted in a vast territory coming under the rule of the caliphs. One family, the Umayyads, would seek to make the caliphate their own but they would not go unchallenged. It took a remarkable partnership to forge a dynasty and an empire. Whilst the Umayyad Caliphs chose to base themselves in Syria where they enjoyed their strongest support, it soon became apparent that a strong controlling hand was needed in Iraq in order both to maintain and project the power of the caliphs over their territories. This is primarily the story of two men, Caliph Abd al Malik and his governor of Iraq Al Hajjaj, who reunited the fragmented lands of Islam and then launched the second great expansive phase of the Arab conquests.

In 685 AD the thirty nine year old Abd al Malik succeeded his father Marwan as Umayyad Caliph. Few rulers have inherited such a challenging and unpromising situation. At the time the young Muslim world was riven by strife. Abd al Malik’s father Marwan had established himself as caliph in Damascus only after a bloody struggle between rival Syrian tribal factions and his rule had not been recognised beyond this traditional Umayyad powerbase. The principle of hereditary succession was far from universally accepted and many contended that the caliph as successor of Mohammed and political and spiritual leader of Islam should be chosen for his demonstrated piety and meritorious conduct as much as for any claim based on bloodline. The Umayyads were an old and illustrious family but in Islamic terms they lacked pedigree.
At Siffin in 657 Ali clashed with Muawiya - founder of the Umayyad Dynasty

In Iraq especially the veneration in which the fourth caliph Ali, his martyred son Husayn and their descendants were held by many ensured that there would be repeated uprisings launched in the name of the family of the Prophet. Belief in their unassailable right to lead the Muslims, condemnation of those who had usurped that right and sorrow at their unjust killings would become the cornerstone of faith for what would evolve into the Shi’ite branch of Islam.
In the old country meanwhile, those families in Mecca and Medina who felt sidelined in the affairs of the Muslim world by a Syrian based Umayyad dynasty had recognised a rival claimant to the caliphate by the name of Abd Allah ibn Zubayr. Marwan had succeeded in wresting control of Egypt from ibn Zubayr but the rest of the Muslim lands were ranged implacably against the Umayyads. Efforts to dislodge ibn Zubayr from Mecca had failed and by 687 the two key cities of Iraq, Kufa and Basra were also under his control.

Such then was the challenge that faced Abd al Malik. From these unpromising beginnings he would forcibly unite the caliphate under his rule and would prove to be a remarkable ruler. It was Abd al Malik who truly secured the future of the Umayyad Caliphate as a hereditary dynasty. 

His need to secure his frontiers in order to focus on his internal problems obliged the new caliph to agree to the continuing payment of tribute to Byzantium. He nevertheless did not entirely cease the campaigns against imperial territory and continued efforts to conquer North Africa. Abd al Malik could not afford to commit large forces to this campaign but honour demanded that some effort was made. The territory had been nominally conquered all the way to the Atlantic by the adventurous Uqba ibn Nafi, who had theatrically ridden his horse into the surf to mark the limit of his conquests. The Berbers had revolted however and Uqba had lost his head. The outpost of Kairouan which Uqba had founded in the Tunisian interior had been abandoned. In 688 the caliph sent a small expeditionary force to reoccupy the settlement. In a swift campaign the Berber leader Kusayla had been defeated and killed and the death of Uqba avenged. In the beleaguered Byzantine city of Carthage this was seen as an ominous development. The exarch decided to attempt to peg the Arab advance back again and dispatched his still formidable fleet eastwards along the Libyan coast to seize the key stronghold of Barqa. With his lines of communication threatened, the Arab commander had no choice but to lead his force back into Libya and attempt to retake Barqa but the Byzantine defenders hung on for a rare victory. The Arab expeditionary force was finished as a fighting unit and with more serious troubles closer to home, Abd al Malik could not afford to send more troops westward. The Byzantines in Carthage had ensured that they would survive for a few more years but by their actions they had altered the Arab perception of the threat that their presence posed. From being seen as an irrelevance that could be bypassed, they now presented a danger and this perhaps inadvertently hastened their eventual demise.
19th century depiction of the Dome of the Rock
At the commencement of his reign Abd al Malik had begun the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This served to send a message to those in the old country who opposed the Umayyads. By emphasising the holiness of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as the scene of both Abraham’s willingness to  sacrifice Isaac and of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven during his ‘night journey’ Abd al Malik challenged the primacy of Mecca as the focal point for Muslim devotion and created a rival religious site that lay within his own territories. In its construction the Dome of the Rock mirrored Byzantine design and building methods and its interior decoration was likely completed by mosaicists who had mastered their craft working on imperial projects, although the chosen imagery did not depict any human or animal forms in keeping with Islamic thought. The world’s first great Islamic building was completed in 691/2, ironically just as the motivation for its construction became a moot point.
In 691 a triumphant Abd al Malik entered Kufa, having also captured Basra and vanquished the brother of ibn Zubayr. A year later his forces captured Mecca and slew his rival for the caliphate, finally reuniting the lands of Islam under a single ruler. No sooner had Abd al Malik succeeded in reuniting the lands of the caliphate then a new challenge came from the Byzantine empire. When Justinian II rejected the caliph’s tribute and mounted an invasion of Armenia, Abd al Malik rose to the provocation and launched an invasion of Cilicia. Battle was joined at Sebastopolis in 692 and the Muslims advanced with copies of the defunct peace treaty attached to their spears. They were victorious when twenty thousand Slavic troops deserted the imperial cause and joined them. In the aftermath of this military disaster Justinian’s imprisonment of his commander Leontius sparked a revolt against him and led to his overthrow and exile.

With peace restored, Abd al Malik set about reordering his empire which was a melting pot of seething discontent. Conflict between those who had taken part in the original conquest of new territories and those who had arrived later wanting a slice of the spoils was at the heart of the problem. The original conquerors had established themselves as ruling elites, lording it over the native populations and later arrivals, taking the lion’s share of land and spending the revenues of the territories as they saw fit. They resented the interference of central government in their affairs and valued their independence. Meanwhile those who saw themselves as disenfranchised looked to the descendants of Ali as their champions rather than the Umayyad rulers in Syria and were a continual threat to stability. Abd al Malik’s approach was to reduce the influence of local elites by taking a strong grip on the reins of power. He appointed trusted family members as governors and gave the provinces far less freedom of action than they had enjoyed previously. Surplus tax revenues were to be forwarded to Damascus with no excuses. The caliph rather than the local elites would decide how money was to be spent in the provinces.
Dirham issued in the name of al Hajjaj

To the most volatile region of his empire, the caliph sent his number one enforcer in 694. Al Hajjaj ibn Yusuf had fought in the campaign to re-conquer Iraq and had commanded the final successful assault on Mecca as well as fighting at Sebastopolis. He was a man possessed of utter ruthlessness as his willingness to wage war on the holy city demonstrated and also complete loyalty to the Umayyad cause. He would show himself to be an astute administrator and a military visionary who masterminded the second great territorial expansion of Islam in the reigns of Abd al Malik and his son Al Walid. Arriving in Kufa, al Hajjaj summoned the populace to the city’s mosque and subjected them to a harangue which left them in no doubt that he would take draconian measures against anyone who stepped out of line.

 ‘Oh People of Kufa,’ he told them. ‘Certain am I that I see heads ripe for cutting and verily I am the man to do it.’ Moving on to Basra he repeated his message, declaring, ‘And he whose conscience burdens his head, I will remove the weight of his burden, and he whose life has drawn too long, I shall shorten what remains of it.’ The new governor certainly had a way with words. Raising a force from both cities he led them out on a campaign of extermination against the Kharijite rebels who had refused to acknowledge Umayyad rule.

Under Abd al Malik the lands of Islam would become a more homogeneous entity, with Arabic as the official language of administration. Coinage was also standardised across his empire, with local variations  being replaced by the silver dirham and the gold dinar, coins of standard weight and design. Al Hajjaj is credited with championing these developments. Taking heed, Abd al Malik grasped the important role that currency could play in conveying a message to his subjects and modelled his coins on the Byzantine example. Abd al Malik’s coins carried the image of the caliph upon them, proclaiming to every family who received the payment known as the ata, which was paid in exchange for past or present military service, that this munificence flowed from the caliph in Damascus. Later the images on the coins would be replaced by verses from the Koran. The Umayyad Caliphate was beginning to take on the form and appearance of a permanent  imperial ruling dynasty.
Gold Dinar of Abd al Malik

Abd al Malik and Al Hajjaj now turned their thoughts to territorial expansion, understanding that the best way to keep unruly elements amongst their subjects in line was to engage them in military campaigns far from home. Large armies were dispatched to both east and west. Beyond Iraq the lands of the caliphate extended to the borderlands of the old Persian empire. The province of Khurasan in north-eastern Iran, with its administrative capital in the city of Merv, was Islam’s wild frontier. To the east in the rugged and unforgiving highlands of what is now Afghanistan, the local rulers had rejected the overtures of the Muslims and remained defiantly un-subdued. A force dubbed the ‘Army of Destruction’ was sent into Afghanistan to defeat the fiercely independent inhabitants and soon found themselves on the back foot, fighting an implacable enemy who knew the terrain and made them pay for every forward step they took. Soon the Army of Destruction had been all but destroyed itself with the ragged survivors staggering back to civilisation half starved.

To the west in Ifriqiya there was greater success for in 698 the city of Carthage finally fell to the Muslims. Overwhelmed by the arrival of an Arab army of forty thousand before its walls, the city swiftly capitulated with little resistance and the Byzantine fleet sailed away unmolested. The taking of Carthage had been an easy victory for the Arabs but the Berbers once again were to prove to be the tougher opposition in Ifriqiya. Soon the Arabs were fighting a new insurrection led by a wild haired sorceress named Kahina, who instructed her followers to destroy every vestige of Roman civilisation that remained in order to render the territory valueless and therefore of no interest to the conquerors. As in the east it was proving to be the hardy mountain dwellers who provided the greatest resistance to the Arab conquest; willing to fight to the death in defence of their cherished independence and way of life. This time however the invaders were not driven out and the rebellion was eventually crushed.

 In the east the need remained to avenge the fate of the Army of Destruction. A new force was therefore raised in Kufa and Basra with the additional intention of removing large numbers of malcontents from Iraq and dispatching them to the distant frontier where they could not make trouble. This new army was somewhat disparagingly known as the Peacock Army, in reference to the finery of its distinguished leaders who set out to win the glory to which they felt that their wealth entitled them.

By 701 the leaders of the Afghan expedition had concluded that they were on a hiding to nothing and instead chose to rebel against Al Hajjaj who had sent them there. Marching back to Iraq they defeated the local forces and successfully occupied Kufa whilst Al Hajjaj hung on in Basra and awaited reinforcements from the caliph. Once troops arrived from Syria Al Hajjaj inflicted a string of defeats on the Peacock Army and drove them back into Kufa where he besieged them. Unable to agree amongst themselves just what they were fighting for, the rebels were soon hopelessly divided and many deserted. Finally, abandoned by their leaders, they surrendered on the promise of an amnesty and Kufa was brought back into the fold. Despite this clemency towards the defenders of Kufa, Al Hajjaj executed around eleven thousand rebel prisoners as a grim lesson to other would be troublemakers. The governor garrisoned his force of Syrian troops, whose loyalty to the ruling regime in Damascus was assured, between Kufa and Basra from where they could respond swiftly to any unrest in either city. The privileges of the existing population were further eroded with the payment known as the ata being restricted only to those loyally serving in the army of the current ruler rather than being paid out to anyone who could claim descent from a participant in the original conquest. By these heavy handed means the most volatile region of the Arab world was tamed once more.
7th Century relief from Samarkand
In 705 the Caliph Abd al Malik died and was succeeded by his son Al Walid in a peaceful and unchallenged transition of power which was testament to the achievements of his reign. Al Walid must have grown up somewhat in awe of Al Hajjaj and he gave the governor complete freedom of action in the eastern theatre. Al Hajjaj embarked on a bold programme of conquest, dispatching trusted and capable generals eastward to expand the frontiers of Islam. In Merv the arrival of Qutayba ibn Muslim galvanised the Arab forces. He called upon them to forget their intertribal squabbling and unite in the cause of jihad. Beyond the river Oxus to the north lay Soghdia. It was land of opportunity where petty kingdoms ruled over by merchant princes from the safety of fortress cities engaged in the lucrative caravan trade; bringing goods from China to the markets of Persia. The Soghdians were used to paying tribute to the Turks who controlled the caravan trade that passed through their lands and both raided and traded with the settled peoples as it suited them. The Arabs would have to defeat both if they wished to impose themselves on this land. It would be a campaign of setbacks and compromises. Local rulers accepted Arab overlordship only when faced with overwhelming force and the imminent destruction of their cities and then reneged on their tribute as soon as Qutayba was obliged to commit his forces elsewhere. The Turks meanwhile resented the Muslims’ attempts to muscle in on their territory and harassed Qutayba’s forces. The Soghdian potentates were happy to ally themselves with Arab against Turk or Turk against Arab or against each other as the situation demanded in order to safeguard their cities and commercial interests and Islam received only a lukewarm reception in the cities which were subjugated. Nevertheless steady progress was made. By 709 the city of Bukhara had been taken by force and garrisoned and a mosque constructed, which the locals were offered cash incentives to attend. Three years later Samarkand, the greatest city of Soghdia, suffered a similar fate, although in both cases the ruling dynasties remained in place as vassals of the Arabs. There was success too in the Afghan highlands where the ruler who had defied the Army of Destruction agreed to pay tribute. Qutayba then advanced north-eastwards to the headwaters of the Jazartes; the river which had marked the limit of Alexander’s conquests in this part of the world and which now marked the limit of Chinese influence. From here envoys were sent to the Tang court in China to establish peaceful relations.

The conquest of Sind
In 710 al Hajjaj sent another of his protégés, Mohammed ibn Qasim, the governor of Shiraz, to cross the fearsome desert of southern Iran and reach the Indus. Having captured the key city of Daybul; a nest of pirates whose activities had prompted the invasion, ibn Qasim went on to inflict a crushing defeat on the ruler of Sind, bringing much of what is now Pakistan into the territory of the caliphate. He sent the head of the ruler of Sind, who had been slain in battle upon his great white war elephant, to al Hajjaj as a gift.
A year later, with the armies of Islam having once more conquered the North African coast and reoccupied Tangier under Musa ibn Nusayr, an opportunity presented itself for Berber convert Tariq ibn Ziyad to take the Muslim conquest in a whole new direction. Having come to an agreement with the ruler of the small former Byzantine enclave of Ceuta to provide him with ships, Tariq crossed the straits which still bear his name; Gibraltar being derived from the Arabic Jebel al-Tariq or Tariq’s Rock, to land on the southern coast of Spain. Intervening in the Visigothic civil war which was raging at the time, Tariq soon turned the situation to his advantage and annihilated the armies of the Visigothic king Rodrigo. Following the rout of Rodrigo’s army, centrally organised resistance in Spain crumbled as the individual cities all looked to their own defences. This allowed them to be picked off piecemeal, making the task much easier for Tariq’s limited forces. The large Jewish population of the Spanish cities, who had endured vicious persecution under the Visigoths, welcomed the Muslims as liberators and eased their progress. Cordoba fell after a siege of three months whilst Toledo was abandoned to the enemy by the fleeing inhabitants. Reinforcements led by Musa landed in the following year and the subjugation of Al Andalus, as the Arabs would call their Spanish territories, continued at pace. Over the next five years the remnants of Visigothic resistance would be driven back into the north west corner of the Iberian Peninsula and here they were able to hold the line in what would survive as the Kingdom of Asturias. Al Walid now presided over an empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Indus.
A medieval depiction of Tariq
The deaths of both al Hajjaj and the Caliph al Walid within a year of each other brought great upheaval. The accession of his al Walid’s brother Suleiman in 715 brought about a changing of the guard in the provinces as the new caliph looked to reward his closest supporters. Those who had achieved great deeds in advancing the cause of Islam to new lands were treated with monstrous ingratitude and brutality. Musa and Tariq, the conquerors of Ifriqiya and Al Andalus, were recalled to Damascus not to a heroes’ welcome but to disgrace and imprisonment. Mohammed ibn Qasim the victor of the Sind campaign was also imprisoned and tortured to death. It seemed that the new caliph feared that these conquerors would attempt to turn the lands they had subdued into their own personal fiefdoms and so they paid the price for their success. In Merv, Qutayba ibn Muslim also feared the worst but unlike his contemporaries he resolved not to meekly submit to the will of the caliph but instead attempted to lead his army back westward in revolt. His troops however were unwilling to take up arms against the Commander of the Faithful for the sake of their general and instead they angrily turned upon him and the conqueror of Transoxania was murdered by his own men. These events brought to a close the second great explosive phase of the Arab conquests. There was after all little incentive for the newly appointed governors to exert themselves in further conquests in view of the fate of their predecessors. A remarkable era was over.

Dramatisation of al Hajjaj's address to the people of Basra

You may also enjoy: Justinian II - Mad, Bad and Dangerous

I was lazy for this article and reused material from my own book The Battles are the Best Bits, but if you liked it please check out the book. 

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