Monday, 6 April 2015

Under the black banner - the Abbasid Revolution

There has been much talk of Caliphates of late. Whilst those plaguing the long suffering people of Iraq and Syria with thuggery and vandalism may be claiming to be seeking the restoration of such an institution, it seems unlikely that many of them have much appreciation of the historical reality. The Abbasid caliphate, the glory days of which ISIS like to hark back to, ruled over much of the Islamic world in the 8th to 10th Centuries and endured in Baghdad until the 13th. Whatever fantasies are projected backward onto it, the Abbasid Caliphate was neither an egalitarian utopia nor was it a fundamentalist, totalitarian state. It was far more interesting than that.

Statue of Baghdad founder  Caliph Al-Mansur, blown up by persons unknown in 2005
The heyday of the Abbasids, of which I have been reading much of late, saw the caliphs and their courtiers enjoying opulence and luxury on an unfathomable scale, sustained by wringing every last dirham from their groaning tax-payers. The caliphs dispensed vast wealth on a whim and a penniless poet could become a rich man with just one verse if he found the Commander of the Faithful in an appreciative mood. Catastrophic falls from grace were equally just a whim away. Away from the gardens and dancing girls of the caliphal court, the wisdom of the world was examined anew and augmented as texts from India and the classical world were avidly collected and studied under the patronage of the caliphs and their viziers. The Abbasid caliphs practiced tolerance in moderation and decadence in excess. Knowledge and beauty were celebrated. Books were cherished not burned.

In a previous post Anatomy of an Empire I described how the Umayyad caliph Abd al Malik inherited a chaotic and fragmented caliphate and transformed it into an effectively governed empire stretching from AndalucĂ­a to Afghanistan. Despite some military reverses during the reign of his son Hisham, the fourth son of Abd al Malik to hold the caliphate, the heartland of this empire remained intact and stable at his death in 743. Under a series of short-lived successors however, the cracks rapidly began to appear.

Hisham  was succeeded by his nephew Al Walid II, who was regarded by many as unfit to rule, being as he was a playboy, a drunk and a layabout. Worse still, he immediately attempted to gain acknowledgement of his young children as his designated successors. This was bitterly opposed by other members of the Umayyad family and the playboy now turned tyrant; arresting, torturing and banishing those who opposed him, including his own cousins. It did not take long for opposition to build and within a year Al Walid had been murdered in favour of his cousin Yazid. The new caliph was a far more promising prospect but within months he had died from natural causes, leaving his far less effective brother Ibrahim to face the challenge of their more distant cousin Marwan.

Marwan was the governor of Armenia and he had at his back an army of veterans toughened from years of fighting against the Khazars. He marched on Damascus and soon overthrew the regime of Ibrahim. He faced widespread opposition however from the Yamani tribal faction in Syria and from those perennial troublemakers the Kharijites and Alids in Iraq, all of whom formed an unlikely alliance against him. By 748 his forces had bludgeoned these various adversaries into grudging submission but the fatal challenge to Marwan II and the rule of the Umayyad family had already begun and would come from further afield.

It was not a new idea that the Caliphate should be held only by a member of the family of the Prophet. To date all uprisings against Umayyad rule aimed at achieving this had been centred on Iraq and had been proclaimed specifically in the cause of the direct descendants of the Prophet's son-in-law Ali. Now however a new movement was gaining momentum, calling for the overthrow of the corrupt Umayyads and their replacement  by an unspecified member of the Prophet’s family, with a promise of equality for all Muslims. The people behind this movement were the Abbasids; descendants of Mohammed’s uncle Al-Abbas, whose claim was perhaps not as legitimate as that of the Alids but was certainly strong enough to challenge the position of the Umayyads. To begin with however, the leading Abbasids kept a low profile. Later those who adhered to the view that only descendants in the direct bloodline of Ali had the right to rule would condemn the Abbasids as usurpers no different from the Umayyads.

The remains of the massive ramparts of Merv- cradle of the Abbasid revolution
The Abbasid revolution began not in Iraq but in distant Khurasan and was led by one Abu Muslim; a loyal freedman and client of the family who had been sent eastwards to look after their interests and coordinate their supporters. Abu Muslim had taken advantage of tribal divisions within the army and anti-Umayyad sentiment which had already led to a rebellion against the governor in Merv in today's Turkmenistan. When the rebel cause ran out of steam, he had reignited the conflict by commencing a well-planned popular uprising. The Yamani faction within the army, many of whom were of Iraqi origin and therefore had no love for the Umayyad Caliph Marwan II or his Qaysi supporters, willingly threw in their lot with the Abbasid cause. Having added a large and experienced body of fighting men to his ranks, Abu Muslim led his followers against Merv, expelling the governor. His army then marched westward to challenge the forces of the caliph.
The genius of the Abbasid revolution lay in the fact that it was declared in the name of the family of the Prophet but without naming a specific candidate for the Caliphate. This had the effect of broadening the appeal of Abbasids’ cause and their base of support without alienating any of their potential supporters who favoured a particular claimant. The Abbasid forces marched beneath black banners in mourning for those members of the Prophet’s family who had been martyred by the usurping Umayyads. The veterans of Khurasan overwhelmingly defeated two Umayyad armies that had been sent to intercept their march westwards. They then forced their way across the Euphrates and captured Kufa in 749.

The Umayyads had attempted to end the rebellion by cutting off the head of the serpent; intercepting and murdering the head of the Abbasid clan Ibrahim as he made a high profile pilgrimage to Mecca, dispensing enormous sums in alms along the way. In Kufa the Abbasid supporters moved quickly to declare his brother Abu’l Abbas as caliph Al-Saffah. Marwan II now led his forces in person against Kufa and the two armies met on the River Zab, a tributary of the Euphrates. The Syrian forces charged the Abbasid army with the full force of their cavalry whilst Abu Muslim’s men dismounted and repelled their enemies with a bristling a wall of spears. This tactic, mastered against the wild charges of the Turks on the north-eastern frontier, was exercised with discipline and the rebels won the day. The Umayyad forces were routed with heavy losses and Marwan II fled to Egypt. Here he was soon hunted down and was run to ground and killed near Fustat, resisting to the last with sword in hand. So ended the Umayyad Caliphate.

The victors were taking no chances and resolved upon a complete purge of the old ruling house. Having occupied Damascus and desecrated the tombs of all the Umayyad rulers with the exception of Umar II, who was respected for his piety, the Abbasid conquerors declared an amnesty and invited all of the male Umayyad family members to a banquet in order to bury the hatchet. Seventy two leading members of the clan were foolish enough to accept the invitation and were massacred. The only notable escapee was Abd Al-Rahman, who was the grandson of the caliph Hisham. Fleeing Damascus, the fugitive Abd al Rahman made his way to Ifriqiya where he found safety amongst the family of his Berber mother. Eventually he reached Al Andalus where he found widespread support for his cause and was able to establish himself as the ruler of the breakaway territory. Naturally he did not recognise the sovereignty of the Abbasids and their leading supporters in Al Andalus were swiftly eliminated. Their severed and pickled heads were sent to Kairouan, the westernmost outpost of caliphal authority, as a grim warning not to interfere in the affairs of Al Andalus.

The great mosque of Kufa - pictured in 1915

Meanwhile, back in Iraq, the Abbasids had too many potential rivals closer to home to concern themselves overmuch with the last surviving Umayyad. In pure military terms they held all the aces. The cities of Iraq had not fielded an army worthy of the name for a century and the army of Syria which had been the foundation of Umayyad power had been crushed by the army of Khurasan. The winning of battles now gave way to the winning of hearts and minds. Kufa, perennial trouble spot under the Umayyads, now served as capital for the new dynasty. With Al Saffah installed as caliph, the Abbasid rabbit was finally out of the hat. The revolution launched in the name of sweeping away the corrupt Umayyads and instead placing a true descendant of the Prophet on the caliphal throne, had delivered power into the hands of an obscure descendant of the Prophet’s uncle. Would this truly satisfy the malcontents of Iraq?

The Abbasid approach was a classic iron fist in a velvet glove. Members of the Alid family were summoned to the capital, received with honour and showered with gifts in return for their pledges of allegiance. Meanwhile the leader of the Kufan resistance to the Umayyads, whose loyalty to the new regime was suspect despite having delivered the city up to the Abbasids, was set upon in the street and murdered. Officially the deed was blamed on the extremist Kharijites.

Al Saffah died in Kufa in 754 and his death precipitated a brief struggle for the caliphate between his brother Abu Ja’far and their uncle Abd Allah. In a standoff outside Mosul between the army of Khurasan commanded by Abu Muslim and Abd Allah’s supporters gathered from the remnants of the army of Syria, Abd Allah’s army disintegrated in mass defection and desertion and his challenge fizzled out. Abu Ja’far now claimed the caliphate and took the name Al Mansur; the victorious.

Under the rule of Al Mansur, the foundations of Abbasid rule would be sunk deep into the shifting soil of Iraq. In contrast to his descendants, whose love of luxury and ostentation would become legendary, Al Mansur was a caliph of the old school. Austere, miserly, pious and utterly ruthless, he set out to stamp his authority on the caliphate and would brook no rival. First to be eliminated was the very man who had just saved his throne.

Abu Muslim had built the army that had swept the Abbasids to power. He had led it from victory to victory over the armies of the Umayyads. He was loved by the Khurasani soldiers who had followed him. Now he was preparing to return to Khurasan to govern it in the name of the Abbasids. Al Mansur however was not prepared to tolerate so popular a leader in possession of such a power base. Abu Muslim was summoned to Kufa where the caliph received him in the austere surroundings of his tent. At a signal from Mansur his bodyguards set upon Abu Muslim and cut him down. His body was wrapped in a carpet and then dumped into the Tigris at night. Faced with the fait accompli of their leader’s execution, the majority of the Khurasani army accepted the situation with barely a grumble. His die hard supporters were swiftly eliminated.

Gold dinar issued by Al-Mansur
Al Mansur’s next challenge came from within the family of the Prophet. Not every descendant of Ali and Fatima had been bought off and the acknowledged leader of the Alid cause, Mohammed, known as the Pure Soul, had gone into hiding along with his brother Ibrahim when Al Saffah had taken power. Mohammed was entitled to a degree of righteous indignation, since Al Mansur himself had given the oath of allegiance to him some twenty years earlier when rebellion against the Umayyads in the name of the family of the Prophet was in its first stirrings and the Abbasids were courting Alid support. The brothers went underground and moved from place to place fomenting support for an uprising against the usurping Abbasids.

Mansur had conducted a manhunt for the Pure Soul but the would-be rebel successfully evaded capture. As his frustration mounted, Mansur’s regime became increasingly repressive and members of the Alid family in Kufa and further afield were arrested and interrogated and many were ‘disappeared’. After Mansur's death, his successor Mahdi discovered a store room filled with the corpses of members of the Alid family; men, women and children. Each had a label attached to their ear identifying them. The bodies were buried in secret in a mass grave.

By 762 Mohammed could stand no more and although his plans for a coordinated uprising were not fully complete, he had himself proclaimed caliph in the main mosque in Medina, orchestrating a bloodless coup against the Abbasid governor. The struggle would not remain bloodless for long. Medina was an unwise choice of city to launch a rebellion, chosen more for symbolic than strategic reasons. Al Mansur moved quickly to cut off supply routes from Egypt and Syria before sending an army under the command of his cousin Isa. For the defence of Medina, Mohammed looked to his namesake the Prophet for inspiration and dug a defensive trench as had been done in the earliest days of Islam to protect the city from attack by the unbelievers of Mecca. The tactic on this occasion was unsuccessful and the defences were swiftly breached. All but a few hundred of his followers deserted him and Mohammed fell fighting bravely so we are told, wielding the sword of the Prophet himself. His head was cut off and taken to Al Mansur, who had it displayed on a silver platter. Ibrahim’s revolt in Basra, which should have been coordinated with Mohammed’s rising in Medina, followed two months after, when Medina was already hopelessly surrounded. Once Mohammed had been despatched, Isa turned his attention to Ibramhim, who had now been proclaimed caliph in turn. Ibrahim’s supporters were hopelessly divided and he was plagued by infighting, indecision and desertion. Finally he marched on Kufa but prevaricated again and Isa came upon him encamped in open country. In the battle that followed the Alid forces were routed and Ibrahim was fatally wounded.
A reconstruction of Abbasid Baghdad

With his rivals vanquished, al Mansur looked to the future and the establishment of a new capital for his dynasty which would provide both security and control away from the seething masses of Kufa. The caliph selected a site one hundred miles to the north of Kufa, close to the ruins of the old Persian capital of Ctesiphon and even more ancient Babylon. It was, as the presence of these earlier imperial cities showed, a natural hub with good communication by ancient river and road networks to all four corners of the caliphate.
 The village of Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris was chosen for the site of al Mansur’s new capital in consultation with Persian astrologers who advised the date of 1st August 762 as being most auspicious for its founding, with construction beginning under the sign of Leo. Al Mansur may also have looked to Persia for inspiration in the design of his city, which he called Medina al Salaam; the city of peace. The Sassanid Persian rulers were gone but their cities still stood. Based perhaps on the model of some Persian royal cities, Mansur’s Baghdad was planned as a circular city with a diameter of some 1.7 miles. Two major thoroughfares passing through its double circuit wall at four domed gates situated at the cardinal points and met in the centre, where a mosque and palace were constructed. Others see the influence of Greek learning and the writings of Euclid in Baghdad’s pleasing geometry. Whether Mansur was a fan of Greek knowledge or Persian architecture is unknown but he was a pragmatic man. Baghdad was designed in a logical fashion which met the caliph’s needs for good communications and strong defences. An encircling moat fed by the Tigris protected the approach to the outer wall. Within the city walls were the residences of al Mansur’s civil and military administrators and the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The city police force and Mansur’s palace guard were housed at the centre beside the royal palace, which was surmounted by a large green dome. The palace featured a great iwan, another Persian architectural innovation; a huge archway opening into an audience chamber where the caliph would hear the complaints of his subjects. Unlike those who followed him, Mansur did not cut himself off from the ordinary populace in glorious isolation but made himself available to any who sought his judgement or intercession and preached in the great mosque of his capital on Fridays.

The city would soon spill out beyond the limits of the original circular layout. Land on the east bank of the Tigris was parcelled out for development and Mansur’s leading courtiers snapped up prime locations and made fortunes from selling on land at many times its original value as they supervised the building of a whole new city, which featured a separate palace for Mansur’s son and heir Mahdi, commenced in 768. Foremost among those who had risen to power under Mansur were the chamberlain Rabi ibn Yunus; a former slave from Medina and Khalid ibn Barmak, a noble from Balkh in what is now Afghanistan, who had converted to Islam and come west with the conquerors. He became Mansur’s vizier in 770. Three generations of the Barmakid family would serve the Abbasid caliphs in the highest offices of state and they would become the wealthiest and most powerful family in the caliphate until their dramatic fall from grace. They would dictate through their patronage who would rise and who would fall in the court of Mansur and his successors and would play a key role in ensuring the smooth transition of power from one generation of Abbasids to the next. It was the Barmakids, rather than the caliphs whom they served who lit the touch paper of the great quest for knowledge for which early Abbasid Baghdad is remembered as a powerhouse of learning; commissioning translations of the works of Greek and Indian scholars. Khalid the Barmakid is also credited with saving the ruins of the Sassanid palace at Ctesiphon, dissuading Mansur, who tolerated no rival even where architecture was concerned, to leave it standing as a symbol of Islam’s victory over Persia.


The Sassanid palace at Ctesiphon may have inspired the design of Mansur's palace
Mansur died on pilgrimage to Mecca in 775. He had set out in the knowledge that he was unlikely to return, since his health was failing and he wished to make the act of pilgrimage one last time. He had not reached Mecca before he became too ill to continue. The caliph died peacefully and his death was kept secret by Rabi ibn Yunus until he had gathered all the great and the good from amongst those present on the expedition and extracted from them an oath of loyalty to Mansur’s son Mahdi, reading from a document which he claimed was the caliph’s last testament. With his path to the succession smoothed, Mahdi took up the reins of power and naturally entrusted much of the running of the state to the men he trusted; Rabi to whom he owed his uncontested accession to the caliphate, and Yahya the son of Khalid the Barmakid, who was his closest friend. Baghdad’s golden age lay ahead, but that's a post for another time.

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