In the stories of the Arabian Nights, which are providing my current bedtime reading, the Caliph Harun al Rashid has a mischievous streak. He delights in going out incognito into the streets of Baghdad to join in the revels of others before revealing himself as the Commander of the Faithful and delivering justice or generosity to his unsuspecting subjects. In these adventures he is invariably accompanied by his best friend and closest advisor, Jaffar the Barmakid. Jaffar had grown up with Harun in the city of Rayy. His father Yahya had been the caliph’s tutor. He was tutor in turn to Harun’s son Mamun. He had served as governor of Syria for Harun and been the keeper of his royal seal. Along with his father and brother Fadl, Jaffar had administered the affairs of the caliphate efficiently. He had amassed great personal wealth whilst doing so, much of it in the form of personal gifts from the caliph. He had spent many, many nights in Harun’s company, enjoying all the finest things in life; talking long into the night, eating, drinking and gaming, listening to music and poetry and watching dancing girls. He was a good, close and loyal friend to the caliph, who owed a great deal to Jaffar and his family. Perhaps too much. Towards the end their relationship cooled, but that end when it came was shocking in its sudden ruthlessness.
Jaffar holding court
In Baghdad on a January night in 803, having parted from the caliph on good terms and returned to his home, Jaffar the Barmakid found himself summoned once more to the palace. Whilst he awaited Harun’s pleasure he was seized and his head was struck off. On Harun’s orders his body was then mutilated by being cut in two. The three parts of his body were ordered to be displayed on the bridges of Baghdad. They would rot there for the next two years until they were taken down and burned; a dire warning to all passers-by of the fickleness of absolute rulers and the dangers of flying too close to the sun. Following the execution of Jaffar, Yahya, his surviving sons and his brother were all thrown into prison. All of their vast wealth and property was confiscated.
What was their crime? No charges were ever made. Yahya and Fadl both died in prison. Fadl was possibly tortured to death in an attempt to make him reveal the location of hidden assets. The Barmakids had perhaps presumed too much for too long as they had wielded power in the caliph’s name, making decisions without asking his opinion. Old Yahya had perhaps been too familiar with the caliph, playing the father figure long after the son had grown up. Harun had not made a secret of his irritation. Yahya had seemed to be losing the caliph’s favour in recent times, having been repeatedly and pointedly insulted in the caliph’s presence by subtle means that were lost on no-one, whilst Fadl had seen his responsibilities given to men hostile to his family. The warning signs were there. They had enemies aplenty of course; jealous rivals, most notably the chamberlain Fadl ibn Rabi, son of Hadi’s murdered vizier, who capitalised on the Barmakid’s downfall to take their place. It is likely that he and others poured poison into the caliph’s ears against his former favourites.
The Barmakids display their wealth - Akhbar i Barmakyan
There is enough there perhaps to understand the Barmakids’ downfall, but why was Jaffar, who Harun had loved best of all, so savagely treated? Two particular accusations are levelled at Jaffar. One is that he protected the Alid rebel ibn Abdullah and lied to the caliph about his whereabouts. Certainly the Barmakids were more conciliatory towards the Alids in general than the caliph wished them to be, for he suspected that they plotted against him, but a lot of time had passed in the interim and it seems a long time to bear a grudge. Another story told is that Jaffar had an illicit affair with the caliph’s sister and that a child was born of the affair and was smuggled away to Mecca. When Harun discovered the truth he had the child killed and his sister buried alive and then took his revenge on Jaffar. This perhaps is too fanciful to be true but of all the reasons given it is the only one which seems to come close to providing Harun with a strong enough motive for his actions against Jaffar.
The timing of their downfall suggests there may have been another factor in Harun’s decision to take down the Barmakids. Just a month before turning against the Barmakids, Harun had publically settled his plans for the succession in a solemn ceremony at Mecca during the Hajj. Harun had children by twenty different mothers and like his father before him he had marked out two of them to be groomed for the succession. His eldest son was Abd Allah, known by the honorific title Mamun. He was the son of a Persian slave girl who had died in childbirth but as the caliph’s first born he enjoyed his father’s affection and showed great promise, with Jaffar as his mentor. His second son was named Mohammad, known by the title Amin and was his son by his favourite wife Zubayda. His education had been entrusted to Fadl the Barmakid. Younger and less academically gifted than Mamun he may have been but his superior pedigree ensured that Amin was the heir apparent.
A later medieval depiction of the Hajj
It seems odd given his own experiences with his elder brother Hadi, that Harun should seek to engineer precisely the same situation in the next generation that had led to bad blood and murder before his own accession. This however was what he did. Both sons had received the oaths of loyalty as boys but now Harun would have their oaths to each other. At Mecca he read out and had displayed on the walls of the Kabaa, the terms of the succession to which the two brothers swore before the assembled great men of the caliphate. Amin would succeed his father as caliph. He would have direct control over the western portion of Harun’s empire. His brother would be his heir and could not be supplanted by any sons born to Amin. Furthermore, Mamun would have complete control over Khurasan and the other eastern provinces of the caliphate; a vast and powerful territory. Mamun would appoint his own officials and have control over his own armies, which were substantial. Most critically he would not be required to send any tax revenues to his brother, to whom he would pledge his loyalty but little else. Harun had effectively divided the empire and set up an almost inevitable conflict between his two sons. He hoped that the public taking of oaths within the sacred enclosure of Mecca and their continuing display upon the walls of the Kabaa would awe his sons into keeping the peace. In this assumption he would be proved hopelessly naive.
Many ordinary folk, we are told in admittedly hindsight filled accounts, shook their heads and declared that a disaster had been stored up for the future and it didn’t take a prophet or a genius to see the likely outcome of Harun’s arrangement. Being as they were first rate political manoeuvrers, no doubt the Barmakids could see the writing on the wall and they surely cannot have thought Harun’s plans for the succession to be a good idea. Perhaps they gave voice to those doubts. Perhaps they decided that when the time came, they would make arrangements of their own and defy the caliph’s wishes. Perhaps the caliph knew of or suspected this. Perhaps Fadl ibn Rabi whispered in his ear that the Barmakids plotted to undermine his plan and when he returned to Baghdad he resolved at last to bring about their demise. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...
The Kabaa in Mecca was the scene for the oath taking
To Nicephorus the Roman Dog, I have read your letter. Oh disloyal son. My answer will reach you sooner than you wish.
It was fighting talk and the caliph followed it up with an immediate invasion which Nicephorus was in no position to do anything about. The troops of the Anatolian themes were in revolt against him having declared their commander Bardanes Turcus as a rival emperor. Turcus himself claimed to be fighting on behalf of Irene and on news of her death he desisted in his revolt and voluntarily entered a monastery but a year later was blinded. Harun meanwhile had taken advantage of the chaos to pillage and burn his way through Cilicia. Nicephorus was left with little choice but to agree to a humiliating resumption of Irene’s tribute payments in order to secure a truce. Harun could have asked for nothing better. Hostilities were resumed the following year and resulted in a defeat for Nicephorus when he was ambushed and barely escaped with his life at the battle of Krasos thanks to the efforts of his officers.
Chess - a perfect analogy for diplomacy?
Now however it was the caliph’s turn to be distracted by internal dissent at the far end of his empire. Complaints reached Harun concerning the conduct of his governor of Khurasan Ali ibn Isa, an incompetent extortionist he had appointed in place of Fadl the Barmakid predominantly because he was a rival of the family. Harun decided to visit the province in person to discover the truth and he agreed a truce with Nicephorus in exchange for more tribute. In 805 he set out for Rayy. Here he met with Ali and found himself persuaded by rich gifts and sweet words that all was well. He confirmed his governor in his post and then found himself hitting the roof once more when news arrived that Nicephorus had taken advantage of his absence to breach the peace and had sacked the city of Tarsus as well as besieging Melitene and invading neutral Cyprus.
The following summer Harun led a massive invasion force reputed to be some 130,000 strong, an exaggeration to be sure but clearly the largest force sent across the border in living memory. Elements of the army advanced north as far as Ancyra whilst Harun settled down to besiege the fortified town of Heraclea in Cilicia, which proved to be a tough nut to crack. After two weeks of bombardment the town’s fortifications were still holding strong. On the seventeenth day a champion was sent out from Heraclea to challenge the Muslims to single combat and was defeated by an undistinguished volunteer from the ranks. Harun now resolved to terrorise the town into submission and rained flaming missiles down on the buildings within the walls. On the thirtieth day the populace abandoned their burning houses, threw open the gates and surrendered. The populace of Heraclea were taken away to be resettled as subjects of the caliph whilst the town was plundered and burned. Nicephorus meanwhile did no more than skirmish with isolated elements of the caliph’s forces and was overawed by the size of the army that the caliph had at his disposal. With the threat of further trouble on his western frontier from the Bulgars, Nicephorus had no choice but to make peace. He sent a deputation of churchmen to negotiate with the caliph who agreed to withdraw on resumption of an annual tribute of thirty thousand gold pieces, a promise not to rebuild Heraclea and a personal payment of the jizya poll tax of four gold pieces from the emperor himself, symbolic of his personal submission to the authority of the caliph. Nicephorus paid up. It was checkmate to Harun al Rashid.
Nicephorus found himself handing over plenty of these
Having humbled the Byzantines, Harun once more turned his attention to Khurasan where a full scale revolt had now broken out against his governor Ali ibn Isa. The trouble had started in Samarkand when a local aristocrat was imprisoned for perfectly legitimate reasons but escaped and then whipped up a revolt in order to evade justice. The rebellion spread like wildfire through Transoxania and an army sent to restore order was defeated and the governor’s son killed. Harun dispatched an army from Baghdad to restore order under his most trusted general Harthama with orders to seize and depose the governor. This was done but the rebels still refused to return to the fold.
On receiving this news Harun decided to once more set out for the east himself. He charged his younger son Qasim with keeping an eye on the Byzantines from Raqqa and left his son Amin in charge in Baghdad. He then set out accompanied by Fadl ibn Rabi and his son Mamun, who was to take charge of his province, along with a vast entourage, making his slow progress towards Merv. The caliph was suffering from terrible stomach pains and knew that his days were numbered. By the time he reached Rayy it seemed unlikely that he would complete the journey. Mamun was sent on to Merv where his inheritance awaited and where he would reimpose control. Harun reached the town of Tus in northern Iran in March 809 and could go no further. Here on 24th March he died, aged forty three. He left his empire primed for chaos and when that chaos subsided nothing would quite be the same. In the centuries to follow, men would look back on his reign as an era of comparative peace and stability that would take on a golden hue and his reputation would attain that of a ruler of greatness. Was he truly great though, Dear Reader? I, for one, remain unconvinced.