Thursday, 22 October 2015

Of War and Wisdom

This post follows on from the previous Abbasid post Brothers up in Arms. It was originally written as one post but I felt it was a bit long so cut it in half and will conclude the life of the caliph Mamun here.

At the end of the last post we left the caliph Mamun back in control in Baghdad and engaged in reconciliation and rebuilding following the civil war with his brother and his failed attempt to rule the caliphate from distant Merv. In 821 an opportunity presented itself for Mamun to interfere in affairs in Byzantium with the appearance in northern Syria  of Thomas the Slav, who was leading a rebellion against the incumbent emperor Michael II. Thomas' emissary to the caliph was sent with extravagant promises to make. Allowing for propaganda intended to blacken his name as a traitor to the empire, Thomas is variously credited with signing away frontier provinces or perhaps even undertaking to en-fief the entire empire to the caliphate in exchange for an alliance which would safeguard his rear whilst he turned his forces against Constantinople. The caliph accepted with alacrity and provided Thomas with a substantial contribution to his war chest. The rebel was even permitted to celebrate his coronation as Emperor of the Romans in the city of Antioch. Mamun would have been advised to remain sceptical of the bargain. Thomas, after all, was not the first Byzantine rebel commander to promise much and deliver nothing.

Thomas the Slav arrives in Syria - Madrid Skylitzes
At any rate Thomas’ friendly overtures were well timed for the caliph had his hands full already with continuing unrest in Syria and Egypt and a rebellion by the Khurramite sect, centred on present day Azerbaijan, which had sprung up during the civil war. The Khurramites followed a belief system which fused ideas from the Zoroastrian cult of Mazdakism with Shia Islam and like earlier movements they revered the memory of Abu Muslim. The leader of the revolt was Babak, who claimed descent from Abu Muslim and also claimed rather interestingly to have inherited the soul of the previous Khurramite leader, which had fused with his own. In true guerilla style Babak had taken to the mountains and a succession of governors of Azerbaijan had failed to deal with him. By using the terrain to his advantage he had been able to win many victories over the Abbasid forces sent against him, falling upon and slaughtering his enemies in bad country and then melting away once more. His successes had brought more support for the revolt and pockets of Khurramite resistance were springing up all over the Persian territories of the Caliphate. More trouble on the north-western frontier therefore, was the last thing the caliph wanted. In the event however, Thomas' rebellion ended in failure, defeat and crucifixion. See here for more on this episode.

By 826 Mamun had regained a firm grip on his territories with Syria and Egypt having been entirely pacified by the son of Tahir and returned to obedience. The rebellion of the Khurramites was still ongoing but the tide seemed to be turning. In 830 an army of Khurramite rebels holding out in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran led by a Persian nobleman by the name of Nasr was heavily defeated by the Caliph’s forces. Seeing the writing on the wall for the Khurramite cause, Nasr chose to lead his surviving troops through Armenia out of harm’s way and sought refuge within the Byzantine Empire.

The arrival of Nasr with some fourteen thousand armed followers who professed themselves willing to fight for the empire against the caliphate was greeted rapturously by the new emperor Theophilus, who had succeeded his father Michael II in 829. The new arrivals were given land and incorporated into the Byzantine military under the command of Nasr himself, upon whom the emperor bestowed Patrician rank. Nasr and his followers agreed in principle at least to embrace Christianity and were baptised. Nasr now took a new Christian name and became Theophobos. As Christians, the former Khurramites were now permitted to marry and Theophobos was given the emperor’s own sister-in-law as a bride. The fugitive rebel had landed on his feet.

Embassy from Theophilus to Mamun - Madrid Sylitzes

Good relations had previously been established between Theophilus and Mamun but this provocation was too much for the caliph, who decided that the time had come to lead an expedition against the infidel as his father had done. In the summer of 830 he launched a limited invasion of Anatolia, with his son Abbas also leading a column. Little was achieved aside from symbolism but in the following year Theophilus retaliated against the raid by invading Muslim held Cilicia and sacking Tarsus. Elated by his success, Theophilus returned to Constantinople and celebrated with an elaborate triumphal procession followed by races in the hippodrome in which he himself participated. Mamun meanwhile had retired to Damascus. The first Abbasid caliph to visit the city, he was making a point of showing his face in recently re-pacified Syria. Retaliating in turn to Theophilus’ campaign, Mamun once more led his forces across the border and captured the town of Heraclea, which his father had also successfully taken in a much celebrated victory.

 In 832 a tenuous peace was negotiated between the two empires whilst Mamun, who must have been the most well travelled of all the caliphs, decided to visit Egypt and show his face there too. Whilst in the land of the pharaohs, the ever curious caliph decided to investigate the pyramids and had an exploratory tunnel dug into the side of the Great Pyramid. This tunnel intersected the interior passages within the pyramid and the caliph was able to venture inside and make his way up to the burial chamber of Khufu, only to find the sarcophagus empty and the tomb looted in distant antiquity.

 With his Egyptian efforts frustrated, the caliph set out once again in the summer of 833 in what promised to be a more sizable campaign against the Byzantines. As he relaxed beside a stream during his advance from Tarsus however, the caliph suddenly took ill and his fever soon proved fatal. He had named no successor, realising perhaps the futility of such actions. His younger brother Qasim, who had been appointed third in line in the provisions of their father Harun al Rashid, moved swiftly to seize the reins of power as caliph Al-Mutasim. Mamun was laid to rest in Tarsus and his tomb survives to this day.

In overall assessment Mamun, for me at least, emerges as a more impressive figure than his more famous father Harun al Rashid. He had shown himself a good judge of character in the men he had chosen to trust and had displayed a willingness to accommodate, reconcile and compromise in his policies and his exercise of mercy where possible. He was nevertheless prepared to be utterly ruthless when a change of policy demanded it. He was, above all, a pragmatist.

Muslim scholars discuss the use of the astrolabe

Mamun’s greatest legacy is as a patron of scientific enquiry. Whereas  almost every anecdote about Harun seems to involve dancing girls and drunken poets, Mamun appears to have taken a serious interest in the scholarship being pursued in Baghdad under the auspices of the caliphs. The institution that would come to be known as the Bayt al-hikma or House of Wisdom was first established in Baghdad under the auspices of Mansur as a safe repository for his growing collection of scientific and philosophical manuscripts. This is imagined as a centrally organised and officially controlled research facility but in truth no such control or organisation existed and individual scholars carried out their work independently with funding from wealthy patrons amongst the caliphs' nadim. The term House of Wisdom is better thought of as an idea or a movement at this point in history rather than a place. The effort to translate works from Greek, Indian and Persian into Arabic had been given particular impetus by the Barmakids. Yahya the Barmakid is said to have commissioned the first Arabic translation of Euclid and he and his sons numbered many pet scholars amongst their clients.


Mamun of course was raised as the protégé of Jaffar the Barmakid and perhaps gained his eager curiosity and love of scientific enquiry from the scholars patronised by Jaffar. Under Mamun’s caliphate the pursuit of scientific knowledge received a massive boost from the personal interest that the caliph took in such matters. Mamun made enquiries as to his scholars’ needs and progress, sourced new manuscripts and scientific instruments during his visits to Damascus and Egypt and oversaw the construction of a new observatory in Baghdad. Stepping into the shoes of the Barmakids came three brothers known as the Banu Musa who had accompanied Mamun westwards on his return from Khurasan. Like the Barmakids they were an old Persian family, wealthy, cultured and well connected. Working for the Banu Musa, a good translator could earn five hundred dinars a month and they assembled an army of them.

Foremost of all the scholars of Baghdad during Mamun’s reign was Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi. This great polymath was another who had made his way westwards from Khurasan to the City of Peace. His contribution to modern mathematics, astronomy and geography is formidable. Even the Western corruption of his name is preserved in the term algorithm. Al-Khwarizmi was responsible for the production of three great works of translation and further scholarship, whose transmission to the west have cemented his reputation as the greatest of oriental sages. The first was a distillation of all Indian mathematical and astronomical knowledge which had been transmitted to the Arab world within a corpus of work called the siddhanta. To this Al-Khwarizmi added star tables known as the zij al sindhind whose accuracy would be unsurpassed for centuries and the earliest known description of the use of the astrolabe. Al Khwarizmi also needed to include an explanatory treatise on the Indian system of calculation using the numbers 1-9 along with the concept of zero.


Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi

If like me you hated maths at school then you have reason to curse Al-Khwarizmi for his next work; the book of restoring and balancing, Kitab al jabr wa’l-muqabala, from which we take the term algebra. The book detailed the use of equations in solving the problems of the day; calculating tax or inheritance, partitioning land and regulating trade. His third great work the al-majisti was a translation and commentary on the works of Ptolemy, known as the Almagest in the West.

Upon perusing the Almagest, Mamun demanded a practical demonstration of the theory within. In a study commissioned by the caliph to determine the accuracy of Ptolemy’s estimate of the circumference of the Earth, a party of astronomers set out into a flat area of desert and measured the altitude of the pole star. Driving a pole into the ground they fixed a piece of cord of known length to it and then walked north in a straight line, taking measurements of the altitude of the pole star as they went, driving in more posts and running out the cord behind them. Once they had reached a point at which the altitude of the pole star had risen by one degree, they retraced their steps along the posts they had driven into the ground and measured their distance travelled from the length of cord they had paid out. I can only assume that someone was following on behind on the way out to recycle the cord already used, unless they were carrying 66 miles of cord with them, for that was the measured distance travelled; 66.6 miles to be precise. Proceeding south from their original start point they then continued until they had covered the same distance at which point they observed that the altitude of the pole star was one degree lower than at their start point. The entire experiment was then repeated in a second area of desert and the measurements found to be the same, at which point the caliph declared himself satisfied with their observations. The distance corresponding to a degree of latitude was found to be 32.2 farsakhs or 66.6 miles. From this it was concluded that the circumference of the Earth was eight thousand farsakhs, or 24,000 miles, impressively close to the modern figure.

Such was the standard of intellectual enquiry taking place on Mamun’s watch. It would be three centuries before anyone in the West even started to catch up. None of his successors would match his passion but the touch paper had been well and truly lit and would continue to burn brightly.

 Mamun and the pyramids


Monday, 12 October 2015

Brothers up in arms

This post follows on from Harun al Rashid Part Two - Fall of the Barmakids

If Al Amin the son of the Commander of the Faithful should attempt to remove Al Mamun the son of the Commander of the Faithful from his right of succession after himself or if he should attempt to remove Al Mamun from the governorship of Khurasan, or if he should attempt to dismiss any of his military commanders whom the commander of the faithful attached to al Mamun’s side, or if he should attempt to deprive him of either a small or a great part of what the Commander of the Faithful has granted to him, in any manner whatsoever or by any stratagem whatsoever, be it insignificant or momentous, then the Caliphate shall pass directly to Al Mamun and he shall come before Al Amin and be the one invested with power after the Commander of the Faithful.

The Caliph Al Mamun as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes

Harun al Rashid could not have made it clearer. His dispensations regarding the succession were inviolable. If  his heir Al Amin interfered in any way with the rights of his brother either in regard to the succession or to the governance and control of the eastern provinces then his right to the caliphate was forfeit. All military commanders and indeed all Muslims in general would be released from their oaths of loyalty to Al Amin and would be expected to support the claim of Al Mamun. His sons had both written out declarations, swearing to uphold their obligations to each other and to the their younger brother Qasim, who was third in line. These were displayed on the walls of the Kabaa in Mecca. The caliph had written to every governor in the caliphate with a proclamation to be read out to all the people so that they understood what had been agreed and solemnly sworn to in Islam’s most sacred space. The oaths were awesome, binding and permanent. Those who broke even the smallest part of them would suffer the righteous anger of the Almighty himself. They were unfortunately, also not worth the paper they were written on. Incidentally, the oaths probably were written out on paper as the knowledge of paper production had by this time made its way from China to the Arab world, brought westwards from Khurasan with the Abbasids.


Harun, who died in March 809, was not long in his grave before the two brothers began moving inexorably towards conflict. Responsibility for the war must be laid at the door of Al Amin, the ruling caliph, who soon demanded the handing over of territory and revenues from his brother in direct contravention of the terms of the succession. As was his right, Mamun refused his brother’s demands. From their respective courts in Baghdad and Merv the increasingly strained diplomatic correspondence flew back and  forth by the efficient state postal service known as the Barid, whose riders could carry messages along the Khurasan highway at a rate of 400km a day. If there is a true villain of the piece it is Fadl ibn Rabi, likely architect of the downfall of the Barmakids, who had found himself in Baghdad as Amin’s chamberlain. With a eye to his own and his family’s fortunes, Fadl had no stake in a future with Mamun as the next caliph. From the first he worked to remove Mamun from the succession and encouraged Amin to this end. Having successfully provoked disagreement between the brothers, Fadl continued to raise the stakes until war was inevitable.


Mamun meanwhile, taking advice from the hawks in his own court, decided to test the extent of his brother’s hostility. He wrote to request that his sons and their mother be sent to him in Khurasan along with a large sum of his own money. Both were refused and the worst fears of Mamun and his supporters were confirmed further when news arrived that his brother had excluded his name from the Friday prayers in Baghdad. Towards the end of 810 Amin took the final fateful steps. The proclamations were torn down from the sacred walls of the Kabaa and brought to Baghdad, where the caliph publically ripped them up, before declaring that his own son Musa would succeed him as caliph.

 Modern Tehran in the shadow of the Elburz Mountains - picture by Hansueli Karpf

Soon moves were afoot to depose Mamun from the governorship of Khurasan by force and a large army of some fifty thousand men was assembled. The commander of this force was none other than the formally disgraced governor of Khurasan, Ali ibn Isa, whose misconduct had prompted Harun al Rashid to take his last fatal journey east. Ali was a key member of Amin’s inner circle but his appointment was a double edged sword. In Khurasan he was a hated figure from his years of corrupt administration and the prospect of his return at the head of a conquering army encouraged the people of the region to throw their support firmly behind Mamun against his brother the caliph.


On paper, of which as mentioned there were plentiful supplies, Mamun did not have much of a chance. A small force of just five thousand men was all that could be mustered for the defence of the east and was dispatched to the city of Rayy which stood in the path of Ali’s advance. Rayy, situated close to modern Tehran, presented a formidable bastion guarding the only route to Khurasan between the Elburz mountains and the Iranian desert. In command of the defenders was one Tahir ibn Husayn, a young aristocrat from the Afghan city of Herat. Mistrusting the citizens of Rayy to remain loyal if he garrisoned the city and allowed himself to be besieged, Tahir instead elected to face Ali in the field. If the numbers given for the respective forces are correct then Tahir faced odds of ten to one. On a sandy plain a day’s march from Rayy, which offered no advantages of terrain to the defending force, the two armies met. Tahir must have either had a yearning to enter paradise or supreme confidence in the quality of his small force but if it was the latter then his faith was not misplaced. An initial cavalry assault by Ali’s army was seen off by the defenders before they made an attempt to negotiate by citing the late Harun al Rashid’s now defunct proclamations. Ali’s response was to put a price on the negotiator’s head. Battle was rejoined and in the furious fight that ensued, the hated Ali was a marked man. He was cut down and beheaded and with the death of their commander his army’s morale and discipline collapsed despite their superior numbers and they were routed.

The city of Hamadan saw Tahir's second victory

Most commanders would have remained on the defensive following such a fortunate victory but once he had dispatched the news of his victory to Merv, Tahir immediately once again showed his exceptional boldness and initiative by marching westwards along the Khurasan highway with his small force. The army of Ali had broken up in disarray and offered no further resistance and a new force had been hastily assembled and sent out from Baghdad when news of the defeat had arrived. Tahir was able to defeat this force outside Hamadan and marched on to seize the town of Hulwan, which lay on the far side of the Paytak pass through the Zagros mountains. Having cleared the mountains, Tahir was now just a hundred miles from Baghdad and now he waited. The odds were still stacked against him but following the two shock defeats, things were falling apart for Amin. Having lost both the moral high-ground and the strategic initiative the caliph’s stock was falling and only large payments and promises of rewards in Khurasan when the war was won served to keep the army of Baghdad (Abna) and the tribal chiefs of Iraq onside. Tahir was showing himself to be a strategist of genius, dispatching agents to sow dissension amongst his enemies and circulating derogatory rumours of a homosexual relationship between Amin and Fadl on the streets of Baghdad. A new force of some forty thousand made up of the soldiers of the Abna and Arab tribesmen was dispatched towards Hulwan but such were the divisions and jealousies between the two groups, encouraged by Tahir's agents who had infiltrated their ranks, that they fell to fighting each other before they were able to bring Tahir to battle.


Just as Caesar had crossed the Rubicon and swept down upon a panic stricken Rome with just a single legion and plenty of audacity, so Tahir now capitalised on the chaos and marched at the head of his tiny army into Iraq. His position in Hulwan was taken over by Harthama; Harun al Rashid’s most trusted general who had pledged his loyalty to Mamun. Harthama had arrived from Khurasan with reinforcements, allowing Tahir to go back on the offensive. Avoiding Baghdad for the time being, Tahir marched into the south and met with minimal resistance. Basra surrendered without a fight. In the holy cities of Mecca and Medina where there had been shock and dismay at Amin’s disregard for the sacred oaths that had been sworn, the people declared their allegiance to Mamun, as the wronged party, keeping to the letter of Harun al Rashid’s instructions.

Medieval depiction of Mecca

In the summer of 812 Tahir and Harthama laid siege to Baghdad, where Amin remained holed up, now deserted by the majority of his troops and dependent upon the ordinary citizens for the defence of his capital. Despite having only rudimentary weapons and makeshift armour, the civilian militia raised from the poorest inhabitants, known as the ‘naked ones’ due to their lack of proper military equipment, put up a fierce resistance and the siege dragged on for a whole year whilst conditions in the city became increasingly worse. Vicious fighting ensued as the war for control of the city was fought street by street. Siege artillery was brought up and whole districts of the city of peace were battered into rubble. Law and order broke down as supplies ran low in the city and criminal gangs roamed the shattered streets. Many innocents were caught in the cross fire of arrows, stones and flaming missiles that rained down upon the stubborn defenders. The middle classes meanwhile tried to keep their heads down and protect their property as best they could.


Finally the attackers fought their way to the Eternity Palace where Amin was hiding, deserted by all but a few loyal supporters. Even Fadl ibn Rabi had abandoned his caliph and gone into hiding. As the palace crumbled and burned from the bombardment of Tahir’s siege artillery, Amin fled first to the old round city and then took to the river in a desperate attempt to avoid capture or at the very least surrender to Harthama, who he believed would spare his life. His escape failed when the boat sank in the Tigris and the bedraggled caliph was taken prisoner by Tahir’s men as he made his way to the bank. Locked in a store room in a nearby house, Amin was attacked by a mob of soldiers on Tahir’s orders later that same night. Wrestled to the floor, his throat was cut and his head was then struck off and taken to Tahir. His body was unceremoniously dumped. The caliphate belonged to Mamun, but its capital was in ruins and untold misery had been brought upon its people.

For the next six years, Mamun attempted to run the caliphate from his base in Merv. In 816, in what may have been a cynical gesture to garner a new base of support in Iraq or a genuine attempt to heal the breach in the Muslim community, Mamun declared that his successor as caliph would be not his younger brother Qasim nor any member of his family but the Alid imam Ali al-Ridha. Directly descended from the Prophet in the eighth generation, Ali’s pedigree was unquestionable. He was also the focus of pro-Alid rebellion. A revolt against Abbasid rule led by al-Ridha’s brother had broken out in Kufa, that perennial nest of troublemakers, in the previous year and been put down only with difficulty by the ever-loyal Harthama. Appeasement of the Alids made political sense therefore and Ali had joined the caliph in Merv and  had even publically chastised his brother for the blood that had been shed on his account. In the erstwhile corridors of power in Baghdad however, there was deep consternation at the thought of the Abbasid dynasty being replaced by an Alid one and all of the privileges of the incumbent ruling elite being stripped away. Mamun’s absentee rule had caused disquiet but this latest move provoked outright rebellion and Ibrahim, the hedonistic poet brother of Harun al Rashid was thrust somewhat unwillingly into power in Baghdad as a rival caliph.

Shrine of Ali al Ridha - Tus Iran

Enough was enough and Mamun now moved decisively and ruthlessly to regain control. It was time to move to Baghdad with his entire entourage. In his policies he had been guided from the beginning by his vizier Fadl ibn Sahl. Ibn Sahl accompanied the caliph as he finally made his way westwards to Baghdad but along the way he was murdered in his bath. When he reached Tus, Mamun paused to visit the grave of his father Harun al Rashid. Whilst here, perhaps with thoughts turning towards matters of succession, he also rid himself of Ali al Ridha, abandoning his policy of appeasement of the Alids. Almost certainly poisoned on Mamun’s orders, Ali was buried in the same garden beside Harun al Rashid  Today a magnificent shrine complex marks the burial place of this Shia martyr, whilst the grave of the famous caliph is entirely forgotten.


Mamun finally reached Baghdad in 819 and was rapturously received by the populace. Tahir rode at his side and would be richly rewarded with a palace in Baghdad and the governorship of Khurasan which he and his descendants would rule over as a virtual fiefdom for the next half century. It was no less than this brilliant general deserved. His son was raised to high command and given charge of bringing Syria and Egypt, which had descended into rebellious chaos, back into the fold.

 In ditching his pro-Alid policy, coming west and taking his proper place in his capital the caliph was quickly able to silence the dissenters. He had adopted green as his official colour in accordance with his new Alid alliance but dropped this within days of his return to the capital in the face of widespread disapproval and resumed the traditional Abbasid black. Reconciliation was the order of the day and even Fadl ibn Rabi, the principle architect of the civil war, was forgiven and reinstated. Zubayda, mother of the murdered Amin, was reconciled with the caliph and was treated with honour for her remaining years. Fearing the worst, Mamun’s uncle Ibrahim had gone into hiding when his supporters had cast him aside and pledged their loyalty to the approaching Mamun. He was arrested in Baghdad whilst trying to escape disguised as a woman and brought before Mamun. In a scene remembered in the Arabian nights, the poet did his best to excuse himself in florid verse and Mamun spared him, accepting that Ibrahim had in truth had no desire to usurp him, although he was kept under house arrest.

With all set to rights, Mamun set about the process of rebuilding his city and he would see it become the cultural and intellectual powerhouse of the age. In the remainder of his reign Baghdad would reach its apogee. In a grand gesture symbolising the return of the good times Mamun married Buran, the niece of his murdered Vizier Fadl ibn Sahl, in the most expensive wedding perhaps of all time. The celebrations were truly magnificent and the occasion is said to have cost 50 million dirhams with members of the ruling family spending millions more on additional ostentation. Zubayda, taking centre stage as the grand dowager of the dynasty, spent 35 million and poured a thousand pearls over the bride by way of expensive confetti. The wedding favours were balls of musk, each of which contained a slip of paper with the details of a magnificent gift written thereon, with the star prizes including estates and palaces. If Carlsberg did weddings, they would be just like this one. It was a particularly good day for Mamun's Uncle Ibrahim who won his freedom at the bride's request and was restored to a place of honour. For the ruling elite happy days were here again, but for how long would they last?

Part Two Here

The shrine of Ali al-Ridha