Brrrrghhh. After three posts on the Northwest Passage lets get back to the balmy medieval Middle East. This post follows on from Of War and Wisdom, which ended with the death of the caliph Mamun in 833.
The new caliph Mutasim was an entirely different prospect to his cultured brother. He had little time for scientists and would rather go out for a vigorous ride than peruse a treatise on astronomy. He liked the military life and his primary diversion before coming to power had been the creation of his own private army. In the long term Mutasim’s actions in creating a new military class of powerful men would prove the undoing of the institution of the caliphate but in the short term it had made him a man to be reckoned with. Mutasim’s collection of imported Turkish slaves, known as ghulams, young men all, obtained from the markets of Khurasan grew from a bodyguard into a formidable force of several thousand mounted archers, who owed loyalty only to their master Mutasim. Their leaders, men of humble beginnings, were at a stroke amongst the most powerful in the caliphate with the ear of the caliph himself. The possession of this private army had strengthened Mutasim’s hand in claiming the caliphate and dissuading Mamun’s son Abbas and his supporters from mounting a challenge.
Ghulam warriors doing their stuff
As might be expected, the caliph’s swaggering new Turkish entourage did not make many friends in Baghdad, where they were sneered at by the bureaucrats as illiterate barbarians, hated by the existing military as new-comers and foreigners and feared by the populace as brutal enforcers of the caliph’s rule. There were many violent clashes and complaints to the caliph increased but in the end Mutasim preferred his loyal Turks and decided that if they were not welcome in the capital, then he would build a new one.
In 835 the caliph decided to withdraw to a new purpose-built capital at Samarra. Large quantities of land were cheaply bought up on this virgin site on the east bank of the Tigris close to the Nahrawan canal eighty miles north of Baghdad. Much of this land was later sold on at a great profit as men of means looked to move north and obtain property close to the new seat of power. A new city of broad streets and open spaces took shape at Samarra, where the caliph settled down the following year, accompanied by his court and protected by his Ghulams.
Once ensconced in Samarra, Mutasim turned his mind to military matters. First on the agenda was the crushing of the rebel Babak, whose Khurramite followers had resisted the caliphs from their mountain strongholds for too long. The caliph entrusted the destruction of Babak to another outsider who had gained his trust. Far from being a nobody he was the former ruler of a small Soghdian principality named al-Afsin. Appointed as governor of Azerbaijan, al-Afsin would prove equal to the task of rooting the rebel out. He adopted a methodical approach and moved forward steadily into the mountains, taking control of one rebel stronghold at a time. Babak attempted to counter the invasion by targeting al-Afsin’s supply lines but al-Afsin succeeded in inflicting a series of significant defeats upon Babak who retreated back to his seemingly impregnable mountaintop fortress of Badd.
Babak's fortress still stands
Babak’s revolt came to its bloody end in 837. Despite the difficulties of reaching the fortress of Badd which could only be approached in single file through a narrow defile, al-Afsin’s soldiers succeeded in storming the stronghold and overcoming its defenders. Babak and his few remaining followers slipped away into the forests but he was ultimately betrayed and run to ground. Paraded through the streets of Samarra on an elephant, Babak had his hands and feet cut off before being beheaded. His body was then publically displayed on a gibbet.
Whilst he had been consolidating his power, moving to his new capital and dealing with Babak, Mutasim had been intially receptive to Byzantine Emperor Theophilus’ overtures for peace that had fallen on the deaf ears of his brother. Theophilus had made use of the truce to renew hostilities with the Bulgars. Having achieved his objectives here however, the emperor had decided once more to go on the offensive. Theophilus had crossed the frontier in the summer of 837 at the head of an invading army. The former Khurramite rebel Theophobos and his Persian brigade marched with the emperor. Theophilus was eager to avenge his humiliation at the hands of Mamun and may also have been responding to a call for aid from Babak, although his intervention came too late to save the doomed rebel leader. The emperor’s forces reached the upper Euphrates and put the cities of Arsamosata and Zosopetra to the sack. Following this victory and in the aftermath of Babak’s defeat another sixteen thousand Khurramites fled to the empire and were both converted to Christianity and enrolled in Theophobos’ Persian brigade, bringing its total strength to thirty thousand men.
Mutasim vowed revenge upon Theophilus and in the following year led his armies in a campaign of reprisal, aimed at the destruction of the emperor’s ancestral hometown of Amorion. Whilst the caliph led his forces towards his target of Amorion, a second army under al-Afsin, fresh from his victory over Babak which had seen him showered with honours by the caliph, marched into Cappadocia.
Battle of Anzen - Madrid Skylitzes
The armies of Theophilus and al-Afsin met in battle at Anzen. At first the battle went the way of the Byzantines as their right wing made progress and forced their enemies back. A well timed counterattack by Afsin’s Turkoman horse archers however threw the Byzantine right wing into chaos and, thinking themselves abandoned by their emperor, they routed. Theophilus found himself isolated and retreated to a hill top protected by those soldiers of the imperial Tagmata who had not fled along with some of the troops of Theophobos. Al-Afsin brought up his siege engines to batter at the defenders who were also showered by arrows by the horse archers. The wretched Byzantines were saved by the elements as it began to rain and at last night fell. In the night they slipped away.
Siege of Amorion from Madrid Skylitzes
Mutasim meanwhile had advanced to his primary objective of Amorion, which he placed under siege. The victorious Al-Afsin joined him later. The city was well defended by a determined garrison and protected by a substantial moat. Mutasim ordered each soldier to kill a sheep and then stuff the skin with earth and rocks before hurling them into the moat. The soldiers enjoyed the roast mutton but were less keen on the barrage of missiles from the walls as they completed their task as swiftly as possible. The resultant filling in of the moat was somewhat haphazard and Mutasim’s siege engines sank into the ground when they attempted to approach the walls, to the delight of the defenders who promptly burned them. The caliph then received intelligence from a treacherous element within the city of a stretch of wall which had been poorly repaired with rubble and was not as solid as it appeared from the outside. Concentrating his artillery fire on this section, the caliph soon had his victory as the wall crumbled despite the defenders’ efforts to reinforce it. Amorion was brutally sacked, with some of the terrorised citizens burned alive in the church where they had sought refuge. On the long march home, laden down with booty and with the extra burden of thousands of captives taken as slaves from the populace, the army ran short of supplies, especially water. Six thousand low value captives are said to have been executed, whilst many more fell by the wayside and were abandoned. These poor buggers of little account were largely forgotten by posterity although another group of higher status prisoners who survived the death march but were later beheaded beside the Tigris for refusing to convert to Islam would be celebrated by the Byzantines as the 42 Martyrs of Amorion.
The 42 martyrs are remembered by the Orthodox Church to this day
As the army made its way back into Syria details emerged of a plot against the caliph and his Turkish favourites Itakh and Ashinas. The plan had been hatched amongst a number of commanders in the existing military to kill Mutasim and his Turkish commanders and to place Mamun’s son Abbas on the throne in his place. The conspirators took too long to act and their plot was betrayed to the caliph who took delight in having them all rounded up and given slow and unpleasant deaths; burying alive, drowning and starvation all featured. Abbas himself died of thirst in captivity. It was a bad business and the Turks, having had a narrow escape, appear to have resolved to get rid of anyone else who might pose a threat to them. This included Al Afsin; defeater of Babak, victor over the emperor himself. A rival of such standing and reputation could not be tolerated. A whispering campaign of rumours and accusations was started against him: He planned to murder the caliph, he planned to steal a vast sum of money and return to the east, he planned to overthrow the Tahirids in Khurasan and set himself up in their stead. In all likelihood none of it was true but the Turks finally turned the caliph against his best general. With no real evidence of any wrong-doing against him Al-Afsin was accused in 840 of apostasy; a capital crime. As a foreigner and recent convert to Islam it was an easy slur to make stick and Al-Afsin was found guilty despite demolishing the prosecution case. He died in custody and his body was exhibited on a gibbet outside the main gate of Samarra, another victim of poisonous intrigue at the Abbasid court.
A depiction of Afsin at the height of his powers
Theophilus and Mutasim died just two weeks apart in January 842. Mutasim was aged forty six. He was succeeded by his thirty year old son Harun who as caliph Wathiq would rule isolated from his subjects in the new capital, dependant for his security upon the Turks, who would grow ever more powerful. After a reign of only six years, Wathiq died from natural causes in 847. Affairs of state during Wathiq’s reign had been dominated by an alliance of senior bureaucrats and Turkish commanders and these men had decided amongst themselves to appoint his brother Jaffar, who took the caliphal name of Mutawwakil – ‘reliant upon God’. Jaffar had been an easy going character and was most likely seen by those who selected him as a suitable replacement puppet. If Caliph Wathiq had been the creature of his courtiers however then Caliph Mutawwakil was most certainly not and he soon moved against them, determined to assert the power that had been thrust upon him. The two most powerful, the vizier al Ziyyat and the Turkish general Itakh received comeuppances of poetic justice in keeping with their own vile deeds. Itakh had been enthusiastically involved in dishing out nasty deaths to those implicated in the plot against Mutasim and had subsequently had Mamun’s grandsons walled up and left to starve. His downfall was facilitated by the Tahirid governor of Baghdad, to whom the caliph had reached out as a powerful counter the Samarra cabal. Arrested in Baghdad on his way back from making the pilgrimage, Itakh had been loaded down with eighty pounds of chains like a Turkish Jacob Marley and left to die.
Uday's crude imitation left, the Nuremburg Maiden right
Mutawwakil then, was a man determined to assert his own power and his agenda was truly sweeping. He embarked on a major shakeup of the political-religious landscape of the caliphate. The question of whether the word of God is eternal or created seems like an obscure point of theological debate to be mulled over by long bearded clerics in some shady corner of a mosque courtyard. Much like the monophysite and iconoclastic controversies across the border in the Byzantine Empire however, it had the capacity to mobilise large numbers of the populace onto the streets in riotous disorder. In reversing his official position from that of his predecessors, he appealed to many ordinary civilians who had resisted the imposition of the doctrine by his father and uncle. All at once those who the day before had been branded as heretics found themselves once more in tune with the establishment and vice versa with fortunes changing accordingly.
Destruction of the tomb of Husayn
The new caliph went further still in 851 when he ordered the destruction of the shrine on the site of the tomb of Husayn, the martyred son of the fourth caliph Ali. The caliphs had maintained a tolerant attitude towards the Alids since Mamun’s murder of the eighth imam Ali al Ridha. Now that attitude hardened. Mutawwakil would no longer tolerate the Shia viewpoint of condemning the first three caliphs for usurping the rights of Ali and neither would he permit the veneration of Husayn’s memory. He ordered the site of Husayn’s tomb to be obliterated and the land to be ploughed. The schism in Islam had been there from the moment that the Prophet’s cousin had been passed over as his successor but with this act it yawned wider than ever. The monument would be restored shortly after the caliph’s death. A series of petty decrees against Jews and Christians followed, including requiring them to identify themselves by yellow patches on their clothing. Mutawwakil was perhaps courting the support of the orthodox masses but certainly he intended to fulfil his job description. He was the Deputy of God and he was going to Command the Faithful.
Mutawwakil’s true passion however was building on a Ramses-esque scale. A vast extension of Samarra including no less than twenty palaces and the largest mosque yet built failed to satisfy his ambitions and construction of a whole new capital bearing his own name was begun to the north. A surveying error ensured that the canal upon which twelve thousand workers toiled in order to bring water to the new city was ineffectual and the construction was doomed to be consumed by the desert. Mutawwakil has left posterity one monument. The fortress-like outer walls, bristling with forty four towers and unique spiral Malwiya minaret of his great mosque in Samarra still stand. The minaret is fifty two metres tall and remains an iconic piece of architecture. It survived a bomb blast in 2005 which damaged the upper storey.
The Great Mosque at Samarra
The caliph had made some bold decisions but in the matter of the succession he made the same mistake as Harun al-Rashid; the calamitous consequences of which would fall upon his own head. Quite why Mutawwakil failed to heed the lessons of his own family history is a mystery. Doubtless he intended to live for much longer than he did. He had three sons whom he considered worthy and like al-Rashid he determined that they would succeed each other in turn, with each taking control of large territories during their father’s lifetime, which they would hold onto thereafter. Each brother naturally swore to respect the rights of the others. It was, of course, a recipe for a repeat disaster and this time had the added factor of the rapacious Turks.
The caliph had done little in real terms to reduce the power of the Turks and they still controlled the military and the palace guard. In Samarra the caliph was dependent upon them for his safety and therefore also at their mercy. Mutawwakil’s father Mutasim had raised up his private army of Turkish former slaves safe in the knowledge that they would be fools to bite the hand that fed them and so he had been able to depend upon their loyalty and sleep well at night. Like the Praetorian Guard of old Rome however, the Turks would find it a short step from trusted guardians to kingmakers. The surviving member of the Turkish old guard Wasif had reason to fear that the caliph might move against him and Mutawwakil had by his succession arrangements created factions in his court which the crafty Turk could exploit. The caliph sealed his own fate when he began to change his attitude towards his eldest son and heir Muntasir who, for whatever reason, had fallen out of his father’s favour. Muntasir had been publically mocked by his father and when his younger brother Mutazz, whose mother was the caliph’s favourite and well placed to advance her son’s cause, was preferred to lead the Friday prayers the writing appeared to be on the wall. Mutazz was known to be closer to the anti-Turkish faction at court, who had also lobbied the caliph for his preferment. Those Turks who either feared losing the caliph’s favour or looked to Muntasir as the guarantor of their futures decided to act before their man was removed from the succession and their own positions, which they expected to pass to their sons, came under threat. It was time for the Turks to remove the independently minded Mutawwakil with his new ideas and replace him with their preferred candidate, who would owe them his gratitude for saving him from being pushed aside in favour of his brother.
Mutawwakil is struck down - Historie Islamique - actual attack was indoors at night
On a winters’ evening in 861 the caliph was drinking late into the night with his favourite companions. His eldest son Muntasir had excused himself early once his father was well in his cups. While most of the palace slept, all the doors and gates were barred save one that led to the riverbank. Through this door a party of assassins, including four sons of Wasif, were admitted and made their way to the chamber where the caliph and his favourite were reclining, accompanied only by a few attendants. The commander of the caliph’s bodyguard was in on the plot and he joined the attackers as they burst in with drawn swords. The caliph and his favourite were cut down in moments and the bloody deed was done. The power of the Turks had been unmasked and there was no putting this particular genie back in the bottle. Having slain his father, the Turks oversaw the succession of Muntasir and faced with the fait accompli his brothers gave their oaths of allegiance to the new caliph. Four months later they were both arrested and forced to renounce their claims to the caliphate on the insistence of the Turks. Just two months after this Muntasir sickened and died. Perhaps he ate something that disagreed with him?
The conspirators installed a suitable puppet in the form of Muntasir's cousin Mustain. The power of the Turks was now absolute, they even saw a Turk appointed to the Vizierate - a position which had always been the preserve of Persian/Arab bureaucracy. Expectations amongst the rank and file were high however and their demands were insatiable. The Turks now held the keys to the caliphate but they were about to discover that taking power and holding onto it were two different things.
To be continued...
Nice page on the Great Mosque of Samarra
This is part of my Getting Medieval series - enjoy from the beginning here