Chapter 2 - The City of Peace

The Forging of a Dynasty


The death of the first Umayyad caliph Muawiya in 680 AD, passing away peacefully in his bed at the age of seventy eight, had precipitated a period of chaos and strife in the young Islamic world. As Muawiya had planned he was succeeded as Commander of the Faithful by his son Yazid, who faced immediate rebellion. Many had opposed the idea of the caliphate becoming hereditary but whilst the formidable Muawiya had lived they had put up with nothing more than a grumble. With the old caliph’s death however, the gloves came off. In Iraq there was still much sympathy for the cause of the family of the fourth caliph Ali who had perished at the hands of an assassin belonging to the extremist sect of the Kharijites. The Kharijites could never forgive Ali for negotiating with Muawiya over their rival claims to the caliphate after they had fought each other to a standstill at the Battle of Siffin in 657, before agreeing to submit their causes to arbitration; as if the legacy of Mohammed were a prize to be bargained over.

The Battle of Siffin 657 - Balami -Tarikhnama

Ali, however, had been the son in law of the Prophet and his sons represented the direct bloodline of Mohammed. Their claim to the spiritual and political leadership of Islam was therefore strong. Ali’s elder son Hassan had been paid off by Muawiya but his younger brother Husayn had been persuaded by the Alid faction in Iraq to take up the cause, setting out from Medina with a small band of followers and heading for Kufa in Iraq, from where he hoped to take the fight to Yazid in Syria. If many of the poor and disenfranchised in Kufa looked to Husayn as their champion, its governor remained loyal to the Umayyad regime in Syria and dispatched a force of five thousand cavalry to head Husayn off before he could reach and rally his supporters. They intercepted him near Karbala. Faced with a choice between surrendering his person to the forces of the caliph and trusting that Yazid would heed his father’s advice to spare the life of a grandson of the Prophet or of embracing inevitable martyrdom, Husayn unhesitatingly chose the latter. His head was carried to Kufa on a spear point where the people lamented his fate.

The veneration in which Ali, Husayn and their descendants were held by many ensured that there would be future 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. The seeds of a permanent ideological division amongst the Muslims had been sown.

Although Yazid enjoyed solid support in Syria, Husayn had not been the only one to reject his claim to the caliphate. In Mecca and Medina  those opposed to the side-lining of their cities in the affairs of the Muslim world by a Syrian based Umayyad dynasty joined the rebellion led by Abd Allah ibn Zubayr. In 683 Medina found itself besieged. The rebels were defeated by the Syrian army and the final resting place of the Prophet was put to the sack. Abd Allah remained defiant, having fled to Mecca but it seemed that not even the sanctity of the holy city would be respected in order to force the rebels to submit to the authority of Damascus and it too was placed under siege and even bombarded. The unthinkable was averted by the sudden and unexpected death of Yazid from natural causes, leaving the caliphate in the hands of his young son Muawiya II. Further instability loomed at this latest development, for how could a child legitimately inherit a position which was supposed to be occupied by one chosen for his demonstrated piety and meritorious conduct as much as for any claim based on bloodline?  Within weeks the boy caliph, whose health had never been good, was also dead and the crisis deepened as support for Abd Allah ibn Zubayr grew and rival factions in Syria looked for a new candidate who would safeguard their interests. Soon Syria descended into civil war with the conflict developing along old tribal fault lines.

The main contender was Muawiya’s cousin Marwan, who had recently arrived in Syria having fled Medina when the revolt against Yazid began. He was opposed by al-Dahhak, who had been the right hand man of Muawiya and who now stood to gain control of Syria either in return for acknowledging ibn Zubayr or by installing an even younger son of Yazid as a puppet caliph. In 684 the two sides met in a particularly bloody confrontation to the north of Damascus and Marwan’s forces triumphed over their enemies with such slaughter on both sides that it sowed the seeds of bitter enmity and vendetta between the two tribal groups which would last for centuries. Having been acknowledged as caliph in Damascus, Marwan marched on Egypt and wrested it from the control of Abd Allah. His rival still held sway in Mecca however and Marwan now sent his brother to seize control of Basra but the attack was repulsed, whilst in Kufa another revolt broke out with calls for a new caliph to be chosen from the family of Ali. The sons of Husayn showed no interest in this proposition and wisely stayed put in Medina. Such was the chaotic state of the Muslim lands when just a year later Marwan died, leaving his son and successor Abd al Malik with the unenviable task of trying to reunite them. His initial attempt to regain control of Kufa met with defeat and instead in 687 the city was conquered from Basra and absorbed into the territories loyal to ibn Zubayr.

Abd al Malik would prove to be a remarkable ruler and it was he who truly secured the future of the Umayyad Caliphate as a hereditary dynasty.  He had inherited a bad situation and his need to secure his frontiers in order to focus on his internal problems obliged him to agree to the continuing payment of tribute to Byzantium. To reduce the tension between their empires Justinian II and Abd al Malik agreed to divide the tax revenues of the disputed territories of Armenia and Cyprus equally.

Abd al Malik could not afford to commit large forces to North Africa 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 city 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 city. In a swift campaign the Berber leader Kusayla had been defeated and killed and the death of Uqba avenged. A bold amphibious expedition launched behind their lines by the Byzantine Exarch of Carthage had however forced them to abandon the province. The Byzantines in Carthage had ensured that they would survive for a few more years by pegging the Arabs back into Libya, but by their actions they had altered the 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.

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 securing his territories 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.



Anatomy of an Empire


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 under Muawiya. 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.

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 Kharijites.

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.

Al Hajjaj issued coinage bearing his own image

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 subdue 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 the 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 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 other rebel prisoners as a grim lesson to other malcontents. 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.

Conquest of Sind
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.
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 and 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.


Vengeance and Reinvention


The reign of Suleiman saw the second failed attempt to take Constantinople, the singed and starving survivors of which were called home by the austere new caliph Umar II two years after Suleiman’s death in 717. Umar’s stern orthodoxy is credited with inspiring the rise of iconoclasm in Byzantium but most of his own reforms did not outlive his brief reign. The restoration of the line of Abd al Malik saw brothers Yazid and Hisham succeed to the caliphate in turn.

Hisham became caliph in 724. His caliphate is generally recognised as a period of good governance and stability in the heartland of the caliphate but was nevertheless troubled by invasion and unrest on the frontiers and characterised by retrenchment rather than expansion in the east and a collapse of caliphal authority in the west. His reign saw the defeat of the Muslim forces by Charles Martel’s Franks at Tours in 732, a struggle with the Turkic Khazars over control of Armenia and a long war against invading Turks and rebellious cities in Transoxania and Soghdia, which was beset by setbacks and treachery. The Turks and the rebels were finally defeated in 737 and when news of victory reached Hisham he refused to believe it, so bleak had the reports from the frontiers become.

The Battle of Tours 732

Two years later the Khazars were also defeated but in North Africa and Spain worse was to come and here the territorial loss was permanent. Despite the fact that a great many of them had converted to Islam, the indigenous Berbers were still regarded by the Arabs as inferior. Converts were taxed at the same rate as non-believers and Berber fighters received a lesser share of the spoils of battle, despite being deployed in the front lines. In the west the Berbers were declared a conquered people and remained fair game for the slave trade. Feelings of resentment ran high and the flames were fanned by itinerate Kharijite preachers who had made their way to this far corner of the Muslim world. Here they found a willing audience for their brand of fundamentalist rabble rousing, which stressed the equality of all Muslims and rejected the rule of the Umayyad Caliphs. In 741 the Berbers rose in revolt against the Arabs. A succession of defeats saw caliphal control lost over Algeria and Morocco. The city of Kairouan in Tunisia was saved from the rebels and now stood as the westernmost outpost of the Umayyad caliphate. Al Andalus was cut off and here too the Berber garrison troops rose up, abandoning frontier posts in the north to march against their Arab masters only to meet with defeat at the hands of the survivors of the Syrian army, who then seized control of the territory.

Hisham died in 743 and 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 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 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. 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, 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. Despite its bloody beginnings, the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba founded by Abd al Rahman would become a beacon of civilisation and tolerance and a crucible of learning in the early Medieval world, where the harmonious intercourse between Muslim, Christian and Jewish intellectuals and the transmission of knowledge from the ancient world to the west would light the touch paper of the renaissance. Thereby out of its destruction ironically came the Umayyad dynasty’s greatest legacy.

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?

Caliph Al Saffah - Balami - Tarikhnama

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 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.

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’. Finally 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 and dug a trench to protect the city 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 Ibrahim, 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.

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.

Statue of Al Mansur in Baghdad - blown up by persons unknown in 2005

The village of Baghdad on the banks 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, with two major thoroughfares passing through its double circuit wall at four domed gates situated at the cardinal points and meeting 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 leading to 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 a Friday.

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 despite being the hereditary guardian of a major Buddhist shrine  had converted to Islam and come west with the conquerors. He became Mansur’s vizier in 770 after engineering the downfall of his corrupt predecessor. 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 brooked no rival even where architecture was concerned, to leave it standing as a symbol of Islam’s victory over Persia.

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 yet 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, who had been left behind in Baghdad, reading from a document which he claimed was the caliph’s last testament. Mahdi’s eldest son Musa, who was present, received the oath on his father’s behalf. 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.

One thousand and one nights


The new caliph Mahdi was a more chilled out character than his formidable father Mansur. He liked girls, poetry and the occasional glass of wine with meals. This did not make him dissolute, however. Rather he was perhaps more well rounded in his outlook and had been well prepared for rule by governing the east on his father’s behalf from the city of Rayy. Certainly his initial approach towards his subjects was conciliatory, having made the grisly discovery of the remains of dozens of members of the Alid family, men women and children, murdered by his father and hidden in a store room in Baghdad; each with a label attached to their ear identifying them. Mahdi had the remains buried in secret in a mass grave and the site promptly built over. He then reached out to the surviving Alids, pardoning some of those who had joined the rebellion of the Pure Soul and even appointed one of their sympathisers as his vizier. He then embarked on a programme of restoration of mosques throughout the caliphate, in the process stripping away much ostentation added in the pomp of the Umayyad dynasty and returning the interior of buildings to their original simplicity. In 777 he set out for Mecca on the pilgrimage to Mecca with the intention of winning hearts and minds in the old country, dispensing much largesse and restoring the Kaabah. Accompanying him on this important expedition and making his first appearance on the public stage was Mahdi’s son Harun. Mahdi had many sons by wives and concubines but only two mattered and these were the sons of the former slave girl Khayzuran, who he had freed and married on his accession. She was a legendary beauty who had the caliph wrapped around her delicate finger. Harun and his elder brother Musa were groomed from the beginning to succeed their father in turn. Harun appears to have been especially favoured and there is no doubt that he was his mother’s golden boy. For whatever reason, Khayzuran and her older son Musa were never close and instead she used her considerable influence on behalf of Harun. As tutor to his second son Mahdi appointed his best friend Yahya the Barmakid who cultivated a network of support around his young pupil as factions began to develop in the Abbasid court.

Yahya the Barmakid - Balami - Tarikhnama


In 780 Harun accompanied his father on a military expedition as Mahdi set out to show himself not just a pious leader of the Muslims but a warlike one as well, committed to the pursuit of jihad against the infidel. The Byzantine commander Michael Lachanodrakon had led a successful invasion of northern Syria two years before, capturing the settlement of Marash whilst the Arab response had achieved nothing of note. Leaving Musa in charge in Baghdad, Mahdi escorted Harun to the frontier and then sent him off  at the head of a small raiding force to win his spurs. The raid was a moderate success. A small fortified settlement was captured and plundered and the troops were back across the frontier before any serious opposition could be marshalled by the Byzantines. Meanwhile a larger force was sent further into imperial territory where it suffered a significant defeat at the hands of Lachanodrakon.

Two years later Mahdi launched a much larger expedition intended to reassert the dominance of the caliphate. His timing was good, the empress Irene was in the midst of purging her forces of iconoclasts and the Arab forces could hope to take advantage of the dearth of leadership amongst the Byzantines. Over ninety thousand men were sent across the border under the overall command of Harun, accompanied by his father’s trusted ministers Rabi ibn Yunus and Yahya the Barmakid. Rather than confining his activities to the border regions, Harun pushed westwards into the Byzantine heartland, whilst Yahya took a portion of the army northward and inflicted a defeat upon Lachanodrakon. Harun’s army won another victory near Nicaea and then he advanced all the way to the shores of the Bosporus, from where he could look across the straits to the capital of the infidel. That however was as far as he could go and without a fleet to carry him across to Constantinople, his advance to the sea was largely symbolic. After much plundering Harun turned for home but now found that Rabi, who had been left to guard his lines of supply had been defeated and driven back. The young Abbasid prince now found himself trapped between two Byzantine armies close to Nicaea. The most famous caliph of them all could have been reduced to an obscure footnote right then and there but his luck was in. The Armenian commander Tatzates had reason to fear that he would soon become another victim of Irene’s purges and so he took the opportunity to defect, taking many of his troops with him. The Byzantines now decided to negotiate and Irene’s chief minister Stauracios ventured into the enemy camp at the head of a delegation. Harun, having given no promise of safe conduct and advised by Tatzates of the empress’ reliance on the eunuch, took the envoys prisoner. Desperate to secure the release of her favourite, Irene agreed a humiliating three year truce with the caliphate, allowing Harun to withdraw triumphantly, having secured an annual tribute of seventy thousand gold pieces and ten thousand pieces of silk.

Back in Baghdad the court poets praised Harun’s achievement to the skies, declaring that he had advanced to the walls of Constantinople itself and placed his spear against them before sparing the city in return for tribute. He was given the epithet of al Rashid – the right guided. Oaths were taken to him as the heir to his elder brother. The favoured son had done well but yet he was not the first in line. It may have been that Mahdi had decided to elevate his second son to first place when he set out along with Harun in 785 to visit his eldest son Musa at Gurgan beside the Caspian, where he was busy putting down a rebellion. On the way however, so one story goes, the caliph set out hunting and pursued a gazelle amongst some ruins. As his horse galloped below a lintel, the caliph, absorbed by the chase, forgot to duck and that was the end of Mahdi who was laid to rest beneath a nearby walnut tree. An alternative version has the caliph accidentally poisoned by one of his concubines who had sent a poisoned pear to a rival. Mahdi, taking a fancy to the fateful pear, intercepted it on its way and ate it. Take your pick, Dear Reader, either way the end result was the same.

The Byzantine Empress Irene

At this point Harun played the part of the faithful brother, sending his father’s signet ring to Musa whilst returning to Baghdad to restore order. The troops in the city who had rioted at news of the caliph’s death were quieted with a large payment from the treasury and Harun took oaths of loyalty from the great and the good in his brother’s name. As always Rabi and Yahya were at the heart of events, pulling strings and greasing wheels.  Taking the name of Hadi, the new caliph marched back from the east in just twenty days to take control in Baghdad. Hadi was tough and aggressive, the darling of the military, whilst the more cultured Harun enjoyed the support of the court bureaucracy and he was of course his mother’s favourite. Khayzuran now wielded considerable power as the widow of Mahdi and the mother of Hadi and Harun. At her sumptuous palace on the east bank of the Tigris she received suppliants each day, begging for favours and appointments and soon it seemed that all the business of the state was in the hands of the former slave girl, much to the annoyance of the caliph. Finally Hadi issued a threat that anyone approaching his mother looking for advancement would lose his head instead. Anyone doubting his word had only to glance at the permanently drawn swords of his bodyguard to know that he meant business. Hadi, set out to further marginalise his mother and brother by seeking to alter the plan of succession in favour  of his own son Jaffar, who was the preferred choice of many of the army commanders, disinheriting Harun. Hadi was advised against this action by Yahya the Barmakid who pointed out that many would not accept the appointment of a minor as caliph in waiting and that if the sacred oaths taken to Harun were disregarded, then no oath would ever have the same binding effect again. It would be better, Yahya advised, to wait until Jaffar came of age and then compel Harun to give up his right to the succession. This argument gave the caliph pause for a time but then he lost his patience and decided to act. Having successfully poisoned the vizier Rabi, who was a key ally of Khayzuran, he then tried to do the same to his mother. Khayzuran took the precaution of feeding the dish of rice he sent her to her dog, which promptly died. She sent a message to Hadi, thanking him for the rice and telling him she had found it excellent.

'You did not eat it,' the caliph replied, 'or else now I would be rid of you!'

Finally Hadi declared that Jaffar would succeed him and demanded oaths of  allegiance to be taken to his son. He then had Harun and Yahya the Barmakid arrested when they attempted to flee the court. At his moment of triumph however, the caliph fell foul of his mother who returned his compliment with greater subtlety, using her contacts amongst the caliph’s harem to have him poisoned and then suffocated with pillows as he lay ailing. He had reigned for just over a year. Khayzuran now used her own contacts in the military to secure Harun’s succession. Jaffar was dragged from his bed at sword point and forced to renounce his claim to the caliphate and the 22 year old Harun was duly installed as the new Commander of the Faithful without further opposition.

There now dawned a golden age, so posterity would have us believe. Peace descended upon the Muslim world and Harun ruled wisely in sumptuous splendour and refinement, surrounded by poets and scholars. His reign is perceived, through the rose tinted distortion of later generations’ nostalgia, as the highpoint of Arab cultural and intellectual achievement. There is however a darker tale to be told which reveals Harun to be far from the Solomon-like right-guided ruler of legend. Strip away the romance of the Thousand and One Nights and we are left with an insecure, jealous, vicious and naive ruler.

The Abbasids had swept to power on a tide of popular support, stirred up by their man in Khurasan Abu Muslim. Restoration of the leadership of Islam to the family of the Prophet from the dissolute Umayyads had been their rallying call. The masses had looked to the revolution to bring about an improvement in their fortunes but Abbasid rule had in the end merely delivered more of what had gone before. Mansur had fulfilled some of the early promise of the dynasty, appearing before his people and hearing their complaints in person, although he had ruthlessly persecuted the Alids. Mahdi too had made some efforts at restoring the simplicity of the faith, although he had been more pleasure-loving than his austere father. Neither had done much to better the lot of the vast majority of their subjects however and both had faced rebellion, seemingly forgetful of the discontent that had brought them to power in the first place.

For the rural poor the burden of taxation was heavy and in most places a system of tax farming left tax collection up to private enterprise, whereby rapacious officials sought to wring as much personal profit out of the unfortunate tax payers as they could. The result was impoverishment of the peasant farmers, who often abandoned the land  or were deprived of their property when they could not repay the loans they were forced to take out in order to pay their taxes, for which the whole community was collectively responsible. The land was snapped up by the wealthy and vast estates became the personal property of the ruling family and their cronies. This was nothing new of course. The story is a familiar and recurring one. Across the frontier in the Byzantine Empire the same situation existed but the plight of these small farmers as the backbone of the military was periodically addressed and the trend reversed. In the caliphate the peasant farmer played no military role and the soldiers who had come west with the conquerors from Khurasan, known as the abna, were maintained by the state.

Illustration of the young Prince Harun

Far from being a period of peace, Harun’s reign saw the caliphate plagued by rebellion from end to end. As their discontent and disillusionment grew, the rural peasantry of the caliphate were attracted to new revolutionary movements, which sprang up like mushrooms, all of them promising to make the caliphate anew  and deliver a fairer future. In the east of the empire a succession of movements fused elements from the pre-Islamic Persian past with more recent history. The old ideals of Mazdakism; a Zoroastrian ideology akin to communism which had been ruthlessly repressed by the Sassanid rulers of Persia, were given an Islamic make-over by associating them with the memory of Abu Muslim, the man of the people slain by the ungrateful Abbasids. The first leader of these movements was the so-called veiled prophet, a former lieutenant of Abu Muslim from Merv, who claimed to be a reincarnation of his murdered commander. He had hidden his face behind a green silk veil either because, according to his adherents, his face was so radiant that it could not be seen by mortals or, according to his enemies, he was one-eyed, bald and ugly. Whatever the truth, through revolutionary rhetoric and cheap conjuror’s tricks he amassed a great following and some sixty cities in Khurasan and Transoxania joined his cause. The veiled prophet had been finally run to ground and taken his own life in 779 but he spawned a succession of imitators whom the credulous peasantry were prepared to follow in the hope of a better lot in life.

The cult of the Alids too was linked to ideals of social reform, for Ali had been the champion of the ordinary people and had stood for the equality of all Muslims. A rebellion raised in Medina in 786 by the Alid Yahya ibn Abdullah had garnered only lukewarm support following the good works of Mahdi and Khayzuran in the region. Evading capture, the rebel moved onto Daylam; the region south of the Caspian and here succeeded in sparking a widespread popular revolt. He was finally persuaded to give himself up in 792 whereupon he was promptly murdered.

 In many places across the caliphate, those perennial malcontents the Kharijites were resurgent, rejecting the authority of the caliph and condemning the luxury of his court. A Kharijite led rebellion began in northern Iraq shortly after Harun’s accession and then the rebels marched north into Azerbaijan and overran the province for a period of two years before they were finally put down. In Egypt there were repeated uprisings beginning in 789 in protest at the increases in land taxes. The rebels were crushed by pouring troops into the region before the taxes were increased again, sparking further revolt. When Harun decided to cut the pay of the troops stationed in Egypt they joined in with the rebels and burned the city of Fustat to the ground.

In the administration of his empire Harun continued to rely primarily on the Barmakids. His old tutor Yahya would serve as Harun’s vizier whilst Yahya’s two sons Fadl and Jaffar, who was the caliph’s closest friend and favourite companion, held a succession of important offices of state and were trusted with the governorship of large territories. Fadl in particular would prove to be a capable administrator during his time as governor of Khurasan; quelling rebellion, ploughing funds into improving infrastructure, curbing the worst excesses of the tax collectors and winning hearts and minds, whilst keeping up the flow of funds to the treasury. The primary interest of the Barmakids however remained the feathering of their own nests and strengthening their own network of support.

For many years Harun was content to let them get on with it. He kept up the conspicuous acts of piety expected of a caliph by dispatching the yearly raids, known as razias, across the frontier into Byzantine territory and undertaking the hajj on no less than eight occasions during his reign. Harun remained however, for the overwhelming majority of the time, in glorious isolation and devoted to pleasure. The caliph, his wives and concubines, his mother and relatives, his administrators and courtiers and hangers-on lived in a world of opulent palaces, exquisite gardens and massive excess. The quantities of wealth that were thrown around were obscene. Harun’s favourite wife Zubayda ate from golden plates, wore so many jewels that she could not walk unaided and had a staff of twenty simply to care for her pet monkey. She rewarded flatterers by filling their mouths with pearls. His mother Khayzuran had a reputation for pious works, financing shrines and way-stations along the pilgrimage route to Mecca. As such she was popular. Her personal wealth was massive however. As one of the greatest landowners in the caliphate she spent vast sums on land improvement and irrigation, although primarily for her own benefit and half of the land tax revenue of the caliphate is rumoured to have flowed straight into her coffers. When in a more frivolous mood, Khayzuran could spend up to fifty thousand dinars on a single piece of material and is said to have owned eighteen thousand dresses at the time of her death in 789. Such excess was not the preserve of the court women. Harun once rewarded an amusing poem by his feckless brother Ibrahim with a gift of a million dirhams from the treasury and showered his coterie of nadim; intelligent, cultured and witty drinking companions with palaces, wealth and status. Outside of the royal family the Barmakids enjoyed almost comparable wealth and practiced similar largesse.

The descriptions in 1001 nights reflect the opulence of Harun's court
Despite inhabiting a world of palaces and gardens, Harun nevertheless tired of Baghdad. He disliked the heat and the proximity of the bustling masses and in 796 he established a new capital at Raqqa to the north. Here he could withdraw, accompanied by his household and his favourites and spend his days playing polo, hunting and practicing archery and his evenings in the convivial companionship of his nadim, enjoying poetry, discussion and chess. Raqqa was also closer to the frontier and Harun was once more taking a serious interest in war against the Byzantines. In 797 he sought to reprise the glorious campaign of his youth and once more crossed the frontier in person. He had chosen his moment perfectly for the empire was in a state of unrest. The empress Irene had just blinded and killed her son Constantine and her grip on power was tenuous whilst the loyalty of her armies was uncertain. The Byzantine response to Harun’s invasion was muted in the extreme and the caliph’s forces once more spread out into enemy territory with one column penetrating as far as Ephesus on the Aegean coast. Panicked, Irene sued for peace once more, agreeing to similarly humiliating terms as she had in 782 and Harun’s triumphant forces marched home unmolested, laden down with plunder.


Back in Raqqa, Harun now received an embassy from Charles, king of the Franks. Charles had little to offer Harun, who as the richest and most powerful ruler in the world vastly outstripped him in wealth and territory. If Charles already harboured pretentions towards the imperial crown of the west however, then establishing good relations with the greatest enemy of the eastern Roman Empire was a sound strategic move in the event of hostilities with Byzantium. For his part Harun welcomed a potential ally who could harass his sworn foes but was too far away to pose any threat to himself. Having given certain assurances concerning the safety of pilgrims visiting the Christian holy places in his territory, the caliph sent the envoys on their way laden down with gifts and accompanied by an elephant. The elephant, named Abul Abbas, made his way through north Africa and Italy, accompanied by the only member of the delegation to survive the return journey, arriving in Charles’ capital Aachen in 802. He lived for another eight years as a major celebrity at the Frankish court.


In the stories of the Arabian Nights 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 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.


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.


It seems odd that 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 Barmakids display their wealth - Akhbar i Barmakyan

Scarcely had Jaffar’s gruesome remains been spitted on bridges of Baghdad then the caliph left the city once more for Raqqa. Here he received a letter from the new Emperor of the Romans Nicephorus I which sent him into a towering rage. Nicephorus, a onetime treasury official,  having deposed Irene, had set about reversing her ruinous policies, revoking the generous tax breaks she had given to the church and earning himself a truly diabolical write up from the monastic chroniclers of Byzantine history in the process. He also sought to reverse the flow of gold to the caliphate, ending the tribute payments that Irene had been making to the caliph since his campaign of 797. He had written to Harun to explain his position, framing his argument in an analogy through the common language of chess. Irene, Nicephorus explained, had behaved as if she were a mere pawn, paying out tribute to Harun, who he described as a rook, when really Harun should have been paying tribute to her. The assertion was clear enough. If Harun was a mere rook then Nicephorus to whom he should be paying tribute was a king and Harun’s superior. The caliph contemptuously wrote his response on the back of Nicephorus’ letter

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.


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 an 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 and 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. Meanwhile, a naval expedition ravaged Cyprus and made off with much plunder and several thousand of its inhabitants who were forcibly relocated to the caliphate. 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.

Gold nomisma of Nicephorus I

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, possibly due to cancer. He knew that his days were numbered. The historian Al Tabari records a candid exchange between the caliph and one of his trusted courtiers in a private moment during the journey in which the caliph reflects bitterly that his sons are eagerly anticipating his demise and maybe even trying to hasten it.

The caliph bared his abdomen, and lo, he had a silken bandage around it. He said “This is a morbid condition which I conceal from everyone. Each one of my sons has an observer over me and every single one of them is only counting my very breaths, numbering my days and considering my life as going on too long. If you want to know this for sure, then summon a horse this very instant and they will bring me an emaciated hack which goes with short steps, so that it makes my condition worse.”

Sure enough a horse was brought and it was a clapped out old nag just as Harun had predicted. 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.

Chapter 3 - The Bloody Throne

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