The previous article in this series had recounted the events leading to a grim war of succession between Muhammad al-Amin and Abdullah al-Mamun; two sons of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. This article, relying on volume 31 of Tabari’s history, describes the final political manoeuvres before the hostilities and the damage wrought on Baghdad by that war.
During Harun’s reign, Al-Amin, a fickle youth, was the first heir and the governor of Arab provinces while al-Mamun, an industrious youth, was the second heir and the governor of the Persian and Turkish provinces. The political elite of the Caliphate was divided between mutually antagonistic factions: old-guard Arabs supporting al-Amin and the Persian military-bureaucratic factions favouring al-Mamun. Neither side wanted reconciliation between the brothers. Ominously for al-Amin, the Persians held a wide military advantage in numbers, discipline, and tactics.
The brothers were 23 and 22 years old respectively at the time of death of their father, hostile to each other and young enough to be influenced by their leading advisors. They were completely different in their ways of life and had rarely been together to establish any channel of communication. Having been made custodians of one half of the empire each, they were bound to collide. The stars were thus aligned for a titanic conflict.
In 808 AD, Harun proceeded to Merv in Khorasan to quell a rebellion. He was in poor health and it was suspected he might not survive the rigours of the expedition. Al-Mamun’s close aides of Persian origin were certain of this eventuality. They feared, rightly as it turned out, that as caliph, al-Amin would try to have his brother removed from succession and may even have him eliminated. They advised al-Mamun to accompany the Caliph to Khorasan, his support base. Al-Mamun agreed and was in Merv fighting the rebels when Harun died in Tus in 809 AD. Harun’s burial place, fifteen kilometres south of Tus, would grow from being a small village to become the second most populous city of modern Iran. It was named as the holy city of Mashhad when Imam Raza was buried in the same compound four years later.
Al-Mamun duly took an oath of allegiance to al-Amin. However, conspiracies in the brothers’ camps commenced immediately. Apart from their mutual mistrust, the chief proponents of intrigues between brothers were two court officials, both named al-Fadl.
One was al-Fadl bin Rabi, whose father, Rabi bin Younus, a former slave from Medina, held high posts under the first two Abbasid caliphs. Al-Fadl was a trusted courtier of Harun and was made vizier after the Caliph sacked the Barmaki family in 803 AD. He was also one of the most trusted officials of al-Amin. As such, he is considered by modern Western historians to be the chief instigator of the civil war between two brothers. He became the leader of the Arab faction in the court.
The second official was al-Fadl bin Suhl, the trusted lieutenant of al-Mamun, who had converted from Zoroastrianism to Islam in 806 AD and, along with his younger brother, would emerge as the leader of the Persian faction.
Soon after assumption of the Caliphate, al-Amin was pestered by Ibn-Rabi to remove al-Mamun from command of Khorasan and replace him as heir with his own infant son Musa. On the other hand, al-Mamun was motivated by ibn-Suhl to claim the Caliphate before al-Amin had the time and opportunity to get rid of him. The reckless al-Amin heeded the unsound advice while the prudent al-Mamun bided his time.
Baghdad had been founded only 70 years earlier and constructed at a tremendous cost and effort. The year-long siege, from August 812 until September 813, would utterly destroy and depopulate the city
Within one year, al-Amin ordered al-Mamun to return to Baghdad and on his refusal, tore away the succession agreement at the Holy Ka’abah brokered by their father. He then nominated his son as heir and ordered al-Mamun to pledge allegiance to him. He also confiscated al-Mamun’s properties in Baghdad. Technically, as stipulated by their father in the succession agreement, these actions removed al-Amin from power and elevated al-Mamun to the Caliphate. Therefore, Al-Mamun proclaimed himself to be the rightful Caliph. Only war now could decide the issue between the two contending princely brothers.
Al-Amin made the first move mid-March 811 AD. He despatched an army under Ali bin Isa, his trusted commander to capture Rayy (present day Tehran), the most important town in eastern Persia. Al-Mamun countered by sending an army of his own under the capable leadership of Tahir bin Husayn. Ali bin Isa was defeated and killed. Al-Amin sent another 20,000-strong army under Abd al-Rahman al-Abnawi, who was also defeated and killed by Tahir near Hamadan. Al-Amin’s fate was sealed as Tahir pressed on to Baghdad.
Having overpowered two armies in quick succession, Al-Mamun felt confident of his ultimate triumph and had himself addressed as Amir-ul-Momnin. He appointed al-Fadl bin Suhl as the governor of Khorasan in his own place with responsibility for civil as well as military affairs.
Tahir crossed the Tigirs at al-Madain, south of Baghdad, and surrounded the city from the west. The River blocked the city on the east. He was shortly reinforced by troops of Harthamah bin Aryan, the military commander of Merv, and Zuhayr bin al-Musayyab. While Harthamah closed off the two bridges across the river, Zuhayr camped in a palace further to the south. The long siege of Baghdad thus began. Baghdad had been founded only 70 years earlier and constructed at a tremendous cost and effort. The year-long siege, from August 812 until September 813, would utterly destroy and depopulate the city.
During the siege, large parts of Baghdad were dug up for trenches. Houses in a number of areas were destroyed to clear the routes for defence or offence. Bridges on the Tigris and many over the canals were destroyed to impede the advancing troops. Thriving markets were uprooted.
The triumph of al-Mamun had a contrasting effect on the Arab
and Persian halves of
Besieged Al-Amin catapulted naphtha to burn Tahir’s positions west of the city. The fire killed innocent civilians and burned houses. Another of his commanders tasked with defence of northern areas of Baghdad burned entire streets with such tactics. Al-Amin encouraged, in the words of Tabari “the prisoners, riffraff, rabble, cutpurses, and people of the market” to plunder the areas that he had lost. Corpses littered the streets. A poet wrote about the reign of death as follows,
One person says, “They have killed
a thousand, but not anymore.”
Another says, “Yea, more, indeed,
the slain cannot be counted.”
Tahir himself had garrisoned on the west of the city. When people of an area submitted to him, he would dig up a trench around it and place his troops and siege engines around it. The areas not yielding to him were burned and destroyed. Suburbs that resisted him were declared Dar ul Nakth or the ‘abode of promise breakers’ to justify their plunder. The areas in the south east and the markets of al-Karkh (the largest market in the south west of the city) and al-Khuld (on the bank of the Tigris) fell in this category and were attacked without mercy. He seized the properties and estates of the royal family and military commanders who did not surrender to him. After a battle that went against him with a loss of many of his men, Tahir forbade supply of food items into the city. He also ordered razing and burning of opposing suburbs. In the north of the city, he tore down the houses between the Tigris in the east and the Syrian Gate in the west. In the south, suburbs between the al-Kufah Gate (one of the four gates of the central city) to the suburb of Humayd, the Karkhaya Canal, and al-Kunasah in the south west, were also burned and destroyed. Practically the whole of the city was thus wrecked.
On the incidents of exhorting money from the traders, Tabari wrote that al-Mamun’s troops started charging exhortation money for cargo ships and carts. Each ship was charged from 1,000 to 3,000 dirhams. Resultantly, prices rose and people were caught in the tightest kind of siege. Those who had left the city were glad; those who had remained regretted that they had done so.
A contemporary poet, al-Khuraymi described the plight of the city by depicting its splendour and devastation:
“A paradise on earth! The abode of happiness!”
Of distressing calamities there were few.
The world’s breasts yielded abundantly to her inhabitants;
there were few of them who were debtors or creditors.
Her residents enjoyed a life of ease;”
The poet writes of its state after the siege,
“Now they have become devoid of
people. Their gardens have been defiled with blood-
Desolate and empty! Dogs howl in them.
Now misery never leaves them;”
Al-Amin was an ineffectual commander but the factions supporting him feared reprisals from the Khorasani troops of al-Mamun and refused to surrender in the face of imminent defeat. In the process, they brought such immense destruction upon the city that al-Mamun stayed on in Merv for six years and it was only in 819 AD that he found the capital city fit to return.
Al-Amin tried to flee Baghdad but was captured and killed by Tahir on 27 September 813 AD. His head was sent to al-Mamun in Merv. The discomfiture of al-Amin had two everlasting effects. One, It completely eliminated the power of Arab factions over the Caliphate in political as well as military affairs and, for a time, reduced the influence of orthodox Islam in social and educational fields. The power shifted to the Persian factions, who had initially brought the House of Abbas to power and had now ensured the triumph of al-Mamun. The Arab reprisals would come half a century later in the shape of decades-long Zanj rebellion in the lower Mesopotamia that would cripple the Abbasid Caliphate forever.
The second affect was more profound. The triumph of al-Mamun had a contrasting effect on the Arab and Persian halves of the empire. The inspirational springs in Hijaz that had nourished the initial Islamic expansion had been depleting and ultimately ran dry in the aftermath of al-Mamun’s victory. This watershed event separated, permanently and terminally, the regressive Arab half of the Caliphate extending from the River Euphrates to the Atlantic Ocean from the progressive Persian half extending from the River Tigris to the River Indus in the east and the Russian steppes in the north.
For the next twelve centuries, the Arab region would remain stuck in past glory without any achievements in science, art or even religion. The Persian region, on the other hand, would glow in enlightened scholarship and generate the movement that we now call The Golden Age of Islam.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org