218-232 A.H.   /   833-847 A.D.

Mo'tasim, 218 A.H. 833 A.D.

THE troops, at the first, refused to do homage to Al-Mo'tasim, preferring rather, in their growing insolence, to elect Al-'Abbas, son of the late Caliph; but he, summoned from Tyana, at once swore allegiance to his uncle, and the army followed. Tyana was abandoned, the rising walls demolished, and whatever could not be carried off com­mitted to the flames. Al-Mo'tasim then returned to Bagdad.

Intolerant supporter of Ma'mun's heterodoxy.

Al-Mo'tasim followed his brother Al-Ma'mun, or surpassed him rather, in the two weak points of his rule, intolerance, to wit, and preference for the Turkish soldier. Freedom of discussion, to an extent never dreamed of till the days of Al-Ma'mun, still prevailed, excepting in respect of the new dogmas of the Court. Science and philosophy flourished under such distinguished professors as Al-Kindi, "the philosopher of the Arabs," whose works, both original and borrowed from the Greeks, have won a European reputation. But from the Mo'tazili creed no divergence was tolerated; to it every Muslim must conform. Two dogmas were especially dear to the Caliph, namely, that the Kor'an was not eternal, and that by the disembodied eye in the future life, the Deity could not be seen. The severest pains and penalties, even to the death, awaited those who dared to differ. Bagdad was much disquieted by the intolerant rigour of the Caliph and his doctors; the famous Ibn Hanbal was again arrested, and being firm in the faith, was pitilessly scourged, and cast scarred and senseless into prison.

But a still greater trouble threatened the city in the


swarms of Turkish soldiery that with daily-increasing numbers were planted in and around it.

Increasing ribaldry of Turkish soldiery at Bagdad,

They had, in fact been originally brought in to counterbalance the power of the soldiers of Khorasan to whom the 'Abbasids owed the Caliphate. Thousands of Memluks1 were yearly imported from the North-east. Some formed the bodyguard, the remainder swelled the army; and such as displayed military talent and presence, gaining the Caliph's favour, rose rapidly to chief command. Thus were the Arab soldiery, captains as well as rank and file, rapidly displaced; and, retiring to their deserts, instead of as heretofore pillars of the Caliphate, became a chronic element of disturbance and revolt. The evils of this system,—culminating hereafter in the Memluk dynasty, the curse of Egypt,—were for the present confined to the Capital and its outlying cantonments. The Turkish horse, galloping in unbridled licence wildly about the streets, kept the women and children in constant jeopardy; and affrays and murders were the consequence. Riding through the city, a Sheikh began to accost Al-Mo'tasim in the simple Arab style,—"O Abu Ishak!" The escort set upon him as an ungainly intruder, but the Caliph stayed them, and listened to his words:—"A horde of foreigners," he said, "have been planted in our midst, and from their insolence and rapine there is no escape." Al-Mo'tasim never again rode abroad in Bagdad.

leads to the founding of Samarra.

This incident led to the building in 836 of Samarra, with its palaces and imperial barracks, some sixty miles higher up the Tigris. Thither the Caliph retired with his Turkish troops, and Samarra, for over half a century and during the reigns of seven Caliphs, became the Capital of the Empire (836-894 A.D.). Bagdad was relieved, but the Caliph fell more than ever under the hand of these foreign levies.2

The Muslim arms being engaged in many quarters,

1 The passive participle of malaka, "to own"; signifying purchased slaves, chiefly from Turkestan.

2 Al-Mo'tasim changed the Aramaean name Samarra to Surra-man­ra'a, "whoever sees it rejoices," or Delight of the eyes, from the beauty of its situation; or as was wittily said, "whoever saw it with the Turks settled there, rejoiced at Bagdad being well rid of them." Harun had begun to build it when he first left Bagdad. But when he passed on to Ar-Rakka and settled there, the place fell into ruins till Al-Mo'tasim began to rebuild it.


Al-Mo'tasim, soon after his accession, made peace with the Greeks and arranged an exchange of prisoners.1

Peace with Emperor, 218 A.H. 833 A.D.

Among with the troubles that threatened, there was first the strange tribe of Indians called the Zott, who occupied the marshes of lower Mesopotamia, levied tolls on the shipping, and at last cut off the supplies of Bagdad.

Inroad of Zott insurgents, 219-220 A.H.

They were put to flight by 'Ojeif, an Arab general, who brought several thousands of them by boat to Bagdad, whence they were exiled to Asia Minor, eventually finding their way into Europe as gypsies.2 An 'Alid pretender also occasioned some anxiety in Khorasan, but was suppressed by 'Abdallah ibn Tahir, now nearly independent ruler there.

Babek's defeat and escape, 218 A.H.

The rebel who continued to cause the most anxiety at Bagdad was the famous Babek who long held sway in Azerbijan, and had there the countenance of Armenia and Greece. He now sent his columns south, and the terror spread as far even as Hamadan. Vast multitudes in northern Persia adopted his faith and flocked to his standard. They were attacked with great slaughter, and pursued into Grecian territory. Against the freebooter himself, who retired into inaccessible haunts towards the Caspian, the Caliph sent Afshin, one of his ablest Turkish generals, with a large and well-ordered force. But it was not before two years of hard fighting beyond Ardebil, and not without acts of treachery (too common with these Turkish leaders), that, one after another, the strong­holds of Babek were taken;

Taken captive, 222 A.H. 837 A.D.,

he himself effected his escape into Armenia, where he was captured and made over to Afshin by an Armenian prince, with whom he had taken refuge. Thousands of Muslim captives, women and children were recovered and restored to their families. Afshin seized the vast treasures which had been amassed by Babek during all these years, and from them richly rewarded his officers. He then set out for Samarra, carrying the famous freebooter and his brother in his train. The long career of this brigand prince, who had

1 An embassy to Bagdad is mentioned by the Byzantine writers, headed by John the Grammarian; but it is not noticed by Arab annalists. See Bury, Eastern Roman Empire, pp. 256 ff.

2 Their history is obscure. De Goeje: Mémoires sur les migrations des Ziganes à travers l'Asie.


been now for twenty years the lord of Azerbijan, and whose endless roll of outrages committed, and of Muslim generals beaten and armies destroyed, had for a whole generation struck terror into the people's mind,1 made the march a royal ovation for Afshin. As he drew near to Samarra, the Caliph sent him every day a fresh dress of honour with splendid gifts; and when the cortege approached, went forth in state with his son and the royal household, to bring him in with every mark of honour. Babek was kept under guard, and thither Al-Mo'tasim himself with his chief Kadi, went in disguise to gaze upon "the Shaitan of Khorasan," as they called him, who was then paraded over the city.

and cruelly executed.

Brought back to the palace, the Caliph, surrounded by his men of war, commanded Babek's own executioner to fall upon him, sever his limbs, and then plunge the knife into his still quivering trunk. The head was sent round the cities of Khorasan, and the body impaled near the palace. Babek's brother was reserved to be treated in like manner as a sight for the city of Bagdad, and his body there hung up by the river bank.

War with Emperor, iv. 223 A.H. March, 838 A.D.

The Emperor Theophilus, taking advantage of the Muslim arms being engaged against Babek, with whom the Greeks made common cause, had meanwhile been ravaging the south of Asia Minor, and carrying fire and sword even into the heart of Syrian territory. The bitter cry of a captive Hashimi lady, Shame on Al-Mo'tasim! reached the Caliph's ear. Ready! he exclaimed, starting up as if he heard her voice; and commenced forthwith prepara­tions for war on the grandest scale. It was the spring of 233 A.H. when he marched for Syria. Passing on to Tarsus he there marshalled his army in three divisions, led mainly by Turkish captains, and advanced against the Emperor. The objective of his attack was the city of 'Ammuriya (Amorion), the original borne of the Imperial dynasty, lying

1 Babek is said to have defeated six famous generals in these twenty years, slain 255,000 men, taken 3300 men, and 7600 women prisoners. Comparing this with the ravages of Mohammad's army, Al-Kindi asks the Mohammadan advocate, "Tell me, now, wherein the difference lieth between thy Prophet and Babek the Khurrami, whose insurrection bath caused such grief to our lord the Commander of the Faithful, and disaster to mankind at large."—Apology, p. 46.


in the heart of Asia Minor.

Siege of Amorion.

Theophilus, defeated in a pitched battle, left the city to its fate. After fifty-five days of siege, a renegade led the engines to a defenceless point, and the walls were about to be stormed when a general, named Wendu,1 issued from the city, and offered to sur­render, if terms were given. He was graciously received, and the garrison, relying on the parley, held their hand. But the faithless Caliph meanwhile signalled a fresh attack, and Wendu, riding by his side, saw in consternation when too late that he was overreached. The city, thus easily captured, was treated with the last severities of war.

Burned and destroyed.

Multitudes took refuge in the Cathedral, which was set on fire, and all perished in the flames. The chief families were set aside for heavy ransom, with all the goods worth carrying away; and the rest were put up to the highest bidder. All that remained was committed to the flames, and Amorion left a desolation. Some of the noblest captives were, on refusing to abjure their faith, executed. This was the latest great martyrdom of the Greek Church. Theophilus, making reprisals by sea, a truce was concluded in 841. The Caliph set about repairing the fleet, which the 'Abbasids had neglected; but his Armada was wrecked.

Conspiracy against Caliph.

The happiness of Al-Mo'tasim was, however, damped by an attempt which nearly brought his reign to in untimely end. 'Ojeif, the Arab chief, who had distinguished himself in the Zott campaign, and now commanded the centre column against the Emperor, was roused to jealousy by the favours lavished on the Turkish generals, and by their insolent bearing towards himself and his fellows. Goaded thus, he conspired against Al-Mo'tasim, and persuaded Al-'Abbas to aspire to the throne which at first he had renounced. The plot, joined by other Arab leaders, and even by some of the Turks, was delayed till Amorion should fall, and then the distribution of the spoil was to be the signal for slaying the Caliph and his two Turkish favourites, Afshin and Ashnas. An attempt to seize the spoil and in the confusion accomplish the traitorous design, was crushed by Al-Mo'tasim, who boldly rushed upon the plunderers sword in hand, and

1 The name is said to mean "an ox." The spelling is doubtful, Tab. iii. 1251. See the account of this campaign in Bury, Eastern Roman Empire, pp. 263 ff.


dispersed them. The plot came prematurely to light by the talk of some drunken confederates. The Caliph disbelieved the existence of so widespread a conspiracy, till Al-'Abbas himself, plied with wine, confessed to him the whole.

Barbarous execution of conspirators.

He was made over to Afshin, who, withholding water to drink, thus killed him, and 'Ojeif met the same fate. For another, carried into Syria, a well was dug, into which he was cast, and the pit filled in upon him while yet alive. Thus, with signal pains and penalties, the chief conspirators were all destroyed.

Turkish begin to supersede Arabian officers.

The conspiracy had, moreover, the disastrous effect of throwing the Caliph altogether into the hands of his Turkish captains, and of gradually ousting the alienated Arab and Persian leaders from all chief commands. Among the Turks themselves there was but little love or loyalty to lose; envy and hatred, greed and lust of power made the East but the theatre of intrigue, treachery, and violence, in which there was respect neither for life nor right. And they who suffered most were the Caliphs themselves, who, as long as the Court remained at Samarra, became the miserable puppets of their Turkish generals or the helpless victims of military outrage. About the same time Turks begin to drift into the service of the Emperor.

Afshin's misdeeds, 224 A.D.

Afshin himself was soon to fall. Mazyar, the native prince of Tabaristan, withholding tribute, ravaged the south-east coast of the Caspian, and rebelled against 'Abdallah ibn Tahir, now the acknowledged chief of Khorasan. Afshin hated 'Abdallah because he had exposed his appropriation of Babek's spoil, and he also coveted his government. He therefore secretly encouraged Mazyar, in the hope that he might himself be sent with a force to suppress the rising, and so supplant 'Abdallah. But 'Abdallah was able without help to defeat Mazyar, who, taken captive, was sent to Samarra; and there, confronted with Afshin, accused him of abetting the rebellion.

His fall, 225 A.H.

Misdeeds of misappropriation were also charged against Afshin. The attitude of the Caliph now changed towards him. In alarm he attempted to escape to the Caspian shores, but failing, was arrested and cast into prison. A court was constituted of the chief Kadi, the Wazir, and other Courtiers. But, strange to say, the charge was neither for treachery nor embezzlement. He was arraigned for holding


Magian doctrines, and for covert hostility to Islam.

Afshin tried as a Magian and enemy of Islam.

Princes from Soghd were summoned as witnesses. Two men in rags, with scarred backs, were brought forward. "Knowest thou these?" asked the Wazir, who conducted the trial. "Yes" answered Afshin "the intendants of a Mosque in Soghd. They built it on the site of a temple which they razed to the ground, after casting out the idol from the shrine. Now the treaty ran that all were free to follow each his own religion; and so, as breakers of the treaty, I caused them to be scourged."—"And this golden jewelled book of thine, wherein is blasphemy against the Most High?" "It is a book," he replied, "inherited of my father, wherein is the wisdom of the Easterns—good morals and also heresy; the first I used, the last I left alone." Other imputations Afshin contended were worthless, as based on Magian evidence. At last Mazyar deposed that Afshin's brother had written a letter couched in opprobrious terms against the whole Muslim race and their religion, and urging return to the old Magian faith. "For what my brother wrote," said Afshin, " I am not responsible; but doubtless it was written for expediency's sake, and to advance the conquests of the Caliph by artifice, even as 'Abdallah doth in the regions beyond." The chief Kadi, doubting the evidence, came to no conviction on the charge of heresy, but sent Afshin back handcuffed to his prison,

His death, 226 A.H.

where, not long after, partaking of a dish of fruit sent by the Caliph, he died.1 His body was hung up to public derision and then burned. Strange rumours spread abroad of idols, jewelled figures, and Magian books found in his house; but the excited Muslim mind was ready to accept any tales regarding the Magians of the day. Mazyar was scourged so cruelly that he sank under the infliction. The trial of Afshin throws interesting light upon the Caliph and his court, as well as showing the hold which Magian doctrines and worship still retained, and the toleration accorded to them, in the far East. The mass of the people of Persia, though Muslim in name still clung to their old faith, and, had an opportunity occurred, they would no doubt have thrown off Islam and returned to it.

1 He acknowledged he was not circumcised, and stated personal reasons for omission of the rite. The jewelled book was likely Magian or possibly Buddhist.


The risings under Sunbadh the Magian, the Veiled Prophet, and Babek, as well as the worship of Abu Muslim, are to be so explained.

Mo'tasim's death iii. 227 A.H. Jan., 842 A.D.,

Al-Mo'tasim died not long after, in the same month as his old enemy Theophilus, having reigned nearly nine years. With an arbitrary, but on the whole a kindly disposition, he did nothing to stay the decline of the Caliphate. Of the Turkish captains on whom he leaned in his later days, he bitterly complained.1 Had he looked to able Arab chiefs for support, it was yet possible to have restored vigour to the body politic. But he went over entirely to the Turks, and courted the influx of barbarian races, whose fatal yoke his successors could not throw off.

and character.

As proof of his kindness we are told that the palfrey of a poor husbandman having fallen into a quagmire, he helped him up with its burden again. On this, contrasted with the destruction of Amorion, Gibbon has the following reflection:—"To a point of honour, Motassem had sacrificed a flourishing city, 200,000 lives, and the property of millions The same Caliph descended from his horse, and dirtied his robe to relieve the distress of a decrepit old man, who with his laden ass had tumbled into a ditch. On which of these actions did he reflect with the most pleasure, when he was summoned by the angel of death?"

Wathik succeeds, 227 A.H.

Al-Mo'tasim was succeeded by his son Al-Wathik, who, though born of a Greek slave-girl, inherited his father's Persian proclivities, and indeed with even greater intolerance.

His rapacity.

He was weak and arbitrary in his administration. The history of the Barmekis having been related to him, and how Ar-Rashid had recovered vast sums from their estates, he exclaimed, "What a fine example my grandfather had set for me." He immediately proceeded to arraign his ministers and their secretaries, and having beaten one and threatened others, despoiled them of vast sums, from 100,000 to 1,000,000 dinars each. What a vivid conception does not this give us of the corruption of the minions at Court, and the caprice of their Master!

1 In his last days, comparing Al-Ma'mun's able courtiers with his own, he said to one of his courtiers:—"See what Afshin hath come to. Ashnas, a poor creature; Itakh and Wasif, nothing in them." Yet these were the men on whom he leaned.



During this reign there were risings, more or less, throughout the Empire;—in the parts about Mosul from the Khawarij; and in Persia from a rebellion of the Kurds; but the worst disturbances were in Syria and Arabia.

Palestine: the Veiled impostor, 227 A.H. 842 A.D.

Just before the decease of Al-Mo'tasim, a serious insurrection broke out in Palestine. A lady having been ill-treated by a soldier who sought to force her door, the husband went against the government, and set up as a leader of the Umeiyad line. Known as Al-Mobarka' from his face being always veiled, he roused the whole country west of the Jordan. The General sent by the Caliph was still engaged with this impostor, when a still more dangerous outbreak at Damascus called him thither. A battle was fought outside the city, and after above a thousand had been slain, order was at last restored. The force then returned to Palestine, where harvest having thinned the insurgent ranks, an easy victory was gained, but at great cost of life to the rebels, of whom some 20,000 were slain. Al-Mobarka' was carried off a prisoner to Samarra.

Disturbances in Arabia, 230-232 A.H.

A year or two afterwards Arabia fell into a troubled state. The Beni Suleim and other Bedawi tribes, with now no career to divert their marauding tendencies, attacked the Holy Cities, plundering the markets and committing havoc everywhere. They were defeated by Bogha, a Turkish general, who to strike terror imprisoned 1500 of them at Medina. While he was called away by fresh disturbances on the Syrian border, this great body of prisoners attempting to break away were surrounded by the inhabitants, and slain by their negro slaves to a man. Order restored in the north, Bogha returned, and waged a long and not always successful campaign against insurgent tribes in the centre and south of the Peninsula.

Intolerant heterodoxy of Wathik, 231 A.H.

But the danger that chiefly threatened Al-Wathik was nearer home, and arose, in short, from the rigour with which he enforced his heterodox views. The men of Bagdad, greatly irritated, set on foot a plot against the hated govern­ment. It was headed amongst others by a Muslim saint, named Ahmed ibn Nasr, whose unmeasured denunciation of the intolerant Caliph gathered around him a great following. The day was already fixed for a threatening demonstration with flags and drums, when two of the conspirators


fell to drinking, and issued forth a night too soon.

Ahmed charged with heresy.

The plot thus prematurely disclosed, Ahmed was sent to Samarra, where the Caliph arraigned him before a court, not, however, on the charge of a treasonable rising, but of heresy. "What sayest thou of the Kor'an ?" asked the Caliph. "That it is the word of God," replied Ahmed with heavenly ardour, for he coveted martyrdom, and had anointed his body for the burial. "Nay, but is it create?" rejoined the angry Caliph. "It is the word of God," repeated Ahmed calmly. "And what about the beatific vision?" continued the Caliph. "This that the Prophet hath told us, Ye shall see your Lord at the Day of Judgment even as ye see the full moon." "That he said but in a figure," answered Al-Wathik; and he began to argue the point. "Dost thou command me then?" asked Ahmed. "Yea, verily." "Then I may not swerve from the clear teaching of the Prophet." "Ye have heard him yourselves," said Al-Wathik to the assembled Court; what think ye?" The Kadi of the western quarter cried, "By thy sacred Majesty! Verily his blood is lawful!" "O satisfy our thirst therewith!" exclaimed the rest,—all excepting Ibn abi Da'ud the chief, who said, "Give space to repent; haply, he is crazed." "Nay, nay," shouted the Caliph; "leave me alone, while thus in his blood I expiate my sins."

Martyrdom of Ahmed.

And calling for Samsama (the famous sword of 'Amr ibn Ma'dikerib1) he gave him a mortal blow upon the neck. Thereupon, the rest plunged their swords into him, and he fell a mangled corpse. The body was hung at Samarra by that of Babek and the head, sent to Bagdad under a guard, was set up with this inscription,—The head of Ahmed, the Heathen and accursed Polytheist.

Exchange of Greek prisoners, 231 A.H. 846 A.D.

Towards the close of his reign there was an exchange of prisoners between the Caliph and the Emperor. The two camps were formed on either side of a river beyond Tarsus. There were over 5000 Muslims, men and women, to be freed; but even here the bigotry of Al-Wathik prevailed, for with an intolerance almost inconceivable, none were received in ransom but such as confessed the two favourite dogmas of the Court.

1 Above, p. 36 f. This sword, of which he was despoiled in the war of the apostasy, is famous in Arab song, as of marvellous temper, and extreme antiquity.


Death of Wathik, 232 A.H. 847 A.D.

In the year following, Al-Wathik was seized with an insufferable thirst, the result of dissipated living. The remedy prescribed was exposure in an oven, which over-­heated caused his death. The only credit given to his short reign of six years was for generosity and benefactions, enjoyed especially by the poor of Mecca and Medina. It would take, however, some more substantial praise than this to set against the bigotry and cruel tyranny of which examples have been given above.

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