AL-AMIN AT BAGDAD; AL-MA'MUN AT MERV
193-198 A.H. / 808-813 A.D.
IN his unwise division of the kingdom, Harun left a fatal legacy that was not long in bearing bitter fruit. Al-Amin, as occupying Bagdad, the seat of empire, had the advantage of Al-Ma'mun. In anticipation of his father's end, he had deputed an agent to the camp at Tus, with letters to be kept hid until the event. Immediately on Harun's death, they were produced. In one Al-Ma'mun, then at Merv, was bidden to have oaths of allegiance sworn to both the brothers, in accordance with their father's will. But a second, in direct contravention of that will, ordered the army with its munitions of war, to return at once to Bagdad. On hearing of this, Al-Ma'mun sent messengers from Merv to expostulate against this violent breach of distinct conditions to which all had taken solemn oath; but the troops were already well on their way, hurrying too gladly homewards to heed the appeal. On their return to Bagdad, Al-Amin signalised his accession by distributing a year's pay to the army, which he had thus against his father's covenant stolen away from Al-Ma'mun.
The relations between the brothers were thus from the first strained. Al-Ma'mun, guided by an able adviser, a converted Zoroastrian, Al-Fadl ibn Sahl, temporised. This man, as a recent Persian convert and protégé of the Barmekids, was well fitted to secure a stable and popular rule throughout the East for Al-Ma'mun, who was now its rightful Sovereign. Under his guidance all classes were conciliated, both the Arabs settled tribally
in great numbers in and around Merv, and also the Turkish chiefs and princes, from whom a fourth of their tribute was now forgiven.
Al-Ma'mun's mother was of Persian blood, a fortunate relation that commended him to the affections of the people. "Son of our sister," they said, "he is one of ourselves, and an 'Abbasid to boot." As the breach with his brother widened, he assumed the title of Caliph, making Al-Fadl his Prime minister, both civil and military, whose rule ran from Hamadan to Thibet, from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf.1 Meanwhile peace was restored throughout Khorasan. Harthama after a long siege took Samarkand, and Rafi' hearing of Al-Ma'mun's benign administration, threw himself on his mercy and was pardoned.
Al-Amin, on the other hand, was a weak voluptuary led at will by those about him. His Wazir was another Al-Fadl, Ibn ar-Rabi', who having been Chief minister with Harun at Tus was party to what took place there upon his death. In consequence he dreaded the vengeance of Al-Ma'mun should he ever come to power, and persuaded Al-Amin to proclaim that his son's name should have precedence of Al-Ma'mun's in the public prayers. Al-Ma'mun retaliated by dropping from the weekly Service all mention of Al-Amin, and by effectually closing every avenue of communication with Bagdad.
At last Al-Amin took the fatal step of declaring his brother altogether deposed from the succession, and his own son heir-apparent. Of a piece with this high-handed act, be sent to the Ka'ba for the two documents, solemnly suspended by his father within the sacred walls, and tore them in shreds.
Surrounded by eunuchs and women, he passed his time in revelry and dissipation. Songstresses and slave-girls, gathered for their beauty from all parts of the empire and arrayed in splendid jewelry, were the chief society of himself and his boon companions. For his fêtes on the Tigris he had five gondolas, in the shapes of lion, elephant, eagle, serpent, and horse. Besides the private carousals in which he made no secret of drinking wine, his festivities were of the most sumptuous kind. For one of these he had the banquet-hall decked out with
1 He was called Dhu'r-Ri'asatein,
"Minister of the two departments," i.e., both civil and military.
1 He was called Dhu'r-Ri'asatein, "Minister of the two departments," i.e., both civil and military.
gorgeous carpets, couches, and trappings; a hundred songstresses sang in unison before him, then breaking into companies of ten, and with palm-branches in their hands, each group advanced in turn and sang before him. But on this occasion his wayward fancy took the songs as of evil omen, and he had the hall dismantled and destroyed. Such revels, with music, dancing, and wine, were peculiarly obnoxious to Muslim sentiment; and our annalist (who seldom indulges in any such comment) remarks "We find of him no good thing to say." Still Al-Amin was a favourite at Bagdad, a city already demoralised by a long course of sensuous living; and he was popular there, partly because of the money which he lavished on the troops and populace, and partly also because, while Al-Ma'mun was dreaded for his Persian proclivities, Al-Amin represented the Western sentiment that ruled in the Capital of Islam.
When Al-Amin found that his unjust pretensions were ignored at Merv, he resolved on reducing Al-Ma'mun by force of arms; but from beginning to end he was unfortunate in his commanders. The first was 'Ali ibn 'Isa, hated in the East for his tyranny, and deposed, as we have seen, on that account with indignity by Harun. He was now despatched with 50,000 men, and met with no opposition till he reached Ar-Reiy. There lay Tahir, posted by Al-Ma'mun with a small force to watch the frontier, who disdaining to wait for reinforcement, gave battle at once. 'Ali was slain in single combat by a blow from Tahir's left hand, for he wielded arms equally well with both hands; and the Caliph's army fled.1 This Tahir, of Persian descent, the wise and brave founder of the Tahirid house, was well chosen for the attack which Al-Ma'mun now ordered on Bagdad. On his march to Holwan successive armies were sent by Al-Amin against him, but he defeated them all. Harthama, despatched
1 He was called "the Ambidexter," and had also lost
an eye, as we shall see noticed below. The command of Tahir illustrates the change
now rapidly coming over society in the relative position of the Arab tribes towards
the conquered nations. He was the great-grandson of a Persian slave belonging to
an Arab chief of the Khoza'a clan, and, as his freedman, became a "client" of
the clan itself. The proud Arab, of the dominant caste, had now sunk in the scale,
and the descendant of the slave, or "client," thus risen above him.
1 He was called "the Ambidexter," and had also lost an eye, as we shall see noticed below. The command of Tahir illustrates the change now rapidly coming over society in the relative position of the Arab tribes towards the conquered nations. He was the great-grandson of a Persian slave belonging to an Arab chief of the Khoza'a clan, and, as his freedman, became a "client" of the clan itself. The proud Arab, of the dominant caste, had now sunk in the scale, and the descendant of the slave, or "client," thus risen above him.
with heavy reinforcements from Merv, was left in charge of Holwan by Tahir, who now advanced upon Al-Ahwaz and Sus, and from thence threatened the Capital itself.
Al-Fadl ibn ar-Rabi' sought to rouse Al-Amin to a sense of the crisis, but the voluptuous monarch, immersed in pleasure, gave a readier ear to the auspicious presages of the creatures around him, and to the fond omens of his maidens and eunuchs. Chafing under repeated defeat, he confiscated the estate of Al-Ma'mun, including the million of pieces given him by his father. Some even advised him to put Al-Ma'mun's two sons left at Bagdad to death, but he had still the virtue left to frown on the proposal.
Meanwhile a new danger threatened in Syria. A pretender, claiming in his person descent at once from the houses of 'Ali and of Mu'awiya,sires that had contended for the Caliphate on the field of Siffin,gained possession of Damascus and the surrounding country, and made such progress that he might indeed have founded a new dynasty in the west, had not the miserable jealousies, between the Yemen and Modar tribes, set up a rival against him. Troops were sent to quell the rebellion, but so long as misrule reigned at the Capital, nothing effectual could be done; and so for two or three years Syria was the scene of anarchy. One of the commanders of the Caliph's Syrian army was Al-Hosein, the son of 'Ali ibn 'Isa slain by Tahir,an ill-conditioned man who alienated the Syrian troops by his partiality for the men of Khorasan. This officer suddenly returned with his army to Bagdad.
Summoned on his arrival at midnight by Al-Amin, he sent back the insolent reply that being neither jester nor musician, it was not his wont to appear by night, but that he would do so in the morning. His object, however, was to dethrone Al-Amin. By daylight he had raised the malcontents of the city, whose only safety lay in anticipating the certain victory of Al-Ma'mun. Al-Hosein then crossed the river, and dispersing the Caliph's guards, seized both him and his mother1 and imprisoned them in one of the palaces. He then proclaimed Al-Ma'mun as Caliph. But at heart Bagdad hated the Khorasanis.
1 Zubeida, who had left Ar-Rakka on Al Ja'far's death,
was met (193 A.H.) by Al-Amin and his chief men at Al-Anbar, and conducted in state
1 Zubeida, who had left Ar-Rakka on Al Ja'far's death, was met (193 A.H.) by Al-Amin and his chief men at Al-Anbar, and conducted in state to Bagdad.
Al-Hosein had moreover no money wherewith to gain over either the mob or the soldiery; and the leading men dreaded the advent of Al-Ma'mun.
And so it came to pass that in a few days a counter-force was mustered against Al-Hosein, who was taken prisoner and brought before Al-Amin, now reinstated in the Caliphate. The weak monarch not only pardoned Al-Hosein, but gave him a new command to proceed to Holwan against Al-Ma'mun. But as he crossed the bridge, the people following hooted at him, and he fled.
He was pursued by order of the Caliph, overtaken a short way from the city, and slain. Ibn ar-Rabi', the Wazir, who had assisted Al-Hosein in this singular outbreak, retired from the Court and went into close hiding.
Meanwhile Tahir was steadily advancing. Column after column was despatched against him by Al-Amin; but they had little power to stay the tide of conquest. The provinces east of the Tigris had already sent in their adhesion to Tahir at Al-Ahwaz; and now all Arabia, with the Holy cities, came over and swore allegiance to Al-Ma'mun. The governor of Mecca, a descendant of the house of 'Ali, denounced in public the iniquity and sacrilege of Al-Amin in destroying the documents suspended in the Ka'ba; then proceeding to Merv, he was honourably received by Al-Ma'mun, always favourable to that house, and sent back with splendid gifts. At last Tahir crossed the Tigris by Al-Medain, almost within sight of Bagdad, and captured Wasit. Al-Kufa, seeing no alternative, now accepted Al-Ma'mun; and Mesopotamia from Al-Basra to Mosul followed suit. The wretched Capital alone remained. Al-Amin sought to bribe his followers to fight, and those of the enemy to desert, by money cast lavishly amongst them.
But all in vain. Before the close of the year Tahir, ready to bombard the city, planted his camp before the Anbar gate. Harthama, similarly approaching from the east, sat down outside the quarter on the other bank of the river.
The sufferings of Bagdad throughout the siege, which lasted for a whole year, were terrible beyond description. The struggle was prolonged not only by the advantage the Capital had in lying on either bank of the river with all its means of transport, but also by the canals which intersected and protected it. The prisons were broken, and there was
riot day and night. Catapults planted all round the walls cast shot into the city, while streams of Greek fire directed from within against the engines of war, caused great loss of life without. Hand-to-hand fighting went on in every street, and as the citizens threw down stones and missiles on the advancing soldiers, Tahir had to raze to the ground whole quarters for his own protection. The distress of the inhabitants thus hemmed in, and cut off from all supplies of food, was frightful; and the suffering of the women and children, heartrending,described by the poets of the day as drawing "tears of blood" from those who witnessed them. Palaces costing millions were left in ashes; and the beautiful city, into which the riches of the world had for fifty years been pouring, became a heap of ruins.
As one quarter after another fell into the hands of Tahir, the generals of Al-Amin began to drop off into his camp. In vain Al-Amin emptied his treasury, and when that failed melted vessels of gold and silver to gain men for his defence. The populace held by him; but most of those who had anything still to save went over to the invading force. Things had gone on thus throughout the year 197 A.H., and the wretched city was now reduced to the last extremity of distress and want, when Tahir, supported now by most of Al-Amin's own generals, resolved on the final storm.
In concert with these, and with Harthama, who had in Tahir's view been too long and inactive on the eastern side, the bridges were cut away and the city carried on every side at the point of the sword.
Al-Amin, finding his palace untenable, fled with his mother and children into the strong citadel which Al-Mansur had built for himself on the brink of the river; while the inmates of his harim, crowds of eunuchs and damsels, fled hither and thither in terror for their lives. The citadel was defended by a faithful few, who planted engines at the gates to keep off attack and here, under shelter of its battlements, Al-Amin prolonged for two or three days his miserable life.
His uncle Ibrabim, one of the few nobles who still held by him, tells us that, about this time, to relieve the sultry closeness of an autumn evening, Al-Amin issued from the palace to breathe the fresh air of the river bank, and sent to call him thither. "I went, and as we sat in a balcony overlooking
the swift stream, Al-Amin said, How balmy the river air; how calm and clear the moonbeams playing on the water!1 Then he said, Have ye here any wine? which when they brought we both drank of it; and after that I sang to him one or two of the songs he liked. When I had done, he called for the chief songstress and bade her sing to him. She began with a well-known ode on a pack of bloodhounds. Starting at the words, he bade her sing something else; and so she warbled a tearful sonnet on loved ones far away. Out upon thee! he cried: hast thou nothing else? That song thou wast wont to love, she said, as she began a third about the fate of monarchies. Begone! cried the Caliph, swearing angrily at her, and let me see thy face no more! The startled damsel, as she hasted away in the dim moonlight, stumbled on a priceless crystal goblet set before Al-Amin, and it broke in pieces. See! he cried again; all are against me, and the end is near. Hark! didst thou hear that voice, as if a solemn verse of the Kor'an, from across the river? We listened it was but the strained imagination: all was still, and we retired into the citadel."
But two courses were now open to Al-Amin;either to surrender, or issuing forth by night, make a bold dash for Syria. He chose the latter; for there were yet horses enough in the royal stables, and faithful men to mount them as his bodyguard.
But Tahir, learning the design, threatened the chief men still waiting on Al-Amin, that if they did not force him to surrender, he would visit them with condign punishment. The timid monarch was easily persuaded to exchange the risks of flight for the prospect of ease and pleasure in banishment. But he resolutely refused to resign himself into the hands of Tahir, whom as a Persian he stood in dread of; it was only to Harthama, who promised to be his friend, that he would surrender. Tahir objected, for this would have implied that Harthama, and not Tahir, was the conqueror of Bagdad. At last it was arranged that while Al-Amin gave himself up to Harthama, the sceptre, signet, and royal robes should be given to Tahir; and so Harthama prepared at once to
1 It was the third week of the first month of
the year 198 A.H., when the moon would be bright in the evening, as Ibrahim tells us.
1 It was the third week of the first month of the year 198 A.H., when the moon would be bright in the evening, as Ibrahim tells us.
convey the fallen monarch to his camp across the river. Tahir, however, fearing collusion in reference to the compromise, posted men all round the Citadel; and Harthama hearing of it bade Al-Amin wait till he could protect him on the following day. But the unfortunate Monarch could remain no longer in his lonely palace. Deserted by his followers, he had not even water to quench his thirst; and he resolved to leave at once. So embracing his two sons, and wiping the fast-falling tears away with his cloak, he rode down to the river bank, where Harthama waited in a skiff to carry him across. As he embarked, Harthama kissing his hands embraced him, and quickly bade them to put off; but they had hardly left the shore, when Tahir's people attacked the boat with stones and arrows. It sank; Harthama was barely saved, the boatmen seizing him by the hair of his head.
Al-Amin casting off his clothes, swam to the shore. Naked and shivering with fright, he was carried to a house, where the following night he was slain by a party of Persian soldiers. His head after being exposed by Tahir on the battlements, was sent, together with the emblems of royalty, to Al-Ma'mun.
The victory of Al-Ma'mun over his brother was once more like the overthrow of the Umeiyads by the 'Abbasids, the victory of the Persians over the Arabs. It was a fresh stage in the ebb of the tide which had begun to flow nearly two hundred years before. The troops and people of Bagdad repented now that they had not fought more bravely for Al-Amin; but that, says our annalist, was because of the treasure he used to lavish on them.
Indeed there was little more that could be said to favour him. His troubled and inglorious reign lasted four years and eight months.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
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