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The Persian Hero; Babak Khorrami


By: Professor Gh. H. Yousefi

Tehran University

Dec. 2000



Artist impression of Babak Khorramdin

based on historical records

(Oil-wash by Babak Zand - 1981)


Babak Khorrami (bābak khorramī - d. January, 838), Persian leader of the Khorramdini or Khorrami uprising in Northwest of Iran in the early 9th century which engaged the forces of the Arab caliph for twenty years before it was crushed in 837.


The fullest account of Babak's career comes from a lost Akkbār Bābak by Wāqed b. 'Amr Tamīmī, which is quoted in the Fehrest of Ebn al-Nadim (ed. Flugel. pp. 406-07) and was probably used by Maqdesi (Bad' VI, pp. I 14-18; see Sadighi, p. 234). Other accounts are less detailed and show variations.


The name Bābak is found in all the sources, but Mas'udī also says that "Bābak's name was Hasan" (Moruj VII, p. 130, ed. Pellat, IV, sec. 2814). The statements about his parentage and background are unclear and inconsistent, sometimes fantastic and incredible. His father's name is variously given as Merdas/Merdās (Sam'ānī, ed. Margoliouth, fol. 56a); 'Abd-Allah, a native of Madā'en (Fehrest, p.406); Matar, a vagabond (men al-sa'ālīk); Tabari, III, p. 1232); and 'Āmer b. Ahad from the Sawād region who had gone to Ardabīl (Abu'I-Ma'ālī, chap. 5). According to Wāqed, however, 'Abd-Allah, Babak's father, a Persian who was a cooking-oil vendor who had left his home town Mada'en (Ctesiphon, 35 km south of modern Baghadad) for the Azarbaijan frontier zone and settled in the village of Balālābād in the Maymad district. His mother, according to Fasih (l, p. 283), was a one-eyed woman named Māhrū (Moon-Face/Belle) from a village in a district belonging to Azarbaijan. On the one hand the stories about 'Abd-Allah and Matar may imply that Babak's father had an illicit relationship with this woman, but on the other hand Dinavari (p. 397) asserts: "What seems to us to be true and proven is that Babak was a son of Motahhar, the son of Abu Moslem's daughter Fātema, and that the Fatemiya group of the Khorramis took their name from this Fatema, not from Fatema the daughter of God's Prophet." In Mas'udi's Moruj (ed. Pellat, IV, p. 144, sec. 2398) Babak is described simply as one of the Fatemiya group of the Khorramis.


In most of these accounts, other than Dinavari’s, a note of sarcasm and hostility can be perceived. Our information about Babak and his revolt comes almost entirely from adversaries. Merdās is the mane of Zahhak's father in Ferdowsi's .Shāhnāma, probably meaning "man-eater" (mard-ās; see R. Roth, "Die Sage von Dschemschid," ZDh9G 4, 1850, pp.417-33, esp. p. 423), however this view was rejected by Noldeke who considered Merdas to be the same its Arabic Merdas (see Zerekh and Dehkoda, s.v. Merdas); its attribution to Babak may be a disguised reference to his and his henchmen's readiness to kill their enemies (Zarrinkub, 1355, p.237). The coupling of his mother's name Māhrū "Belle" with the description "one-eyed" also looks like a sneer. There is no means of knowing whether the kinship with Abu Moslem, considered probable by Dinavari, was a fact or a pretense designed by Babak (as by other rebel leaders) to gain support among people who cherished Abu Moslem's memory (G. H. Yusofi, Abu- Moslem, sardār-e Khorāsān, Tehran. 1345 Š./1966, pp. 175-78, 165f.), or whether it was subsequently invented to argue a link between Abu Moslem's and Babak's revolts or to explain the Khorrami veneration for Abu Moslem (cf. Nezam-al-Molk, pp. 359, 367-68). Dinavari's mention of a Khorrami group named Fatemiya after Abu Moslem's daughter and of Babak's membership of it is repeated in Tārīkh Baghdād (X, p. 207; see also Madelung, pp. 63-64. 65; Amoretti, pp. 503ff.).


According to Waqed. Babak's father, after the birth of Babak, died from wounds suffered in a fight during a journey to the Sabalān district. His widow then earned her living as a wet-nurse for other people's infants, while Babak worked as a cowherd until he was twelve years old. We are told that one afternoon his mother saw Babak asleep under a tree, stark naked and with blood at the root of every hair on his head and chest; but when he woke and stood up, she saw no trace of blood and said, "I know that my son has a great task ahead" (Fehrest, p.406; Maqdesi, Bad' VI, pp. 114f.; 'Awfi, pt. 1, chap. 5). Waqed adds that Babak in his youth worked as a groom and servant for Shebl b. Monaqqi (Motannā?) at the village of Sarāt (Sarāb?) and learned to play the tanbur (drum or mandolin). This must be the source of the statement by Abu'l-Ma'ali (chap. 5. p. 299) that Babak used to play the tanbur and sing songs for the people while working its a fruit vendor in the village. When he had grown up he went to Tabriz, where he spent two years in the service of Mohammad b. Rawwad Azdi (q.v.) before returning at the age of eighteen to his home at Balalabad.


Waqed's account of what happened next is, in summary, as follows. Two rich men named Jāvidān b. Shahrak (or Shahrak) and Abu 'Emran were then living in the highland around the mountain of Badd and contending for the leadership of the highland's Khorrami inhabitants. Jāvidān, when stuck in the snow on his way back from Zanjān to Badd, had to seek shelter at Balalabad and happened to go into the house of Babak's mother. Being poor, she could only light a fire for him, while Babak looked after the guest's servants and horses and brought water for them. Jāvidān then sent Babak to buy food, wine, and fodder. When Babak came back and spoke to Jāvidān, he impressed Jāvidān with his shrewdness despite his lack of fluency of speech. Jāvidān therefore asked the woman for permission to take her son away to manage his farms and properties, and offered to send her fifty dirhams a month from Babak's salary. The woman accepted and let Babak go. It must have been then that he joined the Khorramis.


In the Fehrest and elsewhere, Jāvidān b. Shahrak is said to have been Babak's mentor. From 807-08 until 816-17 he led a Khorrami group named Jāvidāni after him (Ya'qubi. Boldān, p. 272; Mas'udi. Tanbih, pp.321-22; Ebn al-Atir, repr., VI, p.328; Ebn al-'Ebri (Bar Hebraeus), p. 139; Ebn Kaldfin, events of 817; Fasih, I, p. 270; see also G. Flugel, p. 539 nn. 2, 3, and Sadighi, pp. 107ff.).


Sometime after Babak's entry into Jāvidān's service, the rival chieftain Abu 'Emran sallied forth from his mountain stronghold against Jāvidān and was defeated and killed, but Jāvidān died three days after the battle from a wound. Some of the writers allege that Jāvidān's wife was already enamoured of Babak, who is said to have been a handsome lad with a good voice (Abul Ma'ali, chap. 5, p. 300). This allegation may have its root in the marriage of the two after Jāvidān's death (see Sadighi, p.244). The woman told Babak of her husband's death and added that she was going to announce it to the community the next day, when she would also claim Babak as Jāvidān's successor, who would restore the religion of Mazdak and lead the community to triumph and prosperity. On the following day Babak appeared before Jāvidān's assembled warriors and followers. When they asked why Jāvidān had not summoned them before uttering his last testament, she answered that since they lived in scattered places, sending out the message would have spread the news, which in turn might have compromised their security. After securing their obedience to Jāvidān's instructions, she said that according to Jāvidān's last testament the night before, his soul would upon his death enter Babak's body and fuse with his soul (the Khorramis believed in the transmigration of souls), and that anyone contesting this testament should be excommunicated. All those present acknowledged Jāvidān's mandate to the young man, and at the woman's request they bound themselves by a ritual oath to give the same allegiance to Babak's soul as they had given to Jāvidān's soul. Then Jāvidān's widow married Babak in a simple ceremony in the presence of all (Fehrest, pp. 406-07; on the role of this woman and the position of women in Babak's revolt in general, see Amoretti, pp.517-18, 508). Abul Ma'ali (chap. 5, p. 300) alleges that the woman poisoned Jāvidān, while Tabari (III, p. 1192) and Ebn al-Atir (VI, p. 459) state that Javidan had a son (Ebn Jāvidān) whom the Muslims had captured and later released; Sadighi (pp. 244-45) wonders why this son was not chosen to succeed Jāvidān. Waqed and Tabari depict Babak as low-born, but Babak's reply to his son's letter after his escape, and the words of his brother 'Abd-Aflah to Ebn Shervin Tabari, the officer appointed to take him to Baghdad (Tabari, III, pp. 1221, 1223), suggest that they were of noble family (Sadighi, pp. 239-41).


Babak trust have absorbed ideas and beliefs current among the Khorramis after his entry into Javidan's service and adhesion to the sect. The epithet Khorrami or Khorramdin given to Babak in the sources denotes membership of this sect. The name has been explained as referring to Khorrama, the wife of Mazdak (Sīāsat.nāma, p. 319; Mojmal al-Tawarikh, p. 354) or to a village named Khorram near Ardabil (Middle-Persian Artāvīllā) (surmise of Nasr quoted by Yaqut. Mo'jam 11, p. 362), but these attributions are questionable. Other writers take karram to be the adjective normally meaning "verdant" or "joyous" and interpret it as "permissive" or "libertine." Khorramdin appears to he a compound analogous to dorustdīn (orthodox) and Behdin (Zoroastrian) (see Sadighi, p. 195: Nafisi. p. 21: Madelung, p. 63), and since joy was one of the forces governing the world in the Mazdakite religion (see Yarshater, pp. 1005-06), the name Khorramdin appears to confirm the assertion in several sources that the sect was an offshoot of Mazdakism (Mas'udi, Tanbīh, p.322: Fehrest. pp.405-06; Sīāsat.nāma, p. 319; Mujmal, pp. 353-54; Abtt'I-Ma'ali. chap. 5, p. 300; see also Sadighi, pp. 1871-., 197: Yarshater, pp. 1003-04; and Nafisi, p. 21). Many modern scholars regard them as "neo-Mazdakttes" (e.g., Madelung, p. 64; Amoretti, p. 503; Yarshater, p. 1011; Zarrinkub, 1343 Š./1964, p. 544). Under Babak's leadership the Khorramis, who are described as having been before Babak's time peaceful farmers, refraining from killing or harming other people (Maqdesi, Bad' IV, pp.30-31; Fehrest, p.406; 'Awfi, pt. I, chap. 5). changed into militants eager to fight and kill, to seize or destroy villages, and to raid caravans (Dinavari, p. 397; Tabari, s.a.835; Abu'I-Ma'ali, chap. 5). Babak incited his followers to hate the Arabs and rise in rebellion against the caliphal regime. The reports state that Babak called Persians to arms, seized castles and strong points and ordered his warriors to kill people and destroy villages, thereby barring roads to his enemies and spreading fear. Gradually a large multitude joined him. There had long been groups of Khorramis scattered in Isfahan, Azarbaijan, Ray, Hamadan, Armenia, Gorgan, and elsewhere of Iran, and there had been some earlier Khorrami revolts, e.g., in Gorgan jointly with Red Banner (Sorkh-'alamān) Bātenis in the caliph Mahdi's reign in 778-79, when 'Amr b. 'Ala', the governor of Tabarestān, was ordered to repulse them, and at Isfahan, Ray, Hamadan, and elsewhere in Harun al-Rashid's realm, when 'Abd-Allah b. Malek and Abu Dolaf 'Ejli put them down on the caliph's behalf (Siāsat.nāma, pp. 359-60: Fasih, I, pp. 230-31: cf. Madelung, p. 64; Amoretti, pp. 504-05): but none had the scale and duration of Babak's revolt, which pinned down caliphal armies for twenty years. After his emergence, the Khorrami movement was cantered in Azarbaijan and reinforced with volunteers from elsewhere, probably including descendants of Abu Moslem's supporters and other Iranian enemies of the 'Abbasid caliphate. The figures given for the strength of Babak's Persian army, such as 100,000 men (Abu'l-Ma'ali), 200,000 (Mas'udi, Tanbīh, p. 323), or innumerable (Tabserat al-'awām, p. 184; Bagdadi, p. 267) are doubtless highly exaggerated but at least indicate that it was large.


In most of the sources the start of Babak's revolt is placed in the year 816-17 in al-Ma'mun's reign, when the Khorramis began to infiltrate neighbouring districts and create insecurity in Azarbaijan province. On or before that date, according to some sources, Hatem b. Hartama the governor of Armenia, learned that his father Hatama b. A'yan had, despite loyal service to al-Ma'mun, been flogged and imprisoned on the caliph's order and been killed in prison at the behest of the Fazl b. Sahl (Tabari. 11, p. 1026). Hatem b. Hartama therefore planned to rebel and wrote letters to local commanders urging them to defy al-Ma'mun, but at this juncture he died. One of those to whom he wrote was Babak (or probably Jāvidān), who was greatly encouraged thereby (Ebn Qotayba, p. 198; Ya'qubi. 11, p. 563; Sadighi, p. 238 n. 3).


Al-Ma'mun at first paid scant attention to Babak's revolt, evidently because he was living in distant Khorasan and preoccupied with matters such as the designation of his successor, the actions of Fazl b. Sahl, and the backlash at Baghdad. Thus contemporary circumstances as well as Iranian dislike of Arab rule favoured Babak and his followers.


In 819-20 al-Ma'mun moved to Iraq, and after dealing with the dissidents at Baghdad, he sent Yahya b. Mo'ad to subdue Babak's revolt. This Arab general fought Babak in several battle, but without success. Thereafter al-Ma'mun showed more concern and regularly dispatched well-armed forces to meet him. In 820-21 'Isa b. Mohammad b. Abi Khaled was appointed governor of Armenia and Azarbaijan with responsibility for operations against Babak, but his force was caught and smashed by Babak's men in a narrow defile. 'Isa either ran for his life or was killed by Babak (Tabari, I11, p. 1072). In 824-25 al-Ma'mun chose Zorayq b. 'All b. Sadaqa (Sadaqa b. 'All in Tabari, 'Ali b. Sadaqa known as Zorayq according to Ebn al-Atir) to govern Armenia and Azarbaijan and organize the war, and put Ahmad b. Jonayd Eskafi in command of an expedition against Babak. Ahtnad b. Jonavd was taken prisoner by Babak while Zorayq failed to prosecute the war, and al-Ma'mun then put Ebrahim b. Layth b. Fazl in charge. In 827-28 the caliph sent a force under Mohammad b. Homayd Tusi to punish Zorayq, who had rebelled, and to subdue Babak. This general succeeded after some delay in capturing Zorayq and dispersing his group of rebels and then, having obtained reinforcements and made thorough preparations, set out against Babak. In the contest between them, which went on for six months. Mohammad b. Homayd won several victories, but in the last battle in 829 his troops, who in compliance with his strategy had advanced three parasangs into the mountains, were attacked in a steep pass by Babak's men, who rushed down from an ambush higher up the troops then tied, leaving behind only Mohammed b. Homayd and some Arab officers, who were all killed. The death of this Muslim general prompted poetic laments such as a qasida by Abu Tammam, two verses from which are quoted in Dinavari (p. 398). From the statements of Tabari (829), Ya'qubi, and others it appears that al-Ma'mun then either appointed `Abd-Allah b. Taher to the governorship of Jebāl, Armenia, and Azarbaijan, or gave him the choice between this and the governorship of Khorasan. He in fact chose or was ordered to go to Khorasan (Sadighi, pp. 248-49) but according to one account (Siāsat.nāma, p. 361) he first sent a force against Babak, who took refuge in a castle. The caliph appointed `Ali b. Hesham, the governor of Jebāl, Qom, Isfahan, and Azarbaijan, with the responsibility to lead the operations against Babak; allegedly he oppressed the Persian inhabitants, killing men and confiscating properties, and even planned to kill al-Ma'un's emissary 'Ojayf b. `Anbasa and then to join Babak; but he was arrested by `Ojayf and delivered to al-Ma'muns, who ordered his execution in 832 (Tabari, 111, pp. 1108f.). AI-Ma'mun then entrusted the governorship of Jebāl and conduct of operations against the Khorramis to Taber b. Ebrahim. For the time being, however, the caliph's campaign against the Byzantines precluded large-scale action against the Khorrami rebels, who gained further ground. AI Ma'mun died on the campaign in 833. His moves against Babak had failed, but his concern with the problem is revealed in his testamentary advice to his successor al-Mo'tasem in which al-Ma'mun exhorts him not to spare any effort or resources to crush Babak's revolt (Tabari, III, p. l 138).


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The persistence of Iranian residence under Babak's leadership and the failure of the Arab generals and expeditionary forces to quell it had various reasons. Babak’s stronghold Badd was situated in impenetrable mountains with intricate defiles and passes, where, according to Bal'amī (see Kambakhsh Fard, Barrasihā-ye tarikhhi 1/4, Dey, 1345 Š./November-December, 1966-67, pp. 9-10), a handful of men could stop thousands of advancing troops. Severe winter weather and heavy rain and snowfalls made operation against Badd impossible in winter. Often Babak used his positional advantage to surprise the enemy and kill large numbers of them. While Bal'ami and others describe Babak's following as made up of local farmers and poor people, several writers call them "thieves, heretics, and profligates" (‘Awfi, pt. I, chap. 5). It can be inferred that Babak won wide support among peasants and poor villagers who hoped for a better future through the revolt's success (Amoretti, pp. 507-08), but it is not improbable that some joined for expediency or out of fear.


The Iranian Archaeology Department has identified the site with ruins (called Qal'a-ye Jomhur, probably after the surrounding Jomhur mountains) in the present district of Ahar, located 50 km from Ahar town on a height above the left bank of a tributary of the Qarasu 3 km southwest of the village of Kalibar (Report of the Department's mission in the summer of 1345 Š./ 1966). Ahmad Kasrawi's researches had already pointed to the site near Kalibar (Šahriārān-e gomnām, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1335 Š./1956, p. 149). The remains consisting of fortifications and a large building rest on a mountaintop 2,300-2,600m above sea level, surrounded on all sides by ravines 400-600 m deep. The only access is by a very narrow track through gorges, up steep slopes, and across patches of dense forest. The final approach to the castle's gate is through a corridor-like defile wide enough for only one man to walk at a time. Old siege engines could not be brought up here. To reach the large building from the castle's walls one had to climb about 100 m higher up by a narrow path passable only by one man at a time along the ridge, which is surrounded by a forested ravine 400 feet deep (see Kambakhsh Fard, "Qal'a-ye Jomhūr yā Dež-a Bādd," Honar o Mardom 50, Azar, 1345 Š./November-December. 1966, pp. 2-6; Barrasīhā-ye Tārikhī 1/4, pp. 3-18 and plates 2, 4, 5, 9, 11 ; Torbati Tabataba'i, pp.466-71; Flugel, p.539 n, 1; Nafisi, pp.37-39; Abu Dolaf Mes'ar b. Mohalhel Khazraji, al-Resāla al-thānīa, ed. V. Minorsky, Cairo, 1955, p.6).


Babak's hand was greatly strengthened by his possession of this inaccessible mountain stronghold, to which the Arabic poet Bohtori, amongst others, refers in verses quoted by Yaqut (1, p. 361). Badd was not Babak's only castle, however, as there are mentions of several others, some of which can be identified with surviving ruins (Nafisi, pp. 69-71; Tabataba'i, pp. 47275). At that time there were Khorramis scattered in many regions of Iran besides Azarbaijan province, reportedly in Tabarestan, Khorasan, Balkh, Isfahan, Kashan, Qom, Ray, Karaj, Hamadan, Lorestan, Khuzestan, Basra, and Armenia (Nafisi, pp. 32-33). According to the Fehrest (pp. 40506) and Mas'udi (Tanbih, p. 322). Babak's sway at the height of his career extended "southward to near Ardabil and Marand, eastward to the Caspian Sea and the Shamākhī district and Shervān, northward to the Mūghān (Moghān) steppe and the Aras river bank, westward to the districts Arrran district of of Jolfa, Nakjavan, and Marand").


The Khorrami danger was thus a matter of a grave concern to al-Mo'tasem on his accession to the caliphate in August, 833, and all the more so when later in the same year a large number of men from Jebāl, Hamadan, and Isfahan went over to the Khorrami and encamped near Hamadan. To deal with them al-Mo'tasem sent a force under Eshaq b. Ebrahim b. Mos'ab, who was also made governor of Jebāl. In the subsequent battle near Hamadan several thousand (60,000 in Tabari and Ebn al-Athir) Persians were killed, but a large number escaped to Byzantine territory, whence they came back later to resume their fight (Tabari, 111, p. 1165; Ebn al-Atir, VI, p. 441; Sīāsat.nāma, pp. 362-63). In May, 834 many Iranians of Khorrami prisoners were brought by Eshaq b. Ebrahim to Baghdad (Tabari, 111, p.1166; Ebn al-Athir, VI, p. 444). Babak's revolt, however, was still in full swing, and the slaughter of so many Persians seems to have strengthened his men's will to fight. In 835 al Mo'tasem placed Haydar b. Kavus Afshin (q.v.), a senior Persian general and a son of the vassal prince of Osrūšana, in command of an expedition to destroy his compatriot, Babak. According to most of the sources, al-Mo'tasem not only made Afshin governor of Azarbaijan and seconded high-ranking officers to serve under him, but also ordered exceptionally large salaries, expense allowances, and rations for him; Afshin was to receive 10,000 dirhams per day spent on horseback and 5,000 dirhams per day not so spent. For rapid transmission of messages, the caliph ordered that a swift horse with a rider should be stationed at every parasang-pillar between Samarra and the Holwān (now Pā-ye Tāq) pass and beyond Holwān as far as Azarbaijan watchmen should be posted on hills with the task of uttering a loud shout on the approach of a courier so that the rider at the nearby station might get ready to take the leather pouch (karita) and carry it to the next station; in this way the pouches were carried from Afshin's camp to Samarra in four days or less (Tabari, III, p. 1229).


Before Afshin's depart Lire, al-Mo'tasem had sent Abu Said Mohammad b. Yusof Marvazi to Ardabil with instructions to rebuild the forts between Zanjan and Ardabil which Babak had demolished and to make the roads safe by posting guards. Abu Sa`id Mohammad set about these tasks. A band of mounted Khorrami led by a certain Mo'awia broke into one sector, intending to surprise Abu Sa`id Mohammad with a night attack, but Abu Sa`id Mohammad and his soldiers got word and blocked Mo'awia's way; in the ensuing fight some Khorramis were killed, others were captured, and the skulls and the Persian prisoners were sent to Baghdad. Tabari (lIl, p. 1171; cf. Ebn al-Atir, VI, p.447) records this as Babak's first defeat. A later incident also boded ill for Babak. Previously Mohammad b. Bo'avt, the lord of a strong castle named Qal'a-ye Sāhī, had been well disposed to Babak and willing to accommodate his men when they came to the neighbourhood: but when Babak sent a company under a captain named 'Esma, Mohammad b. Bo'ayt first made them drunk, then threw 'Esma into chains and enticed the men one by one into the castle and killed most of them, only a few being able to escape. 'Esma was sent to al -Mo'tasem, who before jailing him obtained useful information from him about Babak's territory and tactics and about tracks in the area (Tabari, lII, p. (172; Ebn al-Athir, V1, pp. 447-48).


On arriving in Azarbaijan province, Afshin camped at a place on the Ardabil road called Barzand at a distance of 15 parasangs from Ardabl (Estakri, p.192; Moqaddasi, pp. 378, 381; Yaqut, 1, p. 382; Nozhat al-qolub, pp. 90, 182). He repaired the forts between Barzand and Ardabli and made traffic possible by providing road guards, caravan escorts, and halting places. He also spent a month at Ardabil gathering knowledge of the topography and tracks from informants and spies. If he caught any of Babak's spies, he pardoned them and paid them to spy for him at twice the rate that Babak had paid. One such intelligence report was that Babak knew that al-Mo'tasem had sent Boghā the Elder (a senior general) with a large sum of money for the pay and expenses of the troops and was planning a raid to seize this money. Akin used this information to lure Babak into a full engagement, in which many of Babak's Persian comrades were killed. Babak himself got away to the Mūqhān plain and thence to Bādd (Tabari,111, pp. 117478; Ebn al-Atir, VI, pp. 449-51).


When Babak came under attack from Afshin's army, he is said to have written a letter to the Byzantine emperor Theophilus (r. 829-42), asking him to lead an expedition into Iran; but Theophilus's march into caliphal territory with a force including fugitive Khorramis did not take place until after the capture and execution of Babak in 838; the authenticity of Babak's letter is open to question (Sadighi, p. 257 n. 3). Details of numerous engagements between Babak's men and Afshin's troops before the fall of Bādd are given by Tabari and Ebn al-Athir (837) and recapitulated by Nafisi (pp. 97-117). Also mentioned arc various precautions which Afshin took at this time, such as trench-digging, patrolling, hiring local highlanders as spies, and sending detachments to strategic points. Whenever he needed money or supplies, he informed al-Mo'tasem by means of swift couriers and soon got what he wanted. The caliph regularly sent him instructions on tactics and precautions, and gave him every encouragement. On one occasion al-Mo'tasem dispatched Ja'far Dinar known as Khayyat (the Tailor), who had been a senior general in al-Ma'mun's reign, and Autākh the Turk, a slave-soldier who superintended the caliphal kitchen- with reinforcements and money for Afshin and also several ass-loads of iron spikes to be strewn around the camp as a precaution against night raids. When Babak heard of the arrival of Ja'far and Autākh, he is said to have informed Theophilus, "Mo'tasem has no one else left, so he has sent his tailor and his Turkish cook to fight me" (Sadighi, p. 257). Babak and his men remained in control of the highland and with their ambushes and surprise attacks, often frustrated Afshin's plans. They repeatedly captured supplies which Afshin had ordered from Maragha and Shervān. Afshin's tactics were to lure Babak's men away from their mountain fastnesses and engage them in the open and to foil their ambushes by efficient reconnaissance. But his officers, eager to bring the matter to a head, complained of his inaction and even accused him of conniving with Babak. More encounters took place with heavy losses to both sides and finally Afshin reached the mountain facing the gate of Bādd and camped there, only a mile away. Babak, losing hope, came out to meet him and requested a safe-conduct from the caliph. According to Ya'qut (Tanbīh 11, pp. 578f.), Afshin refused, but when Afshin demanded hostages, Babak offered his son or others of his followers and asked Afshin to restrain the troops from attacking. By then, however, fierce fighting with the castle's defenders had started, and in the end Afshin's troops scaled the walls of Bādd and hoisted their flags. Afshin entered the castle and had it demolished after it had been plundered (Tabarl, I11, pp. 1233-34; Mas'udi, Tunbīh, pp. 93, 160). Many of Babak's men scattered in the mountains and escaped. Babak, together with some members of his family and a few of his warriors, slipped away by mountain tracks, heading for Armenia Bādd fell on 15 August 837.


Afshin who had already dispatched a request to the caliph for a safe-conduct for Babak, learned from spies that Babak and his party were hiding in a forest-covered valley on what is today the Azarbaijan-Armenian border, and he proceeded to blockade the area. When the caliph's safe-conduct arrived, Afshin commissioned two Khorramis to carry it to Babak together with a letter from Babak's son who had been taken prisoner. Babak rejected the document without opening it, and after sending the messengers away fled to Armenia with four or live male and female members of his family and one bodyguard. All except Babak and his brother 'Abd-Allah and the guard were captured. Being close to starvation, Babak sent the guard to a village to get food. The local ruler, Sahl b. Sonbāt (on whom see Nafisi, pp. 135, 138, 175-76) was informed and received Babak hospitably. Babak, however, took the precaution of sending his brother 'Abd-Allah to 'Isa b. Yusof b. Estefanus (Tabari, Ill, pp. 1223-24). Afshin had already sent letters to the district promising a large reward for the capture of Babak, and Sahl b. Sonbāt informed Afshin of Babak's presence. After verifying this, Afshin sent a large force under Abu Sa'id Mohammad b. Yusof to capture Babak. He was arrested after going out at Sahl b. Sonbāt's suggestion to hunt (after being put in irons by Sahl b. Sonbāt according to Mas'udi, Moruj, ed. Pellat. sec. 2807) and then taken to Afshin's camp at Barzand on 15 September 837.


Many stories about Babak's escape and adventures have come down (see Sadighi, p. 265 n. 3). According to Tabari, he wore a white cloak at the hunting ground, and this has been taken as possibly symbolic of either purity and light or opposition to the 'Abbasids whose flag was black (Sadighi, p.264 n. 4). Afshin also found out where Babak's brother 'Abd-Allah had escaped and wrote to 'Isa b. Yusof b. Estefanus, who handed him over. Afshin reported his success (by pigeon post according to Mas'udi’s Moruj, ed. Pella(, sec. 2809) to al-Mo'tasem, who in reply ordered him to bring the captives forthwith to Samarra. Allegations that Afshin deceived his compatriot Babak with conciliatory messages and feigned friendship (Nafisi, pp. 66, 68; Zarrinkub, 1355, pp. 2-17-48; Daā’erat al-ma’āref-e fārs s.v. Bābak) appear to derive from rumours that Afshin was already in secret contact with anti-'Abbasid Persian leaders such as Babak and the ruler of Tabarestān, Māzyār b. Qāren, and perhaps also with the Byzantine emperor Theophilus. Another conjecture is that Afshin sacrificed his compatriot because he was afraid of being supplanted as commander of the anti-Khorrami expedition by his Taherid rivals (Natsi, p.68).


Large numbers of Persian men, women, and children from Babak’s side fell into Afshin hands from 1,300 to 7,600 being mentioned (Tabari III, p. 1233). He released the men and returned the women and children to those shown to be their husbands, fathers, or guardians. Then he set out with Babak and Babak's brother and a small number of Khorrami prisoners for al-Mo'tasern's capital Samarra. (On the question why Afshin remained in Azarbaijan for almost four months after the capture of Babak, see Sadighi, p. 268.) They arrived on Thursday, or Wednesday night, 4 January 838. AI-Wateq, the heir to the throne, and other relatives of al Mo'tasem as well as senior dignitaries went out at the caliph's command to meet Afshin. Bayhaqi (2nd ed., pp. 168-69) tells how the minister Hasan b. Sahl, like several Persian dignitaries, was reluctant to dismount and salute Afshin but dared not disobey the caliph's command. Afshin camped at Matira (or at Qatul five parasangs from Samarra), and it is related that first the qāzī Ahmad b. Abi Do'ād, then al-Mo'tasem himself went to the camp secretly in their impatience for a glimpse of Babak (Tabari, 111, pp. 1229-30; Mas'udi, Moruj. ed. Pellat, sec. 2809), a story which if true, shows what a relief Babak's fall had been for the caliphal government. To give the populace an exemplary lesson, a parade was held in the following week, most probably on Monday, 7 January 838, in which Babak, clad in an embroidered cloak and capped with a mitre, was made to ride on an elephant which had been given to al-Ma'mun by an Indian king, while his brother. 'Abd-Allah, also specially clad and capped, was mounted on a camel. Two verses of Mohammad b. 'Abd-al-Malek Zayyat about this elephant are quoted by Tabari (see Sadighi, p. 266 n. 2). The whole length of the street to the Bab al-'Aroma was lined on both sides with cavalrymen and foot soldiers and huge numbers of people. Then al-Mo'tasem ordered the executioner to proceed. First Babak's hands and feet were cut off, then at the caliph's command his mangled body was strung on a gibbet in the outskirts of Samarra. According to some sources his head was later sent around for display in other cities of Iran. Babak was hanged in the same place that afterwards Māzyār b. Qāren, the rebel prince of Tabarestān, and Yatas Rumi, the patricius of Amorium who had died in prison, were hanged; this is the subject of a poem by Abu Tammam quoted in Mas'udi's Moruj (ed. Pellat, sec. 2821).


Babak's brother 'Abd-Allah was sent to Baghdad, where he was similarly executed and gibbeted by Eshaq b. Ebrāhim Mos'abi. According to some authors (e.g., Nezam-al-Molk. Sīāsat-nāma, pp. 365-66), when one of Babak's hands had been cut off, he made his face red by smearing blood oft it with his other hand, and when al-Mo'tasem asked why, he answered that it was because loss of blood causes pallor and he did not want anyone to suppose that he was pale with fear (Sadighi, pp. 267-68). The Persian poet 'Attar-e Neishāburi, however, attributes this gesture to the crucified mystic Hosayn b. Mansūr Hallāj (Manteg al-teyr, ed. M. J. Mashkur, Tabriz, 1336 Š./1957, pp. 156-57). A different story about Babak's words to al-Mo'tasern appears in 'Awfi's Jawāme’ al-hekāyāt (pt. 1, chap. 5). Babak's brother 'Abd-Allah, according to Tabari, met his death with similar calm assurance (Tabari, III, p. 1231).


The cruelty of these killings as well as the enormous favour that al-Mo'tasem lavished upon Afshin (daily dispatch of horses and robes of honour on his way back from Barzand, gifts of a crown and jewelled insignia, 20,000 dirhams for himself and his troops, etc., ibid., pp. 1230, 1232, 1233) and others illustrate the importance which the caliph and his advisers placed on the suppression of Babak's revolt. Among the court poets who lauded the victory of Afshin and received rewards from al-Mo'tasem were Eshaq b. Khalaf (duoted in Dinavari, p. 399) and Abu Tammām Thā'i, whose poem likened Af~in to Freydūn and Babak to Zahhak (Mas'udi, Tnnbih, p. 93). According to Mas'udi (Moruj, ed. Pellat, sec. 2815) al-Mo'tasem gave Otroja, the daughter of a high-ranking Turkish officer named Ashnās, in marriage to Afshin's son Hasan and laid on a splendid wedding party. Hasan b. Sonbāt was rewarded by the caliph with a gift of 100,000 dirhants, a jewelled belt, and the crown of a patricius, and his son Mo'awia also received 100,000 dirhams. Nezam-al-Molk (Sīāsat.nāma, p. 366) reckons the defeats of Bābak, Māzyār, and the Byzantines to be three great victories for Islam won in al-Mo`tasent's reign.


The number of Babak's men taken prisoner is given as 3,309, and the number of his captured male and female relatives as 30 or more. Various figures, said to have been obtained from an executioner or executioners whom Babak had employed, are given for those whose death he ordered in the course of his long revolt; the figure of 255,000 or more in most of the sources (Tabari, Ill, p. 1233; Maqdesi. VI, p. 114; Sadighi, p. 271) is obviously an exaggeration, no doubt intended to impute cruelty and bloodthirstiness to Bābak. All the accounts of Babak are biased, some begin with curses on him (e.g. Sayyed Mortaza, p. 184; Mostawfi, Tarik-a gozida, p.316).


Estakhri (p.203) and Ebn Hawqal (p.266) state that Khorramis recited the Qur’an in mosques, but authors such as Bagdadi (p. 269) describe this as a ruse to conceal disbelief under the pretense of being Muslim. Khorrami libertinism has probably also been exaggerated (Madeluttg, p. 65); for example, the public appearance of Babak and Jāvidān's widow at their wedding does not mean that they were unmindful of marriage obligations (see Sadighi, p. 214), and none of the allegations of libertinism made against Babak and his followers can be taken as certain or trustworthy. All considered, it may be said that Babak's motives and actions as an Iranian were anti-caliphal, anti-Arab, and to that extent anti-Muslim (Tabari, III, p. 1226; Sadighi, pp.265, 275; Amoretti, p.509).


The numerous revolts in the two or three centuries after the Arab conquest point to widespread discontent among the Iranian elements from whom the leaders, including Babak, drew their support, and perhaps also to a desire to return to the past.


Babak's aims, however, were clearly not shared by the number of Iranian princes and nobles like Afshin (obviously except Māzyār), being incompatible with their ambition to regain power and wealth (Zarrinkub 1355, p. 232). Most of them, including Afshin who was one of their number, supported the caliph's action against Babak. Modern scholars such as Sadighi (p. 229) and G. E. von Grunebaum (Mediovul Islam, Chicago, 1961, p. 205) regard Babak's revolt as a nationalist-politico-religious movement, and Nafisi, J. Homa'i (in Mehr 3, p. 159), and D. Safa have laid stress on its nationalistic aspect.


Babak's boldness, shrewdness, and efficiency in the military leadership of the long struggle, and the trust placed in him by his supporters are certainly remarkable (on his personality and ideas, see Sadighi, pp. '68-72). Tabari states that none of the Khorramis dared obey Afshin's order to take the caliph's safe-conduct to Babak and that when Afshin's emissaries reached him, he said in an angry message to his son:


"Perhaps I shall survive, perhaps not. I have been known as the commander. Wherever I am present or am mentioned, I am the king."


The words show that he was a man of far-reaching ambition and enterprise. In his conversation with Sahl b. Sonbat about the need to send away his brother `Abd-Allah, he said, according to Tabari:


"It is not right that my brother and I should stay in one place. One of us may be caught and the other may survive. I do not know what will happen. We have no successor to carry on our movement."


The fact that Sahl sent his brother away when he himself took refuge with Sabi b. Sonbat implies Babak's hope for the continuation of the movement. Tabari also states that Afshin, when about to leave Azarbaijan, asked Bābak whether he would like anything before their departure, and Babak replied that he would like to see his own town again. He was sent to Bādd with some guards on a moonlight night and allowed to walk around the town. In the same context Tabari has a story that Afshin granted a request from Babak to spare him from surveillance by the appointed guard-officer, because this officer "was slippery-handed and slept beside hint and stank unbearably." The statements of '1-abari (III. pp. 1177, 1205) and Ebn al-Athir (835 and 837) about Khorrami merry-making and wine drinking even in wartime confirm one of the sect's reputed characteristics (see Amoretti, p. 517), but their tales of Babak's promiscuity and abduction of pretty Armenian girls seem inconsistent with another statement of Tabari (111, p. 1227) that the women wept when they saw Babak captive in Afshin's camp.


The excitement over the fighting and the defeat of Babak is echoed in contemporary literature, e.g., a verse description of Babak on the gibbet quoted by Rāgheb Esfahāni (Mohāzarāt al-odabā’, Beirut, 196(, III, p. 199), poems by Abu Mohammad Eshaq b. Ebrahim Mawseli (155; 172-235/850) in praise of Eshaq b. Ebrahim Mos'abi (see Hosri Qayrawani, Zahr ul-ādāb, Cairo, III, pp. I3-14), the odes in Abu Tammām's dīvān, also his invectives against Afshin after the tatter's fall, and praises for Mohammad b. Homayd Tusī and his campaign against Babak in the dīvān of Bohtori (see also Nafisi, pp. 158-60).


Babak's defeat hit the Khorramis hard but did not destroy them. Descendants of his followers evidently continued to live at Bādd, as Abu Dolaf b. Mes'ar b. Mohalhel saw them there in the mid-/10th century. Further Khorrami stirrings are reported: in the reign of al-Mo'tasem's successor al-Wateq and as late as 912-13 (Siāsat.nāma, pp. 366-67); in 933 and again in 970 in the reigns of the Iranian dynasty of Buyids, amir 'Emadal-Dawla and 'Azad-al-Dawla and as late as the mid-/12th century (Margoliouth and Amedroz, Eclipse 11, p. 299; Sam'ani, s.v. Bābakī; Bondari in Houtsma, Recueil, p. 124); and even in the Mongol period. Many of the old writers, particularly those of Sunnite persuasion, assert that Khorramis influenced and infiltrated the Qarmati and Esma`ili movements, and some modern scholars take the same view while others are more cautious (Madelung, p.65; B. Lewis, The Origins of Ismailism, Cambridge, 1940, pp. 96-97). The suspicion probably gained credence because the three movements shared a common hostility to the 'Abbasids and may have occasionally collaborated.







Source/Extracted From: Encyclopaedia Iranica


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