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Babak & Khorramdinan Movement


Edited by: Khodayar Bahrami

February 2007



Artist impression of Babak Khorramdin

based on historical records

(Oil-wash by Babak Zand - 1981)


Bābak Khorram-Dīn (b. ca. 795, according to some other sources 798 — d. 7th January 838) was a Persian freedom fighter and one of the leaders of the Khorram-Dinān (Persian, "Those of the joyous religion") movement, fighting the Abbasid Caliphate. The name 'Khorramdin' appears to be an anti-Islamic compound analogous to dorustdīn (orthodox) and behdin (Zoroastrian)[1], and by some accounts a neo-Mazdakite[2].



Early life

Bābak was born into a Persian family in Āzarābadegān Province (later Azarbaijan in northwestern Iran) close to the city of Artavilla (modern Ardabil). According to Wāqed, Bābak's father was a Persian from Madā'īn (formerly known as Ctesiphon, former capital of Sasanian dynasty, 35 km south of modern Baghdad in Iraq) who left for the Āzarbāijān frontier zone and settled in the village of Balālābād in the Maymad district.


According to Fasīh, his mother - a native of Āzarbāijān - was known as Māhrū (meaning ''Moon-Face'' or ''beautiful'' in Persian)[3]. After his father’s death in his early teens, he was given the responsibility of his two brothers and mother during a traditional Zoroastrian ceremony in a fire-temple. By the age of eighteen, Bābak had established himself in the city of Tabriz and was engaged in the arms trade and industry.


Later on, this engagement gave him the opportunity to travel to different regions of Iran, including Caucasus, and other the Middle Eastern regions and the Byzantine.  His travels familiarised him with the history, geography and various languages of the region.


The Khorramdin Movement

In 755, Abū Muslim of Khorassan, a renowned and popular Persian nationalist, was murdered. Although he had helped the Abbasids to defeat the former Caliphs, the Umayyads, but the new ruling Caliph had given the order to be killed, probably because of his increasing popularity among Iranians and Non-Muslims[4] and threat to the Caliphate system.


Iranians, did not believe their hero is been killed by the same Caliph, who they had considered a friend of Iran and Iranians[5] and helped him to succeed as the new Caliph. This action lead to many revolts throughout the former Sasanian territories, mostly by angry Zoroastrians. In turn, Caliphs used more violence against the Iranian population in order to keep the eastern provinces under control. The constant revolts did not come to an end in the following decades, as the Iranian population of the Caliphate was constantly being oppressed.


In this political climate, and struggle from the Islamic yoke, Bābak joined the Khorram-Dinān movement, at what later became known as Qale-ye Bābak, meaning "Bābak Castle", located in the mountains of Qaradag. The story of joing the Khorrami movement is being told in Waqed's account, in summary, as follows[6]:  

''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 Balālābād and happened to go into the house of Bābak's mother. Being poor, she could only light a fire for him, while Bābak looked after the guest's servants and horses and brought water for them. Jāvidān then sent Bābak to buy food, wine, and fodder. When Bābak 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 Bābak's salary. The woman accepted and let Bābak go.”


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Under the direction of his Mentor Javidan son of Shahrak, a Persian noble from Ray (near modern Tehran), he gained an extensive knowledge of the history, geography, and the latest battle tactics. which has strengthened his position as a prominanet candidate for the future leadership, to fight against the Arab occupiers.


Bābak, was also a highly spiritual person, who followed his Zoroastrian heritage and traditions. He made every possible effort to bring Iranians together and also with leaders such as Maziyār to form a united front against the Arab Caliph. However, one of the most dramatic periods in the history of Iran was set under Bābak’s leadership between 816-837 CE. During these most crucial years, they not only fought against the Caliphate, but also for the preservation of the Persian language and culture.


After the death of Javidan, he became the Khorramis' leader, married his wife, and  sometime in the year 816-17 in al-Ma'mun's reign. The years of his succession to power is also confirmed by Tabari as he written: "Babak possessed Javadan's spirit and that Babak became active in 816-817". 


Babak incited his followers to despise the Arabs and rise in rebellion against the Caliphate's regime. The historical 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"[7].


There also had been groups of Khorramis scattered various part of the country, including Isfahan, Ray, Hamadan, Armenia, Gorgan. These cicites also witnessed some Khorrami upsisings, e.g., in Gorgan jointly with Red Banner (Sorkh-'alamān) Bātenis in the caliph Al-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 - 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 centered 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), or innumerable (Bagdadi) are doubtless highly exaggerated but at least indicate that it was large[8].


In 819-820 Yahya ibn Mu'adh fought against Babak, but could not defeat him. Two years later Babak vanquished the forces of Isa ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Khalid. In 824-825 the caliphal general Ahmad ibn al Junayd was sent against Babak. Babak defeated and captured him.


In 827-828 Muhammad ibn Humayd Tusi was dispatched to fight Babak. He won a victory and sent some captured enemy, but not Babak, to al-Ma'mun. However, about two years later, on June 9, 829, Babak won a decisive victory over this general at Hashtadsar. Muhammad ibn Humayd lost his life. Many of his soldiers were killed. The survivors fled in disarray.  


In 835-836 the caliph al-Mu'tasim sent his outstanding general Afshin against Babak. Afshin rebuilt fortresses. He employed a relay system to protect supply caravans. Babak tried to capture the money being sent to pay Afshin's army, but was himself surprised, lost many men and barely escaped. He did succeed in capturing some supplies and inflicting some hardship on his enemies.


The next year Babak routed the forces of Afshin's subordinate, Bugha al-Kabir. In 837-868 al-Mu'tasim reinforced Afshin and provided him clear military instructions. Patiently following these enabled Afshin to capture Babak's stronghold of Badhdh. Babak escaped. Al-Mu'tasim sent a safety guarantee for Babak to Afshin. This was taken to Babak who was very displeased. He said:  

"Better to live for just a single day as a ruler than to live for forty years as an abject slave."


He made his way to the Armenian leader Sunbat. Sunbat, however, betrayed Babak to Afshin. Al-Mu'tasim commanded his general to bring Babak to him. Afshin informed Babak of this and told him since Babak might never return, this was the time to take a last look around. At Babak's request, Afshin allowed his prisoner to go to Badhdh. There Babak walked through his ruined stronghold one night until dawn.


Eventually, Bābak, his wife, and his warriors were forced to leave ''Ghaleye Bābak'' after 23 years of constant campaigns. He was eventually betrayed by Afshin and was handed over to the Abbasid Caliph. During Bābak’s execution, the Caliph's henchmen first cut off his legs and hands in order to convey the most devastating message to his followers. The legend says that Bābak bravely rinsed his face with the drained blood pouring out of his cuts, thus depriving the Caliph and the rest of the Abbasid army from seeing his pale face, a result of the heavy loss of blood[9].



Ancient historical figure and modern nationalistic debates

In recent years, there has been debate on the ethnic origin of Bābak, even so trying to fit an ancient figure to a certain nationality goes against any objectiveness. 


Some Turkish nationalists claim that Bābak was a Turk, because he was born in Azarbaijan province. On the other hand, Iranian nationalists and modern scholars retain the established opinion that he was Persian and that at the time of Bābak, the Turks had not yet migrated to Azerbaijan - and in any case even modern Azari population, although their language is Turkish, but racially they have been remained Iranian, proven by the scientific researches of Dr Maziyar Ashrafian Bonab of Cambridge University, who is an Azari himself.


From the Turkish point of view, it is said that Bābak's name cannot be demonstration or the proof of his Persian roots, because it was not his real name. Also, the names of some of his lieutenants such as Tarkhan and Azrak who was an Arab, suggests the movement was of a mixed ethnicity and was a broad regional freedom movement against the Caliphates rule. Existence of Muslims among Bābak's supporters also reinforces this assertion. According to the Persian point of view, Bābak's (more correctly Pāpag) name is purely from Persian (Iranian) origins. Turkic peoples migrated to Azarbaijan several centuries later. Bābak was a  Zoroastrian (a Persians religion) and follower of Abū Muslim of Khurassan. Also, there was never any mention of Babak being a Turk in any of the literary works of the time. He has always been known as an Iranian and Zoroastrian patriot. Also, the name of the province, ''Āzarbāyjān'', is an Arabicized form of Persian word ''Āzarpadgān'', meaning "Place of Guardians of Holy Fire".


The ancient Arab historian Ibn Hazm, in the book "Religion and People", and ancient Armenian historian Vardan, in his "World History", clearly and explicitly mentioned Bābak as being an ethnic Persian. The name of Bābak's father was Mardas and his mother, in some sources, has been called Maru. Both names are Persian and found in the Shahnameh. The mentor of Bābak was Javidan pur Shahrak, which is another Persian name. Also, Bābak's two most important commanders, Adhin and Rostam, were ethnic Persians.


The name Tarkhan is also mentioned as "Tarhan" (which is an Arabic word) in some sources. In addition, the name also occurs in the ''Shahnameh'' and some sources mention that the Sogdian rulers of Samarghand also went by this name, seemingly using it as a military title. ''Tarxan'' means "judge" in Ossetian (related to Alannic and Sogdian) and this meaning can be traced to Indic but the Turkic word does not have the same definition, and the appearance of the same word in both languages could be mere coincidence.


One of his comments that confirms his non-Turkic origin is his letter to the Byzantine emperor Theophilus (r. 829-42) said[10]:  

“... Mo'tasem has no one else left, so he has sent his tailor and his ''Turkish'' cook to fight me ...”


Finally it should be noted that there are no traces of Turkic tribes in Azarbaijan before the Ilkhanid era and all sources at that time mention that Azarbaijani's spoke Azar-Pahlavi (the local dialect of middle Persian), which continues today in the form of Talyshi, Kurdish, Tati and other north western Iranian languages. Due to the invasion of the Oghuz Turks and later Turkic tribes the region became predominantly Turkic speaking.  All this was after the time of Bābak. From the Iranian point of view the claim that he was a Turk is recent and propagated mostly by Pan-Turkists.


The famous Orientalist and expert on Azarbaijan's history, Vladimir Minorsky, writes[11]:

''... as consequence of Oghuz Turkic domination in the Caucasus, beginning the 12th century] the Iranian population of Āudhuarbāyjān and the adjacent parts of Transcaucasia became Turkophone while the characteristic features of Āudhuarbāyjānī Turkish, such as Persian intonations and disregard of the vocalic harmony, reflect the non-Turkish origin of the Turkicised population ...''


In addition, Oxford Medieval historian Professor Mark Whittow has noted that[12]:

''Azarbaijan was the scene of frequent anti-caliphal and anti-Arab revolts during the eighth and ninth centuries, and Byzantine sources talk of Persian warriors seeking refuge in the 830s from the caliph's armies by taking service under the Byzantine emperor Theophilos. [...] Azarbaijan had a Persian population and was a traditional centre of the Zoroastrian religion. [...] The Khurramites were a [...] Persian sect, influenced by Shiite doctrines, but with their roots in a pre-Islamic Persian religious movement.''

[1] G.H. Yusofi, Babak Khorrami, The Persian Hero, CAIS, Online Edition 2000,

[2] C. E. Bosworth, Afshin,

[3] G.H. Yusofi, Babak Khorrami, The Persian Hero, CAIS, Online Edition 2000,

[4] G.H. Yusofi, Abū Moslem Khorāsānī, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition 2006, .

[5] CAIS News, ''Restoration of Fortress of Babak Khorramdin to Continue'', May 16, 2004

[6] G.H. Yusofi, Babak Khorrami, The Persian Hero, CAIS, Online Edition 2000,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] V. Minorsky, dharbāyjān", in Encyclopædia of Islam, Online Edition (), 2006

[12] M. Whittow, ''"The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025"'', Berkley: University of California Press, pp. 195, 203, 215.




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Khodayar Bahrami is an Iranian Zoroastrian from Kerman born in 1975. He obtained his BA in History from the Tehran University and went on and completed his MA in social anthropology from La Trobe University, Melbourne. 


He is currently a graduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His current research is on the Parthian Histography, which is based on extensive field work and archival research conducted in Damghan, Iran.


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