Babak’s Revolt of 816-837
Posted in
May 20, 2022

Babak’s Revolt of 816-837

By Adam Ali

Babak’s revolt in Azerbaijan was the longest and last major Khurramiyya rebellion in the wake of the Abbasid Revolution. It lasted for more than two decades during which Babak and his followers controlled parts of this mountainous region and defeated several attempts to subdue them. Babak enjoyed a period of success against the local authorities, but when a concerted effort by the central Abbasid government to suppress his revolt was launched in 835, the rebellion was crushed in a relatively short period of time. Let us outline the causes and main events of this uprising and address some of the misconceptions about it.

Azerbaijan in the 8th and 9th Centuries

The social, political, and economic situation in Azerbaijan during the late 8th and early 9th centuries created a climate that was conducive for rebellion and conflict. The Arabs invaded and conquered Azerbaijan during Umar I’s reign (r. 634-644). After defeating the Iranians in battle, the local Sasanian governor, or marzban, made peace with the Arab commander and submitted.

For the next century or so, the caliphate was bogged down in a struggle in the region against the Khazars, a tribal coalition of Turkic peoples from the Southern Russian Steppe. The struggle with the Khazars over the control of this region lasted for most of the Umayyad period with the Khazars being defeated in 737. Due to the state of war in Azerbaijan until the mid-8th century there was very little Muslim colonization in the region. Any settlement that did occur was that of soldiers sent to garrison the major cities and fortress such as Ardabil or to campaign against the Khazars such as the 24,000 Syrian soldiers sent to Derbend (or Bab- al-Abwab).

It was not until the Abbasid period and the breaking of Khazar power in the region that the true colonization and settlement of Azerbaijan began. The colonizers were both Arabs and Iranians from other parts of the Iranian world. Due to the fact that this area had been a theatre of war for so long and also because of the difficult mountainous terrain, the central Abbasid regime had little control over it.

During the early 9th century, even the governors appointed to Azerbaijan seem to have had little control outside the urban centers. The image we get from the sources is of a place with little law or order; a lawless frontier region that was free-for-all reminiscent of the wild west. Arab tribesmen moved into the region from Basra, Kufa, and Mosul. Some saw opportunities to become rich and wealthy others were escaping oppression, such as those who fled Mosul during the years 796-798 due to the oppressive fiscal policies of the governor. What ensued was a major land grab by the newcomers. As Patricia Crone puts it, “everyone took what they could.”

The colonizers either purchased the land from the locals or sometimes entire villages were handed over to warlords who soon came to dominate the region. It was during the chaos of the Fourth Civil War (or the Abbasid Civil War, 811-813) between the sons of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809) al-Amin (r. 809-813) and al-Mamun (813-833) that many of these strongmen and warlords emerged and carved out personal domains for themselves in Azerbaijan. The disorder in the caliphate continued after al-Mamun’s victory against his brother in 813 because he opted to rule the caliphate from the city of Merv in Khurasan and did not return the Baghdad until six years later in 819.

The western regions of the caliphate had been in utter turmoil during the Abbasid Civil War and the fighting between various factions continued in Iraq until al-Mamun’s return to Baghdad in 819. Due to the disarray at the center, the situation in Azerbaijan was even more chaotic. In addition to the rise of several families as the new magnates and rulers of the region, the mountains and hills were crawling with bands of bandits and brigands, referred to in the sources as sa‘alik (s. su‘luk). These men made a living off their physical prowess and hired themselves out as mercenaries during times of war. They also worked as bodyguards, assassins, and strong-arms. When they were unemployed, they withdrew to the inaccessible mountains and took up brigandage. They practiced highway robbery attacking travelers and caravans, as well as terrorizing and extorting the local villages (hence the reason for entire villagers handing over themselves and their lands to the emerging strongmen for protection). They also practiced smuggling.

They focused their activities along the border regions and along the frontiers so that they could escape the forces sent by the local governor by fleeing to other provinces or beyond the caliphate. These men had no scruples and worked for anyone who paid them be they rebels, local magnates, village chiefs, or governors. Some of these brigands grew very powerful. For example, one Abu Dulaf started his career as a su‘luk and gathered a private army numbering up to 20,000 men and became the hereditary ruler of Karaj in the Jibal region. Another su‘luk, Bakr ibn al-Nattah practiced highway robbery before enrolling in the aforementioned Abu Dhulaf’s army and receiving a stipend from the central treasury. Another unnamed su‘luk, who we are told was an Azdi Arab, gathered a band and attacked the caliph’s tax collectors, imprisoned them, and kept all the taxes. As we can see, these men operated on both sides of the law, some serving the caliphate or its representatives as soldiers or enforcers or even rising to positions of leadership, while others operated against the authorities. Crone states that, “the entire mountainous region from the Byzantine frontier to Hamadan was swarming with such men.”

The phenomenon of such men in the mountainous area of Azerbaijan should come as no surprise. Mountains and other geographically inaccessible and inhospitable regions have always served as hideouts for brigands and rebels. They were there during the pre-Islamic period under the Sassanians. They become very prominent in the sources during the early Abbasid period most probably because of the turmoil at the center of the caliphate at this time. The first big upheaval was the Abbasid Revolution and the establishment and consolidation of Abbasid power and within a few decades the Abbasid Civil War. Such events pulled away the focus of the rulers and their resources to focus on dealing with the more serious challenges at the center of the caliphate and during such times the peripheral areas were often neglected.

As we will see, the Abbasids only start to pay real attention to Babak and his revolt after the caliphate was stabilized during al-Mamun’s reign. The lack of government attention to the region of Azerbaijan during these years allowed these sa‘alik to flourish. These gangs and armies of brigands were composed of both Arabs and Iranians, and perhaps even some Turks. Often they romanticized their own image and linked themselves to the heroic vagabond princes and sa‘alik of pre-Islamic Arabia. Those among them who were Iranian and Persian-speaking made similar links to the epic heroes of Iranian legends.

It is due to the depredations of these brigands that villagers started handing over their lands to the emerging warlords and in the process reduced themselves to sharecroppers. In all colonial projects the main losers are the indigenous people onto whose land the colonists and settlers encroached. This has always been the case regardless of era and locale. In the colonization of the Americas by the Spaniards, Portuguese, English, and French it was the various natives who lost and suffered. North Africa was colonized by several powers including Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs at the expense of the Amazigh (Berbers). Likewise, in the case of Azerbaijan, the main losers were the native Azeris and their chiefs and leaders who were being pushed out and reduced to a lower social and political status by an influx of Arab and Iranian colonists from the caliphate.

Al-Ba‘ith and Zurayq

The following are short accounts of the careers of two sa‘alik that exemplify how such men often operated as agents for the regime and also against it and also because they were both involved in Babak’s rebellion in different ways. These two sa‘alik were Muhammad ibn al-Ba‘ith and Zurayq. Muhammad ibn al-Ba‘ith’s ancestor, Julays (or Hulays or Halbas) was probably a soldier/ex-soldier in Marwan II’s army (r. 744-750) settled in Marand. His son, al-Ba’ith, was a su‘luk who sold his services to one of the great Arab magnates of Azerbaijan, Ibn al-Rawwad al-Azdi, who also happened to be the lord of the lands where Babak rebelled. Al-Ba‘ith and his son, Muhammad ibn al-Ba‘ith, both of whom Crone describes as being men very similar to Babak in their ambitions and intentions, amassed enough wealth, power, and support to take over and fortify Marand, which was a small mountain village. Muhammad strengthened his position at Marand and built a castle there. During the rebellion he was allied with Babak and supplied, provisioned, lodged, and entertained his troops when they passed through his domains. He had also married the former indigenous lord, ‘Isma al-Kurid’s daughter, cementing his position as the strong man of the region.

Muhammad was compelled to switch sides with the approach of a large caliphal army. He took this opportunity to treacherously capture his father-in-law and handed him over to the caliph. However, despite serving in the war against Babak after this point his position was not fully recognized and he was arrested and sent to Samarra after clashing with the Abbasid governor. He escaped from his imprisonment, returned to Marand, and gathered an army of sa‘alik only to be defeated and sent back to Samarra. According to the sources, he was fluent in both Persian and Arabic and was an excellent poet. He was able to escape execution by composing flattering verses about the caliph, dying a short time afterwards. His sons were enrolled in one of the caliphal regiments in Samarra known as the Shakiriyya.

Al-Zurayq was also a su‘luk who managed to rise to prominence in Azerbaijan during the chaotic years after Harun al-Rashid’s death. However, unlike Muhammad ibn al-Ba‘ith, al-Zurayq was a mawla, meaning that he was either a client of an Arab tribe after converting to Islam or a freedman. Either way, he was not an Arab, but rather an Iranian. He was a brigand who took refuge in the mountains. He was able to seize several estates in the region of Jibal and grew powerful. He became so strong that a caliphal army was sent to subdue him. However, he was able to defeat this force. The central authorities were unable to send another army against him due to Harun al-Rashid’s death and the ensuing civil war between his sons.

The chaotic period of the Fourth Civil War not only enabled him to escape any further attention from the government but also allowed him to expand his domains. He fought against other local lords and magnates (both Arabs and Iranians) and managed to seize mines, estates, and pasture lands from them. He grew so powerful that he was able to launch attacks and raids to terrorize Mosul with his private army of 30,000 men.

Al-Zurayq grew so powerful that he asked the caliph al-Mamun to be recognized as the governor of Azerbaijan and Armenia and to be given the command of the war against Babak. The caliph granted all this brigand’s demands and al-Zurayq now officially collected taxes from his domains and recruited an army to fight against Babak. However, as winter approached, he did not move against the Khurramiyya rebels and was dismissed and replaced by the Governor of Mosul, Al-Sayyid ibn Anas al-Azdi, who had also emerged as an autonomous ruler and also happened to be al-Zurayq’s son-in-law. Al-Zurayq defeated and killed al-Sayyid in battle and refused to relinquish his position and was only defeated in 827.

Despite his rebellion, open defiance of the caliph, and the numerous crimes and acts of depredation he was pardoned. Granting pardons, known as aman, seems to have been a fairly consistent policy of the Abbasids regarding the rebellious strong men, magnates, and robber barons of Azerbaijan, be they Iranian or Arab; and as we shall see this option was also offered to Babak. This rather lenient policy may have been chosen to assuage the followers of these warlords. The authorities may have also seen this as a way to shorten any future conflicts and rebellions in the region by offering the rebels an acceptable “out” and at the same time shortening these conflicts and preserving the manpower of the caliphal armies as well as lessening the strain on the resources and treasury of the caliphate. Al-Zurayq’s wealth and lands were confiscated and given to the general who defeated him, Muhammad ibn Humayd. However, this general returned al-Zurayq’s seized properties and assets to him and he retired in wealth. Despite the fact that he was an Iranian and not an Arab and a former brigand, al-Zurayq’s story, like Muhammad ibn al-Ba‘ith’s, is one of success.

Statue of Babak, in Babak city, Azerbaijan – photo by PiruzRuz / Wikimedia Commons

Babak’s Early Life and Rise to Leadership

It was into this violent and lawless frontier society that Babak was born probably sometime in the late 8th century. Little is known about his early life. His mother was a villager from the region of Ardabil. Some sources give her name as Mahru. Her religion is not identified, she may have followed one of the local Iranian cults or may have been a first-generation convert to Islam.

His father was an Aramaean peddler from Iraq who travelled from village to village selling ointments. His name was either Abdallah or Amir ibn Abdallah and based on the name he was presumably Muslim. Some sources allege that he and Mahru had an affair and were caught by local village women who drove Abdallah away and dragged Mahru back to the village where she was disgraced publicly. In another account, Mahru is said to have been raped by a mercenary and thus impregnated with Babak. Additionally, some of the sources add that Mahru was one-eyed.

All this tells us is that the sources about Babak are very hostile to him and display certain tropes such as his illegitimate birth and the alleged “hideousness” of the mother of such an allegedly “repugnant” enemy. In fact, even some of the most hostile sources state that Babak’s parents were married. Shortly after his birth, Babak’s father was killed while he was on the road. His mother remarried and gave birth to three more sons. Babak’s given name at birth was al-Hasan and his brothers were Muawiya, Abdallah, and Ishaq. These names identify these boys as Muslims; whether they were practicing Muslims is another matter and there is little in the sources to indicate if they were or not. Patricia Crone asserts that based on the little that we know their parents probably gave them Arabic names to make them more visible to those who mattered and to improve their prospects in life. This is not unlike many immigrants to western countries giving their children western names or even adopting western names to better fit into their new societies or to improve their prospects of getting better jobs.

Al-Hasan’s early life was that of a peasant boy. He worked as a cowherd for two Arab magnates. He came in contact with some of their ghilman (s.ghulam meaning slaves – literally ‘slave guards’) from whom he learned to play the lute. It is also reported that he could compose some poetry in the local Azeri dialect of the region. He also picked up some Arabic during his employment. That is as far as al-Hasan’s education went, if it can even be called that. He worked for Muhammad ibn al-Rawwad al-Azdi in the area of Tabriz for two years before returning to his village, Bilalabad, near Ardabil. He made a living selling watermelons and other fruit along the road and by reciting poems and playing the lute for a modest wage.

It is at this point in his life that Babak met Javidhan, the wealthy and powerful leader of one of the local Khurramiyya cult societies. This meeting was the turning point in Babak’s life. The sources state that Babak was delivering watermelons to Javidhan who took a liking to him and employed him as the manager of his estates. Some sources mention that Javidhan found Babak intelligent despite his heavily accented Arabic (this is once again an attack on Babak in the sources by stating that he spoke Arabic badly). It is unlikely that the two men spoke in Arabic. They probably did not even speak Persian, but rather a local Azeri language, of which there were many dialects in the region at the time. This indicates that despite being from the lower echelons of society, al-Hasan, displayed certain characteristics that distinguished him such as ambition, intelligence, determination, and charisma.

Javidhan was a local Khurrami leader whose organization was centered at the mountain fortress known in the sources as al-Badhdh, about 145 kilometres northeast of Ardabil. He was the leader of one of two Khurramiyya groups that were feuding with one another. The other group was led by one Abu ‘Imran. The two factions fought each other during the summer and retired to their mountain fortresses during the winter. It was in one such battle that Javidhan was killed.

Al-Hasan, who by now had probably converted to Khurramism, was proclaimed his successor and married his widow. It is during al-Hasan’s succession to the leadership of Javidhan’s Khurramiyya group that his widow (or any woman for that matter) played a prominent role. According to the sources, she gathered her late husband’s chief supporters and proclaimed that he had predicted his death and that his spirit would pass into Babak, who would lead them to glory by dispossessing the tyrants and raising them to high positions. Then a cow was slaughtered and through a ritual all Javidhan’s followers swore an oath of allegiance to Babak.

It is probably at his elevation to leadership that al-Hasan dropped his Muslim name and took the Persian name Babak. It is interesting to note that his brothers, even though they had also joined Javidhan’s group, retained their Muslim names. Almost immediately after assuming the leadership of the Javihdan’s Khurramiyya faction, Babak set out to kill a group of Yemeni Arabs in the area. The date given for this action is 816 and usually marks the beginning of Babak’s revolt. In an alternate version of events, Babak’s followers dispersed to their villages and reconvened on an appointed date and massacred both Arabs and Iranians (mawali i.e. converts to Islam) on the lands of the Rawwadids, where Babak had formerly worked as a cowherd.

Babak parleys with the Afshin – from a 14th century manuscript

The Revolt

The date given for the beginning of Babak’s revolt is 816. The timing could not have been more opportune for Babak and his followers. The Governor of Azerbaijan, Hatim ibn Harthama, was preparing his own revolt against the caliph. Al-Mamun had ordered the execution of his father, Harthama ibn A‘yan at the instigation of his wazir (vizier), al-Fadl ibn Sahl. Harthama had been on of al-Mamun’s main supporters during the civil war against his brother al-Amin and was also an important general who helped secure al-Mamun’s victory. Harthama played an important role in the fighting that continued in Iraq after the death of al-Amin. He travelled to Khurasan to urge the caliph to return to Baghdad, but the wazir feared losing his influence over al-Mamun and managed to turn the caliph against his loyal general. Hatim ibn Harthama believed he was going to be the next to be eliminated by the caliph and wrote to all the local princes, magnates, and warlords urging them to join him. He even allegedly wrote to Babak, according to some sources. However, Hatim died before he could rebel.

This was the opportune moment for Babak to launch his own rebellion. There was no governor and Azerbaijan was in a state of turmoil, meaning that no serious action could be taken against him for a while. The news of Hatim’s death had to get to Baghdad and a new governor had to be appointed. The new appointee then had to gather an army and make his way to Azerbaijan. Once in Azerbaijan, the new governor had to be apprised of the situation and gather intelligence before he could decide on a course of action against the rebels. All this could take a year or longer. Until then, a deputy governor would rule the province and try to maintain as much order as possible. However, he would not launch a major campaign against the rebels while waiting for the newly appointed governor. Furthermore, there were several other Khurramiyya groups in the Jibal region and in Armenia, and Upper Mesopotamia that had to be watched. These are referred to in some Christian (Syriac and Armenian) sources as the “Khurdanaye.”.

Babak managed to stay in power in the region he controlled for over 20 years. The disarray of the local provincial and central caliphal governments prevented any effective immediate action against him, allowing him to consolidate his control over the region. Additionally, he was on the frontier with all his Muslim enemies to the south of his position. He was flanked to the west and the north by Armenian principalities and the Byzantines. The extent of his domains at the height of his power included the area between the Muqan plain in the North and Marand in the south. He ravaged the region connecting Azerbaijan with the central part of Iran by razing all the villages and fortress to the east.

Babak’s objectives seem to have been focused on local control and it does not seem that he had ambitions beyond the immediate vicinity in which he operated. There is no evidence to suggest that he had any plans to bring down the caliphate or to restore Iranian rule to the domains of the Sasanian Empire or that he represented Iranian resistance against the caliphate. Additionally, Babak’s military and cult organization seems to have been an all-male network. The only organized group in Babak’s organization was the army, which was composed of infantry and cavalry and seems to have had a sort of hierarchy with appointed officers holding various ranks. His troops launched raids and attacks on villages, caravans, and sometimes on armies and withdrew to their mountain fortresses. Babak’s main source of income was the plunder and booty his troops brought back after raids and battles. He did not collect taxes or create any form of administration or justice system during the two decades of his rule. In essence, as Crone states, he was a guerilla warrior.

The main reason that Babak’s revolt survived for as long as it did was due to the chaos and disarray that plagued the Abbasid regime in the wake of the Abbasid Civil War. It was not until 819, three years after the beginning of the revolt, that al-Mamun turned his attention to Azerbaijan and even then, most efforts to quash the uprising were half-hearted and ineffective. The caliph appointed an Iranian Khurasani, Yahya ibn Mu‘adh, as governor to fight Babak. When Yahya did not accomplish anything after some fighting, al-Mamun replaced him with another Iranian governor, Isa ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Khalid, who was severely defeated by the rebels.

This failure was followed by the appointment of the aforementioned brigand, al-Zurayq, to the governorship of Azerbaijan. Al-Zurayq seemed a good choice because, as a su‘luk, as he was familiar with the landscape and with fighting in the mountains. However, he did not move against Babak and refused to relinquish his governorship to his replacement until he was forcefully removed by Muhammad ibn Humayd, another Khurasani (but of Arab descent). After his removal of al-Zurayq, Muhammad ibn Humayd restored some order to his province by removing as many as possible of the magnates, warlords, and sa‘alik who plagued the region. He fought and removed any he could find. In one incident, twenty-six strongmen answered an invitation to his capital at Maragha. They were all arrested, put in chains, and sent to Baghdad. This action helped to clear the region and restore some order.

Confident after his victories against al-Zurayq and the other warlords of Azerbaijan, the governor marched out against Babak with his army in 829. The ensuing campaign was a disaster. Babak’s men ambushed Muhammad ibn Humayd’s army in a narrow pass killing the governor and most of his men. On another front, the government forces led by one Ali ibn Hisham were able to defeat the Khurdanaye (Khurramiyya) of Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia and to kill their imam around 832. However, Ali switched sides and sought to join Babak when his relations with the caliph soured. He was defeated, but the survivors among the Khurdanaye joined Babak.

The situation became even more dire in 833. The caliph was campaigning against the Byzantines this year and died in Anatolia. His death was followed by a succession dispute between his younger brother al-Mu‘tasim (r. 833-842) and his son, al-Abbas. Al-Mutasim emerged victorious but he had to spend some time consolidating his position by purging the military of those elements that had supported his rival. He also had to deal with fresh Khurramiyya uprisings in the Jibal region that broke out at al-Mamun’s death.

The Siege of al-Badhdh

It was not until 835 that al-Mu‘tasim was ready to focus the attention, resources and manpower required to successfully crush Babak’s revolt. He appointed Haydar ibn Kaus, known by his hereditary title, al-Afshin. Al-Afshin was an east Iranian (Sogdian) vassal prince of Ushrusana and also al-Mutasim’s best general. He also dispatched another commander, Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Thaghri, to Ardabil with orders to repair its fortifications, clear the roads, and set up garrisons and guard posts to ensure the safe passage of supplies and reinforcements from Iraq to the war front.

Al-Afshin did not begin his operations against Babak immediately. Instead, he opted to finish off the job started by Muhammad ibn Humayd. He advanced slowly and cleared the mountains of the brigands and warlords who had terrorized the region for so long. As he advanced, he repaired and garrisoned castles and fortresses. During his march, he fortified all his army encampments and surrounded them with trenches. He also ensured that all caravans and supply trains travelled under heavy guard. He established his headquarters at Barzand and set up a spy network through which he gathered much-needed intelligence on the rebels and their operations.

Al-Afshin’s army was large and composed of a variety of troops, many of them specialized in specific types of warfare, who were suited for undertaking the difficult campaign in the mountains of Azerbaijan. The ethnic composition of his forces included Turks, Khurasanis (of both Iranian, Arab, and mixed descent), local Azeris, and Sogdians and other East Iranians. Al-Tabari mentions specialized units such as the Abna, the naffatun, the Kuhbaniyya, and the Kilghariyya. The Abna were the descendants of the Khurasani troops who had marched west and settled in Iraq after the Abbasid Revolution. They were elite heavy infantrymen. Al-Jahiz states in his treatise on the Turks and the other groups that formed the Abbasid army that the Abna excelled at siege warfare, fighting in trenches, and in tight spaces, and in urban settings. The naffatun or naptha throwers were soldiers specialized in throwing or launching “grenades” that were composed of clay pots filled with a flammable liquid (most likely “Greek fire”). The kuhbaniyya or “mountain men” were local Azeris enrolled in al-Afshin’s army. They were a part of al-Afshin’s intelligence-gathering network and also guided the rest of the army along safe routes through terrain which they knew intimately. They also played an important role in the skirmishes and battles with Babak’s forces. They undertook operations to climbed mountains and clear them of rebels, to secure the safe passage for the rest of the army. These men also helped to relay communications and orders between different army groups by signalled one another with flags and banners from the mountain tops. Based on their description, the kilghariyya were a specialized logistical unit that carried out the role of military engineers and sappers. They built roads and bridges, cleared paths, fortified the camps, dug trenches, and were a part of the supply system that kept the army fed and armed. They also played a role as shock troops and took part in the assault on Babak’s fortress wielding battle axes.

Al-Afshin also set up a mobile field hospital near the battlelines for those wounded during the operations against rebels. He also set up a transport system using mules and litters to move the wounded men from the front to the hospital. In addition to these professional soldiers, a large number of volunteers also joined al-Afshin’s forces in the hopes of gaining glory and plunder.

Al-Afshin’s advance was slow and steady. It is reported that he only moved his camp forward by four miles per day and insisted on digging trenches and ditches and scattering caltrops around it to guard against surprise attacks. By March 836 he was within six miles of al-Badhdh, Babak’s main stronghold. The sources report that many of his men were impatient and wanted to advance at a quicker pace. However, the clever general maintained an iron grip on his army and did not allow any rash attacks. This way he avoided falling into the traps and ambushes that had defeated his predecessors. He was also successful in drawing Babak’s forces into the open, where his better-trained and more disciplined forces had a clear advantage. Despite scoring several victories against Babak and his cautious advance, al-Afshin also suffered several reverses. It was his cautious and well-planned advance that brought the Abbasid army to the foot of the mountain upon which the rebel stronghold was perched. It was not only al-Afshin’s wariness of enemy ambushes that slowed his advance, but also his awareness of the difficult mountainous terrain in which he operated and how it could defeat him as easily as the rebel forces. He had avoided stretching his forces too thin, which could offer a weak point for the enemy to attack. He also had to secure his supply lines and ensure that his men were well-fed and paid.

It was not until 837, that al-Afshin’s troops successfully stormed al-Badhdh after almost a year-long siege. Taking a fortress like al-Badhdh was no small feat. Its ruins survive to this day, perched at a height of around 2,500 meters and surrounded by gorges on almost all sides. It is a 3-4 hour climb to get to castle at the top of the mountain. Al-Afshin’s forces closed the noose around the fortress and fought under very difficult conditions against determined and stubborn defenders. Babak’s men ambushed foraging parties and tried to cut off al-Afshin’s supply lines. The long conflict and the slow results reduced morale in the Abbasid camp, but al-Afshin was able to maintain discipline and order in the ranks of his army.

By the end of the siege, al-Badhdh was surrounded by several camps with three big trenches protecting them from the sallies of the defenders. Even with his camps well-defended and control of the mountaintops around al-Badhdh, al-Afshin refused to commit to an all-out assault. He stationed various detachments around the castle with strict orders to hold their positions. One unit of volunteers disobeyed and made it to the castle walls. Al-Afshin refused to send reinforcements, despite the pleas of the commander who had launched the attack. His suspicions were confirmed as the volunteers retreated several groups of hidden Khurramiyya emerged from the wooded valleys around the castle. However, they could do little harm because the other Abbasid units had maintained their positions. Al-Afshin then used his kuhbaniyya to flush out the remaining rebels.

With all the ambushes uncovered, al-Afshin commanded an assault on the castle. The attackers were supported by siege engines such as ballistae and catapults that had been set up on the slopes opposite the castle. It was a difficult uphill fight for al-Afshin’s forces. The were unable to use their numerical superiority due to the narrow paths and approaches that sometimes only allowed two or three men to advance at a time. The defenders on the other hand peppered the advancing Abbasids with arrows, rolled down boulders and carts full of rocks on them, and held them up at narrow choke points. Despite these challenges, al-Afshin’s forces were able to fight their way through. The naffatun cleared the way with their incendiary weapons and the kilghariyya and abna punched through the last defenses. The Khurramiyya put up a tough and stubborn fight even after the castle had been breached. Many fell fighting to the last moment. The victors then proceeded to sack and raze the castle. In the process, they uncovered large quantities of treasure and other valuables that had been plundered by Babak’s men. They also freed hundreds (possibly more, the sources are unclear) of women and children who had been enslaved by Babak.

Babak, his family, and close associates fled al-Badhdh as al-Afshin’s troops were storming it. They took refuge with an Armenian noble, Sahl ibn Sunbat, who betrayed him and handed him over to the Abbasids. Babak was taken to Samarra where he was put to death in a horrible manner. After being brought into a city seated on an elephant for everyone to see, he was reprimanded by the caliph for his rebellion and for all the death, damage, and destruction he had wrought. The executioner then proceeded to cut off his hands and feet and then he was either crucified or gibbeted. Other accounts say he was sewn into a cowskin after his hands and feet were amputated. His brother was executed in a similarly brutal manner in Baghdad the same year. Al-Mutasim took one of Babak’s daughters as a concubine, while Babak’s sons were enrolled in the Abbasid army. Many of the surviving members of Babak’s army fled to the Byzantine Empire and were enrolled in its army.

Afshin and Babak arriving at Samarra, from a 16th century manuscript

Analyzing Babak’s Revolt

Babak’s revolt and his struggle has been misinterpreted and misrepresented by many modern scholars and laypeople. Like other rebels, revolutionaries, and historical figures such as Spartacus, William Wallace, and Che Guevara, Babak has been appropriated by modern society and transformed into the image that he currently holds in many circles. He is often depicted as a freedom fighter or a Persian nationalist fighting the encroaching Arabs or restoring Sasanian rule. In Azerbaijan he is portrayed as an Azerbaijani nationalist, especially during the Soviet era, and a movie was made about his rebellion.

However, his actions are better described as nativist, and his ambitions were local. Nationalism, as we understand it today, did not exist in the medieval period. The closest thing to “Iranian or Persian” nationalism is probably the resistance of the Sasanian nobility and Zoroastrian priesthood to the encroachment of the caliphate on their domains. Their strong feeling stemmed not from “nationalism” per say, but rather from losing the privileges they once had and being replaced as the elites of the empire. Such sentiments were probably not shared by the vast majority of the people inhabiting the former Sasanian Empire. Many of the new elites of the caliphate were Iranians themselves. In fact, a large proportion of the armies sent against Babak were composed of Iranians (both local Azeris and others from different regions of the Iranian world), as were many of the colonists moving into Azerbaijan. Babak’s revolt can be seen as a local reaction to the encroachment of outsiders (Iranians and Arabs) at the expense of the indigenous population. This reaction once again comes primarily from the local elite that was being demoted to a subordinate status by the newcomers.

Babak most likely envisaged himself as a local ruler or a local king. He did not have ambitions that went beyond the domains he controlled. His forces, even at the height of his power did not attempt to occupy or hold any territory. They were content to ravage and pillage towns, villages, and caravans and then to withdraw to their mountain strongholds. As mentioned earlier, Babak did not establish an administration or a bureaucracy, or anything resembling a government; the only organized body in his domains was an army maintained through a booty economy.

Babak’s revolt was especially bloody and violent. Muslim and Christian sources alike describe him as a ruthless killer. They state that Babak and his followers killed men, women and children. They killed Arabs, Iranians, and Armenians. Religion did not matter either; their victims included Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and rival Khurramiyya. The number of victims according to the sources range from 30,000 to more than 500,000, but it is highly unlikely Babak and his follower killed this many people.

Babak used fear and terror because it was the only tool he had at his disposal. Unlike other rebels and revolutionaries, he lacked political skills and failed to exploit his position to make alliances with the Armenian nobles and the Byzantines along his borders. Instead, he terrorized these potential allies. He burned down monasteries full of people and even terrorized his allies. He is also reputed to have dishonored the women of his enemies. After all, it was an Armenian noble who handed Babak over to the Abbasids. It is reported that the Sahl ibn Sunbat also dishonored the women who were with Babak in front of him claiming that this is how Babak had treated his enemies.

Another reason for this behavior is probably the fact that Babak was a product of his environment. Azerbaijan was a violent and lawless place during this era. The mountains were teaming with violent men and like all the other warlords and sa‘alik in the region, Babak and his followers committed many depredations against the villages that were not directly under their control. They even terrorized their own villages to dissuade them from providing aid to their enemies. Babak also envisaged himself as an apocalyptic figure who had come to wreak vengeance upon those he and his followers perceived unjust and to raise the downtrodden. In his view and that of his followers, they were not doing anything wrong. Patricia Crone comments:

One may well wonder why Babak behaved in so chilling a fashion. The explanation evidently does not lie in religious doctrine, since he was acting in the name of a supposedly pacifist religion and is said, like his predecessor Mazdak, to have had to introduce doctrinal changes to legitimise the shedding of blood. No doubt his ruthlessness is related both to the sheer violence of the society in which he had grown up and to the apocalyptic sense, triggered by Hashimite revolution, of the tables being turned, allowing former losers to seek vengeance for long years of oppression and humiliation by the high and mighty. But the Hashimite avengers, who were animated by the same apocalypticism, did not kill women, children, or dhimmīs, in so far as we know. They were also directed by men with far greater political skills than Babak, and the two facts could be related.

Babak used fear and the fear of reprisals to maintain his control over his domains and to ensure his allies cooperated. It is this fear that stopped the peasantry from assisting several of the caliphal armies sent against him. In addition to the Khurramiyya mountain men and indigenous highlanders he attracted brigands, mercenaries, and highwaymen into the ranks of his army. His main strategy was to create an aura of fear around him so that his enemies would either submit to him or avoid confrontations and leave. In other words, Babak was no different to the other Arab and Iranian warlords and magnates in the mountainous regions of Jibal and Azerbaijan. They were adept at fighting in their native environments and at killing government troops. However, as Crone notes “they simply struck out indiscriminately on the principle that everyone who was not with them was against them.”

Regardless of the fact that they could inflict losses to the caliph’s armies and cause a nuisance to the central government and sometimes even temporarily reduce the caliphate’s control over their mountains to nominal status, they lacked the ability to secede or to effectively unite, due to the very localism and nativism that made them resistant to assimilating into the empires that had ruled these regions. The caliphs were often very lenient with the defeated warlords, brigands, and rebels and were more than willing to grant them pardons. They even offered a personal grant of safety to Babak and his family and some followers. Babak refused this offer because this settlement did not validate his status as a local ruler, as he envisaged himself.

Babak’s uprising lasted for so long because of the chaos at the center of the caliphate that was caused first by the Abbasid Civil War and its fallout and then by the succession dispute that followed al-Mamun’s death. When al-Mutasim decided to focus on crushing the revolt by sending al-Afshin, Babak was defeated within two years. If the caliph had had the opportunity to deal with this rebellion in its early stages, it is doubtful that it would have lasted over a year. Additionally, the revolt was very local and did not enjoy mass popular support in the region. Babak’s main supporters were the members of his own Khurramiyya cult society and those brigands, highwaymen, and renegades who joined his ranks. The peasantry outside his domains were terrified of him, as were his other allies. Even the Khurramiyya were not united behind him, and several groups were in revolt simultaneously with their own imams, messiahs, saviors, and divine men.

In the end, when a concerted effort was made by the Abbasid army, led by al-Afshin, a more intelligent and educated military commander than Babak, the rebels did not stand a chance. When the inevitable defeat came, Babak refused the aman that was offered to him and even disowned his son who had delivered it to him from al-Afshin. The sources report that this refusal was due to the fact that he preferred death over losing his “kingship” and his concern was for people to remember him as a king. One can describe Babak as being unlucky and his end was the polar opposite of al-Zurayq’s. Babak, al-Zurayq, and all the other warlords, brigands, and rebels of the mountainous regions of Azerbaijan behaved in a similar manner. Their aims were to secure their positions and the welfare of their followers at the expense of their enemies and the newcomers. Some of them, like al-Zurayq, were co-opted and assimilated into the empire, others like Babak did not fare so well and met fateful ends.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Further Reading:

Patricia Crone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge University Press, 2012) May 20, 2022 at 05:25AM

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