Syria: A Short History/11
With the Umayyad fall the hegemony of Syria in the world of Islam ended and the glory of the country passed away. The Abbasids made Iraq their headquarters and Kufah their first capital. The Syrians awoke to the humiliating and infuriating realization that the Islamic centre of gravity had left their land and shifted eastward. As a last resort they set their hopes on an expected descendant of Muawiyah I to appear like a Messiah and deliver them from their victorious Iraqi rivals. A surviving Umayyad named Ziyad did assemble 40,000 men from Horns and Palmyra, but this revolt, like those of Marwan's ex-generals in Qinnasrin and Hawran, accomplished nothing.
Meanwhile abu-al-Abbas was busy consolidating his newly acquired domain. In the inaugural address delivered at Kufah he had assumed the appellation al-Saffah (blood-shedder), which proved to be no idle boast. The incoming dynasty chose to depend more than the outgoing on the use of force in the execution of its plans. For the first time the leathern bag ready to receive the head of the executioner's victim found a place near the imperial throne. The new caliph surrounded himself with theologians and legists, giving the infant state an atmosphere of theocracy as opposed to the secular character of its predecessor. On ceremonial occasions he hastened to don the mantle of his distant cousin, Muhammad. The well-geared propaganda machine which had worked to undermine public confidence in the old regime was now busy entrenching the usurpers in public esteem. They proclaimed that if the Abbasid caliphate were ever destroyed, the entire universe would be disorganized. Anti-Umayyad, pro-Abbasid hadiths were fabricated wholesale. Even Umayyad names were effaced from inscriptions on buildings, and the tombs of every Umayyad caliph except Muawiyah I and Umar II were violated and their corpses desecrated.
The most significant difference between this and the preceding caliphate, however, lay in the fact that the Abbasid was oriented Persia-ward. Persian protocol per- vaded the court, Persian ideas dominated the political scene and Persian women prevailed in the royal harem. It was an empire of Neo-Moslems in which the Arabs formed but one of the component parts. The Iraqis felt relieved from Syrian tutelage. The Shiites felt avenged. Persians found high posts in the government open to them; they intro- duced and occupied a new office, the vizirate, highest after the caliphate. Khurasanians flocked to man the caliphal bodyguard. The Arabian aristocracy was eclipsed.
The first governor of Abbasid Syria was the caliph's uncle Abdullah, who had won the decisive battle over Marwan II. When al-Saffah died in 754, Abdullah dis- puted the caliphate with al-Mansur, brother of the deceased caliph. His claim rested on the huge disciplined army which he had assembled presumably for use against the Byzantines. He did not trust the Khurasanian troops, so had 17,000 of them butchered before moving eastward with the rest of his men, mostly Syrians. He was met and defeated by abu-Muslim, the virtually independent governor of Khurasan and idol of his people. So successful was he in suppressing all personal and official enemies that al-Mansur's suspicions were aroused, and he had the general to whom he owed so much treacherously put to death.
The caliphate founded by al-Saffah and al-Mansur was the longest-lived and the most celebrated of caliphates. All the thirty-five caliphs who succeeded al-Mansur (754-775) were his lineal descendants. As a site for his capital al- Mansur chose a Christian village on the west bank of the Tigris, Baghdad. The city was built in 762 and officially named Dar al-Salam (abode of peace). It soon fell heir to the power and prestige of its predecessors in the area — Babylon and Ctesiphon — and has lived in legend and in history as the peerless symbol of the glory of Abbasid Islam and the scene of The Thousand and One Nights.
With the removal of the capital to distant Baghdad the hereditary Byzantine enemy ceased to be of major concern. Nevertheless, al-Mansur and his successors strengthened the border fortresses of Syria and fortified the seaports of Lebanon. In 759 a band of Christians in Lebanon, resentful of harsh conditions and intolerable exactions and en- couraged by the presence of a Byzantine fleet in the waters of Tripoli, burst forth from their mountain stronghold al- Munaytirah and plundered several villages in the Biqa. They were ambushed by Abbasid cavalry and cut down. In retaliation the governor uprooted the mountain villagers, many of whom had taken no part in the revolt, and had them dispersed all over Syria. This was the first of many such desperate uprisings, all repressed with similar ruth- lessness.
Next on al-Mansur's list of victims were the Alids, who had helped overthrow the Umayyads on the naive assump- tion that the Abbasids were fighting their battles but were now disillusioned. The Alids persisted in claiming for their imams the sole right to preside over the destinies of Islam, thus reducing the caliphs to the position of usurpers. Their movement again went underground but never missed an opportunity to rise in open revolt. A rebellion in 762 headed by two great-grandsons of al-Hasan was ruthlessly crushed and the brothers were promptly executed.
Despite these set-backs the Syrians continued to express their opposition by word and deed. A rejoinder by one of them to al-Mansur's remark that the people were lucky to escape the plague in his days typifies the then prevailing sentiment : c God is too good to subject us to pestilence and your rule at the same time. 5 They never did wholly re- concile themselves to the loss of Syria's privileged position, nor to their exclusion from government offices. In the case of the Christians the situation was aggravated by unfair extortion and increased taxation. Al-Mansur's son and suc- cessor al-Mahdi (775-785) forced 5000 Tanukh Arabians around Aleppo to adopt Islam and had their churches demolished. After the brief reign of al-Mahdi's elder son al-Hadi, the caliphate passed to his younger son Harun al- Rashid (786-809), extolled in Moslem legend but a harsh master to Syrian Christians and Moslems alike.
In 782, while still a prince, Harun had led his forces as as far as Byzantium and exacted from the regent Irene a heavy tribute. As caliph he conducted from his favourite residence al-Raqqah in northern Syria a series of raids into the land of the Romans. Dissension between North Arabians (Qays) and South Arabians (Yaman) split Syria in his time, with official favour accorded to the Qaysites in the bitter strife. For two years the district of Damascus was the scene of relentless warfare, but in 795 Harun en- trusted a punitive expedition to a Barmakid general who completely disarmed both factions. The Barmakids, a Persian vizirial family exalted by al-Mansur, achieved such distinction and displayed such generosity in the use of their immense wealth that by 803 Harun was no longer able to tolerate their prestige; he annihilated them and con- fiscated their property.
Harun re-enacted some of the anti-Christian and anti- Jewish measures introduced by Umar II. In 807 he ordered all churches erected since the Moslem conquest demolished. He also decreed that members of tolerated sects should wear the prescribed garb. But evidently much of this legislation was not enforced. His death led to a struggle for the throne between his sons al-Amin (809-813) and al-Mamun (813- 833); the accompanying convulsions had repercussions in Syria. Syrian troops deserted wholesale, or followed an Umayyad pretender who held Horns and Damascus briefly. But al-Mamun's victory was followed by a relatively peaceful reign. In Egypt the Copts, after expressing their individuality by several risings against their Moslem overlords, were them- selves converted to Islam.
In 829 al-Mamun visited Syria and made a fresh survey of its lands with a view to increasing the revenue from it. Four years later he visited Damascus to test the judges there and enforce his decree that any judge who did not subscribe to the Mutazilite view of the creation of the Koran could not hold office. Several of his predecessors had visited Syria on their way to the pilgrimage or to battle against the Byzan- tines. They were all kept fully informed by their governors and postmasters, who doubled as chiefs of secret police.
Another brother, al-Mutasim (833-842), succeeded al- Mamun and moved the capital to Samarra. It was he who, in 838, led a victorious expedition against Amorium, the last incursion into Anatolia before a long period of peace on Syria's northern border. Palestine was the scene of a major revolt during his reign. In 840 a Yemenite Arab who always wore a veil in public raised the white Umayyad banner and attracted a large but undisciplined following among the peasants. A thousand Abbasid troops readily took him captive and dispersed his men.
The quiet which prevailed under al-Mutasim's son al- Wathiq was shattered under his brother al-Mutawakkil (847- 861). In 850 and 854 he revived the discriminatory legisla- tion against members of tolerated sects and supplemented it by new features which were the most stringent ever issued against the minorities. Christians and Jews were enjoined to affix wooden images of devils to their houses, level their graves even with the ground, wear outer garments of yellow and ride only on mules and asses with wooden saddles marked by two pomegranate-like balls on the cantle. Violent outbreaks took place in Damascus (854) and Horns (855), with both Christians and Moslems participating. The people of Damascus killed their Abbasid governor and were subsequently put to the sword for three consecutive days by a Turkish general sent by the caliph at the head of a band of seven thousand horse and three thousand foot, who also plundered the whole city. The Homs revolt was likewise repressed after vigorous resistance. The leaders were decapitated or flogged to death and then crucified at the city gate ; all churches, with the exception of one which was added to the great mosque, were demolished; all Christians banished from the tumultuous city.
Incredible as it may seem, in 858 al-Mutawakkil trans- ferred the caliphal residence to Damascus, possibly to escape the arrogant domination of his praetorian guard, consisting mostly of turbulent, undisciplined Turks, originally mer- cenaries and slaves taken into the service by his predecessor. The humid climate of the city, its violent wind and abundant fleas drove the capricious caliph out in thirty-eight days.
Thus far Syria seems to have maintained its general Christian character, but now the situation began perceptibly to change. It may be assumed that after al-Mutawakki's enactments many Christian families in Syria emigrated or accepted Islam. The converts were actuated mainly by the desire to escape the humiliating disabilities and tribute and to acquire social prestige or political influence. The theo- logical conquest thus followed the military by over two centuries. No Moslem could embrace Christianity or Judaism without risking his life.
The slowest and last victory — after the political and the religious — was the linguistic. Here the subject peoples of Syria and other lands offered the greatest measure of resistance. They showed themselves more ready to give up political and even religious loyalties than linguistic ones. Literary Arabic won its victory before the spoken did. Syrian scholars under caliphal patronage began to compose in Arabic long before Syrian peasants adopted the new tongue. The oldest dated Christian manuscript in Arabic that has come down to us was composed by abu-Qurrah (d. 820) and copied in 877. By the early thirteenth century, toward the end of the Abbasid era, the victory of Arabic as the medium of everyday communication was virtually com- plete. Linguistic islands remained, occupied by non- Moslems: Jacobites, Nestorians and Maronites. In Lebanon the native Syriac lingered until the late seventeenth century, and indeed is still spoken in three villages in Anti-Lebanon and still used in the Maronite and other liturgies of the Syrian churches.
In general, however, the entire Semitic world was Arabicized under the Abbasids. Aram, as the native name for Syria, was replaced by al-Sham, c the left', because it lay to the left of the Kabah in Mecca, in contrast to Yemen, which lay to its right. For the first time the consciousness of unity engendered by the use of a common tongue and — with important exceptions, especially in Lebanon — the profession of a common faith prevailed. Syriac did not dis- appear without leaving an indelible imprint on Syrian Arabic in morphology, phonetics and vocabulary. It is primarily this imprint that distinguishes the Syrian-Lebanese dialect from those of neighbouring lands.
More than any other one people the Syriac-speaking Christians contributed to that general awakening and intel- lectual renaissance centred in Abbasid Baghdad which is considered the chief glory of classical Islam. Between 750 and 850 the Arab world was the scene of one of the most spectacular and momentous movements in the history of thought. The movement was marked by translations into Arabic from Persian, Greek and Syriac. The Arabian Moslem brought with him no art, science or philosophy and hardly any literature; but he demonstrated keen intel- lectual curiosity, a voracious appetite for learning and a variety of latent talents. In the Fertile Crescent he fell heir to Hellenistic science and lore, unquestionably the most precious intellectual treasure then extant. Within a few decades after Baghdad was founded (762), the Arabic- reading public found at its disposal the major philosophical works of Aristotle and the Neo-Platonic commentators, the chief medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen, the main mathematical compositions of Euclid and the geographical masterpiece of Ptolemy. In all this the Syriac-speakers were the mediators. The Arabians knew no Greek, but the Syrians had been in touch with Greek for over a millennium. For two centuries before the appearance of Islam, Syrian scholars had been translating Greek works into Syriac. The same people who had opened the treasures of Greek science and philosophy to the Persians now busied them- selves in making them available to all who could read Arabic.
All branches of learning shared in this activity. The clergy translated Aristotelian logic and Neo-Platonic philo- sophy for their bearing on theological controversies, as before the Moslem conquest they had put the Septuagint and the Gospels into Syriac at Edessa. Besides philosophy and theology, medicine and astronomy, viewed from the astro- logical standpoint, attracted Syrian attention. Many of the distinguished professors at the Jundi-Shapur academy of medicine and philosophy were Christians using Syriac as a medium of instruction. The dean of the academy, Jurjis ibn-Bakhtishu, was summoned by al-Mansur in 765 to give medical advice ; he became the founder of a family of physicians which for six or seven generations almost monopo- lized the entire court medical practice.
A Christian named Yuhanna ibn-Masawayh supposedly translated for al-Rashid several manuscripts, mainly medical, which the caliph had brought back from raids into Asia Minor. Yuhanna's pupil Hunayn ibn-Ishaq (809-873) stands out as one of the foremost translators of the age. He translated most of the works of Aristotle and Galen into Syriac, which his son and nephew then rendered into Arabic. Hunayn is also said to have translated Hippocrates' medical treatises and Plato's Republic. The Syrians were indifferent to Greek poetry and drama and so were the Arabians. Translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey by a Maronite astrologer did not survive.
Not only Christian but pagan Syrians made a major contribution to Arab intellectual life. These were the star- worshippers of Harran, incorrectly called Sabians. They had interested themselves in astronomy and allied sciences from time immemorial. As lovers of Hellenistic science they stood on a par with their Christian compatriots. Out- standing among their scholars was Thabit ibn-Qurrah (d. 901). He and his disciples are credited with translating the bulk of Greek astronomical and mathematical works, including those of Ptolemy and Archimedes.
Clearly the bulk of Syriac literature consisted of transla- tions and commentaries and was lacking in originality and creativeness. Only in the field of ascetic mysticism did they produce, both before the Moslem conquest and in Abbasid times, original contributions, strikingly parallel to Sufi material A Jacobite bishop of Aleppo, abu-al-Faraj (Bar Hebraeus, son of the Jew, 1226-1286), distinguished himself as a theological and historical writer in both Syriac and Arabic.
The finest talent of Moslem Syria of this period expressed itself through the medium of poetical composition. Two of its sons, abu-Tammam and al-Buhturi, achieved the dis- tinction of becoming court poets to Abbasid caliphs. Abu- Tammam (about 804-850) was born in Hawran of a Christian father but embraced Islam and travelled widely before settling in Baghdad. He accompanied al-Mutasim in his raid on Amorium and wrote an ode to celebrate the victory. His claim to glory rests not only on his original compositions but also on his compilation — while snow- bound in a house with an excellent library — of al-Hamasah, a valuable anthology of the masterpieces of Arabic poetry from pre-Islamic days to his own time. Al-Buhturi (about 820-897) admired abu-Tammam and followed in his steps. In Baghdad he became the laureate of al-Mutawakkil and his successors. Typically, he employed his talent to extort remuneration from influential and wealthy personages under threat of changing his encomiums to lampoons. He was interested in wine and had a real ability to describe palaces, pools and wild animals—a rather rare feature in Arabic poetry.
In the non-poetical realm one man stands out, the theologian and jurist Abd-al-Rahman ibn-Amr al-Awzai. Born in Baalbek in 707, he flourished in Beirut, where he died in 774. Al-Awzai was noted for his learning, asceticism and moral courage, speaking out in disapproval of excessive harshness in the treatment of Christians, such as destroying their churches and homes, cutting down their trees and expelling the villagers from al-Munaytirah. The legal system worked out by this jurist was applied in Syria for about two centuries before it was supplanted.