Syria: A Short History/12
The first sign of internal decay in the Abbasid regime was the rise of the Turkish bodyguard after the death of al- Mamun in 833. Like the Janissaries in Ottoman history, this corps became too powerful for the caliph and at times held him in abject submission to its will. Except for short intervals thereafter Abbasid power declined steadily. As it disintegrated, petty dynasties, mostly of Arabian origin, were parcelling out its domains in the west, while others, mostly Turkish and Persian, were performing the same operation in the east.
First among these to affect Syria was the short-lived Tulunid dynasty (868-905). It was founded by a deputy governor of Egypt, Ahmad ibn-Tulun, whose father was a Turk sent from Bukhara as a present to al-Mamun. No sooner had the ambitious young man arrived at his post than he planned to take advantage of the distance that separated him from the central government and practise independence. On authorization from the caliph he increased his troops, reportedly to a hundred thousand, and marched against a rebel in Syria — the land of rebels against Abbasid rule. At the death of its governor in 877 he deemed the time ripe for full occupation. The Egyptian army marched through al-Ramlah in the south to Damascus, Horns, Hamah and Aleppo in the north without opposition. Only Antioch closed its gates and was reduced after a short siege. In 879/880 Ahmad proclaimed himself ruler of both lands.
This was a turning-point in the history of Egypt. It then and there embarked upon its career as an independent state, a position which it maintained with one important interruption for centuries to come. Syria throughout this long period went with Egypt, as it did in Pharaonic days. The old connection, severed about a thousand years before, was thus re-established. The land of the Nile profited by the change, at least to the extent of having its entire revenue spent within its territory, but the position of its Syrian adjunct was not improved.
A typical military dictator, Ahmad ruled with an iron hand. He built a powerful military machine on which he depended for the maintenance of his throne. Its core was a bodyguard of 24,000 Turkish and 40,000 Negro slaves from each one of whom he exacted an oath of allegiance. As if to justify his usurpation of power in the eyes of his subjects, he launched a programme of public works that had no parallel since Pharaonic days. He adorned his capital al- Fustat (Old Cairo) with magnificent buildings, including a hospital and a mosque which still bears his name. In Syria he fortified Acre and established a naval base there. So strong was the tower that topped its double wall that three centuries later it thwarted for almost two years the com- bined efforts of two Crusading monarchs and in 1799 it proved impregnable against the assaults of Napoleon's field artillery.
Ahmad was succeeded in 884 by his extravagant and dissolute twenty-year-old son Khumarawayh, who erected a splendid palace with a garden rich in exotic tr£es, an aviary and a zoological enclosure. Under him the Tulunid domain extended from Cyrenaica to the Tigris. The caliph al-Mutadid in 892 confirmed Khumarawayh and his heirs in the possession of this vast territory for thirty years in return for an annual tribute of 300,000 dinars. Khumara- wayh' s extravagance, including a fabulous dowry for a daughter who married al-Mutadid, left the treasury empty. He was murdered by his own slaves (895) and was succeeded by two sons in turn.
Their turbulent reigns were rendered more turbulent by the advent of a militant extreme Shiite sect, the Carmathians. It was organized as a secret, communistic society, with initiation as a requisite for admission. Starting near Kufah about 890, the Carmathians became masters of an in- dependent state on the western coast of the Persian Gulf. From these two centres they spread devastation in all direc- tions. Throughout the Umayyad period Moslem Syria had followed the orthodox Sunnite line ; but the imposition of the hated Abbasid regime had opened the way for the introduction of Alid doctrines which now prepared the people for Carmathian views. Just as in Byzantine Syria the people endeavoured to assert their nationality by espousing Christian doctrines considered heretical by Byzantium, so were they now ready to adopt ultra-Shiite, anti-Abbasid beliefs. The Carmathians defeated the Tulunid garrison and laid siege to Damascus in 901, reduced Horns, decimated Hamah and almost annihilated the population of Baalbek.
In 902 the caliph sent against the Carmathians an able general who, after defeating them and securing the allegi- ance of the Syrian vassals, set out for the conquest of Egypt. In 904 Khumarawayh's second son was assassinated and succeeded by an uncle, but the Abbasid general reached the Tulunid capital outside al-Fustat, razed it to the ground, cut off twenty Tulunid heads and carried the remaining male members of this house in chains to the imperial capital. In the following year the last Umayyad pretender on record unfurled the white flag in Syria and he too was captured and sent to Baghdad. The people who had once been described as acknowledging no other authority than that of the Umayyads had evidently at long last become demoralized and reconciled to alien rule.
The general who in the name of the Tulunids had defended Damascus against the Carmathians was a Turk named Tughj, whose son Muhammad managed to inherit the Tulunid legacy. After a brief interval of precarious Abbasid sway in Egypt and Syria, Muhammad established himself at al-Fustat in 935 as the ruler of Egypt. Four years later the caliph bestowed on him the old Iranian princely title al-Ikhshid, just as in the nineteenth century an Otto- man sultan conferred on his Egyptian viceroy the Persian title khedive. Syria was then held by an adventurer called ibn-Raiq, who died in 941. Thereupon the viceroyalty of al-Ikhshid over Syria and Egypt, together with Mecca and Medina, was recognized by the caliph and the Buwayhid overlords of Baghdad. For centuries thereafter the fortunes of Hejaz were linked with those of Egypt. In 944 al- Ikhshid obtained from the imperial government hereditary rights for his family in the lands he acquired.
In the same year his authority was challenged by a new dynasty arising in northern Syria, the Hamdanids (944- 1 003) . This family of Arabians had in the late ninth century seized the fortress of Mardin and had gradually extended their sway to Mosul and other parts of northern Mesopo- tamia. In 944 the most illustrious among them, Hasan, wrested Aleppo, Antioch and Horns from the Ikhshidid vassal. Hasan considered al-Ikhshid's death in 946 an opportunity to overrun all Syria, as Ikhshidid power passed to Muhammad's young sons. But the reins of govern- ment were held by a Negro eunuch named abu-al-Misk Kafur (musky camphor), who turned out to be an able regent. He defeated Hasan in two engagements and com- pelled him to recognize Egyptian suzerainty. After the boys' deaths Kafur himself reigned for two years over a state which included Egypt, Syria and part of Cilicia. He was the first Moslem ruler to achieve high eminence after rising from the lowliest slave origins.
Kafur was succeeded in 968 by an eleven-year-old Ihkshidid unable to cope with the problems of the day. The Hamdanids were threatening from the north, the resurgent Carmathians from the east and the Fatimids from the west. The Fatimid caliphate, which arose in Tunis in 909, had for years carried on secret correspondence with Alids and other sympathizers in Egypt. The opportunity was now obvious. In 969 the Fatimid army routed the Ikhshidid forces both in Egypt and at al-Ramlah; Egypt, Palestine and central Syria were incorporated in the emer- ging Fatimid empire.
The Ikhshidid dynasty (935-969), like its predecessor the Tulunid, had only an ephemeral existence. Both fol- lowed a pattern found in many other states which, in this period of disintegration, broke off from the imperial govern- ment. Both made lavish use of state moneys to curry favour with their subjects and thereby ruined the treasuries. Neither of them had any national basis in the land over which it tried to rule; neither could rely upon a strong coherent body of supporters of its own race among its subjects. Being intruders the rulers had to recruit their bodyguards, which were also their armies, from alien sources. Such a rule could be maintained only so long as the arm which wielded the sword remained strong.
Meanwhile Hasan al-Hamdani had consolidated his power in northern Syria and received the honorific Sayf- al-Dawlah (sword of state) from the Abbasid caliph, who sought thus to convey the impression that the recipient — in reality independent — was under his control. Sayf and his successors were tolerant Shiites and preserved the caliph's name in the Friday prayer. Sayf chose Aleppo for capital perhaps because of its ancient citadel and its proximity to the frontier fortresses which he intended to defend against the new wave of Byzantine inroads. For the first time since Amorite days, the northern metropolis became the seat of an important government. In it the new ruler erected a magnificent palace.
Sayf's domain covered northern Syria, a section of Cilicia and a large part of northern Mesopotamia. He even established a foothold in Armenia with the aid of Kurdish supporters; his mother was a Kurd. By marrying a daughter of al-Ikhshid he hoped to be left in peaceful pos- session of his territory ; his principality consumed much of its time and energy struggling with the Byzantines. Sayf was the first after a long interval to take up the cudgels seriously against the Christian enemies of Islam. This Hamdanid-Byzantine conflict may be considered a signifi- cant chapter in the prehistory of the Crusades. As a warrior the Hamdanid prince had a worthy peer in the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus, with whom the historians record about ten engagements. Success was not always on Sayf's side. In 962 he even temporarily lost his own capital after a brief siege in which his palace, symbol of his glory, was destroyed. His death in 967 terminated a reign more noteworthy for its cultural brilliance than for its mundane achievements.
Sayf surrounded himself in his gorgeous palace with a circle of literary and artistic talent that could hardly be matched except by that of the Baghdad caliphs in their heyday. It comprised the renowned philosopher and musician al-Farabi, the distinguished historian of Arabic literature al-Isbahani, the eloquent preacher ibn-Nubatah, the philologist ibn-Khalawayh, the grammarian ibn-Jinni, the warrior-poet abu-Firas and, above all, the illustrious bard al-Mutanabbi.
Al-Mutanabbi (915-965) received his surname (prophecy claimant) because in his youth he claimed the gift of prophecy, attempted an imitation of the Koran and was followed by a number of admirers. The Ikhshidid governor of Horns cast him into prison, where he remained for almost two years and from which he went out cured of his prophetic illusion but not of his vanity, self-assertiveness and self- admiration, which accompanied him throughout his life. Born in Kufah, he roamed about in quest of a patron and settled in Aleppo as the laureate of Sayf-al-Dawlah; the two names have ever since remained inseparably linked. Outstanding among his odes are those depicting the glories of Sayf's campaigns against the Byzantines. It is a question whether or not those panegyrics did not contribute more than the exploits themselves to making Sayf the myth he is in Arabic annals. In them the poet appears as the con- summate phrase-maker in the Arabic language. He later got into a dispute and deserted Aleppo for the court of Kafur, whom he first praised and later — disappointed in his hopes for high office — ridiculed in verses which almost every school child in the Arab world today commits to memory. In places the Mutanabbi style appears bombastic and ornate, the rhetoric florid and the metaphor overdone — but not to the Easterner. Such is the hold that this poet has had upon the imagination of generations of Arabic- speakers that he is still generally considered the greatest in Islam. In him and his two predecessors, abu-Tammam and al-Buhturi, Arabic poetry reached its full maturity. With few exceptions the decline after al-Mutanabbi was steady.
Of the rest of Sayf's circle two deserve special mention. Al-Isbahani (897-967) compiled the monumental Kitab al- Aghani, a twenty- volume treasury of Arab songs and anec- dotes. His senior al-Farabi (870-950) was one of the earliest Moslem thinkers to attempt a harmonization of Greek philosophy and Islam. His system was a syncretism of Aristotelianism, Platonism and Sufism. He became in effect the intellectual ancestor of all other subsequent Moslem philosophers. In addition he was the greatest of all Arabic musical theorists.
Sayf was succeeded by his son Sharif, called Sad-al- Dawlah (967-991), but his authority was disputed by his cousin, the poet abu-Firas, who claimed Horns until he was slain. Internal discord enabled Nicephorus to capture Aleppo, Antioch and Horns (968) and to impose an ephemeral Byzantine suzerainty over the Hamdanid realm. Aleppo was lost to the Hamdanids only until 975, but Antioch remained in Byzantine hands for over a century (968-1084). Nicephorus's successor, John Tzimisces, in 974 reduced not only the coastal towns from Latakia to Beirut but such inland places as Baalbek. Warfare with the Byzantines continued sporadically throughout Sad's reign, but his son Said-al-Dawlah (991-1001) appealed for Byzantine aid against the Fatimids, then seeking to control all of Syria. The emperor Basil rushed with 17,000 men to Aleppo and the enemy withdrew for the time being, though later Said had to acknowledge Fatimid suzerainty. Being young he had over him a regent whose daughter he married. The regent now coveted the throne for himself and disposed of both his son-in-law and daughter by poison. For two years after that he held the regency in the name of the Fatimid caliphs over Said's sons. In 1003 he sent the two young princes to Cairo with the Hamdanid harem and appointed his own son co-regent. Thus ended the life-cycle of the Hamdanid dynasty, which did not differ in essence—except for its Arabian origin—from that of its two predecessors, the Ikhshidids and the Tulunids. A dominant leader carves out a principality for himself, is followed by incompetent successors; the state moneys are squandered; discord within and foes without bring the story to an end. In this case the munificence of Sayf in his patronage of science and art was the first great drain on the treasury.