leader of the Ḵorramdīnī or Ḵorramī uprising in Azerbaijan in the early 9th century (d. 838), which engaged the forces of the caliph for 20 years before it was crushed in 837.


BĀBAK ḴORRAMĪ (d. Ṣafar, 223/January, 838), leader of the Ḵorramdīnī or Ḵorramī uprising in Azerbaijan in the early 3rd/9th century which engaged the forces of the caliph for twenty years before it was crushed in 222/837.

The fullest account of Bābak’s career comes from a lost Aḵbār Bābak by Wāqed b. ʿAmr Tamīmī, which is quoted in the Fehrest of Ebn al-Nadīm (ed. Flügel, pp. 406-07) and was probably used by Maqdesī (Badʾ VI, pp. 114-18; see Sadighi, p. 234). Other accounts are less detailed and show variations.

The name Bābak is found in all the sources, but Masʿūdī also says that “Bābak’s name was Ḥasan” (Morūj 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 (Samʿānī, ed. Margoliouth, fol. 56a); ʿAbd-Allāh, a native of Madāʾen (Fehrest, p. 406); Maṭar, a vagabond (men al-ṣaʿālīk; Ṭabarī, III, p. 1232); and ʿĀmer b. Aḥad from the Sawād region who had gone to Ardabīl (Abu’l-Maʿālī, chap. 5). According to Wāqed, however, ʿAbd-Allāh, Bābak’s father, was a cooking-oil vendor who had left his home town Madāʾen for the Azerbaijan frontier zone and settled in the village of Belālābād in the Maymaḏ district. His mother, according to Faṣīḥ (I, p. 283), was a one-eyed woman named Māhrū from a village in a district belonging to Azerbaijan. On the one hand the stories about ʿAbd-Allāh and Maṭar may imply that Bābak’s father had an illicit relationship with this woman, but on the other hand Dīnavarī (p. 397) asserts: “What seems to us to be true and proven is that Bābak was a son of Moṭahhar, the son of Abū Moslem’s daughter Fāṭema, and that the Fāṭemīya group of the Ḵorramīs took their name from this Fāṭema, not from Fāṭema the daughter of God’s Prophet.” In Masʿūdī’s Morūj (ed. Pellat, IV, p. 144, sec. 2398) Bābak is described simply as one of the Fāṭemīya group of the Ḵorramīs.

In most of these accounts, other than Dīnavarī’s, a note of sarcasm and hostility can be perceived. Our information about Bābak and his revolt comes almost entirely from adversaries. Merdās is the name of Żaḥḥāk’s father in Ferdowsī’s Šāh-nāma, probably meaning “man-eater” (mard-ās; see R. Roth, “Die Sage von Dschemschid,” ZDMG 4, 1850, pp. 417-33, esp. p. 423), however, this view was rejected by Nöldeke, who considered Merdās to be the same as Arabic Merdās (see Zereklī and Dehḵodā, s.v. Merdās); its attribution to Bābak may be a disguised reference to his and his henchmen’s readiness to kill their enemies (Zarrīnkūb, 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 Abū Moslem, considered probable by Dīnavarī, was a fact or a pretense designed by Bābak (as by other rebel leaders) to gain support among people who cherished Abū Moslem’s memory (Ḡ.-Ḥ. Yūsofī, Abū Moslem, sardār-e Ḵorāsān, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966, pp. 175-78, 165f.), or whether it was subsequently invented to argue a link between Abū Moslem’s and Bābak’s revolts or to explain the Ḵorramī veneration for Abū Moslem (cf. Neẓām-al-Molk, pp. 359, 367-68). Dīnavarī’s mention of a Ḵorramī group named Fāṭemīya after Abū Moslem’s daughter and of Bābak’s membership of it is repeated in Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād (X, p. 207; see also Madelung, pp. 63-64, 65; Amoretti, pp. 503ff.).

According to Wāqed, Bābak’s father, after the birth of Bābak, 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 Bābak worked as a cowherd until he was twelve years old. We are told that one afternoon his mother saw Bābak 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; Maqdesī, Badʾ VI, pp. 114f.; ʿAwfī, pt. 1, chap. 5). Wāqed adds that Bābak in his youth worked as a groom and servant for Šebl b. Monaqqī (Moṯannā ?) at the village of Sarāt (Sarāb ?) and learned to play the tanbūr (drum or mandolin). This must be the source of the statement by Abu’l-Maʿālī (chap. 5, p. 299) that Bābak used to play the tanbūr and sing songs for the people while working as a fruit vendor in the village. When he had grown up he went to Tabrīz, where he spent two years in the service of Moḥammad b. Rawwād Azdī before returning at the age of eighteen to his home at Belālābād.

Wāqed’s account of what happened next is, in summary, as follows. Two rich men named Jāvīdān b. Šahrak (or Sahrak) and Abū ʿEmrān were then living in the highland around the mountain of Baḏḏ and contending for the leadership of the highland’s Ḵorramī inhabitants. Jāvīdān, when stuck in the snow on his way back from Zanjān to Baḏḏ, had to seek shelter at Belālābād 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. Jāvīdān then sent Bābak to buy food, wine, and fodder. When Bābak came back and spoke to Jāvīdān, he impressed Jāvīdān with his shrewdness despite his lack of fluency of speech. Jāvīdān 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. It must have been then that he joined the Ḵorramīs.

In the Fehrest and elsewhere, Jāvīdān b. Šahrak is said to have been Bābak’s teacher. From 192/807-08 until 201/816-17 he led a Ḵorramī group named Jāvīdanī after him (Yaʿqūbī, Boldān, p. 272; Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, pp. 321-22; Ebn al-Aṯīr, repr., VI, p. 328; Ebn al-ʿEbrī (Bar Hebraeus), p. 139; Ebn Ḵaldūn, events of 201/817; Faṣīḥ, I, p. 270; see also G. Flügel, p. 539 nn. 2, 3, and Sadighi, pp. 107ff.).

Sometime after Bābak’s entry into Jāvīdān’s service, the rival chieftain Abū ʿEmrān sallied forth from his mountain stronghold against Jāvīdān and was defeated and killed, but Jāvīdān died three days after the battle from a wound. Some of the writers allege that Jāvīdān’s wife was already enamored of Bābak, who is said to have been a handsome lad with a good voice (Abu’l-Maʿālī, chap. 5, p. 300). This allegation may have its root in the marriage of the two after Jāvīdān’s death (see Sadighi, p. 244). The woman told Bābak 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 Bābak as Jāvīdān’s successor, who would restore the religion of Mazdak and lead the community to triumph and prosperity. On the following day Bābak appeared before Jāvīdān’s assembled warriors and followers. When they asked why Jāvīdān 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 Jāvīdān’s instructions, she said that according to Jāvīdān’s last testament the night before, his soul would upon his death enter Bābak’s body and fuse with his soul (the Ḵorramīs believed in the transmigration of souls, see Ḵorramdīnān), and that anyone contesting this testament should be excommunicated. All those present acknowledged Jāvīdān’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 Bābak’s soul as they had given to Jāvīdān’s soul. Then Jāvīdān’s widow married Bābak 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 Bābak’s revolt in general, see Amoretti, pp. 517-18, 508). Abū’l-Maʿālī (chap. 5, p. 300) alleges that the woman poisoned Jāvīdān, while Ṭabarī (III, p. 1192) and Ebn al-Aṯīr (VI, p. 459) state that Jāvīdān had a son (Ebn Jāvīdān) whom the Muslims had captured and later released; Sadighi (pp. 244-45) wonders why this son was not chosen to succeed Jāvīdān. Wāqed and Ṭabarī depict Bābak as low-born, but Bābak’s reply to his son’s letter after his escape, and the words of his brother ʿAbd-Allāh to Ebn Šarvīn Ṭabarī, the officer appointed to take him to Baghdad (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1221, 1223), suggest that they were of noble family (Sadighi, pp. 239-41).

Bābak must have absorbed ideas and beliefs current among the Ḵorramīs after his entry into Jāvīdān’s service and adhesion to the sect. The epithet Ḵorramī or Ḵorramdīn given to Bābak in the sources denotes membership of this sect. The name has been explained as referring to Ḵorrama, the wife of Mazdak (Sīāsat-nāma, p. 319; Mojmal al-tāwārīḵ, p. 354) or to a village named Ḵorram near Ardabīl (surmise of Naṣr quoted by Yāqūt, Moʿjam II, p. 362), but these attributions are questionable. Other writers take ḵorram to be the adjective normally meaning “verdant” or “joyous” and interpret it as “permissive” or “libertine.” Ḵorramdīn appears to be a compound analogous to dorostdīn (orthodox) and Behdīn (“Zoroastrian”; see Sadighi, p. 195; Nafīsī, 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 Ḵorramdīn appears to confirm the assertion in several sources that the sect was an offshoot of Mazdakism (Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 322; Fehrest, pp. 405-06; Sīāsat-nāma, p. 319; Mojmal, pp. 353-54; Abu’l-Maʿālī, chap. 5, p. 300; see also Sadighi, pp. 187f., 197; Yarshater, pp. 1003-04; and Nafīsī, p. 21). Many modern scholars regard them as “neo-Mazdakites” (e.g., Madelung, p. 64; Amoretti, p. 503; Yarshater, p. 1011; Zarrīnkūb, 1343 Š./1964, p. 544). Under Bābak’s leadership the Ḵorramīs, who are described as having been before Bābak’s time peaceful farmers, refraining from killing or harming other people (Maqdesī, Badʾ IV, pp. 30-31; Fehrest, p. 406; ʿAwfī, pt. 1, chap. 5), changed into militants eager to fight and kill, to seize or destroy villages, and to raid caravans (Dīnavarī, p. 397; Ṭabarī, s.a. 220/835; Abu’l-Maʿālī, chap. 5). Bābak incited his followers to hate the Arabs and rise in rebellion against the caliphal regime. The reports state that Bābak called men 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 Ḵorramīs scattered in Isfahan, Azerbaijan, Ray, Hamadān, Armenia, Gorgān, and elsewhere, and there had been some earlier Ḵorramī revolts, e.g., in Gorgān jointly with Red Banner (Sorḵ-ʿalamān) Bāṭenīs in the caliph Mahdī’s reign in 162/778-79, when ʿAmr b. ʿAlāʾ, the governor of Ṭabarestān, was ordered to repulse them, and at Isfahan, Ray, Hamadān, and elsewhere in Hārūn al-Rašīd’s realm, when ʿAbd-Allāh b. Mālek and Abū Dolaf ʿEjlī put them down on the caliph’s behalf (Sīāsat-nāma, pp. 359-60; Faṣīḥ, I, pp. 230-31; cf. Madelung, p. 64; Amoretti, pp. 504-05); but none had the scale and duration of Bābak’s revolt, which pinned down caliphal armies for twenty years. After his emergence, the Ḵorramī movement was centered in Azerbaijan and reinforced with volunteers from elsewhere, probably including descendants of Abū Moslem’s supporters and other enemies of the ʿAbbasid caliphate. The figures given for the strength of Bābak’s army, such as 100,000 men (Abu’l-Maʿālī), 200,000 (Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 323), or innumerable (Tabṣerat al-ʿawāmm, p. 184; Baḡdādī, p. 267) are doubtless highly exaggerated but at least indicate that it was large.

In most of the sources the start of Bābak’s revolt is placed in the year 201/816-17 in al-Maʾmūn’s reign, when the Ḵorramīs began to infiltrate neighboring districts and create insecurity in Azerbaijan. On or before that date, according to some sources, Ḥātem b. Harṯama, the governor of Armenia, learned that his father Harṯama b. Aʿyan had, despite loyal service to al-Maʾmūn, been flogged and imprisoned on the caliph’s order and been killed in prison at the behest of the minister Fażl b. Sahl (Ṭabarī, II, p. 1026). Ḥātem b. Harṯama therefore planned to rebel and wrote letters to local commanders urging them to defy al-Maʾmūn, but at this juncture he died. One of those to whom he wrote was Bābak (or probably Jāvīdān), who was greatly encouraged thereby (Ebn Qotayba, p. 198; Yaʿqūbī, II, p. 563; Sadighi, p. 238 n. 3).

Al-Maʾmūn at first paid scant attention to Bābak’s revolt, evidently because he was living in distant Khorasan and preoccupied with matters such as the designation of his successor, the actions of Fażl b. Sahl, and the backlash at Baghdad. Thus contemporary circumstances as well as popular dislike of Arab rule favored Bābak and his followers.

In 204/819-20 al-Maʾmūn moved to Iraq, and after dealing with the dissidents at Baghdad, he sent Yaḥyā b. Moʿāḏ to subdue Bābak’s revolt. This general fought Bābak in several battles but without success. Thereafter al-Maʾmūn showed more concern and regularly dispatched well-armed forces to Azerbaijan. In 205/820-21 ʿĪsā b. Moḥammad b. Abī Ḵāled was appointed governor of Armenia and Azerbaijan with responsibility for operations against Bābak, but his force was caught and smashed by Bābak’s men in a narrow defile. ʿĪsā either ran for his life or was killed by Bābak (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1072). In 209/824-25 al-Maʾmūn chose Zorayq b. ʿAlī b. Ṣadaqa (Ṣadaqa b. ʿAlī in Ṭabarī, ʿAlī b. Ṣadaqa known as Zorayq according to Ebn al-Aṯīr) to govern Armenia and Azerbaijan and organize the war, and put Aḥmad b. Jonayd Eskāfī in command of an expedition against Bābak. Aḥmad b. Jonayd was taken prisoner by Bābak while Zorayq failed to prosecute the war, and al-Maʾmūn then put Ebrāhīm b. Layṯ b. Fażl in charge. In 212/827-28 the caliph sent a force under Moḥammad b. Ḥomayd Ṭūsī to punish Zorayq, who had rebelled, and to subdue Bābak. 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 Bābak. In the contest between them, which, went on for six months, Moḥammad b. Ḥomayd won several victories, but in the last battle in 214/829 his troops, who in compliance with his strategy had advanced three parasangs into the mountains, were attacked in a steep pass by Bābak’s men, who rushed down from an ambush higher up; the troops then fled, leaving behind only Moḥammad b. Ḥomayd and some officers, who were all killed. The death of this general prompted poetic laments such as a qaṣīda by Abū Tammām, two verses from which are quoted in Dīnavarī (p. 398). From the statements of Ṭabarī (s.a. 214/829), Yaʿqūbī, and others it appears that al-Maʾmūn then either appointed ʿAbd-Allāh b. Ṭāher to the governorship of Jebāl, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, 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 (Sīāsat-nāma, p. 361) he first sent a force against Bābak, who took refuge in a castle. The caliph appointed ʿAlī b. Hešām, the governor of Jebāl, Qom, Isfahan, and Azerbaijan, with the responsibility to lead the operations against Bābak; allegedly he oppressed the inhabitants, killing men and confiscating properties, and even planned to kill al-Maʾmūn’s emissary ʿOjayf b. ʿAnbasa and then to join Bābak; but he was arrested by ʿOjayf and delivered to al-Maʾmūn, who ordered his execution in 217/832 (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1108f.). Al-Maʾmūn then entrusted the governorship of Jebāl and conduct of operations against the Ḵorramīs to Ṭāher b. Ebrāhīm. For the time being, however, the caliph’s campaign against the Byzantines precluded large-scale action against the Ḵorramī rebels, who gained further ground. Al-Maʾmūn died on the campaign in 218/833. His moves against Bābak had failed, but his concern with the problem is revealed in his testamentary advice to his successor al-Moʿtaṣem in which al-Maʾmūn exhorts him not to spare any effort or resources to crush Bābak’s revolt (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1138).

The persistence of Bābak’s revolt and the failure of the caliphal generals and expeditionary forces to quell it had various reasons. His stronghold Baḏḏ was situated in impenetrable mountains with intricate defiles and passes, where, according to Baḷʿamī (see Kāmbaḵš Fard, Barrasīhā-ye tārīḵī 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 Baḏḏ impossible in winter. Often Bābak used his positional advantage to surprise the enemy and kill large numbers of them. While Baḷʿamī and others describe Bābak’s following as made up of local farmers and poor people, several writers call them “thieves, heretics, and profligates” (ʿAwfī, pt. 1, chap. 5). It can be inferred that Bābak won wide support among peasants and poor villagers of the Azerbaijan highlands 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 Archeology Department has identified the site with ruins (called Qaḷʿa-ye Jomhūr, probably after the surrounding Jomhūr 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 Qarasū 3 km southwest of the village of Kalībar (Report of the Department’s mission in the summer of 1345 Š./1966). Aḥmad Kasrawī’s researches had already pointed to the site near Kalībar (Šahrīārān-e gomnām, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1335 Š./1956, p. 149). The remains consisting of fortifications and a large building rest on a mountaintop 2,300-2,600 m 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 Kāmbaḵš Fard, “Qaḷʿa-ye Jomhūr ya Dež-e Baḏḏ,” Honar o mardom 50, Āḏar, 1345 Š./November-December, 1966, pp. 2-6; Barrasīhā-ye tārīḵī 1/4, pp. 3-18 and plates 2, 4, 5, 9, 11; Torbatī Ṭabāṭabāʾī, pp. 466-71; Flügel, p. 539 n. 1; Nafīsī, pp. 37-39; Abū Dolaf Mesʿar b. Mohalhel Ḵazrajī, al-Resāla al-ṯānīa, ed. V. Minorsky, Cairo, 1955, p. 6; for further details see Baḏḏ).

Bābak’s hand was greatly strengthened by his possession of this inaccessible mountain stronghold, to which the Arabic poet Boḥtorī, amongst others, refers in verses quoted by Yāqūt (I, p. 361). Baḏḏ was not Bābak’s only castle, however, as there are mentions of several others, some of which can be identified with surviving ruins (Nafīsī, pp. 69-71; Ṭabāṭabāʾī, pp. 472-75). At that time there were Ḵorramīs scattered in many regions besides Azerbaijan, reportedly in Ṭabarestān, Khorasan, Balḵ, Isfahan, Kāšān, Qom, Ray, Karaj, Hamadān, Lorestān, Ḵūzestān, Baṣra, and Armenia (Nafīsī, pp. 32-33). According to the Fehrest (pp. 405-06) and Masʿūdī (Tanbīh, p. 322), Bābak’s sway at the height of his career extended “southward to near Ardabīl and Marand, eastward to the Caspian Sea and the Šamāḵī district and Šervān, northward to the Mūqān (Moḡān) steppe and the Aras river bank, westward to the districts of Jolfā, Naḵjavān, and Marand” (see Nafīsī, p. 36 and map).

The Ḵorramī danger was thus a matter of a grave concern to al-Moʿtaṣem on his accession to the caliphate in Rajab, 218/August, 833, and all the more so when later in the same year a large number of men from Jebāl, Hamadān, and Isfahan went over to the Ḵorramī and encamped near Hamadān. To deal with them al-Moʿtaṣem sent a force under Esḥāq b. Ebrāhīm b. Moṣʿab, who was also made governor of Jebāl. In the subsequent battle near Hamadān several thousand (60,000 in Ṭabarī and Ebn al-Aṯīr) Ḵorramīs were killed, but a large number escaped to Byzantine territory, whence they came back later to resume their fight (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1165; Ebn al-Aṯīr, VI, p. 441; Sīāsat-nāma, pp. 362-63). In Jomādā I, 219/May, 834 many Ḵorramī prisoners were brought by Esḥāq b. Ebrāhīm to Baghdad (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1166; Ebn al-Aṯīr, VI, p. 444). Bābak’s revolt, however, was still in full swing, and the slaughter of so many Ḵorramīs seems to have strengthened his men’s will to fight. In 220/835 al-Moʿtaṣem placed Ḥaydar b. Kāvūs Afšīn, a senior general and a son of the vassal prince of Osrūšana, in command of an expedition to destroy Bābak. According to most of the sources, al-Moʿtaṣem not only made Afšīn governor of Azerbaijan and seconded high-ranking officers to serve under him, but also ordered exceptionally large salaries, expense allowances, and rations for him; Afšīn 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 Sāmarrā and the Ḥolwān (now Pā-ye Ṭāq) pass and beyond Ḥolwān as far as Azerbaijan 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 (ḵarīṭa) and carry it to the next station; in this way the pouches were carried from Afšīn’s camp to Sāmarrā in four days or less (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1229).

Before Afšīn’s departure, al-Moʿtaṣem had sent Abū Saʿīd Moḥammad b. Yūsof Marvazī to Ardabīl with instructions to rebuild the forts between Zanjān and Ardabīl which Bābak had demolished and to make the roads safe by posting guards. Abū Saʿīd Moḥammad set about these tasks. A band of mounted Ḵorramī led by a certain Moʿāwīa broke into one sector, intending to surprise Abū Saʿīd Moḥammad with a night attack, but Abū Saʿīd Moḥammad and his soldiers got word and blocked Moʿāwīa’s way; in the ensuing fight some Ḵorramīs were killed, others were captured, and the skulls and the prisoners were sent to Baghdad. Ṭabarī (III, p. 1171; cf. Ebn al-Aṯīr, VI, p. 447) records this as Bābak’s first defeat. A later incident also boded ill for Bābak. Previously Moḥammad b. Boʿayṯ, the lord of a strong castle named Qaḷʿa-ye Šāhī, had been well-disposed to Bābak and willing to accommodate his men when they came to the neighborhood; but when Bābak sent a company under a captain named ʿEṣma, Moḥammad b. Boʿayṯ first made them drunk, then threw ʿEṣma into chains and enticed the men one by one into the castle and killed most of them, only a few being able to escape. ʿEṣma was sent to al-Moʿtaṣem, who before jailing him obtained useful information from him about Bābak’s territory and tactics and about tracks in the area (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1172; Ebn al-Aṯīr, VI, pp. 447-48).

On arriving in Azerbaijan, Afšīn camped at a place on the Ardabīl road called Barzand at a distance of 15 parasangs from Ardabīl (Eṣṭaḵrī, p. 192; Moqaddasī, pp. 378, 381; Yāqūt, I, p. 382; Nozhat al-qolūb, pp. 90, 182). He repaired the forts between Barzand and Ardabīl and made traffic possible by providing road guards, caravan escorts, and halting places. He also spent a month at Ardabīl gathering knowledge of the topography and tracks from informants and spies. If he caught any of Bābak’s spies, he pardoned them and paid them to spy for him at twice the rate that Bābak had paid. One such intelligence report was that Bābak knew that al-Moʿtaṣem had sent Boḡā 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. Afšīn used this information to lure Bābak into a full engagement, in which many of Bābak’s comrades were killed. Bābak himself got away to the Mūqān plain and thence to Baḏḏ (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1174-78; Ebn al-Aṯīr, VI, pp. 449-51).

When Bābak came under attack from Afšīn’s army, he is said to have written a letter to the Byzantine emperor Theophilus (r. 829-42), begging him to lead an expedition into Azerbaijan; but Theophilus’s march into caliphal territory with a force including fugitive Ḵorramīs did not take place until after the capture and execution of Bābak in 223/838; the authenticity of Bābak’s letter is open to question (Sadighi, p. 257 n. 3). Details of numerous engagements between Bābak’s men and Afšīn’s troops before the fall of Baḏḏ are given by Ṭabarī and Ebn al-Aṯīr (s.a. 220/835-222/837) and recapitulated by Nafīsī (pp. 97-117). Also mentioned are various precautions which Afšīn 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-Moʿtaṣem 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-Moʿtaṣem dispatched Jaʿfar Dīnār known as Ḵayyāṭ (the Tailor), who had been a senior general in al-Maʾmūn’s reign, and Aytāḵ the Turk, a slave-soldier who superintended the caliphal kitchen, with reinforcements and money for Afšīn and also several ass-loads of iron spikes to be strewn around the camp as a precaution against night raids. When Bābak heard of the arrival of Jaʿfar and Aytāḵ, he is said to have informed Theophilus, “Moʿtaṣem has no one else left, so he has sent his tailor and his cook to fight me” (Sadighi, p. 257). Bābak and his men remained in control of the highland and with their ambushes and surprise attacks, often frustrated Afšīn’s plans. They repeatedly captured supplies which Afšīn had ordered from Marāḡa and Šervān. Afšīn’s tactics were to lure Bābak’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 Bābak. More encounters took place with heavy losses to both sides and finally Afšīn reached the mountain facing the gate of Baḏḏ and camped there, only a mile away. Bābak, losing hope, came out to meet him and requested a safe-conduct from the caliph. According to Yaʿqūbī (Taʾrīḵ II, pp. 578f.), Afšīn refused, but when Afšīn demanded hostages, Bābak offered his son or others of his followers and asked Afšīn to restrain the troops from attacking. By then, however, fierce fighting with the castle’s defenders had started, and in the end Afšīn’s troops scaled the walls of Baḏḏ and hoisted their flags. Afšīn entered the castle and had it demolished after it had been plundered (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1233-34; Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, pp. 93, l60). Many of Bābak’s men scattered in the mountains and escaped. Bābak, together with some members of his family and a few of his warriors, slipped away by mountain tracks, heading for Armenia. Baḏḏ fell on 9 Ramażān 222/15 August 837.

Afšīn, who had already dispatched a request to the caliph for a safe-conduct for Bābak, learned from spies that Bābak and his party were hiding in a forest-covered valley on the Azerbaijan-Armenian border, and he proceeded to blockade the area. When the caliph’s safe-conduct arrived, Afšīn commissioned two Ḵorramīs to carry it to Bābak together with a letter from Bābak’s son, who had been taken prisoner. Bābak rejected the document without opening it, and after sending the messengers away fled to Armenia with four or five male and female members of his family and one bodyguard. All except Bābak and his brother ʿAbd-Allāh and the guard were captured. Being close to starvation, Bābak sent the guard to a village to get food. The local ruler, Sahl b. Sonbāṭ (on whom see Nafīsī, pp. 135, 138, 175-76) was informed and received Bābak hospitably. Bābak, however, took the precaution of sending his brother ʿAbd-Allāh to ʿĪsā b. Yūsof b. Eṣṭefānūs (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1223-24). Afšīn had already sent letters to the district promising a large reward for the capture of Bābak, and Sahl b. Sonbāṭ informed Afšīn of Bābak’s presence. After verifying this, Afšīn sent a large force under Abū Saʿīd Moḥammad b. Yūsof to capture Bābak. He was arrested after going out at Sahl b. Sonbāṭ’s suggestion to hunt (after being put in irons by Sahl b. Sonbāṭ according to Masʿūdī, Morūj, ed. Pellat, sec. 2807) and then taken to Afšīn’s camp at Barzand on 10 Šawwāl 222/15 September 837. Many stories about Bābak’s escape and adventures have come down (see Sadighi, p. 265 n. 3). According to Ṭabarī, 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 ʿAbbasids whose flag was black (Sadighi, p. 264 n. 4). Afšīn also found out where Bābak’s brother ʿAbd-Allāh had escaped and wrote to ʿĪsā b. Yūsof b. Eṣṭefānūs, who handed him over. Afšīn reported his success (by pigeon post according to Masʿūdī’s Morūj, ed. Pellat, sec. 2809) to al-Moʿtaṣem, who in reply ordered him to bring the captives forthwith to Sāmarrā. Allegations that Afšīn deceived Bābak with conciliatory messages and feigned friendship (Nafīsī, pp. 66, 68; Zarrīnkūb, 1355, pp. 247-48; Dāʾerat al-maʿāref-e fārsī, s.v. Bābak) appear to derive from rumors that Afšīn was already in secret contact with anti-ʿAbbasid leaders such as Bābak and the ruler of Ṭabarestān, Māzyār b. Qāren, and perhaps also with the Byzantine emperor Theophilus. Another conjecture is that Afšīn sacrificed Bābak because he was afraid of being supplanted as commander of the anti-Ḵorramī expedition by his Taherid rivals (Nafīsī, p. 68).

Large numbers of men, women, and children from Bābak’s side fell into Afšīn’s hands, figures from 1,300 to 7,600 being mentioned (Ṭabarī, 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 Bābak and Bābak’s brother and some Ḵorramī prisoners for al-Moʿtaṣem’s capital Sāmarrā. (On the question why Afšīn remained in Azerbaijan for almost four months after the capture of Bābak, see Sadighi, p. 268.) They arrived on Thursday, or Wednesday night, 3 Ṣafar 223/4 January 838. Al-Wāṯeq, the heir to the throne, and other relatives of al-Moʿtaṣem as well as senior dignitaries went out at the caliph’s command to meet Afšīn. Bayhaqī (2nd ed., pp. 168-69) tells how the minister Ḥasan b. Sahl, like several dignitaries, was reluctant to dismount and salute Afšīn but dared not disobey the caliph’s command. Afšīn camped at Maṭīra (or at Qāṭūl five parasangs from Sāmarrā), and it is related that first the qāżī Aḥmad b. Abī Doʾād, then al-Moʿtaṣem himself went to the camp secretly in their impatience for a glimpse of Bābak (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1229-30; Masʿūdī, Morūj, ed. Pellat, sec. 2809), a story which, if true, shows what a relief Bābak’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, 6 Ṣafar 223/7 January 838, in which Bābak, clad in an embroidered cloak and capped with a miter, was made to ride on an elephant which had been given to al-Maʾmūn by an Indian king, while his brother, ʿAbd-Allāh, also specially clad and capped, was mounted on a camel. Two verses of Moḥammad b. ʿAbd-al-Malek Zayyāt about this elephant are quoted by Ṭabarī (see Sadighi, p. 266 n. 2). The whole length of the street to the Bāb al-ʿĀmma was lined on both sides with cavalrymen and foot soldiers and huge numbers of people. Then al-Moʿtaṣem ordered the executioner to proceed. First Bābak’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 Sāmarrā. According to some sources his head was later sent around for display in other cities and in Khorasan. Bābak was hanged in the same place that afterwards Māzyār b. Qāren, the rebel prince of Ṭabarestān, and Yāṭas Rūmī, the patricius of Amorium who had died in prison, were hanged; this is the subject of a poem by Abū Tammām quoted in Masʿūdī’s Morūj (ed. Pellat, sec. 2821). Bābak’s brother ʿAbd-Allāh was sent to Baghdad, where he was similarly executed and gibbeted by Esḥāq b. Ebrāhīm Moṣʿabī. According to some authors (e.g., Neẓām-al-Molk, Sīāsat-nāma, pp. 365-66), when one of Bābak’s hands had been cut off, he made his face red by smearing blood on it with his other hand, and when al-Moʿtaṣem 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 poet ʿAṭṭār, however, attributes this gesture to the crucified mystic Ḥosayn b. Manṣūr Ḥallāj (Manṭeq al-ṭayr, ed. M. J. Maškūr, Tabrīz, 1336 Š./1957, pp. 156-57). A different story about Bābak’s words to al-Moʿtaṣem appears in ʿAwfī’s Jawāmeʿ al-ḥekāyāt (pt. 1, chap. 5). Bābak’s brother ʿAbd-Allāh, according to Ṭabarī, met his death with similar calm assurance (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1231).

The cruelty of these killings as well as the enormous favor that al-Moʿtaṣem lavished upon Afšīn (daily dispatch of horses and robes of honor on his way back from Barzand, gifts of a crown and jeweled 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 Bābak’s revolt. Among the court poets who lauded the victory of Afšīn and received rewards from al-Moʿtaṣem were Esḥāq b. Ḵalaf (quoted in Dīnavarī, p. 399) and Abū Tammām Ṭāʾī, whose poem likened Afšīn to Ferēdūn and Bābak to Żaḥḥāk (Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 93). According to Masʿūdī (Morūj, ed. Pellat, sec. 2815) al-Moʿtaṣem gave Otroja, the daughter of a high-ranking Turkish officer named Ašnās, in marriage to Afšīn’s son Ḥasan and laid on a splendid wedding party. Ḥasan b. Sonbāṭ was rewarded by the caliph with a gift of 100,000 dirhams, a jeweled belt, and the crown of a patricius, and his son Moʿāwīa also received 100,000 dirhams. Neẓām-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-Moʿtaṣem’s reign.

The number of Bābak’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 Bābak 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 (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1233; Maqdesī, VI, p. 114; Sadighi, p. 271) is obviously an exaggeration, no doubt intended to impute cruelty and bloodthirstiness to Bābak. All the accounts of Bābak are biased, some begin with curses on him (e.g. Sayyed Mortażā, p. 184; Mostawfī, Tārīḵ-egozīda, p. 316). Eṣṭaḵrī (p. 203) and Ebn Ḥawqal (p. 266) state that Ḵorramīs recited the Koran in mosques, but authors such as Baḡdādī (p. 269) describe this as a ruse to conceal disbelief under the pretense of being Muslim. Ḵorramī libertinism has probably also been exaggerated (Madelung, p. 65); for example, the public appearance of Bābak and Jāvīdān’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 Bābak and his followers can be taken as certain or trustworthy. All considered, it may be said that Bābak’s motives and actions were anti-caliphal, anti-Arab, and to that extent anti-Muslim (Ṭabarī, 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 Bābak, drew their support, and perhaps also to a desire to return to the past. Bābak’s aims, however, were clearly not shared by the Iranian princes and nobles like Afšīn (except Māzyār), being incompatible with their ambition to regain power and wealth (Zarrīnkūb, 1355, p. 232). Most of them, including Afšīn who was one of their number, supported the caliph’s action against Bābak. Modern scholars such as Sadighi (p. 229) and G. E. von Grunebaum (Medieval Islam, Chicago, 1961, p. 205) regard Bābak’s revolt as a politico-religious movement, and Nafīsī, J. Homāʾī (in Mehr 3, p. 159), and Ḏ. Ṣafā have laid stress on its nationalistic aspect. Bābak’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. 268-72). Ṭabarī states that none of the Ḵorramīs dared obey Afšīn’s order to take the caliph’s safe-conduct to Bābak and that when Afšīn’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. Sonbāṭ about the need to send away his brother ʿAbd-Allāh, he said, according to Ṭabarī, “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 Bābak sent his brother away when he himself took refuge with Sahl b. Sonbāṭ implies Bābak’s hope for the continuation of the movement. Ṭabarī also states that Afšīn, when about to leave Azerbaijan, asked Bābak whether he would like anything before their departure, and Bābak replied that he would like to see his own town again. He was sent to Baḏḏ with some guards on a moonlight night and allowed to walk around the town. This gives proof of his great love for his homeland. In the same context Ṭabarī has a story that Afšīn granted a request from Bābak to spare him from surveillance by the appointed guard-officer, because this officer “was slippery-handed and slept beside him and stank unbearably.” The statements of Ṭabarī (III, pp. 1177, 1205) and Ebn al-Aṯīr (s.a. 220/835 and 222/837) about Ḵorramī merry-making and wine drinking even in wartime confirm one of the sect’s reputed characteristics (see Amoretti, p. 517), but their tales of Bābak’s promiscuity and abduction of pretty Armenian girls seem inconsistent with another statement of Ṭabarī (III, p. 1227) that the women wept when they saw Bābak captive in Afšīn’s camp.

The excitement over the fighting and the defeat of Bābak is echoed in contemporary Arabic literature, e.g., a verse description of Bābak on the gibbet quoted by Rāḡeb Eṣfahānī (Moḥāżarāt al-odabāʾ, Beirut, 1961, III, p. 199), poems by Abū Moḥammad Esḥāq b. Ebrāhīm Mawṣelī (155/172-235/850) in praise of Esḥāq b. Ebrāhīm Moṣʿabī (see Ḥoṣrī Qayrawānī, Zahr al-ādāb, Cairo, III, pp. 13-14), the odes in Abū Tammām’s dīvān, also his invectives against Afšīn after the latter’s fall, and praises for Moḥammad b. Ḥomayd Ṭūsī and his campaign against Bābak in the dīvān of Boḥtorī (see also Nafīsī, pp. 158-60).

Armenia was close to Bābak’s territory and had contacts with him but occasionally suffered from his raids. The mentions of his doings in Armenian chronicles have been assembled by Nafīsī (pp. 135-41).

Bābak’s defeat hit the Ḵorramīs hard but did not destroy them. Descendants of his followers evidently continued to live at Baḏḏ, as Abū Dolaf b. Mesʿar b. Mohalhel saw them there in the mid-4th/10th century. Further Ḵorramī stirrings are reported: in the reign of al-Moʿtaṣem’s successor al-Wāṯeq and as late as 300/912-13 (Sīāsat-nāma, pp. 366-67); in 321/933 and again in 360/970 in the reigns of the Buyid amirs ʿEmād-al-Dawla and ʿAżod-al-Dawla and as late as the mid-6th/12th century (Margoliouth and Amedroz, Eclipse II, p. 299; Samʿānī, s.v. Bābakī; Bondārī in Houtsma, Recueil, p. 124); and even in the Mongol period. Many of the old writers, particularly those of Sunnite persuasion, assert that Ḵorramīs influenced and infiltrated the Qarmaṭī and Esmāʿīlī 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 ʿAbbasids and may have occasionally collaborated.



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(Ḡ. -Ḥ. Yūsofī)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: August 18, 2011

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