Origins of Intelligence Services
IV. Intelligence in the Arab Muslim Empires
1. The Patriarchal Period and the Omayyad Empire
Rise of Muhammad — The First Caliphs-Persian and Byzantine Traditions in the Administration — Efforts to Replace Byzantium-Reintroduction of Intelligence Service by State Post — Use of Secret Police — Nationalization of the Administration, Further Conquests, and Fall of the Dynasty.
2. The Abbasid Muslim Empire
Equality of Muslim Races, Awakening of National Sentiments, Golden Age of Arabic Literature — Last Attempt to Conquer Byzantium — Reorganization of the Post by Harun Al-Rashid, According to Main Sources — Six Main Postal Roads — Organization of the Barid (Post), According to Kudama — Postmasters in the Espionage System-Arabic Police-Post by Carrier Pigeons-Disintegration of the Caliphate-Intelligence Service and Propaganda by the Fatimids — Intelligence Service during the Seljuk’s Protectorate.
3. Intelligence in the Mamluk Empire
Baybars Becomes Sultan-Al-Omari’s History of Arab Post in His Al-Tarif-Al-Makrizi’s Description of Bavbars’s State Post — Postal Roads Described in Al-Tarif — Baybars’s Post by Carrier Pigeons-Al-Malik-al-Nazir’s Reforms-Transport of Snow by State Post-Decadence of the State Post Service and of the Mamluk Empire.
4. Arab Intelligence on Byzantium
Christian Spies in Arabic Service — Byzantine Deserters, Arabic Security Measures on the Frontier — The Strategus Manuel — Al-Mas’udi on Exchange of Prisoners — Al-Mas’udi’s Story on Muawiya’s Revenge of Mistreatment of an Arab Prisoner — Arab Prisoners in Constantinople, and Their Information — Embassies — Arabian Geographers on Byzantium.
Arabia before Muhammad
1. The Patriarchal Period and the Omayyad Empire
The rise of the Arabs and the foundation of a new empire originating from the deserts of Arabia at the beginning of the sixth century is one of the most fascinating phenomena in world history. It was evoked by the prophetic visions of an extraordinary man, Muhammad, who was born in Mecca about 570. He was a true son of Arabia and, moved by the religious backwardness of his compatriots, who were still pagan and were leading a precarious existence amid the sands of their deserts, he devoted himself to profound religious speculation. In the course of his commercial travels on behalf of the rich widow Kadijah whom he had also married, he had occasion to become acquainted with all the varied elements of the religious life of Arabia — the paganism of the Bedouin and of the urban communities — but he was also in touch with Christianity and with Judaism. Some monotheistic aspirations were noticeable even among Arab pagans. The contact with Christian and Jewish teachings profoundly influenced his receptive mind. Rejecting all the pagan conceptions of the Arab tribes, he began to assert that there was only one God, Creator of the universe. Convinced that he was predestined by his Allah to convert his countrymen, he lived through a profound crisis during his retreat on Mount Hira. Here he thought he had visions and heard voices, especially that of the Angel Gabriel, inviting him to reform the worship of Allah according to the principles contained in a heavenly book (Al Kitab). He started to preach the repudiation of all native polytheism, exalting only Allah above all. He stressed the moral and social responsibility of men, the last judgment, the existence of hell and punishment of sinners, and of heaven for the souls of those faithful to Allah and his principles. He found his first adherents only among the poorer social classes, and the opposition of the wealthy aristocracy forced him to leave Mecca and to establish himself with his adherents in Medina. This “hegira” of September 622 marks a new era for his teaching and for the Arab world.
Supported by his companions and by emigrants from Mecca, Muhammad revealed considerable diplomatic and political skill, when he succeeded in being accepted even by his opponents as their political leader.
The rejection by the Jews and the Christians of his invitation to adhere to his faith contributed to a more positive affirmation of his mission. He declared himself to be the last Prophet, who was instructed by Allah to purify the monotheistic belief of Abraham which had been corrupted first by the jews and then by the Christians. The Ka’ba, believed to be the altar built by Abraham, was promoted to be the central point of devotion, to which his faithful had to turn when praying to Allah. Pilgrimage to this center was introduced, and the Jewish custom of fasting was replaced by Ramadan. Muhammad was able to strengthen his position in Medina by conventions with the Bedouins and by the persecution and expulsion of the lews. The war with Mecca, waged with varied military success and astute diplomacy, ended with the acceptance of Muhammad in 630 and was followed by the recognition of his leadership by many tribes. When he died in 632 almost the whole of Arabia was unified under the religious and political leadership of Muhammad.
Nationalist sentiment and the religious zeal of the tribes called for foreign conquest. Rich booty attracted the poor Bedouins, and paradise was promised to those who should fall in the fight for the spread of Islam. The conquest of foreign lands was the task of the first caliphs. Abu Bakr (632-634) initiated the conquests with expeditions against the Persians and the Romans. Omar (634-644) defeated the Persians, subdued Iraq, and founded two new Arab cities, Kufa and Basra, in 635, the same year in which Damascus fell into Arab hands. In 638 Jerusalem was taken. In 640 followed the invasion of Egypt and the capture of Alexandria. A new city was founded called Fustat which later became Cairo. In 641 Persia was again invaded and the flight of the last Sassanid king brought the definitive subjection of Persia to the caliph in 643. During the reign of the third Caliph Othman (644-656), at whose behest the compilation and canonical fixing of the Koran was carried out about 650, the Arabs reached Armenia and Asia Minor in the north and Carthage in Africa. After Othman’s assassination Ali became caliph (656-661) but after some attempt at a settlement he was deposed by Muawiya, governor of conquered Syria (658), and founder of the so-called Omayyad dynasty which reigned over Arabia and the conquered lands for ninety years. This marked the beginning of the Arab Muslim Empire with Damascus as its capital.
Arab success was consolidated also by the establishment of an Arab naval force. This was initiated by Muawiya when he was still governor of Syria. In 649 he seized Cyprus with his navy and soon raided Sicily for the first time.
In 655 the Arabs won their first great naval victory when they defeated the Byzantine navy near Alexandria. This inaugurated Arab naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. The previous balance of forces between East and West was thus destroyed. Nevertheless, the theory that this event had disrupted the continuing unity of the ancient world and exercised an almost disastrous effect on the economic and cultural development of med ieval western Europe, as propounded by the Belgian historian H. Pirenne, is overstressed. In spite of piratical incursions into Italy in the later period, the Arabs did not succeed in cutting off the Byzantines entirely from Italy. Commercial intercourse with the eastern lands occupied by the Arabs continued, although in a very limited way because of the insecurity of sea travel. It was, however, most unfortunate for the development of medieval Europe, that, at the same period, the “Illyrian bridge” between East and West — the Roman and Byzantine provinces of Illyricum where Latin and Greek elements were culturally intermingled — was destroyed by the invasions of the Avars and the occupation by the Slavs. These two facts, Arab control of a great area of the Mediterranean Sea and the disappearance of the “Illyrian bridge,” are responsible for the growing estrangement between East and West which resulted in western Europe having to develop on its own basis during the Middle Ages.
Some explanation is needed for the unbelievably rapid conquest of highly cultured nations in the Eastern provinces of the Roman or Byzantine Empire by a new race that had hardly been touched by this civilization and led a nomadic life in the deserts of Arabia. Persia never recovered from the blows inflicted on its shahs by the Emperor Heraclius. On the other hand, the Persian wars had exhausted the forces of Byzantium. Moreover, the Byzantine provinces were alienated from the empire by heretical movements which the emperors tried in vain to eliminate, reintroducing the orthodox faith by methods not always peaceful and humane. The Egyptian Copts and the Syrians, mostly Monophysites denying two natures to the incarnate Christ, were unmoved by the exhortations to fight the invaders. A similar situation arose in Iraq and Persia, mostly adherent to Nestorianism, denying to Christ the Son a divine nature after his incarnation. Moreover, the Byzantine army was not numerous enough to stop the sudden onslaught. Byzantium must have had almost no intelligence on what was happening in Arabia, although Christian communities still existed in southern Arabia, especially in Yemen.
The suppression of the imperial post in Africa by Justinian contributed to this lack of intelligence of Arab movements.
The Arabs, inspired by their new faith and convinced that it had been revealed to them by Allah through his Prophet Muhammad, were zealous to impose it on other nations. The Bedouins, used to a hard life in the desert and being excellent riders, were eager to obtain rich booty which would transform their simple life, and they became valiant warriors. The rapidity of their strategic movements can be explained also by the fact that the Arabs often used camels in their expeditions.
During the patriarchal period of the first four caliphs the problems of organizing and administering the new state were not yet actual. It was a period of military conquest during which the generals and tribal chiefs played the main role. For practical affairs they relied on the Byzantine or Persian administrative machinery as long as its officials were prepared loyally to carry out their instructions. When the era of conquest was ended, the administration of the new empire with all its problems was in the hands of the new dynasty of the Omayyads. At first they divided the administration of their empire into nine large districts along the lines of the provinces of the former Byzantine and Persian empires. But soon some of these were combined, and this operation resulted in the creation of five viceroyalties. The most important was al-lraq, which included most of Persia and eastern Arabia with Kufa as its capital, later Khorasan, Transoxiana with Merv and the two Indian provinces of Sind and Punjab were added; the remaining vice-royalties and provinces were. Western and Central Arabia; al-Japhah, the northern part of the land between Tigris and Euphrates, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Eastern Asia Minor; Upper and Lower Egypt; Africa (west of Egypt) with Spain, Sicily, and the adjacent islands.
The viceroys had to appoint their own prefects for their provinces and had full administrative and military powers. The caliphs appointed judges-non-Muslims retained their own canon judiciary -and financial inspectors. A special dignitary was appointed to represent the caliph in the saying of official prayers.
The rulers of the new empire had to face immense problems in organizing its administration, ruling the conquered nations, and reconciling the universalist appeal of their faith with Arab nationalist pride and primitive tribal customs. Omar tried to organize the Arabs into a kind of religio-military commonwealth from which all non-Arabs should be excluded.
Taxes were imposed on the non-Muslim subject population, a “poll” tax and a land tax. Omar’s military constitution securing the ascendancy to Arabism was too artificial and his prohibition on Arabs holding property in conquered lands was rescinded by Othman. The five caliphs were forced to adapt their administration to the customs introduced by Romans, Byzantines, and Persians in the conquered lands.
Persian and Byzantine influence manifested itself also in the Arab division of the army. As in Persian and Byzantine times, the battle organization of the army had its center, two wings, vanguard, and rear guard. The only Arab innovation was that in the division of the army the tribal unit system was preserved, each tribe having its own standard. 01 course the non-Muslim population was excluded from serving in the army.
The new dynasty ended the patriarchal period of Arab history under the first four caliphs. In order to preserve the unity of the Arab people and its hegemony over its vast empire, it had to introduce a strongly monarchic element into the administration. The Omayyads were, of course, anxious to maintain their family’s preeminence in the Arab world and tried also to replace the old Arab principle of succession between brothers by direct hereditary succession.
The way to a monarchic system planned by them was not easy. They had first to combat the traditional Arab particularism, represented especially by the Bedouins who showed their repugnance to any discipline and government organization. Because the ancestor of the dynasty, Abu Sufyan, had for some time refused to join Muhammad, the puritans among the Arabs, called Kharijites, lacked any enthusiasm for a dynasty whose ancestor had participated so little in the original affirmation of their faith. There was also the legitimist party of the Shi’ites, composed of the faithful followers of the unfortunate Ali. Another danger threatened the Omayyads from the side of the Abbasids. who were descendants of the Prophet’s uncle, Abbas.
The Omayyads continued to struggle with the problem inherited from the patriarchal period, namely the reconciliation of the national sentiments of the Arab people, which provided tlie leading cadre of the immense new empire, with the universalist stamp of their religion. Fiscal interests aggravated this dilemma. According to Islamic theory new converts had to be freed from the taxes imposed on non-believers. Some attempts had been made to implement this principle, but Arab racial pride refused to bow to the idea that non-Arab neophytes should be put on the same level as the racial Arabs,
and down to the end of the Omayyad dynasty this problem could not be satisfactorily solved.
Fortunately, the dynasty found a firm foothold in the Syrian population, which Muawiya had been ruling for twenty years as governor appointed by Omar. He chose able collaborators, and with the help of one of them, Ziyad, whom he adopted as his brother, the first Omayyad caliph was able to restore order and obedience to the new dynasty. Muawiya showed extraordinary talent as a military organizer. He suppressed the archaic tribal organization in the order of the army as well as many other relics of the ancient primitive period, and created from the military raw material of his Syrians a first-class army-well-ordered, disciplined, and devoted to its Syrian caliph.
Regarding Byzantium as the most dangerous enemy, he tirst completed the long cordon of fortifications near the Byzantine borders protecting Syria and Mesopotamia. Tarsus with its fortifications had to watch over the passes through the Taurus Mountains which separated the Arab lands from Asia Minor. It would serve also as a military base for Arab incursions into Byzantine territory.
While still insecure in his new position, Muawiya concluded a truce with the Emperor Constans II (641-668), promising yearly tribute to the emperor, as mentioned by Theophanes (ed. de Boor, p. 347). Soon, however, new hostilities started with invasions of Asia Minor by Arab forces. When he felt more secure in his position, Muawiya made plans to conquer Constantinople itself. In 669 his army, led by the crown prince Yazid, reached Chalcedon and took the city of Amorion. The energetic Emperor Constantine IV (668-685), however, forced the Arabs to raise the siege and regained the conquered city. A second attempt to take Constantinople was made between 674 and 678 during the so-called seven years’ war, waged mainly between tbe Arab and Byzantine fleets in the sea of Marmara. Rhodes and Crete were temporarily occupied. The newly discovered Greek fire raised havoc among the Arab fleet, and bands of freebooters from the Taurus Mountains called Mardaites (rebels) threatened Syria and induced the caliph to conclude peace with the Emperor Constantine IV. The Byzantine envoy called Johannes, an experienced statesman, accompanied the Arab envoys to Damascus and concluded a peace which was to last thirty years under very advantageous conditions for the Byzantines. Constantine’s victory over the Arabs and their capitulation to a Christian emperor provoked a great sensation among the Christian rulers of western Europe, who sent embassies of congratulation to the victor.
The Mardaites who had contributed to the glorious event were freebooters of uncertain origin, who lived almost independently on the heights of Mount Taurus. They were Christians and supporters of Byzantium, and were called by Theophanes (ed. de Boor, p. 314) “a brass wall of the Empire on the Taurus.” Already about 666 their hands pierced the Arab defenses and penetrated into Lebanon, becoming a nucleus around which many fugitives and Christian Maronites grouped themselves. They were called apelatai (outlaws) by the Arabs. A new invasion of Syria was made by the Mardaites in 689. The Caliph Abdalmalik (Abdul-Malik) (685-705) had to ask the Emperor Justinian II to withdraw his support from the freebooters. He agreed to pay a thousand dinars weekly to the Mardaites and accepted new conditions laid down by Justinian, who promised to settle the Mardaites on Byzantine territory. The majority of them evacuated Syria, but many stayed in Lebanon, where they strengthened the Maronite community which still exists in northern Lebanon.
The Caliph Sulaiman (715-717) made another daring attempt by sea and by land to capture Constantinople, in a siege lasting from August 716 to September 717. But the Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (717-741) was ready for the onslaught. He barred the way of the Arab fleet into the Golden Horn with the famous iron chain. With the help of the Bulgars he defeated the Arab army, and the Greek fire destroyed a great part of the Arab navy. A sudden tempest completed the disaster. According to Theophanes (ed. de Boor, pp. 395, 399), only a few Arab vessels were able to reach port in Syria. The Arab army had to content itself with yearly invasions through the Taurus passes into Asia Minor, but was unable to make any serious and stable progress on this front.
When surveying the policy of the Omayyads we are struck by their attitude towards Byzantium. Of course, for all Muslims. Byzantium (Bum) was the archenemy, an infidel power against whom the holy war had to be waged. The three daring attempts at the conquest of Constantinople itself may be explained by this attitude of the Muslims towards the infidels. However, there seems to have been more to the Omayyad frame of mind concerning Byzantium. The Omayyad caliphs apparently regarded themselves as successors of the Rūm and intended to establish themselves in Byzantium as heirs of its emperors. There are some aspects in their policy which point quite clearly to a kind of Byzantinization of their administration.
This can be easily explained. The most loyal supporters of the Omayyads were the Arab tribes already established in central and southern Syria before the Islamic conquest.
Many of them had been enrolled as auxiliaries of the Byzantines in their wars with Persia. They had been trained in Greek methods of warfare, and many of their chiefs had held Byzantine titles. This explains also why the Arabs had so quickly mastered Roman and Byzantine military art, a fact which helped the untrained Bedouin tribes in their astonishing conquest. Byzantine officials continued largely to direct the administrative machine in Syria during the first years of the Omayyad dynasty.
This certainly influenced to some degree the administrative policy of the caliphs. Other Byzantine institutions continued to exist in Syria and Mesopotamia. The caliphs appreciated their practical usefulness. We can see Byzantine inspiration in one interesting innovation by Muawiya. In order to regularize the official correspondence of the caliph with the viceroys and other functionaries, Muawiya created a kind of registry which should function as a state chancery. In order to prevent falsification of the caliph’s letters this bureau had to make a copy of every official document which was to be sealed before being dispatched. The copies of the original document had to be kept in the chancery. This system was improved by the Caliph Abdalmalik, one of the best statesmen of this dynasty, so that the Omayyads thus developed a state archive in Damascus, an act which recalls Byzantine practice.
An imitation of Byzantine practice can also be seen in the introduction of gold coinage by Abdalmalik. The first Arabic gold coins even bore the caliph’s effigy, which was not in accord with the religious tenets of the Muslims. Previously the striking of gold coinage had been the privilege of the emperor. Ihe Omayyads also kept the Byzantine revenue administration, and small adjustments to Byzantine practice are to be seen in Arab and Islamic ceremonial. Byzantine usage, namely defining legal norms by administrative rescripts, was also imitated by the Omayyads.
Another kind of Byzantine imperial legacy during the Omayyad period is to be seen in the erection of imperial religious monuments, especially the reconstruction of the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Mosque of Damascus. Recently H. A. R. Gibb has shown that the report of some Arab historians that the Caliph Walid I (705-715) had asked and obtained from the Byzantine emperor, probably Anastasius II, mosaic cubes and craftsmen to decorate the mosques of Medina and of Damascus is founded on a solid basis. Commercial intercourse between Byzantium and the Arabs does not seem to have been interrupted by the wars.
The Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, showing decorative mosaics executed by Byzantine artists. Photo courtesy of Cyril Mango.
Far from suppressing what was left of the Roman and Byzantine cursus publicus, the Arabs imitated the emperors in taking care of the roads and using them for state affairs, as had been done by the Romans and Byzantines. They even imitated the Roman milestones. The Roman millia was transposed into Arabic as mil and the Arabic name for the cursus publicus — barid — is derived from the Latin word veredus, meaning horses used for the state post. Muawiya was the first to appreciate the importance of this Byzantine inheritance in lands conquered by the Arabs.
Abdalmalik saw the necessity for the new régime to enjoy a good intelligence service from all parts of the empire. Using the Byzantine and Persian post system, he therefore established a regular postal service to facilitate the prompt delivery of official correspondence and to obtain information on what was happening in the provinces. Following the Byzantine practice, he created numerous relays of horses between Damascus and the capitals of the provinces. The new Arab state post was also able to transport officials from distant provinces with great celerity. In cases of necessity even detachments of the army could be sent to their destination by the post organization. The Caliph Walid found the post very helpful in connection with his building operations. Omar II (717-720) is said to have erected special relays (khans) on the Khorasan road for the post.
We have little information on the organization and functioning of the Arab post system during the Omayyad period. It seems, however, that it was based on regulations which had been introduced by the Romans and Byzantines. The barid was intended to serve only state interests, and special permission for its use had to be given by the governors of the provinces. This permission had to be given in writing, a fact which recalls the Roman tessera and evectio. This can be concluded from some Arab papyri preserved in the John Rylands Library in Manchester and published by A. S. Margoliouth. The papyri date from a.d. 751-753. In these documents the postmaster of Ushman in Upper Egypt, who is given the title of sahib barid, is asked by his governor to let certain government messengers — one of whom was in the service of the governor himself—use the service of the barid.
Military operations were also aided by the barid. According to J. Wellhausen (p. 233), quoting Tabari’s Chronicle, Haijaj, viceroy in Iraq, sent an army in 669-670 against the T’u-chüeh king of Kabul (modern Afghanistan), who had refused to pay the tribute. As his campaign progressed, Abd-al Rahman, the commander of the army,
gradually established a regular postal service with relays and barid horses in order to ensure his lines of communication.
The difficulties which the first Omayyad caliph had to face, especially from the Shi’ites, had shown Muawiya how important it was to have good intelligence about any possible anti-dynastic movement. This necessity was especially understood by his adopted brother Ziyad. He was first appointed ruler of Basra, a center of Shi’ism. When elevated to the government of Kufa he became the absolute ruler of the whole eastern part of the empire, including Arabia and Persia. It was the most important but also most turbulent part of the empire. In order to exterminate all opposition to the caliph he organized a widespread intelligence and spying service. He chose 4,000 reliable men to act as his bodyguard, but also to serve as spies and as a secret police in his territory. The Shi’ite opposition was stubborn, and it was only thanks to this merciless secret police and spying system that the new dynastic régime could survive against all the intrigues and conspiracies.
These military attempts against Constantinople and the administrative adaptation of Byzantine usages and traditions both demonstrate that the first Omayyads adopted the pretext of being heirs of the emperors and were determined to replace them. From their capital they hoped to rule their inheritance of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
This, of course, did not mean that they were neglecting their duties in promoting Arab national interests. This is illustrated by the innovations made by Abdalmalik.
The reign of Abdalmalik is characterized by a profound Arabicization of the state. He changed the language of the public registers from Greek to Arabic in Damascus, and from Pahlavi to Arabic in al-Iraq and the eastern provinces. This naturally caused a change in the personnel charged with the registers. The first caliphs kept in the conquered Greek lands those officials who wrote only in Greek, and in Iraq and Persia those who wrote only in Persian.
Under the reign og Muawiya some Christians occupied important functions in the administration and were received at his court. The most prominent among them was Sargun ibn Mansur, who held the office of finance administrator to the caliph. His son was a boyhood friend of the future Caliph Yazid and worked in the bureau of his father. The new course of affairs introduced by Abdalmalik put an end to their careers. Mansur’s son entered a monastery in Jerusalem and became one of the most famous theologians of the Eastern Church — St. John of Damascus.
One can suppose that some Christian or Persian employees who had learned Arabic continued to serve under the new regime, the more so as the old system was not changed. As there were not many Arabs familiar with administrative work, the change went on very slowly, and was continued under Abdalmalik’s son and successor Walid I (705-715).
Even when their first preoccupation was to conquer the residence of the emperors, the Omayyads did not neglect the extension of their power in the East. The conquest of the territory beyond the Oxus, started by Muawiya, was pushed as far as the river Jaxartes; the cities of Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarkand became centers of Muslim propaganda. The supremacy of Islam in Central Asia was thus established. In 710 an Arab army crossed the territory of modern Baluchistan and conquered Sind, the lower valley of the Indus with its seacoast. This was the beginning of the Islamization of the Indian border provinces, where the Muslim state of Pakistan was to be established in modern times.
Even more important was the reconquest and pacification of northern Africa by the governor Hassan, a conquest which was extended by the governor Musa as far as Tangier. The Hamitic Berbers, although in great part Christianized, were gradually Islamized and also Arabicized. Musa and Tariq, a Berber freedman, crossed the straits in 711 and began the conquest of Visigothic Spain. Gibraltarjebel Tariq, the Mount of Tariq — still recalls this deed. The conquest of the Iberian peninsula was the most sensational campaign of the Arabs. They even crossed the Pyrenees, but after the capture of some towns in southern Gaul they were stopped by Charles Martel in the famous battle between Tours and Poitiers in 732.
This happened during the reign of the last able and venerated caliph of the Omayyad dynasty, Hisham (724-743). He is rightly regarded by Arab historians as a true statesman of the Omayyad dynasty, on a level with Muawiya and Abdalmalik. It was also under Hisham that the change of Arab policy from the Byzantine tradition towards the Eastern was most clearly marked. Some of the other caliphs of the dynasty were unworthy of their high position. Following the example of Yazid II (720-724), they passed their time in hunting, drinking wine, indulging in luxury due to increased wealth, and enlarging their harems; they were more absorbed in music and poetry than in religious and state affairs. As there was seldom a strong hand on the throne, the typical weaknesses of the Arab nature — inclination to individualism, tribal spirit, and feuds asserted themselves increasingly.
The most dangerous feud existed between the North Arabian tribes which had emigrated into Iraq before Islam and the South Arabian tribes of Syria.
These tribes were never fully amalgamated and their jealous aspirations and ambitions poisoned Arab political life, precipitating the downfall of the dynasty. The situation was complicated also by the lack of any fixed rule of hereditary succession. In this way the initiative of Muawiya, who had tried to introduce the hereditary system in the succession to the throne, failed to break the antiquated tribal principle of seniority in succession. Of the fourteen caliphs of the dynasty only four had their sons as immediate successors.
The activity of the Shi’ites, always hostile to the “usurpers,” became very lively in Iraq and the majority of the population joined them, mostly in opposition to Syrian rule. National feeling formed the background to this development, the Persians regretting the loss of their national independence. Under the guise of Shi’ism. Iranianism was coming back to life. This development was accelerated by the fact that the Omayyads had not succeeded in granting to the non-Arab Muslims, who were mostly representative of a higher and more ancient culture than that of their conquerors, exemption from the capitation tax paid by non-Muslims.
Of course, this dissatisfaction spread from Iraq to Persia and to the northeastern province of Khorasan, while the extravagance of the worldly-minded caliphs provoked strong condemnation from the purists. They charged them with neglect of Koranic and traditional laws and were ready to give their religious sanction to any political opposition.
All these manifestations of dissatisfaction prepared the downfall of the dynasty. Its end was sealed when the Shi’ites of Iraq, Persia, and Khorasan made an alliance with the descendant of Muhammad’s uncle, also called Abbas, who became the head of the coalition. The well-prepared revolt started in 747 when the revolutionaries unfurled the black banner, originally the standard of Muhammad and now that of the Abbasids. The dissatisfaction had heightened during the reign of the dissolute successors of Hisham, and the last caliph of the Omayyad dynasty, Marwan II, was unable to stop the revolution. Abbas was proclaimed anti-caliph in 749 in Kufa. The last desperate stand of Marwan was crushed, and even Damascus capitulated in 750. The fugitive caliph was taken prisoner and killed in Egypt. The new caliph, founder of the Abbasid dynasty, disposed quickly and brutally of any danger of counter-revolution by exterminating every member of the defeated dynasty and all its branches. Only one youthful member, Abd ar-Rahman I, made a dramatic escape to Spain,
where he succeeded in establishing a new Omayyad dynasty which wrote some brilliant pages in Spanish Muslim history.
2. The Abbasid Muslim Empire
The Caliph Abbas, or Abu-l-Abbas al-Saffah (750-754), opened a new period in Arab history as the founder of a dynasty which reigned, even if it did not always rule, from 750 to 1258. The installation of a new dynasty was thought to have realized the true conception of the caliphate as a theocratic regime, replacing the Omayyad idea of a purely secular state. Such a characterization of the rule of the Omayyad and Abbasid dynasties was only partly justified. It is true that the religious character of the caliphate was emphasized by the new ruler who on ceremonial occasions began to don the mantle of Muhammad, and surrounded himself with men versed in Koranic and canon law. In reality, however, the Abbasids were as worldly minded as their predecessors, in spite of their religious veneer.
There was, however, one fundamental difference between the empires ruled by the two dynasties. The Omayyad Empire was Arab. Its rulers failed to put forward the universal character of their religion, a fact which was to prove fatal to them. The Abbasid Empire was a Muslim Empire in which all who had accepted the Prophet’s faith were equal in rank, without distinction of race. The Arabs were no longer the dominant race, but only one of the many races of which the empire was composed. The center of the new political power was also changed. It was not in Syria, but in Iraq and Persia, where the revolution of the Abbasids had started. Not Damascus was its capital, but a new city. Baghdad. This city, built by Al-Mansur (754-775), brother and successor of Abbas, was near the old Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon, on the Tigris. Al-Mansur was also the real founder of the Abbasid Empire. He ruled as an absolute monarch and never hesitated to eliminate any kind of disloyalty to the new dynasty. The Shi’ites realized too late that the new caliphs were as deaf to their claims and as unscrupulous as their predecessors. New heretical movements appeared, brought about by the combination of extreme Shi’ite ideas with the ancient religious and social doctrines of old Iran. Al-Mansur himself massacred without mercy the members of one Iranian sect which claimed that he should be adored as a god.
The Abbasid Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire circa 750
The equality of all races of the Muslim Empire was bound to produce some effects which were dangerous to the orthodox Muslim faith. Old Iranian religious ideas were not completely forgotten, and many thinkers and politicians of Iranian stock were tempted to combine these with Muslim teaching, endowing them sometimes with social and political significance. Al-Mansur’s son Al-Mahdi (775-785) felt obliged to create a kind of inquisitorial organ in order to suppress heterodox movements and dualistic ideas of Iranian origin which were fermenting the intellectual classes of Iraq. Many intellectuals became victims of this persecution.
Soon another danger threatened to disrupt the unity of the immense empire. The principle of the equality of all races awakened national or tribal motives, and memories of national or tribal independence. This often provoked revolts against the monarchic caliphate. Harun Al-Rashid (786-809), one of the most celebrated caliphs, initiated a policy which was to lead to the dismemberment of Muslim unity, when in 799 he granted to the Aghlabids of Tunisia investiture as sovereign tributaries and vassals, making them in fact almost independent of Baghdad.
On the other hand the de-arabization of the empire opened the literary treasures and scientific and medical achievements of the Hellenistic and Syriac age of the newly Muslimized nations to the Arab world. An Arab literary and scientific renaissance resulted from the appropriation of these treasures by Arab intellectuals, who propagated these discoveries in their translations from Greek and Syriac. In one respect the Arabs could record a great national victory. Almost all the Muslirnized nations of the Abbasid Empire adopted the Arabic language and expressed their ideas and the achievements of their new culture in the language of their conquerors. The fusion of the old Arabic traditions with the talent of the conquered is well illustrated by the fact that Harun owed the greatness and fame of his reign to the assistance of his vizir Yahya al-Barmaki, who was from a family of purely Persian origin. The fame of Harun Al-Rashid penetrated to China, the far east, and into the west, whose greatest ruler Charlemagne entertained diplomatic relations with the great caliph.
A deep dynastic crisis arose after Harun’s death, owing to a fratricidal war between the designated heir Caliph Al-Amin (809813) and his brother Al-Mamun. Although this led to the destruction of a part of Baghdad besieged by Al-Mamun, the intellectual and cultural life continued to flourish under Al-Mamun (813-833) — half Persian through his mother — and his immediate successors.
Al-Mamun himself embraced the theories of the Mu’tazilitist rationalist school, which maintained that religious texts should agree with the judgment of reason and that the sacred books were created in the course of time. This cannot be interpreted as “free thought,” but rather as a philosophical and theological school which laid more emphasis on rational speculation than on the mere acceptance of tradition.
Justification for such a doctrine, declared to be a state doctrine in 827, was sought in the philosophical works of the Greeks. For this purpose Al-Mamun established in Baghdad in 830 his famous “House of Wisdom” which combined together a library, an academy, and a bureau for the translation of scholarly works. The translators were not interested in Greek literary and poetic works, but mainly in philosophical and scientific ones. From that time on translations were mostly centered in the newly founded academy. It was the most important scholarly and educational institution since the Library of Alexandria was established in the first half of the third century b.c. Even Syrians and Christian Jacobites participated in the translations. Through them Neo-Platonic speculations were introduced into the Arabic mind.
So it came about that towards the end of the tenth century the Arabs possessed translations of all of Aristotle and of other Greek philosophical works, at a time when the West was completely unaware of the Greek philosophical treasures. The Christian West became acquainted with Aristotle and Plato through Arabic translations emanating from Muslim Spain and Sicily.
During this golden age of the Muslim Empire many original works were also composed in Arabic, especially in geography, astronomy, medicine, and history. The old Arabic religious zeal also flared up again and turned against the infidels of Byzantium. The third Abbasid Caliph Al-Mahdi (775-785) renewed the old struggle, trying to regain the territory lost in Armenia during Arab internal conflicts.
The Arab army led by his son Harun, the future caliph, appeared on the Bosporus in 782, on the site of modern Scutari. The Empress Irene had to conclude a humiliating peace involving the p arm eut of large sums to the Arabs. Harun obtained from his father the honorific title Al-Rashid (the straightforward) for his deeds. When Nicephorus I (802-811) refused to pay the promised money, Harun invaded and ravaged Byzantine territory and captured Heraclea and Tyana (806). He imposed a new tribute on the emperor. In 838 Al-Mu’tasim (833-842) tried to obtain a foothold in Asia Minor. His huge army invaded Byzantine territory and occupied Amorion, the birthplace of the ruling dynasty.
The attempt to reach Constantinople had to be abandoned because of alarming intelligence of conspiracy in Baghdad. This was the last serious attempt of the Abbasid caliphate to conquer Byzantium. After that the Arabs had again to limit themselves to yearly incursions through the Taurus passes into Asia Minor. The strength of the caliphate was waning because of the slow decomposition of the empire and the formation of petty emirates which were almost independent of the caliphs. The holy war against Byzantium was only continued by one of those emirs, Sayf ad-Dawlah (944-967) of Mosul and Aleppo in Syria. The lightning appearance of Basil II in 995 at Aleppo, coming suddenly from Bulgaria, re-established Byzantine supremacy over the emirate. Saladin (1169-1193), the greatest Arab hero in the holy war against the Crusaders, was more powerful and benefited at least from good communications inside Egypt. He is the real founder of the Avyub dynasty, named after his uncle who had brought him to Egypt. After establishing the Sunnite “orthodox” faith in that land and adding Syria to his dominions, in 1175 he was granted a diploma of investiture by the Abbasid caliph of all the western provinces with Arabia, Palestine, and central Syria. After strengthening his power he crushed the Crusaders in 1187, even capturing the king of Jerusalem. After a siege of a week the city itself fell into his hands in the same year. Other Crusader territories were also taken, and only Antioch, Tripoli, and Tyre remained in their possession. For his connection with Egypt Saladin could not rely on the old post organization, but used runners and speedy camels. During the siege of Akr (Acre) by the Crusaders Saladin used swimmers and pigeons for communications with the garrison. He tried to communicate with the caliph, asking for help, but none came.
After Saladin’s death a period of civil wars among the Ayyubids followed which were partly exploited by the Crusaders. In 1229 even Jerusalem was reconquered by the Franks. Jealousies and quarrels among the Crusaders prevented them from exploiting the weakened situation of Ayyubid Egypt. The last success of the dynasty in its struggle with the Crusaders was the defeat of St. Louis leading the Sixth Crusade.
During the Abbasid period the state post was more fully developed and became a significant feature of the government. Arab historians give the credit to Harun Al-Rashid for the reorganization of the post service (barid) on a new basis on the advice of his counsellor Yahya al-Barmaki, from a family of Persian origin. The barid was headed by a postmaster called Sahib-al-Barid.
The relays of the post were called sikka. In Persia relays were set up after each 12 kilometers, in Syria and Arabia only at a distance of 24 kilometers.
We possess some detailed information on the Abbasid state post. The most important source is the geographical treatise by Ihn Khordadhbeh called The Book on Roads and Provinces, describing the commercial roads and the postal stations of the caliphate. The author was himself a postamaster-general — Sahib-al-Barid — in al-Djabal, in the province of Iraq al-Ajami, comprising most of modern Persia. His work describes the world known to the Arabs of his time, treating especially the provinces of the caliphate and the division of the taxes, and giving a description of the roads. This book, translated into French by M. Barbier de Maynard in 1765, is based on official documents kept in the state archives.
His work, only fragmentarily preserved, was used by all Arab geographers, but gives little information on the organization of the post. It was originally intended to be an official handbook for the chancery of the government. The author died about the year 912. Ibn Khordadhbeh’s work is completed in some ways by the book On Taxes (Kitab al-Kharadj) written by Kudama, giving more information on the institutions of the state post and enumerating all its itineraries. Kudama occupied the important post of a hatib — scribe. He lived in Baghdad and died in 959.
Important information is also given by al-Mukaddasi (Mokaddasi) whose father was an architect. He visited almost all the dominions of the caliphate and described them with great precision. He is one of the best geographers of this period. He gave an account of his twenty years of travel in 986 in a book which could be translated as The Best Classification of Lands for the Knowledge of the Provinces.
Many other geographers used these three main works to give information on the Abbasid post roads. After examining all the works concerning the state post, A. Sprenger produced a detailed work in 1864 on the post stations and roads of the Arab Empire with precise maps of all roads.
Detailed descriptions of all the itineraries of the post service were kept at the post headquarters in Baghdad. They indicated not only the established stations or relays but also the distances between them. They could be consulted not only by the officials, envoys, and couriers, but also by merchants, travellers, and pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The geographers used them as their main source.
Kudama's Post Stations, 10th Century
The postal roads connected Baghdad with the farthest points of the caliphate empire, and it seems that the road system extended even to the vassal lands.
The most important postal roads deserve mention before the functioning of the post is described. The most famous road, important especially for commercial relations with the Far East, was the so-called Khorasan highway connecting Baghdad with the frontier towns on the Syr Darya and the borders of China. It went from Baghdad to Holwan (the ancient Media) and went on from there to the heights of Hamadan. This was the road which the Persian kings had followed when moving from their winter residence in Babylonia to their summer residence high up in Ecbatana. It went from there to Ray (near modern Teheran) reaching Nishapur, the former residence of the Sassanids.
The couriers of the caliphs rode with their messages as far as Nishapur. From there on the relays were under the protection of the princes of Khorasan. Kudama reports that the princes of Khorasan took good care of the relays of the state post through their territory. Nishapur was an important junction. One road went from there towards the northeast following the river Amu Darya to the east coast of the Aral Sea, another went through Merv, Bokhara, Samarkand, and thence, passing the Syr Darya river, to the borders of China.
A third caravan road led through Sedebestan and Kerman (modern Kirman) to the southern point of the Persian Gulf. From Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana) a side road led to the southeast, to Isfahan, the last post relays in the province Iraq al-Ajami where once Khordadhbeh had functioned as the supreme master of the Arab state post. From Holwan, which lies halfway between Baghdad and Hamadan, a road went through Maragha, Ardabil, as far as Tabriz. A branch from this road led to Derbil in Armenia, and another as far as Derbend on the Caspian Sea. Tabriz, Derbil, and Derbend were the last relays and, at the same time, important points of observation for the Arab intelligence service.
The post road towards the southeast went from Baghdad to Wasit in the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates, where it divided. One branch followed the Euphrates and ended at the port of Abadan. The other branch crossed the Tigris and entered Persia. Istakra and Chiraz were the last post relay stations. From these two cities roads went through Kerman to the delta of the Indus and, on the other side, from Chiraz to the ports of Siraf and Hormuz.
The most frequented road, which was used also by the state post, was the pilgrim road to Mecca.
It started in Baghdad, following the Euphrates, crossing it at Kufa, and soon afterwards entered the desert. The caliphs took good care not only of the relays of the post, but also of the comfort and security of the pilgrims. Numerous caravanserais were erected with wells and reservoirs of water. The Caliph Al-Mahdi (775-785) took special care of this “holy road.” He founded numerous eating houses, opened new wells, erected milestones, and garrisoned soldiers at different places for the protection of the pilgrims.
The central direction of the post in Arabia was at Omra, three days’ ride from Mecca. From Omra the road and the post followed the seacoast, turned to Sana, capital of Yemen, and continued as far as the port of Aden.
The relay road going from Baghdad through Samarra, Tekrif, and Mosul, and continuing to the northern boundary of the caliphate with Byzantium and Armenia, was also important. There were stations very near the boundary because it was very important to obtain as rapidly as possible any information on the situation beyond the frontier.
Perhaps even more important was the road which followed the Euphrates from Baghdad as far as Rakka, whence branches led to the fortifications on the northern frontier. Another important branch from this main road, at Balis on the Euphrates, reached Aleppo, turned towards the south, went through Antioch, Baalbek, Damascus, with a connection with Tiberias, and passed through Syria and Palestine as far as Rafah on the frontier of Egypt.
At the time when Khordadhbeh was writing his book, Egypt was almost independent under the Tulunid dynasty. When it was under the direct rule of the Abbasids their postal organization continued from Rafah to Fustat (modern Cairo) and Alexandria, following generally the old Roman cursus publicus. From Fustat the road traversed the oases of Dakhla and continued to western Sudan. From the coast the road passed through the oases of Kufra, then turned towards Tripoli, eventually reaching Qayrawan, near ancient Carthage, the former capital of the Aghlabids to whom Harun Al-Rashid had given modern north Atrica as vassals. Their territory comprised Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and was called Maghrib. From Qayrawan the road went on to Tangier on the Atlantic Ocean. This road constituted the only land communication between Spam and the East.
Fortunately, thanks to the Aghlabid dynasty, the post and the roads in the Maghrib were kept in especially good order. The new rulers introduced order in the province and paid special attention to the roads.
They erected guardhouses along the coast for the protection of the post and of commercial communications.
The most common means of transportation on these roads was by camel. In cases of urgency, in particular in 914 when Baghdad tried to expel the usurping Fatimid dynasty in Egypt from that Province, a fast camel-post was created in order to give the capital daily information on the situation. Express messengers on fast camels are said to have been able to cover as much as 180 kilometers in a day.
Ihn Khordadhheh, who gave us a very detailed description of Arab post roads, said that in the whole empire there existed 930 post stations. According to the same author the government set aside 151,101 dinars in its budget for the maintenance of the state post. If these figures are correct, every post station had at its disposal about 166 dinars. Since the pay of an Arab soldier-who was, of course, very well paid — was 100 dinars, this indicates that the salary of the postmasters and their servants could not have been very high and the equipment of the stations must have been rather poor. It is, however, most probable that this information only concerns the province of Iraq including Kufa, administered by Khordadhbeh.
As in the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the state post was designed primarily to transmit only official state correspondence, but, according to al-Mas’udi (Meadows of Gold, VI, 93), private letters were also transmitted in exceptional cases. In Persia the relays provided the messengers with mules and also horses. In Syria and Arabia camels were mostly used. Only official personnel had the right to use the postal service, but private persons were also admitted to its use on the payment of high fees.
The postal headquarters were in Baghdad. In every city with state agencies a subaltern postmaster was appointed, whose duty it was to supervise the relays in his area and to take care that the official documents reached the next postmaster in due time. Others were charged with the care of the animals needed for the transport.
The duties of the postmaster general are described by Kudama in the following way:
The state post has its own Diwan [bureau]. The letters which are sent from the provinces of the Empire have to be transmitted to the superintendent of the Diwan. He has to dispatch them to the places to which they are addressed. He has to present to the caliph the reports of the postmasters and informants, or to prepare excerpts from them.
His duty is also to see that the postmasters and their employees get their salaries. In all relays he appoints the employees through whose hands the packets of correspondence have to be delivered.
Of course, we can hardly compare the roads and relays of the Arab posts with those of the Roman cursus publicus. The roads were not built with such durable materials as were those of tin Romans. Stone was not as easily available in the Arab lands. However, it does not seem that the postal roads were merely wide caravan routes with ill-defined boundaries, for there are passages in the description of the Arab post routes which indicate that they were carefully built of hard material. This material could only be brick. Bricks cannot be compared with the solid stone blocks of the Roman cursus publicus, but they were quite suitable for the Arab horses (which were not shod), for the camels, and also for the foot-soldiers. Of course, they were not suitable for carriage traffic, but the Arabs did not use carriages on their roads. This kind of transportation was only introduced into Asia by the Mongols, successors of the Arabs.
It may be that the relays of the Arab posts were not as well provided as were the relays of the Roman cursus publicus. However, it seems that their installations and provisions were quite adequate. From Kudama’s description of some of the stations, we can conclude that many were like small oases in the desert. He speaks of a building for the postmaster, surrounded by palm trees and water reservoirs; sometimes he mentions another construction for the caravans. The postmaster was responsible for the entertainment of official messengers, functionaries, and envoys; thus it was necessary to him to have rooms available at his station for them to spend the night, and to have supplies for their personal needs. The messengers were not supposed to carry provisions likely to slow them down while travelling, and the stations were generally far away from any villages or cities where provisions could be found. Because of the different climate, the stabling for the horses, mules, and camels would, of course, be more primitive than in the Roman relays. We have also to remember that sometimes small troop contingents used the post routes, thus requiring provisioning at some of the stations.
With regard to the rapidity of the transport it seems that the ordinary traffic travelled at twenty miles a day, and a courier bearing urgent messages could manage forty miles a day, the same speed as the best attained by a Roman cursus velox.
The postmaster general and his officers had other duties besides those of caring for official correspondence and of supervising the stations and their functioning.
The whole postal establishment was subordinated to an espionage system. The postmaster general was, at the same time, the chief of the Arab intelligence service. The geographer Kudama, in his detailed description of the Arab post system, preserved the formula by which a postmaster general was installed in his high function. The caliph stressed that his first duty was to report to the ruler from time to time about the situation in the provinces. With his subordinates he must supervise the activities of the officers charged with the collection of taxes, of the superintendents of state property, of the kadis (judges), and all administrative and political organs. He must also report on the situation of the peasants, on the prospects for the harvest, arid on the political tendencies of other citizens. He must also supervise the minting and circulation of money and be present when the guard of the caliph was being paid. The caliph exhorted the postmaster to accept from his subordinates only true reports, well founded on facts. Then followed in Kudama’s description the enumeration of his duties in the entire administration of the state post; at the end, the caliph asked for separate reports on matters under the surveillance of the postmaster. This meant that the reports were forwarded by the caliph to the relevant diwans (bureaus) of the government.
This shows that the function of the director of the post was extremely important; it is no wonder that he was called the “Eye of the Caliph.” One can also imagine how easy it was for the postal officials to augment their salaries by using threats or promises.
Not even governors of provinces were exempt from surveillance by this intelligence officer. One report addressed to Caliph Al-Mutawakkil concerning Muhammad Ibn Abdallah, governor of Baghdad, is preserved. The postmaster informed the caliph that in his pilgrimage to Mecca the governor had bought for 100,000 dirhem a most beautiful slave girl and brought her to Baghdad. He was so much in love with her that he was spending days and nights in her company neglecting his duties, especially the examination of complaints sent to the caliph. This could provoke a dangerous situation in the capital and the “most devoted servant” implored the chief of the faithful to intervene.
A postmaster from Khorasan under the Caliph Al-Mamun was present at the mosque when the governor, who led the official prayers, omitted to mention the name of the caliph. This generally implied the declaration of a revolt. The postmaster left the mosque immediately, in order to send a special messenger to the caliph with a report of what was taking place.
The governor, however, had observed that the postmaster left the mosque during the prayers and sent his men to arrest him, and the postmaster would have paid with his life for his faithful service if the governor had not been felled by a stroke.
Besides the secret agents of the post system the caliphs had a large contingent of spies and informers at their service. Al-Mansur, the most unscrupulous of the Abbasid rulers, recruited into his espionage system many merchants and humble peddlers who offered their merchandise to many citizens who were ignorant of the real purpose of their visits. He also had in his pay travellers acting as detectives for him. Other caliphs did the same, even Harun Al-Rashid. Al-Mamun is said to have had about 1,700 old women among others in his intelligence service in Baghdad.
These agents were entrusted with the supervision of officials and functionaries in the capital, even of the vizir. They seem to have been subordinated to a special director of intelligence called khaibar, who seems to have been independent of the postmaster general. This function was often entrusted to eunuchs or emirs who enjoyed the special confidence of the caliphs. Even when at war the caliphs took with them their khaibar and his chief agents.
The despotic government of the caliphs naturally needed a well-organized spy and intelligence service in order to preserve its existence and safeguard public order. Although the activity of the intelligence agents may often have been tiresome for the citizens, there are very few complaints about the existence of such a system. The population was used to surveillance and regarded its organizations as a necessary evil.
The Arab police do not seem to have been as inquisitive about the affairs of the citizens as was the intelligence service. The police department (diwan al-shurtah) was, of course, an important section of the government and its head was at the same time commander of the royal bodyguard who was often even appointed vizir. He was responsible for order and public security in the capital and the provinces. He could be described as the chief constable. His powers exceeded those of a kadi (judge) in one way. He could act on mere suspicion and threaten with punishment before any proof of guilt was evident. As a general rule only the lower classes and persons suspected of transgressions came under his direct jurisdiction.
There was a police headquarters in every large city. The head of the municipal police was called muhtasib and was appointed by the caliph, or his vizir, from among citizens of good standing. He held military rank, and besides his police duties also performed those of a magistrate.
He acted as overseer of markets and public morals. Among his duties was that of seeing that the Friday prayers in the mosques were regularly performed; he had authority to admonish those Muslims who avoided the prayer meetings, and to see that the general standards of puhlic morality between the two sexes were maintained.
Otherwise the government left private citizens, and even foreign travellers, generally undisturbed. In the eastern provinces there were, at least in the eighth century, no clerks at the gates of the city to register those who entered or left. A stricter control was exerted in the western provinces. In Egypt, from an early period on, citizens were obliged to he provided with passports. A governor’s order of about 720 forbade anyone to move from one place to another or to embark on a journey, if he was not in possession of this document; otherwise he would be arrested and his vessel confiscated. Under the governorship of the Tulunids in Egypt anyone wishing to leave the country had to ask the police for a passport for himself and even for his slaves. Several types of such passports are preserved in Egyptian papyri. The surveillance of foreign visitors seems, however, to have become stricter with time. Mukaddasi, a geographer from the second half of the tenth century, remarked that the arrival of strangers in the cities was carefully noted and that they could depart only after obtaining a special permit.
Another means of obtaining rapid intelligence was by carrierpigeon post. The Arabs must have developed this kind of letter transport at a rather early date, as it is mentioned in China for the first time about a.d. 700 and could have been introduced there only by Arab or Indian traders. The Romans used carrier pigeons for the communication of news, especially during the siege of cities and in horse races. But the Arabs seem to have discovered the use of carrier pigeons for themselves, as there are numerous indications that the carrier-pigeon post was well developed in the ninth and tenth centuries. It seems that Hamdan Quarmat, the founder of the socalled Quarmatian sect with communistic and revolutionary tendencies, was the first to organize this kind of post on a large and systematic scale. His followers sent messages in this way from all sides to his Babylonian base. During the war with the revolutionary sectarians (927) the future vizir Ihn Mluqlah put a man in Anbar with fifty carrier pigeons, whence intelligence was to be sent to Baghdad at regular intervals, but even this was unsatisfactory. Muqlah therefore established a pigeon-post at Aqarqut with one hundred men and one hundred pigeons ordered to bring him information every hour.
In 940, the secretary of the Caliph Al-Muttaqi (940-944) sent a treasonable message to the caliph’s enemy by carrier pigeon, but the caliph was fortunate enough to intercept the bird. At that time, the cities of Raqqah and Mosul had established a net of carrierpigeon posts, so that they were able to communicate with Baghdad, Wasi, Basra, and Kufa within twenty-four hours. This, and other evidence of the usefulness of carrier pigeons in Arab history were collected by A. Mez in his Renaissance of Islam (pp. 503, 504) from works of contemporary Arab writers. We shall see that this kind of communication was very popular among the Arabs even in later periods from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries.
On the other hand, signalling by fire was not used as frequently by the Arabs as it was by the Byzantines. They seem to have made use of it in former Greek provinces, hut they did not introduce this method in other, former Persian lands. This kind of signalling appears, however, to have been practiced by the able dynasty of the Aghlabids in north Africa. According to the Arab writer Abulmahasin (I, 174, quoted by A. Mez. p. 502), this system worked well on the coast, especially during the ninth century. It was possible to send a message from Ceuta to Alexandria in one night, and in from three to four hours from Tripoli. The signals were sent from towers put up by the Aghlabids and maintained by the Fatimids, their successors. This system ceased in 1048 during the revolt of the Arab West against the Fatimids, and the towers were destroyed by the rebellious Bedouins, according to the Arab historian Marrakeshi (p. 299).
The organization of the state post and of the intelligence service can only be sketched in broad outline because many of the caliphs changed features of them according to their whims, either prolonging the routes or shortening them, and altering the accustomed procedures. The political changes leading to a gradual disintegration of the unity of the Muslim Empire must also be taken into consideration. This began in the provinces on the borders of the empire and became more evident as the decadence of the caliphate became more pronounced. New dynasties arose in several provinces previously administered by emirs or governors appointed by the caliphs. As early as the ninth century the Tulunids governed Egypt almost independently of Baghdad (868-895). All these dynasties recognized the sovereignty of the caliphs of Baghdad, but almost the only symbol of this was the mentioning of their names in the official Friday prayers.
In spite of these defections and troubles the Abbasid Empire still presented a mighty political structure, as is illustrated by the description of the state revenues for the year 919 under the Caliph Al-Muqtadir (908-932). But after his death the degeneration of the caliphate proceeded rapidly. The contest for power in Baghdad by the vizirs, generals, and eunuchs, and the revolt of the heretical Quarmatians reduced the caliph to impotence. At last the powerful Iranian family of the Buwayhids — which had ruled in Persia since 932, although of Shi’ite belief—took the caliphate under its protection. In 945, one of the family of Buwayhids, Mu'izz al-Dawla, was given the new title of supreme commander (Amir al-Umara) and the Buwayhids reigned in the name of the caliphs until 1055. The caliph’s functions became purely honorific. In spite of this degradation the principle of the orthodox Quraysh Imam as the successor of the Prophet and symbol of the Muslim community remained firm. The caliph’s powers were thus reduced to purely “spiritual” ones.
One of the Arab chroniclers seems to indicate that the Buwayhids suppressed the state post in order to isolate the caliph even more, and to hide from him all that was taking place in the provinces. However, this seems improbable. The “protectors” were rather using the organization of the state post and intelligence service for their own purposes instead of leaving them under the control of the caliphs.
The greatest threat to the Baghdad caliphate was the appearance of a new dynasty, that of the Fatimids, first in modern Tunisia and later in Egypt. This dynasty was the more dangerous as its first ruler, Obaydullah Al-Mahdi, head of the Ismaili sect, had proclaimed himself a descendant of Ali and Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. This gave rise to the name of the dynasty and enabled them to dispute the right of the Abbasids to be caliphs and imams. When, in 909, the founder of the dynasty appeared in what is now modern Tunisia, he claimed to be the only legitimate imam and caliph descending from Ismail, regarded by the defenders of Ali’s legitimacy as the seventh imam in line after Ali. Thanks to the propagandists of the Alidic movement, Obaydullah, with his messianic title Al-Mahdi, found numerous followers. This enabled him, thanks to the Ismailic propagandist al-Shi’i, to get rid of the Aghlabid dynasty and to found a state which became famous in Arab history. He first extended his power over a great part of the Maghrib between Tunisia and Ceuta, and his fourth successor, the Caliph Al-Muizz with his valiant general Jawhar, mastered the valley of the Nile (969) replacing the dynasty of Ikhshidids.
The general founded a new city near ancient Fustat to which the caliph transferred his capital, giving it the name of al-Qahira, which means “The Dominant" and which is the modern Cairo.
Following the example of his pharaonic and ptolemaic predecessors, the caliph sent his lieutenant Jawhar to occupy Palestine and Syria. During the reign of Al-Aziz (975-996) the Fatimid Empire reached its zenith. The caliph’s court was splendid with pomp and ceremony resembling in many ways that of Byzantium. The economic and financial situation permitted him to live in luxury and to build several new mosques, palaces, bridges, and canals. He employed Jewish practitioners as his financial experts and technicians, and was, in general, more tolerant to Jews and Christians than previous caliphs or than his successor Al-Hakim, notorious for his destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Al-Aziz also built a most efficient fleet, which dominated the Mediterranean and encouraged an active maritime trade, not only with the Italian city republics, but also in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This flourishing condition of the Fatimid state was largely maintained, also during the eleventh century, under the caliphate of Al-Mustansir (1036-1094).
The thriving economic situation of the Fatimid state is illustrated to some extent by documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza, a kind of storehouse connected with an old synagogue in Old Cairo (Fustat) where documents and letters bearing the name of God were deposited. It was a repository of discarded documents, most of them written in Hebrew. This archive contained letters and documents from the period of the Fatimids in the eleventh century to the thirteenth. The records, deriving from all countries of the Mediterranean area, contained important information on the social, economic, religious and even political situation of this period, not only of the Jewish communities in the Muslim Empire, but also of its Arab population. The documents were recently described by S. D. Goitein in his book, A Mediterranean Society. The first volume is devoted to the economic foundations of this society. Thousands of letters are addressed to commercial partners and reveal that commerce and usury flourished in Tunisia and Egypt during the reign of the Fatimid dynasty. The letters were transported by private agencies which employed special messengers for this purpose, the couriers being called fayj. This was a commercial mail service which was, of course, different from the official barid, but was to a certain extent organized on the lines of the state post. The commercial mail service had no relay stations, but the correspondence preserved in the Fustat (Old Cairo)
Geniza reveals that it was well organized, and the names of several “postmasters” in Cairo who employed the messengers and organized quite regular services are mentioned in the letters. The commercial mail couriers utilized the regular caravan traffic and other means of transportation. It was customary for the same messenger to carry the mail the whole way to the city of the addressee, as did the barid messengers. These couriers were mostly Arabs, but Jewish ones are mentioned as being on the routes from Alexandria to Cairo, Egypt to Palestine, and possibly also on the road from Egypt to Tunisia. Special tariffs were introduced for the conveyance of the letters, and weekly services existed between Cairo and Alexandria and even Qus, the main city of Upper Egypt, although the connection with this city was rather slow. River traffic was organized for commercial purposes, and seafaring, favored by the Fatimids, connected Egyptian merchants with Spain, Italy, and the west.
At the end of the eleventh century the decline started, characterized by a dynastic crisis, the loss of the Syrian possessions, the loss of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099, and intrigues provoked by courtesans, and by jealousy among Turkish, Berber, and Sudanese battalions of the palace guard. The caliphs’ power was soon limited to Egypt and, like the caliphs of Baghdad, the rulers of Cairo were reduced to being nominal potentates without authority. It was, therefore, easy for Saladin to reconquer Egypt after the death of the last Fatimid (1174), and to restore it to the nominal authority of the “orthodox” caliph of Baghdad. The success of the Fatimids was due not only to the ability of its caliphs, but also to their excellent intelligence service, They not only took good care of the towers used for fire-signalling, as mentioned above, but also of the state post with its information service in their territories. This is illustrated by the report that, when in 958 the Fatimid army had advanced as far as the Atlantic while conquering Morocco, the commander of the army Jawhar sent a live fish in a glass bottle through the state post to his caliph (A. Mez, p. 501). Moreover, the Fatimids also made use of an extensive net of secret intelligence and propaganda agents called duat who propagated the ideas behind the Fatimid pretensions in almost all regions of the Orient. By exploiting the situation created by the Quarmatians and Ismailis, they proclaimed themselves as imams installed from above and predestined to universal domination and to temporal and spiritual rule. The methods of their propaganda, based on intelligence obtained about the countries they were determined to bring under their domination, has been studied in detail by M. Canard.
In this work he quotes extensively from the writings of the poet Ibn Hani, and the geographer Ibn Haukal, which illustrate how the Fatimid agents prepared the way for the development of the new dynasty, and which points of their propaganda had most moved the Arabs, making them hostile to the Omayyads of Spain, to the Abbasids of Baghdad, and to the Ikhshidids of Egypt. Although their propaganda had some success even in Islamic Spain, it was the Omayyad dynasty in that country that kept the Fatimid at bay by occupying Ceuta.
In the meantime, a new situation was being created in Baghdad by the advent of the Seljuk Turks. About 956, Seljuk, the chieftain of the Turkoman Oghuz moving from the steppes of Turkestan, settled with his people in the region of Bokhara, and accepted the Sunnite “orthodox” Islamic faith. Slowly he extended his power over the neighboring lands. His grandson Tughril penetrated as far as Khorasan, and with his brother he conquered Merv, pushing deeper and deeper into the dominion of the Buwayhids, whose ruling house collapsed. In 1055, Tughril Beg with his Turkomans had reached Baghdad, where he was received by the Caliph Al-Qa’im (1031-1075) as a deliverer, and given the official title al-sultan (he with authority, sultan). After liquidating the short-lived revolt of General al-Basasir, who had embraced the cause of the Fatimids, Tughril initiated a new period in the history of the Baghdad caliphate and of the Muslim world. Fresh tribesmen flocked to his armies and, after recovering Syria from the Fatimids, the newly converted infidels launched into a brilliant conquest of new lands for the Muslim faith. Tughril’s nephew and successor, Alp Arslan (1063-1072) captured the Byzantine part of Armenia and, in 1071, destroyed the Byzantine army at the famous battle of Manzikert, a blow from which Byzantium never recovered. A great part of Asia Minor became the Sultanate of the Rum. Seljuks and the Turkish element slowly began to predominate in this previously Creek land.
The caliphate of Baghdad continued to exist under the protection of the Seljuk Turks. A kind of diarchy existed in Iraq, the caliphs trying to rule in harmony with their protectors, but conflicts were frequent between the two powers. In vain the caliphs tried at times to regain some freedom of action. On the other hand, the Seljuk Empire soon declined like that of the Abbasids. Its unity did not last long. The dynasty of the Alp Arslan was divided into several houses, each reigning over different dominions which soon withered away into a series of local dynasties, the so-called atabegs. They were only nominally vassals of the Great Sultan, but in reality formed a constellation of independent small emirates in Syria and Mesopotamia,
where they came into conflict with the Crusaders, in Armenia, and in other provinces. It can readily be imagined that in such circumstances the organization of the state post and intelligence service would only deteriorate. The new protectors of the caliphs failed to appreciate the importance of such institutions for the interests of the state, and they are said to have stopped the post in about 1063.
This, however, does not imply that the government had lost all interest in the intelligence service. Some interesting passages are to be found in the treatise on the art of government (siyasat-namah), written by the intelligent Persian Nizam al-Mulk, vizir of the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah ( 1073-1092). This work was written at the request of the caliph under whose reign the Seljuk power in the caliphate of Baghdad had reached its zenith. It is one of the most remarkable Muslim treatises on the art of government, although notas significant as the Hellenistic and Byzantine treatises on kingship.
In chapter ten, Nizam stresses the necessity for an intelligence service for the ruler (Schefer, Nizam al-Mulk):
It is indispensable for a sovereign to obtain information on his subjects and his soldiers, on all which happens near him or in distant regions, and to know about everything which is occurring, be it of small or great importance. If he does not do so, this will prove a disgrace, a proof of his negligence and neglect of justice. . . . Therefore, the appointment of a master of state posts is absolutely necessary. During the age of paganism and during the reign of Islam, the sovereigns used to obtain from this functionary the most recent information and they used to know what kind of fortunate or unfortunate events had occurred. Everybody knew, in this way, that the sovereign was vigilant. Officers who were well informed about all that was happening and who kept the oppressors in suspense, were posted everywhere. The subjects lived in peace, working under the protection of the sovereign’s justice, for their own sustenance and for the increase of general prosperity.
Then the author advises the sovereign to choose the surveyors carefully because their task is delicate and full of responsibility. They have to be paid regularly. The ruler has to admonish them if they are negligent, but he has also to give special compensation for outstanding services. “Sending out police agents and spies shows that the ruler is just, vigilant, and sagacious. If he behaves as I have indicated, his state will flourish.“
These words show that the vizir was well aware of the importance of a good intelligence service, and knew about the institution of the state post, its function and its history.
When mentioning that it was formerly in use by pagan rulers, he has in mind above all the Persians. The admonition suggests perhaps that, in his time, these institutions were neglected, but not completely suspended.
This seems to be indicated also by the author in chapter fourteen, in which he speaks of the necessity of placing runners at the fixed posts on all the principal roads, who should be paid monthly. These couriers should be able to obtain information about everything which happened within a radius of fifty parasangs (150 km.). According to the old custom, they would be commanded by officers who would take care of their needs. This seems to imply that the postal service was being replaced by special couriers or emissaries. The use of runners (su-at) is mentioned for the first time during the period of the Buwavhids, who were accused of having curtailed the state post service.
Chapters twenty and twenty-one are also interesting, as they give the ruler advice on how to receive embassies from foreign lands and how to keep its members under surveillance, because they are certainly interested in many matters other than the object of their embassy, especially those of military importance. One can see that the Arabs were as much on guard when receiving foreign ambassadors as were the Byzantines. In chapter thirty-four, the vizir admonishes the ruler to keep a close watch on all the personnel guarding his palaces. A special investigation should be made of any one of them seen in the company of a foreigner.
However, with the dismemberment of the Seljuk Empire into provinces governed by independent emirs or atabcgs, the organization of the state post and other intelligence services degenerated. It was of no use to the Muslim rulers who regarded it as their religious duty to dislodge the Crusaders from Syria and Palestine. Zangi, who had cut for himself a principality containing Aleppo, one of the greatest created by the atabegs, and who had started successfully the reconquest of lost lands, had relay runners and carrier pigeons to obtain the intelligence he needed.
3. Intelligence in the Mamluk Empire
As in the Fatimid period, the last Ayyuhid rulers of Egypt became increasingly dependent on their guard, composed mainly of enfranchised Turkic and Cuman slaves, called Mamluks. Finally, in 1250, the Mamluk Aybak became titular ruler and founder of the Mamluk dynasty. In order to consolidate his kingdom and secure its frontiers, Aybak spent most of his time with his army in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
In 1257 he was murdered by his jealous second wife while in his bath. The murderess herself was battered to death with the wooden shoes of the slaves of Aybak’s first wife. The regent Qutuz deposed Aybak's young son and usurped the throne. He repulsed the attack of Syrian Ayyubids claiming Egypt; in 1260 he was threatened by the Mongol army led by Hulägu. The Mongols were defeated in Syria, and Egypt was spared the horrible devastation suffered by its neighbors at the hands of the Mongols. It was the Mamluk ruler Baybars (1260-1277) who began a new period in the development of Egypt and Syria. He had distinguished himself in the defeat of the Mongols who had invaded Syria in 1260. Angered that the usurper Qutuz did not reward him with Aleppo in Syria as a fief for his services, Baybars killed him and declared himself sultan. He was originally a Turkic slave, but he became the first great Mamluk ruler and the true founder of the Mamluk Empire. He was an excellent military leader, and it was his generalship in Syria which broke the backbone of the Crusaders and permitted his two successors to chase the last of them out of Syria. He extended his dominion over the Berbers, and over Nubia in the south which had remained under the rule of the Egyptian sultans. He not only reorganized his army, but also rebuilt the navy, strengthened the fortresses of Syria, and dug new canals. His most important contribution to the administration of his empire was the restoration of the old Arab intelligence system based on a regular post service.
Contemporary historians of Baybars say little of this achievement, although the transport of official letters, implying the existence of the post, is often mentioned in the Sirat of al-Quadi Muki al-din, but we find detailed information of this new creation in the valuable treatise al-Tarif, on government and the state, composed by al-Omari in 1348. Chapter six of this treatise, translated by R. Hartmann, is devoted to the history of the Arab state post and its recreation by Baybars.
The author gives first a short history of the post, admitting its previous existence under the Persian rulers and the Roman emperors. The first Islamic ruler who founded the state post was Muawiya of the Omayyad dynasty. From Omari’s description it is clear that the Persian and Byzantine system was simply imitated by this caliph. He even stated that both Persian and Greek employees had executed his orders by creating stations and providing them with mules and saddle bags in which to carry the letters. He tells us that the Caliph Walid I used the post for his construction works and for the transport of mosaics from Constantinople.
During the last years of the Omayyad dynasty the post degenerated, chiefly because of the troubles caused by the revolt of the Abbasids. A temporary information service by post was put into force by Ai-Mahdi during the campaign of his son Al-Rashid against Constantinople.
Then Omari speaks of the founding of the state post by the Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, about the suspension of the services by the Buwayhids in order to keep the caliph under their influence, and the complete suppression of the post by the Seljuk rulers. After that only runners and messengers on camels were employed to transmit important intelligence.
Following this historical introduction Omari gives some details about the revival of the state post by Baybars. After having confirmed his sovereignty over Egypt and Syria as far as the Euphrates, Baybars reorganized the new provinces and appointed a prefect, a vizir, and a state secretary for Damascus. The author of the Tarif confesses that the secretary of the chancery was his uncle, Sharaf ad-Din. Before his departure to Damascus, the new secretary approached the sultan asking for instructions. The ruler expressed the desire for frequent information on the situation at the earliest date, especially on the movements among the Mongols and Franks (Crusaders). “If you can achieve it that I will have to pass not one morning and not one night without receiving a report from you, do that.” Omari’s uncle reminded his master that during the reign of the caliphs this service was rendered by the state post and he proposed to reconstruct it. Baybars accepted the proposal and charged him to set up the state post. The information described above had been given to Omari by his uncle who had learned it from the director of the post. He calls the post “the wings of Islam which cannot be trimmed and the tip of its wing which cannot be cut off.”
This narrative is important. It recalls the words with which Nizam had described the importance of the state post. Both authors knew that this institution was introduced into the Arab Empire in imitation of the Persian and Roman post services. Omari is even more outspoken when confessing that it was introduced by order of the Caliph Muawiya by Persians and Greeks. Although it was disbanded during the Seljuk period, its existence under the Omayyads and Abbasids, and the services it had rendered to the state, were not unknown to Arab historians, geographers, and other writers of different periods whose works were read by Arab intellectuals of all times.
We cannot, therefore, exclude the probability that Omari’s uncle and Baybars consciously intended to re-introduce something whose existence and main features in Arab history were familiar to Arab intellectuals.
The new state post was, however, a much better organized and a more complicated institution than the post which had fallen into desuetude. First of all, it was set up for the exclusive use of the sultan as a rapid information service. It had nothing in common with commercial and economic interests, but had an exclusively military and administrative character. First of all, the sultan as supreme commander of the army and chief of state demanded to be informed of all enemy movements, in this case, of the Mongols and the Crusader states. Then he needed rapid communication of his orders to all parts of his empire; he needed to recall emirs and other officers to his residence and to convoy diplomatic delegations. Above all, he also wanted to be informed about all dangers of subversive movements. These were all purely political affairs for the information and decisions of the chief of state.
Al-Makrizi, in his Suluk (translated by Quatremere), gives us some interesting information about the regulations issued by Baybars concerning the functioning of the barid. He decreed that all information should be read in his presence by his secretary who should have at his disposal sheets of paper on which the sultan’s answer or his orders should be written, according to the information obtained. The courier who brought the information should be sent back after the shortest delay with the sultan's reply or order. The sultan took this very seriously. One day, on his travels, while he was bathing in his tent, a courier arrived. Without taking the time to dress he opened and read the letter. Baybars did not devolve much influence to his vizir. His secretary of state was instructed to read the information to the sultan and prepare the answer.
The couriers were chosen from among the royal retainers (khassakiya) who seemed to be particularly suited for such a confidential task, some of whom were given the title of baridi. They lived in the Citadel in Cairo in order to be ready at any time for service. They were given a silver plaque to put under their robe which was secured by a large yellow silk foulard. This floated freely on their backs so that they could be easily recognized as royal couriers. Relay stations which were established on the postal road were provided with horses and with all the necessities which the couriers and their mounts needed. The commander of the couriers was responsible for seeing that they could travel with both speed and comfort.
The relay horses might be handed over only to a royal functionary who was in possession of an order of requisition, because the service was inteuded only for state affairs.
The Citadel of Cairo, center of Government for Saladin and the Mamluks (K. A. C. Creswell, Fortifications in Islam before 1250).
The couriers were exhorted not to maltreat their horses. Baybars, incognito, made inspections of the functioning of the service, and was delighted when he was once refused a horse by the commander of a relay station because he did not have the sultan’s requisition order for the animal.
This information service functioned well. A message from Damascus could reach the sultan’s residence in Cairo in four days, and in some urgent cases even in two days. The sultan expanded the service to every important place and was supplied with information from the different provinces twice a week. He sent out his orders for the replacement or investiture of functionaries by the same means and never regretted the expenditure which the erection of this institution required.
How well this service functioned is illustrated by the report given by al-Makrizi, the historian of the Mamluks, for the year 927. A new invasion into Syria by the Mongols that year filled Damascus with frightened refugees who were trying at all cost to reach safety in Egypt. Baybars, who was at that time in Damascus, restored order and soon stopped the invaders. At three o’clock on the morning of September 13 he sent a messenger to Cairo with the order to mobilize the Egyptian cavalry. The courier, using the newly-estabiished post service, arrived in Cairo at three o’clock in the afternoon of September 20. Thus he traversed the long distance between the two cities in about sixty hours. The mobilized cavalry of three thousand left Cairo on September 21 and reached Damascus on October 4. Quatremere’s translation of the passage was corrected by G. Weil in vol. 4 (p. 74) of his history of the caliphs.
The Tarif gives a very detailed description of the postal roads, enumerating all relays and their distances. All roads started from Cairo, and the road to Gaza followed the traditional route through Belbis, whence a bifurcation led to Damietta. At Katya on the Syriac frontier, a bureau of control was established. Every traveller was inspected and only permitted to continue when able to present a laissez-passer. All merchandise was examined and taxed by the customs officers. From Gaza the road went on to Damascus, whence all the principalities of Syria as far as Aleppo could be reached. The traveller Ibn Batuta reports that a courier had traversed the distance between Cairo and Aleppo in five days, although an ordinary traveller needed thirty-four days from Cairo to Aleppo, and nine days from. Gaza to Cairo. Alexandria was connected with Cairo by two roads; one went through the desert while the other ran between the two branches of the Nile river to Kalioub and Menouf. One needed three days on this road.
Then a road following the Nile was directed towards the commercial center of Qus. From there a branch led to Aswan, a mining center, then to Nubia, to the Red Sea port of Aidhab, and to Sawakin.
The sultan directed the postal service in Egypt as its sovereign and prefect, but he appointed as his representative in Damascus wali-l-barid, an emir, the sultan’s deputy. The horses had to be furnished by the sultan, but, in practice, only the horses in the relays at Cairo and in the territory of Egypt proper were paid for out of the sultan’s privy purse. In Syria, the relay horses were furnished by the local tribes which were compensated by land grants. The relay posts were, naturally, simple constructions and the distances between them were not always regular, for it was important that each relay post should possess a well, which necessity often determined the distances between them. Post roads and relays were gradually established during the reign of Baybars. However, the routes were extended and the relays improved by his successors.
Although the postal service was quite rapid considering the means of transport at that time, Baybars was anxious to obtain even more rapid information in case of emergency. He therefore re-established methodically another post by carrier pigeon. The author of the Tarif enumerates all the carrier-pigeon stations, the main one being erected in the Citadel at Cairo. Other principal centers were at Gaza, Damascus, and Aleppo. Secondary stations were established on the roofs of the more important relays of the state post. The Fatimid dynasty had regularly used this kind of information service which was, however, considerably improved by Baybars and his successors. The royal carrier pigeons wore rings around their necks and legs. A type of extra fine paper was specially selected for writing the messages. The dispatch was attached to the neck or tail of the bird. The Arabs succeeded in breeding different species of pigeons, and the best fitted were trained for speed and reliability. Several writings exist dealing with the breeding of pigeons. It seems that the Fatimids had established a special diwan (bureau) for the carrier-pigeon post with precise pedigrees of certain sub-species particularly fitted for this kind of information service. The pigeon post was the more useful as the birds could reach places beyond the stations of the post service with which it was intimately connected.
In order to complete these two information services, Baybars further introduced optic signalling. Like the state and pigeon posts this system had, above all, a military character. It was most important to be kept informed in the shortest possible time of the military movements of the Mongols on the Syrian frontier, or of the Crusaders in the coastal cities they had occupied.
Mamluk State Post — Cairo to Syria
This system of information was simpler and not as costly as the state post. From the frontiers of the empire which were in danger of being invaded, optic signals by fire during the night and by smoke during daylight were transmitted through special stations on elevated ground to Damascus, and from there to Gaza. From Gaza it was easy to transmit the information obtained to Cairo by rapid couriers on the state post, or by carrier pigeons. The stations for optic signalling were generally established near the relays of the post, sometimes also on the towers of the relays.
The successors of Baybars continued his policy, using and improving the harid. During the reign of young rulers, however, the power of the sultan suffered a loss of prestige due to the intrigues of high functionaries. This situation changed when Al-Malik-Al-Nasir-Muhammad ended the intrigues and firmly re-established himself on the sultan’s throne from 1309 to 1340. In order to prevent the recurrence of former troubles he suppressed the function of the vizir and gave full powers to the secretary of state. He became famous for his luxurious living and fervor in building public works, such as the canal connecting Alexandria with the Nile, and an aqueduct to the Citadel of Cairo, and many beautiful mosques, public baths, and schools.
The transfer of administrative power from the vizir to the secretary of state, who was not a “man of the sword” but an intellectual well versed in the bureaucratic traditions, was, in many ways, advantageous for the control of the country. The direction of the state post was in the hands of the state secretary who made some changes in the procedure concerning the sending of the couriers and the presentation of their messages to the sultan. The couriers were given a special note by the secretary indicating their identity and the order of the sultan giving them the right to use the transport by the post, and specifying the number of horses they were permitted to use. The courier’s name, the motive of his mission, and the hour of his departure were marked in a special register kept in the chancery. The note was, at the same time, the laissez-passer for the courier on the Syrian frontier. The reception of the messenger by the sultan was made more solemn. In the presence of other courtiers the secretary presented the message to the sultan and read it to him. It became a custom that the messenger who had arrived towards nightfall should spend the night outside the city and was only introduced into the presence of the sultan the next morning. The number of pages and also the personnel of the relays were augmented.
The autobiography of Abu-al-Fida gives a very lively picture of the almost perfect functioning of the state post. Abu-al-Fida (1273-1331) entered the military service of Sultan Al-Malik-Al-Nasir and was installed in 1310 as governor of Hamat, in Syria. Later he received the rank of a prince and the hereditary rank of a sultan. He is famous particularly tor his historical and geographical works. His autobiography was translated by W. Slane. He very often had to use the state post, and from his description we get a very good idea of how well it functioned, and how richly the relay stations were provisioned. When travelling by the state post in 1320 at the invitation of the sultan, Abu-al-Fida confesses that he did not take any horses from his own stable nor any provisions for himself on the long journey from Hamat to Cairo, a distance of about one hundred and thirty miles. He was accompanied, of course, by his suite.
During the reign of Nasir the roads of the barki leading to the coastal cities and to important commercial centers were reorganized. Some of the relays were transformed into caravanserais for the use of merchants and their transports. The customs duties paid by the merchants covered the expenses of the erection and entertainment of the caravanserais. Some new secondary roads were also made, connecting the chief cities of the neighboring provinces.
The newly-established relays and caravanserais were more spacious and of greater architectural interest, and some of them were fortified. The remains of some of these relays were recently discovered by J. Sauvaget who described them in his study of the Mamluk post. The roads of the state post could also be used by merchants and ordinary travellers. For their comfort water tanks and fountains were built near the caravanserais. The relays were garrisoned by armed watchmen. The officers who assured the security of the roads formed a kind of permanent police force. New settlements were often established near the caravanserais because of the protection they afforded. Small shops built on the roads by enterprising Arabs catered for all the needs of travellers and their animals. It was said that even a woman could safely travel alone from Damascus to Cairo on horse or on foot without needing any special provision of food or water, because she could buy all she needed on the road.
During the reign of Nasir the barid was burdened with another service which had nothing in common with the original plan of the state post, the transport of snow from Damascus to Cairo. This was a luxury service destined to refresh the sultan’s drinks. This transport of snow was originally done by three, later by eleven vessels. When the road of the barid had been reorganized and probably also enlarged, relays of camels were stationed in the caravanserais along the entire route and the snow was transported by the camels,
because they seemed speedier and more convenient. This again shows that the band was regarded as a personal service for the sultan to serve all his needs and fancies.
During the first half of the fourteenth century the state post functioned perfectly. However, after the death of Nasir (1340) the old troubles which were disorganizing the political life of the empire reappeared — the jealousy and ambitions of the Mamluks made the succession to the throne and the administration insecure. “Men of the sword" came to the top once more, and the direction of the barid was again taken from the hands of the civil administrators. The organization could only function well under the strict direction of men conscious of their responsibility. In 1346 we learn that the relays between Cairo and Damascus were disorganized. During the period of the new dynasty of Circassian Mamluks — the Burdji — anarchy became even more general. In such circumstances, of course, the delicate organism of the post could only deteriorate rapidly. The invasion of the Mongol Sultan Tamerlane in 1400 gave the coup de grâce to the Mamluk barid. Syrian relays were deprived of their horses and men by the invader. Limited only to Egyptian territory the barid lost most of its importance, and during the reign of Al Mu’ayyad Shaykh (1412-1421) it ceased to function as a regular state service.
The discovery in 1497 of a passage around the Cape of Good Hope to India by Vasco da Gama contributed to the poverty and misery of the land, because gradually most of the traffic in products from India and Arabia was diverted from Syrian and Plgvptian ports. This caused the disappearance of the main source of national income. The corruption of many sultans, their emirs and Mamluk slaves weakened the state structure and facilitated the successful invasion of Syria by the Ottoman Turks. Sultan Selim I (1512-1520), after defeating the Persians, occupied Mesopotamia and part of Armenia. In 1516 he defeated the Mamluk army near Aleppo and occupied Syria. In 1517 his army destroyed the forces of the Sultan of Egypt near Cairo. The Mamluk Empire became part of the new Ottoman Empire, which thus replaced both the Byzantine and the Arab Empires.
4. Arab Intelligence on Byzantium
It was natural that the caliphs should try to obtain as much information as possible about Byzantium, their archenemy. In this respect they were probably in a less favorable position reciprocally than the Byzantines,
because there were no Arab settlements in Byzantine territory and the hostility of the Christian inhabitants of Asia Minor made it difficult to win over some of them to act as spies or informers ior the Arabs. But, during the first period of their conquest they must frequently have obtained the cooperation of the Christian population, especially in Syria. Abu Yusuf Ja’kab ibn Ibrahim (731-798) in his Kitab al-Kharadj (On Taxes, tr. E. Fagnan) says in the chapter “On churches, synagogues, and crosses” that the Christian population of conquered cities, realizing that the conquerors were leaving them their places of worship and treating them well, had volunteered to send spies into the land of Rum (Byzantium) to obtain information of a military nature. Their spies brought intelligence of a great concentration of imperial troops, and the chiefs of the cities passed this information on to their emir. In recompense for this service the emir gave them back the sums they had paid in taxes.
One can imagine that for similar rewards the Arabs, even in later periods, could find Christian subjects willing to act as spies in Byzantine territory. Many of them continued the commercial relations with Byzantium which they had established in earlier times when their lands were Byzantine provinces.
There were also Byzantine deserters who for political or other reasons sought refuge in the caliphate, offering their services to the Arabs. The most prominent of such refugees was the famous general, Thomas the Slavonic. He took shelter among the Arabs in 797, the year when the Empress Irene dethroned and blinded her son. Constantine V. Thomas stayed In the caliphate for almost twentyfive years. In 820, when Michael II had become emperor after the assassination of Leo V, Thomas, who had already taken Armenia and the Byzantine possessions in the Caucasian region, invaded Asia Minor after concluding an alliance with the Caliph Al-Mamun. The caliph ordered the Patriarch of Antioch to crown Thomas as the new emperor. Thomas provoked a dangerous insurrection supported mostly by the lower classes. With the help of the Arabs he attempted to take Constantinople in 821, but was ultimately defeated and executed.
It is remarkable that Thomas should have dared to provoke and lead a revolt against the emperor after such a long stay in Baghdad, this can perhaps be explained by the extreme precaution with which the Arabs used to treat such refugees.
The insurgent Thomas makes an alliance with the Arabs (ca. 820) (Skyllitzes Matritensis, fol. 31a).
The Byzantine army defends Europos against the Emir of Tarsus (Skyllitzes Matritensis, fol. 97v).
Abu Yusuf Ja’kab, in his Kitab, gives a chapter of advice to the caliph on how to treat foreigners who pass the Arab frontier, who declare that they are com ing to ask protection for themselves and their family, or say that they are envoys from an infidel ruler to the caliph. He says:
. . . when a man passes the frontier and tries to avoid the Arab frontier officers no credence should be given to what he says, and he should not be allowed to enter Arab territory. If he does not avoid the frontier posts one should believe what he says. When it has become evident that the man pretending to be an envoy is bringing a message and gifts to the caliph, he should be left unmolested. He should pay customs duties only for things which he intends to sell.
If a foreigner who has been stopped declares he has left his country in order to become a Muslim, he should not be trusted. What he brings with him should be regarded as spoils for the faithful, unless he really becomes a convert. As far as concerns such a person one has a choice between putting him to death or selling him as a slave.
As far as concerns people who have been convicted of spying, if they are foreigners from a hostile country, Jews, Christians, or Persians who are Arab subjects, they must be decapitated. If they are bad Muslims, one has to inflict painful punishment on them and put them into prison for a long term.
Ja'kab also gives instructions as to how the police stations on the frontier should be established and how they should function:
It is necessary for the caliph to establish police stations on the frontier on roads which lead to the countries of the polytheists. The soldiers who are stationed in them are bound to inspect all merchants passing through. The guards must confiscate all weapons the merchants are carrying with them and such merchants must be sent back. Men who are exporting slaves must also be sent back. All letters which may be found in their possession are to be read, and if they contain something which gives information on Muslim affairs, the bearer of the letter must be arrested and sent to the caliph, who will take the appropriate measures in such a matter.
All this shows that the Arab frontier was well guarded against spies from enemy territory and that all precautions were taken to prevent any leakage of intelligence of Muslim affairs to Byzantium.
Of course, important refugees were always accepted by the Arabs with gladness. This is also shown by the case of the stratege Manuel, who is said to have been the uncle of the Empress Theodora. There are many reports of his career by several Byzantine historians which differ considerably and which contain legendary and romantic traits.
He is said to have saved the life of the Emperor Theophilus in one encounter with the Arabs, and had to seek refuge in the caliphate when the emperor had given credence to false rumors that Manuel was aspiring to the imperial throne. His escape was ascribed to the year 830. All this information has been shown to be legendary. According to the research of H. Grégoire and M. Canard, reviewed by the latter in his edition of V. Vasiliev’s Byzance et les Arabes (I, pp. 413 ff.), Manuel occupied an important position during the reign of Leo V and escaped to the Arabs during the reign of Michael II (820-829), probably during the insurrection of Thomas. He was well received by the Caliph Al-Mamun and, according to the Continuator of Theophanes (p. 118), seems to have rendered great services to the caliph in battling with the rebellious population of Khorasan.
When Theophilus had become emperor in 829, he was anxious to bring Manuel, an uncle of his wife, back to Constantinople. He sent an embassy to ATMamun to announce the beginning of his reign, as was the diplomatic custom, and his ambassador appears to have been John the Grammarian, the future iconoclastic patriarch. Another object of this embassy was to arrange an exchange of war prisoners. Probably at the request of Theophilus, John succeeded in making contact with Manuel. One source says that he did so in the disguise of a poor pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem, which is probably another legend added to Manuel’s history. After assuring Manuel that he had obtained a complete pardon from the empress, he persuaded him to escape from the Arabs. Later Manuel again obtained an important post in Byzantium, and he died in 838 when the Arabs occupied Amorium.
The prisoners of war who returned to their native country formed another possible source of intelligence about Byzantium. The exchange of prisoners of war between Byzantium and the Arabs had become a very interesting feature in the relations between the two empires. The exchange generally took place on the river Lamos and was often inaugurated by embassies sent by the emperors to the caliphs, or vice versa. A special ceremonial accompanied these exchanges, the prisoners being gathered together from all sides and brought to the river under guard of military detachments accompanying the senior officers charged by both sovereigns with effecting the exchange. The captives were counted and made to pass over a bridge on the river one by one, first a Christian, then a Muslim. If the number of Christian prisoners was not equal to that of the Muslims, or vice versa, the rest of the prisoners could be ransomed by money provided by the respective governments.
In his Book of Indications (translated into French by B. Carra de Vaux), pp. 255-263, al-Mas’udi gives a very detailed account of twelve very important exchanges of prisoners made during the reign of the Abbasids. The first was concluded in 811 during the reigns of Nicephorus I and the Caliph Al-Amin on the river Lamos. The last exchange took place under Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and the Caliph Al-Muti in 957, and Mas’udi gives the number of exchanged prisoners and the names of the supervisors of the exchange, often also adding how long the ritual lasted.
Al-Mas’udi’s description of the third exchange, which took piace in 845 under the reigns of the Emperor Michael III (or Theodora) and the Caliph Al-Wathiq. deserves special attention. After giving the name of the Arab in charge of the exchange and the number of exchanged Arab prisoners, Mas’udi continues:
One saw among them— probably among the prisoners from Zapetra [Sozopetra, conquered by the Byzantines in 837] also Moslim, the son of Abu Moslim el-Djarmi, a man who knew well the lands of the frontier, the Greeks and their country, and who had composed works in which he describes their history, their kings, their high officials, their country, the roads which lead to them and which pass through their country, the proper seasons of the year in which they should be attacked, all the people in their neighborhood, such as the Bourdjans [Pechenegues], Avars, Bulgars, Slavs, Khazars and others.
Moslim must have completed his knowledge of Byzantium during the period of his imprisonment and this shows bow much information the prisoners could collect. Mas’udi (p. 262) mentions also some other exchanges of which he had no special knowledge, one under the Caliph Al-Mahdi (775-785), one under Harun Al-Rashid in 797, another in 816. in 861 under Al-Mutawakkil, and in 871 under the Caliph Al-Mu’tamid.
Some exchanges of prisoners are also mentioned by other Arabic writers. M. Canard translated the passages concerning the relations between Byzantium and the Arabs in the appendices to his edition of Vasiliev’s Byzance et les Arabes (tome 1, 2). His translations from Tabari’s Arabic Chronicle (tome I, 2, pp. 278-328) are most welcome, as only parts of Tabari’s work are accessible in translation (the exchange of prisoners in 845, pp. 311-315).
Mas’udi tells us in volume 8 (pp. 75-88) of his Meadows of Gold (translated into French by de Maynard and de Courteille) an interesting story said to have taken place in the reign of Muawiya.
Some Muslim war prisoners were brought to Constantinople and presented to the emperor; one of the officials of patrician rank slapped a prisoner who seems to have been a scion of a prominent Arab tribe. The prisoner protested and complained that Muawiya was a bad ruler if such an insult could be inflicted on a Muslim without being avenged. Released after an exchange of prisoners, he returned to Baghdad and saw the caliph, who had already been informed by other freed prisoners of the incident. Muawiya reproached the man loi his complaint of the caliph s impotence in not preventing such an insult to a Muslim, and promised to avenge it. He therefore hired a merchant from Tyre and asked him to befriend the patrician during his next visit to Constantinople and to bring him by a ruse to Tyre and Baghdad. The ruse succeeded and the patrician was brought into the presence of the caliph, who called for the Muslim insulted by the patrician, and asked him to inflict on the Greek exactly the same maltreatment as the Greek had inflicted on him. It was done, and the released Muslim warrior kissed the feet and hand of the caliph, thanking him that he had avenged the insult inflicted on a Muslim. After that the caliph treated the patrician with respect and sent him back to Constantinople with many presents for the emperor, who thanked the caliph for his magnanimous treatment of the patrician. After that, during the reign of Muawiya, no other Muslim prisoner was maltreated.
This is one of the anecdotes which the Arab writers liked to add to their historical accounts, but it reveals several facts which seem to be important. First, Mas udi’s tale reveals that commercial relations between the Arab Empire and Constantinople existed in the tenth century, and illustrates, at the same time, how easy it was for the Arabs to penetrate by this means into the capital whence the merchants could bring important intelligence to the caliphs. The incident mentioned by Mas’udi could have happened. The Arab prisoners, when brought to the capital, were first collected in the Hippodrome, as is reported by Constantine VII in his Book of Ceremonies, II, chs. 19, 20, pp. 607-615, in describing the ceremonies to be observed when a victory was celebrated by an emperor; being exposed to the excited populace, the prisoners may well have been insulted and humiliated.
From the same passage we can conclude that the Arab prisoners were generally put in the Praetorian prison near the office of the Eparch of the city. The emperor himself used to visit this prison and, if this is so, he certainly did not omit to see the Arab officers also. Nicetas Choniates (p. 731) speaks about another place called Mitaton where Muslim merchants were gathered.
There was a mosque where the prisoners could worship, which was near the church of Hagia Irene.
It is interesting to read what al-Makrizi, writing in 985, said about the dwelling for noble Arab prisoners in Constantinople:
“When Maslama ibn Abdal-malik invaded the country of the Romans and penetrated into their territory he stipulated that the Byzantine dog should erect near his own palace in the Hippodrome a special building for Muslim notables and noblemen when they are taken prisoner.”
P. K. Hitti, in his History of the Arabs (p. 204), when quoting al-Makrizi, adds that this building, al-Balat, is referred to by Jaqut as being in use between 944 and 967. The Arabic writer of the tenth century, al-Mukaddasi, also speaks of this place.
Another story concerning the treatment of Arab prisoners in Constantinople is related by the Arab writer al-Tanuhi (949-994), translated by Canard in the collection of Arabic texts bearing on Byzantine history of the late ninth and tenth centuries (Byzance et les Arabes, tome II, pp. 286 ff.). Al-Tanuhi recounts that Ali ibn Isa, the famous vizir of the Caliph Al-Muqtadir, complained to his friend that he had been informed how badly Arab prisoners were treated upon the accession of “two young emperors,” although until then they had been treated with kindness and consideration. Now they were deprived of food and clothing, tortured, and forced to accept the Christian faith. He asked his friend how he could improve their lot, short of war, and was advised that an embassy should be sent to Constantinople representing the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem, to remonstrate with the emperors. If the maltreatment of the prisoners did not cease, reprisals would have to be taken against the Christian subjects of the caliph. The patriarchs wrote a letter declaring that such maltreatment of prisoners was un-Christian and threatened excommunication if it continued. Their envoys, accompanied by a Saracen, reached Constantinople and, after a delay, were admitted to the imperial presence. The emperor denied the report of maltreatment and asked them to go to the Praetorium jail to see how the Arabs were treated. The envoys found them in good health, well clothed and well fed, but saw that their clothes were new and that their faces showed signs of past suffering. The prisoners asked them whom they had to thank for the amelioration of their state. The Arab envoys said that the intervention of the vizir Ali ibn Isa had brought about this change.
In examining the report of the Arab writer, R. J. H. Jenkins, in his paper on “The Emperor Alexander and the Saracen Prisoners,” came to the conclusion that it was based on truth.
The “young emperors” were Alexander, who succeeded his brother Leo VI in 912, and Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who was only eight years old. Alexander, who reigned only thirteen months, was also responsible for the maltreatment of a Bulgarian embassy which had provoked Symeon of Bulgaria to declare war on Byzantium. He also changed the friendly attitude of his late brother towards the Arab prisoners.
The Byzantine answer to this intervention of the vizir in favor of the Arab prisoners is contained in a letter of Patriarch Nicholas Mysticus who was a member of the regency during the minority of Constantine VII. In this letter (PG, letter 102) the patriarch rejects the accusations concerning the treatment of the prisoners, affirming that they have always been treated with philanthropy and given everything they needed for their comfort. They were not forced to become Christians, but had free access to the mosque which was kept with the same care as the mosques in Saracen territory. Asking the vizir to stop any persecution of Christians, the patriarch sent a few Arab prisoners with his embassy who would testify that their comrades were well treated.
The existence of a mosque for the Muslims in Constantinople in the tenth century is thus confirmed by the report of Porphyrogenitus and by the letter of Nicholas Mysticus. Its foundation on the initiative of Maslama, although mentioned by Porphyrogenitus, is doubtful. It seems to have been constructed by the Byzantine government at a much earlier date for Arab prisoners, exiles, merchants, and visitors, in order to give them the opportunity to worship according to their customs and to show good will to the caliphs. Arab sources speak about this mosque in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It seems to have been several times destroyed and rebuilt, notably in 1049 by Constantine Monomach. Nicetas Choniates (p. 696), when speaking about a revolt during the reign of Alexis Angelos, mentions also that the mosque was destroyed by the rebels (1201).
Another mosque was constructed, according to Arab sources, by Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195). This was the mosque near the church of Hagia Irene, noted above. This mosque was pillaged and burned, according to Nicetas Choniates (p. 731) in 1203 by the Pisans and Venetians. It was defended by the Muslims residing in the district Mitaton, this time aided by the Greeks. Al-Makrizi, in his history of the Mamluk sultans (transi, by E. M. Quatremère, p. 117), speaks of a third mosque constructed by Michael VIII Paleologus.
Sultan Baybars is said to have sent precious objects to the emperor for the decoration of the mosque.
After his return to Syria, one of the Arab prisoners in Byzantium enriched Arabic literature with an interesting description of Constantinople, of the ceremonial banquets offered by the emperor, and of the emperor’s procession to the Great Church. It is Harun-Ibn-Yahya, who was captured by the Byzantines during one of the many Arab invasions of Asia Minor, probably during the reign of Basil II. He was brought by sea with other prisoners from Ascalon to Attalia; from there the prisoners were carried on mail-horses for three days to Nicaea, and in another three days to the river Sangarius. They then marched in two days to a port whence they reached Constantinople. The Arabic text is not exact. Vasiliev thought that Nigiya should be Iconium. This is impossible. There may be mistakes in counting days and how long the journey took, but Nigiya can only be Nicaea, an important junction on the military road. This passage shows that from Attalia a post road went to Nicaea.
It is evident from this account of Harun-Ibn-Yahya that he had enjoyed free access to all the famous places in the city. He may have been a Christian subject of the caliph, or an Arab convert. His description of the city is picturesque and quite accurate. He describes the imperial palace with its gates, vestibules and treasures, the hippodrome, the column of Justinian, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, an aqueduct, the Golden Gate, and some of the monasteries.
He depicts also the ceremonial banquet at Christmas to which also the Muslim prisoners were invited. The guests were entertained by music on organ and cymbals; after the banquet each Muslim captive received two dinars end three dirhems. It is clear from this that Arab prisoners were well treated in Constantinople.
Following his description of Constantinople, Yahya describes how he travelled from Constantinople to Rome, through Salonica and Kitros; from there he travelled for almost one month through Slavic lands to the city of Balasio-Spalato. He visited Venice and Pavia, “the city of the Lombards.” After that he gives a description of Rome and some geographical indications. From Rome Burgundy (Burgan) can be reached in three months, and from there in a month one arrives in the land of the Franks, and beyond France is Brittania ruled by seven kings. Harun-Ibn-Yahya, however, did not visit these lands, and what he says about them is from hearsay, and from what he had learned in Rome.
Fortunately, a contemporary of Harun-Ibn-Yahya, the Arabo-Persian writer Ibn Rosteh (Rosta) copied his description and itinerary into his geographical Book of Precious Things, and his text was published in De Goeje’s Bibliotheca of Arabic Geographers, vol. VII.
Another suitable means of obtaining information on Byzantine affairs was provided by embassies sent to Constantinople, or received from there at the courts of the caliphs. It became diplomatic usage to exchange embassies on the occasion of the enthronement o a new emperor or a new caliph. The envoys would bring with t em letters of good wishes and congratulations and rich presents to the new rulers. Embassies were also sent, as previously mentioned to arrange for the exchange of prisoners. The Byzantines chose their ambassadors carefully, many of them being related to the ruling amilies, and all occupying high positions at court.
According to the historian and geographer al-Mas’udi (died 956), the first embassy was sent to Byzantium by the Caliph Omar. Al-Mas’udi’s report on this embassy in his Meadows of Gold, transated into French (vol. 8, pp. 422-424), deserves to be quoted:
Omar sent an embassy to the King of Byzantium with the aim of arranging certain affairs and to claim some rights for the Musulmans. The king received the envoys, assisted by his interpreter, sitting on his throne with the crown on his head, having on his right and left side patricians and faced by men ranged according to the ranks of their offices. After the envoys had explained the goal of their mission, he received them graciously and he addressed them in most courteous terms. After that they retired. The next day, early in the morning, a messenger asked them to appear before the emperor. When they had entered the palace they found the emperor at the feet of the throne, his head bare of the crown, with a visage all different from that they had seen the day before, as if a great misfortune had befallen him. The emperor asked them if they knew why he had requested them to see him, and, after they had expressed their ignorance, he announced to them: “I have just received at this moment a letter from my general commanding the border on the Arabic side. He announces to me that the King of the Arabs, that virtuous man, has died.” After hearing these words, they could not restrain their tears. “Why are you weeping,” asked the Emperor, “because of your fate, because of your religion, or because of your King?” “We are lamenting because of all this ” said the envoys. “Do not lament for him, although you can be desolate for yourself As concerns him, he departed for a world which is better than t vat he has left. ... I was well informed about his private life and his public activities, and I found that he was constantly and faithfully fulfilling his duties to his Lord.”
Al-Mas’udi may have exaggerated to some extent the eulogy of the emperor on the dead caliph, but the story has its historical basis. Omar was venerated by the Arabs for his piety, and his simple private life could have been known at the Byzantine court; there is no reason why a Christian emperor could not pay respectful homage to the memory of his dead antagonist. The emperor in question could only have been Constans II (641-668), and the date of the first known Arab embassy to Constantinople was the year of Omar’s death, 644. It should also be noted that cursus publicus and the imperial intelligence service must have worked well in the seventh century, because the emperor received such speedy intelligence of the death of the caliph when the envoys sent by the Arab rider were still in Constantinople.
Quite interesting stories are connected with some of those embassies. It is said, for example, that an envoy of Constantine V sent to Mansur, who was building the city of Baghdad, was responsible for laying out the town of Karkh, a suburb south of Baghdad, where all commercial and industrial activity was concentrated. The envoy is said to have first admired the splendid buildings shown to him, but to have remarked that the caliph’s enemies could be within the middle of the city. Asked what he meant by this remark, he explained that it was unwise to have the market place inside the city because foreign merchants, admitted inside the walls, could have opportunities of acting as spies and traitors. Mansur understood, and removed the market place to the suburb. This story is related by the best Arabic historian, Tabari, who died in 923, and it has been copied by many later authorities.
Another story is connected with the embassy sent by the Emperor Constantine V in 775, to congratulate the Caliph Al-Mahdi on his accession to the throne. The name of the ambassador is given by Arab sources as Tarath, who was himself fifth in descent from the Emperor Maruk. This could mean the fifth generation from the Emperor Maurice, who died in 602. This counting corresponds to the date of Mansur’s reign. Tarath offered to construct a water mill on the Şarat canal for the caliph. The caliph accepted the offer and placed five hundred thousand dirhems at Tarath’s disposal, the patrician assuring him that the yearly rents from the water mill would amount to such a sum. So it happened, and the grateful caliph ordered that the rents should be bestowed on the patrician; the money was sent yearly to Constantinople to the builder of the water mill.
This account written in 891 by Ya’kubi is often regarded as a pleasant invention, but it seems that it has its historical basis. Bury (A History of the Eastern Roman Empire, pp. 241 ff.) may be right in his interpretation. He sees in the patrician Tarath the name Tarasius, the future patriarch. Before his elevation to the patriarchate Tarasius had occupied a high position at court, and it would be in the diplomatic tradition of Byzantine protocol to send a high official with great knowledge as ambassador to the Caliph Al-Mahdi. He may have been accompanied by an imperial official who had good knowledge of engineering.
We have already mentioned the embassy of John the Grammarian in 829-830, and the other embassies from Theophilus to Al-Mamun in 831, 832, and 833 are mentioned by Arab historians. In 845, Theodora started negotiations for an exchange of prisoners, sending an embassy to Caliph Al-Mutawakkil with rich presents.
The exchange of prisoners mentioned by Arab and Byzantine sources in 866 must have been prepared also by an embassy, as was customary. This embassy had also to announce to the Arab court the change in the supreme government in Byzantium. Theoctistus, the logothete of Theodora, was assassinated on the twentieth of November, 855, by Michael’s uncle Bardas and his conspirators. Theodora was forced to surrender control of the government and Michael III was proclaimed by the senate as independent ruler. According to diplomatic usage any change on the throne had to be announced to the Arab partner and vice versa. Michael III and Bardas were certainly anxious to inform Al-Mutawakkil of this change as early as possible. An embassy was composed and sent to Baghdad during the winter.
Among the patricians who formed the embassy was also the secretary of the imperial chancery, the future patriarch Photius. On this occasion, most probably, he must have formed a friendship with a prominent Arab because his disciple Nicholas Mysticus, in one of his letters, reminds his reader that his spiritual father Photius had entertained friendly relations with his father. It is a matter of controversy as to whom this letter had been sent. If it was addressed to the emir of Crete of whom Nicholas had requested the release of Christian prisoners brought by Leo of Tripoli from Thessalonika, which was ravaged by Leo in 904, and whom he had disembarked in Crete, then Photius s friend was probably the son of the conqueror of Crete, Shuyab ben Omar. If, however, this letter was addressed to the Caliph Al-Muqtafi (902-908), Photius must have been in friendly contact with his father, the Caliph Al-Mu’tadid (892-902) before the latter had become caliph.
Both suppositions are possible, although we have no other evidence for either of them besides the mention of Photius in the letter of his disciple Nicholas. In any event, it is interesting to note that friendly relations between Arab and Greek intellectuals could have existed, and may have been initiated during an embassy.
A further Arab embassy was sent to Michael III in 860, again having as its purpose an exchange of prisoners. Tabari has given us an interesting and picturesque account of this embassy, translated by M. Canard (Byzance et les Arabes, tome I, 2, p. 321). The Byzantines first refused to admit the Arab ambassador Nasr-ibn-al-Azhar to the audience hall because he presented himself in a black dress and bearing his sword, dagger, and turban. The ambassador, offended, threatened to leave, but was called back by the emperor’s uncle, Petronas, and admitted to the imperial presence. He had, however, to wait four months for a second audience. He must thus have enjoyed good opportunities for observation which could be of interest to Baghdad. He presented the message of the caliph together with the rich presents sent to the emperor. Michael was sitting on his throne, but did not pronounce one word during the whole audience. All conversation was carried on by Petronas, the emperor’s uncle, through interpreters, the emperor manifesting his consent or refusal by nodding or shaking his head.
Nicholas Mysticus addressed another letter to the Caliph Al-Muqtadir (908-932) in which he asked the caliph to liberate the Christians of Cyprus who had been carried off into slavery by Damian of Tarsus during his raid on Cyprus in 912. Cyprus, since 688, had been neutral territory bound to take neither side in any conflict between the Byzantines and the Arabs, and to pay taxes in equal shares to Byzantium and the Muslims. The Byzantines regarded this raid as a violation of the treaty of 688. In the Life of St. Demetrianos, the Bishop of Chytri in Cyprus, published by H. Grégoire, it is said that the saint had reached Baghdad and had pleaded successfully for the release of the captives. It is hardly possible that the caliph would have released the captives only on the solicitation of one local bishop — as the hagiographer has it — without the support of any official action of protest by the Byzantine government. Demetrianos was certainly accompanied by some other important personalities, and the mission was followed up by a written remonstrance from the Patriarch Nicholas, who was at that time head of the council of regency for the child Emperor Constantine VII.
The letter most probably reached Baghdad when Demetrianos, together with Cypriot nobles, was at the residence of the caliph, and he may have delivered it in person.
Letter no. 1 contains some interesting statements revealing how the two great powers regarded each other. The patriarch begins his letter with the affirmation that all power on earth is from God. Therefore, all who exercise it are united in a spiritual brotherhood, and should be in constant and friendly intercourse with one another.
It this is true of minor rulers, how much more should it be true for those who exercise the greatest authority, who dispose of much greater power, who are adorned with far greater honors. . . . What does this mean for us? It means that there are two empires which together dominate the earth, that of the Saracens and that of the Romans, which scintillate like two immense stars in the celestial firmament. Because of this alone we should entertain relations of community and brotherhood and we should avoid hostility to each other under the pretext that we differ in our kind of life, in our customs, and in our religion.
This is a definition of a new political theory which deserves our attention. Anyhow, in this case, the words of the Patriarchal Regent found a favorable echo in the Arab capital and Bishop Demetrianos was allowed to bring the members of his flock back to Cyprus in the autumn of 913. This letter is translated by M. Canard in V. Vasiliev, Byzance et les Arabes (tome II, 1, pp. 403 ff.)
Another remarkable Byzantine envoy to Baghdad was Leo Choerosphactes who was charged in 905 by Leo VI to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. His first mission succeeded, but the Byzantines saw themselves forced to stop the exchange because of the revolt of Ducas, and the ambassador had to return to Constantinople. It appears that during the winter of 905-906 the vizir addressed a letter to Choerosphactes reproaching him for the interruption of the exchange and criticizing many articles of the Christian Creed. Leo answered the letter by a missive in which he defended the Christian doctrines criticized by the vizir and himself found fault with some beliefs of the Muslim religion. This letter is preserved among writings attributed to Arethas of Caesarea and is dated by some scholars between 918 and 923. M. Canard, who published the translation of the letters of the Patriarch Nicholas in the appendix to his Byzance et les Arabes (tome II, 1, pp. 399 ff.), also gives a résume of Arethas’s letter and of the different opinions concerning its authorship and dates. It seems that we should regard Leo as the author. He may have written the letter in Constantinople before his second mission in the spring of 906,
during which the agreement to continue the exchange of prisoners was concluded, and not after his return from the second embassy.
Let us put aside the controversy as to the authorship of this letter and let us stress one thing, namely, that during the stay of Byzantine envoys in Baghdad religious disputations often took place. This is shown by this letter which is a kind of religious polemical pamphlet. But we have another example of this kind. The Old Slavonic Life of St. Constantine-Cyril contains an account of a religious discussion Constantine held with Arab theologians. He is said to have been twenty-four years old when he was sent on an embassy to Al-Mutawakkil. I have shown that such an embassy could really have taken place in 851, that it was led by a patrician named George, and the goal of the embassy was to ask for a prolongation of the armistice, which was, however, not granted by the caliph.
Let us recall in this connection the report on an embassy sent by Constantine Porphyrogenitus in 957-58 to the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz proposing a perpetual truce between the Caliph of Ifrigiya and Byzantium. The answer given by the caliph to the ambassador contains several quotations from the Koran forbidding a perpetual peace with the unbelievers. The caliph refused to send an embassy to the emperor because
“he was not in need of him, neither was he in any way obliged to him. ... It would be, of course, quite a different thing if we had to correspond with him in a matter touching religion. Now, although such a correspondence is permitted to him by his religion, we think he [the emperor] would dislike it. If we knew that he would accede to our demand if we sent an envoy in that matter, we would find it possible to send an ambassador as he [the emperor], and you [the envoy] have asked. We would not do that, were it not for the sake of Almighty God and His religion. ...”
The editor of this document, S. M. Stern, remarks that the last sentence is not clear. It may mean that the caliph invited the emperor to accept Islam or, perhaps — this seems more probable — to take an active part in the religious disputation conducted by letters.
This discussion was written by a contemporary Arab writer called al-Nu’man. This information should be completed by that given by an author of the fifteenth century, Imad al-din-Idris. He mentions the Byzantine embassy to Al-Muizz, and gives information about the curious attempts of Al-Muizz to convert the emperor. He says,
“The Commander of the Faithful Al-Muizz composed a book and sent it to him [the emperor]. It contains examples of the errors of the Christians and proves the prophesy of Muhammad which they deny. . . .
This book, composed by the Commander of the Faithful Al-Muizz for the ruler of the Byzantines, is well known and is still in existence."
The editor, S. M. Stern, has found at least some traces of this book composed by Al-Muizz in an Arabic manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
All this is instructive and shows that the presence of Byzantine ambassadors at Arab courts very often led to discussions on religious matters. This indicates that among the members of the Byzantine embassies there must also have been some attachés well versed in theology, such as Constantine-Cyril-called the Philosopher.
Such was most probably also the function of the future Patriarch Photius, who participated in the embassy sent by Michael III in 855 to the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. The embassy was sent in order to announce the change on the Byzantine throne and to conduct the negotiations for a new exchange of prisoners which took place in 856 on the river Lamos, as has been said before.
As we have seen from the advice given by Harun Al-Rashid, the Byzantine envoys were well treated, but also kept under close surveillance during their stay at the residence of the caliphs. In this respect, the Arabs imitated strictly the precautions taken on such occasions by the Byzantines. The reception of the ambassadors was surrounded with the utmost imaginable splendor and magnificence, imitating and perhaps surpassing the splendid ceremonial observed by the Byzantines on such occasions. The historian of Baghdad, al-Katib (1059), described in detail the reception of the patricians John Radimus and Michael Toxaras, sent by the Empress Zoë in 917 to the Caliph Al-Muqtadir in Baghdad. It was translated into English by G. Le Strange, and a French summary is given by M. Canard (Byzance et les Arabes, tome II, 1, pp. 239-243).
The envoys were greeted first by the caliph's noblemen in the city of Tekrit on the Tigris, where they were the caliph’s guests for two months, resting after their journey. On their arrival at Baghdad they were lodged in a residence prepared for them in the upper part of East Baghdad. For their reception the residence of the caliph was decorated with magnificent tapestries and luxurious furniture. The envoys were brought in state by the Great Road to the Public Gate of the palace precincts, troops in full parade order in a double line flanking the road for the whole of this distance. The envoys were taken first to the palace known as the Riding House, built with porticoes of marble columns. On the right of this palace stood five hundred mares with saddles of gold and silver, on the left five hundred mares with brocade saddle-cloths and long headcovers.
Each horse was held by a groom in splendid uniform. After passing through various corridors and halls, decorated for the occasion, they were introduced into the Park of the Wild Beasts with separate housing for various kinds of wild animals, the beasts coming close to the visitors and eating from their hands. Four elephants were caparisoned in peacock silk brocade. In another palace were a hundred lions, fifty on each side with their keepers, as the envoys passed through. Other tamed wild animals were all brought out for the inspection of the ambassadors.
After that they were guided to the Palace of the Tree. In its middle stood a tree made of silver surrounded by a great tank with clear water. The tree had eighteen branches with numerous twigs. On them sat various kinds of mechanical birds of gold and silver. The branches of the tree were of silver and gold, carrying leaves of diverse colors. The leaves moved as the wind blew, and the birds piped and sang. It is evident that the caliphs were inspired by Byzantine examples and tried to surpass them.
After that the ambassadors were brought to the Palace of Paradise richly decorated. On the halls of the palace were hanging ten thousand gilded breast-plates. In the long, neighboring corridors were ranged on stands ten thousand other pieces of armor and arms. Two thousand eunuchs, both white and black, were standing in the corridor. After that they inspected the corps d'élite of the pages and guards. On this long tour of inspection they had to rest and were served with iced beverages and beer. At last they reached the Palace of the Crown on the bank of the Tigris, where they were received by the caliph sitting on the throne wearing a magnificent vestment embroidered with gold. His five sons and the vizir stood near him. After kissing the floor as a sign of respect for the caliph the envoys were presented by the vizir to Muqtadir, to whom they explained through interpreters the goal of their embassy, which was the exchange of prisoners. The audience lasted one hour. The caliph presented to them a sealed letter addressed to the emperor announcing his granting of the envoys’ requests. The latter kissed the letter respectively and were conducted through the private gate to the Tigris where they embarked in a decorated boat which brought them to their residence. The caliph sent to each of them fifty purses each containing five thousand dirhems.
This was perhaps the most splendid reception of a Byzantine embassy in Baghdad. We can see that the Arabs followed the same policy on such occasions as did the Byzantines. The exhibition of the treasures in the palace which dazzled the envoys was intended to show them how inexhaustible were the riches of the Arabic Empire;
the many servants, eunuchs, and courtiers surrounding the ( aliph in splendid uniforms stressed the unique and majestic position of the ruler of the faithful; the parade of escorting soldiers and the admission to the arsenal was meant to manifest to them the military might of the Muslim world.
One can ask to what extent this information collected by the different sources of intelligence was accessible to the Arabic intellectuals and how this knowledge was reflected in Arabic literature. When studying the reorganization of the Byzantine Empire into themata, the specialists have to complete the information given by Byzantine authors with the writings of some Arabic authors. Most of this information is given by some Arabic geographers. We have already mentioned Ibn Khordadhbeh of Persian descent, who died about 912, and who was director of the post. In his Book on Roads and Provinces, he gives not only a detailed account of the highways and posting stations of the Arabic Empire, but also a description of Byzantine provinces and their organization, of their officials with different salaries, and of the Byzantine army. The main source for his information was the Muslim whom al-Mas’udi has mentioned describing the exchange of prisoners in 845. A similar description of the Byzantine Empire is given by the geographer Kudama Ibn Ja’far (Kodama), who died in 922. Ya’kubi, who lived in the second liait of the ninth century, wrote a Book of Countries in which he described mostly the great Arabic cities with topographical and economic details. He is said to have also written a Book on the Romans which unfortunately has been lost.
Al-Mas’udi, who had journeyed through almost all the countries of Asia and even visited Zanzibar, compiled a thirty-volume work of encyclopaedic and historico-geographical character, of which only an epitome, Meadows of Cold and Mines of Gems, is preserved. He did not limit himself to typically Muslim subjects, but gave interesting accounts of some Indo-Persian subjects and of Roman and Jewish history. He also gives much information on Byzantium, its history, emperors, provinces, and even on its army, on the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, which he calls the Khazar Sea. Much of this information is preserved also in a brief index with additions to his former works, published under the title The Book of Indications and Revision. The Arabs are the initiators of mediaeval geography.
In this respect they superseded the Romans and Byzantines. Of course, Arabic geographers were interested first in the description of their own countries, but many of them ventured very far from their homeland and described the experiences of their travels or of the travels of others in their geographical works.
The cursus publicus in eastern Asia Minor and Syria, as depicted in Segment X of the Tabula Peutingeriana, a 12th-century copy of an original Roman Imperial map (K. Miller, Die Peutingersche Tafel oder Weltkarte des Cassorius).
They got their inspiration from Ptolemy. The Caliph Al-Mamun caused an Arab version of Ptolemy’s great astronomical work to be published about 815, and the geography of Ptolemy was also known and often quoted by Arab writers. Muslim traders returning from distant lands and alien peoples aroused interest; an anonymous author described in 851 the account of the journeys of Sulaiman into the Far East, giving the first Arabic description of China and the coastlands of India. From this and other narratives evolved the famous and popular stories of Sinbad the Sailor.
Many of the reports preserved by Arabic geographers are important sources for the history of eastern peoples. For example, the earliest reliable account of Russia is that of Ibn Fadlan. He was sent in 921 by the Caliph Al-Muqtadir as ambassador to the Volga Bulgars. Fortunately, most of his report is reproduced in Ibn Yakut’s monumental Geographical Dictionary. Al-Jakubi has also preserved important accounts on the Slavic peoples. Al-Mas’udi also speaks of Muslim traders among al-Dir, Slavic tribes probably living near the Pripet. The Spanish Jew Ibn Ja’qub gave an account of his embassy from the Spanish Muslim court to the Emperor Otto the Great.
Other geographers of the ninth and tenth centuries are Al-Balkhi, ca. 850, whose work consists chiefly of regional maps; Al-Istakhri's Book of Roads and Provinces was revised by Ibn Haukal (ca. 977). Al-Makdisi s work shows more originality. Al-Bakri, a western Muslim geographer, wrote The Book of Roads and Kingdoms (about 1050), which has survived. Many works of earlier geographers are preserved in Ibn Yakut’s Geographical Dictionary (ca. 1225).
Of special interest is the geographer al-Idrisi. Born in Ceuta in 1099, he travelled widely in Europe, Africa, and the Levant before he became royal geographer to Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily.
In 1154, he wrote at Roger’s court a geographical treatise with the curious title The Pleasure of the Ardent Enquirer, also called The Book of Roger. He preserved much important information for the history of southern Italy and other lands, such as Spain, Africa, Finland, Poland, and others. Among them is the report of Sallam, leader of the expedition sent by the caliph about the middle of the ninth century by land to the Chinese Wall.
This short sketch of Arab exploration of neighboring and even far distant lands shows to what extent the Arabs, in this respect, differed from the Romans and the Byzantines.
Asia Minor as shown in the Arab map of al-Idrisi. Note that the Black Sea is at the bottom, and the Mediterranean Sea at the top (Mappae Arabicae).
Most of the intelligence contained in these and similar writings had little military importance. but was of great interest in the economic and commercial expansion of the Arab world.
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