The Splendor of Persia; Under The Conquerors
By: Robert Payne, New York 1957
The small compact Arab army brought the Persian empire to its knees. Under a succession of great generals, the Arabs went on to conquer Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. Within a hundred years of the Prophet's death, they had forced their way into central France, the armies of the Moslems being defeated at last by the army of an obscure princeling, Charles the Hammer. The Persians fought with more slender weapons --scholarship, an unerring taste in art, a natural sense of supremacy. Soon the conquerors were conquered. A hundred years after the battle of Nehavend, Persian culture was making so deep an impression upon the Arabs that the marauding tribesmen were beginning to behave like Persians, wearing Persian clothes and reciting Persian poetry and subtly accepting Persian ideas. The world had been lost, only to be won again.
In nearly everything, the Persian temperament differed from the Arab temperament. The Persians were a settled people, who liked bright colors, flowing draperies, luxury after hard riding and hunting, the majesty of Kings. The Prophet said all men were brothers, the Prophet himself being brother to the meanest Negro slave, while the Persians wondered how a peasant could be the brother of a nobleman. They were feudal and caste-ridden and believed deeply in the portentous godgiven powers of Kings, visible or invisible. They were both gay and disputatious by instinct, and did not take easily to dogma. For more than a thousand years they had worshipped fire and regarded the summer and winter palaces of their Kings as the centres from which the beneficent influence of Ahuramazda spread out like the rings on the surface of a pond when a stone is thrown into it. They were passionately fond of women, flowers, and animals. The stern morality of Mohammad met the fierce Persian delight in luxury, their love of the splendor in all created things. It was inevitable that Persian Mohamadanism would become, in time, profoundly different from the Mohamadanism practiced by the Arabs. In the end the Persians succeeded in inventing their own form of Mohamadanism, and in so doing they split the Mohamadan world in two. They set up their own places of pilgrimage and against the whole testimony of the Koran offered subdued worship to the descendants of the Prophet, and they continued to perform in the guise of a Mohamadan festival the great spring festival which was once performed by the Achaemenian Kings. To this day, the Arabs regard the Persians as heretics. The Orthodox Moslems call themselves Sunnis, meaning that they follow the Sunna, the remembered words and actions of the Prophet. Persian Moslems are called Shi'a, meaning "those who have broken away."
For about a hundred and fifty years after the Conquest, the Persians were governed by officers of the Mohamadan Caliphs, first from Medina and afterwards from Baghdad. These officers were determined to obliterate all vestiges of Zoroastrianism and of the Sasanian state. They destroyed and defaced, wherever they were able, the monuments of the Persian Kings. They milked the wealth of Persia. Arab armies were continually putting down small rebellions in Persia.
One circumstance helped immeasurably to unify the Persian spirit. Mohammad himself had never been on Persian soil, but his son-in-law Ali had fought in the wars of succession within the boundaries of the country. The Caliphate had passed into the hands of the Companions of the Prophet. Abu Bekr, Omar, and Othman had each briefly ruled over the empire of Islam. The Persians with their belief in the divinity of the sovereign adopted Islam, while refusing to accept the doctrine of the elective Caliphate. They believed that the Caliph, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Islam, must be descended from Mohammad or at least related to him by marriage. Accordingly, they regarded Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, as their rightful King, and when Ali was stabbed to death in Kufa, their loyalty went to Ali's son, Hussayn. But the Ommayad Caliphs from their capital in Damascus were determined that the succession should -remain in their hands. When Hussayn set out from Mecca to Kufa, expecting to be greeted with open arms by the people, an army sent out by the Ommayad Caliph was waiting for him. Hussayn was heavily outnumbered. On the night before the battle, Hussayn and his followers dug a trench behind them and filled it with burning faggots to CUt off their own retreat. On the -next morning, sword in one hand, Koran in the other, he led his followers against the enemy. One after another they fell to the Ommayad arrows, until only Hussayn remained alive. Two of his sons and six of his brothers lay dead around him when the Ommayads stepped forward to put an end to a life they had deliberately spared until the last moment. Then thirty-three Ommayad soldiers attacked him simultaneously, every man thrusting at him with a sword or a lance. They trampled on his body, cut off his head and brought it triumphantly to Kufa. There the governor of the city struck the head with his stick, and in the awful silence that followed, an old man was heard saying: "Gently! Alas, I have seen those very lips kissed by the Prophet of God!"
A shudder ran through Islam. The Ommayad Caliph soon came to realize the enormity of his crime. The women who had accompanied Hussayn and his youngest son were spared, and later sent back to Mecca, but the harm had been done. On that day, the tenth day of the month Moharran, Islarn received its worst blow. Henceforward "Revenge for Hussayn!" became the watchword of the Shins, and every year in this same month they performed the passion play describing the death of the martyr Hussayn. Their most fervent wish was to be buried near Kerbela, some sixty miles south of Baghdad, where the tomb of the martyr was at once a place of pilgrimage and an accusation against the reigning Caliphs. For the Shiites, Kerbela remains the holiest place in the world.
Hussayn was dead, but there still remained the descendants of his flesh. He was the first Imam, and all his descendants in the line of succession were given this title. The Shiites believe there have been twelve Imams, and the last of them, Mohammad, is said to have disappeared somewhere within the city of Samarra about A.D. 874. They believe he is still alive and will return in the last days, riding a white charger, to convert the whole world to the Shiite faith. This twelfth Imam, also known as the Mahdi, is the invisible and spiritual Emperor who rules over their lives.
From Damascus, the Ommayad Caliphs, styling themselves the Vice-regents of God on earth and claiming spiritual powers as well as earthly dominion, continued to rule over the new Moslem empire which extended from Arabia to the gates of Constantinople. Cultivated and pleasure-loving, surrounding themselves with artists from Byzantium, Egypt, and Persia, strangely tolerant, they held power for nearly a hundred years. It was the Ommayad Caliph, employing Byzantine architects, who built the Dome of the Rock, wrongly called the Mosque of Omar, on the site where Abraham sacrificed the ram instead of Isaac and where Mohammad alighted on his mysterious night journey to Jerusalem and where once had stood the Temple of the Jews, Fourteen Caliphs followed one another on the throne of Damascus. Nearly all were able. Two, Abd-el-Malik and his son Hisham, would have been regarded as formidable and talented rulers at any time, ruling wisely, extending and strengthening the Moslem empire, cultivating the arts, building superb buildings which remain to this day as exquisite examples of architecture. Only the Persians, continually revolting in the distant provinces, seemed curiously lacking in respect for them.
Persia seethed with revolt. Conspiracies and secret societies abounded. A certain Abu Muslim, a Persian who spoke of himself as belonging to the Prophet's family, went about preaching the gospel of revolution against the detested Caliphate. At Merv he solemnly unfolded the black flag of the Prophet and announced the time had come to place on the Prophet's throne someone who was closer in blood than the reigning Caliph. He preached a revolution against the corruption - of the Caliphate in the face of the misery of so many ; of the subject peoples. For his purpose he chose ć the next Caliph a descendant of one of the Prophet's uncles, Abu'l-Abbas. The revolt succeeded. Under the genius of Abu Muslim, who went secretly about the country organising the peasants and the landed gentry, a small secret society became overnight an army on the march. In 749, at Nehavend, where the Sasanian army was defeated a little more than a hundred years before, an Abbasid army surrounded and besieged the army of the Ommayads. The end of the Ommayads came soon after. The followers of the descendant of the uncle of Mohammad, led by Persian officers, began to hound and destroy the enemy like wild beasts. Not content with massacring the princes of the Ommayad dynasty, they opened up the graves of dead princes and Caliphs, nailed their long dead bodies to crucifixes and afterward burned them. All except two of the graves of the Caliphs were desecrated. The lone survivor, Prince Abd-ar-Rahman, a grandson of Hisham, succeeded in escaping to North Africa and later to Spain, where he inaugurated the new Ommayad dynasty which sprang up around Cordova.
The new dynasty of the Abbasids was not Persian, but it came into power as the result of forces which had grown spontaneously out of the Persian character. Persians had led the revolt, financed it, and maneuvred the enemy into untenable positions. The ruthlessness of the Persians, avenging the death of Hussayn the martyr, led to the desecration of the Ommayad graves. Subdued for a hundred years, the Persians were beginning to exert their strength.
Gradually the new dynasty began to assume a purely Persian character. The new capital was Baghdad, not far from the imperial Sasanian city of Ctesiphon. Abu'lAbbas, called "the Blood Shedder" from his success in exterminating the Ommayads, was followed by his brother Mansur, who elected to rule with all the trappings of a Sasanian King, wrapped in the inaccessible majesty of kingship. There had been times when the Ommayad Caliphs felt so secure they had wandered without guards through the streets of Damascus. All this was changed. The new Caliph could be approached only by specially privileged visitors who were compelled to crawl on their knees to the throne. A Caliph was on the throne, but, in fact, a Persian ruled. The Grand Vizier, Khalid, was the son of a Zoroastrian priest. Khalid and his son and grandsons became so powerful that no political action could take place without their consent. Incredible wealth poured into their hands, and it is from this family, known as the Barmecides because they were descended from a certain Barmak, that we derive the phrase "a Barmecide feast."
Under the Barmecides the position of Grand Vizier increased vastly in importance. They not only controlled the finances of the empire, but they commanded the army.
They were the undisputed profferers of high honors and dignities. The Caliph himself withdrew from conduct of affairs, tending to live more and more in his harem. Whenever he appeared in public, he was followed by his chief executioner, and the leather mat for the victiIn's head always lay near the throne.
More and more, Persian habits and ideas invaded the court. Sasanian titles and forms of government were revived. Persian songs were sung, and Persian wines were drunk, and the courtiers wore Persian costume. Baghdad, built in the reign of Mansur, began to take on the aspect of a Persian city. It was given the name of Medina-es-Salaam, meaning the City of Peace, and for five hundred years under the Abassid Caliphs, the empire was at peace. There were countless revolts in Khorusan, sallies against Byzantium, raids against the Turks pressing down from the north, but on the whole, so great was the power of the Caliph and the Grand Vizier, that peace within the borders of the empire was maintained.
It was a time of luxury and extravagance and excitement, and at the same time, of a strange, wayward asceticism. The tall, dark, slender Mansur would shut himself up in his harem, enjoy all the delights which wealth and power could give him, and then suddenly spend days, weeks, and months in calm devotion to the Scriptures. He built magnificent mosques at exorbitant expense, but he took care through his Grand Vizier that the government was administered inexpensively, with the result that he earned the title of "Father of Farthings." Before he died, he ordered that a hundred tombs should be dug for him, so that no one would be able to desecrate his grave. None of these hundred tombs contained his body, for at his own wish he was secretly interred in another.
The new inroads of western culture boded ill for the Persians, who saw their own influence at court receding. Worse stilL in the reign of Mamun occurred the death of the saintly Imam Reza, the eighth descendant of Ali, and therefore to the Shias the most saintly person on earth, the true vice-regent of God. Imam Reza, married to the Galiph's daughter, was journeying with Mamun as the Caliph was making a tour of inspection of the eastern provinces. At a place called Sanabad the imperial procession halted, while plans were made for building B shrine in honor of Harun-al-Raschid. Imam Reza and Mamun‹the young and saintly prince with the feverish eyes of the devoted servant of God, and the Caliph descended from the Prophet's uncle‹were seen everywhere together. All Persian hopes were fixed upon the youth who wore only a loose white flowing gown and who seemed to possess the gift of performing miracles. It was said that he spoke in dreams with the Prophet, and that to touch the hem of his gown was to acquire eternal merit. He was more popular than the Caliph, for the very existence of the world hung on his lips. For the Persians the young Prince represented "the great King," the Father of all earthly creatures. He was the eighth of his line; there would never be more than twelve Imams, for had not Mohammad promised that the world would come to an end with the death of the twelfth, that there would be a blaze of fire, and Mohammad himself would once more appear among men, riding a white horse?
Rumor, legend, or deliberate malice spread the story that the Caliph gave the Prince a bunch of poisoned grapes. All we know for certain is that he died suddenly and tragically, and in his honor the name of Sanabad was altered to Meshed, meaning "the place of martyrdom." Today this small city in northeastern Persia, close to the borders of Afghanistan, is accounted the most sacred spot on earth after Kerbela, where Hussayn met a martyr's death. The shrine at Meshed, lovingly and exquisitely designed, contains the bodies of Caliph Harun-al-Raschid and of the Imam Reza. Harun-alRaschid lies somewhere under the pavement, but the tomb is unmarked --a sign of contempt.
By the fourteenth century, Meshed had become the most sumptuous, the most highly decorated, and the most revered of all Persian shrines. In 1601, the Emperor Shah Abbas did not think it beneath his dignity to walk the entire distance between Isfahan and Meshed in order to trim the thousands of candles in the sacred courts and acquire, at immense cost, the Koran said to have been inscribed in the Imam's own hand. The gravest claims were made for the pilgrimage to Meshed. It was recorded that Mohammad had once said: "A part of my body is to be buried in Khorusan, and whoever goes there on pilgrimage, Allah will surely destine to paradise, and his body will be haraam, forbidden, to the flames of Hell: and whoever goes there with sorrows Allah will take his sorrow away." Ali, the famous Commander of the Faithful, was even more explicit. He said of those who make the pilgrimage and earn; the title of Meshedi, "though their sins be as many as the stars, as the leaves of trees, they will all be forgiven."
Mamun ranks with Mansur and Harun-al-Raschid as one of the great Caliphs. He established observatories, encouraged music, allowed his court poet the utmost license to say what he pleased, and showed himself to be remarkably liberal. He seemed too to have a special affection for the Persians. He died at the age of fortyeight and was succeeded by his brother Mutassim, who lacked Mamun's finesse, his stern gaiety and his genius in inspiring affection.
Mutassim, the son of Harun-al-Raschid by a Turkish slave-girl, distrusted the Persians. He surrounded himself with a bodyguard of 4,000 Turkish soldiers who inspired such terror in the people of Baghdad that gangs went out to waylay them, knowing that they would probably be killed, but determined to put an end to "rule by 4,000 Turks." The Arab historian Yaqubi says that whenever it happened that one of the Turkish bodyguard was killed, no one ever gave evidence against the perpetrators of the crime and everyone was secretly delighted. Frightened, clinging desperately to safety, Mutassim decided to place himself out of reach of his enemies. In A.D. 836 he removed himself from Baghdad and built for himself a new capital at Samarra, a few miles from the city. The Assyrian King Sargon had once done exactly the same thing, with disastrous effect.
Wave upon wave of invaders had descended upon Persia, coming from the shores of the Caspian or out of central Asia or from Arabia, and all in time had fallen under the spell of the Persians, learned the Persian language, adopted Persian manners, cultivated Persian arts. Innumerable wars were fought, towns fell, all their inhabitants were massacred, and yet Persia continued to exist, uplifted by an immense spiritual vitality. Compelled to accept foreign doctrines, the Persians improvised, played for time, conveniently translated and transmuted the alien element until it took on the appearance of something they had themselves invented, so that even Islam failed to conquer them and they adapted it for their own purposes, making it more mysterious and poetical, and altogether more Persian. There is Tamerlane gazing calmly on the mountain of skulls, and just as calmly Sultan Hussayn composes poetry in a court given over to poets, as the Timurid dynasty falls slowly to its decline. The genius of the Persians was in their power to absorb all foreign influences and subtly transform them. At their worst times, when the country was split apart at the mercy of marauding armies, they produced their greatest poets.