Samarra and the Creation of a Turkish Army
The death of al-Mamun in Tarsus and the accession to the caliphate of his half brother, al-Mutasim (r. ca. 834–847), marked a change in attitude between the caliph and his subjects, particularly the citizens of Baghdad, that is signiﬁ ed by the building of Samarra. The traditional explanation for the creation of Samarra is that al-Mutasim, whose own mother was a Turk, felt uncomfortable in Baghdad.
Both he and his Turkish troops were seen as unwelcome in that city, having been dominated for so long by his more forceful half brother, al-Mamun. Whatever the reasons—and they must have been many to leave a capital city so well entrenched in Abbasid tradition—al-Mutasim decided to move out of Baghdad (which remained the cultural and commercial capital) into a newly established city further north, called Samarra.
Samarra’s name is usually seen as a play on the Arabic words surra ma raa (pleased is he who sees it), and al-Mutasim’s city fulﬁ lled that expectation very well. It was extremely large, spectacular in terms of architectural design, and took several decades to complete (Robinson 2001, 9–20). The building of the city drew on exorbitant sums from the Abbasid treasury, but it was to last as a breakaway capital only until 892, somewhat less than 60 years. Still, its very establishment was indicative of important trends that were to manifest themselves throughout the century.
The ﬁrst trend had to do with the so-called Turkish component of the new governing and military elite. The introduction of Turkic-speaking tribes from Central Asia into the armies of the Islamic caliphate is recognized as having begun with the early Umayyad period; Turkish soldiers were fairly prominent in al-Mamun’s reign, but it was only in the later Abbasid era that those nomadic tribesmen became a central factor in the empire as a whole.
However, as historian Matthew Gordon has noted, the somewhat one-dimensional term Turk does not begin to do justice to the complexity and nuances of their objective reality (Gordon in Robinson 2001, 123). There were at least three different groups under that term: a small elite of Turkish families originally from Khurasan (eastern Iran, and the original source of Abbasid inﬂ uence); Turkish slaves from Central Asia who were bought from families residing in Baghdad; and Turks bought in Central Asia proper. Most of those Turks became Muslim.
Eventually, it was the Central Asian Turks who made up the bulk of al-Mutasim’s troops, while the ﬁ rst two groups made up the military and administrative command and were partly compensated by land grants in and around Samarra, as well as in outlying provinces.The Abbasid caliph’s relationship with the Turks was not always ideal; in fact, one of al-Mutasim’s successors, Caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847– 861), was murdered by his Turkish generals in 861, and the Samarran episode was frequently marred by friction between the Abbasid family and the various military regiments in the city.
The turmoil in the city grew into anarchy from 861 to 870 when most of Samarra’s Turkish commanders were murdered by a mob composed of formerly loyal troops. The city nearly fell apart under the hammer blows of the subsequent Turkish insurrectionary movement. Finally, a general economic decline, including less income from trade and agriculture in the empire as a whole, and military-political entanglements forced a return of the caliphate to Baghdad in 892.
The second and perhaps more important trend had to do with the very real divisions in the Abbasid Empire that no new capital could paper over. Various administrative changes had crippled the power of the central government to function properly. Essentially, the changes led to factionalism within the bureaucracy, because many of the high-level bureaucrats treated their departments as personal ﬁ efdoms to serve their personal gain.
In this, they were assisted by their staffs, which mostly consisted of family, close friends, and followers. The factionalism extended to the military as well. As noted above, al-Mutasim’s initial move to Samarra is sometimes attributed to his desire to shield both himself and his troops from local jealousies and intrigue in Baghdad. Whatever the real reasons for Samarra’s inception, its demise reﬂ ects the same set of circumstances that led to caliphal ﬂ ight from Baghdad in the ﬁ rst place.
The Turkish commanders, grown from loyal servitors to near competitors of the caliphs, wrested inﬂ uence away from the nominal rulers at times and murdered a number of them. Although they were never able to make themselves complete masters of the Islamic empire, their violent overthrow of the titular authority as well as the factional ﬁ ghting that ensued as a result of intra-Turkish struggles led to a chaotic period lasting about a decade, that further sapped the Abbasid Empire’s power. Notwithstanding the restoration of Abbasid authority in 870 under the generalship of al-Muwaffaq, the empire’s fortunes never really improved after the caliphate’s return to Baghdad.