Khaydhar ibn Kawus al-Afshin

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Khaydhar ibn Kawus
Nickname(s) al-Afshin
Born 8th century
Died June 841
Allegiance Abbasid Caliphate
Service/branch Abbasid army
Rank General

Ḥaydar ibn Kāwūs (Arabic: حيدر بن كاوس‎) (? – died June 841), better known by his hereditary title of al-Afshīn (الأفشين), was a senior general of Iranian descent at the court of the Abbasid caliphs and a vassal prince of Oshrusana. He played a leading role in the campaigns of Caliph al-Mu'tasim, and was responsible for the suppression of the rebellion of Babak Khorramdin and for his battlefield victory over the Byzantine emperor Theophilos during the Amorium campaign. Eventually he was suspected of disloyalty and was arrested, tried and then executed in June 841.[1][2][3]

Name and family background[edit]

Further information: Afshin

Afshin is a hereditary title of Oshrusana princes at the time of the Muslim conquest of Persia.[2] The term is an Arabic form of the Middle Persian Pishin and Avestan Pisinah, a proper name of uncertain etymology.[2] Minorsky suggests that the title Afshin was of Sogdian origin.[4]

At the time of the first Arab invasion of Transoxiana (including Oshrusana) under Qutayba ibn Muslim (94-5 AH/712-14 CE), Ushrusana was inhabited by Iranians,[1] who were ruled by their own princes who bore the traditional title of Afshin.[5]

Afshin is generally considered an Iranian,[1][6][7][8][9][10] and although two classical sources (and some modern authors) have called him a Turk.[10][11] He came from an Iranian cultural region[1][10] and was not usually considered Turkish.[10] The confusion comes from the fact that the term “Turk” was used loosely by Arab writers of the time to denote the new troops of the caliph despite the inclusion among them of some elements of Iranian origin, including Ferghana and Oshrusana.[10][12][13]

Early years[edit]

According to Yaqubi, during the reign of the third Abbasid caliph Al-Mahdi (775-85), Afshin of Oshrusana was mentioned among several Iranian and Turkish rulers of Transoxania and the Central Asian steppes who submitted nominally to him.[2] But it was not until Harun al-Rashid's reign in 794-95 that al-Fadl ibn Yahya al-Barmaki led an expedition into Transoxania and received the submission of Afshin Kharākana, the ruling Akin.[14] Further expeditions were sent to Oshrusana by Al-Ma'mun when he was governor in Merv and later after he had become caliph. Kawus ibn Kharakhuruh, the son of the Afshin Karākana, withdrew his allegiance from the Arabs. However, shortly after Ma'mun arrived in Baghdad from the east (817-18 or 819-20), a power struggle and dissension broke out among the reigning family of Oshrusana.

According to most of the sources, al-Ma'mun's heir, Al-Mu'tasim seconded high-ranking officers to serve under him and ordered exceptionally large salaries, expense allowances, and rations for him.[15] In 831-833, Afshin suppressed uprisings throughout Egypt. On 2 June 832 Afshin succeeded in taking Bima in Egypt. The town surrendered to Afshin following his advice that al-Ma'mun promised safe conduct.

Afshin and Babak[edit]

Babak parleys with the Afshin Haydar, the Caliph al-Mu'tasim's general
Main article: Babak Khorramdin

In 835, Caliph al-Mu'tasim appointed Afshin as governor of Azerbaijan[16] to fight against Babak Khorramdin, leader of anti-Islamic neo-Mazdakite Persian movement of the Khurramites.[2]

After a fierce resistance by Babak's army, Afshin eventually defeated it and captured Babak's castle of Bazz in August 837. Ya'qubi (Tarikh II, 579) records Afshin freeing 7,600 Arab prisoners from this fortress and he destroyed the castle.[2] The Khurramite leader went into hiding under the protection of a local Christian prince Sahl ibn-Sunbat[17] who later turned him into Afshin. In return for Afshin's achievements, the caliph rewarded him with the governorship of Sind in addition to that of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Anatolian campaign[edit]

In 838, Al-Mu'tasim decided to launch a major punitive expedition against Byzantium, aiming to capture the two major Byzantine cities of central Anatolia, Ancyra and Amorion. The latter was probably the largest city in Anatolia at the time, as well as the birthplace of the reigning Amorian dynasty and consequently of particular symbolic importance; according to the chronicles, al-Mu'tasim's soldiers painted the word "Amorion" on their shields and banners.[18][19] A vast army was gathered at Tarsus (80,000 men according to Treadgold), which was then divided into two main forces. The northern force, under their commander, Afshin, would invade the Armeniac theme from the region of Melitene, joining up with the forces of the city's emir, Omar al-Aqta. The southern, main force, under the Caliph himself, would pass through the Cilician Gates into Cappadocia and head to Ancyra. After the city was taken, the Arab armies would join and march to Amorion.[19][20][21] Afshin's force included, according to Skylitzes, the entire Arab army of Armenia, and numbered 20,000 (Haldon) to 30,000 men (Treadgold), among whom were some 10,000 Turkish horse-archers.[19][20][22]

On the Byzantine side, Theophilos received early warning of the Caliph's intentions, and set out from Constantinople in early June. His army included men from the Anatolian and possibly the European themes, the elite tagmata regiments, as well as a contingent of Persian and Kurdish Khurramites whom Afshin had fought against in the past. Under their leader Nasr (converted to Christianity and baptized as Theophobos), these people had fled religious persecution in the Caliphate and moved into the Byzantine Empire where they formed the so-called "Persian tourma".[19][23][24][25] Camping at Dorylaion, the Emperor divided his forces, sending a strong corps to reinforce the garrison of Amorion, while he set out with the remainder (circa 25,000 according to Haldon and 40,000 according to Treadgold) to interpose himself between the Cilician Gates and Ancyra.[20][23]

Battle of Anzen[edit]

The Byzantine army and Theophilos retreat towards a mountain, miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes.

In mid-June 838, Afshin crossed the Anti-Taurus Mountains and encamped at the fort of Dazimon, between Amaseia and Tokate, a strategically important location which served as a concentration point (aplekton) for the Byzantines too. A few days later, on 19 June, the vanguard of the main Abbasid army also invaded Byzantine territory, followed two days after by the Caliph with the main body.[19][22] Theophilos was informed of these movements in mid-July. Afshin's force was smaller, but threatening to cut off his supply lines. Consequently, the Emperor left a small covering force against the Caliph's army and marched east to confront Afshin. On 21 July, the imperial army came into view of the Arab force, and encamped on a hill in the plain of Dazimonitis south of the fort of Dazimon, named Anzen.[22][26]

Although Theophilos' principal commanders, Theophobos and the Domestic of the Schools Manuel, both advised the Emperor to make a surprise night attack, the Emperor sided with the opinion of the other officers and resolved to wait and launch his attack the next day. The Byzantine army attacked at dawn, and initially made good progress. They drove back one wing of the opposing army, inflicting 3,000 Arab casualties. Near noon, Theophilos resolved to reinforce the other wing, and detached 2,000 Byzantines and the Kurdish contingent to do so, abandoning his post and passing behind his own army's lines.[22][26] At this point, however, Afshin launched his Turkish horse-archers in a ferocious counter-attack which stymied the Byzantine advance and allowed the Arab forces to regroup. The Byzantine troops then noticed the Emperor's absence, and, thinking he had been killed, began to waver. This soon turned into a disorderly retreat; some men fled as far as Constantinople, bringing with them the rumour that the Emperor had been killed. Some units, however, were apparently able to retreat in good order and assemble at a place called Chiliokomon.[22][26]

Theophilos found himself isolated with his tagmata and the Kurds on the hill of Anzen. The Arabs proceeded to surround the hill, but the Byzantines were saved by sudden rain, which loosened the strings of the Turkish bows, rendering them useless. Afshin then sent for catapults to be brought up to batter the Byzantine position.[27] In the meantime, Theophilos' officers, afraid of treachery by the Kurdish troops, persuaded him to withdraw. Breaking through the Arab lines and suffering many wounds in the process (the sources variously credit Manuel, who was severely wounded and possibly died soon after, and Theophobos for saving the Emperor), Theophilos and his small escort managed to reach safety at Chiliokomon, where he gradually re-assembled the remnants of his army.[20][25][26][28]

Siege and fall of Amorium[edit]

The Arab army marched in three separate corps, with Ashinas once again in front, the caliph in the middle, and Afshin bringing up the rear. Looting the countryside as they advanced, they arrived before Amorium seven days after their departure from Ancyra, and began their siege of the city on 1 August.[29] Theophilos, anxious to prevent the city's fall, left Constantinople for Dorylaion, and from there sent an embassy to Mu'tasim. His envoys, who arrived shortly before or during the first days of the siege, offered assurances that the atrocities at Sozopetra had been against the Emperor's orders, and further promised to help rebuild the city, to return all Muslim prisoners, and to pay a tribute. The caliph, however, not only refused to parley, but detained the envoys in his camp, so that they could observe the siege.[30]

Medieval miniature showing a tall walled city assailed from two sides by cavalry, and soldiers defending it from atop the walls
Miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript depicting the Arab siege of Amorium

The city's fortifications were strong, with a wide moat and a thick wall protected by 44 towers, according to the contemporary geographer Ibn Khordadbeh, and the caliph assigned each of his generals to a stretch of the walls. Both besiegers and besieged had many siege engines, and for three days both sides exchanged missile fire while Arab sappers tried to undermine the walls. According to Arab accounts, an Arab prisoner who had converted to Christianity defected back to the caliph, and informed him about a place in the wall which had been badly damaged by heavy rainfall and only hastily and superficially repaired due to the city commander's negligence. As a result, the Arabs concentrated their efforts on this section. The defenders tried to protect the wall by hanging wooden beams to absorb the shock, but they splintered, and after two days a breach was made.[31] Immediately Aetios realized that the defence was compromised, and decided to try and break through the besieging army during the night and link up with Theophilos. He sent two messengers to the emperor, but both were captured by the Arabs and brought before the caliph. Both agreed to convert to Islam, and Mu'tasim, after giving them a rich reward, paraded them around the city walls in full view of Aetios and his troops. To prevent any sortie, the Arabs stepped up their vigilance, maintaining constant cavalry patrols even during the night.[32]

The Arabs now launched repeated attacks on the breach, but the defenders held firm. At first, according to al-Tabari, catapults manned by four men each were placed on wheeled platforms, and mobile towers with ten men each were constructed and advanced to the edge of the moat, which they began to fill with sheep skins (from the animals they had brought along as food) filled with earth. However, the work was uneven due to the soldiers' fear of the Byzantine catapults, and Mu'tasim had to order earth to be thrown over the skins to pave the surface up to the wall itself. A tower was pushed over the filled moat, but became stuck midway and it and the other siege engines had to be abandoned and burned.[33] Another attack on the next day, led by Ashinas, failed due to the narrowness of the breach, and Mu'tasim eventually ordered more catapults brought forward to widen it. The next day Afshin with his troops attacked the breach, and Itakh on the day after.[34] The Byzantine defenders were gradually worn down by the constant assaults, and after about two weeks of siege (the date is variously interpreted as 12, 13 or 15 August by modern writers[35]) Aetios sent an embassy led by the city's bishop, offering to surrender Amorium in exchange for safe passage of the inhabitants and garrison, but Mu'tasim refused. The Byzantine commander Boiditzes, however, who was in charge of the breach section, decided to conduct direct negotiations with the caliph on his own, probably intending to betray his own post. He went to the Abbasid camp, leaving orders for his men in the breach to stand down until his return. While Boiditzes parleyed with the caliph, the Arabs came closer to the breach, and at a signal charged and broke into the city.[36] Taken by surprise, the Byzantines' resistance was sporadic: some soldiers barricaded themselves in a monastery and were burned to death, while Aetios with his officers sought refuge in a tower before being forced to surrender.[37] The Arab army then had the city brutally sacked.


Despite his successes, Afshin's star began to decline, apparently as a result of his jealousy towards `Abdallah bin Taher, the governor of Khorasan who Afshin apparently regarded as an upstart and a rival for power in Transoxania. Afshin had begun intriguing with Mazyar, an Karenid prince and ispahbadh of Tabaristan in the Caspian region. Afshin allegedly encouraged Mazyar in secret, in the hope that `Abdallāh bin Tāher would be deprived of his governorship allowing Afšīn to take over the governorship. Mazyar's rebellion was quashed in 839 and Afshin's position became increasingly difficult, which caused Afshin to fall from favour. His situation was made worse by the finding of correspondence between him and Mazyar. Further, the Khurasanian governor, Abdallah ibn Tahir, alleged that he had intercepted some of Babak's wealth Afshin had obtained in the earlier campaign and was seeking to transfer secretly to Afshin's lands in Oshrusana. When Mazyar arrived in Samarra, Afshin was arrested.

Mazyar participated in the interrogation of the former general, asserting that Afshin had conspired with him. Others present raised additional questions concerning the sincerity of Afshin's conversion to Islam from Zoroastrianism. Afshin had answers to all the allegations. He claimed that Zoroastrian artefacts and books in his possession were family heirlooms from before he had become Muslim. He explained that when he punished a pair of Muslim fanatics destroying idols in Ushrusanah he was exercising reasonable leadership aimed at maintaining the harmony of his religiously diverse territory. He told his detractors that the formulaic address his people used in writing to him in Persian as "lord of lords", was simply a tradition and did not invalidate his personal belief in one God.[38]

All such replies were unsuccessful. Al-Mu'tasim had a special prison built for Afshin. It was known as "The Pearl" and was in the shape of a minaret. There he spent the final nine months of his life and there he died in May–June 841.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d C. Edmund Bosworth(2005), "OSRUŠANA" in Encyclopaedia Iranica. Accessed November 2010 [1] "At the time of the Arab incursions into Transoxania, Osrušana had its own line of Iranian princes, the Afšins (Ebn Ḵordāḏbeh, p. 40), of whom the most famous was the general of the caliph Moʿtaṣem (q.v. 833-42), the Afšin Ḵayḏar or Ḥaydar b. Kāvus (d. 841; see AFŠIN)", "The region was little urbanized, and it long preserved its ancient Iranian feudal and patriarchal society. "
  2. ^ a b c d e f C.E. Bosworth. "Afshin". Encyclopedia Iranica. During the reign of the caliph Mahdi (158-69/775-85) the Afshin of Oshrusana is mentioned among several Iranian and Turkish rulers of Transoxania and the Central Asian steppes who submitted nominally to him (Yaqubi, II, p. 479) 
  3. ^ Bahramian, Ali; Negahban, Farzin. "Afshīn" Encyclopaedia Islamica. Editors-in-Chief: Wilferd Madelung and, Farhad Daftary. Brill Online, 2014. 15 September 2014
  4. ^ V. Minorsky, Studies in Caucasian history, Cambridge University Press, 1957, (footnote on page 111).
  5. ^ Kramers, J.H. "Usrūshana." Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2007
  6. ^ Lewis,Bernard. "The Political Language of Islam", Published by University of Chicago Press, 1991. excerpt from pg 482: "Babak's Iranianizing Rebellion in Azerbaijan gave occasion for sentiments at the capital to harden against men who were sympathetic to the more explicitly Iranian tradition. Victor (837) over Babak was al-Afshin, who was the hereditary Persian ruler of a district beyond the Oxus, but also a masterful general for the caliph."
  7. ^ Clifford Edmund Bosworth (Translator with Commentary), The History of al-Tabari Vol. 33 "Storm and Stress along the Northern Frontiers of the 'Abbasid Caliphate: The Caliphate of al-Mu'tasim A.D. 833-842/A.H. 218-227", SUNY Press, 1991. Footnote 176 on pg 59: "Abu Dulaf's contingent of volunteers from lower Iraq would be mainly Arabs, and there seems in fact to have been hostility between him, as a representative of Arab influence at the caliphate court, and the Iranian Al-Afshin" ISBN 978-0-7914-0493-5
  8. ^ P.B. Golden, "Khazar Turkic Ghulams in Caliphal Service", Journial Asiatique, 2004, vol. 292. pg 292:Some of the soldiers were slaves, others, such as al-Afshin, the scion of a ruling Central Asian (Ustrushana/Ushrusana) Iranian family, clearly were not".
  9. ^ Mottahedeh, Roy, "The Abbassid Caliphate in Iran", Cambridge History of Iran, IV, ed. R.N. Frye, 57-89. 1975 pg 75:" Al Mu'atism chose for this task the Afshin, the Iranian king of Ushrusuna".
  10. ^ a b c d e D. Pipes. Turks in Early Muslim Service — JTS, 1978, 2, 85—96. excerpt:"Although two classical sources claim him a Turk, he came from Farghana, an Iranian cultural region and was not usually considered Turkish"
  11. ^ Sourdel, D. "The Abbasid Caliphate." Pages 104-39 in P.M. Holt, Ann K.S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis (eds.), The Cambridge History of Islam, I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Quote from Pg 125: "and finally of Mazyar, a local chieftain of Tabaristan, against whom the caliph sent the Turkish general Afshin, the conqueror of Babak"
  12. ^ M.A. Shaban, “Islamic History”, Cambridge University Press, v.2 1978. Page 63:"These new troops were the so-called “Turks”. It must be said without hesitation that this is the most misleading misnomer which has led some scholars to harp ad nauseam on utterly unfounded interpretation of the following era, during which they unreasonably ascribe all events to Turkish domination. In fact the great majority of these troops were not Turks. It has been frequently pointed out that Arabic sources use the term Turk in a very loose manner. The Hephthalites are referred to as Turks, so are the peoples of Gurgan, Khwarizm and Sistan. Indeed, with the exception of the Soghdians, Arabic sources refer to all peoples not subjects of the Sassanian empire as Turks. In Samarra separate quarters were provided for new recruits from every locality. The group from Farghana were called after their district, and the name continued in usage because it was easy to pronounce. But such groups as the Ishtakhanjiyya, the Isbijabbiya and groups from similar localities who were in small numbers at first, were lumped together under the general term Turks, because of the obvious difficulties the Arabs had in pronouncing such foreign names. The Khazars who also came from small localities which could not even be identified, as they were mostly nomads, were perhaps the only group that deserved to be called Turks on the ground of racial affinity. However, other groups from Transcaucasia were classed together with the Khazars under the general description."
  13. ^ ʻUthmān Sayyid Aḥmad Ismāʻīl Bīlī, "Prelude to the Generals", Published by Garnet & Ithaca Press, 2001. pg 47:"The name Turk was given to all these troops, despite the inclusion amongst them of some elements of Iranian origin, Ferghana, Ushrusana, and Shash – places were in fact the centers were the slave material was collected together....Judging from the specific names of their origin, Soghd, Farghana, Urshusuna, Shahs, the majority of them might have been of Iranian origin"
  14. ^ whose name, by inference from Tabari, III, p. 1066, was something like Kharākana; according to Gardīzī led. Habibi, p. 130
  15. ^ Encyclopedia Iranica, "Babak Khorrami" by G.H. Yusofi
  16. ^ Daftary, F. (1998). "2". In Asimov, M.S.; Bosworth, C.E. Sectarian and national movements in Iran, Khurasan and Transoxania during Umayyad and early Abbasid times [History of Civilizations of Central Asia: Age of Achievement, 8750 Ad to the End of the 15th Century]. UNESCO. p. 50. ISBN 92-3-103467-7. 
  17. ^ Dowsett, C.J.F. (1957). "A Neglected Passage in the "History of the Caucasian Albanians". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) 19 (3): 463. doi:10.1017/s0041977x00133579. Among the prisoners captured by Bogha al-Kabir in 854, John Catholicos and Tovma Arcruni mention three Albanian princes: Atrnerseh, lord of Khachen, Sahl ibn-Sunbat, lord of Shake, Esay Abu Musa, lord of Ktish in Artsakh. 
  18. ^ Whittow 1997, pp. 152–153; Treadgold 1997, pp. 437–440.
  19. ^ a b c d e Kiapidou 2003, Chapter 1.
  20. ^ a b c d Treadgold 1997, p. 441.
  21. ^ Haldon 2001, pp. 78, 80.
  22. ^ a b c d e Haldon 2001, p. 80.
  23. ^ a b Haldon 2001, p. 78.
  24. ^ Treadgold 1997, pp. 439, 441.
  25. ^ a b Kazhdan 1991, p. 2067.
  26. ^ a b c d Kiapidou 2003, Chapter 2.
  27. ^ Haldon 2001, pp. 80, 82.
  28. ^ Haldon 2001, p. 82.
  29. ^ Bury 1912, p. 267; Vasiliev 1935, pp. 160–161.
  30. ^ Bury 1912, pp. 266–267; Rekaya 1977, p. 64; Vasiliev 1935, p. 160.
  31. ^ Bury 1912, p. 267; Treadgold 1988, p. 302; Vasiliev 1935, pp. 161–163.
  32. ^ Bury 1912, p. 268; Treadgold 1988, p. 302; Vasiliev 1935, pp. 163–164.
  33. ^ Bury 1912, p. 268; Vasiliev 1935, pp. 164–165.
  34. ^ Vasiliev 1935, pp. 165–167.
  35. ^ Kiapidou 2003, Note 19.
  36. ^ Bury 1912, pp. 268–269; Treadgold 1988, pp. 302–303; Vasiliev 1935, pp. 167–168.
  37. ^ Bury 1912, pp. 269–270; Treadgold 1988, p. 303; Vasiliev 1935, pp. 169–170.
  38. ^ Tabari v. 33, p. 187f.