The Barmakids (Persian: برمکیان Barmakīyān; Arabic: البرامكة - al-Barāmikah, from the Sanskrit: pramukha प्रमुख "leader, chief administrator, registrar"); also spelled Barmecides were an influential family from Balkh in Bactria where they were originally hereditary Buddhist leaders, and subsequently came to great political power under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Khalid, the son of Barmak became the Prime Minister or Wazir of Al Saffah, the first Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. His son Yahya aided Harun Al-Rashid in capturing the throne and rose to power as the most powerful man in the Empire. The Barmakids were remarkable for their majesty, splendor and hospitality. They are mentioned in some stories of the Arabian Nights.
The family is traceable back to the hereditary Buddhist administrators, Sanskrit प्रमुख Pramukha (Arabized to Barmak), of the Buddhist monastery of Nava Vihāra (Nawbahar) west of Balkh (Northern Afghanistan). Historians of Islam have sometimes considered the Barmakids to have been Zoroastrian priests before converting to Islam, an erroneous view based on the fact that Balkh was known as an important centre of Zoroastrianism, or from a simple failure of early Islamic sources to distinguish Zoroastrians from Buddhists. In fact, the Barmakids descended from the chiefs, or administrators of the Buddhist monastery called Navavihāra (Skt. नवविहार) or "New Monastery", that was described by the Chinese Buddhist diarist Xuanzang in the seventh century which may have led to the Persian and Arabic error of thinking that the term "Nowbahār" was the name of a Zoroastrian fire temple headed by the Barmakids as reported in Islamic sources. The Pramukhas converted during the Arab invasion of the Sasanian Empire.
The Barmakids were highly educated, respected and influential throughout Arabia, Persia, Central Asia and the Levant. In Baghdad, the Barmakid court became a centre of patronage for the Ulema, poets, scholars alike.
Khalid ibn Barmak
Khalid ibn Barmak occupied distinguished positions under first two Abbasid Caliphs, al-Saffah and al-Mansur. He had risen to be the vizier, following death of Abu Salma and Abul Jahm. Khalid was on such intimate terms with al-Saffah that his daughter was nursed by the wife of the Caliph. Likewise, Caliph's daughter was nursed by Khalid's wife. His son, Yahya ibn Barmak, at one time Governor of Arminiya, was entrusted by Caliph al-Mahdi (775-85) with the education of his son, Harun, the future Caliph al-Rashid.
Under Abbasid regime Khalid rose to the headship of the department of Finance (diwan al-Kharaj) This department was concerned with Taxation and Land Tenure. Genuine budgets began to be drawn up for the first time and offices sprang up for various departments. The extensive staff of officials engaged in correspondence with the provinces and prepared estimates and accounts. An influential stratum of officialdom, the Irano-Islamic class of secretaries (kuttab in Arabic, dabiran in Persian), was formed which considered itself as the main support of the state. Their knowledge of the complex system of the kharaj (land tax) which took account not only of the quality of the land but of the produce of the crops sown, made the officials of the diwan al-Kharaj; the guardians of knowledge which was inaccessible to the uninitiated and was passed by inheritance.
In 765, Khalid ibn Barmak received the governorship of Tabaristan, where he crushed a dangerous uprising. During his governorship of Upper Mesopotamia, Khalid, through a mix of firmness and justice, brought the province quickly into order and effectively curbed the unruly Kurds.
Influence under the early Abbasids
The Barmakid family was an early supporter of the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads and of As-Saffah. This gave Khalid bin Barmak considerable influence, and his son Yaḥyá ibn Khālid (d. 806) was the vizier of the caliph al-Mahdi (ruled 775–785) and tutor of Hārūn al-Rashid (ruled 786–809). Yahya's sons al-Fadl and Ja'far (767–803), both occupied high offices under Harun.
Many Barmakids were patrons of the sciences, which greatly helped the propagation of Indian science and scholarship into the Islamic world of Baghdad and beyond. They patronized scholars such as Gebir and Jabril ibn Bukhtishu. They are also credited with the establishment of the first paper mill in Baghdad. The power of the Barmakids in those times is reflected in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights; the vizier Ja'far appears in several stories, as well as a tale that gave rise to the expression "Barmecide feast".
"We know of Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmaki (d. 805) as a patron of physicians and, specifically, of the translation of Hindu medical works into both Arabic and Persian. In all likelihood however, his activity took place in the orbit of the caliphal court in Iraq , where at the behest of Hārūn al-Rashīd (786-809), such books were translated into Arabic. Thus Khurāsān and Transoxiana were effectively bypassed in this transfer of learning from India to Islam, even though, undeniably the Barmakī's cultural outlook owed something to their land of origin, northern Afghanistan, and Yahya al-Barmakī's interest in medicine may have derived from no longer identifiable family tradition."
Disgrace and fall
In 803, the family lost favor in the eyes of Harun al-Rashīd, and many of its members were imprisoned.
According to Rit Nosotro, Harun al-Rashīd found his chief pleasure in the society of his sister ʿAbbāsa and Barmakid prince Jafar bin Yahya. In order that these two might be with him continuously without breach of the restrictions on women, he persuaded them to contract a purely formal marriage. This marriage was on condition the two would meet only in his presence, and never produce an heir. This condition was broken, and when Harun learned that ʿAbbāsa had borne a son, he had Jafar suddenly arrested and beheaded, and the rest of the family, except Yahya's brother Muḥammad, also imprisoned and deprived of their property.
However, al-Tabari and Ibn Khaldūn mentioned other reasons ensuring that their decline was gradual and not sudden. These other reasons are:
- The Barmakids' monetary extravagance, so that in displays of wealth they overshadowed Hārun himself. It has been said that Yahya ibn Khalid had gold tiles on the wall of his mansion, and Jafar ibn Yahya's mansion cost twenty million dirhams. Hārun became upset on a tour of Baghdad: whenever he saw an impressive house or mansion, he was told it belonged to the Barmakids.
- The hostility of al-Fadl ibn al-Rabi', an official very close to Hārun. He convinced Hārūn to assign spies to watch them, and that is how Hārūn found out about the escape of Yahya ibn Abdullah al-Talibi.
- The Yahya ibn Abdullah al-Talibi incident. In AH 176, Yahya ibn Abdullah went to Daylam in Persia and called for rule by himself in place of Hārūn. Many people followed him, and he became strong enough to threaten Hārūn. Hārūn captured him, and placed him in house arrest in the custody of Barmakid al-Fadl ibn Yahya. However, al-Fadl ibn Yahya instead connived at Yahya ibn Abdullah's escape from Baghdad. The Caliph considered that to be high treason.
- The Barmakid army. Although technically this army of 50,000 men was under the Caliph, in reality, it was controlled by al-Fadl ibn Yahya. During the last days of Barmakid power, al-Fadl brought 20,000 men to Baghdad as the Karnabiya Legion. This made Harun very wary of their intentions.
- The Governor of Khurasan at the time, Ali ibn Isa ibn Mahan, sent a letter to Hārun reporting unrest in his province, which he blamed on Musa ibn Yahya, another brother of Jafar.
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A number of canals, mosques and other public works owe their existence to the initiative and munificence of the Barmakids. Al Fadl ibn Yahya is credited with introducing the use of lamps in the mosques during the holy month of Ramadan. They are also credited with the establishment of the first paper mill in Baghdad. Jafar ibn Yahya acquired great fame for eloquence, literary activity, and calligraphy. Hitti argues that chiefly because of him, Arab historians regard the Barmakids as the founders of the class designated as 'people of the pen' (ahl al-qalam). The long neck which Barmakids possessed is said to have been responsible for the introduction of the custom of wearing high collars. The first extant Arabic report on India was prepared under the directions of Yahya ibn Barmak by his envoy. The Barmakids invited several scholars and physicians from India to the court of Abbasids. During the Moslem conquest of Sindh, Khalid ibn Barmak built the city of Mansura (Brahmanabad) there. Khalid was later in charge of the building of Baghdad. On 30 July 763, the caliph Al Mansur concluded the construction of the city. It is said that Baghdad had numerous Indian architectural influences, now largely ignored by historians.
- Harold Bailey, 1943. "Iranica" BSOAS 11: p. 2. India - Department of Archaeology, and V. S. Mirashi (ed.), Inscriptions of the Kalachuri-Chedi Era vol. 4 of Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, 1955, pp. clxx, 612, 614, 616.
- van Bladel, Kevin (2011). "The Bactrian Background of the Barmakids". In A. Akasoy, C. Burnett and R. Yoeli-Tlalim. Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes. London: Ashgate. pp. 43–88. Due to the recent clarifications of van Bladel, we now know that the frequent references in older literature to the Barmakids being Persian or Zoroastrian are imprecise. See, e.g., "Barmakids." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 4 June 2007, Cyril Glassé (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Islam, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, revised ed., 2003, ISBN 0-7591-0190-6, Excerpt from: pg 6: "The 'Abbasid dynasty ruled with the help of the Barmakids, a prominent Persian family from Balkh who, before their conversion, had been priests in the Buddhist monastery of Nawbahar." Josef W. Meri, Jere L. Bacharach, "Medieval Islamic Civilization: L-Z, index", Taylor & Francis, 2006. pg 855: "The Barmakids, a Persian family who had converted to Islam from Buddhism." Liyakatali Takim, "The heirs of the prophet: charisma and religious authority in Shi'ite Islam ", SUNY Press, 2006. pg 51: "The Barmakids were a Persian family of secretaries and wazirs who served the early 'Abbassid caliphs in different administrative capacities."
- Kevin van Bladel, "The Bactrian Background of the Barmakids" ch.3 in A. Akasoy, C. Burnett and R. Yoeli-Tlalim (eds.) ``Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes, Ashgate, 2011, 43-88
- Encyclopedia of Islam, 2 ed., v.1, pp.1033 ff. Online as: "al-Barāmika." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Universitaet Wien. 24 July 2012
- van Bladel, K. Akasoy, A.; Burnett, C. & Yoeli-Tlalim, R. (Eds.) "The Bactrian Background of the Barmakids" ch.3 in ``Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes, Ashgate, 2011, 43-88
- Chisholm 1911.
- History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Volume 4, Part 2 By C. E. Bosworth, M.S.Asimov, page 300
- Nosotro, Rit (2003), Harun al'Rashid, retrieved 2009-12-27
- van Bladel, Kevin (2011). "The Bactrian Background of the Barmakids". In A. Akasoy, C. Burnett and R. Yoeli-Tlalim. Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes. London: Ashgate. pp. 43–88.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Barmecides". Encyclopædia Britannica 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.