Ahmad ibn Tulun

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Khumarawayh ibn Ahmad ibn Tulun
Hereditary ruler of Egypt and Syria
Rule 15 September 868 – 10 May 884
Predecessor Azjur al-Turki (as governor for the Abbasid Caliphate in Egypt), Amajur al-Turki (as governor for the Abbasid Caliphate in Syria)
Successor Khumarawayh ibn Ahmad ibn Tulun
Issue al-Abbas ibn Ahmad ibn Tulun, Khumarawayh ibn Ahmad ibn Tulun
Dynasty Tulunid dynasty
Father Tulun
Born 20 September 835
Died 10 May 884
Religion Sunni Islam

Ahmad ibn Ṭūlūn (Arabic: أحمد ا بن طولون‎‎; ca. 20 September 835 – 10 May 884) was the founder of the Tulunid dynasty that ruled Egypt between 868 and 905. Originally sent by the Abbasid caliph as governor to Egypt, Ibn Tulun established himself as an independent ruler.


Early life and career[edit]

Gold dinar of Ahmad ibn Tulun

Ahmad ibn Tulun was born on the 23rd day of the month of Ramadan 220 AH (20 September 835) or slightly later.[1] His father, Tulun, was one of the Turkish slaves included with a tribute sent by the governor of Bukhara to the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun (reigned 813–833) in the year 815/6 (200 AH). The Abbasid court recruited Turkish slaves to serve as military officers, and Tulun did well for himself, eventually coming to command the Caliph's private guard.[2]

The young Ahmad received a thorough education, involving military training at Samarra and studies in Islamic theology at Tarsus.[2] Ahmad distinguished himself through his bravery, gaining the favour of Caliph al-Musta'in (r. 862–866). When the caliph abdicated and went into exile in 866, Ahmad was named his guard, but was unable to prevent the assassination of the deposed caliph shortly after. Ahmad himself played no part in the assassination, but gave his master a burial and returned to Samarra.[2][3] In the meantime, his father Tulun had died, and his mother had married the Turkish general Bakbak.[2] In 868, in a move designed to curtail the power of the civilian bureaucracy under the vizier and secure the control of revenue for themselves and their troops, the powerful Turkish leaders began to secure appointments as governors of various provinces, usually sending deputies to govern in their name.[4] Thus when Caliph al-Mu'tazz (r. 866–869) gave Bakbak charge of Egypt, Bakbak in turn sent his stepson Ahmad as his lieutenant and resident governor. Ahmad ibn Tulun entered the Egyptian capital, Fustat, on 15 September 868.[2]

Governor of Egypt[edit]

Ibn Tulun's position after his appointment was far from undisputed within his province. As governor of Fustat he oversaw the province's garrison and was the head of the Muslim community as recognized in his title of "overseer of the army and the Friday prayer" (wāli al-jaysh waʾl-ṣalāt), but the fiscal administration, in particular the collection of the land tax (kharāj) was in the hands of the powerful veteran administrator Ibn al-Mudabbir.[5] The latter had been appointed as fiscal agent (ʿāmil) already since ca. 861, and had rapidly become the most hated man in the country as he doubled the taxes and imposed new ones on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.[5] For four years, the two men fought via their emissaries and relatives at the caliphal court in Samarra to neutralize each other; in the end, Ibn Tulun managed to secure Ibn al-Mudabbir's transfer to Syria in July 871. Ibn Tulun assumed the post of ʿāmil himself.[2][5][6] Ibn Tulun used the opportunity to also get rid of Shukayr, the head of the postal service (barīd), which also doubled as the government's intelligence network.[5]

At the time of Ibn Tulun's appointment, Egypt was undergoing a transformative process. In 834 its early Muslim elite, the Arab settler families (jund) of Fustat, lost their privileges and government pay, and power passed to officials sent by the Abbasid court. At about the same time, for the first time the Muslim population began surpassing the Coptic Christians, and the rural districts were increasingly subject to both Arabisation and Islamization.[7] The rapidity of this process, and the influx of settlers after the discovery of gold and emerald mines at Aswan, meant that Upper Egypt in particular was only superficially controlled by the local governor.[8][9] Furthermore, the persistence of internecine strife and turmoil at the heart of the Abbasid state—the so-called "Anarchy at Samarra"—led to the appearance of millenialist revolutionary movements in the province under a series of Alid pretenders.[6][10] One of them was Ibn al-Sufi, a descendant of Ali's son Umar, rebelled in late 869 and massacred the populace of Esna. In winter 870 he defeated an army sent against him by Ibn Tulun, but was driven to the oases of the desert in spring. He remained there until he was defeated in a struggle with another regional strongman, Abu Abdallah ibn Abd al-Hamid al-Umari in 872, fleeing to Mecca. There he was seized and imprisoned for a while by Ibn Tulun. One of his followers, Abu Ruh Sukun, rebelled in the oases in 873/4 and was successful enough for Ibn Tulun to offer him an amnesty. Ibn al-Sufi's vanquisher, al-Umari, was another descendant of Ali who had created an autonomous principality around the gold mines, defeating the forces sent against him.[10] Another revolt broke out in 874/5 by the governor of Barqa, Muhammad ibn al-Faraj al-Farghani. Ibn Tulun tried to reconcile him at first but was eventually forced to send an army to besiege and storm the city, although the reprisals were limited. The re-imposition of his authority over Barqa however led to the strengthening of ties with Ifriqiya to the west.[10] In 873, Ibn Tulun entrusted the government of Alexandria to his eldest son, Abbas.[5]

In the meantime, in Palestine, the local governor, Isa ibn al-Shaykh al-Shaybani, had used the anarchy in Iraq to set up a quasi-independent Bedouin regime, intercepting the tax caravans from Egypt and going as far as threatening Damascus. When Caliph al-Muhtadi ascended the throne in July 869, he offered a general amnesty, and wrote to Isa, offering a pardon in exchange for him handing over the treasure he had wrongfully appropriated. When Isa refused, the Caliph ordered Ibn Tulun to march against him.[11] Ibn Tulun complied and began a mass purchase of black African (Sudan) and Greek (Rūm) slaves to form an army over the winter of 869/70, but no sooner had he set off on the road to Palestine with his army in summer 870 than orders came to turn back.[12][13] This episode was of major importance as it allowed Ibn Tulun to recruit an army of his own with caliphal sanction. The Tulunid army, which eventually grew to reportedly 100,000 men—other sources give a breakdown of 24,000 Turkish ghilman and 42,000 black African and Greek slaves, as well as a mercenary corps composed mostly of Greeks[14][15]—became the foundation of Ibn Tulun's power and independence.[2][16] Ibn al-Shaykh's revolt was crushed soon after by another Turkish soldier, Amajur al-Turki, who continued to govern Syria for the Abbasids until his death in 878.[17]

Spiral Minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, which is highly influenced by the Great Mosque of Samarra, near where he grew up.

Ibn Tulun's stepfather Bakbak was murdered in 869/70, but luckily for him in the summer of 871 the supervision of Egypt passed to another Turk, Yarjukh, whose daughter he had married. Yarjukh not only confirmed Ibn Tulun in his post, but in addition conferred to him the authority over Alexandria, Barqa, and the Syrian frontier districts.[2][5] Ibn Tulun's growing power was manifested with the establishment of a new palace city to the northeast of Fustat, called al-Qata'i, in 870. The project was a conscious emulation of, and rival to, the Abbasid capital Samarra. Just like Samarra, the new city was designed as quarters for Ibn Tulun's new army with the aim of reducing frictions with the urban populace of Fustat. Each unit received an allotment or ward (whence the city's name) to settle. Its centrepiece was the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, which was built in 878–880 under the supervision of the Mesopotamian Christian architect Ibn Katib al-Farghani. A royal palace adjoined the mosque, and the rest of the city was laid out around them. Beside government buildings, it included markets, a hospital (al-bimāristān), and a hippodrome. [18][19] Nevertheless, Ibn Tulun himself preferred to reside in the Coptic monastery of Qusayr outside Fustat.[20]

Expansion into Syria[edit]

In the early 870s, a major change took place in the Abbasid government, as Caliph al-Mu'tamid (r. 870–892) appointed his brother al-Muwaffaq as the de facto regent of the empire. Officially, al-Muwaffaq controlled the eastern half of the Caliphate, while al-Mu'tamid's son and first heir al-Mufawwad controlled the western, with the aid of the Turkish general Musa ibn Bugha. In reality al-Muwaffaq held the actual reins of power.[2][21] Al-Muwaffaq however was preoccupied with the threats to the Abbasid government by the rise of the Saffarids in the east and by the Zanj Rebellion in Iraq itself, as well as with keeping in check the Turkish troops and managing the internal tensions of the caliphal government, giving Ibn Tulun the necessary space to consolidate his own position in Egypt. Ibn Tulun kept himself out of the Zanj conflict, and even refused to recognize his new suzerain, who in turn did not confirm him in his position.[2][22]

Open conflict between Ibn Tulun and al-Muwaffaq broke out in 875/6. Counting on the rivalry between the Caliph and his over-mighty brother to maintain his own position, Ibn Tulun forwarded a larger share of the taxes to al-Mu'tamid instead of al-Muwaffaq; in 876, 2.2 million dinars went to the Caliph and only 1.2 million dinars to his brother. In a public gesture of support for al-Mu'tamid, Ibn Tulun would assume the title of "Servant of the Commander of the Faithful" (mawlā amīr al-muʾminīn) in 878.[22] Alarmed at Ibn Tulun's machinations with his brother, al-Muwaffaq sought a volunteer to replace him, but all the officials in Baghdad had been bought off by Ibn Tulun and refused. Al-Muwaffaq sent a letter to the Egyptian ruler demanding his resignation, which the latter predictably refused. Both sides geared for war. Ibn Tulun created a fleet and fortified his borders and ports, including Alexandria, Akka—the latter undertaken by the grandfather of al-Muqaddasi, who provides a detailed description—and a new fortress on Rawda Island to protect Fustat. Al-Muwaffaq nominated Musa ibn Bugha as governor of Egypt and sent him with troops to Syria. In the event, due to a combination of lack of pay for the troops, and the fear generated by Ibn Tulun's army, Musa never got further than al-Raqqah. After ten months of inaction Musa returned to Iraq.[23][24][25]

Ibn Tulun now seized the initiative. Having served in his youth in the border wars with the Byzantine Empire at Tarsus, he now requested to be conferred the command of the frontier districts of Cilicia (Thughur). Al-Muwaffaq initially refused, but following the Byzantine successes of the previous years al-Mu'tamid prevailed upon his brother and in 877/8 Ibn Tulun received responsibility for the entirety of Syria and the Cilician frontier. Ibn Tulun marched into Syria in person. He received the submission of the son of Amajur, who had recently died, whom he appointed governor of Ramla, and proceeded to take possession of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.[22][25] At Damascus Ibn Tulun encountered his old rival Ibn al-Mudabbir, who since his eviction from Egypt had served as Amajur's ʿāmil for Palestine and Damascus. Ibn al-Mudabbir was fined 600,000 dinars and thrown into prison, where he died in 883/4.[22] In the rest of the provincial administration, however, he largely left the people who had served under Amajur in place. Only the governor of Aleppo, Sima al-Tawil, resisted, and fled to Antioch. Ibn Tulun was forced to besiege the city, until Sima was killed, reportedly by a woman.[26] He then continued on to Tarsus, where he began preparing for a campaign against the Byzantines. The presence of his numerous soldiers, however, led to a rapid rise in prices, causing great hostility among the Tarsians, who demanded that he either leave or reduce his army. At this juncture, news arrived from Egypt that his son Abbas, whom he had left as his regent, was preparing to usurp his position under the influence of his entourage.[26] Ibn Tulun hastily withdrew from Tarsus, but as more information about the situation in Egypt began to arrive, clarifying that Abbas posed no real threat, Ibn Tulun decided to spend more time in Syria and consolidate his authority. He redressed the injustices of Sima, installed troops in Aleppo (under his ghulam Lu'lu') and Harran, secured the co-operation of the Banu Kilab and their leader Ibn al-Abbas, and captured the rebel Musa ibn Atamish.[26]

As Thierry Bianquis comments, the territory demarcated by Ibn Tulun in this expedition was remarkably similar to that controlled by the later, similarly Egypt-based regimes of Saladin and the Mamluk Sultanate.[26] Only then, in April 879, did Ibn Tulun return to Egypt. Abbas with his supporters fled west, and over Barqa tried to take over Ifriqiya. Defeated (probably in the winter of 880–881, he retreated back east to Alexandria, where he was finally defeated and captured by Ibn Tulun's forces. After being publicly paraded seated on a mule, Ibn Tulun ordered his son to execute or mutilate his companions, who had driven him to rebel. Ibn Tulun reportedly secretly hoped that his son would refuse to do such a dishonourable act, but he agreed. Weeping, Ibn Tulun had Abbas whipped and imprisoned. He then named his second son, Khumarawayh, as his heir-apparent.[27]

Following his return from Syria, Ibn Tulun added his own name to coins issued by the dynasty, along with those of the Caliph and heir apparent, al-Mufawwad.[28] In 882, the Tulunid general Lu'lu defected to the Abbasids.[16] In retaliation, Ibn Tulun invited the by now nearly powerless al-Mu'tamid to join him at al-Raqqah. Such a move would have immensely boosted Ibn Tulun's standing: not only would the source of political legitimacy reside under his control, but he would also be able to pose as the "rescuer" of the Caliph. Al-Mu'tamid indeed did set out, but was detained by the governor of Mosul and delivered to his brother who kept him under confinement at Wasit.[28][29] This opened anew the rift between the two rulers: al-Muwaffaq nominated Ishaq ibn Kundaj as governor of Egypt and Syria, while Ibn Tulun organized an assembly of jurists at Damascus which declared al-Muwaffaq a usurper and his place in the succession as void. The Abbasid regent then had his rival cursed in the mosques, with Ibn Tulun responding in kind in his own domains. Despite the belligerent rhetoric, however, neither made moves to confront the other militarily[16][28]

Military skirmishes followed. After leading the siege of Tarsus under Yazaman al-Khadim in 883, ibn Ṭūlūn fell ill on his return to Egypt and died on May 10, 884. He was succeeded by his 20-year-old son, Khumarawayh, who lacked much of the charisma and cunning that kept Ibn Tulun in power. The Tulunid dynasty was short-lived, and Egypt was reoccupied by Abbasid forces in the winter of 904–05.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Becker 1987, p. 190.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hassan 1986, p. 278.
  3. ^ Becker 1987, pp. 190–191.
  4. ^ Kennedy 2004, pp. 172, 308.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Bianquis 1998, p. 92.
  6. ^ a b Brett 2011, p. 558.
  7. ^ Brett 2011, pp. 550–556.
  8. ^ Brett 2011, p. 557.
  9. ^ Bianquis 1998, pp. 92–93.
  10. ^ a b c Bianquis 1998, p. 93.
  11. ^ Cobb 2001, pp. 38–39.
  12. ^ Bianquis 1998, p. 94.
  13. ^ Brett 2011, p. 559.
  14. ^ Kennedy 2004, p. 308.
  15. ^ Bianquis 1998, p. 98.
  16. ^ a b c Becker 1987, p. 191.
  17. ^ Cobb 2001, pp. 39–41.
  18. ^ Brett 2011, pp. 559–560.
  19. ^ Bianquis 1998, pp. 99–100.
  20. ^ Bianquis 1998, p. 100.
  21. ^ Bonner 2010, pp. 320–321.
  22. ^ a b c d Bianquis 1998, p. 95.
  23. ^ Bianquis 1998, pp. 95, 98–99.
  24. ^ Hassan 1986, pp. 278–279.
  25. ^ a b Brett 2011, p. 560.
  26. ^ a b c d Bianquis 1998, p. 96.
  27. ^ Bianquis 1998, pp. 96–97.
  28. ^ a b c Hassan 1986, p. 279.
  29. ^ Kennedy 2004, p. 174.


Preceded by
Azjur al-Turki
(as governor of the Abbasid Caliphate)
Tulunid Emir of Egypt
Succeeded by