HNN's Student Research Paper Contest: And the Winner Is ....

tags: Zoroastrian

David L. O'Connor received his Ph.D. in history in 2000 from Stony Brook University, and is a history teacher at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY. He is a Contributing Editor at HNN.

Ibrahim Mammodov of Brooklyn Technical High School in New York is the winner of HNN’s inaugural Student Research Paper Contest. Ibrahim’s paper, “Zoroastrian Revivalism and the Rise and Fall of the Khurramite Movement,” explores the Zoroastrian resistance to the Arab Caliphate in eighth-century Azerbaijan.  He uses a wealth of primary and secondary sources to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Khurramite rebellion.  Ibrahim wrote this paper in his tenth grade world history class, which was taught by Mr. Joshua Silverman.  

Second Place in the contest is awarded to Udochi Emeghara for her paper, “The Female Janus: Revealing Evan Peron’s True Motives.” Udochi attends The Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and wrote this paper in Mr. Peter Delman’s class. 

Timothy Caryl of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School earned an Honorable Mention for his essay, “How Rome’s Pragmatic and Adaptable Culture Affected the Outcome of the Punic Wars,” which was written for Ms. Samantha Cameron’s class.  

Congratulations to the honorees and to all of the students who entered the contest for producing such fine examples of scholarship.  

Zoroastrian Revivalism and the Rise and Fall of the Khurramite Movement


Ibrahim Mammodov

The rise of the Arab Caliphate in the seventh and eighth centuries is considered among the most important turning points in the history of the Middle East. Within two centuries,vast areas were united under the banner of Islam, and great empires were brought to their knees at the sword of the Arab soldiers. Among those great empires wasSassanid Persia, and the death of the last Sassanian emperor Yazdegerd III (r. 632-651) is usually considered the point when the Muslim forces put an end to Zoroastrianism in Iran. And while it is true that the fall of the Sassanids dealt a heavy blow to Zoroastrianism, certain provinces of Persia were unwilling to abandon their faith; the rise of the Khurramite movement stands as the biggest testament to that defiance. The Khurramite movement is fascinating in many respects, though what particularly draws the attention of historians is the longevity of their rebellion, and how the Khurramites managed to wage such an effective war against arguably the most powerful standing army in the Middle East. Other points of interest included the birthplace of the movement, Azerbaijan, and the variables that contributed to it becoming the heart of the most destructive internal threat to Muslim rule. What was it about that portion of Persia that made it so incredibly difficult to conquer and made its people sowilling to die for a faith that was waning in popularity? The answers seem to lie in a combination of several factors, with military alliances, the history of Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan, and therelative weakness of the Caliphate at the time of the rebellion being mainly responsible for the success of the Khurramites.

For roughly a century after the Arab conquest of Persia, which was completed by 654,the relations between Muslims and Zoroastrians were far from antagonistic, mainly due to the Islamic policy of religious tolerance. In 755 C.E., a Persian political figure named Abu Muslim who served the Abbasid monarch was executed by the Caliph, which put an end to the stability on the Caucasian frontier.Abu Muslim’spopularity among non-Arabs is thought to be the main reason behind his execution[1]. Immediately after the execution, angered Zoroastrians rose up to protest, and the Khurramite movement soon emerged in Azerbaijan. The seeds of dissent were thus sown over the Caucasus, though it would be decades before any military escalations. During those decades ofpeace, the Khurramites served as both a political and a religious faction, attracting many followers to their Mazdak, Neo-Zoroastrian faith.

Babak Khorramdin is the name that is most associated with the Khurramite movement, as it was under Babak’s leadership that the order reached its zenith. Babak was born in 795 in the city of Ardabil, in a region known as Iranian Azerbaijan. After his father’s death, Babak began trading weapons and used his money to take care of his relatives. Javidan, the leader of the local Khurramite chapter, recruited Babak after witnessing his hospitality, which Babak was able to demonstrate when Javidan, then only a stranger, knocked on his door to seek shelter from an ongoing snowstorm[2]. Within months,Babak was able to gain the trust and respect of Javidan and the rest of the recruits, and was declared his successor after Javidan’s death in 816[3]. Babak thus acquired a leadership position, which he used to declare a full-scale military mobilization against the Arab aggressors[4].The Khurramites robustly executed their agenda, and soon all Abbasid troops were expelled from the territory, leaving the Khurramite state as the supreme governing body of Azerbaijan, with its iconic red flag, symbolizing important Zoroastrian attributes like fire and the sun, waving above the towering Bazz Castle[5].

Azerbaijan, a strategically important site both because of its locationon the Silk Road andits renowned trading centers like Tabriz, Shamakhi, and Urmia, was not a prize Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833)was willing to give up to Babak. By failing to assess the situation accurately, al-Ma’mun allowed the rebellion to gain momentum. The Caliph launched three consecutive offensives against the Khurramite fort, all ofwhich resulted either in stalemate or defeat for the Muslim forces. The repeated victories earned Babak a reputation of invincibility, both among the people of Azerbaijan and the Arabs. Al-Ma’mun saw that he had to make amendments to the military campaign he was pursuing against Babak and decided to merge several regiments under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Humayd, an experienced and knowledgeable general. Ibn Humayd was initially very successful, skilfully exploiting his numerical advantage to drive Babak’s forces all the way to the gates of the Bazz Castle[6]. At the castle, however, Babak showed his brilliance as a tactician, and his use of innovative military tactics, which took advantage of the mountainous terrain,allowed him to snatch victory from the hands of ibn Humayd. Prior to the engagement of the armies at the foot of the Bazz Castle, Babak selected his finest warriors and ordered them to wait in the mountains. Toward the end of the battle, the reinforcements joined the fray and turned the clash in favor of the Khurramites[7]. The battle culminated with the death of ibn Humayd, at which point his demoralized troops fled. 

The defeat undermined the notion of the invincibility of the Caliphate, and a final but futile attempt by al-Ma’mun a year later to conquer Azerbaijan helped further debase the feeling of Arab military superiority[8]. Al-Ma’mun was unable to gather up a battalion large enough to send to Azerbaijan, since his resources were being used to fight the Byzantines. This gave Babak time to pursue an internal policy of reform within Azerbaijan, solidifying his position and the Khurramite control over his realm.

The war plunder that Babak’s troops gathered from Arab-controlledprovincial treasuries located around Azerbaijan and from Arab military convoyshelped enrich the Khurramite treasury, and the movement began to spread to other parts of Persia, namely Isfahan, Fars, and Quhistan.Social reforms were beginning to bear fruit, and a successful kingdom seemed to be emergingout of the ashes of war. Things took a turn in 833, when al-Ma’mun passed away andal-Motasim (r. 833-842), his brother, ascended the throne. Before giving his last breath, al-Ma’mun remembered to mention the Khurramites to the new Caliph. According to Medieval sources,Al-Ma’mun said “to defeat the Khurramites, employ a ruthless, unswerving leader, and patiently supply him with arms, cavalry, and infantry. If you see that the war is dragging on for too long, take your most trusted men and face the enemy yourself.”[9]. Al-Motasim immediately shifted his sights from Anatolia to the Caucasus.

Al-Motasim employed large numbers of Turkic troops to suppress the Khurramite state. The incorporation of Turkic regiments into the Abbasid Army is seen by many as the turning point of the war, since Turkic troops were considered the most elite warriors in the entire Middle East[10]. The skirmish which started al-Motasim’s campaign against Babak was fought in Hamadan soon after al-Motasim’s rise to power, where Babak abandoned his usual guerilla-style tactics and engaged the enemy on an open field. This resulted in a disastrous defeat for Babak, with fifty thousand of his soldiers dying as a result of his miscalculation. While many managed to escape to the Eastern Roman Empire, some, including Babak, made their way back to the Bazz to rebuild their army[11]. The defeat took a serious toll on the morale of the Khurramites, and had a reverse effect in the Arab camp. Emboldened, al-Motasim ordered Abu Said Muhammad to blockade the Bazz Castle immediately after the victory at Hamadan and to cut off the Khurramite supply of arms and goods[12]. To put a decisive end to the Khurramite movement, al-Motasim summoned another general, the talented and versatile Heydar al-Afshin, to lead an army into the Bazz Castle and to declare himself the ruler of Jibal and of the Caucasus[13].

Al-Afshin entered Azerbaijan in 836 and delegated spies to scout the geography of the area, meanwhile meticulously studying the mountainous region. By the end of the winter, al-Motasim sent an additional nine thousand Turkic soldiers, under the leadership of Itakh and Jafar[14].Afshin decided to begin his assault but was warned by hisinformants of a Khurramite infantry unit hiding in the forests. Afshin ordered a sizable portion of his army to enter the forest at night to surround the Khurramite unit, and commanded Jafar to lay siege to the Bazz Castle. By the next day, Babak’s army was destroyed in its entirety.

Babak’s movement, although it culminated in a military defeat, could hardly be called a failure. According to both contemporary and later Islamic sources, including ibn al-Ibri,

al-Tabari, al-Mugaddasi, and al-Masudi Tanbeh, the Khurramites killed approximately 225,500 Abbasid soldiers, an incredibly high number by medieval standards. This was achieved despite severe handicaps, as the Khurramites were outnumbered by the Arabs and their Turk allies, and received poor training, unlike their well-drilled Arab opponents. Peasants, who are not traditionally thought of as proficient fighters, comprised a large portion of Babak’s recruits[15]. The Khurramites were also fighting for a waning cause, trying to revive a religion that had long been on the decline. So what was responsible for Babak’s military successes? How was such a small group able to withstand the Arab onslaught for twenty years? 

One answer that historians give is the Byzantine Empire. Apart from draining Arab resources on the northwestern frontier of the Islamic realm, the Byzantines gave indispensable support to Babak, mainly through commercial interactions[16]. Bound by a shared rivalry with the Arabs, Babakand the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842)maintained a partnership that was partially responsible for the longevity of the Khurramite state. Theophilos supplied much of Babak’s funds and resources, and on several occasions timed attacks against Arabs on the Anatolian frontier to draw enemy troops from the Caucasus.

Babak’s success could also be attributed to the timing of the rebellion. For decades prior to the rise of the Khurramites, the Abbasids had been losing power to local viziers, partly because of their ineffective communication system[17].Governing became even more difficult when the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), attacked the Barmakid family, a powerful Persian clan that had been wielding growing power within the Abbasid bureaucracy[18]. Al-Rashid’s death led to a civil war between al-Amin, who resided in Baghdad, and al-Ma’mun, who resided in Khorasan. Al-Ma’mun successfully defeated al-Amin, but the war served to further weaken the Caliphate[19]. Since the Khurramite movement emerged in the wake of these events, the Caliphate was too weak to repel the Khurramite offensives. A state that was losing territory and political power, lacked sufficient resources to build an effective army, and had poor infrastructure, was unable to crack down on the Azerbaijani insurrection, which gave Babak the time to solidify his position.

While foreign support, the events leading up to the revolt, and Babak’s remarkable leadership skills all help explain why the Khurramites were successful, they do little to explain why Azerbaijan was the place where Zoroastrianism lingered for the longest period of time. A part of the answer lies in the birthplace of Zoroastrianism. Historians who use the Avesta, or the collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism, as their primary source of information, point to Ardabil as the city where Zoroastrianism had originated, citing the part of the sacred text that says that Zoroaster was born south of the Araz river and wrote his scriptures in the Alborz mountain range, located in today’s Ardabil province of Iran[20]. Ardabil, located in Azerbaijan, also happens to be Babak’s home province. 

        Apart from being the first to adopt Zoroastrianism, areligion in which fire worship took a prominent position, Azerbaijanis were also the most ardent fire-worshippers, revering fire as their deity for thousands of years before Zoroaster’s birth. The emission of flammable gases and oil from the ground created many geographic features that reminded believers in the power of fire, namely mountains that burned eternally and springs that caught fire[21]. Every lightning strike would send a gushing flame soaring several feet from the ground, and those who witnessed the spectacle would be unable to deny the divine nature of the incident. The extreme religious fervor of the people who occupied Azerbaijan was responsible for the etymology of the region’s name, with the name being derived from “Azar Payegan,” which translated to “Guardians of Fire” from the Persian Language. Hence, geography played a great role in solidifying the devotion to Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan, a devotion that traveled from pre-history to the Khurramite rebellion and compelled Babak and thousands like him to stay true to their title as the guardians of the Zoroastrian faith and to preserve it from foreign influences.

A lot of what is known about Babak today is known through Medieval Islamic sources.

As primary sources often are, those Perso-Arabic manuscripts were not without bias and prejudice when describing the Khurramite movement. In an attempt to belittle Babak and his rebellion,  Abbasid historians, even centuries after Babak’s death, described Azerbaijan as a province in revolt, and the Khurramites as a group of rogue rebels. Modern historians are beginning to challenge that view, contending that the Khurramite state, with its red flag, uniformed standing army, sovereign foreign policy, and defined borders, was truly an independent governing body that possessed all the attributes of a modern state. For overtwo decades, the Khurramites were able to entirely control their internal affairs, both north and south of the Araz river, make alliances with neighboring powers and distribute their budgets as they desired. When viewed from the lens of an independent kingdom, the Khurramite state can be seen as the precursor to an increasingly independent Azerbaijan, which had control over its internal affairs even after it was incorporated into various Arab, Persian, and Turkic empires. Though it ended in a military failure, Babak’s revolt helped give Azerbaijanis a sense of identity separate from that of the Persians, who were less willing to keep fighting for their faith, and distinct from that of the Arabs, who were attempting to force their national and religious identity onto the region.

Although Babak Khorramdin’s life ended in tragedy, his legacy has carried on for generations. Historians speculate that the Qizilbash, a Turkic Shia military clan that brought the Safavid Empire to power early in thesixteenth century,is the “spiritual descendant of the Khurramite” movement, sharing both theological beliefs and a place of origin[22].Though Islam eventually replaced the Zoroastrian faith in Azerbaijan, Babak’s charismatic leadership, and the earnest faith of his followers in his cause, allowed him to stall the spread of Islam into Azerbaijan. And while the religious fervency of the Azerbaijanis helps explain why Azerbaijan became the homeland of the Khurramite movement, external variables, such as the support from the Byzantines and the Caliphate’s own weakness, shed some light on the impressive longevity of this resistance movement. Though over a thousand years have passed, the Khurramite movement continues to be perceived as one of the most significant steps towards the formation of the Azerbaijani national identity and serves as a remarkable example of self-determination and resistance to imperialism.

 Works Cited

Al-Athir, Ali. The Complete History. London: Routledge, 2006.

Al-Dhahabi, Shams. Major History of Islam. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ilmiyah, 2009.

Aliyev, Igrar. The History of Aturpatakan. Translated by Shaadman Yusuf. Tehran: Balkh Publishers, 1999.

Al-Masudi, Ali. The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems. London: Kegan Paul International, 1989.

Al-Mulk, Hasan. Book of Government. London: Routledge, 2012.

Al-Nadim, Muhammad. Al-Fihrist. Leipzig: F.C.W. Vogel, 1872.

Al-Tabari. The History of Al-Tabari: The Challenge to the Empires.Translated by Khalid Yahya Blankinship. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.

Brauer, Ralph W. Boundaries and Frontiers in Medieval Muslim Geography. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1995.

Bunyadov, Ziya. Azerbaijan in the 7th Through 9th Centuries. Baku: East-West, 2007.

Goldschmidt, Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East, Boulder: Westview Press, 2002. 

Gnoli, Gherardo. Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland. Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1980. 

Golpinarli, Abdulbaki. “Kizil-Bash.” Encyclopedia of Islam. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005.

Meisami, Julie Scott. Persian Historiography: To the End of the Twelfth Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Minorsky, Vladimir. Studies in Caucasian History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Miskawayh, Ahmad. Experiences of Nations. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2003.

Reay, David. Methane and Climate Change. London: Earthscan, 2010.

Taghribirdi, Jamal. Al-Nujum al-zahira fi muluk Misr wa'l-Qahira. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyah, 1950.

Valikhanli, Nailya. The Arab Caliphate and Azerbaijan. Baku: National Publishing House, 1993.

End Notes

[1]Arthur Goldschmidt, A Concise History of the Middle East,(Boulder: Westview Press, 2002).

[2]Jamal Taghribirdi, Al-Nujum al-zahira fi muluk Misr wa'l-Qahira (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyah, 1950), 577.

[3]Igrar Aliyev, The History of Aturpatakan, trans. Shaadman Yusuf (Tehran: Balkh Publishers, 1999).

[4]Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari: The Challenge to the Empires,trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 1015. 

[5]Ali Al-Masudi, The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems(London: Kegan Paul International, 1989), 130.

[6]Hasan Al-Mulk, Book of Government(London: Routledge, 2012), 225.

[7]  Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari: The Challenge to the Empires,trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 1101.

[8]  Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari: The Challenge to the Empires,trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 1072.

[9]Ali Al-Athir, The Complete History(London: Routledge, 2006), 158.

[10]Nailya Valikhanli, The Arab Caliphate and Azerbaijan(Baku: National Publishing House, 1993), 74.

[11]Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari: The Challenge to the Empires,trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 1165.

[12]Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari: The Challenge to the Empires,trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 1171.

[13]Shams Al-Dhahabi, Major History of Islam(Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ilmiyah, 2009), 384.

[14]  Ali Al-Athir, The Complete History(London: Routledge, 2006), 169.

[15]  Vladimir Minorsky, Studies in Caucasian History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 112.

[16]Ziya Bunyadov, Azerbaijan in the 7th Through 9th Centuries (Baku: East-West, 2007), 400-401.

[17]Ralph W. Brauer, Boundaries and Frontiers in Medieval Muslim Geography(Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1995), 7-10.

[18]Julie Scott Meisami, Persian Historiography: To the End of the Twelfth Century(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999).

[19]Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari: The Challenge to the Empires,trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993).

[20]  Gherardo Gnoli, Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland,(Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale,1980). 

[21]David Reay, Methane and Climate Change(London: Earthscan, 2010) 44-46.

[22]Abdulbaki Golpinarli, “Kizil-Bash.”Encyclopedia of Islam(Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005).

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