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The Daylamis: Elite Infantrymen in the Age of Mounted Warfare

By Adam Ali

Due to its rugged and mountainous terrain and its fierce warlike people, Daylam was not integrated into the caliphate when the Arabs emerged from their peninsula to conquer the Sasanian Empire and several provinces of the Byzantine Empire during the early 7th century. The region had a long history of independence and resistance to imperial conquests, even from the great empires of the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sassanians.

Even when Islam did penetrate into the highlands during the 9th century, its inhabitants converted the Zaydi Shiism. The mountains and thick woods also became the refuge for Alid rebels fleeing the Abbasids and it was the emergence of the Alid dynasties in Tabaristan and Daylam and the conversion of many of the inhabitants of the region that catalyzed the mass exodus of Daylami (also referred to as Daylamite) men from their homelands to serve in the armies of the Abbasid caliphs and the other regional dynasties of the Muslim world including the Samanids, the Ghaznavids, the Fatimids, and the Seljuks among others. Furthermore, some Gilaki (also referred to Gilite) and Daylami soldiers of fortune and condotierre eventually left the service of their employers and set out on ventures of conquest of their own. Some of them were able to establish principalities in Northern Iran such as the Sallarids, Bavandids, and the Justanids. However, two of the most notable dynasties that emerged from the region were the Ziyarids and the Buyids, who conquered large territories that went far beyond the boundaries of their homelands.

Life in Daylam was harsh. Fertile land was scarce in the highlands and even in Gilan, with its tropical climate and fertile soil; the inhabitants were forced to eke out a living through hard labor. In some cases, even the chiefs and kings of the clans and tribes engaged in menial tasks such as cultivating the rice fields, gathering wood, and fishing. For example, Mardavij ibn Ziyar, a successful mercenary general and the founder of the Ziyarid dynasty sent an envoy to his brother, Vushmagir in Gilan with a proposal. This envoy was Persian and not a native of the Caspian region. He was shocked to find Vushmagir barefoot in the rice fields wearing patched trousers and a ragged tunic. He was even more shocked when Vushmagir contemptuously responded to his brother’s proposal by making a “farting noise” with his mouth.

Map of the Caspian coast of Iran – HistoryofIran / Wikimedia Commons

Daylami and Gilaki society was tribal rued by chiefs and kings and these tribes often feuded with and raided one another. There are also references of Daylami raids beyond their own territories to the south and even as far as Mesopotamia. Due the harsh environment, limited resources, and tribal nature of society, the Daylamis and their Gilaki neighbors were a very tough and warlike people. The Arab ruling classes and other Iranian peoples saw them as uncouth savages and barbarians.

Although they were adept fighters, brave, and ferocious on the battlefield the Daylamis, like warriors from other tribal societies, initially lacked discipline and were unruly. However, during the wars in which they supported the Alid dynasties that emerged in Daylam, Tabaristan, and Gilan during the 9th and 10th centuries they gained experience in large scale warfare, fighting pitched battles and operating in larger numbers and formations. In this sense they are comparable to the Arabs, who transformed from tribal desert raiders in the early 7th century into armies of conquest in a matter of decades.

Due to the geography of their homeland, Daylami warriors fought primarily as infantrymen, although as they spread throughout the Muslim world, some of them also fought on horseback. Their most distinctive weapons were large brightly colored and highly decorated shields (mostly oval or round in shape) and double edged javelins or short spears called zupins. These zupins could be hurled at the enemy, or used to stab when fighting in close quarters. Their arsenal also included swords that they hung from baldrics, daggers, battle axes, and bows and arrows.

Most of the Daylamis were unarmored or lightly armored, although after serving abroad and especially after forming principalities and empires many of them started to wear heavier armor such as chainmail hauberks and lamellar armor that was popular, especially among the steppe peoples that entered the Islamic world at this time. They were experts at fighting in rugged broken terrain such as mountains, woods, and hills and in confined spaces. On such terrain they could easily outmaneuver and overcome most enemies, including the elite heavy cavalry that dominated the battlefields of that era, even if they were outnumbered.

A ninth-century sword from Iran – Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

They were also formidable foes in pitched battles on open ground. In such cases, they formed solid lines linking their shields to form a shield wall, not unlike the Vikings and Saxons who were operating in Northern Europe at around the same time. When in shield wall formation the Daylamis advanced against the enemy in a solid line, pushing them back while using their zupins, swords, and axes to thrust at and cut their foes from behind their shields, while those behind the front ranks threw their javelins and fired arrows at the enemy.

One disadvantage that the Daylamis had when fighting in open spaces was their lack of mobility in comparison to their mounted counterparts. They risked being outflanked, and if forced to withdraw, they could not flee and regroup as quickly as cavalry. For this reason, Daylami commanders such as Mardavij ibn Ziyar and the Buyid brothers adapted quickly to the situation when they started expanding their territories beyond their native homelands by recruiting Turkic mercenaries and slave soldiers, who were some of the best and most versatile cavalry of the time and could operate as both light skirmishers and heavy cavalry. The lack of the Daylamis’ mobility was also circumvented by such commanders by transforming them into mobile infantry who rode to the battlefield on mules and camels and dismounted to fight. If they had to withdraw they could retreat to their mounts and flee more quickly.

Together the Daylamis and the Turks formed an excellent hybrid force. The Daylamis provided a strong immovable wall of skilled and disciplined infantrymen that formed the main battle line of the army. The Turks screened the army on the march, protected its the flanks during battle, skirmished with the enemy and attempted to outflank them, charged the weak points, and covered the retreat if one was necessary.

A depiction of a Daylami cavalryman from an Iranian textbook. Wikimedia Commons

The Arabs had encountered Daylami soldiers long before trying to subdue the region or before the great Daylami expansions of the 10th century. In fact, in 570 the Sasanian shahanshah, Khusraw I, sent an expedition to Yemen to wrest it from Abyssinian control at the request of the local Arab chiefs. The army sent by Khusraw was composed of 800 men, most of whom were Daylamis. They subjugated Yemen and made it a vassal state of Persia and these Daylamis and their descendants were referred to as the Abna’ (the sons). When Muhammad’s preaching reached Yemen, these Abna’ converted to Islam and swore allegiance first to the prophet and then to his caliph successors.

In another instance, during the Battle of Qadisiyya in 637 a large unit of 4,000 elite Daylami infantrymen defected to the Muslim side from the Sasanian army. Daylamis had frequently served the Persian emperors as mercenaries as they provided quality infantrymen to counteract those of the Romans/Byzantines who were the Persians’ long-time primary foes. It appears that the Daylamis serving in the Sasanian army, like their brethren who would descend from their mountain fastnesses three centuries later, had modified their fighting techniques beyond the traditional tribal skirmishing and raiding that took place in their homelands to adapt to the situation on the battlefields of imperial struggles. This unit of 4,000 Daylami defectors officially became one of the seven divisions of the conquering Arab army, converted to Islam, and played a major role in the last decisive clash with the Sasanians at the Battle of Jalula in 637. They were settled along with the other elements of the army in Kufa.

As mentioned earlier, after the period in which the Alid dynasties emerged in Daylam, Gilan, and Tabaristan, large numbers of Daylamis left their homelands to seek service in the militaries of the caliphates and the other regional Muslim powers. In fact, they are mentioned in the literary genre of Persian advice literature (also known as ‘mirrors for princes’), which are political treatises similar to the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. However, the Persian authors of such texts predate Machiavelli by about four or five centuries.

Two of the most notable advice literature texts written in the 10th and 11th centuries are the Qabus Nameh and the Siyasat Nameh. The first was written by Qabus ibn Vushmagir, the Ziyarid ruler of Gorgan and Tabaristan and the second was penned by the powerful vizier of the Seljuks, Nizam al-Mulk. When discussing the organization and composition of a ruler’s army, both of these authors emphasize the importance of having an army composed of multiple ethnicities and one of the ethnic groups mentioned several times by both of these men are the Daylamis. They both state that an element of the imperial guard as well as a division of the army must be composed of the men of Daylam.

Such statements underscore the prominence and importance of the military role of the Daylamis in the Islamic world during the 10th and 11th centuries. And therefore it should come as no surprise that the Abbasid caliphs, Samanid amirs, Ghaznavid sultans, Fatimid caliphs, and the Seljuk sultans all sought to employ these men in their armies. The Daylamis, therefore, became one of the main martial ethnic groups in the caliphate during this period alongside others such as the Turks and the Khurasanis.

Despite the Daylamis’ military prowess and the astronomical military successes of some Daylami adventurers, they all but disappear as a prominent military group in the Muslim world by the mid-11th century. The largest of the Daylami empires, that created by the Buyid family, was swallowed up by a new conquering force, the Seljuk Turks who advanced from the east during the early and mid-11th century.

One reason for this decline was the numerical weakness of the Daylami ethnic element in the Muslim world. Relatively few in number and from a small remote region, the Daylamis dispersed far and wide as mercenaries under various leaders and captains. The numbers of Daylmis in the service of the various Muslim dynasties and regimes varied from a few hundred to several thousands. Those who had supported the Buyids established a large empire and were the most numerous. The numbers of Daylamis in Buyid armies are cited in the sources as being anywhere between 1,500-8,000, depending on who was in command (if it was one of the Buyid amirs then the numbers were obviously larger) and the objectives of that campaign. The largest number on record is the army of the Buyid amir Sharaf al-Dawla, which was composed of 19,000 Daylamis and 3,000 Turks when he occupied Baghdad in 987.

By the early eleventh century the Buyid domains had become fragmented by infighting among various factions led by different family members of the Buyid clan, which further diminished the numbers of Daylamis and divided them. Furthermore, there was also a continuous struggle in the Daylami homeland and its neighboring regions between both indigenous and foreign powers. Thus, the flood of mercenaries leaving this area had slowed down to a trickle by the 11th century. Those Daylamis who had taken up service far abroad in places such as Egypt or far in the east either died fighting or settled down and they and their descendents became assimilated into the local cultures and societies.

Despite their disappearance from the main political scheme the Daylamis left political, military, and religious legacies. Some of those remaining in their homelands followed the preaching of Hassan-i Sabbah and converted to Nizari Ismaili Shiism and joined the sect referred to by their opponents as the “assassins” (derived from hashishin). Occupying the almost impregnable fortress of Alamut in the Alborz Maountains, they continued to be a thorn in the side of the caliphs and other rulers of the Muslim world for the next century and half until they were almost completed eliminated by the Mongols under Hulegu Khan.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Top Image: Warrior depicted in a 10th-century bowl from Iran – Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art



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