Why this corner of the medieval world matters: Northern Iran

By Adam Ali

There are episodes in history when certain peoples from remote and isolated mountainous and highland regions exploded onto the world scene with a sudden energy and vigor.

Such groups often emerged and made their impact as warriors, soldiers, and mercenaries and had a major military impact on the areas into which they moved. They had their unique cultures, practices, languages, and religions, which they were able to preserve in the face of great imperial expansions due to the difficulty of reaching their homelands which were protected by great mountain ranges, thick woods, rivers, and steep valleys and defiles. The peoples inhabiting such mountainous areas had a strong sense of independence and autonomy and their harsh environment made them tough. Their “civilized” lowland counterparts often viewed them as uncouth “barbarians” and “savages” and yet feared them for their martial prowess.

A few groups come to mind when thinking of martial mountain folk in medieval Europe such as: the clans of the Scottish Highlands, the Almughavars of the Pyrenees Mountains, and of course the Swiss halberdiers and pikemen of the late middle ages. The Swiss had an especially huge impact due to their discipline, organization, and ferocity in battle. They made their fame in battle as infantrymen at a time when Europe’s battlefields were dominated by heavily armored knights. Their swift and fearless advances against their enemies and their refusal to take prisoners made them both feared and admired throughout Europe and also the most sought after mercenaries of their age.

Iran around the year 1000 AD – Wikimedia Commons

The people of Northern Iran, specifically the Daylamis (also sometimes referred to as Daylamites), had a similar impact on the Islamic world during the 10th century. They emerged from the isolation of their mountainous homelands in Northern Iran as mercenaries and soldiers of fortune enlisting the armies of the caliph and the other local rulers or serving in bands under their own captains. Throughout the 10th and 11th centuries Daylamis were present in the militaries of the Muslim world from the Fatimids of Egypt in the west to the Ghaznavids whose empire was centered on the city of Ghazna (in modern day Afghanistan) in the east. This is the first of a series of articles on the history of Northern Iran and its people during the 10th and 11th centuries.

The regions of Northern Iran that concern us in this article are Gilan, Daylam, and Tabaristan. The most important of these areas was Daylam, with regard to the expansions that occurred out of this area during the 10th century. Daylam was, in fact, the highlands of Gilan. Gilan, Daylam, and Tabaristan cradle the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and are protected from incursions from the south by the Alborz mountain range. Several rivers and streams run through this area from the mountains to the Caspian Sea.

Gilan’s climate is warm and damp and is often described as “tiring” and “unhealthy.” However, it is a very fertile region, with rice being its chief crop in the medieval period in addition to the breeding of silk worms. All three regions are heavily wooded with luxuriant forests that provide plentiful wood for construction. While Gilan’s landscape and climate made it a rich agricultural area, its highland region, Daylam, was not as fortunate. Due to the comparatively infertile land many Dalyamis were woodsmen or fishermen. Their environment and lifestyle made them tough, robust, and enterprising and more willing to leave their homelands to serve as mercenaries abroad.

Little is known about the pre-Islamic religion of Daylam. At the time of the Islamic conquest of the Sasanian Empire and the subsequent invasion of Northern Iran by the Arabs there may have been a few Zoroastrians and Christians in the region. However, the vast majority of the population probably practiced local pagan religions and cults or may have been adherents to one or the other form of the Khurramiyya sect (see Patricia Crone’s The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism for more on the Khurramiyya). They lived in tribes and clans and were ruled by chiefs or local princes and kings.

From Antiquity the Daylamis had always preserved their independence and autonomy thanks to their warlike nature and martial prowess and also to the natural defenses that made incursions into their territories a very difficult undertaking. Therefore, they were either tributaries or allies to the Persian imperial powers such as the Achaemenids and the Sassanians.

Greek writers of Late Antiquity refer to them when giving accounts of the wars between the Byzantines and the Sassanians. Procopius reports that the Daylamis were independent allies of the Persians, who inhabited the inaccessible mountains of Media, and stated that they fought as infantrymen using javelins, swords, and shields as their weapons of choice. Agathias characterized the Daylamis as very warlike people who were the independent allies of the Persians. They were adept in close combat using pike and sword and at ranged combat using slings. Theophanes reports that the Daylamis joined the Persians in their wars against the Byzantines during the late-6th century. However, they rebelled when the Sassanian king, Ohrmazd (or Hormizd) IV (r. 579-90), died and they fought against his successor and allied themselves with the rebel commander Bahram Chobin, who briefly occupied the throne from 590-591.

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

When the Arabs conquered the Sassanian Empire during the early 7th century, they launched expeditions against Daylam. They defeated the Daylamis led by their king Muta (or Murtha) on the river Wadj in Dastabay or Dasht-pay, which means the “edge of the plain” stretching between Rayy and Hamadan. However, like their other imperial predecessors they were unable to exert direct control over the region and its people. Nevertheless, after the battle, the Arabs occupied Qavzin after it surrendered to them, and it continued to function as fortified frontier town against Daylami raids, as it had under the Sassanians. Muslim historians record 17 expeditions launched against Daylam by the caliphs between the reigns of Umar I and al-Ma’mun (634-833). Despite these attempts Daylam maintained its independence.

In 761 Tabaristan, which up to that point was ruled by the Dabuyid dynasty, was conquered by the Muslims. A direct result of this conquest was the emergence of a new dynasty in Daylam, the Justanids. Their sphere of influence did not extend far beyond their own tribe, but they remained in power until the 11th century. It was this dynasty that constructed the famous mountain fortress of Alamut that would later be the headquarters of the Nizari Ismailis, famously referred to as the “Assassins.” One of the Justanid kings, Marzuban, even visited Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), when the caliph summoned him along with the other rulers in the Caspian region. The caliph gave Marzuban a gift of money and a robe of honour when he departed. Marzuban was not required to pay any tribute to the caliph, an obligation that was imposed on other allies and subject kings and lords. This indicates the extent to which Daylam fell outside direct caliphal control even as late as the 9th century when the neighboring areas, such as Gilan and Tabaristan, had been conquered and incorporated into the caliphate to a greater degree.

Due to its impregnable mountain fastnesses, Daylam became a refuge for Alids (proto-Shias) fleeing from Abbasid persecution. A line of Hassanids (descendants of Hasan ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet) entered the region in the late 9th century. These men were both capable warriors and generals and clever politicians and were able to bring many of the Daylamis onto their side against in their struggles against the Abbasid caliphs even gaining the oath of allegiance from the Justanids.

It is after the penetration of the Alids and their missionaries (known as da‘is) into Daylam, Gilan, and Tabaristan that some of the locals started to convert to Islam. Most of the Dayalmis converted to Zaydi Shiism. It was after the collapse of these Zaydi Alid dynasties in Northern Iran that their Gilaki (also referred to Gilite) and Dalami supporters erupted from the confines of their northern wooded and mountainous homeland. Some of them served as mercenaries far abroad, while others created their own kingdoms and empires. The most notable among these soldiers of fortune and empire builders were: Asfar ibn Shiruya, Mardavij ibn Ziyar, Makan ibn Kaki, and the Buyid brothers. These mercenary empire builders had a widespread military, political, and cultural impact on the Muslim world during the 10th century.

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

Top Image: Iran – Qazvin – Alamut Castle View – Photo by Alireza Javaheri / Wikimedia Commons

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