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Warlords and Dynasties: How Daylami mercenaries came to power in the 10th century

By Adam Ali

In the fourth part of this series that looks at northern Iran in the Middle Ages, the decline of the Alid dynasty opens the door for Daylami mercenary leaders to seize power.

Due to its remoteness, the difficulty of its terrain, and the fierce independence of its people and their martial nature, Daylam was not fully integrated into the caliphate for several centuries even after Muslim conquests.

This should come as no surprise as the pre-Islamic Persian empires of the Achaemenids and the Sassanians had also failed to completely conquer and annex this region; its people sometimes allied with them and provided mercenaries for their armies and at others they were hostile to them and fought against them. Most of them followed pagan religions and cults, and did not start to convert to Islam in large number until the 9th century. Even then, they were converted by Alid missionaries and most of them followed the Zaydi Shia creed in opposition to the Sunni caliphs in Baghdad. For the same reason, they supported the Alid dynasties that emerged in the Caspian region during the 9th century. In the ensuing wars between the Alids and their Tahirid, Samanid, and Abbasid rivals the Daylamis (also referred to as Daylamites) and their Gilaki (also referred to as Gilites) brethren transformed from tribal warriors into seasoned veteran soldiers.

Shortly after the collapse of Alid authority in Northern Iran, the Daylamis poured out of the region to serve as mercenaries in the armies of the caliphs and the other regional Muslim powers. This is a rather interesting and strange phenomenon because the Daylamis fought primarily as infantrymen at a time when the military scene was dominated by cavalry, particularly elite Turkic slave soldiers, famed for both their skills as mounted archers and as heavy cavalry, making them the ideal medieval hybrid cavalry. The Daylamis, on the other hand, fought on foot using large shields, javelins, short spears, axes, and swords in tight shield wall formations in open fields and in loose formations on broken terrain, where they performed at their best. So why were these infantrymen so sought after?

Iran in the mid-10th century following the collapse of the Alids – Wikimedia Commons

In his chapter “The Waning of Empire” in the New Cambridge History of Islam, Michael Bonner gives the following explanation:

One reason for their popularity was their reputation for endurance and strength. Another reason must have been that unlike slave soldiers they did not have to be bought and cared for, and unlike tribal levies such as the Kutama in North Africa or the Arab tribal confederacies of the Syrian desert they were largely immune to what Ibn Khaldun would later call ‘asabiyya’, the passion of group feeling. Despite their Zaydism they did not usually fight out of religious or ideological passion. In a world where loyalties were under negotiation, where military needs were often short term, but where religious and ethnic identity had sharp edges, the Daylamis had the potential for being truly effective mercenaries, and thus in great demand.

With the death of al-Utrush’s successors Ahmed and Jafar, his sons, and al-Hasan, the Alid commander of the army, the Alids lost effective control over their domains and became puppets to the Daylami chiefs and commanders. As a result of the infighting that ensued as the Alid principalities of Northern Iran collapsed and the rapidly expanding military ventures of the Daylamis, several prominent leaders emerged. These military commanders have been compared to the Italian condottieri of the fourteenth and fifteenth-centuries. They sought fame and power, and the strongest among them were able to carve out principalities and empires and to establish dynasties. Here are the stories of some of the Daylami commanders who rose to prominence:

Makan ibn Kaki

Makan was from the house of Kaki, local rulers or chiefs in the eastern region of Gilan along the Caspian coastlands. He rose to a powerful position in the service of the Alid princes of Tabaristan. With the defeat and death of his Alid ally, Makan was temporarily driven out of Tabaristan into Daylam by Asfar and his lieutenant Mardavij ibn Ziyar.

However, his fortunes were reversed and by 930 he was in control of Ṭabaristan, Gorgan (sometimes also spelled Gurgan) and even extended his domains to include Nishapur in Khurasan. In 931 he successfully repelled an attack on his domains by Asfar and Mardavij. But he was eventually defeated by Mardavij and lost his territories. He then fled to the Samanids whom he served as a mercenary, eventually gaining an appointed as the governor of Kirman by his new masters.

In 935, after Mardavij’s death, Makan returned to the Caspian region and seized Gorgan in the name of the Samanids. He found a new ally in Vushmagir ibn Ziyar, Mardavij’s brother and the continuer of the Ziyarid dynasty. With Vushmagir’s support he proclaimed his independence from the Samanids in Bukhara. In 940 a new Samanid offensive pushed Makan and his ally out of Gorgan. Makan made his last stand outside Rayy at the Battle of Iskhabad that same year. Vushmagir and his troops fled the battle as the tide turned against them. Makan and a large number of his elite troops were killed in the battle. His head was first sent to the Samanid amir in Bukhara and then to the caliph in Baghdad.

Asfar ibn Shiruya

Asfar ibn Shiruya was the other prominent north Iranian warlord who rose in the wake of the disintegration of Alid rule in Tabaristan. He was initially an officer in Makan’s army but was dismissed by the latter for his poor conduct. He entered the service of the Samanids in whose name he occupied Tabaristan and put an end to Alid rule there.

From Tabaristan he expanded his domain to include Gorgan, Rayy (from which he expelled Makan), Qazvin and the other towns of the Jibal region. He also came to terms with Makan and left Amol to him on the condition that he drop his ambitions to reconquer Tabaristan. All the while, he continued to proclaim his loyalty to his Samanid masters. He then took the mountain fortress of Alamut and moved his court there.

With the growth of his power and the expansion of his rule, Asfar began to rule like an independent sovereign and he threw off his allegiance to both the Samanids and the Abbasid caliph. Al-Muqtadir, the caliph, sent an army against him, but Asfar defeated it in battle near Qazvin. In the aftermath of the battle he took a dreadful revenge on the people of Qazvin who had aided the Abbasid army. Asfar allowed his troops to commit depredations against the civilians of Qazvin including massacres, the rape of women, and looting. In addition to massacring a large proportion of the population Asfar also forbade Muslim prayers and had the local muezzin (prayer caller) thrown from his own minaret. He also demolished several mosques. These actions imply that Asfar was not a Muslim and probably practiced a religion indigenous to the Caspian region.

Asfar soon found himself surrounded by enemies seeking to overthrow him and to conquer his territories. These included Makan, the Samanids, and the caliph. Unable to fight these odds Asfar made peace with the Samanids, submitted to them, and became a tributary. He became very tyrannical and to pay the tribute to the Samanids he levied a poll tax on all his subjects and on the merchants who entered his realm. It was this tyranny that led to Mardavij’s rebellion against his master in 931 (some sources state this took place in 928). Most of the army defected to the rebel officer. Asfar fled to Alamut, his stronghold and where his treasury was located. He intended to use these funds to raise a new army. However, Mardavij caught up with him before he could make it to his destination and killed him.

Gold dinar of Mardavij, minted at Nahavand in 933/4. Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com

Mardavij ibn Ziyar

Mardavij ibn Ziyar is the third major warlord who arose in Northern Iran. He was a Gilaki mercenary from the royal clan of Gilan. He first served the Alid rulers of Tabaristan and then Asfar ibn Shiruya. He personally killed the Alid ruler, al-Hasan ibn Qasim, in battle and avenged his uncle whom the latter had treacherously murdered along with other Daylami and Gilaki chieftains at a reception to which they were invited.

In 930, Asfar sent Mardavij on an expedition to Tarum along with his brother Shirzad. While besieging Shamiran in Tarum, he was persuaded to rebel against Asfar due to his master’s tyranny. It also helped that both Makan and the Sallarids (also known as the Musafarids or the Kangarids) pledged their support to Mardavij. The Sallarids were the local ruling Daylami dynasty in Tarum. The first stage of Mardavij’s revolt was to ambush Shirzad with the aid of the Sallarids. He took Shirzad by surprise and killed him along with twenty-nine chiefs from Asfar’s tribe, the Varudavand.

After overthrowing and killing Asfar in 931, Mardavij occupied Asfar’s domains and set out on a series of rapid and successful conquests.  He conquered Hamadan, Dinavar, and Isfahan from the governors of the caliph. He then turned on Makan, who had been his ally during the struggle against Asfar. In 932 took Tabaristan and Gorgan. Makan saved himself after failing to retake his lost territories by entering the Samanids’ service and forcing Mardavij, who was threatened by a Samanid invasion, to agree to a peace treaty under which he surrendered Gorgan and paid a tribute.

It was during this struggle that the three Buyid brothers, the founders of the Buyid empire, defected to Mardavij’s service from Makan and rose in the ranks in his army. Mardavij continued his western expansion and forced the caliphs al-Muqtadir and al-Qahir to recognize him as their governor in those regions. By 934 Mardavij had occupied Ahvaz (or Ahwaz) in Southern Iran and bordering modern day Iraq.

According to the sources, his next ambition was to take Baghdad, overthrow the caliphate, and to have himself crowned in Ctesiphon (the Sassanians’ former capital) as the emperor of a renewed Iranian empire. Mardavij’s anti-caliphate and anti-Islamic rhetoric and ideals were not embraced by the people of his domains, even the Iranians. He was murdered by his Turkic guards while he was bathing in the hamam before he could set off on this venture just three days after celebrating the Zoroastrian festival of Sadhak or Sada (the Zoroastrian feast of divine light) in Isfahan in 935. The Turks had been greatly insulted by his harsh treatment, disdain, tyranny, and contempt towards them and their religion.

It is important to note here that Mardavij was significant because he was the last among the Iranians who tried to fight the spread of Islam in Iran. However, despite his military power his efforts to undermine Islam and to revive the Old Iranian faiths were not met with any enthusiasm, even among his fellow Iranians. His contempt for Islam may have been one of the many reasons that his Turkic guards (who were Sunni Muslims) killed him. All the Iranian rulers who came after Mardavij were Muslims and showed their attachment to their faith, even when they were trying to revive ancient Iranian traditions and political glories.

The last of the Ziyarids

Despite his untimely death, Mardavij’s domains were not fully lost. His brother Vushmagir was able to salvage the situation and establish a Ziyarid dynasty that would last for over a century, from 931 to 1090. The situation of the Ziyarids was greatly weakened with the death of Mardavij and the defection of most of the Turks in his service to other parties. However, many of the Daylami’s and Gilakis who had been in his army transferred their allegiance to Vushmagir, who was able to secure the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea, Ṭabaristan and Gorgan.

Vushmagir’s great grandson, Kay Kavus ibn Iskandar ibn Kabus ibn Vushmagir was one of the last Ziyarid rulers. His claim to fame lies in his authorship of one of the most famous works of Persian advice literature (also known as mirrors for princes), the Qabus Nameh. This political treatise was intended for his son, Gilan Shah, who was the last Ziyarid ruler. It contains advice on both ruling ones domain as a prince and on serving a king as a vassal. Kay Kavus probably foresaw the decline and demise of his dynasty and sought to prepare his son for any circumstance that may occur.

Vushmagir and Kabus were the only Ziyarids who were powerful enough to maintain their independence and to get politically and militarily involved in the affairs of the broader region. Their successors only survived as vassals and tributaries of the more powerful Samanids and then the Ghaznavids (who conquered the Samanid domains in 999), rendering the Ziyard principality a petty state in the Caspian region. It was the protection of the Samanids and Ghaznavids that warded of the armies of the Buyids, the most successful Daylami military adventurers and empire builders from Northern Iran. They had been commanders in Mardvaij’s army and even prior to his death they had declared their independence from their master and were in a struggle against him. They will be discussed in the fifth and last article on this period of Northern Iran’s history.

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

Top Image: Map showing extent of the Ziyardi Dynasty 928 – 1090.



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