Author Topic: al-Rayy 811 AD  (Read 2284 times)

Duncan Head

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al-Rayy 811 AD
« on: June 16, 2012, 11:39:30 PM »
Battle of al-Rayy, 811 (AH 195)

Al-Amin's Abbasid loyalists (Ali ibn Isa ibn Mahan) vs al-Ma'mun's rebels (Tahir ibn Husayn)

This was the first battle in the Abbasid civil war. On his death in 809 the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid left the throne to his son Muhammad al-Amin; but al-Amin's half-brother Abdullah al-Ma'mun was appointed governor of Khurasan (eastern Iran and the further east) and was to be al-Amin's heir, in preference to al-Amin's own son. Relations between the two deteriorated almost inevitably and al-Amin sent an army eastwards from Baghdad to subdue his brother. The armies met near al-Rayy (Rey, Rhagae), al-Ma'mun's westernmost outpost, which was then a major city of western Iran but is now part of Greater Tehran.

The loyalist army is reported as being 40,000 or 50,000 strong; but in the battle it was divided into ten banners of 1,000 each, so may have been closer to 10,000 combatants. The rebels are reported as 3,800.

The main source is Abu Ja'far Muhammad al-Tabari's Ta'rikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk, cited here from volume XXXI of the SUNY translation The History of al-Tabari, subtitled "The War Between Brothers", translated by Michael Fishbein. Tabari gives the testimony of several witnesses including two independent accounts of the battle itself.

There are other accounts in later historians, including Mas'udi and ibn al-Athir. Both versions parallel Tabari's; I've noted below one detail from Fishbein's notes.

Campaign preparations
Tabari XXXI pp. 49-51:
According to al-Fadl b. Ishaq: Ali b. Isa left the City of Peace (Baghdad) the evening of Friday, the 15th of Jumada II of the year 195 (March 14, 811) ... for his camp on the Bin canal. There he stayed with about 40,000 men. He carried with him a silver shackle with which to bind al-Ma'mun – so he asserted. ... Ali b. Isa left Hamadhan for al-Rayy ... he travelled until he reached al-Rayy in full battle readiness. Tahir b. al-Husayn met him with fewer than 4,000 men – it has been reported that he was with 3,800 men.

Tabari XXXI pp. 73-74:
According to Sufyan b. Muhammad: He (the Caliph al-Amin) summoned Ali b. Isa b. Mahan and assigned him the command of 50,000 horsemen and foot soldiers from the people of Baghdad (ahl Baghdad). ... Then they were dispatched against al-Ma'mun.

Tabari XXXI p. 75:
According to Yazid b. al-Harith: ... Muhammad (the Caliph) escorted him out, and the commanders and soldiers also rode forth. Provision wagons were gathered, and craftsmen and workers were dispatched with him. It is said that his army was a farsakh in length, with its tents, equipment, and baggage. One of the people of Baghdad said they had never seen an army with more men, livelier mounts, brighter swords, fuller equipment, or in more perfect array than this army

First account of the battle, Tabari XXXI pp. 51-55:
According to Ahmad b. Hisham, who was in charge of Tahir's police (shurtah), who said: ... We set out that day or the next, a Saturday – it was in Sha'ban (April-May) of the year 195. We encamped at Qustanah, which is the first stage from al-Rayy toward Iraq. Ali b. Isa reached a desert tract called Mushkuwayh. Between him and us was a distance of seven farsakhs (26 miles). We set our vanguard at a distance of two farsakhs (7.4 miles) from Qustanah. ... When he (Ali) saw that Tahir was serious (in his intention to fight) he said, "This is a desert place, not a place for encampment". He therefore turned left, towards a district called Rustaq Bani al-Razi. The Turks were with us. We encamped by a river, and he encamped near us; between him and us there were sand flats and hills.

(The next morning) ...  (Al-Hasan b. Ali) al-Ma'muni was in charge of the right wing. Al-Rustumi and Muhammad b.Mus'ab were in charge of the left wing.

Ali (b. Isa) approached with his army. The desert was filled with white and yellow from the swords and the gold. Over his right wing he set al-Husayn b. Ali (b. Isa). With him was Abu Dulaf al-Qasim b. Isa b. Idris. Another person was in charge of his left wing. They charged and drove us back, until they entered the army, which with great difficulty rose and drove them off.

When he saw Ali b. Isa, Tahir said, "This is something we cannot stand up to, but let us do it like the Kharijites
(naj'alha kharijiyyatan)!" So he decided to attack the main part of the army. He gathered 700 men from the Khwarazmians, among them Mika'il, Saysal, and Dawud Siyah.

(Ahmad b. Hisham, the narrator, makes a failed attempt at negotiation with Ali b. Isa.)

There were people from Bukhara with us. They shot at (Ali), saying "We will kill you and take your money". From (Ali's) army, al-Abbas b. al-Layth, the mawla of al-Mahdi, came forth; also, a man called Hatim al-Ta'i came forth. Tahir attacked him, grasped the hilt of his sword with both hands, struck him, and felled him. Dawud Siyah attacked Ali b. Isa and felled him, not recognizing him. Ali b. Isa was on a white-backed warhorse (birdhawn) that Muhammad (Al-Amin) had given him as a mount. Such a horse is thought unlucky in battle and presages defeat. Dawud said, "Let us sport with them".

Tahir the Younger – that is, Tahir b. al-Taji – said, "Are you Ali b. Isa?" "Yes", he replied, "I am Ali b. Isa". He thought that he would be held in awe, and that no one would advance against him; but Tahir attacked him and slaughtered him with the sword. ...

... In his (Ali's) camp we found 700 bags, with 1,000 dirhams in each. In the hands of the men from Bukhara, who had taunted him, saying that they would take his money, we found a number of mules carrying chests. They thought that it was money, but when they broke open the chests, lo and behold it was wine from the Sawad. They divided up the bottles and said, "We have worked hard in order to drink!"

Second account of the battle, Tabari XXXI pp. 79-82:
According to Abdallah b. Mujahid, who said: Ali b. Isa advanced until he encamped ten farsakhs from al-Rayy. Tahir was in the city; he had shut its gates and placed garrisons on the roads leading to it, and had made ready to fight Ali. Tahir consulted his companions, and they advised him to remain in the city of al-Rayy and delay fighting as long as possible, until reinforcements of cavalry came to him from Khurasan and a military commander to take charge of the matter instead of him ...

Tahir replied, "Yours is not the best plan. The people of al-Rayy are in awe of Ali and fearful of his depredation and violence. On his side are those you have heard about: Bedouins from the desert, brigands from the mountains, and rabble from the villages. ... The only plan is for us to set the city of al-Rayy behind our backs. If God gives us victory, well and good; if not, we shall rely upon the city, fighting in its streets, and taking refuge in its impregnability, until reinforcements or a force from Khurasan comes to us." ... So Tahir issued orders among his forces, and they went out and encamped five farsakhs from al-Rayy, at a village called Kalwas.

... He (Tahir) replied, I will not be destroyed by inexperience or irresoluteness. My men are few, the enemy's army is great, and their numbers are many. If I put off fighting and delay the conflict, I fear they will learn how few in number we are and how exposed. .... Instead, I will make infantrymen fight hand to hand with infantrymen, and horsemen join battle with horsemen. I will rely on obedience and loyalty. ..."

Ali (b. Isa) said to his companions, "Hasten toward the enemy, for their number is small. If you advance towards them, they will have no courage to endure the heat of swords or the thrust of spears." He arranged his troops into a right wing, left wing, and center. He assigned ten banners, with a thousand men under each, and sent the banners forward one by one, putting a bowshot between each. He gave orders to the commanders: when the first banner had fought, held out, and defended, and the battle had become too protracted for it, the next banner was to be brought forward; the one that had fought was to be moved back, until its men regained their spirits, rested, and had energy to fight again. He put men with coats of mail, chest armour
(duru' and jawashin) , and helmets in front of the banners; he himself stayed in the center with his companions – men of strength, constancy, and courage.

Tahir b. al-Husayn arranged his troops, divided his squadrons of horsemen, and set his ranks in order. He passed by each commander and each group and said, "You friends of God and people who are loyal and give him thanks, you are not like those whom you see – people of perfidy and treachery. ..."

The people
(in the two armies) advanced towards each other. The inhabitants of al-Rayy gathered and locked the city gates. Tahir proclaimed, "Friends of God, attend to those in front of you, rather than to those behind you, for only effort and valor will save you." They joined and fought fiercely with each other; both sides showed endurance. Ali's right wing overcame and badly broke Tahir's left wing, and his left wing dislodged (Tahir's) right wing from its position. Tahir said, "Set your strength and your effort against the squadrons of horsemen in the middle! If you break one of their banners, those in front will turn back upon those in the rear." So his forces showed true bravery; they attacked the foremost of the center banners, put them to flight, and killed many among them. The banners turned back upon each other, and Ali's right wing collapsed. The men in Tahir's right wing and his left wing saw what his companions had done. They turned against those who were opposite them and put them to flight. The rout reached Ali, and he began calling to his companions, "Where are the wearers of bracelets and crowns? You Sons (of the Dynasty: Abna al-Dawlah), come to me! Rally after retreat! Returning to the battle is part of endurance in it!" One of Tahir's men shot him with an arrow and killed him. They set their swords on them, killing them and taking them prisoner, until night fell and separated them from their quarry. They took many spoils. Tahir proclaimed among Ali's forces that anyone who laid down his weapons would be safe. So they threw away their weapons and dismounted from their horses. Tahir returned to the city of al-Rayy and sent the prisoners and heads to al-Ma'mun.

ibn al-Athir (VI.169):
Some accounts say that Dawud Siyah shot him (Ali b. Isa) with an arrow and killed him.

After this victory Tahir pressed on towards Baghdad, defeating another loyalist army at Hamadhan on the way. Baghdad fell after a long siege, Al-Amin was killed, and his brother assumed the Caliphate.

Tabari quotes accounts of events from several sources, whether written sources or oral testimony is not clear. Some of these, at least, were eye-witnesses and participants. This means that rather than weaving them together into a single synthetic narrative, we get consecutive accounts of the same events. In this case at least, he does not venture an opinion as to the relative merits of the different accounts; but, apart from the circumstances of Ali ibn Isa's death, the two battle accounts are, though different, not seriously contradictory. 

Both Ahmad's and Abdallah's accounts have Ali's larger army enjoying initial success, though Abdallah suggests this was only on the wings. Tahir rallied his men and counter-attacked "in the manner of the kharijites", "naj'alha kharijiyyatan": this probably indicates a concentrated, determined, mounted charge, which was the customary tactic of the khawarij rebels against a superior enemy. It looks as if the 700 Khwarazmians led the charge against the enemy centre, possibly supported by archery from the Bukharans. Ali, who may have been the target of the charge, was killed – cut down by the Khwarazmian Dawud Siyah, or by Tahir ibn al-Taji, or shot by Dawud, or whatever – and his army collapsed.

As for the battle's military significance, Hugh Kennedy suggests that "The details are sketchy, but it may be that the battle of Rayy marked a turning point in the military tactics of the period. It looks as if a large, mostly infantry, army was defeated by a much smaller cavalry force. This may have marked the end of the large armies of foot-soldiers which were typical of much early Islamic warfare and the superiority of much smaller groups of mounted men, either mounted spearmen of mounted archers" (The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the  Early Islamic State (2001) p.109).

This view may be overstated, however, in two respects. First, the discrepancy in numbers may not be as great as initially suggested. Kennedy (Armies p.108 and The Court of the Caliphs (2004) pp.90-91) seems inclined to accept numbers of 40,000 against 3,800 ("a mere 3800-5000" – I'm  not sure where the higher figure is from) as being more or less accurate, though he accepts that there may have been some exaggeration of the Baghdad army. And yet when battle comes, Ali divides his forces into ten units of 1,000 men each; so does his army muster much more than 10,000 men (plus perhaps his personal retinue of "companions")? He would still outnumber Tahir significantly, but perhaps by a factor of three rather than ten.

Kennedy's contrast between an infantry and a cavalry army is not a point that Tabari makes, either. Ali commands "50,000 horsemen and foot soldiers", but Tahir intends to "make infantrymen fight hand to hand with infantrymen, and horsemen join battle with horsemen", implying that his force, too, is mixed. Infantry are several times mentioned under Tahir later in the campaign: "The foot-soldiers among Tahir's forces held their ground against them by means of swords, shields, and arrows, they knelt down on their knees and fought him as fiercely as possible. The foot-soldiers held off the attackers until the horsemen had taken up their equipment and gear and advanced boldly in battle."

Ali's army was recruited in Baghdad from the "ahl Baghdad", the "Abna" or "Abna al-Dawlah". These are the descendants of the original Abbasid armies of the 750s, a mixture of Arabs and Iranians from Khurasan – ironically, from the same region that Tahir's army was now drawn. By now they were part-time soldiers, but still registered on the military rolls and still the mainstay of the Abbasid armies. Accounts such as al-Jahiz's description of the various nationalities in the Abbasid army do suggest that the Abna fought mostly as infantry, though we do hear elsewhere in Tabari of "skilled horsemen of the Abna". An infantry-based army with a minority of cavalry is what we'd expect from Baghdad in this period. Tahir belittled Ali's army as "Bedouins from the desert, brigands from the mountains, and rabble from the villages"; if the army was recruited from the Baghdad Abna, as Tabari says, then this may be a baseless slur. But perhaps Ali had some Bedouin cavalry or other auxiliaries in addition to his Abna, or picked them up on the way. Note that Ali placed the armoured men in the front of each banner – apparently a significant part of the army had no armour at all.

Tahir's army was raised further East. The "Khurasan" which Ma'mun governed was a much larger area than the Sasanian or the modern Iranian province of Khurasan; it also included all the Abbasid-ruled areas of Central Asia. Tahir's army included Khwarazmians and Soghdians from Bukhara, both East Iranian areas producing elite warrior-horsemen. The battle-account has them fighting with bows and swords. Apparently he also had Turks, though the sentence in which Tabari names them sits rather oddly in its context. As noted above, he apparently had some infantry, but they may very well have been proportionally less numerous, and less important, than Ali's. So Kennedy's analysis may be simply over-stated rather than outright wrong: a large army predominantly of foot-soldiers was defeated by a smaller army predominantly, but not exclusively, of cavalry.
  • Duncan Head

Patrick Waterson

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Re: al-Rayy 811 AD
« Reply #1 on: June 17, 2012, 04:30:43 PM »
That is a model description and analysis.  :)

The approach of setting out ten forces each of 1,000 with orders to take on the enemy in turn is reminiscent of a Roman legion in multiplex, and suggests an intention to wear down the enemy by degrees rather than defeat him by force or art.  It in turn implies that the troops al-Mamun led were of particularly high quality and reputation (and, as the battle demonstrated, effectiveness).  If these 10,000 formed the better-armoured, more melee-oriented centre, it would allow for clouds of skirmish-type enthusiasts on the wings to beat back al-Mamun's exiguous flanking forces by sheer weight of numbers and incidentally make up a good portion of the 40-50,000 ascribed to Ali ibn Isa.

Ali ibn Isa, like Darius Codomannus, seems to have made the fatal mistake of believing that his opponent would act as intended and expected.  Al-Mamun, instead of tamely self-attriting on one thousand after another, instead drove against the first with enough impetus to shatter it and bowl it back upon the next which, caught without orders in an unexpected situation (the demise of the C-in-C helping neither command nor morale), also obliged by breaking and starting a 'domino reaction' which the bowshot distance between each thousand-man line did nothing to attenuate or alleviate.  And with the centre going and the C-in-C gone, the wings would not have felt it worth their while to carry on.

This battle seems to be a classic example of a plan not surviving contact with the enemy.  Ali might have done better to take a rearward position and grandstand view of events, as he had the numbers and had he not fallen the day would quite likely have been his.

My thoughts, anyway.

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Re: al-Rayy 811 AD
« Reply #2 on: June 18, 2012, 11:12:58 AM »
 What excited me most about this description was the insight into the tactical thinking of the generals.
ali divides his army so as to create multiple  attacks, from his ten divisions,  that will wear down Tahir.  The Aliids will fight and then be replaced, the Tahirids can expect no rest.  As Tahir has less men this attritional tactic will reduce his strength. Tahir's answer to this is to attack a la Kharijjite and  penetrate the enemy formation, perhaps , as Duncan says, shot in by the Bukharan mounted archers. That indicates to me that Ali's men are not crashing  in with impetus, but riding up and going to hand strokes, but then pulling back.  In essence they are performing Ka Wa Farr  tactics by fighting and then withdrawing, but not completing the tactic by falling back behind an infantry screen, because they are being replaced by another (presumably) cavalry unit.
Tahir  defeats this tactic by a much more determined charge that bowls the Aliid units back upon one another and penetrates to the command position where Ali is killed.

Attacking the opponent's command is a regular Arab tactic. I recall that it is what happens in the battle of Babylon and at least one of the battles in the Maghreb. Does it happen against the Sasanids?  The best mounted, armed and led cavalry unit on the field heads for the opposing commander from front or flank and fights through to him, thus decapitating the opposing army.
Shades of Alexander the Great?


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Andreas Johansson

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Re: al-Rayy 811 AD
« Reply #3 on: July 01, 2012, 10:18:40 PM »
Concerning numbers on the Baghdadi side, might 40k or 50k be inclusive of servants, camp followers, etc, while 10k is the actual combatants only?
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