mardi 12 septembre 2000

Kurdish Princes and Syriac Scholars

This day, I began to dream to High-Mesopotamia and its heroes. I found myself at the end of the tenth or rather eleventh century A.D. It was like the waves of our time flooded back to an else age, uncovering some lands rich in history.

The Marwanid princes' dynasty ruled then on the vast province of Diyar Bakr, from 372-478 h./983-1085 to AD.

How finding again their brilliant deats, their suzerain power, their ardent glory, their heroïc legend ? They lived a time where youth, audace, skill, cleverness, spared to found a new state, a bright dynasty...


The Diyar Bakr (chief-town Amid , today Diyâr Bakr) was one of the three districts of Jezira, "peninsula" as ancient authors called Upper-Mesopotamia, a region that spreads between the upper Tigris and the Euphrat. Jezira included too the districts of Diyar Rab’ia (chief-town Mossul) and Diyar Mudar (chief-town Rakka, on the left side of the Euphrate). It corresponded to a land situated nowadays in Syria, Irak and Turkey.

Kurds of Indo-Aryan origins, lived there with other people in the Diyar Bakr, a province far from Bagdad, on the Byzantine border, that included, besides Amid, some other cities and their lands : Arzan, Mayyafarikin, Hisn-Kayfa (today Hasankeyf), Khilat, Melazgerd, Arjish, and a district at the North-East of the Van Lake.

The beginning of the Marwanid dynasty

The chronicler of Jezira in the XIIth century, Ibn al-Azrak al-Fariki, an Arabic writer as Ibn al-Athir, the Syriac chroniclers Elias of Nisibis and the Great Michael, enjoyed telling the Marwanids' history.

The founder of the dynasty was a Kurdish shepherd, Abu Shuja ’Badh b. Dustak. He left his cattle, took up arms and became a valiant chief of war, obtaining celebrity. When a member of the Iranian dynasty of Buyid,‘Adud al Dawla, who ruled the islamic empire, died in 983, Badh took Mayyafarikin, a city of the North-Eastern Diyar Bakr. Formerly it was Martyropolis, and nowadays it calls Silvan. He took too Amid, Akhlat and Nisibis.

The latter city, at the south of Tur ‘Abdin moutains (today Nusaybin, in Turkey) had got an ancient past. Borderland between the Sassanids and Byzantins territories, it was too a transit point for caravans. It had been subjected by Arabians in 639.

The chronicler Elias of Nisibis and the Marwanids

A Syriac chronicler, Elias, the Metropolit of Nisibis, was an awared witness of Marwanids' coming out. In his writings, he praises these wise and tolerants emirs. Didn't they know make bond of esteem, respect, friendship whith Eastern-Syriac authors (Nestorians) and Western Syriac (Jacobits), whose mostly stayed in the cities of their principality and lived without troubles with Kurds and Arabians ?

(C.f C. Hillenbrand. « Marwanides », Encyclopédie de l’Islam, N.E, tome VI, Brill 1991, P. 611-612)

Who were the Syriacs ? The heirs of old Assyrians, Babylonians, and Arameans too. They spoke an Aramean dialect, of which they made an intellectual and scientific language, the Syriac. They converted to christianismat the first time of our era. Edessa and its region was an active center of evangelization.

Elias of Nisibis, who called too Elias bar-Shenaya, borned on February 11th 975 in the town of Shena, that is at the confluence of the Tigris and the Great Zab, and was the center of an Eastern-Syriac diocese since the beginning of the VIIIth century. He became a monkey. He was ordinated priest at 19 years and then was nominated at the convey of d’Abba Simeon, not far from Shena. He still studied at the monastery of Saint-Michael, next to Mosul, a place that was very appreciated by Arabic authors for its vineyards.

In 1002 Elias of Nisibis became the bishop of Beit Nuhadhre, in the fertile region of Dohuk, and after 1008, the metropolit of Nisibis.

At the beginning of the XIth century the city was very attractive, with beautiful buildings, a mosquee, baths and rich gardens. Politically and administratively it depended on the emir of Diyar Bakr.

Since a long time Nisibis was an important religious center. It had got a famous school, founded by the bishop James of Nisibis at the IVth century.

At the Vth century, like the ecclesiastical center of Bét ‘Arabayé, Nisibis had several dioceses as Bét Qardu, the Jezira of Bét Zabdaï, Moxoen, a region between the Van Lake and the Bohtan Su, Arzanen, at the north of the confluence of the Bohtan and the Tigris. At the time of Elias, Harran, Amid, Rashaïna, Balad and Sinjar were attached to the siege of Nisibis.

Elias the Metropolit lived in this town until his death, in 1146, and devoted himself to many intellectual works. He practiced Syriac, Arabic,and he knew the islamic culture. His works are numerous, like his Chronography,a Syriac Grammar, an Arabian-Syriac lexic, hymns, metric homilies, and some letters written in Syriac.

Elias of Nisibis wrote in Arabic some theological and moral works. These are some titles :

- "The Book of the suppression of agitation" (Edition Constantin al-Bacha, Le Caire)

- "Useful Maxims for the soul and the body" (Edition P. Sbath, Le Caire, 1936)

-"Treaty of enjoyment in the future life". (L.Cheikho, Vingt Traités Philosophiques et Apologétiques d’Auteurs arabes Chrétiens, Le Caire 1929, P. 129-132)

His Chronography, dated of 1018, has still a great importance for the Kurdish history, becauses its author gave to us many precious details about the life of the first Marwanid sovereigns and the relations of Syriac scholars with the Kurds.

The tragedy of the emir Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan b. Marwan

Elias of Nisibis mentionned shortly the life of Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan.

After the death of his uncle Badh, the elder son of Marwan came back to Hisn-Kayfa, married the widow of the old warrior chief. He fought the last Hamdanids, confused them and took again all the fortresses.

Elias related the tragic end of this prince who was killed in Amid in 997 by insurged inhabitants. His brother Abu Mansur Sa’id succeeded to him, under the name of Mumahhid al-Dawla.

(For quotations, I rather to keep the transcription of names that has been adopted by the translators of Syriac texts) :

" Then the emir Abu ‘Ali, son of Merwan, went to Amid and the inhabitants came out toward him. As he entered in the gate of the city a man called ‘Abd el Barr killed him, revolted and ruled the city. Abu Mansur Sa’id, son of Merwan, was then governor of Gezirta. When he learned that his brother had been killed, he went promptly to Maïpherqat and opened his reign on Thirsday 7th Dulqa’da [11th November 997 B.C]. Since that moment he took the name of Mumahhid ed-Daula."

(The « Chronography of Elias bar-Sinaya, Metropolitan of Nisibe », edited and translated by L.-J. Delaporte, Paris, 1910, P. 138)

Mumahhid al-Dawla Sa’id and the physician Bokhtisho

Mumahhid, a skilful diplomate, could make use of the Byzantins'ambitions, who were present in Northern-Anatolia. The relations of this prince with the emperor of Byzance Basile II (976-1025) were quite friendly. When Basile learnt the murderer of David, the king of Gorzan, (Upper-Georgia), who had left by testament his kingdom to the Byzantine empire, he stopped the campaign that he had begun in Syria for making sure of Arabian emirs'obedience and he crossed the Euphrat. He annexed David's state, received vassals' oath, when they came toward him, like Mumahhid ed Daula, who "set foot on his carpet", i 999 :

"Then ( 390 h. / 1311 sél. ) died David, the king of Gorzanaens. The king of Romans, Basile, went out in the land of Gorzan. Mumahhid ed Daula came toward him and walked on his carpet. The king received him merrily and make him lord. Then peace was set on borders" (Idem P. 138)
Mumahhid ed Daula took advantage of peace for restoring the walls of his capital Maïpherqat, the siege of his sovereignty, and made inscribe on it his name, that is still shining nowadays.

In 1000, he asked to the Buyid emir Baha’ al Dawla to send to him the Christian physician Gabriel b. ‘Abd Allah b. Bokhtisho, who was attached to the hospital of Bagdad. The latter descended from the famous family of Bokhtisho, that was at the Abbassid caliphes' service since Al Mansur (754-775). Though he was 80 years old, Gabriel went up with his son to the small strenghened city of Mayyafarikin for taking his functions. He died there two years later, honoured and wealthy.

Mumahhid al-Dawla Sa’id had a tragic end, like his brother Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan. Unhappy, sad, Elias of Nisibis regretted a long time his prince. He qualified as impious, a very strong term for Syriacs, the man who killed by treachery "the blessed emir", which he valued so much. The young brother of Mumahhid, Nasr al-Dawla Ahmad, fought immediately the murderer. God, in His justice, made him victorious in 1010 :

"Then the impious Sarwin used treachery to kill in the night of Thirsday 5th Gumada I [14 December 1010 B.C.] the blessed emir Mumahhid ed-Daula. But the Lord gave victory to Abu Nasr, Mumahhid ed-Daula's brother, and delivered to his hands. He killed him and became emir under the name of Nasr ed-Daula." (Idem, P. 141)

Nasr al-Dawla Ahmad b. Marwan the victorious emir

The third Marwan's son, acceded to the throne, after both precarious reigns of his elder brothers. As a clever politician, he could skilfully impose on the Buyid emir Sultan al-Dawla, the Fatimid caliph of Egypt Al Hakim and on the emperor of Byzance Basile II. All of them sent him congratulations. They represented the great powers that surrendered the state-plug of Mayyafarikin.

Elias of Nisibis tale that Nasr al-Dawla Ahmad b. Marwan, "the victorious emir", subdued again, in 1011, Amid, an important city of his territory, that was then dominated by his vassal Ibn Dimne :

"Then the victorious emir Nasr ed Daula went to besiege Amid and pressed Ibn Dimne. When Ibn Dimne saw that he couldn't hope in any help, he submit to Nasr ed Daula. Some officials and tax collectors dominated the city and got powerfull. - An then Ibn Dimne was killed. Some people of Amid killed him. Nasr ed Daula." (Idem P. 141)

Nasr al-Dawla Ahmad, according to other sources, subdued Amid again about 1024.

He signed with the empire of Constantinople a pacte of mutual non-agression, but violated it once or twice. The renown of this Kurdish muslim prince grew so such that the inhabitants of al-Ruha, (Edessa), at the west, called him for being released of an Arabian chief. Nasr al-Dawla b. Marwan took the city of Edessa in 1026-27, and added it to his possessions. The famous western-Syriac author Abu’l Faradj Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286) related the war as following :

"The same year, Nasr al-daula b. Marwan, the lord of Diyâr Bakr, ruled on the city of Edessa, which belonged to a man of the Numayr tribe, called Athyra, who was bad and ignorant. Edessenians wrote to Nasr al-daula for delivering him the country. Nasr al-daula sent his lieutenant, who stayed in Amid and called Zingi. Zingi conquered the town and killed Athira."

(Bar Hébraeus, « Chronique universelle », Mokhtassar al-Doual, Beyrouth, P. 180)

So Nasr al-Dawla annexed Edessa, but the city was retaken gladly by the king of Byzance in 1031. Didn' it have a special status in the story of christianism ?

The long rule of Nasr al-Dawla Ahmad meaned the apogee of Marwanids' power. He built a new citadel on a hill of Mayyafarikin where stood the Church of Virgin, he built bridges and public baths. He restored the observatory. Some libraries fit out the mosques of Mayyafarikin and Amid.

The magnanimous, just and pragmatical sovereign brought around him, in the noble city animated by the sun of Orient, some ascetes, scholars, historians as Ibn al-Athir, and poets as ‘Abd Allah al-Kazaruni, al-Tihami. He sheltered political refugees as the futur Abbassid caliph Muktadi (1075-1099). He seeked for the most beautiful concubines, the best cooks, but, exceedingly pious, he consciously obeyed to religious obligations. His bright court impressed visitors by its luxe and its singular refinement, held them a time, elated them like a cup of precious wine.

The vizir Abu al-Kasim al-Husayn al-Maghribi and the Metropolit Elias

Nasr al-Dawla b. Marwan ruled during more than fifty years, and maintained peace among his people. He chosed eminent vizirs, who gave to the Diyar Bakr a great economical and cultural prosperity. Let mention among them Abu al-Kasim al-Husayn al-Maghribi who was too at first the vizir of the prince ‘Uqaylide from Mosul, Kirwash b. al-Mukallad, then of the caliph of Bagdad, al-Kadir.

Al-Maghribi served Nasr al-Dawla in Mayyafarikin and kept his functions from 1025 to 1027. He was a cultured man and had got a rich library. He wrote some political works, among wich a manual about the best government, Kitab fil-Siyasa, adressed to a monarch, undoubtedly Nasr al-Dawla b. Marwan.

In the Kurdish principality of Mayyafarikin, Al-Maghribi had friendly bonds with Syriac scholars among his own subjects. He liked to talk about religious problems with Elias, the Metropolite of Nisibis, a pious man, who was set on knowledge and science, with a accute judgement, tactful and a good sense of diplomacy.

In an apologetic essay, "The book of conversations", about some talkings he had got in 1026-7 with the great vizir, Elias related with talent their first meeting :

" The vizir - God bless him - entered in Nisibis on Friday 26th of the first Jumâdâ in last year, then in 410. [Arabic year 410 /1026 of christian calendar] I came to see him the next saturday (I had never seen him before); he called me, honoured me and made me to sit down beside him. After having prayed God for him and congratulated him for his coming, I got up for going away but he stopped me and said : "Let know that I wanted to meet you since a long time and see you a lot, I want you entirely to my service for coming in my home and going from it at any time I would like it". I answered that I haven't any wish but obeying to him and I sat down again. "

(Elie de Nisibe, « The book of conversations », translating by Bénédicte Landron, « Nestorian attitudes toward Islam », Cariscript, Paris, 1994, P. 290)

Abu al-Kasim al-Husayn al-Maghribi related then to the Metropolit that he had seen, during a travel, a prodigious sign. This sign made him believe that Christians were not so unfaithful that he had had supposed :

"At first, here what I have seen and put me in doubt about their unfaithfulness. When I was for the first time in the Diyar Bakr, I went to Bidlis [today Bitlis, at the west of the Van Lake] for some deals that I had in charge. Reaching this town, I fell so seriously ill that all my forces left me, and I lost any taste for everything and despaired of life. I went for coming back to Mayyafarikin for, in the case where God - I praise Him - would have decided for me of what nobody could escape, it would happen in this town or near to it. I couldn't take no food nor drinks, and suffered deeply of that exhausting ride by horse. Each day I went on a short distance while my weakness increased, while my forces went away, my illness became worse and worse and more and more serious; I reached a monastery on the road, that is called the monastery of Mar Mari and I was at the weakest state and my disease at the highest point."

A monkey at the service of the monastery brought to Abu al-Kasim al-Husayn al-Maghribi a granada juice, convinced that it will be benefit because of the blessing of the monastery. Full of magic powers, that drink rescued him and rendered appetite to the unfortunate vizir :

"The monkey had cooked some lenses for the youths; I asked a part and ate with appetite ; I got up immediately, I walked merrily on the terrace and became immediately healthy. I was perplexed and suprised - and all of these who were with me - of what did happen. And still now, when I think of that, I am surprised again and I think that is a prodigious sign; I tale it to everybody and everywhere.

This have made me believe that Christians are neither unfaithfull nor polytheist." (Translation Bénédicte Landron, P. 291)

Many years later, Abu al-Kasim al-Husayn al-Maghribi, seriously ill, complained to Elias of Nisibis that his brother, the famous physician Abu Said Mansur b. Isa, had stopped his medication. The physician didn't sin by negligence, but he had seen in a dream that the vizir was near to his own end.

And indeed, Abu al-Kasim al-Husayn al-Maghribi, who had still kept his functions, died in Mayyarikin, in 1027.

Abu Said Mansur b. Isa built the hospital of Mayyafarikin

Some Arabic chroniclers, as Ibn Abi Usaybia (1194-1270), mentioned praisely Abu Said Mansur b. Isa, this physician of Mayyafarikin, who had deserved the name of Zahid al-Ulama, "the scholar who is the most unconcerned by earthly goods" :

"Zahid al-Ulama is Abu Said Mansur b. Isa; he was a Nestorian christian and his brother was metropolit in Nisibis, famous by his virtues. He practiced medicine, at Nasr ed-Daula b. Marwan's service (whom Ibn Butlân had dedicated the book "The physicians' banquet"). Nasr ed-Daula was very respectful with Zahid al-Ulama, he stood on him on the question of medicine and was goodwill for him. Zahid al-Ulama built the hospital of Mayyafarikin"

Usaybia goes on his tale and explains to his readers that"

the reason of the construction of an hospital in Mayyafarikin was that Nasr ed-Daula b. Marwan had a daughter of which he was fond a lot and who became ill. He promised to himself that, if she was cured, he will give as alms his weight in drahems. And when Zahid al-Ulama cured and saved her, he asked to Nasr ed-Daula if he would like, with the account of money that he wanted to spend in alms, building an hospital that would be useful for everybody. And thus, he would benefit of much deserves and excellent renown. Nasr ed-Daula ordered him to built the hospital and he spent much money; he engaged land goods to warrant the expenses of the activities of the hospital and he dotted it by the most perfect tools." (Usaybia, « Uyun Al Anba Fi Tabaqat Al Atibba", a collect of 380 biographies, published in Egypt in 1921, republished in Beyrouth, P.341, translating by Ephrem-Isa YOUSIF)

With a noble spirit, pitiful, praised for the excellence of his deserves, Abu Said Mansur b. Isa led the hospital and cured with devotion the inhabitants of Mayyafarikin.

He was a writer, too. He wrote many essays about medicine and a book about the interpretation of dreams and visions. He was in good terms with his brother Elias who dedicated to him one of his works the "Book of chastity".

The philosopher and physician Ibn Butlân in the court of Mayyafarikin

Another famous physician of this time, Abu ‘l-Hasan al-Muhtar, called Ibn Butlân, bound closed links with the emir Nasr al-Dawla b. Marwan. He was a well-known expert in Bagdad, a philosopher, a logician, a polygraph. This Western-Syriac man had been the favorite disciple of Abu ‘l Faraj ibn al-Tayyeb, a priest, physician and commentator of Aristote (+ 1043)

Open-minded, Ibn Butlân made numerous travels in Syria, Egypt, Constantinople. He visited the state of Mayyafarikin, attracted by its bright and sumptuous court. He dedicated to the Marwanid, for enjoying him, his treaty " The physicians'banquet" that was a satire of physicians and their behaviors.

Ibn Butlân met Elias of Nisibis and bound relations with him. The Metropolit who called him friendly "our shaykh", didn't hesitate to dedicate to him his "Questions about the New Testament".

Ibn Butlân wrote else works, about medicine, religion, among which a treaty of hygiene, "Takouïm essaya", that we could translate as "Recovering health". He retreated at the end of his life in a monastery next to Antakya and died in 1066.


The bond of esteem between Nasr al-Dawla b. Marwan and Elias of Nisibis ended only with the Metropolit's death, circa 1046.

Nasr al-Dawla b. Marwan, in 1054, had to aknowledge as his own liege Tugril Beg the Seljuk, who ruled on the largest part of Jezira, but he kept his territories. He died in 1061.

This fine period of peace and good feelings between Kurds and Syriacs was rich in creations in the field of cultural life. It was dense for trade, active for arts and crafts, impressive in short. Nasr al-Dawla b. Marwan left in Diyar Bakr monumental inscriptions that show still now the artistic brightness of its reign.

After Nasr al-Dawla's death, the Marwanids'power declined and grew weak. His second son, Nizam, succeded to him and ruled until 1079, then followed his son Nasir al-Dawla Mansur.

The end of the Marwanid dynasty minced along, in a scent of treason... Ibn Jahir, a former vizir, left the Diyar Bakr, and came to Bagdad. There, he could convince the sultan Malik Shah, a grand-nephew of Tugril Beg, and the famous vizir Nizam al-Mulk, to allow him for assaulting Mayyafarikin.

When the city was taken, Ibn Jahir took off the great treasures that belonged to the Marwanids and detained them greedily for himself. Since and after, the Diyar Bakr fell almost entirely under the direct rule of Seljukids. The last emir, Nasir al-Dawla Mansur, kept only the city of Jazirat Ibn ‘Umar.

Malik Shah died in 1092, and troubles following his death, the Diyar Bakr became a few more independant.

However, the Marwanids did not all go out. They were still mentionned at the middle of the XIIth century, in the chronique of the Western-Syriac patriach, Michael the Syrian, written in 1195.

(« Chronique de Michel le Syriaque », J.-B. Chabot, Paris, 1899-1910)

Since 1134, wrote Michael, the Turkish Seljukid Zangi, governor of Mosul, invaded many times the Kurdish land, led some expeditions against tribes that he submit, and took their citadels. After the conquest of Edessa, in 1144, Zangi did want to assure his domination on neighbouring emirs. These latter, suspicious, demolished in the region of Nisibis, the fortresses they coudn't defend agaisnt Zangi's power and let them empty.

One of Marwanids' descendants, Ahmad, held still the fortress of Hataka. It was not Zangi but the emir of Mardin, Timurtas Hosam al-Dîn, the son of the powerful prince Il-Ghâzî (+ 1122 ), of the Artuqids' family, who desired to take it and made a long siege. This small Turkish dynasty set on step by step in the Diyar Bakr, where it ruled from 1102 to 1408.

The Kurd asked quite prompty an agreement :

"At this time, the strong place of Hataka, that had never fallen down in Turks' hands, belonged to a member of the Benê Marwan family. They have got the title of king and live in Maipherqat. Between these lords came out discord, quarrels and struggles. Hossam ed-Dîn, observing that Curds had not auxiliary and were opposed each others, besieged them during one year and four months. Then Ahmed asked an agreement. Timourtas gave him gold and some villages in his country, and detained the fortress. But the Curd regret it and asked help to the lord of Amid, for retaking the citadel; but he failed. " ( Chronique of Michael the Syrian, Tome III, P. 264)

So ended the fine epic of Marwanids, who had ruled on the province of Diyar Bakr, and subjected the neighbouring peoples. Did not have shined like the sparkling crown of snow on high mountains ? Their memory and the memory of chroniclers, Christian scholars of Upper-Mesopotamia, remains todays in Kurds and Syriacs' remambrance.

Ephrem-Isa YOUSIF

September 12th 2000

Chronological tables of the Marwanid princes

Al-Hasan ibn Marwan (990-997)

Mumahhid al-Dawla Sa’id (997-1011)

Nasr al-Dawla Ahmad ibn Marwan (1011-1061)

Nizam al-Dawla Nasr (1061-1079 )

Nasir al-Dawla Mansur (1079-1085)

Syriac scholars

Gabriel b. ‘Abd Allah ibn Bohtisho : + vers 1002

Elie de Nisibe : 975- 1046

Abu Said Mansur ibn Isa : (Même époque)

Ibn Butlân : +1066

Michel le Grand :1126-1199

Bar Hébraeus : 1226-1286