Today(?) in Middle Eastern history: the Sack of Amorium (838)

The Byzantine Empire hits rock bottom (for now) just before its resurgence under the Macedonian Dynasty.

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The 1071 Battle of Manzikert and the political chaos that ensued ended a period of around two centuries during which the Byzantine Empire seemed to be finally making a comeback. After having endured massive losses in the early Arab conquests, then having survived several offensives by the Umayyad Caliphate, and then having watched pieces of their remaining empire get chipped away by the Abbasid Caliphate, starting in the 860s the Byzantines went on an offensive that didn’t stop until the mid 11th century. In the process, the empire managed to push its eastern frontier well beyond its previous border into territory long thought lost to the Muslims. This was also a period when Byzantium, under the Macedonian dynasty, reimposed imperial control over southern Italy and pretty much the entire Balkan region. After a couple of centuries of struggle the empire had entered a new period of expansion and security.

The Sack of Amorium precedes this period of renewed Byzantine power and represents, in some respects, rock bottom for the empire (at least on the Muslim front). Consequently it’s easy to overlook since, as a caliphal victory that was then followed by almost two centuries of Byzantine expansion, its long-term impact on history is somewhat limited. But the effect Amorium had on the empire helped create the conditions for the resurgence, so it warrants some discussion.

In full disclosure there’s no firm consensus on when, exactly, Amorium’s sacking took place other than we know it happened in the middle of August. Today is one of several possible dates, and it happens to be one on which we don’t have any of these other “today in history” posts, so I’m going with that.

As it happens, the Muslims—I’m going to call them “Muslim” because so much of the caliphal army was Turkic that calling it “Arab” doesn’t really make sense (even “Muslim” isn’t ideal but oh well)—sacked Amorium at a time when the Byzantine Empire was ruled by the short-lived Amorian Dynasty, so named because its founder, Michael II (d. 829), had been born in, yes, Amorium. That’s not a coincidence, as we’ll see. Upon Michael’s death, his son Theophilos (d. 842) succeeded him. Theophilos is mostly known for being the last Byzantine emperor to support iconoclasm (the official policy of outlawing and destroying religious icons). The Byzantines went back and forth on iconoclasm for most of the 8th century and the first half of the 9th century, largely in response to how the empire was doing militarily. If the empire was successful under an iconoclast, then iconoclasm would find popular favor. If not, then…it wouldn’t.

Islam is inherently anti-icon, so much so that it frowns on the depiction of any living creature, not just divine figures. So when the Arabs swept through the empire in the mid-7th century and Byzantine leaders were left puzzled as to why God had apparently abandoned them in favor of the new conquerors, one relatively obvious idea was that He preferred the Arabs because they didn’t tolerate the veneration of icons, which could, if you sort of squinted at it the right way, be conflated with with the worship of icons. So Emperor Leo III, or Leo the Isaurian (d. 741), decided that the icons had to go. Iconoclasm was official imperial policy until the rise of Empress Irene (d. 803). Acting as regent for her son, Constantine VI (d. before 805), Irene ended the policy of iconoclasm, justifying her decision (which was rooted in her own iconophile views) in part because the Byzantines had recently suffered new setbacks against the caliphate that showed iconoclasm must not really be doing it, as far as God was concerned.

After a few decades, Emperor Leo V “the Armenian” (d. 820) restored iconoclasm as official policy, again in response to a series of military setbacks though in this case they were against Bulgarians in the west, not Muslims in the east. And so iconoclasm was still official policy when Theophilos rose to become senior emperor in 829. The new emperor had the misfortune of coming to power just as the fourth caliphal civil war was winding down. That conflict, between Caliph al-Amin (d. 813) and future Caliph al-Maʾmun (d. 833)—both sons of former Caliph Harun al-Rashid (d. 809), lasted from 811 until 813 and ended with al-Maʾmun victorious. The resentments it caused divided and weakened the caliphate for years to come, but sadly for Theophilos the caliphate was beginning to return to full strength when he came to power.

Amid the Abbasid civil war and its aftermath, a group called the Khurramites launched a rebellion against the Abbasids. Not much can be known for certain about these guys but it seems that they were a unique movement that synthesized Shiʿa Islam and Zoroastrianism. Mostly they seem to have been disaffected Iranians who were drawn in by promises made by the Abbasids during their 749-750 revolution against the Umayyads that suggested they would be friendlier to non-Arabs than the Umayyads had been. When it turned out that most of that talk was just propaganda, the Khurramites revolted. Their movement popped up and retreated underground several times, but really kicked into high gear around 816 under a leader named Babak Khorramdin (d. 838).

Decisively defeated in the early 830s by the Abbasids under al-Maʾmun’s successor, his brother al-Muʿtasim (d. 842), a large group of Khurramites fled as refugees into the Byzantine Empire and volunteered for service in the Byzantine army under a leader named Nusayr, who converted to Christianity and changed his name to Theophobos. A few years later, in the mid-830s, Babak and his army suffered another major defeat, and eventually he was captured and executed by the Abbasids. This meant that after a couple of decades during which the Abbasids were too internally divided to pose much of a threat to the Byzantines, by 838 the caliphate was finally ready to go on the offensive again.

The Abbasids were especially determined to attack the Byzantines in revenge for a campaign that Theophilos had launched in 837, while the Khurramite rebellion was still demanding most of the caliphate’s attention. A Byzantine army invaded what is today northern Iraq and, almost completely unopposed by the preoccupied Abbasids, sacked several towns, forced ransom from several others, and otherwise plundered the region. One of the towns the Byzantines sacked was called Sozopetra, which may have been al-Muʿtasim’s birthplace. As a result, once he’d dealt with the Khurramites, al-Muʿtasim resolved to attack Theophilos’s hometown, or at least the hometown of his dynasty—Amorium. Which also happened to be one of the greatest cities in the Byzantine Empire.

Al-Muʿtasim organized a two-pronged invasion of Byzantine territory in the spring of 838. One army, under a senior general named Khaydhar ibn Kawus al-Afshin, moved east, met up with some Caucasian auxiliaries, and crossed the Antitaurus Mountains through a pass near Melitene. The main army, led by the caliph himself, headed north through the Taurus Mountains via the Cilician Gates. The plan was for the two forces to meet at Ancyra (modern Ankara) and then head on to Amorium together. Upon getting word of the invasion in early June, Theophilos sent part of his army to reinforce the garrison at Amorium and marched the rest, including the Khurramites, out to meet the Muslims on the northern side of the Cilician Gates, since that was the main pass onto the Anatolian plain and the one he expected al-Muʿtasim to use. He does not appear to have anticipated a second Muslim army, because as soon as he got word of Afshin’s force he panicked and moved most of his army east to intercept it.

Those two armies met at Dazimon, also known as Anzen, near the modern Turkish town of Dazmana, on July 22, and the Muslims won a victory so thorough that word spread across the empire that Theophilos had been killed in battle. The Khurramites retreated north and declared their leader, Theophobos, the new emperor, though it seems they did so against his wishes and he refused to press whatever claim he might have had on the throne. Theophilos, who was almost killed at Dazimon but ultimately escaped very much alive, tried to regroup at Dorylaeum but found he really didn’t have an army anymore. Ultimately had no choice but to return to Constantinople and quash those rumors of his demise. This left Ancyra at the mercy of the Muslims, who sacked it in late July and then, as planned, collectively headed for Amorium.

Miniature depicting Theophilus’s flight from Anzen, from a manuscript of the Synopsis of Histories by 11th century Byzantine chronicler John Skylitzes (Wikimedia Commons)

The caliphal army besieged Amorium on August 1. Although it took a couple of weeks because Amorium was a very well-defended city, with no possibility of an imperial relief army coming to the rescue the outcome was probably a foregone conclusion. In the end, the Muslims were able to exploit a structural weakness in the city’s wall and the timely defection of a Byzantine officer to pour in and sack the place. Estimates on the number of dead vary, but they’re all in the tens of thousands. The highest Byzantine figure is around 70,000, with many thousands more no doubt enslaved. The Muslims spent five days plundering the city and carrying off its wealth. The siege went so well that, with still no sign of an imperial army coming to challenge him, al-Muʿtasim thought about continuing the campaign, but word of a plot against him by al-Maʾmun’s son back home forced him to retreat quickly. That in turn led to the deaths of thousands more people, as captives who couldn’t keep up with the pace of the return march were simply executed.

The sack of Amorium was arguably the most calamitous defeat the Byzantines had suffered in the east since the early Arab conquests, and sent shockwaves through the empire. Theophilos sent tribute to Baghdad to forestall another invasion while also sending word to both the Frankish King Louis the Pious and the Umayyad Emir of Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman II, asking for help. Neither responded.

But as we’ve already noted, imperial fortunes picked up not long after this massive setback. There were several reasons for this. On the Byzantine side, at Theophilos’s death in 842 he was succeeded by his wife, Theodora, acting as regent for their son, Michael III. Theodora was an iconophile, and during the regency she ended the practice of iconoclasm, and the divisiveness it engendered within the empire, for good. Ironically it was the defeat her husband, an iconoclast, suffered at Amorium that finally and permanently discredited iconoclasm.

Events in the west also suddenly took a welcome turn for the empire. Although Michael III gets something of a bad rap in chronicles written under the subsequent Macedonian Dynasty, it was during his reign that the Byzantines managed the conversion of the Bulgarians to Christianity. This was a huge development that led to a period of general tranquility between the Byzantines and the Bulgarians, who became almost an imperial vassal in some ways. That quieted the western frontier and allowed the Byzantines to refocus their attention east without having to worry about an attack from the other direction. Then Michael III was murdered in 867 and his murderer, now Emperor Basil I, founded the aforementioned Macedonian Dynasty, one of the most successful ruling houses in Byzantine history.

On the Muslim side, things were about to get very bad for the Abbasids. In 836, al-Muʿtasim had made the decision to move his court from Baghdad to a newly built capital city to the north called Samarra. He did this mostly to keep his increasingly Turkic slave military from interacting with the urbane population of Baghdad, because when the two did mix the results usually weren’t ideal. But once in Samarra the caliphs found themselves isolated with those Turkic soldiers, then dependent on them, and then completely at their mercy. Eventually the Turks assassinated a caliph, al-Mutawakkil, in 861, kicking off a nine year period known as the “Anarchy at Samarra” during which a series of four caliphs rise and fell at the whims of the various Turkic factions in the army and the caliphate almost lapsed into another full blown civil war. Although the anarchy ended in 870, the Abbasid caliphs never fully regained their authority and the ascendance of the military destabilized the caliphate. This badly weakened the caliphate’s cohesion and its military capabilities, which helped enable the Byzantine resurgence that was to come.