BARMAKIDS

 

BARMAKIDS or Barāmeka, a well-known fam­ily of secretaries and viziers during the time of the early ʿAbbasids, stemming from the region of Balḵ where Barmak, the ancestor of the family, according to early Muslim authors was the high priest of the Zoroastrian fire temple of Nowbahār (Yāqūt, IV, p. 819; Ebn Ḵallekān, Cairo, III, p. 198; Beirut, IV, p. 29); however, the name Nowbahār is likely to be from Buddhist Sanskrit nava-vihāra “new monastery,” and the eponym of the family, Barmak, may ultimately derive from Sanskrit pramukha “chief” (H. W. Bailey, BSOAS 11, 1943, p. 3). Muslim relations with the Balḵ region go back to the early phase of Islamic conquests during the time of Moʿāwīa, but no tie between a member of the Barmakids and a Muslim caliph can be established before the reign of Hešām b. ʿAbd al-Malek (105-25/723-42). Attempts to date this tie back to the time of the third caliph, ʿOṯmān (r. 23-35/644-56), seem unconvincing.

In his Aḵbār al-Barāmeka, ʿOmar b. al-Azraq, the early historian of that family, relates that Barmak was received with great respect by Hešām when he came to his court with 500 followers. Barmak was converted to Islam. He must have stayed many years at Roṣāfa, the residence of Hešām, where his son Ḵāled grew up with the caliph’s son Maslama. Barmak appears to have been a physician, for, when Maslama married, Barmak advised him to take a certain medicine that would en­able him to beget a child. Barmak was also endowed with the gift of prophecy; when he saw Moḥammad b. ʿAlī b. ʿAbd-Allāh b. ʿAbbās passing, he told his son Ḵāled that the caliphate would be transferred to the ʿAbbasids, and advised him to promote their cause in the future if he could (Ebn al-ʿAdīm, Boḡyat al-ṭalab,III, p. 22; V, pp. 337ff.). Barmak afterward left Syria for Gorgān where he met Yazīd b. Barāʾ and arranged a marriage between Yazīd’s daughter and his son Ḵāled.

It was Ḵāled’s fortune to participate in the ʿAbbasid mission (daʿwa)and to become one of the twenty members who were selected after the twelve syndics (naqībs)to propagate the cause of the Hashemites. His activities covered Gorgān, Ṭabarestān, and Ray, where he would go around posing as a merchant of cattle and slaves (Boḡya, loc.cit.). When the armies of Abū Moslem left Khorasan for the west, Ḵāled was, with Qaḥṭaba, entrusted with the distribution of plunder. After being wounded, he was well received by Saffāḥ, who at first thought, because of his eloquence, that he was an Arab. The caliph appointed him the manager of both the dīvānof the army (jond)and the dīvānof the land tax (ḵarāj). The registers used in the first dīvānwere in the form of scrolls, and Ḵāled was the first one to replace the scrolls with ledgers (dafāter).Soon Ḵāled won the confidence of the caliph and became his principal adviser. His wife suckled Saffāḥ’s daughter Rayṭa, and the caliph’s wife suckled Ḵāled’s daughter Omm Yaḥyā.

In the time of al-Manṣūr (r. 136-58/754-75), the rivalry between the vizier Abū Ayyūb and Ḵāled drove the latter away from the capital to Fārs where he served as governor. Ḵāled managed to drive rebellious Kurds from Fārs and proved to be a wise and generous governor, eulogized by poets. His generosity evidently exposed him once again to the intrigues of the vizier, for he instigated the caliph to recall Ḵāled and to take three million dirhams from him as restitution. The matter was soon settled, and Ḵāled remained for some time with al-­Manṣūr, to whom he gave advice about the plan of the future capital and whom he dissuaded from ruining the Ayvān-e Kesrā. Around 150/767 Ḵāled was appointed governor of Ṭabarestān, where he stayed for seven years. In 158/774, when a revolt broke out in Mosul, Ḵāled was commissioned to put it down and to become the city’s governor; he stayed there until the death of al-Manṣūr, which occurred a few months later.

During the time of al-Mahdī, Ḵāled was given Šammāsīya as a fief (eqṭāʿ),in a part of which, later called Sowayqat Ḵāled, he chose to build his residential quarters. Nearby his son Yaḥyā and Yaḥyā’s two sons, Fażl and Jaʿfar, built their palaces.

Ḵāled’s son Yaḥyā gained prominence first as an assistant to his father in governing Ray, then as a tutor of the prince Hārūn, then as the secretary and treasurer to Hārūn during the latter’s campaign against Byzantium. In 163/779, as deputy governor of Fārs, he managed to abolish taxes paid on trees. Ḵāled died in 165/781-82, shortly after Hārūn returned from his campaign.

In the short reign of al-Hādī (r. 169-70/785-86) Yaḥyā was thrown into prison because he stood firmly against al-Hādī’s attempts to remove Hārūn from succession to the caliphate. After al-Hādī’s sudden death Yaḥyā was released from prison and in 170/786 became Hārūn al-Rašīd’s vizier; the following year he received control of the caliphal seal. The height of Barmakid power was reached under al-Rašīd; in fact, there was no essential activity in the caliphate in which the “triumvirate” of Yaḥyā, Fażl, and Jaʿfar did not involve themselves. They received help from other Barmakids whenever necessary. Moḥammad b. Ḵāled was the caliph’s chamberlain until he was dismissed from office in 179/795. Mūsā b. Yaḥyā was the leader of an army which put down a rebellion in Syria in 176/792. The main roles, however, were played by the three leaders, who, in spite of their power, did not act against the wishes of the caliph.

Yaḥyā remained in power for seventeen years. In 178/794 he was entrusted with all the administrative matters in the state. His son Fażl, the “foster” brother of Hārūn, was appointed governor of the East and Jaʿfar governor of the West in 176/792. Fażl also put down the revolt of Yaḥyā b. ʿAbd-Allāh and was appointed governor of Khorasan where he proved to be an able and beloved administrator, he left Khorasan a year later after having had many mosques built. He remained in the caliph’s favor until 183/799 when he was dismissed from all his offices. The dismissal of Fażl did not, however, presage the tragic end of the whole family; Jaʿfar remained unrivaled in his great position. In 180/796, he suppressed a revolt in Syria, gave the seal to his father, and was appointed head of the caliphal bodyguard and manager of the postal service, the mints, and the textile factory (dīvān al-ṭerāz).It is not clear what exactly took place between 183/799 and the pilgrimage of the caliph in 186/802 to turn him against his “viziers,” but he did order that Jaʿfar be killed in 187/803. Fażl and his brothers were arrested, Yaḥyā put under surveillance, and the property of all the Bar­makids (except Moḥammad b. Ḵāled) confiscated.

The end of the Barmakids has eluded satisfactory explanation. It is not enough to say, as the historians imply, that Hārūn grew exceedingly covetous in his later years; that raising his many children was very costly, that the luxury of the Barmakids and their favorites and clients provoked his envy; and that the intrigues of Fażl b. al-Rabīʿ, who succeeded Moḥammad b. Ḵāled as chamberlain, and others turned the caliph against them. These and other reasons are suggestive but not convinc­ing; there has thus been a popular tendency to seek other explanations. The stories of Jaʿfar’s supposed marriage to ʿAbbāsa (much embroidered in the sources) and of the censers used in the Kaʿba (mentioned in the sources en passant, possibly because the heathen object would recall the Buddhist background of the family) have been circulated as the events which led to the final disaster. Popular imagination has produced many other stories about the tragic end of the Barmakids, such as the dialogue between the mother of Jaʿfar and Hārūn (al-ʿEqd V, pp.62-65) and the story of the man who used to frequent the ruined halls of the Barmakids and lament their fate (al-Faraj baʿd al-šedda III, pp. 166-72).

The generosity of the Barmakids also became prover­bial; to this day, an unstinting host of banquets and festivals is called “Barmakī.” The eloquence (balāḡa)of Yaḥyā and his son Jaʿfar won the admiration of their contemporaries. They were also genuine patrons of poets and writers; under their auspices a special office was established for the support of poets. Jaʿfar’s palace became the residence of caliphs. On the whole they set a tradition in different aspects of cultural as well as political life. The nesba Barmakī was applied to their descendants, such as the poet Jaḥẓa, and to people who lived in a quarter of Baghdad called al-Barmakīya. Today Barmakī designates a certain gypsy-like group which roams in Egypt and Syria (cf. EI2 I, p. 1036).

 

Bibliography:

Works containing information about the Barmakids include all major Arabic sources dealing with the early ʿAbbasids until 187/803, e.g., Yaʿqūbī, Ṭabarī, Masʿūdī’s Morūj,Ebn al-Aṯīr (see the indexes in the editions of these authors), and books of adab on poets of the period such as Jāḥeẓ’s al-Bayān wa’l-tabyīn,ed. A. Hārūn, Cairo, 1960.

Moḥammad b. Yazīd Mobarrad, al-Kāmel,ed. M.-A. Ebrāhīm, Cairo, 1956.

Aḡānī (Cairo). Abū Bakr Moḥammad Ṣūlī, Ketāb al-awrāq fī aḵbār Āl ʿAbbās wa ašʿārehem,ed. H. Dunne, Cairo, 1934-35.

Ebn ʿAbd-Rabbeh, al-ʿEqd al-farīd,ed. A. Amm, et al., Cairo, 1965.

See also Ebn Badrūn, Šarḥ al-Bassāma,Cairo, n.d., pp. 222-42.

Abū Esḥāq Ebrāhīm Raqīq, al-Moḵtār men qoṭb al-sorūr,ed. A. Manṣūr, Tunis, 1976.

Abū Esḥāq Ebrāhīm Ḥosrī, Zahr al-ādāb wa ṯamar al-albāb,ed. A.-M. Bījawī, Cairo, 1969.

Abū ʿAlī Moḥassen Tanūḵī’s al-Faraj baʿd al-šedda,ed. A. Šāljī, Beirut, 1978; Neswār al-­moḥāżera wa aḵbār al-moḏākara, ed. A. Šāljī, Beirut, 1971-73; and al-Mostajād men faʿalāt al-ajwād,ed. Kord-ʿAlī, Damascus, 1946, contain anecdotes about the Barmakids. Biographical sources: Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād VII, p. 152.

Ebn Kallekān, ed. ʿAbbās, I, pp. 328-46, 472-75.

Ṣalāḥ-al-Dīn Ḵalīl Ṣafadī, al-Wāfī be’l-­wafayāt,ed. Š. Fayṣal, Wiesbaden, 1981, XI, pp. 156­-67.

Šams-al-Dīn Moḥammad b. Ṭūlūn, Enbāʾ al­-ʿomarāʾ,Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, ms. no. 704, fols. 29, 46.

Ḵāled: Ebn Ḵallekān, VI, p. 219; Kamāl-­al-Dīn Abū’l-Qāsem b. ʿAdīm, Boḡyat al-ṭalab fī taʾrīḵ Ḥalab,ms. Ahmed III (Istanbul), no. 2925, V, p. 336.

Fażl: Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād XII, p. 334; Ebn Ḵal­lekān, ed. ʿAbbās, IV, pp. 27-36; Ebn Taḡrīberdī, al-­Nojūm al-ẓāhera, Cairo, II, p. 14; Ḏahabī, Ketāb ʿebar fī aḵbār al-bašar,ed. S. Monajjed, Kuwait, I, p. 309; Ebn al-ʿEmād, Šaḏarāt fī aḵbār man ḏahab,Cairo, 1350, 1, p. 330.

Yaḥyā: Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād XIV,p. 128; Ebn Ḵallekān, I, pp. 331-38, VI, pp. 219-29; Yāqūt, Odabāʾ, Cairo, 1936-38, XX, p. 5; Marzobānī, Moʿjam al-šoʿarāʾ, Cairo, 1960, p. 488.

Geographical sources, especially about Nowbahār: Ebn al-Faqīh, pp. 232-35; Yāqūt, IV, p. 817; Qazvīnī, Āṯāral-belād, Beirut, 1960, p. 330; Ḥemyarī, al-Rawż al-meʿṭār, ed. I. Abbas, Beirut, 1975, pp. 584-85 (see the index under individual Barmakids).

Studies: L. Bouvat, “Les Barmécides d’après les historiens arabes et persans,” RMM 12, 1912, pp. 1-131; Pers, tr. ʿA.-Ḥ. Meykada, Barmakīān. S. Nadvi, “The Origin of the Barmakids,” Islamic Culture 6, 1932, pp. 19-28.

D. Sourdel, Le vizirat ʿabbaside de 749 à 936, Damascus, 1959, I, pp. 127-81.

EI1 s.vv. “Djaʿfar,” “al-Faḍl,” and “Yaḥyā b. Khālid.”

(I. Abbas)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: December 15, 1988

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Vol. III, Fasc. 8, pp. 806-809