I don’t have a long tale to share today, but January 16 is the anniversary of a few things that, in keeping with our general theme around here, we ought to commemorate.
On this date in 929, Abd al-Rahman III declared that he was no longer the Emir of Cordoba but was in fact a full-fledged Caliph. This restored the Umayyad dynasty to the (well, “a”) caliphate, at least on paper. It also put Abd al-Rahman on an equal footing with both the Abbasid caliph, al-Muqtadir, and (more critically) the Fatimid caliph, al-Mahdi. At the time, the Umayyads believed that a Fatimid invasion from North Africa could come at any time, and Abd al-Rahman thought it would be politically and militarily important to meet the Fatimid caliph in battle as an equal, so he just…
tweeted it out assumed the title. Just a few decades prior to this, most Muslims would have believed that there could only be one caliph at any given time. But when the Fatimids declared their caliphate in 909 and the existence of two declared caliphs didn’t bring about any kind of divine retribution, the door was open for anybody who could formulate a claim to assume the title.
In 1979, America’s dear friend and secret torture prison proprietor Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi finally had his brutal, corrupt reign ended as he fled Tehran for Egypt. The Shah had reached a deal with the National Front (the party that Mohammad Mosaddegh formed in the 1950s by Mohammad Mosaddegh, which revived itself in the 70s and represented the secular opposition to the Shah’s regime) that he would be replaced with a secular transitional government led by National Front leader Shahpour Bakhtiar. Unfortunately for Bakhtiar, the deal made it look to the Iranian public like he was actually the Shah’s man (which he really wasn’t), and thus thoroughly ruined his legitimacy. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1 (he’d been in exile for 15 years) and declared that he was forming his own provisional government under politician Mehdi Bazargan, Bakhtiar didn’t stand a chance. He too wound up fleeing the country on February 11.
Edward Gibbon died on this date in 1794, and while that’s not particularly related to the Middle East it is notable for anybody who enjoys history. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire doesn’t hold up especially well as an accurate accounting of the, you know, decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but it’s still a monumental achievement and of critical importance in the development of modern historiography.
Also, it’s the anniversary of the 1878 Battle of Plovdiv (in modern Bulgaria), one of the final battles of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. The Ottomans had set up at Philippopolis (as Plovdiv was then known) to stop a Russian advance toward Constantinople (Istanbul, if you prefer). The battle took place from January 14-16, and ended when a Russian officer, Aleksandr Petrovich Burago, led a squadron of the Russian army’s best fighters into the city covertly. Burago and his men, despite being heavily outnumbered, were able to break down the Ottoman defenses, at which point the rest of the Russian army (which in total outnumbered the Ottomans) took the city. The Ottomans and Russians (both under British pressure to stop fighting) reached a truce on January 31 and the war was finally ended with the signing of the short-lived Treaty of San Stefano in March.
The treaty forced the Ottomans to recognize Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania as independent nations and to grant autonomy to its Bulgarian population, which obviously had major political ramifications. It also hung the Armenians out to dry–they’d greeted a Russian army invading through the Caucasus as liberators, to borrow Dick Cheney’s phrase, but the treaty, negotiated with substantial input from the British (who were keeping a close eye on Russian expansionism), required that the Russian army abandon its gains in that region. The Armenians had thus stuck their necks out welcoming the Russian invaders only to wind up still under Ottoman control, and though it took a while to fully play out the bad blood left over from this war contributed to the Armenian Genocide. Also getting screwed were the Albanians, who remained under Ottoman rule and lost traditional Albanian territory to the newly independent states of Serbia and Montenegro. Prominent Albanians then realized that they needed to jump on this whole nationalism thing quick if they wanted to keep the territory they had left.