Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of the Zab (750)

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of the Zab, which took place in 750 and was the climactic battle in the Abbasid Revolution that ousted the Umayyads from the caliphate. Obviously you can find out more about the revolution elsewhere on this blog, but the battle itself deserves a little mention.

The Umayyad army was primarily made up of Syrian Arabs, who had amply demonstrated their toughness and battlefield capabilities by this point in campaigns against the Byzantines and in putting down several previous rebellions. They were under the direct command of Caliph Marwan II himself, and Marwan, although he may not personally have been all sunshine and rainbows, had impressive credentials as a military leader. He’d been governor of the northernmost provinces of the empire, which meant direct responsibility for conducting raids against neighboring Christian kingdoms like the Byzantine Empire and Georgia. He’d also taken the caliphate by force–not inheritance–in 774, and had held it through substantial turmoil.

The Abbasids, however, were no slouches either. Their troops came from communities in Khurasan (an area that stretches from eastern Iran into Afghanistan in modern terms) that were true frontier areas. When they weren’t campaigning against their Central Asian neighbors to expand their territory, they were defending what they’d won against those same Central Asian neighbors trying to win it back. They were hardened, crack fighters. They’d been built into an army by Abu Muslim, who had recruited them under his banner on behalf of…somebody; he didn’t reveal exactly who was behind the movement (Abu al-Abbas, aka the future Caliph al-Saffah) until 749, well after the rebellion was underway and after his soldiers were already committed to the war.

This, by the way, was a pretty clever way to make the Abbasid Revolution into a cypher for anyone who was an opponent of the Umayyad house. Whether you were angry at their perceived impiety, fed up with their perceived corruption, mad about their preference for Syrian Arabs over everybody else, a disaffected early Shiʿa, or something else, Abu Muslim’s overtly ideology-free revolution seemed like it had been launched just for you. Of course it wasn’t, but by the time anybody learned that it was too late to do anything about it. This characteristic of the revolution wound up even working against Abu Muslim himself–he was executed by the Caliph al-Mansur in 755, after finally realizing (to his disgruntlement) that he’d mostly just traded one dynasty for another (and also because al-Mansur rightly perceived him to be a threat).

Abu Muslim’s army had already been successful against several smaller Umayyad forces on the way from Khurasan to Iraq, so they were energized and confident in their chances. At Zab they were under the formal command of al-Saffah’s uncle, Abdullah b. Ali.

abbasrev
This is a great map of the course of the Abbasid Revolution (Princeton)

The two armies met at the Greater Zab River in northern Iraq. The rebels adopted a favorite tactic of the Umayyads, the spear wall, and let the Umayyad cavalry charge right into it and get slaughtered. If you need a mental picture, you can probably think the “Battle of Stirling” from Braveheart, even though that film gets the actual Battle of Stirling Bridge completely wrong (along with lots of other stuff, but I digress). The rest of Marwan’s army ran, many of them drowning in the river. Marwan himself managed to get all the way to Abusir, not far from modern Cairo, before the Abbasids caught up to him and killed him.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Author: DWD

You can learn more about me here. If you appreciate my work, please consider a one-time or sustaining monthly contribution. If you’ve enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build attwiw's audience.

One thought

  1. Reblogged this on and that's the way it was and commented:

    One of the nice things about having done this blog as long as I’ve been doing it is that the “this day in history” posts are starting to overlap. I hope you enjoy this one from January 25, 2015, on the Battle of the Zab.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.