The Surrender of Kut, 100 years later

Yesterday marked the centennial of one of the worst military fiascos in British history, the surrender of the 6th division of the Indian Army to the Ottomans at the Iraqi town of Kut. Kut followed right on the heels of the Battle of Ctesiphon in November 1915, and its final result turned that indecisive battle into a major strategic Ottoman victory. While neither side got the better of the fighting at Ctesiphon, the Brits, owing to the zealous ineptitude of their commander, Major General Charles Townshend,


Speaking of which (Wikimedia)

were left in the far more challenging situation, having overextended their supply routes and had their offensive blunted deep in enemy territory. Townshend, for reasons I assume made sense to him at the time, opted not to make a beeline for British territory after Ctesiphon, instead choosing to hole up at Kut and await reinforcements. He believed that Kut was defensible and that British control over the Tigris River would allow them to ferry reinforcements to bolster his forces. He was, as it turns out, completely wrong (he also believed that pinning the Ottomans down at Kut was necessary to keep them from attacking the Brits further south, but logistically the Ottomans couldn’t possibly have undertaken an offensive in southern Iraq). The Ottomans drove off three separate British overland relief attempts and managed to prevent most British ships from getting upriver to Kut. In a last-ditch attempt to save the army, Britain sent representatives, including T.E. Lawrence (who wasn’t quite “Lawrence of Arabia” yet) to negotiate a ransom payment to the Ottomans. The Ottomans rejected any payment, and Townshend was left with no choice but to surrender.


A map of Britain’s 1915 Iraq offensive, including Ctesiphon and Kut (Wikimedia)

As he has often done with respect to World War I history, the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn has written a three-part history of the Siege of Kut, including an overview of the campaign, a look at the circumstances that led to the siege, and a description of the relief attempts and Townshend’s eventual surrender. So you should go and read those for more detail on the siege. The one thing I wanted to highlight was what happened to Townshend after the battle, because it’s really a microcosm of the entire war. Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern history: Conrad I of Jerusalem is (literally) Assassinated (1192)

The Assassins, meaning the medieval esoteric Islamic order, were certainly not the first people to come up with the idea of murdering one’s political opponents–Julius Caesar and a bunch of Roman senators can verify that. But the reason why the murder of a political leader is known as an “assassination” today is because these guys were very, very good at it. It didn’t matter how powerful or famous or presumably well-protected somebody was–if the Assassins targeted him, either for death or a stern warning (which became a pretty useful tool once their reputation for killing was well-established), then they rarely failed to get to him. Consider that the order’s first well-known victim was Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), the very powerful vizier of the Seljuq Empire, whom they managed to kill in broad daylight as he was being carried on a litter, surrounded by servants and bodyguards. Many of the Assassins’ operations were carried out in such circumstances (in daylight, in public), which added to their mystique. Later, even the mighty Saladin was “convinced” to go easy on the Assassins when one of their number left scones and a poisoned dagger on his bed one night, along with a note explaining that the next time the Assassins returned, they wouldn’t bring baked goods. This was in 1176, about 16 years before the Assassins killed the then-King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat.

Perhaps a little background is in order here. The Assassins were a Shiʿa order of the Ismaʿili school, which formed in the late 11th century (Nizam al-Mulk’s murder was their big coming out party). An Ismaʿili dynasty had taken power in North Africa, Egypt, and Syria in the 10th century and established its own caliphate, the Fatimid Caliphate. Sometime in the 1080s these Ismaʿilis splintered, a common occurrence for Shiʿa groups throughout history, over a conflict within the Fatimid court. The founder of the order, Hassan-i Sabbah, got on the wrong side of the Caliph al-Mustansir’s (d. 1094) powerful military commander, the Armenian general Badr al-Jamali (d. 1094), and so he left Cairo and headed off to the east to find a place to establish his own order (he eventually settled on a castle in Alamut, in northern Iran). Part of the conflict may have been over Hassan’s open support for al-Mustansir’s eldest son, Nizar (d. 1097), because when Nizar was passed over in the succession by his brother, al-Mustaʿli (d. 1101), and eventually killed, Hassan’s movement took up his cause (in addition to “Assassins,” they’re also known as Nizari Ismaʿilis for this reason).

Hassan had relatively few followers, but they were intensely loyal and willing to take on assignments of great danger. This is possibly because they were constantly dosed with hashish, hence the name hashishiyun, which may have been the root of the word asasiyun, and hence of “Assassin.” But the hash legend seems to have been concocted by writers with anti-Assassin leanings who were trying to discredit the order, and there’s good reason to believe that the word asasiyun actually has nothing to do with hashishiyun. Because the order was so small, and dispersed among a number of castles dotted across Iran and west into Syria, their military training emphasized defensive tactics and opportunistic, targeted strikes at specific enemies–i.e., assassinations.

Of course, there are two sides to any assassination, the assassins and the assassinated, so we should talk a little here about the doomed Conrad of Montferrat. Continue reading

Today (?) in European history: Muslims invade Hispania (711)

Map - Expansion West

The Muslim conquest of North Africa and Hispania, 7th-8th centuries

I’m frankly not all that sure that today’s event actually happened on this particular date in 711. Dating anything that happened that far back in history is an inexact science to say the least, and that goes double for something like the arrival of the first Muslim armies in Hispania, an event that led to chaos among the established Visigoths and that wasn’t recorded in any Muslim histories (at least none that have survived) for at least a few decades. Frankly, the whole narrative of the conquest of Hispania could be a later invention crafted by historians looking to make sense of an event that was actually far more disjointed than this story indicates. But most scholarship about the conquest of the future Andalusia has the first Muslim forces arriving sometime in April 711, and you’ll find some “this day in history” type stuff out there on the internet tubes that pinpoints April 27 as the date, so let’s just go with it.

Regular readers will know that we’ve already covered the conquest of Andalusia in general terms, but there are some details that can be filled in about Tariq’s decision to cross into Hispania in the first place. For one thing, we can talk about the role of North African politics and economics in influencing the decision to press on into Europe. The early Arab armies that conquered North Africa found themselves drastically outnumbered by the Berbers who were already there, many of whom were either Christian or still practicing a pagan religion. The rules in these cases were quite clear: Christians were expected to pay the jizya, an additional tax that Muslims were not required to pay (Muslims were required to pay zakat, a charitable donation that nevertheless functioned more or less as a tax, but it was not as burdensome as the jizya), and pagans were to be given a choice between conversion and the sword.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and when you’re surrounded and outnumbered by the people you’re meant to overtax and/or threaten, that’s as good a time as any to look the other way. Still, running North Africa took money, like everything else does, and if that money wasn’t going to come from a Christian jizya or from former pagans-turned-good taxpaying Muslims, then it had to come from continued conquest and the booty that ensued. And although going north into Hispania meant crossing the water, that was probably much preferable to those 8th century armies than attempting to push south through the Sahara.

Continue reading

Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Bagrevand (775)

DISCLAIMER: I’m sorry if the title of this post gives anybody the wrong idea–I don’t mean “Caucasian history” in the “why don’t they have a White History Month” sense. I mean literally the history of the Caucasus region. I don’t know how else to describe it.

When Arab armies moved out of Arabia in the 630s and utterly wrecked the Roman-Persian balance of power that had defined western Asia for centuries, you could make a strong case that nobody, apart from the Romans and the Persians, felt it more acutely than the Armenians. The Kingdom of Armenia had long been a buffer between the two great powers, with dynasties ruling as Roman or Persian (first Parthian, and later Sasanian) clients, and coming and going often at the whim of one of the two empires. This changed in the fourth century, when the Romans and Sasanians partitioned the ancient kingdom into two parts: so-called Lesser Armenia, which became a Roman province, and Persian Armenia, which held nominal independence for a time before becoming a Sasanian domain in the early fifth century. The events described here primarily affected Persian Armenia; Lesser Armenia, along the southern coast of the Black Sea, remained in Roman hands until it was taken by the Seljuq Turks in the late 11th century.


The Caucasus (Persian Armenia, Iberia, Lazica, and Albania) just prior to the Arab conquest (Wikimedia |

Having suffered through the push-and-pull Roman-Persian relationship for the better part of a millennium, the Armenians now had to face a new upheaval with the destruction of the Sasanian Empire and the arrival of conquering Arab armies in the Caucasus as early as the late 630s, not even a decade after Muhammad’s death. In the early 650s, a leading Armenian noble named Theodoros Ṛštuni (Theodore Rshtuni if you like) cut a deal to submit Armenia to Arab rule in exchange for a prisoner release and Armenian autonomy. Fighting continued, though, and eventually pulled in the Romans (even though the Romans and Armenians were at odds over religious disputes about the nature of Christ). But by the 660s, the Arabs (now the Umayyad Caliphate) were fully in control of Armenia, which doesn’t seem to have been that onerous given that it included a fair amount of local autonomy and no imposition of Islam on the Armenians (conversion was never a high priority for the Umayyads anyway).

This was the best deal the Armenians were going to get, but the imposition of Arab rule grated on them anyway–especially on the nakharar, the heads of the leading Armenian noble families. They’d done pretty well for themselves as Roman and/or Persian clients, but the Arabs were apparently much less interested in cultivating their loyalty–they had less reason to be, in the absence of any other power capable of challenging Arab control over the area. Several revolts cropped up here and there over the decades to come, but internal rivalries among the nakharar (perhaps exacerbated by the decline in imperial attention) kept most of them from becoming serious threats to the Arabs. One major revolt did break out in 703, when the Arabs reorganized their Caucasian holdings into the province of Arminya and took more direct control, but it was defeated in 705 and the nobles who had led it were all executed.

A much larger revolt finally broke out in 774. Continue reading

Catching up: Iran

After a much-needed break, I’m going to try to get back to some regular blogging. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces over the next several days in which I’ll try to do that.

Hassan Rouhani, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Hassan Rouhani (left) and Hashemi Rafsanjani (via Middle East Institute)

The biggest story in Iran over the past couple of months was clearly the February 26 elections for the Majles (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, the body that is officially tasked with choosing the next Supreme Leader should anything happen to the current one, 76 year old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite the conservative judicial establishment’s best efforts to rig the election in favor of hardliners, the ad hoc reformer-moderate-moderate conservative coalition that formed around the leadership of current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani won fairly stunning victories in both contests:

Iranian voters dealt hard-liners a serious blow in elections for parliament and an influential clerical body, favoring reformists and relative moderates who support last year’s nuclear deal in the country’s first elections since the landmark agreement, results released Monday showed.

Reformists, who favor expanded social freedoms and engagement with the West, won at least 85 seats, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry and broadcast on state TV. Moderate conservatives — who split with the hard-line camp and support the nuclear deal — won 73, giving the two blocs together a majority over hard-liners in the 290-seat assembly.

The vote isn’t expected to herald large-scale change in Iranian policies, but may make it easier for President Hassan Rouhani to deliver in areas such as promoting social freedoms and reforming the economy.

The “List of Hope,” on which both reformists and moderate candidates ran, also won a majority on the Assembly of Experts. But the AP isn’t just singing the typical cynical American song when it says that the vote won’t mean major changes in the Iranian government’s policies. For one thing, Khamenei is still running the country, and he’s not going anywhere–not for now, at least. For another thing, Iranian politics in the run-up to this vote basically broke down on two lines: support for the nuclear deal with the P5+1 and ties to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The people I’m calling “moderates,” like they’re all part of one movement, are really only bound together by their support for the nuclear deal (voters like that) and the fact that none of them were/are tied to Ahmadinejad (voters didn’t like that). That group runs the gamut from people who are looking for wholesale reform of the Islamic Republican system to people who think the system is fine, but they thought the nuclear deal was a good idea. That’s not a workable political bloc in terms of setting policy, at least not right now, because it has no internal cohesion. Still, the vote itself was a sharp statement by the Iranian people, and the fact that several prominent hardline politicians were voted out of office added to the election’s magnitude. Continue reading

Today in European history: the Greco-Turkish War is declared (1897)

Map - Balkans 1878-1912

The late 19th century in the eastern Mediterranean

After mainland Greece won its independence from the Ottomans in the 1832 Treaty of Constantinople, the provenance of the island of Crete became a big issue. Crete, as anybody who knows anything about ancient Greece will tell you, historically lies well within the Greek world. But our friends of the Fourth Crusade sold the island, which came into their possession when they took over the Byzantine Empire, to Venice, which turned it into a Venetian colony in 1212. Venice held Crete, then known as the Kingdom of Candia, until the Cretan War ended in 1669 with the Ottomans holding it and converting it into a province of their empire. Autonomous Egypt briefly controlled Crete in the early 19th century. But once their fellow Greeks on the mainland won their independence, the Cretans began to agitate for theirs, and between 1832 and 1897 they revolted against Ottoman rule on three separate occasions. The last of these, which ran from 1866-1869, only ended after the Ottomans massacred almost 900 Greeks in the Arkadi Monastery on the northwestern part of the island, which not only aroused the mainland Greeks but also caught the attention of the great European powers (a group to which, it should be noted, the Ottoman Empire in 1897 clearly no longer belonged).

The Ottomans had signed an agreement to end that third Cretan revolt that stipulated that Crete would be given considerable autonomy from the imperial administration moving forward. They never upheld that agreement, and any movement in that direction would inevitably lead to fighting between Crete’s Greek and Turkish (Christian and Muslim, if you prefer) inhabitants. One such outburst, in January 1897, looked like it might snowball into another revolt, and Greek Prime Minister Theodoros Deligiannis, under political pressure at home, sent a Greek force to the island to aid the rebels. They encountered and defeated a small Ottoman force on the island in early February and the war was on. Although Crete was the strategic focal point, all the major fighting took place on the Greek-Ottoman mainland frontier, starting on March 24 with a small Greek incursion into Ottoman Macedonia. There weren’t even any significant naval engagements (this was good news for the Ottomans, whose navy at this point was a mess). Continue reading