Today in Middle Eastern history: the Wahhabi sack of Karbala (probably 1802)


The Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala today (Wikimedia)

Wahhabism has always taken a dim view of Shiʿism–really, denigrating the Shiʿa is at the core of the movement’s origins. Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) based his teachings in large part on those of the very influential 13th-14th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyah, and apart maybe from philosophers Shiʿa were pretty much Ibn Taymiyah’s least favorite people in the world. One of the things Ibn Taymiyah condemned was the practice, common among but certainly not limited to Shiʿa, of visiting the shrine of a respected religious figure (a “saint,” for lack of a better term) to venerate that figure and ask the him or her to intercede on one’s behalf with God. Ibn Taymiyah saw such practices as unequivocally shirk (placing someone or something on the same level with God, i.e. polytheism), and his condemnations are the intellectual justification for Salafis in modern times who, for example, destroy shrines of prominent Sufi figures (though, I should note, Ibn Taymiyah was himself a Sufi).

Ibn Taymiyah also really hated the Shiʿa pilgrimage to Karbala to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn b. Ali, who was killed there in the Battle of Karbala in 680. He didn’t disagree that Husayn was a martyr, but he argued that martyrdom was a blessing, not something to be mourned. And anyway, as I say, he rejected the act of making pilgrimage to someone’s tomb and paying homage there as shirk, which is really the most heinous crime one can commit under Islamic religious law.

Ideologically, Wahhabism takes the embrace of God’s oneness and avoidance of shirk as its main point of emphasis, so it’s no wonder that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab embraced what Ibn Taymiyah had to say about the treatment of saints and their shrines. He went further though, arguing that Shiʿa were guilty of elevating their imams over Muhammad and even of placing them on the same level with God. And under the so-called “First Saudi State,” which lasted from 1744 to 1818 and grew to control most of the Arabian peninsula during its brief lifespan, these tenets of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching were made state policy.

All of this is to explain why, on April 21 in either 1801 or 1802, but more likely 1802, a Saudi army of about 12,000 men marched north to Karbala, destroyed the Imam Husayn Shrine (seen above in its modern form), and massacred between two and five thousand people in the process. Or, well, it explains their theoretical justification for carrying out that act. If you ask me, the reason for the raid on Karbala was much less about the One True Islam than it was about all the sweet treasure they were able to plunder. Continue reading

This Week in Middle Eastern history: the Second Battle of Gaza (1917)

Having noted the 100th anniversary of World War I’s indecisive First Battle of Gaza just a few weeks ago, I suppose it would be inappropriate to skip over the centennial of the slightly less indecisive Second Battle of Gaza, which was April 17-19. I say that both of these battles were indecisive mostly because each was a temporary Ottoman victories and both were followed up in early November 1917 by a truly decisive British victory in the Third Battle of Gaza. Britain’s second crack at capturing Gaza was a bit more decisive than its first because, for one thing, this time the British didn’t literally give victory away by retreating when there was no discernible reason to do so, and, for another, because it was a little over five months before the Brits would make another serious effort here, whereas their victory in the first battle only bought the Ottomans about three weeks of quiet before they were fighting again.

Map - Ottomans in WW I

WWI Middle Eastern Theater

The British commanders, Archibald Murray and Charles Dobell, having probably realized that they screwed up in their first effort to take Gaza, seem to have assumed that the second time would be the charm. Unfortunately for them, the Ottomans and Germans hadn’t exactly slept through that first battle, and so after it ended the Ottomans dispatched a large number of reinforcements to Gaza while the Germans sent enough aircraft to at least even the odds a bit with the Brits. Michael Collins Dunn has a new piece up on the battle and he offers the short and to the point version of what happened:

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.

The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Murray somewhat hilariously tried to pin the loss on Dobell (it probably helped that Dobell was Canadian, not British), but while Dobell was replaced Murray was also taken out of the field and put in command of a training center back in Britain. Because the Middle Eastern Theater wasn’t as glamorous as the Western Front, it took a while to find Murray’s replacement and he didn’t get there until June. The pick was a fellow named Edmund Allenby, who had recently been taken off the line because his former commanding officer blamed him for a costly stalemate at the Battle of Arras, in France. As it turns out, he was the right man for the job.

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.

Today in European history: the Siege of Thessaloniki ends (1430)

The city of Thessaloniki always struck me as the urban equivalent of the line “always a bridesmaid, but never a bride” (Hare Trimmed was a comedy classic, don’t @ me). It became the most important city in Macedonia…right before the Romans showed up. It’s the second-largest city in Greece. It became an important Roman city…because it was a way point on the main route from Rome to Byzantium. When the Roman Empire was divided into the Tetrarchy in the third century, it became one of the capitals of the Emperor Galerius…right before Constantine ended the Tetrarchy and established a New Rome at Byzantium/Constantinople. It was the “second city” of the Byzantine Empire. Today it’s the second largest city in Greece. You get the idea. Nonetheless, Thessaloniki has been an important city since antiquity, and when the Ottomans began expanding into Europe it was one of their earliest targets.

In fact, the Ottomans took Thessaloniki in 1387, and might have been the growing empire’s main European possession…if the Ottomans hadn’t up and lost almost everything at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. In the Ottoman civil war that followed Ankara, the Byzantines were able to finagle the city back in return for supporting the imperial claims of Süleyman Çelebi (d. 1411). But the temporary Ottoman chaos masked the fact that, even after Timur had taken their empire completely apart, the Ottomans were still stronger than whatever was left of the Byzantine Empire by the early 15th century.

Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Fall of Baghdad (1917)

I’ve been a little lax on the World War I centennials lately, and to be honest I’m not about to fix that at 10:30 on a Saturday night, but as I often do on these occasions I can cheat and send you to read the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn.

For background you’ll want to read his account of the Second Battle of Kut from late February. April 1916’s First Battle of Kut, as we know, was a complete Ottoman victory and one of the low points for Britain in the whole war. Following that disaster, the British army replaced its commander in Mesopotamia, Lt. General Percy Lake, with newly arrived (from Gallipoli) corps commander, Lt. General Frederick Stanley Maude.


Hello, General Maude!

Maude wisely spent the rest of 1916 repairing the damage that had been done in the campaign that culminated at Kut. He recruited new troops from India, trained them, and had his engineers build out a rail network that could support a full-scale northern offensive. His target was Baghdad, which at this particular point in history was really of no great military significance, but which was a high profile target whose capture would be a morale booster for the British war effort. Plus, just advancing that far north would put Maude’s army in position to threaten important Ottoman positions in northern Iraq and Anatolia.

As Dunn notes, the “Second Battle” of Kut wasn’t much of a battle. The Ottomans were damn sure not going to repeat Charles Townsend’s mistake of the year before and allow themselves to be bottled up there, so they withdrew north on February 24 without much resistance. Baghdad fell pretty much the same way:

Maude marched his main force up the east bank of the Tigris, arriving March 8 at the banks of its big tributary the Diyala. With the Turks defending the opposite banks of the Diyala, Maude moved most of his force downstream and crossed to the west bank of the Tigris. Detecting the movement (both sides had aircraft now with Germans flying for the Turks), Khalil moved most of his force to the west bank, leaving one regiment on the Diyala. The British soon pushed this aside, and Khalil, facing British advances on both banks, resolved on a retreat from Baghdad. By the evening of March 10, the Ottoman evacuation of Baghdad was under way, with no major battle having been fought.

Khalil Pasha made straight for–wait for it–the city of Mosul, which was of much greater importance to the Ottomans (still is, apparently, per Sultan Recep I), where he set up a defense and prepared for a British attack that never came. Maude, wanting to avoid Townsend’s biggest mistake–overextending his supply lines–decided to stop his advance at Baghdad and take the necessary logistical steps to properly support the next phase of his advance. In fact, the Brits decided to shut down their Mesopotamian operations for the winter, maybe in part because Maude died of cholera in November.

In 1918, the Levant front was where the action was, and the British Mesopotamian army was ordered to send part of its force west to help on that front. Then, of course, the war ended. Although the Mesopotamian army eventually entered Mosul in November 1918, that was after the Armistace of Mudros had put the Ottomans out of the war, and the post-war status of the city had to be ironed out later on.

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.

PATRON SPECIAL: Bosniaks and Islam

At Patreon, I’ve started a new feature for my $5/month supporters whereby once a week I try to dive into a question from one of them and write an essay that hopefully helps shed some light on the topic. Today I posted the first in what I hope will be a long series, in response to a question about the spread of Islam in the Balkans under Ottoman rule. I focused on the conversion of the Bosniaks:

When we consider why the Bosniaks wound up by and large converting while other Slavic peoples did not, I think the first thing we need to say is that there’s very little to no evidence of coercion. And, really, that makes sense. Why, after all, would the Ottomans have singled this one community out for coerced conversion to Islam but left Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Greeks, Bulgarians, etc., alone to maintain their Christianity? Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, produced any evidence that the Ottomans one day said “these people, living in this one specific area, must be converted, but we’ll leave everybody else alone.”

Moreover, the pre-17th century Ottoman system actually depended on maintaining large Christian populations in the Balkans. Christian families paid extra taxes, don’t you know, and–more importantly–their male children were subject to the devşirme, the conscription program that filled the ranks of both the Ottoman bureaucracy and the Janissaries. Conscripts were forcibly converted, but if the Christians of the Ottoman Empire had all converted themselves then this critical source of manpower would have disappeared overnight, since Muslims were forbidden from enslaving other Muslims. Indeed, the Ottomans organized their empire around allowing these communities to keep their own religion and legal codes–though obviously Ottoman law superseded in the case of a conflict–in what was eventually formalized as the millet system. This wound up coming back to bite them in the imperial ass, as the millets later became vectors for the nationalist movements that wound up tearing the Empire apart.

I’m just saying, all this could be yours for a scant $5 a month. If that’s too steep, at $1 a month you can have access to my “ask me anything” feature, where I try to offer some shorter answers to your questions/comments about, well, anything.

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.

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Massacre of the Citadel (1811)

Egypt’s Mamluks are one of the rare historical dynasties that gets to have two endpoints, where most just get the one. We’ve talked about the Mamluks before, several times, but since the nature of their dynasty is a big part of the reason why they survived their first “end,” let’s recap. The Mamluk dynasty grew out of the Turkic slave soldiers who were brought to Egypt by the Fatimids and then Ayyubids during the 11th-13th centuries. As the Ayyubid dynasty rapidly began to fall apart in the early 1200s, their slave generals began to assume more direct authority over Egypt and Syria, until they finally usurped full control during a messy ~10 year changeover between 1250 and 1260. They never became a “dynasty” in the traditional sense of a single ruling family handing power from one member to another (son, brother, nephew, whatever), but instead remained a dynasty of freed slaves. When a sultan died, cadres of mamluks (the word means “slave” and in lower case refers to the actual mamluks themselves, as opposed to the dynasty) would jockey, often quite violently (people living in Cairo loved this part) to put their man on the throne. The sons of Mamluk sultans, called awlad al-nas (“children of the people)–who themselves could never be mamluks because they could never be slaves–often tried to throw their hats into the succession contest, but only on rare occasions did they manage to actually sit on the throne.

Because the Mamluk dynasty wasn’t a “dynasty” in the traditional sense, when the Ottomans toppled it in 1516-1517, there were a lot of important mamluk aristocrats and officials still running around Egypt and Syria who had no particular loyalty to the sultan (Tuman Bey) who had just been overthrown. It was much simpler for the Ottomans to leave those people in place, handling the day to day management in cities all across the vast new territory the Ottomans had just won. They simply made a change at the top–instead of being answerable to a sultan in Cairo, these mamluk officials would now be answerable to an Ottoman governor in Cairo, who was in turn answerable to the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople/Istanbul. The Mamluk dynasty as such was over, but mamluks were still, for the most part, running Egypt.

We can skip ahead to 1798 now, and Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Egypt. Continue reading

Conflict update: February 6, 2017

Hey, so I’m not all the way back into blogging, but I’m back enough to post this very partial roundup of world news, with more to come tomorrow. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to what I’ve summarized here, it’s just whatever I had done when the clock hit 11:56 or whatever time it is when I actually hit “publish.”

Poland-Belarus War

While the failing, biased media wants to pretend it’s not happening, true American patriots know that, since the Bowling Green Massacre, the deadliest conflict in the world has been the ongoing border war between Poland and Belarus:

According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist. Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump’s friendlier tone on Russia.

Well of course they’re worried, because they know that the only thing that can stop Polish aggression in Belarus is a united American-Russian resistance.

It’s not clear how the Trump administration has come to the conclusion that Poland is currently invading Belarus, but I suppose it’s worth noting that the Russian state-funded news outlet Sputnik reported back in 2015 that Belarus was seeking military aid from Moscow to defend itself from Polish aggression. There wasn’t any real evidence of Polish aggression back then, either, but it’s also important to note that even Sputnik, in November, reported that Belarus and Poland had signed a “military cooperation pact” for 2017. So either the Trump folks have some new intel that nobody else has seen, or they’re not only operating on the assumption that fake news is real, but they’re two years behind on their fake news consumption.


Representatives from Russia, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana on Monday to discuss ways to better implement the Syrian ceasefire. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that the going-nowhere Astana talks are not meant to supplant the going-nowhere UN-led peace talks in Geneva, and that there is plenty of room for two negotiating tracks that don’t accomplish anything.

The Syrian army and the Turkish/FSA force currently invading northern Syria are probably headed for a confrontation over al-Bab, but for now their simultaneous offensives on that city have had the effect of surrounding it and besieging the ISIS fighters inside.

The Syrian Democratic Forces say they began a “new phase” of the Raqqa operation over the weekend, operating east of the city to cut the main road between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and extend its encirclement of Raqqa. In kind-of related news, on Sunday the US-led coalition bombed Tabqa, an ISIS-held town west of Raqqa, near Syria’s Euphrates Dam.


Continue reading