Jalal al-Din Rumi

Statue of Rumi in Buca Photo Credit- İncelemeelemani

The latest news is that Beyoncé named one of her new babies after a Persian poet.  Everyone is abuzz with discussions of who this man was and what exactly this means.  Although the poetry was written in the 13th century, it has gathered popularity in the west beginning in the early 21st century.  So who was Jalal al-Din Rumi?

Jalal al-Din Rumi was born September 30, 1207 in the city of Balkh, which is is in present day Afghanistan.  He lived with his family on this far eastern edge of the Persian Empire, and was raised in the tradition of his family as an Islamic jurist.  His father Baha ud-Din Walad was considered the “Sultan of the Scholars”.  Balkh was a center of Persian culture and Sufism.  There Rumi was exposed to the Persian poets Fariduddin Attar and Sani, who apart from his father were the most important influences on the young man.  When the Mongols led by Genghis Khan began invading, the family moved 2,000 miles to the west to Konya in Anatolia.  On the way to Konya, the family made the pilgrimage to Mecca and met Rumi’s idol, Fariduddin Attar, in the Iranian city of Nishapur.  Attar recognized the eighteen year old’s talent and gave Rumi a copy of his book Asrārnāma, or The Book of God,  a book about the entanglement of the soul in the material world.  This meeting and Attar’s work had a profound affect on Rumi’s later life and work.

In Konya, Baha ud-Din became the head of a madrassa, or religious school.  When he died in 1231, the twenty-five year old Rumi took his father’s place.  He also became an Islamic Jurist, issuing fatwas and giving sermons.  By this time, he had married twice and been widowed once and was the father of four children- three sons and a daughter.  A very respectable life.  However, things changed when he met Shams-e Tabrizi.  Shams was a dervish, or “God-man”, who had taken a vow of poverty.  He was a blunt man who was far below Rumi’s social class.  His nickname was “the Bird” because he could not stay in one place for very long.  Stories say that Rumi was teaching his students by a fountain and Shams crashed the lecture and threw Rumi’s books into the water.  Rumi was horrified as the books he was carrying included his father’s journals, and now they were ruined.  When asked why he did such a thing, Shams replied that now Rumi would have to live what he had been reading about.  Instead of infuriating Rumi, this inspired him.  Later he said that his true life and true poetry began at that meeting, and

“What I had thought of before as God, I met today in a human being.”

Not everyone shared Rumi’s appreciation for Shams. The fact that the two men were in such different social classes was a problem.  The two were not supposed to be interacting on a friendly level.  Plus Shams was irascible and had a terrible temper.  He was said to swear in front of Rumi’s children and generally be anti-social.  He was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s disciples, and made a bitter enemy in one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din.  One story says, that after being driven off by death threats, Rumi was despondent because he was so lonely for his teacher and friend.  Rumi got a harebrained idea, and married his young step daughter to the teacher to legitimize his presence in their home.  Young Keemia was around twelve and Shams had to be about sixty.  This was a bad idea all the way around.  Keemia later died of an unknown illness and Shams disappears.  Some stories say he reverted to his old wandering ways and ended up in India.  Other stories say he was killed for religious blasphemy.  Still others say he was killed by young Keemia’s step brother, Rumi’s son.  No one knows for sure.  Rumi is said to have gone looking for his lost friend, and wrote the verse:

Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!

Rumi’s mourning for his lost teacher and friend was transformed into a collection of poetry called, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi or The Works of Shams Tabriz.  This was a collection of over 40,000 lyric verses of all types of Eastern-Islamic poetry and is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.  The last years of Rumi’s life, he spent with his scribe and favorite student, Hussam-e Chalabi.  Rumi dictated his masterwork, Masnavi-ye Ma’navi or Spiritual Verses, to Hussam-e Chalabi and it is considered one of his most personal works.  It is regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Koran.

Rumi died of an unknown illness on December 17, 1273 and was buried next to his father in Konya.  A shrine called Yeşil Türbe, or the Green Tomb, was constructed over his burial site.  His epitaph reads:  “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”


Tamar of Georgia-  Queen of Kings

Despite the name, I am not talking about the state in the Southern United States.  There is a whole other country coincidentally called Georgia located on the Black Sea near Turkey.  The name “Georgia” is probably a corruption of the Persian name for the people there, gurğān.  There is also a theory put out there that the people loved the legend of St. George and the Dragon.  In any case, they were devoutly Orthodox Christian country with a reputation for being fierce warriors.  Their rulers also claimed to be descended from King David, the second king of Israel.  Yes, that David.

Tamar was born in 1166 CE to King Georgi III and his wife, Burdukhan.  Tamar was the couple’s first child.  There are mentions of a sister named Rusudan, but they are few and far between.  As the firstborn, Tamar was declared her father’s heir and co-ruler at the tender age of twelve.  A few years prior, Georgi had to put down a rebellion led by his cousin, Demna.  Demna was captured and blinded and castrated and pitched into prison.  This was a custom similar to the Byzantines, who believed a man must be “whole” before he could rule.  Demna didn’t last long in prison and died soon after.  However, the discontent among the nobility that fueled the rebellion did not die.  Georgi attempted to suppress it by raising new families to the nobility and emphasizing that Tamar was his heir.  If Georgi had any doubts about elevating his teen aged daughter, he allayed them by saying “One knows a lion by its claws and Tamar by her actions.”

The two ruled together jointly until Georgi’s death in 1184.  Tamar became the sole monarch in Georgia and was crowned a second time at the Gelati cathedral near the city  of Kutaisi.  She was called a “king” in their language as she ruled alone and not as a consort.  However, she was the first female rule in the country and that just stoked the fires of rebellion in the nobility.  In several stories, this is glossed over in light of her later achievements.  However, Tamar was forced in short order to deal with the rebels and she did so in a decisive manner.  One legend tells of how she sent two women to stall the rebels by pretending to negotiate long enough for her to gather her army.  They were eventually pardoned, but not until their titles and wealth had been stripped.

Despite this violent beginning, Tamar wanted to rule well.  She called a Holy Synod, a council of all the religious leaders in the country to decide important religious questions of the day.  Conveniently, after the Synod was finished all the clergy who had opposed her found themselves out of a job.  With the Church firmly behind her, Tamar married.  Unfortunately, the choice of Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal, was disastrous.  Yuri was quite handsome and a valiant soldier, however, he was also a first class jerk.  After his marriage was solemnized, Yuri was never found sober and he was a mean drunk.  He was constantly picking fights, sleeping with anyone he could managed to get into bed and publicly insulting his wife for not conceiving a child.  Worse, he was constantly trying to get the country into war with their Muslim neighbors for no other reason than he was bored.  Tamar was quietly consolidating her power, and soon had had enough of her drunken ass of a husband and did the unthinkable.  In a devoutly Christian country where divorce was considered illegal, Tamar convinced the Orthodox Church to give her a divorce from Yuri.  He was accused of addiction to drunkenness and sodomy and packed off to Constantinople.  He attempted a couple of coup d’etats by raising mercenary armies made up of wayward Vikings, Turks and disgruntled nobles.  All his attempts were put down by his ex-wife’s army, which was headed by her new husband Prince David Soslan.  David was not only an excellent general but also quite handsome, described by Tamar’s aunt as “Hewn from stone and reared on wolf’s milk.”  Damn.  The couple had two children together, the future Georgi IV and a daughter named Rusudan, who would also become “Queen of Kings” after her brother’s death.

At this time, a period of expansionism began in Georgia.  This mostly to give the nobles something to do besides try to take over Tamar’s throne.  Idle hands are the devil’s workplace and all.  Under her rule, the Georgia began reclaiming fortresses and districts which had been previously conquered by the Ildenizids and the Shirvanshah.  Georgia’s military successes were so great, the Islamic world decided to send a unified force to defeat them.  It was led by Sultan Rukn al-Din, and to say he was arrogant was an understatement.  He sent Tamar a lovely letter stating his intentions.  He started off with a bang saying “every woman is feeble of mind,” and went onto demand Tamar immediately surrender and either convert to Islam to become his wife or stay Christian and become his concubine.  Well.  Isn’t he sweet?  The Georgian court wasn’t pleased with this message, and in fact one of the nobles present when it was delivered hauled off and punched the messenger.  Despite these demands, Tamar did neither of these things and promptly handed him his ass at the battle of Basiani.

Between battles, Tamar influenced much of Georgian culture.  The national Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, was said to be inspired by her. The capital of Tblisi was flooded with gold and silver pouring in from their conquered lands, and became an important crossroads between East and West.   She also endowed many churches and monasteries, and in the new monasteries the captured battle flags from the Muslim armies she conquered hung as trophies.  However, despite her warlike nature she was very concerned with doing charitable works for her people.  Tamar died after an unknown illness around 1213.  Her burial place is also a mystery, as she is thought to have been intured in a secret niche at the Gelati monastery, but it has never been found.  Other legends say her body was taken to the Holy Land and buried near the Holy Sepulchre.   For her great piety and faith, she was canonized as the the Holy Righteous King Tamar by the Eastern Orthodox Church.


The Battle of Karansebes

bataille-karansebesThey say that ultimately someone can be their own worst enemy.  This is definitely the case for the Austrians in this battle.

It was 1788 and Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire.  At stake was control of the Danube River.  At the same time, the Ottoman Empire was fighting the Russians the same time.  All these people that hated the Ottoman Empire got together and became allies.  Great, right?  Well, no.  It was kind of Tower of Babel situation as the allied army had Austrians, Czechs, Germans, French, Serbs, Croats and Polish soldiers and commanders.  It was a communications nightmare and a disaster waiting to happen.  This even makes reports of the battles suspect as they were not set down until 1831, 50 years later and translated and retranslated.

So what happened?  We’re not exactly sure, but it goes something like this.  The Austrians were on a night patrol around the town of Kanransebes in present day Romania.  On their rounds, the found a camp of Romani across the river.  The beckoned the weary soldiers over and offered them some delicious Schnapps.  Well, it would have been rude to say no….   So the Romani and the soldiers are boozing it up, and another contingent of soldiers, this time infantrymen, found the party.  Because it was the 1700s, class was very much a thing and the cavalry was not about to share their alcohol with some infantrymen.  So they kicked them out, starting a fist fight.

Amidst all the drinking and punching, someone yelled “The Turks are here”.  A shot was fired from across the river at the big fight, and everyone high tailed it back to their side of the river.  In the confusion, the German speaking officers began shouting “Halt! Halt!”.  The non-German speaking soldiers thought it was “Allah” and the Turks had definitely infiltrated.  They turned their guns on the Germans, the Germans shot back.  Then there was a full on free for all in the ranks of the Austrian army.  They were even shooting at shadows, convinced it was spies coming across the river from the enemy.  Things got very serious when an Austrian corps commander ordered artillery fire….on his own men.  The Turkish Army supposedly arrived two days later and found the enter town without defenses and it was taken over easily.  When the smoke cleared, there were 10,000 Austrian soldiers dead and wounded.

But is it true?  As I said above, the first accounts of the battle were not put down until fifty years later.  Some arguments are made that because this was so ridiculous is why it wasn’t written down.  Others say there isn’t enough evidence to support the claim and this goes down into legend.



timurlane-1After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire had fragmented into separate khanates as his descendants squabbled amongst themselves.  The empire he built was too big for any of them to rule, so it was split into pieces and divided between them.  The northwestern portion was called Golden Horde, and by 1336 the majority of it was ruled by Sultan Mohammed Oz Beg.  His domain ran from Moscow to the Aral Sea and his capital was Sarai.

Also in 1336, a son was born to a Turco-Mongol tribal leader of the Barlas in Transoxiana.  Transoxiana is located at the edge of the mountains just south of the beautiful city of Samarkand.   This is in modern day Uzbekistan.  The boy was called Timur.  Timur’s father was one of the first tribesmen to convert to Islam, and so the young boy grew up reading the Qur’an and educated in the ways of Sunni Islam.   He earned the nickname “the lame”, or Timurlane, after being shot in the thigh early in life.  Stories vary as to whether this was sustained participating in local rebellions or after being caught by a farmer for stealing sheep.  When Timur was 10 years old, there was a rebellion against the Mongol leader in Transoxiana and a man named Kazgan became emir.  There was a period of anarchy for several years as the battles were fought to bring the area back into Mongol control.  Mongol armies marched into Transoxiana in 1360 and 1361, and Timur acted like a good tame prince and submitted to the new Mongol governor, Ilyas Khodja, becoming a minister within his government.  They didn’t realize who they were dealing with.

Unbeknownst to the Mongols, Timur made an alliance with Hussein, the grandson of the Kazgan, who originally freed Transoxiana in Timur’s youth.  Together they fought the Mongols winning victories in 1364, but ultimately being defeated in 1365 at the Battle of the Mud.  They withdrew to consolidate power.  It wasn’t always a happy partnership as neither of them seemed to like each other very much, but it was successful in that they were able to eventually drive the Mongols from Transoxiana.  An Islamic uprising in Samarkand and a plague affecting the Mongol’s horses helped matters immensely.  With the common enemy of the Mongol’s retreating, Hussein and Timur’s partnership was deteriorating rapidly as both of the were jockeying for supremacy over Transoxiana.  Timur spent his time charming the local emirs, princes and merchants as well as a man from Mecca who claimed to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.  It came to open warfare when Timur’s wife died as she was also Hussein’s sister.  Without the ties of family between them, the two clashed.  Hussein was captured at the siege of Balkh in 1370 and executed, leaving Timur the undisputed master of Transoxiana.  He set up his capital at Samarkand, and began consolidating his power.  Anyone who had been loyal to Hussein, including most of the inhabitants of the city of Balkh, were bound in chains and beheaded.

Samarkand was improved and beautified as Timur’s favorite and capital city.  New walls were built which were surrounded by a deep moat.  The marketplace was enlarged and beautiful gardens and palaces were built.  Soon Samarkand was the envy of even Cairo and Baghdad.  Leaving a nominal king behind in Samarkand to rule, Timur took his army out for a test drive.  The make up was similar to the Mongols, however, there were more foot soldiers.  The army took great pride in Timur and his warrior prowess.  Their loyalty was to their commander, not their state.  They moved east and took on his old enemies, the Mongols.  In 1381, they turned west and moved through Iraq, Asia Minor and Syria.  Their atrocities were legendary.  Even Timur’s own court historian didn’t try to pretty it up.  For example, at Sabzawar, Timur had a tower built out of live men and cemented together with bricks and mortar.  Populations were massacred as a matter of course and minarets were made of decapitated heads.  Not a nice guy.  By 1385 all of Persia was under his control.

Then he moved north into what is now Georgia and Armenia.  He wrapped himself in the mantle of a warrior for Islam as he claimed these kingdoms were attacking caravans on their way to Mecca.  The Christians there were slaughtered.  The Mongols attacked him there again, but he pushed them back to Moscow.  By 1392, things were pretty much settled and Timur was itching for another fight.  He after putting down more rebellion in Persia and Georgia and practiced a scorched earth policy by destroying entire towns.  Then he turned his greedy eyes to India.

Claiming the Muslim rulers there were being too tolerant of their Hindu neighbors, Timur attacked.  He destroyed the Islamic kingdom centered around Delhi and bragged about getting further into India than Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.  Then he turned westward again, leaving the Indian builders and artisans he took from Delhi in Samarkand, Timur headed to Syria.  He took on the Mameluks and occupied Damascus.  During the looting of Damascus, a fire started that burned for three days.  Damascus took years to recover.  He was getting too close to the Ottoman Turks, who engaged them in battle in 1402 at Angora, today’s Ankara.  Timur crushed them.  Moving on to Smyrna, he demanded the Christian crusader knights there convert to Islam.  When they did not he conquered the city and had the entire population killed.  Their heads were built into a pyramid.

Timur returned to Samarkand and began planning a new expedition into China.  Luckily for China, he died in 1405 enroute with the army.  At Samarkand, Timur was embalmed and buried in an ebony casket.  Like Genghis Khan before him, Timur’s sons could not hold his empire and squabbled amongst themselves.  By the end of the century the empire was fractured and gone.


Sources available on request

Genghis Khan in Khwarizm-  The Flail of God

mongolsiegeBy 1218, Genghis Khan had united the Mongols and together they had conquered northern China.  The had expanded westward as well by conquering Kara-Khitai and were collecting tribute from Korea.  They first encountered the Empire of Khorezm, which extended from the Aral Sea to the Persian Gulf in one direction and from Iraq to India in the other.  The Empire was led by the Shah Ala ad-Din Mohammed II. He also had designs of China, and was miffed the Mongols had gotten their first.

As the way of things, envoys met and exchanged expensive gifts.  The Mongols sent   jade, ivory, gold, cloaks of rare white camel wool to Samarkand, the Shah’s capital.  Representatives were received and treated cordially on both sides.  A Mongol entourage arrived in Kunya Urgench in 1218 and discussed the possibility of trade.  All of this seemed positive, however, when a Mongol trade caravan of 450 men was sent into Utrar things did not go well.  Governor Inalchek sent word back to the Shah he suspected the caravan was full of spies.  The Shah agreed and the the caravan was killed all but a single man and their goods were added to the city coffers.  This did not go over well with Genghis Khan, who reportedly wept tears of anger over the incident.  Ambassadors were swiftly dispatched to demand recompense and that Governor Inalchek be handed over for punishment.  The Shah killed one ambassadors and sent the other two back after setting their beards on fire.  Genghis Khan lost his mind because as one historian put it, “Mongols believed in the absolute inviolability of ambassadors.”  The Shah just poked the bear.  

After building an army for a year, Genghis Khan raised a force of more than 200,000 troops with local prisoners forced to march before them as a human shield.  First stop, Utrar.  Despite fierce resistance where defenders threw naphtha—probably a stubborn-burning mixture of sulfur, niter, and petroleum- and the very bricks down at the conquerors, the city was overpowered.  The hapless Governor Inalcheck was brought alive to the Khan who poured molten gold down his throat and into his ears.  Ouch.  In the meantime, the Shah had divided his forces and deployed them in different cities.  Each division would act on its own authority.  Every one of the Shah’s military advisors, including his son Jalladin Menguberdi, thought this was a terrible idea.  Indeed, the Shah’s refusal to mount a united defense doomed his Empire to conquest.

Then Bukhara, where the central mosque was destroyed.  He declared to them, “I am the Flail of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”  He then had the cases for the Koran were used as horses’ mangers.  The libraries with their centuries of knowledge were reduced to ash.  Upwards of three hundred thousand people were killed that day.   Women were raped and enslaved with their children, riches were despoiled while the Khan drank fermented mare’s milk and listened to music.  Anyone with a useful profession, an artisan or builder, was sent to the capital in Mongolia.  Those that lived were allowed to escape to tell their tale of horror to the other cities in the region.  To teach them the wrath of the Mongols was a very real and terrible thing.  The next city of Kunya Urgench was supposedly wiped off the map for its rebellion.  Legend says the Mongols dammed the Oxus River for three centuries causing it to flow into the Caspian Sea instead of the Aral over the smoking ruins of Kunya Urgench.

Next stop, Samarkand.  The people of Samarkand weren’t dumb and opened the gates to the Mongols.  Those who did not surrender went to the large wooden mosque for Friday prayers.  The  Mongols burned it over their heads.  They continued on through the rest of the Muslim cities along the Silk Road bringing fire and destruction.  Those who surrendered weren’t safe.  In Balkh they were massacred anyway, “divided up according to the usual custom into hundreds and thousands to be put to the sword.”  In Nishapur, it was said they even killed the animals.

The Shah, needless to say, was terrified and high tailed it.  He was able to stay one step ahead of the Mogols as his son Jalladin continued to fight.  The Shah made it to the town of Astara, where he put on a disguise of beggar’s rags and escaped to a small island in the Caspian Sea.  There he died naming his son as his heir.  However, the Empire of Khorezm never recovered.


Sources available on request