Abstract Prof. Robert J. Haug
Robert Haug (College of Art and Science, University of Cincinnati)
Abstract: Local, Regional, and Imperial Politics: Tabaristan and the Early Islamic Empire, Struggle and Integration at Multiple Scales
When it comes to questions of the reach of the early Islamic empire, Tabaristan proves to be an interesting case study. Isolated behind and protected by the Alborz Mountains, Tabaristan was not strongly integrated into the empires of the Iranian world until the early modern period. Instead the region is remembered in historical chronicles as a refuge for rebels both political and religious and an impenetrable obstacle in the face of the imperial armies of expansion. At the same time, the coastal plains of Tabaristan, between the Caspian Sea and the mountains which trap the sea air thus creating a subtropical humid climate noted for moderate temperatures and greater rainfall, was some of the most productive agriculture lands of Iran, marking the region as a desirable target for tax seeking empires. At first glance, this is a diametric competition—expansion minded imperial armies meeting resistant local lords in their mountain redoubts—but instead our sources present us with layers of intertangled competition on multiple political scales: local, regional, and imperial.
While one historical narrative focuses on the drawn-out struggle to bring Tabaristan under imperial authority and the many attempts and failures to do so, another narrative—most visible in the local histories of the region—emphasizes the conflict and competition between rival local dynasties who fought from their mountainous strongholds for control over the cities and fertile plains. This is a story of a localized political rivalry, but the competition for local control over Tabaristan had the ability to pull in regional powers—most importantly the governors of Khurasan and their rivals—and imperial forces as well. Military support in local conflicts could be bought with promised recognition of imperial overlords and temporarily embarrassed competitors in the local contest were regular guests of the caliphs whose support they hoped to earn. As a result, local struggles for power in Tabaristan had the ability to impact larger imperial politics as rival lords sought their own outside allies which brought them into the machinations of the imperial court.
As this conference seeks to examine the reach of empires into the provinces, this paper will simultaneously examine the reach of the provinces into the imperial center and the manner by which imperial expansion intertwined with local ambition in a difficult to access frontier province. The most famous—but not the only—expression of these overlapping conflicts in Tabaristan was the revolt of the Qarinid Mazyar b. Qarin (r. 822–840) who had seized power in Tabaristan as a vassal of the Abbasids with the support of the Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813–833) but later refused to pay the kharaj to the Tahirid governor of Khurasan Abdullah b. Tahir (r. 828–845) and openly rebelled and Tahird and, by extension, Abbasid authority. This revolt not only involved the lord of Tabaristan and his immediate overlord, the governor of Khurasan, but also the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu`tasim (r. 833–842) and the prince of Usrushana al-Afshin (d. 841), a rival of Abdallah b. Tahir for al-Mu`tasim’s favor at the imperial court; thus completing a circle of imperial intervention in Tabari conflicts and Tabari intertwinement in Abbasid court intrigues.
Through the history of early Islamic Tabaristan, this paper will examine the history of the early Islamic empire not as a diametric narrative of expansion and resistance but rather as one of multiple intertwined competitions occurring on different layers of political organization. In the process, the paper argues that we cannot truly understand the reach of empire without examining political competition on the local, regional, and imperial levels.