THE ACCOUNT OF THE SYRIAC PATRIARCH DIONYSIUS OF TELL-MAHRE OF THE LAST COPTIC BASHMURIC REVOLT OF 831 – 832 AD
Dionysius I (or Dionysius of Tell-Mahre)[i] was patriarch (818–845[ii] AD) of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, which had historically close ties with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. He wrote an account of history, Chronicle, but it was lost. Lengthy extracts of it, however, were preserved in the chronicle of the later Syrian patriarch, Michael the Syrian (1166-1199 AD).
Dionysius, who had good relationship as it seems with the Abbasid rulers, visited Egypt twice. His first visit to Egypt was in 826 or 827 AD in a matter related to the Syrian Church in Edessa and Nisibin, where churches in the former were demolished by the Abbasid authorities and those of the latter, where Dionysius resided, were threatened by the same fate. Dionysius journeyed to Egypt to plead with Egypt’s Muslim governor, Abdulah ibn Tahir (726 – 827 AD),[iii] in order to prevent his brother, Muhammad, governor of Callinicum (Raqqa), from continuing the destruction of the Syrian churches. During this visit he met with the Coptic patriarch, Jacob or Ya’kub (819 – 830 AD),[iv] and saw the suffering of the Copts, particularly those of Tanis,[v] under Muslim oppression. He wrote about those of Tanis: “We had never seen poverty such as that of its inhabitants”.[vi] [vii]
The second visit was in February 832 AD when he accompanied the Abbasid Caliph, al-Ma’mun (813 – 833 AD),[viii] in his visit to Egypt to crush the Bashmuric rebellion which his governor, Isa ibn Mansur,[ix] and dispatched military leader, al-Agh’sheen,[x] had failed to achieve. Al-Ma’mun, who reached Fustat,[xi] the centre of the Muslim governor, on 16 February 832 AD, he summoned the Syrian patriarch, Dionysius I, and the Coptic patriarch, Joseph (or Yu’sab) I,[xii] to intercede with the Bashmurites to end their revolt.
Dionysius’ account of this has fortunately been kept for us in the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian. The Chronicle, which contains many stories about the Copts, is extant in Arabic language; and is jealously guarded at the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo.[xiii] It was translated into French as Chronique de Michel le Syrien,[xiv] by J.-B. Chabot in 1899. It, however, has not yet been translated into English.[xv] We are lucky that Bat Ye’or, in her The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, From Jihad to Dhimmitude,[xvi] has translated into English the excerpts that deal with the two visits of Dionysius I to Egypt.
It is the part in Bat Ye’or’s translation, which has so far been kept in printed text, and deals with the Bashmuric revolt of 831 – 832 AD, which I reproduce here for the benefit of my readers.[xvii] I have left the text as it is (with Bat Ye’or’s footnotes); but divided it into six sections and made extensive endnotes to clarify some of the points. The story as told by Dionysius I contains much that is not to be found in other sources. While it confirms what Coptic and Arab sources have conveyed to us, it provides us with new information; and it is unique in telling us about the use of the Coptic Bashmurites who had been deported to Iraq in defeating the Zanj rebels[xviii] in southern Iraq.
But here is the account of Dionysius I of the revolt by the brave Bashmurites during the reign of the Abbasid caliph, al-Ma’mun. I have divided it into six sections, for which I give a short summary underneath:
1. al-Ma’mun goes to Egypt accompanied by Duionysius I. At Farama he summons Dionysius I and orders him to go with Joseph I to the Bashmurites to convince them to surrender and accept deportation to a foreign land. Refusal of that offer will mean annihilation of the rebels. Dionysius I tries to plead with al-Ma’mun to allow the Bashmurites to remain in their country after submission; but he fails. It is either submission and deportation or extermination. Dionysius and Joseph meet up to commence their mission.
2. Both Dionysius I and Joseph I meet with the Bashmurite leaders who tell them of the extent of abuse and oppression their people were exposed to and blame certain Muslim individuals in the Abbasid administration for it. They refuse al-Ma’mun offer of deportation, and ask the two patriarchs to let al-Ma’mun know of their suffering and the justice of their cause so that he may reconsider his decision. As negotiations were ongoing, the Abbasid army seize a Coptic woman and try to rape her; and as she shouts, the Bashmurites rush to help her. Fighting ensues; and the negotiations, and temporary truce, thus end.
3. The two patriarchs report to the Abbasid general, al-Agh’sheen, that the Bashmurites have refused the terms of surrender. al-Agh’sheen launches a general destructive attack on the Copts and their Bashmur country, and so war resumes.
4. The two patriarchs go to al-Ma’mun in his camp and explain the injustices the Bashmurites had suffered from. Al-Ma’mun joins his general al-Agh’sheen; and the excessive Abbasid forces thus defeat the Bashmurites. The Coptic prisoners of war, some five hundred, are enslaved by Arabs and sold in the markets of Damascus; but they were redeemed by the Syrian Christians, and released. They stayed in Syria and did not go back to their devastated Bashmuric homeland, where famine was widespread. Three thousand Bashmurites, who were not fighters, were deported to Antioch and then to Baghdad. The majority of them died on the way.
5. al-Ma’mun leaves Egypt. A general crackdown on the Copts commences. “Sword and captivity, famine and plague prevailed in the land of Egypt at this period”.
6. After the death of al-Ma’mun, the new caliph, al-Mu’tasim,[xix] uses the Bashmurites, who had been deported by al-Ma’mun to Baghdad, in subduing the Zanj in southern Iraq.
THE TEXT OF DIONYSIUS OF TELL-MAHRE[xx]
1. In the month of Sebet <February>,[xxi] the king [al-Ma’mun] entered Egypt, and the patriarch Mar Dionysius entered it with him, for the second time as he himself wrote, saying:
When we came to the town of Farama [Pelusium],[xxii] the first in Egypt, the king had me summoned by Fadhl, director of royal affairs. When I entered, he held out his hand to me according to custom and said: “you have learned, O patriarch, of the revolt of the Egyptian Christians that are called Biamaye[xxiii] [in lower Egypt]. The first devastations that they suffered were not enough for them.[xxiv] And if it was not that I am merciful and that I do not contemplate massacre, I would not send them a man such as you. But take the bishops who are with you and the Egyptian bishops and go and find them; negotiate with them on condition that they surrender the rebels and that they come with the army where I will decide and I will make them live there; if not, I will have them put to death by the sword.” When I had talked to him for a long time about submission and about leaving them in their country, he answered: “No! Either they leave or they are put to death”. And he immediately ordered that the patriarch of Egypt[xxv] accompany me. We went by water,[xxvi] and eight days afterwards the patriarch Joseph[xxvii] came to find us in order to join us.[xxviii]
2. We immediately went down to the Basrut,[xxix] which is the district of the Biamaye. We found them assembled and protected on an island surrounded by water, reeds and rushes on all sides. Then their leaders came out to us. When we reprimanded them for the revolt and for the massacres they had committed, they placed the blame on those who ruled them. When they learned that they had to leave their land, they were dismayed and begged us to send to the king to ask if they could go to him and tell him all their sufferings. They said that Abu’l-Wazir[xxx] condemned them to excessive tribute; that he imprisoned them in the [words missing] and that when their wives came to pass them food, his servants seized them and raped them; that he had killed a large number of them, and intended to do away with all of them, so that they could not complain to the king about him. It was he who had urged [General] Aphsin[xxxi] to go into their villages in order to make them come to this [army] camp, and in order to kill the men.
Now, it so happened that the soldiers met a woman and seized her in order to rape her. When she cried out and shouted, those who were on the island heard her voice, hastened out and joined the fray, killing and being killed; and for this reason, the peace was broken and ceased completely. [3: 76-78]
3. When we reached General Aphsin and informed him that the rebels were adamant, he answered: “The peace is broken. Go and tell the king that no peace is possible”. And they started war. They set fire to villages, vines, gardens, and churches in the whole district. The Biamaye, for their part, pierced the Persians[xxxii] by throwing javelins or spears from amidst the water. They brought along their neighbours, rousing them against them [the Persians], and began to kill and be killed.
4. When we reached the king,[xxxiii] I told him everything, and informed him of the injustice <committed in respect> of the Egyptians and the wickedness of Abu’l-Wazir, who had prevented peace, and that the people of the land were complaining of him and two others.[xxxiv] [3: 79]
King Ma’mun went down to the Biamaye; he brought the devastation among them to an end; he summoned their leaders and ordered them to leave the region. They [the leaders] revealed to him the harshness of the prefects <set up> over them, and [explained] that, if they left their land, they would not have the means to live, since they drew their livelihood from papyrus and catching fish. Then they accepted their orders; they left by ships for Antioch, and from there they were sent to Baghdad. They numbered three thousand. The majority of them died on the way. Those who had been taken during the war were given as slaves to the Taiyaye,[xxxv] to the number of some five hundred. They exported them to Damascus and sold them there. A thing that had never been seen in the empire of the Taiyaye: they sold those who were subjected to the yoke of the poll tax.a But, with the help of God, we exhorted the faithful and they were all redeemed and released. They did not go back to their land, because there was a great famine there, and many withdrew to Syria in order to have their fill of bread.
The king ordered the prefects not to use the Egyptians harshly, on pain of death. He remitted half the tax for all of Egypt.[xxxvi]
5. When the king had left Egypt,[xxxvii] disasters multiplied on the Egyptians. The Persians entered the villages, chained together those who resisted in tens or twenties, and sent them to Fustat [near Cairo], without finding out whether they were guilty or innocent. Many died without having committed an offence. Some of those who were led away in chains to be slaughtered asked the man who was escorting them to accept a gift and to release them. As they had been given to him counted, he said: “Wait until we meet others on the way, and I will chain them up in your place”. They met three men: a priest and two Taiyaye, one of whom was imam of a mosque; they were taken in the place of those who were released on payment of a gift. And as the oppressed were not permitted to speak, they were slaughtered. Thus, the roads were filled with men unjustly killed. Sword and captivity, famine and plague prevailed in the land of Egypt at this period.
6. [When al-Ma’mun died (833), he was succeeded by al-Mu’tasim.[xxxviii]] He sent his troops to fight the Zotaye,b [xxxix] who lived among the lakes into which the Euphrates and the Tigris flowed [lower Iraq]; for these people were continually in revolt and tormented the king,[xl] they beat, pillaged and slaughtered the merchants who came to Baghdad from Basra, India and china. But the troops could do nothing against them, because they fought from their boats. Then the king sent the Egyptians whom he had taken prisoner in Egypt, who were accustomed to water and swam like fish in water; without being seen, they suddenly struck the Zotaye with spears and pierced them. Thus, the Zotaye were vanquished by the [defeated] Baimaye; they were seized, with their women and children at the same time, and they wasted away and succumbed in prison in Baghdad. When the king saw the Egyptians’ brilliant feats of arms in the battle against the Zotaye, he appreciated them, and took some of them into his service, to work in the gardens and parks, and others to weave the flaxen garments, in the manner of Egyptian embroidered work; he allowed all the others to return to their country. When they reached the sea, they took their places on boats to go back down to Egypt; but <divine> justice did not permit them to go and live there; a storm arose and they were all drowned in the sea. [3: 82-84]
a This observation by the Patriarch Dionysius indicates a seemingly unawareness of the rule condemning to slavery, deportation, or death any rebel dhimmi; and slavery for dhimmis unable to pay the jizya. His account depicts the good relations between the patriarch and the caliph and his generals, and the simultaneous persecution of his flock.
b Zotaye or Zanj: black slaves from Africa who farmed the domains of the Arabs in lower Iraq. They revolted in the early ninth century.
How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (19 January 2012), THE ACCOUNT OF THE SYRIAC PATRIARCH DIONYSIUS OF TELL-MAHRE OF THE LAST COPTIC BASHMURIC REVOLT OF 831 – 832 AD, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/the-account-of-the-syriac-patriarch-dionysius-of-tell-mahre-of-the-last-coptic-bashmuric-revolt-of-831-832-ad/
[i] Or Dionysius Telmaharensis. He was called so because he was born at Tel Mahre, near Raqqa (Callinicum) on the Balikh River (which passes by Haran before it joins the Euphrates).
[ii] Some sources, including Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911, give 848 AD as the year of his death. The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church (in Live of Joseph I), however, says that Dionysius died in the fifteenth year of the patriarchate of the Coptic patriarch, Joseph I, whose patriarchate had commenced on 17 November 830 AD; and gives the exact year of the death of Dionysius, 562 AM (starts 29 August 845 AD). [See: Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria (1910) Part IV: Mennas I – Joseph (849 AD). Patrologia Orientalis; Tome X; pp. 534-535.] The later editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (see, Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/164257/Dionysius-Telmaharensis ) correct its earlier error, and give the date of his death as 22 August 845 AD.
[iii] He was governor of Egypt from 12 June 726 – 20 October 827 AD. See: Muhammad ibn Yousof al-Kindi, Wu’lat Masr; annotation by Hussain Nassar (Al-Za’kha’ir no. 66; no date); pp. 204-208.
[iv] Patriarch Jacob (Coptic, Yu’sab) (819 – 830). See: History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria; Part IV: Mennas I – Joseph (849 AD). Patrologia Orientalis; Tome X; pp. 477-547.
[v] Tanis, which is modern صان الحجر Ṣān al-Ḥaǧar, was located in the north-eastern Nile delta of Egypt on the Tanitic branch of the Nile which has long since silted up. It was a major harbour at the southern shore of Lake Mazala, and was an important Coptic centre. When Dionysius was driven by bad weather to it, 30,000 Copts met and told him of their suffering.
[vi] Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Associated University Presses; 1996); pp. 314-316.
[vii] We shall hopefully write about the first visit of Dionysius I to Egypt in some detail in a separate article.
[viii] Abū Jaʿfar Abdullāh al-Māʾmūn ibn Harūn (ابوجعفر عبدالله المأمون), the Abbasid caliph (813 – 833). About al-Ma’mun, read: Jalal al-Din al-Siouti, Tarikh al-Khuola’faa (Maktabat Masr; 2001); pp. 333-360.
[ix] Isa ibn Mansur (عيسى بن منصور), was appointed governor of Egypt by Abi Ishak ibn al-Rashid (the brother of al-Ma’mun and later caliph al-Mu’tasim), as a deputy to him, in February 831. During his short tenure, both Copts and Arabs rebelled in Lower Egypt. When al-Ma’mun arrived in Egypt in February 832, he removed Isa ibn Mansur. See: Muhammad ibn Yousof al-Kindi, Wu’lat Masr; annotation by Hussain Nassar (Al-Za’kha’ir no. 66; no date); pp. 214-216.
[x] al-Agh’sheen Haydar ibn Ka’wus al-Safadi (الأفشين حَيْدَر بن كاوُس الصّفْدي), a military leader who was sent to Egypt by Baghdad to quash the constant unrest. He arrived in Fustat on 22 December 830 AD. See: Wu’lat Masr; pp. 213-216.
[xi] Fustat was the centre of the Arab administration in Egypt. The Muslim governor (Wali) resided in it. Its centre was the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, in Old Cairo now.
[xii] Patriarch Joseph (Coptic, Yu’sab) I (830 – 849). For Joseph I, see History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, Part IV: Mennas I – Joseph (849 AD). Patrologia Orientalis; Tome X; pp. 477-547.
[xiv] You can access its three volumes at the Internet Archives: http://www.archive.org/details/ChroniqueDeMichelLeSyrienT.1Fasc.1translation ; http://www.archive.org/details/MichelLeSyrien2 ; http://www.archive.org/details/MichelLeSyrien3
[xv] Or at least not yet published. To my knowledge, there are a few attempts on translation into English.
[xvi] Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Associated University Presses; 1996).
[xvii] The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, From Jihad to Dhimmitude; pp. 317-320.
[xviii] The Zanj (الزُنْجْ) are the black slaves mainly from east Africa, who were used by the Arabs of Iraq to farm the marshland land around Basra in southern Iraq. They rebelled in the beginning of the ninth Christian century. The peak of their revolts, The Zanj Rebellion, occurred in the second half of the 9th century (869 – 883 AD). Al-Mu’tasim, who died in 842 AD, could not have used the Bashmurites in fighting the Janj during these fifteen years of major rebellion – it is likely that the Copts were used to suppress an earlier, smaller episode of Zanj rebellion (sometime between 833 and 842 AD). Such is the fate of all suppressed – one suppressed people is used against another suppressed people for the benefit of the common oppressor. It must be said, however, that the Zanj revolt was not completely moral in its means; and perhaps, as suggested by the text of Mar Dionysius, employed attacks on merchants and civilians. There is no evidence that the Bashmuric revolt, by comparison, did not apply any of these non-ethical means. For more on the Zanj and their revolts, read: Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History (London; Hutchinson & Co Ltd; 1968 [reprint of 4th ed.]); pp. 103-107.
[xix] See n xxxviii.
[xx] As retold by Michael the Syrian in his Chronicle and as translated by Bat Ye’or. The annotations are mine.
[xxi] شهر شباط. Al-Ma’mun entered Egypt on 10 Muharram 217 AH (16 February 832 AD). See Wu’lat Masr; p. 216.
[xxii] Pelusium (Coptic Peremoun and Arabic al-Farama) was the first Egyptian town that meats the traveller from the east. It was a harbour and here the Pelusiac arm of the Nile joined the sea.
[xxiii] Biamaye are the Bashmurites. Eutychius in his Annals (written in Arabic) calls them البيما او اهل البيما, which could be translated “the Bima (or the Pima) or the people of the Bima/Pima”. He says the word name البيما/Bima/Pima comes from a Coptic word that means “نسل الاربعين ”, i.e. “the descendants of the forty”. The Latin translation (1658) renders the translation: “quadraginia virorum progenies”. Abul Makarim (previously thought to be Abu Salih), who wrote in the 13th century, in his Churches and Monasteries of Egypt (not yet published in English – available only in Arabic, and published by Anba Samuel [no date]) says that Bima is a Coptic word, which means “forty”. Then he says that the origin of this is the forty Romans who stayed behind when the Byzantine forces evacuated Egypt after the Arab occupation in 642 AD – these propagated and increased in number in Lower Egypt, and were called “descendents of the forty” (p. 81). Abul Makarim is known to have taken a lot from Eutychius. It must be noted that Abul Makarim initially gives the name Bima as a geographical location. Bima in Coptic is βῆμα: it seems that it is a loanword from Greek. The English-Bohairic Dictionary by the Shenouda the Archimandrite Society [to be found here: http://copticlang.bizhat.com/coptdict.pdf ] gives the following meaning for bema: “(Gk); m. Step, pace; raised place or tribune, tribunal of a magistrate.” Researches into the Physical History of Mankind by James Cowles Prichard (1851); Volume 2, p. 204, [find it here: http://www.archive.org/stream/researchesintoph02pric#page/204/mode/2up ] gives the Coptic word for Bashmur and then says it is the same area in the Delta called by Strabo, peraia (which he says meant the region to the westward of the Nile Delta). I looked for Old Greek and thought the rho letter (p) then might have been pronounced like the English m rather than r, and in this case it would sound similar to Eutychius’ Bemia/Pimai, but it does not seem so.
Correction: Actually, both the Arabic and English translation of Churches and Monasteries of Egypthave been published by Evetts, but not all of the book.
[xxiv] Al-Ma’mun is clearly referring to the First Coptic Bashmuric Revolt around 750 AD, at the end of the Umayyad Dynasty and the beginning of the Abbasid one.
[xxv] Patriarch Joseph (Coptic, Yu’sab) I (830 – 849). See n xii.
[xxvi] It is not clear what Patriarch Mar Dionysius means by “we went by water”. It is possible that he took boat and sailed up one of the eastern delta branches to Fustat.
[xxvii] See n xii.
[xxviii] We know that the Coptic Patriarch, Joseph I, met with Dionysius I at Fustat. History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, Part IV: Mennas I – Joseph (849 AD). Patrologia Orientalis; Tome X; p. 492.
[xxix] Basrut, which Dionysius says is “the district of the Biamaye” is known in Arabic sources as البَشَرود (reads: al-Ba’sha’rut. See, e.g., Muhammad ibn Yousof al-Kindi, Wu’lat Masr; p. 138). Emile Amélineau in his La géographie de l’Egypte à l’époque copte (1893) puts it as Pischarôt, and gives the Coptic form of it [find it here: http://www.archive.org/stream/lagographiedele00amgoog#page/n399/mode/2up ]. See also n xxiii.
[xxx] The identity of Abu’l-Wazir is not clear. He might have been the notorious Ali ibn Abdel Aziz ibn’l Wazir. He was in control of most of Lower Egypt at the time; and although he cooperated with al-Ma’mun’s men to spread his hegemony of Egypt, he was executed by al-Agh’sheen shortly after his arrival. See: Muhammad ibn Yousof al-Kindi, Wu’lat Masr; annotation by Hussain Nassar (Al-Za’kha’ir no. 66; no date); pp. 197-204; 214; 225.
[xxxi] Al-Agh’sheen. See n x.
[xxxii] The Abbasid army in this period was mainly made of troops from Khurasan in Persia (Iran now).
[xxxiii] They most probably found him at Sakha, a town in the north-western part of the delta, to the south of the Bashmur area. Al-Ma’mun after arriving in Fustat, went to Sakha on 3 March 832 AD to camp there. See: Muhammad ibn Yousof al-Kindi, Wu’lat Masr; p. 216.
[xxxiv] The identity of these two is not clear. However, the History of the Patriarchs mentions somebody by the name of Ghaith (غيث) who was tormenting the Copts: “And most of the Bashmurite Christians were severely chastised, like the Israelites; so that at last they even sold their own children to pay their taxes, because they were greatly distressed. For they were tied to the mills and beaten, so that they should work the mills like cattle. And their tormentor was a man named Ghaith. So, after long and wearisome days, death put an end to their sufferings.” (pp. 486-487). The History of the Patriarchs also gives two other names: Ahmad ibn al-As’but and Ibrahim ibn Tamim; both tax collectors (p. 485 [the translation gives the names as Ahmad son of Al-Asbat and Ibrahîm son of Tamîm]). While the identity of the former is not clear to me, I think the latter may be the tax administrator mentioned in Wu’lat Masr; p. 166. It says that he was first appointed by the governor al-La’yth ibn al-Fadl (798-803).
[xxxv] In Syrian sources, Arabs in general were called Taiaye, Tayiya and Tayyis; which refers to one of the largest Arab tribes, Banu Tayyi (بنو طيء).
[xxxvi] There is no evidence in Arab or Coptic sources that that had happened.
[xxxvii] Al-Ma’mun left Fustat, on his way out of Egypt, on 4 April 832 AD. See: Wu’lat Masr; p. 216.
[xxxviii] Abu Ishaq ‘Abbas al-Mu’tasim ibn Harun (أبو إسحاق عباس المعتصم بن هارون), Abbasid caliph after the death of his brother, al-Ma’mun (833–842). For more on al-Mu’tasim, read: Tarikh al-Khuola’faa; pp. 361-367.
[xxxix] Zotaye, as Bat Ye’or says, are the Zanj (meaning Negroes in Arabic). See also n xviii.