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43. Metal in Azerbaijan during 700 to 800 CE

JAN, 20, 2022


In the first episode of the New Year, Ryan takes us on a gallop across the sweep of history in and around Azerbaijan in the 8th Century, and introduces the metals that were the key to the rise of a great empire.

Metal in Azerbaijan during 700-800CE

In the first episode of the New Year, Ryan takes us on a gallop across the sweep of history in and around Azerbaijan in the 8th Century, and introduces the metals that were the key to the rise of a great empire.

About Azerbaijan

Known as “The Land of Fire”, The Republic of Azerbaijan is named after of Atropates, a Persian nobleman who served under Alexander the Great and who founded the independent kingdom and dynasty in this location nestled between Russia and Georgia to the North and Iran to the South.

It is one of three independent states, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, in what is known as ‘eastern Transcaucasia’. This itself is named after the Caucasus Mountains which runs east to west between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

The borders between Europe and Asia have been defined through the Caucasus Mountains - so a part of north Azerbaijan actually falls into the boundaries of Europe with the rest is technically in Asia.

Geographically… Azerbaijan is mountainous in the north (where the Caucasus mountain range is, perhaps unsurprisingly. However, a cold jet stream from Scandinavia meets warm air from the Caspian sea to create a country with snow-covered alpine mountains right next to subtropical dry zones.

Over the millenia, the country has been occupied by many different empires and the country today is divided into nine regions, One of these- Nakchivan – is an autonomous republic (i.e. physically separated from the rest of the country), and is a 9-hour car journey through Iran to get to Azerbaijan.

The capital and largest city is Baku, famous for its wild architecture that is similar to Dubai in it’s dramatic designs for tall buildings (the ‘flame’ buildings being the most famous).

Today, Azerbaijan has a population of 9 million people, but.. fun fact… there are more Azeris in Iran than there are in Azerbaijan. This is because when the Russian Empire occupied Azerbaijan (and the rest of Transcaucasia) in the 19th century, a lot of Azeris were forced to flee to Iran, just across the border and today 14 million Iranians claim to be of Azeri descent - keeping the language and even having their own TV stations broadcasting in Azeri.

The country has been called The Land of Fire due to the natural gases which seep out and feed flames and the pinnacle of this is Yanar Dag (the Burning Mountain), a natural glowing fire which has been burning on a hillside along the Caspian Sea for 65 years.

But all this gas is very profitable– there are extraordinary levels of gas and oil across the country and in 2013, AZ produced two trillion nine hundred billion litres of gas. In fact oil and natural gas make up 95% of the country’s GDP.

A brief history of Azerbaijan

As ever, early man is the first guy to show up. It’s not clear who thye actually were, but we know they lived there, in the Azugh Caves in western Azerbaijan. Signs of human habitation 700,000 years ago have been found and 300,000-year-old remains of a person have been found.

In the 8th and 9th Century BCE Azerbaijan was home to Caucasian Albanians who were neither Caucasian as we know it today, nor living in the region we call Albania today. It was also home to the Scythians, a nomadic Iranian people – warriors and renowned horsemen.

In 2000BCE (4000 years ago)- an Iranian people called The Medes take over came to dominate the region and then another Iranian people called the Achaemenid Persians took over.

It was these guys who called the area Atropatene – meaning ‘land of fire’.

But empires rise and fall and by 240BCE a new Iranian people called The Parthians arrived to take over. The Parthian Empire rose to power under king Mithradates the Great and occupied all of modern Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and - for brief periods - territories in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.

But empires rise and fall and eventually another Iranian people took over – called The Sassanids. They ruled for another four centuries, until the arrival in the 600s of Islam.

When the Prophet Muhammed died in 632 there was some debate over who should replace him. Abu Bakr was voted in to succeed Muhammed and he became ruler of the Caliphate (the Islamic community) and was known as (surprise!) ‘the Caliph’.

In 661 the Caliphate was under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, who continued the caliphate’ quest for conquest until they ruled over one of the largest territorial empires in history - including:
• Transoxiana (modern-day Uzbek, Tajik, Kazak and Kyrgyzstan)
• Sindh (in Pakistan)
• the Mahgreb, (north coast of Africa)
• the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Andorra)

That’s 4.3 million square miles of land and a total population of ~62 million people, or ~30% of all people in the world

Still, there’s a gap in the map and the Umayyad want it - Transcaucasia!

In Azerbaijan at this time, the capital city of Barda was considered the world’s greatest trading centre on the Silk Road. In fact it remains the greatest centre for crafts in the entire Middle East until the 10th century.

Medieval Azerbaijan was also key to trade relations. The silk road brought the opportunity to exchange with people from all over the world - Indians, Africans, Russians, Asians, and Europeans and the Caliphate knew that international trade was important to the expansion of their empire.

The only problem was that two empires already laid claim to the region - the Eastern Roman Empire (The Byzantines) and the Persian Sasanian Empire.

Easily solved! The Caliph he set to attacking and defeating the Byzantines and then in Azerbaijan – in a city called Ardabil – he smashed the Sassinids too. This was greatly helped by the introduction of new swords the Umayyad had bought from India. These were curved swords made of damascene steel – or Wootz steel which the Arabs called the Scimitar. The new form of crucible steel alloy gave the muslim soldiers the edge over their opponents, with blades which were sharper and much more flexible and a curved design ensured long deep cuts rather than brutal thrusting stabs.

With the Romans and the Persians out of the way - Albania, Armenia and Azerbaijan were kind of left for the taking.

Albania’s ruler (Javanshir) saw the writing on the wall, and made huge efforts at being friends with the Caliphate and he met with the caliph twice. He was able to successfully negotiate Albania’s internal independence, reduced taxes by one-third for everyone in Albania and, of course, a pet elephant.

Thus the Umayyad took over the entire area, but as rulers they chose not to disrupt daily life. Civil administration, crafts, trades, industries, and agriculture – all were maintained and conversion to Islam and Arabic was allowed to develop over time, naturally.

Time passed.

In 643CE the Umayyad had conquered every bit of land they coud right up to the line of solid rock that forms the Caucasus mountains.

They decided to cross the literal stone wall of the mountains which is 6000m high (Mount Elbrus) and 750 miles (1200km) long.

Oh, and on the other side they were sure to meet the Khazar Khagnate, a collection of semi-nomadic people from Central, East, North and West Asia.

The Khazar are described as light-skinned, red-haired, blue-eyed and ferocious fighters - known for their bow-wielding cavalry. They had heavy cavalry that were well armoured in chain mail or lamellar (small rectangular plates of iron or steel) and with a spherical or conical helmet on their heads.

Their horses also carried their own plate armour, especially across the chest and they also had metal stirrups – something new at this time.

Khazar foot soldiers also wore metal armour and fought using heavy metal weapons, such as sabres, axes, battle knifes and a one-handed flail, derived from a peasant’s threshing tool used to harvest wheat.

So, the Ummayad had reason to think twice before heading north into Khazar territory, but they’d had so much success recently they decided to give it a go.

The Arabs marched through Azerbaijan, up to the mountains, and down a narrow pass at the very end of the range where the mountains are low as it meets the Caspian Sea .

They then headed north through the pass to a city called Derbent (now in Dagestan, Russia) and here they prep for their offensive north.

It was about now that the Khazars got news of the impending attack and decided to do something about it.

They met the Arabs in battle and beat them soundly, killing the Arab commander (Abdul Rahman) and sending the rest retreating back south of the range.

If at first you don’t succeed… the Caliph deployed an even larger army to Azerbaijan. In 653 the Umayyad troops gathered to march back to Derbent.

The Khazars, for their part, pick up their weapons and battle recommences for Round Two.

Which the Khazars win again, killing the new Arab commander called Selman. Once again the defeated Umayyad army retreated south, consoling themselves as they make their way through Azerbaijan by making treaties as they go.

The Azerbaijani cities of Barda, Nakhchivan, Beylagan and Derbent were all forced to agree to new terms with the Arabs, including taxes - called ‘jizye’ – a tax on non-Muslim subjects, with exemptions for women, children, the poor and the sick and anyone who volunteered to join the Umayyad army (presumably hoping they didn’t look up the army’s recent track record).

Despite this, the Azeri population almost instantly rebelled, killing the few remaining Arabs in Azerbaijan, refusing to pay their taxes and generally being difficult, so, the Umayyad troops returned, broke the and imposed new, even higher taxes than before

An aside about Coins
Prior to the Umayyad empire, the Azeri were using Byzantine or Persian gold currencies. This was abolished that as part of a policy to unify the various regions under Islamic rule.

So, the Caliph introduced the Financial Coinage System – with the first Umayyad gold coins being minted in 691CE – the dinar.

This was similar in size and weight to the Byzantine ‘solidus’ coin, and even carried similarities to the imagery on the Byzantine coin.

With support from Azerbaijan’s bustling relationship with traders on the Silk Road - the dinar quickly established itself as the major coin of the age. This concerned the Byzantine emperor Justinian II who was not at all happy with the success of the Islamic coin.

He reacted by minting a new solidus with the head of Christ on the front and an image of himself robed and holding a cross on the back.

In response, the Caliph, Abd al-Malik, ordered a new coin to be minted which showed an image on its front of an upright figure of the Caliph, wearing an Arab headdress and holding a sword.

Justinian hit back with another coin, almost a complete clone to that of the Arabs.

How to respond to that? How about another coin. Caliph Abd al-Malik launched yet another new coin, but this time on both sides, he inscribed verses from the Qur’an, expressing the message of Islam and making each piece an individual missionary of the faith.

He also issued a decree saying that it is the only currency to be used in Umayyad lands and all Byzantine coins were to be handed in to the treasury, melted down and re-struck as Dinars and Dirhams, on pain of death.

Within a decade of their introduction in the early 700s, gold, silver and copper Dinar and Dirham coins had replaced all Sassanian and Byzantine coins across the entire empire - a financial reform that would prove to be one of the major achievements of the Umayyad dynasty.

Back to the battles

In 700 CE and the Azeri were living under the rule of the Umayyad Empire. The Arabs were having little skirmishes here and there with the Khazars to the north - but nothing major to note.

Until twenty years later, in 722, when the Umayyad Governer in charge of Azerbaijan (an Arab warlord called Al-Jarrah ibn Abdallah) set off with his army across the Caucusus mountains on a mission to revisit the Khazars, this time hopefully with a different outcome.

Al-Jarrah reached the Khazar city of Balanjar and found it surrounded by a barricade of over 3,000 wagons.
No problem! Bring out the catapults!

The wagons were blasted to bits.

Moving into Balanjar, Al-Jarrah and his men slaughtered most of the inhabitants, looted the place, and returned home entirely victorious. For a change.

Eight years later (730CE) Barjik, son of the Khazar Khagan (the king) and a merciless warlord in his own right, decided he wanted some payback .

They set out into the mountains, heading south to Azerbaijan

Coincidentally, at the same time Al Jarrah was planning to attack Khazaria again and was creeping North through the mountains making for the Khazar capital city, al-Bayda.

The two armies slipped past without noticing each other.

The Khazar Barjik marched into Azerbaijan and stopped at the southern city of Ardabil (a city of 50,000 people). Barjik and his men attack and the city is occupied with ease, possibly because the local army had already travelled North with Al-Jarrah, who learned of Barjiks invasion and capture of Ardabil and turns his men around to march back to Ardabil’s rescue.

They arrived in December 730 CE, and with his army of 25,000 Al-Jarrah demanded that Barjik and his men leave the city immediately.

Barjik says ‘no’ and on the 7th December, they headed out onto the plains surrounding the city where they start a battle that rages for three days. By the third day, the Umayyad auxiliary troops gave up and abandoned the fight. Al-Jarrah and his Arab army were overwhelmed by the Khazars and Al-Jarrah is killed, and the battle declared over.

In the end, 20,000 Umayyad lay dead on the battlefield.

Barjik wanted more though. He rooted through the corpses, found Al-Jarrah’s body, decapitates it, and mounts the Arab leader’s head on his horse-drawn throne.

For a while they roamed around the area indulging in a little light looting, but in 731 Barjik and his men headed south into Iran and Umayyad territory.

He arrived in the city of Mosul to find himself facing a small Arab army under the leadership of another Umayyad general called, Sa'id ibn Amr al-Harashi.

Al-Harashi had only recently been appointed to lead the army by a very frightened Caliph, and equipped with a small number of troops and a lance, said to have been used in the famous Muslim Battle of Badr, he prepared to fight.

And he was ready to fight hard, because the desecration of Al-Jarrah's body after death had incensed the Islamic world, for he had been a legendary figure, recognised with the name "hero of Islam".

So, Al-Harashi had a well motivated force, keen to fight. And fight they did.

In the ensuing battle, Barjik was defeated and most of his Khazars killed. Al-Harashi rescued the city of Ardabil and released those that had been held prisoner.

Barjik himself just managed to survive and with his surviving Khazars, rushed out of Mosul, back north through Azerbaijan, across the mountains - and back to home territory.

Al-Harashi was victorious, and for his pains he was… relieved of his command and imprisoned - likely as the result of the jealousy of the Caliph.

Two years later in 733, he was released and made governor of Armenia and Adharbayjan, but two years later, he was forced to resign due to the loss of his eyesight.

Another seven years passed. Time for another battle. In 738, Arab armies rush north out of Azerbaijan and pour across the Caucasus range. There they meet the Khazar army and an incredibly brutal clash is had. So violent was the fighting that one entire Khazar village was surrounded by Umayyad troops and committed collective suicide by fire rather than surrender to the enemy.

The Umayyad won the battle and occupy Khazaria (possibly) forcing the Khagan to convert to Islam.

Despite this, the regime wasn’t strong enough to have a continued presence in Khazaria, so they withdrew after a very short window of occupation, after which the Khazars pretended nothing had happened, appointed themselves a female ruler, and suddenly adopted Judaism.

Like you do.

Meanwhile, in the Muslim empire, in 758, there wass regime change afoot.

The Abbasids, a rival clan to the Umayyads, took control and formed the next Caliphate. This new management was still keen on conquesting but were aware of the dangers of fighting the Khazars.

So, to make peace, the new Caliph ordered one of his Azeri nobles to take a royal Khazar bride. He duly married a Khazar princess – but sadly, she died very unexpectedly (perhaps in childbirth).

Unfortunately for the Caliph, the princesses’ attendants rushed back to Khazaria and told the King that they believed the princess had been poisoned
This was not the diplomacy the Caliph had hoped for. Enraged, the Khagan sent his best general to go invade Abassid territory like the good old days - and that they did. They plundered and raided Azerbaijan for many long months without recourse, before finally getting tired and heading back home.

So I guess you can have such a thing as ‘enough pillaging’ after all.

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