The Barmakides have been one of the most talented and versatile families that have lived in the world of Islam. They have been, to a great extent, responsible for the glorious reign of the Abbaside Caliph, Haroon ar-Rashid, which has been immortalized by the famous Arabian Nights. The glory that was Baghdad, its cultural and literary life, was due to the Barmakides’ munificence and patronage, which has few parallels in living history.
Yahya bin Khalid Barmaki came into prominence during the reign of the Abbaside Caliph, Mansoor, who appointed him in 744–75 A.C., Governor of Azerbaijan. Three years later, he was appointed the tutor of young Haroon who later became the Viceroy of the Western half of the Empire, lying West of the Euphrates. Yahya was placed at the head of his Chancery.
After the death of Mehdi in August 785, Yahya gave his protege Haroon the wise advice to retire voluntarily in favor of his elder brother, whereupon Musa was acknowledged as Caliph with the title of Al Hadi. But relations between Yahya and the new Caliph who was extremely fickle-minded were strained. He suspected Yahya of supporting Haroon against his teen-aged son, Jafar, whom he wanted to make his successor against the will of his deceased father. Yahya refused to support this injustice to the highly talented Haroon as this was also against the interest of the Abbaside Caliphate. He was, therefore, put behind the bars and the night on which he was to be executed under the orders of the Caliph, Al Hadi died suddenly in September 786 A.C.
When Haroon ascended the throne of Baghdad in 786 A.C., Yahya Barmaki was appointed the Vizier and was entrusted with absolute power. He also associated his two sons Fazal and Jafar with the Government Administration. The glory of Haroon ar-Rashid’s Administration was mostly due to the Barmakide family who governed the State with undiminished glory for 17 years-786 to 803 A.C. The official seal initially withheld from him was soon placed under his control.
Yahya’s two sons Fazal and Jafar held important positions in the Government. Jafar was later appointed Vizier of the Caliph. Fazal was the foster brother of Haroon ar-Rashid who called Yahya “Father” as a mark of affection and regard for him.
Yahya’s Administration was wise, firm, and benevolent. He neglected no details and considered the well-being of the people as his primary duty.
His four sons, Fazal, Jafar, Musa, and Muhammad, possessed the administrative capacity of the highest order. Fazal held the post of Governor of Khurasan and Egypt and brought about the submission of Yahya bin Abdullah who had proclaimed himself the sovereign of Deilem. Jafar also held the post of Governor of several Provinces and was instrumental in bringing about peace between the rival tribes of Modhar and Himyar in Syria. Later on, when Yahya resigned due to old age, Jafar took his place.
Fazal was first to forfeit the favor of the Caliph whom he displeased and was deprived of all offices except his appointment as the tutor of Prince Ameen, the Heir Apparent. Jafar who was eloquent and legal minded was the tutor of Prince Mamoon, who later on succeeded Haroon ar-Rashid.
The Barmakides who served Haroon ar-Rashid with unswerving fidelity and the extraordinary ability for 17 years fell from grace in 803 A.C. Their grandeur and magnificence, as also their benevolence and lavish charity which had made them the idol of the masses, created a host of enemies who were continuously plotting for their fall. A number of causes have been assigned to their sudden fall, including the romance between Jafar and the Caliph’s sister, Abbasa, which is a mere fib disproved by later historical research. The celebrated Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun says that the true cause of the fall of Barmakides is to be found in “the manner in which they seized upon all authority, and assumed absolute control over public revenue, so much so, that Rashid was often forced to the necessity of asking for and not obtaining from the Chancellor small sums of money. Their influence was unlimited, and their renown had spread in every direction. All the high offices of the State, civil as well as military, were held by functionaries chosen from their family, or from among their partisans. All faces were turned towards them; all heads inclined in their presence; on them alone rested the hopes of applicants and candidates; they showered their bounties on all sides, in every province of the Empire, in the cities as well as in the villages; their praises were sung by all, and they were far more popular than their master”. All this earned them the hatred and jealousy of their Arab colleagues and ultimately aroused the suspicion of the Caliph. Their most sworn enemy was Fazal bin-Rabi, the Arab Chamberlain of Rashid’s Court who ultimately succeeded Jafar after his fall. Fazal first incurred the displeasure of the Caliph for his pro-Allied Policy and was removed from power in 799. Jafar, too, was reproached at occasions for abusing his power.
Haroon ar-Rashid, while returning from his pilgrimage in 802 A.C., suddenly decided to put an end to the Barmakide domination. On the night of January 28/29, 803, A.C., Jafar was executed. His brothers were incarcerated and their aged father, Yahya, was put under surveillance. Their property was confiscated. The aged Yahya died in prison in November 805. He was 70. His able son, Fazal, followed him to the grave, some years later.
Thus ended the career of Yahya Barmaki and his two illustrious sons who were greatly instrumental in adding a golden chapter to the history of Islam. Their proverbial generosity and patronage of art and learning had made Baghdad the Makkah of learned and talented persons who flocked there from all corners of the world. “They seem primarily to have served”, writes a Western writer, “the Caliphate effectively and loyally, pacifying Eastern Iran, repressing the risings in Syria and even Ifrikiya, obtaining the submission of rebels, even Alids, directing the Administration in an orderly fashion, guaranteeing to the State important resources, undertaking works of public interest (Canals of Katul and Şihan), setting wrong aright with equity and in accordance with the requirements of Islamic law and reinforcing the judicial institution of the office of the Great Qazi”.
The Barmakides activity was not confined merely to political and administrative spheres only. They were great patrons of art and culture science and learning. Their munificence to the persons possessing talents, including poets and writers, artists and musicians, scholars and theologians, philosophers, and scientists, was unbounded. Their assemblies were distinguished for the attendance of the most talented men of Baghdad who wrote and sung their praises long after their fall. The Arabian Nights have immortalized the figure of Jafar the Vizier and intimate companion of Haroon ar-Rashid.