Friday, July 3, 2020

The most extravagant weddings in Muslim history


The first two parts of this article narrated how the 7th Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun won the four-year-long war of succession against his brother Amin and returned to Baghdad in 819. He had left the city in 808 AD in the company of his father as the second heir in line and came back after a decade as caliph.

At the beginning of his march from Merv, where he had been staying for the previous decade and crowned as the caliph, he had contracted marriage (nikah) to Buran, the 11-year-old daughter of Hassan bin Sahl. Hassan and his brother Fadl were his chief Khorasani aides who had helped him win the bloody contest against his brother. This marriage, along with the marriages of his own daughters to Imam Raza and the Imam’s son were political moves to cement his ties to the Khorasani and Shia factions, who had become his support base. This had alienated the rival Arab faction.

Back in Baghdad, Mamun had a relatively peaceful time during which he rebuilt a capital that had been devastated by the war of succession. He strengthened the House of Wisdom, gathered the leading scientists of his time and stimulated the process of translating Greek classics into Arabic.

Mamun consummated his marriage with Buran in the month of Ramadan (December 825 – January 826) in a fabulous manner. Al-Tabari has described the marriage in detail in the 32nd volume of his history and that will chiefly be relied upon here; in addition to some references to the writings of Al-Masudi.

Carvings from the Abbasid era

As mentioned in part II of this article, after his retirement from public life due to the murder of his elder brother Fadl and Vizier of the Empire, the bride’s father, Hassan, had settled at his riverfront farm in Wasit, about 200 kilometres downstream from Baghdad on the right bank of the river Tigris. Before leaving Baghdad himself for the marriage on the 8th of Ramadan, Mamun sent his son Abbas by land route to Wasit. Abbas reached the farm with his entourage, where he was met by Hassan outside his military encampment in a place where a pavilion had been erected for the groom’s party on the banks of the Tigris. Both met with exceeding courtesy to each other and entered Hassan’s house together, waiting for Mamun and his entourage.

In the meantime Mamun had been travelling by the river in a skiff – a small river boat furnished by royals as a pleasure craft and fitted by the commoners as a utility vehicle. Accompanying him was a large contingent of generals, commanders and soldiers for his security. As he was expected to be away for a considerable period of time, he was accompanied by ministers, court officials, secretaries, record keepers and message carriers. There were also a large number of food carriers, cooks, waiters, cleaners, water carriers and the inevitable camp followers.

Abbasid palace, near Karbala, Iraq

For the reception, Hassan had been getting a 140 mule loads of wood three times a day for the whole year, totalling some 150,000 mule loads of fuel. Ibn Khaldun reports that the entire wood was used during the course of that day

The caliphs, indeed just like all sultans and emperors, were wary of close associates and relatives with fractious streaks. Mamun’s paternal uncle Ibrahim bin Al-Mahdi had earlier rebelled against him. His stepmother, the legendary Queen Zubeida, was the mother of Amin, the brother against whom Mamun had himself successfully rebelled. Mamun took both of them with him as a safeguard against rebellion.

While we don’t have the exact number of guests present on the auspicious day, we can make a rough estimate by the amount of wood gathered for cooking the food for the reception. It may be kept in mind that the only proper fuel available at that time was wood. Hassan had been getting 140 mule loads of wood three times a day for the whole year, totalling some 150,000 mule loads of fuel. Ibn Khaldun reports that the entire wood was used during the course of that day. We can surmise that other lesser officials and assistants of Hassan would also have been tasked to collect wood for other festivities for the duration of the stay of Caliph and his entourage.

Unveiled female dancers depicted in a fresco from the early Abbasid era,
in the 9th century

Mamun arrived at the farm in the evening before sun set. It was the month of Ramadan and everyone was fasting. Having broken the fast, Mamun and his party had their meal and washed their hands. Then he called for some wine, as was his daily routine. A golden goblet was brought in and wine poured into it. Mamun drank from it, and then held out his hand with the goblet to Hassan. Hassan held back from it since he had never drunk wine before. Mamun’s personnel attendant made a discreet gesture to Hassan, who said to the Caliph, “O Commander of the Faithful, I am drinking it with your permission and at your command!” Mamun told him, “If this were not my command, I would not hold out my hand to you!” Hassan took the goblet and drank from it. Clearly, the Caliph intended to make merry in his own style!

On the next day, Hassan married his son to his deceased brother’s daughter. On the third day, the marriage ceremony of Mamun and Buran took place. The festivities were arranged on the riverside. A very large number of guests had been invited from across the empire for the ceremony. Many had travelled from Baghdad to form the marriage party. To move the guests up and down the river, thirty thousand boats were hired and prepared. The boats plied the route for the whole period, transporting the royal guests. We can only envisage that an equal number of horses, camel and mules would have been camped at the site.

Fragment of a depiction of a female from an Abbasid wall painting, Samarra, Iraq

When Mamun sat down with Buran, her grandmother scattered over her a thousand pearls from a golden platter. Mamun ordered them to be collected and placed in the vessel, as they had originally been, He then placed them, as reported by Tabari, in her bosom and said, “This is your wedding present, and now, ask me for any of your requests.” She remained silent.

A bit of diplomacy was also played out on the occasion, certainly on the urging of bride’s father. Her grandmother said to her, “Speak to your lord and ask him for your requests, since he has commanded you to do so.” She then asked him to show his favour to Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi, the rebellious uncle. He replied, “I grant this.” She also asked his permission for Queen Zubaida, Al-Mamun’s stepmother, to go on pilgrimage to holy places, and this he granted also. Zubaida was a powerful woman in her own right and is still remembered for initiating a lot of welfare works in Makkah and Madinah. She, however, had been kept under a tight leash after the murder of her son. Mamun may have discouraged his stepmother from revisiting the Hijaz and the scenes of her philanthropic activities of previous years. She could not be left alone for the fear of her raising sedition and causing trouble amongst the Arab elements.

Gold and silver pieces, bladders filled with musk and eggs of ambergris were tossed to the people. Historian Al-Masudi says that Hassan had given gifts that not even a king had ever given before or after the coming of Islam

Having now been granted freedom, Zubaida presented the bride with an Umayyad seamless jacket. The jacket was an heirloom of especial value as it had been a property of wives of Umayyad caliphs Abdul Malik and Hisham, sons of Caliph Marwan bin Al-Hakam. Zubaida also presented the bride with Fam Al-Silh, the vast fertile rich farm adjacent to the lands of the bride’s family.

A candle of ambergris in a golden vessel, variously reported as weighing about 100 kg was lit for fragrance. Ambergis is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and expelled from the mouth. It is found in open oceans in large lumps weighing upto 50 kg or more. It acquires a sweet, earthy scent as it ages. As the Abbasid capital was not adjacent to any oceanic sources of this substance, it must have found its way to Baghdad over long distances and would have been very precious. Its cost can be judged from the auction of a 1.1-kg lump of ambergris found on a Welsh beach to a French buyer for £11,000 in September 2015. A 100 kg mass would have cost a fortune. Even Mamun criticised them for that, saying that it was an act of extravagance. In addition, to light the general area of the ceremony, oil was poured over palm twigs and lit.

A gathering of women

Mamun laid down for the bride carpets woven with threads of gold and adorned with pearls and rubies. He himself burned several candles of amber to scent the surroundings of the place of nuptials.

Al-Hasan also presented robes of honour to the royal commanders accompanying Mamun according to their ranks, and gave them horses, slave girls and other presents. The total sum expended on these gifts was fifty million dirhams.

Poets present on the occasion lavished their praises on the nuptials. A poet by the name of Ibn Hazim read this couplet,

“May God bless the son-in-law of Hassan, the husband of Buran!

You have triumphed, but over whose daughter, O son of Harun.”

When these words were reported to Mamun, he said that he was not quite sure how to take them!

Hassan’s son later narrated that his family used to talk about how his father wrote out pieces of paper with the names of his estates on them and scattered them amongst commanders and Hashimites. Each of these pieces of paper had the name of an estate written on it – which was granted to the recipient. In addition to this, gold and silver pieces, bladders filled with musk and eggs of ambergris were tossed to the rest of the people. Historian Al-Masudi says that Hassan had given gifts that not even a king had ever given before or after the coming of Islam.

According to Hassan’s discussion with a friend, Mamun questioned his step sister Hamdunah at Fam al-Silh, regarding how much the expenditure on Buran’s festivities had amounted to. She said that she had spent 25 million dirhams. Queen Zubaida, who was also present there exclaimed, “You didn’t do anything at all. I spent between 35 and 37 million dirhams!”

Mamun stayed with al-Hasan bin Sahl for seventeen days, and all the requirements, each day, for the Caliph and for the whole of his retinue, were taken care of by Hassan. He met the expenses of Mamun’s generals, accompanying guards and personnel. The expenses for stay of mule drivers, sailors, porters, servants, camp followers, soldiers and all others who accompanied the caliph were also met by bride’s father. Not a soldier in Mamun’s army and staff had to buy his food or forage for his animals. Muhammad al-Khwarzami, the famous astronomer and mathematician, who invented the algorithm, reported that Mamun was absent from Baghdad for this marriage for a total of forty days, returning on the 18th of Shawwal. When he was about to depart, Mamun ordered that Hassan be given 10 million dirhams from the taxation of Fars. This sum was brought to him on the Spot. Hassan then sat down and divided it up among his commanders, companions, retinue and servants. Al-Masudi reports that Mamun granted Hassan the revenue of Fars and Ahwaz for one year. This must have amounted to hundreds of million dirhams. When Mamun departed, Hassan accompanied him for the first part of his journey before returning to Fam al-Silh.

Mamun’s marriage ceremony took place at a time when the Abbasid caliphate was at its zenith. It was the richest and the most glamorous empire in the world at the time. They procured their silks from China, cotton from India, melons from Samarkand, ice from the Elburz and pearls from the Persian Gulf.

The entire stretch of land from Kashgar in the north east and Sind in the south west to the Indian Ocean in the south and the Atlantic Ocean in the west, with the entire lands along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, including all holy places of Islam, lay under their dominion. Mamun was the epitome of opulence and extravagance. He envisaged his schemes in a grand style. And so, this marriage was a celebration of the prosperity of an indulgent caliph


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