The 10th-Century Warrior Emir Of Aleppo Who Plagued The Byzantine Empire

(Illustration of Sayf al-Dawla from a 13th century copy of the History of John Skylitzes (Skyllitzes Matritensis (Biblioteca Nacional de España), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

Sayf al-Dawla (also known as Sa’if ad-Dualah, r. 944/945-967 CE) descended from the Hamdanid dynasty, which had a base of power in Al-Jazira and Syria. He managed to set himself up as Emir of Aleppo around 944 or 945 CE and quickly began making a name for himself through military skill and intellectual patronage. During his reign, Sayf spread his influence into Homs, Syria and Turkey.

Almost all of Sayf al-Dawla’s rule was marked by warfare. He sometimes fought against fellow Muslims, must notably with the Ikhshidid (or Ikhshidite) Mamluks of Egypt over lands in Syria, but his most persistent foe was the Byzantine Empire. Sayf al-Dawla and the forces of the Byzantine Empire traded continuous raids and skirmishes across each other’s borders for more than a decade.

In his many years of war, the Emir of Aleppo proved himself as a more-than-competent general. Of Sayf al-Dawla’s many successful conflicts against the Byzantine Empire, two in particular stand out. Around 953 CE, Sayf defeated a Byzantine army that was considerably larger than his own, and even severely injured the opposing general, Bardas Phokas the Elder, who would remain scarred for the rest of his life. Sayf al-Dawla’s three-week raid into the Byzantine Empire in 956 CE was another of his notable accomplishments and is still studied by military historians. In that raid, Sayf was able to embarrassingly outmaneuver and outfight opposing forces as he pillaged and plundered deep into imperial territory. Yet, Sayf al-Dawla’s luck ran out around 958 CE, when he was successfully ambushed by Byzantine troops—he survived the battle, but never regained his momentum. Four years later, the siege and sacking of his capital in Aleppo by a Byzantine army in 962 CE was an unmistakable sign that his fortune had taken a downturn.

Even though Sayf is best remembered as a military leader, he was also a patron of learning. All sorts of scholars and artists were invited to his court, among which were lofty intellectuals such as the philosopher, al-Fārābiī and the great poet, al-Mutanabbī. The Emir of Aleppo, however, did not only provide patronage to others, he also produced his own works—Sayf al-Dawla, himself, was known to be a competent poet. Yet, most of Sayf al-Dawla’s fame and admiration came from the hand of al-Mutanabbī, who presented Sayf as the pristine model of an Islamic nobleman in his poetic panegyrics.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

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