In 1038, the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire controlled the city of Edessa. The city, however, was coveted by the nearby Islamic caliphates. Two years prior, in 1036, a coalition led by Nasr ad-Daula the Marwanid and Sabib ibn Wahhab the Numairite attempted to take the city, but their attack was repelled. This failure, if the sources of the 11th-century historian, John Skylitzes, are correct, eventually prompted a dozen unnamed Arab chieftains to attempt their own version of the classic “Trojan Horse” in a bid to take the prized city.
At the time of the alleged incident, the commander of the Byzantine forces in Edessa was a certain Barasbatzes the Iberian. According to Skylitzes, this Barasbatzes witnessed twelve curious Arabian chieftains arrive at the gates of Edessa. They proclaimed that they had come in peace, and better yet, they had also brought with them a baggage train of a thousand large treasure chests, which they planned to hand over to the Byzantine emperor. The chiefs and their guards set up camp outside the city, but they requested that the large treasure chests be carried into the city.
For the night, Barasbatzes the Iberian decided to keep the chests located outside of the walls with the Arab camp, but he did invite the chieftains into Edessa for a large banquet. While the men of influence enjoyed their feast, an Armenian beggar was said to have gone to the wealthy Arabian camp to ask for coins—after all, they had brought with them a fortune that could only be contained by a thousand chests. As he was passing by the endless trunks, the Armenian began to hear Arabic voices coming from inside the many boxes. Unnerved by the situation, the beggar fled back to the city and reported what he had heard to the city’s garrison.
Messengers soon interrupted the banquet where the city’s commander was feasting with the chieftains. After the message was delivered, Barasbatzes arrested the chiefs and surrounded the Arab camp with his own troops. He had his soldiers methodically pry open the one thousand treasure chests. In each container, the soldiers supposedly found a fully geared Arab warrior waiting to be smuggled into the city. If the Byzantine commander had let the treasure chests into his city, these hidden Arabian warriors were supposedly going to break out of their boxes at night and slaughter the garrison. Instead, according to the tale, an Armenian beggar foiled the plot and the Arabian soldiers were the ones who were massacred.
After each container was emptied of its heavily-armed inhabitant, Barasbatzes confronted the detained chieftains. He then executed eleven of the twelve chieftains. The last chieftain was said to have been released, but only after he was mutilated by having his hands, nose and ears amputated.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A caravan outside of the city of Morocco, by Edwin Lord Weeks (1849–1903), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.