The Breaking of a Thousand Swords

A History of the Turkish Military of Samarra (A.H. 200-275/815-889 C.E.)

By Matthew S. Gordon

Subjects: Middle East Politics
Series: SUNY series in Medieval Middle East History
Paperback : 9780791447963, 324 pages, December 2000
Hardcover : 9780791447956, 324 pages, December 2000

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Table of contents

List of Maps and Illustrations


The Turkish Soldiers of Samarra
The Samarran Turks in Modern Scholarship
The Original Sources

1. The Initial Period
The Appearance of the Guard
Al-Ma'mun: The Consolidation of Authority

2. The Settlement at Samarra
Al-Mu'tasim and the Departure from Baghdad
The Settlement at Samarra

3. The Samarran Political Arena
The Influence of the Turkish Leadership
The Onset of Anarchy

4. The Exercise of Authority
The Sources of Influence
The Reaction to Turkish Authority

Conclusion--A Waning Presence
Al-Muwaffaq's Hour
The Turkish Rank and File
Musa ibn Bugha and the Turkish Leadership
A Final Anecdote

Appendix A. Retainer Forces in Early Islamic History

Appendix B. Notable Families of Turkish Origin
Ibrahim ibn al-Abbas al-Suli and Family
Azjur and Family
Juff ibn Yaltekin and Family
Khaqan 'Urtuj and Family




A portrait of the Samarran Turk community while in the employ of the 'Abbasid caliphate during the ninth century.


The Breaking of a Thousand Swords provides a portrait of the Samarran Turks as members of a community with a specific and complex history in the early medieval Islamic world. It considers: the encounter of the Turks as rough, non-Muslim outsiders, with the sedentary, urbane world of Baghdad; the closely related encounter of the Turks with the Islamic tradition in its urban, scholarly guise; the settlement of the Turks, in Baghdad then in Samarra, through the use of land grants and appointments to office; the impact upon the affairs of the Turkish community of not only a military ranking but of a socio-political hierarchy as well; the construction by the Turkish elite of an elaborate network of patronage and support, both within urban Iraq and throughout the provinces (Egypt in particular); and the emergence, and impact, of factionalism within the community.

Matthew S. Gordon is Assistant Professor of History at Miami University, Ohio.


"This book fills a crucial gap in the study of the early Islamic caliphate. Gordon weaves together the first complete political history of the Samarra caliphate, and as such places the subject within the mainstream of academic study and within reach of the general reader. Although focused on Samarra, the book has broader implications, especially in the way it addresses questions that relate to military-slave systems and their effect on state institutions. Gordon's treatment will occupy a special place in the debate over the origins of this institution, and will engage scholars ranging from Islamic historians working on the later medieval period to specialists on Turkish history in general." — Tayeb El-Hibri, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"Gordon for the first time tries to understand the internal society of the Turks and how they fitted into the society around them. The book is full of information and insights." — Michael L. Bates, Curator of Islamic Coins, American Numismatic Society