Sayf Al-Dawla - Political Legacy

Political Legacy

Sayf al-Dawla has remained to this day one of the best-known medieval Arab leaders. His bravery and leadership of the war against the Byzantines, despite the heavy odds against him, his literary activities and patronage of poets which lent his court an unmatched cultural brilliance, the calamities which struck him towards his end—defeat, illness and betrayal—have made him, in the words of Th. Bianquis, "from his time until the present day", the personification of the "Arab chivalrous ideal in its most tragic aspect".

Nevertheless, the picture presented by his contemporaries on the impact of Sayf al-Dawla's policies is less favourable: the 10th-century chronicler Ibn Hawqal, who travelled the Hamdanid domains, paints a dismal picture of economic oppression and exploitation of the local people, linked with the Hamdanid practice of expropriating extensive estates in the most fertile areas and practising a monoculture of cereals destined to feed the growing population of Baghdad. This was coupled with heavy taxation, so that Sayf al-Dawla and Nasir al-Dawla are said to have become the wealthiest princes in the Muslim world. This allowed them to maintain their lavish courts, but at a heavy price to their subjects' long-term prosperity. According to Hugh Kennedy "even the capital of Aleppo seems to have been more prosperous under the following Mirdasid dynasty than under the Hamdanids", while Bianquis claims that Sayf al-Dawla's wars and economic policies both contributed to a permanent alteration in the landscape: "by destroying orchards and peri-urban market gardens, by enfeebling the once vibrant polyculture and by depopulating the sedentarised steppe terrain of the frontiers, the Hamdanids contributed to the erosion of the deforested land and to the seizure by semi-nomadic tribes of the agricultural lands of these regions in the 11th century".

His military record was also, in the end, one of failure: the Byzantine advance continued after his death, culminating in the fall of Antioch in 969. Aleppo was transformed into a vassal state tributary to Byzantium, and for the next fifty years it would become the bone of contention between the Byzantines and a Muslim power new to the Middle East, the Egypt-based Fatimid Caliphate. The Hamdanids' military defeat was in the end inevitable, given the disparity of strength and resources with the Empire. This was compounded by the failure of Nasir al-Dawla to support his brother in his wars against Byzantium, by the Hamdanids' preoccupation with internal revolts, and the feebleness of their authority over much of their domains. As the historian Mark Whittow comments, Sayf al-Dawla's martial reputation often masks the reality that his power was "a paper tiger, short of money, short of soldiers and with little real base in the territories he controlled".

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