“Ode on the Conquest of Amorium”

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“Ode on the Conquest of Amorium”

by Abu Tammam


A classical Arabic panegyric ode set in 838, composed in Arabic (as “Al-sayfu asdaqu anba’an min al-kutubi”) in 838; published in Arabic in 1951; in English in 1965.


The poem celebrates the Muslim conquest: of the Byzantine city of Amorium as the triumph of Islam.

Events in History at the Time of the Ode

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

In 837 or 838 c.e. Abu Tammam went before the caliph, or Islamic ruler, al-Mu‘tasim at Samarra and under his patronage became the most celebrated panegyric or praise poet of his age. By this time the center of power in the Islamic world had moved from Arabia to Syria and then to Iraq, where the Abbasid dynasty built its capital, first in Baghdad and then to the north of Baghdad in Samarra. It was there, in the year 838, that Abu Tammam presented his “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium” to the caliph. This was 34 years after the birth of the poet in 804 in the Syrian town of Jasim to a Christian named Thadus, keeper of a wine shop in nearby Damascus. At some point the poet added Arab tribal elements to his name and converted to Islam, so that he is known in the tradition as Abu Tammam Habib ibn Aws al-Ta’i. After spending his youth as a weaver’s assistant in Damascus, he went to Egypt, where he studied poetry and earned his living as a water-carrier in a mosque. Upon his return to Syria in 830, Abu Tammam composed panegyric poems for the caliph al-Ma’mun (reigned 813-33), who was on his way back from campaigns against the largely Christian empire of the Byzantines. Events in the reign of the subsequent caliph, al-Mu‘tasim (reigned 833-43), became occasions for the composition of some of Abu Tammam’s major panegyric odes: about the capture and execution of the archheretic Babak the Khurramite (837-38), the conquest of Amorium (838), the rebellion of Maziyar in Tabaristan (838-39), and the execution of al-Mu‘tasim’s notorious Persian general-turned-traitor, al-Afshin (841). Over the course of his career, Abu Tammam acquired other patrons of his poetry—the caliph al-Wathiq, generals, and leading men-of-state—and served in other capacities too. Shortly before his death (845), he was appointed postmaster of Mosul, and it is here that Abu Tammam lies buried. His fame rests on two major achievements: his own poetic diwan (collected poems), through which he emerged as the major proponent of the new badi’ style of poetry, and second, his authoritative anthology of the early Arabic heroic and lyric tradition, Diwan al-hamasah (Anthology of Courage). His own “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium,” a poetic tour de force in badi’ style, celebrates the Islamic victory over the Byzantine city of Amorium.

Events in History at the Time of the Ode

The Abbasid caliphate: political and military context

The year 750 witnessed a revolution in the Islamic empire that ousted the Umayyad dynasty and ushered in Abbasid rule. With this ousting came a shift in the seat of the Islamic empire from Damascus in Syria to Baghdad in Iraq. Here in Baghdad a new cosmopolitan culture arose, inspired by the far-reaching influence of Persian officers and courtiers. The Persians, proud of the rich traditions of their own former Sasanian empire, tried to compete for prestige with the newly powerful Arabs through a literary cultural movement known as Shu‘ubiyah, “which is often regarded as an argument” between Persians and Arabs “over the relative merits of their respective cultural heritages” (Allen, p. 37).

Meanwhile, at the head of government stood the caliph (means “successor [of the Prophet of God]”), whose rule was grounded in Islam and in Arabicity—that is, the preeminence of Arabs, over for example, Persian or Turkish followers of the Islamic faith. The Abbasids based the legitimacy of their rule on their descent from the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, which was the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, and on their direct descent from the Prophet’s uncle, al-Abbas. Controversy erupted over their right to rule, however. They faced threats from other Arab groups—the Alids, the Kharijites, and supporters of the toppled Umayyad caliphate—and from non-Arabic populations as well. There were stirrings for independence by Iranians and Turkish nationals in far-flung provinces of the empire. As if these challenges to power from within the Islamic ummah (community of believers) were not enough, the caliph faced an external menace. At the border of the empire, the Byzantine frontier posed an ongoing threat, becoming the site of almost annual military expeditions, a situation that would persist for centuries.

The reign of al-Mu‘tasim and the Amorium campaign

In the early ninth century, during the rule of al-Mu‘tasim, the Abbasids were plagued from within by the rebellion of the Khurramite heretical sect in Azerbaijan and from without by the recurrent border wars with the Byzantines. A key factor in the political-military history of the Abbasid caliphate, one that would lead to the demise of caliphal power over the coming century, was al-Mu‘tasim’s increased reliance on Turkish and North African slave troops instead of his own people for military might. In 836 he transferred his capital to Samarra, north of Baghdad, to distance himself and his troops from the discontent of the populace.

In the year 838 matters came to a head. Babak, the leader of the 20-year Khurramite rebellion, encouraged the Byzantine emperor Theophilos to make incursions into Abbasid territory. Theophilos set out from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) with an army of 100,000 and crossed into Muslim territory in northern Mesopotamia, where he attacked and destroyed the Muslim city of Zibatrah and took its inhabitants captive. He then attacked the nearby Muslim city of Malatya, where, according to reports, Theophilos took more than 1,000 women captive and mutilated the men by putting out their eyes and cutting off their noses.

In his commentary on Abu Tammam’s diwan, the eleventh-century scholar al-Tibrizi relates that on the day the Byzantines conquered Zibatrah, a Muslim woman who was taken captive cried out “Help, O Mu‘tasim!” (waa Mu‘tasimaah). Informed of this just as he was about to quaff a cup of wine, the caliph put it down and ordered that it be kept for him to drink when he returned from the conquest of the fortified Byzantine city of Amorium in central Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The historical sources give a less dramatic version of the caliph’s determination to retaliate against this outrage to the Islamic ummah. After he had vanquished the rebel Babak, al-Mu‘tasim asked which Byzantine city was the most defended and best fortified. He was told, “Amorium—no Muslim has embarked against it since the appearance of Islam; it is the wellspring and root of Christianity, and more honored among them than Constantinople” (al-Tabari in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, p. 198). Amorium was indeed an appropriate target for revenge: not only was it the native city of the ruling Byzantine dynasty, it was also a powerful fortress whose walls were fortified with 44 towers.

Al-Mu‘tasim had under his command a renowned Persian general, al-Afshin, who had earlier routed the army of Byzantine emperor Theophilos at Damizon. In the face of such a formidable foe, Theophilos’s courage faltered. He sent ambassadors to al-Mu‘tasim to offer humiliating promises and explanations, but al-Mu‘tasim would not be dissuaded. He conquered and devastated Ankara, Amorium’s sister city, at which point Theophilos withdrew to Dorylium to await the fate of his natal city, Amorium. Unlike al-Mu‘tasim, Theophilos would not participate personally in the Amorium campaign.

After three days of violent combat in which thousands perished on both sides, Amorium was virtually delivered into the hands of the Muslims by treason. A former Muslim resident of the city guided al-Mu‘tasim’s forces to a weakened place in the wall. Al-Mu‘tasim directed his ballistas (engines of warfare that hurled heavy ammunition at a target) to make a breach in the wall at precisely this spot. After three more days of siege, the gap ever widening and the Byzantines suffering many more casualties, Wandu, a Byzantine commander of the section where the breach was, sought aid from his fellow commanders. When they refused, he went directly to al-Mu‘tasim, pleading for mercy for the children and offering to surrender Amorium to him. The caliph ordered his troops to refrain from combat until his return from the negotiations, but during the parley with Wandu, the Muslim army, ignoring this order, stormed and conquered the city.

Abbasid poetry—the badi’ style begins

During the first hundred years of Abbasid rule, a preeminent religious and intellectual movement known as the Mu‘tazilism flourished. The Mu‘tazilites were the “People of the Justice and Unity [of God],” their name referring to their two most fundamental principles. Members of the movement espoused certain beliefs about both the Muslim holy book, the Quran (the Word of God as revealed through the Prophet Muhammad), and the hadith (traditions of what Muhammad said and did). At the time, one point of controversy concerned the “uncreatedness” or “createdness” of the Quran (i.e., whether the Quran is eternal with God or part of His creation). In keeping with the principle of divine unity, the Mu‘tazilites taught that the Quran (as a sacred Arabic text) was “created,” that is, part of God’s creation, since to believe it was eternal with God would compromise His unity. This belief led to freedom in theorizing about the Arabic language. The Mu‘tazilites also believed that likening God to man compromised God’s unity—His oneness and uniqueness. Hence, they considered anthropomorphic statements in the Quran and in the hadith to be figurative, not literal statements. Such statements demanded ta’wil (“interpretation”). Thus, to the Mu‘tazilites, expressions such as “God’s two hands” were taken to mean “God’s grace”; “God’s eye” to mean “His knowledge,” and so forth.

The Mu’tazilite thinker al-Jahiz, the preeminent Arab man of letters of the ninth century (d. 868), takes an example from the hadith—“the razor of God is the sharpest and the fore-arm of God is the strongest” (al-Jahiz in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, p. 6). From the Mu‘tazilite point of view, this statement can only be read as a metaphor for God’s might and power. The expression, according to al-Jahiz, serves as example of the new style of writing, badi’ which was based on precisely such a metaphorical mode of expression. In effect, for al-Jahiz, badi’ and ta’wil are two sides of the same explanatory coin: badi’ puts the abstract in concrete terms (using strategies such as personification and metaphor), whereas ta’wil interprets such expressions. This Mu‘tazilite method of Quranic explanation became a habit of conceptual thinking, and it spread beyond studies of the Muslim holy book. The method was applied to poetry as well. For the badi’ poets, it became a means of literary expression.

The term badi’ was first used in the ninth century to describe a radically new style of poetry, the beginning of which has been attributed either to Bashshar ibn Burd (d. 783) or to Muslim ibn al-Walid (d. 823). Their near contemporary, the already mentioned al-Jahiz, observes that at the time “Badi’ [was] found only among the Arabs, and because of it their language excel [led] all others and exceed [ed] every other tongue” (al-Jahiz in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, p. 6). Characterizing this new style of poetic expression were two inter-related features: 1) an intensified and self-conscious use of figures of speech and rhetorical devices and 2) conceits that are abstract, conceptual, and sometimes awkward and far-fetched.

Closely tied to the religious and intellectual movement of Mutazilism is the appearance of kalam (a type of theology whose purpose is to establish religious beliefs by producing proofs through argumentation). In essence kalam is a religious science. The Mutakallimun (practitioners of kalam), represented the views both of the various factions of Mu’tazilites and their opponents on issues such as the status of a believer who sins, the “uncreatedness” or “createdness” of the Quran, predestination versus free will, and so forth. In the literary realm, the term al-madhhab al-kalami (the manner of kalam, dialectical mannerism) was associated with the badi’ style. In poetry, the “manner of kalam” was far from being just a rhetorical device that imitated the jargon and speculative argumentation of the Mutakallimun. Rather it was a manner of abstract reasoning as demonstrated in the following passage (which was cited by al-Jahiz):

The Mutakallimun select expressions for their concepts, deriving their terminology for things which the Arab language originally had no word. In doing so they have set the precedent in this for all those who came after them, and the model for all who followed. Thus … they use the terms “thisness” (hadhiyah), “identity” (huwiyah), and “quiddity” [or “essence”] (mahiyah). … One of them preaching in the very heart of the caliph’s palace once said, “God brought him out of the door of nonbeing daysiyah) and made him enter the door of being (aysiyah).”

(al-Jahiz in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, pp. 16–17)

The badi’ style develops

Al-Jahiz and others of the first half of the ninth century belong to the first Mu‘tazilite period, which celebrated the creative and innovative aspects of the Arabic language. In contrast, the following period gave rise to an “orthodox resurgence,” whose proponents adopted the doctrine of the “uncreated Quran.” Their belief that the Quran has existed from eternity with God and is not part of His creation produced a more guarded and conservative attitude toward language. By this time, however, the stylistic elements of badi’ had thoroughly penetrated Arabic poetry. It is from this period that the classical Arabic definition of badi’ was formulated by the poet and critic Ibn al-Mu‘tazz (d. 908) in his Kitab al-badi’ (Book of the New). Unsurprisingly for a man of his period, Ibn al-Mu‘tazz does not capture the innovative spirit of badi’. Rather he provides a list of its technical requirements with the aim of legitimizing badi’ poetry in the eyes of his conservative contemporaries. Ibn al-Mu‘tazz claims that the badi’ style is not really new at all; instead it more intensively uses rhetorical devices already in the most authentic Arabic linguistic sources, such as the Quran, the hadith, and ancient (pre-Islamic through Umayyad) poetry.

Ibn al-Mu‘tazz describes five primary rhetorical devices, whose extensive use typifies the badi’ style.

1) Metaphor (istiarah, borrowing a word from something it is associated with for something it is not associated with). Example: assigning talons to fate in “When fate digs in her talons.”

2) Root-play (tajnis, the use of different words of the same root). Example: the root kh-l-j in “A day when you dragged (khalajta) their souls on a rope (khalij).”

3) Antithesis (mutabaqah). Example: “[War] turned [the women’s] black hair white, and their white faces black.”

4) End-repetition (radd al-ajuz ala al-sadr). Example: “Let your cares depart … for everything … someday departs.

5) The manner of kalam (al-madhhab al-kalami, expressions that require “mental gymnastics” to figure out the intended meaning). Example: “Glory is not pleased that you are pleased / with your supplicants’ pleasure, but only with God’s pleasure.”

A product of this cultural environment, Abu Tammam makes insistent use of the sorts of devices described above. The lines of his ode reflect the conceptualized thought, argumentative reasoning, and linguistic inventiveness of the Mu‘tazilites and the Mutakallimun.

The Poem in Focus

The contents

The “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium” opens with “the sword,” setting the tone for a qasida (Arabic ode) that is dominated by martial imagery. Eight sections follow, depicting various aspects of the Muslim victory and Byzantine defeat.

Section 1

In lines 1-10 the poet gloats that the caliph’s sword is a truer determiner of events than the Byzantine astrologers’ books (which predicted that the city could not be taken at that time).

The sword is more veracious than the book,
Its cutting edge splits earnestness from sport.
The white of the blade, not the black of the age,
Its broadsides clarify uncertainty and doubt.
          (Abu Tammam, “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium,” lines 1-2, in Diwan Abi Tammam bi-sharh al-Khatib al-Tibrizv, trans. S. Stetkevych)

Section 2

Lines 11–14 celebrate the Islamic conquest through, on the one hand, fertility imagery of rainfall, lush flowering herbage, and abundant honeyed milk, and, on the other hand, through astrological terms that express Islamic victory and infidel (Byzantine Christian) defeat.

A conquest for which the sky’s gates opened
And the earth appeared decked out in raiment new.
O Battle-Day of Amorium! Desires went forth from you
Yielding milk, abundant, honeyed.
You left the fortune of the Sons of Islam ascendant
And in decline the fortune of idolaters and their abode.
          (“Amorium,” lines 12–14; trans. S. Stetkevych)

Section 3

A historical prologue to the conquest comprises lines 15–22; in this prologue the city is portrayed as both “mother” to the Byzantines and an “unaging virgin,” imagery that recurs later in the rape of the conquered community.

A virgin whom the hand of fate had not
And to whom time’s ambition could not
From the age of Alexander or before, the
  locks of night
Had hoaried, but she had not grown old.
          (“Amorium,” lines 17-18;
trans. S. Stetkevych)

Section 4

Lines 23-35 describe the battle proper, using images of blood, fire, and smoke. Yet another astrological image contrasts the Muslims’ good fortune with the Byzantines’ bad fortune.

How many a heroic horseman lay between
  her walls
His forelocks reddened by hot flowing blood!
You left her in a black night bright as
For in her midst a dawn of flame dispelled
  the dark.
There was light from the fire while darkness
  still clung,
And dark from the smoke in the ghastly
  noonday sun.
          (“Amorium,” lines 23, 26, 28; trans. S. Stetkevych)

Sections 5 and 6

These two sections reiterate the pair of ideas underlying the poem. Lines 36-49 (Section 5) shower praise (madih) on the heroic and divinely appointed caliph al-Mu‘tasim, who led his army in the conquest of Amorium; lines 50–58 (Section 6) level satire or invective (hija) against the cowardly and materialistic Emperor Theophilos, who fled the field, abandoning his companions to the Muslim sword. Al-Mu‘tasim is described:

Directed by one relying (Mu‘tasim) on God,
  avenging for God,
Striving and yearning toward God.
You replied with the sword, penetrating—
To reply without the sword would have been
  no reply.
          (“Amorium,” lines 37, 48; trans. S. Stetkevych)

Theophilos is depicted quite differently:

Theophilus turned his back, his tongue
  bridled by fear
Of the Khatti spear, below his innards in
He issued death to his intimates
And spurred on flight, the fleetest of his steeds.
          (“Amorium,” lines 35-36; trans. S. Stetkevych)

Section 7

In lines 59-66 the idea of the “fruits of conquest” and the revitalization of the Islamic ummah through the defeat of the enemy—the slaying of their men and rape of their women—provides the thematic and rhetorical climax of the poem.

The lives of ninety thousand warriors, like
  Mount Shara’s lions,
Were ripe for plucking before the figs and
How many a [maiden like a] beaming moon
          they took beneath war’s lightning beam!
How many a white-toothed maid beneath
  war’s cloud!
How many a maid, like a reed trembling on a
Did the drawn and trembling Indian swords
          (“Amorium,” lines 59, 63, 65; trans. S. Stetkevych)

Section 8

The ode closes with the poet blessing the caliph and affirming the ruler’s legitimacy and divine appointment. In the last line is a final antithesis between the sickly pale faces of the defeated Byzantine infidel and the triumphant glow of the victorious Muslim Arabs.

O Caliph of God, for your striving for the
  root of Religion
Honor, and Islam, God reward you!
Then the closest lineage connects the days of
  [the Battle of] Badr
To your victorious days.
They have left the faces of the Yellow
  [Byzantines] jaundiced,
And the Arab’s faces burnished with triumph.
          (“Amorium,” lines 67, 70, 71; trans. S. Stetkevych)

From history to myth: The rhetoric of Islamic triumph

Reading Abu Tammam’s “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium” in light of the Arab and Byzantine historical chronicles illuminates the role of the classical Arabic victory ode in mythmaking. The ode actually did double duty. First, in its immediate political setting, it showered public praise on the victorious caliph and, second, as a record of achievement it served as an enduring literary testament to Arab-Islamic dominion. Though grounded in the historical details of the event, the ode is not a narrative recounting of the military campaign. Rather, using the structure, diction, and imagery of the classical Arabic ode and the rhetorical elements of the badi’ style, the poet transforms a fleeting political and martial event into a poem that constitutes a ritual of allegiance to Abbasid dominion and an enduring myth of Arab-Islamic triumph.

Lines 23–29 make especially intense use of antitheses—light and dark, day and night, fire and smoke—and of the “mental gymnastics” that characterize the method of kalam. Together these techniques create visual imagery that conveys the concept of the cosmic and mythic power of the divinely appointed caliph, who can overturn the celestial cycles of day and night:

In Amorium you left a black night bright as
For in her midst a dawn of flame dispelled
  the dark.
There was light from the fire while darkness
  still clung
And dark from the smoke in the ghastly
  noonday sun.
The sun was rising from one, when it had set
And setting from the other, when it had not.
          (“Amorium,” lines 26, 28, 29; trans. S. Stetkevych)

The transformation of the historical into the mythical through the poetic techniques of the badi’ continues in the next three sections of the ode. In line 41 the poet subtly compares God’s election of the caliph al-Mu‘tasim to His election of the Prophet Muhammad by evoking Quranic phraseology. Abu Tammam’s words “God hurled you against her two towers and (He) destroyed her,” evoke the Quranic verse: “Then you did not kill them but God did, and you did not throw, when you threw, but God did” (“Amorium,” line 41; Quran 8:17). This verse refers to a celebrated early Islamic victory, the Battle of Badr, in which the Prophet Muhammad and a small band of Muslims, though greatly outnumbered, defeated their adversaries from Mecca. The reference paves the way for the explicit comparison in line 70 between al-Mu‘tasim’s conquest of Amorium and this astounding victory of the Prophet Muhammad. Again the passage memorializes the Amorium campaign not by recounting the historical details, but rather by casting the campaign in mythic terms, such as divine agency and Islamic vengeance, and in metaphorical terms, such as razing the tent of polytheism. (From the Islamic point of view, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity violated the unity of God and thus constituted polytheism.)

To the voice of the Zibatran woman you
  replied, pouring out
A cup of drowsiness and the sweet saliva of
  loving wives.
You replied baring the sword, penetrating—
To reply without the sword would have been
  no reply!
Till, undistracted by the tent-pegs and ropes,
You left Polytheism’s tent-pole fallen in the dust.
          (“Amorium,” lines 46–49; trans. S. Stetkevych)

In contrast to the abstract and lofty terms used to describe the moral and spiritual motivation for the caliph al-Mu‘tasim’s participation in the Amorium campaign, in lines 50–59 the poet employs crude bodily terms to depict the cowardly and materialistic Byzantine emperor. Although the historical sources tell us that the emperor Theophilos withdrew a safe distance to Dorylium, Abu Tammam depicts him as actually witnessing the attack upon his native city, tongue-tied with terror, his bowels churning from fear. He then abandons his companions and flees.

The opposite relation holds between the historian’s and poet’s representations of the rape of the Amorian women (lines 59–66). A narrative account by the twelfth-century Christian chronicler Michael the Syrian provides a graphic and emotive depiction designed to stir the sympathy and horror of his Christian readers over the fate of the Christian populace of Amorium:

When the inhabitants saw that Bodin [the traitor Wandu] had let the Taiyaye [Arabs] enter the city, some fled to the church, crying Kyrie eleison, others into the houses, others into cisterns and still others into pits; the women covered their children, like mother hens, lest they be separated from them, whether by the sword or slavery. The sword of the Taiyaye began the massacre and amassed heaps of corpses; when their sword was drunk with blood, the order came not to massacre any more, but to take the population captive and conduct them outside. Then they pillaged the city. When [al-Mu‘tasim] entered to see the city, he admired the beautiful structure of the temples and palaces. But when he received some news that disturbed him, he put the city to the torch and burned it. There were convents and monasteries of women so numerous that more than a thousand virgins were led into captivity, not counting those who had been massacred. They were given over to the Turkish and Moorish slaves and abandoned to their outrages: Glory to the incomprehensible decrees (of God)!

(Michael the Syrian in Stetkevych, Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy, p. 155)

By contrast, Abu Tammam’s poetic account conceives of the conquest of Amorium and the rape of its women as a rhetorical abstraction, a metaphor for the victory of Islam. Using elements like antithesis, root-play, and strategically chosen diction, he relates the conquering Muslim (male) troops to the conquered female Christians. There is a poetic shock here as the Christian maidens and elements of the heroic military action are described in almost identical terms. The city’s “white-skinned damsels,” reeds “trembling on a sand dune,” are brought into contact with a “drawn and trembling sword [phallus],” “white blades drawn from their sheaths” (“Amorium,” lines 63, 65, 66). The intention of the Christian chronicler’s graphic depiction of the massacre of men and rape of women at Amorium is to foreground the brutality of the Muslim armies and hence the enormity of Christian suffering. On the other hand, Abu Tammam’s rhetorical stylization of this same massacre and rape foregrounds the symbolic significance: the dishonor of the Byzantines and the concomitant restoration of Arab Muslim honor, which had been besmirched by the previous Byzantine conquest of Zibatrah. Turnabout was fair play: at Zibatrah, Muslim men had been slain and mutilated, Muslim women defiled.

The poem achieves two feats in the final blessing and celebratory closure. The first is the mythic parallel that the poem draws between al-Mu‘tasim’s victory at Amorium and the miraculous and original Islamic victory, that of the Prophet Muhammad and a small party of early Muslims against the massive armies of Meccan polytheists arrayed against them at the Battle of Badr: “The closest lineage connects the days of Badr to your victorious days” (“Amorium,” line 70). By using the word lineage, the poet invokes the Abbasids’ genealogical claims to the caliphate (rule over the Islamic ummah), and establishes a “kinship” or “bond” between the reign of al-Mu‘tasim and the age of the Prophet Muhammad. What is striking, in light of the historical sources concerning the Amorium campaign, is how false the poet’s analogy is. Whereas the fledgling Muslim army at the Battle of Badr is said to have achieved an astounding victory through divine aid (in the form of angels fighting on the Muslim side), both Muslim and Christian historical chronicles agree that Amorium, after a 12-day siege, was ultimately taken by treachery. In this section, and indeed throughout the entire poem, the poet provides no hint of any treachery that would detract from the Muslim heroism and military prowess in the conquest of Amorium. Moreover, as the poem presents it, the conquest of Amorium is not an isolated historical incident but one of a long series of divinely ordained Islamic victories, which, like the Abbasid house itself, has a lineage that extends back to the Prophet’s time.

The Abbasids claimed that their dynasty was legitimate in part because of their Arab heritage, which they considered the requisite heritage for the ruler of the Islamic ummah. In keeping with this claim, the closing line (71) reduces the entire set of contrasts in the poem to a racial one: the triumphant bronze complexion of the Arabs versus the pale and blood-drained faces of the vanquished Byzantines. Historical accounts tell us that al-Mu‘tasim’s army—particularly those troops that took part in the Amorium campaign—was largely Turkish and North African, as opposed to Arab, and that al-Mu‘tasim’s gifted Persian general, al-Afshin, played a major and indispensable role. In fact, al-Mu‘tasim’s reign witnessed broad challenges to Arab racial and cultural rule throughout the Islamic ummah by the Turkish military and by a Persian movement (the Shu‘ubiyah movement), which celebrated the superiority of Persian over Arab culture. The effect of Abu Tammam’s closing line is to suppress the true racial makeup of the Islamic forces that took part in the Amorium campaign and indeed that of the Islamic ummah in general. His goal is to identify Islam with the Arabs, to reassert Arab dominion, and to promulgate the myth of Islam as the native Arab religion.

In the “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium,” we witness the poetic transformation of history into myth. With a masterful manipulation of the conventions of poetic form, Abu Tammam exploits the rhetorical and conceptual possibilities of the badi’ style to produce a poem that transforms a military victory into a declaration of Abbasid legitimacy, a vindication of Arab rule, and an enduring myth of Islamic triumph.

Literary context

Abu Tammam’s master-poem takes its place in a long and venerable tradition of Arabic praise poems of the sort that can be called “victory odes.” The tradition has its roots in such celebrated pre-Islamic masterpieces as Alqamah’s “A Heart Turbulent with Passion,” composed to memorialize the victory of the Ghassanid Arab king al-Harith ibn Jabalah when he defeated and slew his rival, the Lakhmid Arab king al-Mundhir ibn Ma al-Sama at the Battle of Ayn Ubagh (in 554). Precursors in Islamic times include “The Tribe Has Departed” by the Umayyad poet-laureate al-Akhtal, which celebrates the God-given victory of the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan over supporters of his rival claimant to the caliphate, Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr (ca. 691–92). Later in the Abbasid period the formative influence of Abu Tammam’s distinctively modern badi’ poetics will emerge in verse by the most celebrated and beloved of the classical Arab poets, al-Mutanabbi (d. 965), especially in his odes commemorating the military victories of the Arab emir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah, over the Byzantines. Throughout this tradition, military victories are transformed from fleeting historical events into a mythic-poetic form that legitimates the victorious ruler and simultaneously perpetuates the ideal of divinely sanctioned rule.


The literary reception of Abu Tammam’s poetry is difficult to disentangle from that of the badi’ style. As Ibn al-Mu‘tazz, one of our earliest sources, puts it, “Then … Abu Tammam … became so infatuated with badi’ that he mastered it, developed it, and used it profusely. In some cases he did well, in others poorly. The latter are the result of excess and the issue of immoderation” (Ibn al-Mu‘tazz in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, p. 21). The response to Abu Tammam’s poetry sparked a literary debate that lasted for several centuries and took the form, primarily, of the dispute between the supporters of Abu Tammam and those of his student and rival, al-Buhturi. The major champion of Abu Tammam was the tenth-century literary scholar, Abu Bakr al-Suli (d. 946).

Though much influenced by his master’s style, the poetry of al-Buhturi was considered more traditionally lyrical and less given to the excesses and artificialities that, according to some, flawed Abu Tammam’s poetry. Someone once asked al-Buhturi, “Who is the better poet, you or Abu Tammam?” He replied, “His good poetry is better than my good poetry, and my poor poetry is better than his poor poetry” (al-Suli in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, p. 48).

The controversy between the two poets reached its apex in the Muwazanah of al-Amidi (d. 981), the “weighing” of the poetry of Abu Tammam against that of al-Buhturi. A proponent of the conservative Arab taste of the tenth century, al-Amidi preferred the “ancient” poets to the “moderns” (early Abbasid on, especially the badi’ poets). It is not surprising then that he inclines toward the conventional lyricism of al-Buhturi rather than the radically innovative badi’ poetry of Abu Tammam. Nevertheless, al-Amidi is aware that, in the end, it is largely a matter of taste:


In his magisterial work, al-Muwazanah (The Weighing), the tenth-century literary critic al-Amidi “weighs” the complex and innovative badi’ poetry of Abu Tammaiti against the more lyrical and conventional poetry of his more conservative younger rival, al-Buhturi. In the example below, al-Amidi compares the two poets’ use of the poetic convention of stopping at the ruins of the encampment where the poet and his beloved once dwelt Abu Tammam compares this emotional experience to a religious one and concludes with a badi’-style pfay on “love” and “pledge” to transform the empty ruin into a metaphor for the poet’s lovelorn heart.

I stopped at a ruin
and questioned it,
Until its abode became almost
a mosque to me.
I kept on describing it
and inquiring after its folk,
And grief was my companion
whether inquiring or describing.
May rain fall on you where
once love was pledged,
But for that place my heart would not
be pledged to love.
          (Abu Tammam in Stetkevyth, Abu Tammam, pp. 86–87)

Al-Amidi prefers al-Buhturi’s more elegantly lyrical passage:

I knew your abode as the coy maidens’ rendezvous,
A place whose company departed,
then wild beasts came.
Stingy the eyelids that did not
lend their tears;
Harsh the heart that did not stay the night with you
when you were stricken.
The cooing of the dove did not
disquieten me,
Nor did it distract me from my passion
when it sang.
          (al-Buhturi in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, pp. 86–87)

Those who prefer al-Buhturi do so because of their predilection for sweetness of expression, beautiful transitions, proper placement of words, correctness of expression, ease of comprehension, and clarity of meaning that they attribute to him—these are the secretaries and the desert Arabs, the naturally gifted poets and the rhetoricians. Those who prefer Abu Tammam do so because of their predilection for the abstruseness and subtlety of meaning


A bu Tammam’s anthology of early Arabic poetry, Diwan al-hamasah (“Anthology of Courage” or “Zeal”), achieved a degree of influence and popularity unequalled by any other anthology of classical Arabic poetry. The collection consists mostly of short selections, largely from the ancient poets, ordered according to subject in 11 chapters, from the first of which it takes its name. Critics have long noted the disparity between the jarringly innovative badi style of Abu Tammam’s own poetic production and the far simpler and more traditional aesthetics of the ancients whose selections he included in al-hamasak Typical of the traditional sensibility is a poem from the chapter on nasib, elegiac love poetry, by the Umayyad bedouin poet, al-Sammah ibn Abd Allah al-Qushayri:

I say to my companion as the gray camels bear us swiftly
Between the hill of al-Munifah and the valley of Dimar:
“Delight in the scent of the ox-eye of Najd,
For after this evening the ox-eye will be no more.
How beloved are the zephyrs of Najd,
The fragrance of its meadows after rainfall,
And your people when the tribe alight in Najd,
When you are not unhappy with your fate.
When whole months elapse, and we notice
Neither their midpoints nor their final night!”
          (al-Qushayri in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, p. 326)

that they attribute to him and the great amount of his work that requires elucidation, commentary, and deduction—these are the conceptualists, the poets of artifice, and those that tend toward subtlety and philosophical speech.

(al-Amidi in Stetkevych, Abu Tammam, p. 50)

As for Abu Tammam’s “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium,” the Abbasid secretary al-Hasan ibn Wahb applauded its strengths, even though, like al-Amidi, he preferred ancient poetry to modern. He knew of no poem, he asserted, “more innovative in its meanings, more perfect in its praise, or more agreeable in its courtesy” than Abu Tammam’s masterpiece (Ibn Wahb in al-Suli, pp. 109–13; trans. S. Stetkevych).

Whatever his poetic excesses, Abu Tammam created, in “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium” and his other badi’-style poetry, a definitively “modern” poetics that influenced all the major poets that followed him and shaped the literary aesthetics of classical and post-classical Arabic literature. His poem remains a fundamental text in the classical Arabic literary canon.

—Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych

For More Information

Abu Tammam. Diwan Abi Tammam bi-sharh al-Khatib al-Tibrizi. Ed. Muhammad Abduh Azzam. 4 vols. Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1951.

Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Badawi, M. M. “The Function of Rhetoric in Medieval Arabic Poetry: Abu Tammam’s ‘Ode on Amorium.’” Journal of Arabic Literature 9 (1978): 43–56.

Sperl, Stefan. “Islamic Kingship and Arabic Panegyric Poetry in the Early 9th Century.” Journal of Arabic Literature 8 (1977): 20–35.

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. Abu Tammam and the Poetics of the Abbasid Age. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991.

_____. The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002.

al-Suli, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya. Akhbar Abi Tammam. Eds. Khalil Mahmud Asakir, Muhammad Abduh Azzam, and Nazir al-Islam al-Hindi. Beirut: al-Maktab al-Tijari, n.d.

al-Tabari, Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir. Storm and Stress along the Northern Frontiers of the Abbasid Caliphate. Vol. 33 of The History of al-Tabari. Trans. C. E. Bosworth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Vasiliev, A. A. Byzance et les Arabes: Tome dynastie d’Amorium. Ed. H. Grégoire and M. Canard. Brussels: Editions de I’Institut de Philologie et d’Histoire Orientales, 1935.

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