The Zanj Revolt
The Zanj (Arabic for “Blacks”) Revolt of 869 – 883 began as an uprising by black slaves in southern Iraq. The rebels were soon joined by other slaves and freemen, and the uprising became a major revolt against the Abbassid Caliphate. By the time it was over, hundreds of thousands had been killed, with some estimates running into the millions, and the Abbassid Caliphate had been fatally weakened.
For generations, thousands of African slaves had toiled in massive field projects to drain the salty marshes of southern Iraq. The work was backbreaking, the slaves were underfed and brutally treated, and jammed by the thousands into crowded labor camps. The inhumane conditions bred resentment, and the slave camps became powder kegs awaiting a spark.
That spark was provided in 869 by an obscure Arab or Persian mystic poet named Ali ibn Muhammad, who asserted that God had instructed him to lead a crusade. Preaching freedom and equality regardless of race or class, he began recruiting Zanj slaves. They flocked to his side in such large numbers that he became known as Sahib al Zanj – Arabic for “Chief of the Zanj”. Ali’s egalitarian preaching appealed to other downtrodden people, who similarly rallied to him.
Fighting began in September of 869, and the uprising was characterized as one of the bloodiest and most destructive rebellions the Middle East has ever known. The Zanj became expert guerrilla warriors, ambushing government troops in the marshes. They also raided the surrounding villages and cities to seize supplies and free other slaves. At the height of the revolt, the Zanj controlled southern Iraq, including its biggest city, Basra, which they captured in 871, and their territory extended to within 50 miles of the Abbassid capital of Baghdad. The rebels formed a government, ran a navy, collected taxes, and minted their own coins.
The tide finally turned in 881, when the government amassed a huge army that drove the rebels back into the marshes. Besieged, many rebels were induced to quit during the following two years with the offer of generous terms to those who voluntarily submitted. The revolt finally came to an end in 883 with the capture of the Zanj’s last major bastion, during which their leader, Ali ibn Muhammad, was killed.