Yacub Ibn Al-Laith Al-Saffar (يعقوب بن الليث الصفار) lived from A.D. 840 to 879, and is credited as the founder of the Saffarid dynasty of Sistan. Sistan is the geographic area now known as eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan; its capital was the city of Zaranj. The word saffar in Arabic means “brass founder,” an artisan working in brass; but Yacub was said to be a coppersmith. His biographer Ibn Khallikan credits Yacub with this wise saying:
If you keep company with a man for forty days without discovering his true character, you will not discover it in forty years. [IV.322]
This maxim is certainly true: I doubt any man could conceal his true character in the company of another for even four days, never mind forty days. Yacub was said to be a stern disciplinarian with his soldiers, but a fair one, in the sense that he felt that his directives should apply equally to all. He was known never to ask of his men anything that he himself was unwilling to perform; and he was not so thin-skinned that he was unable to accept guidance from his ministers. The following anecdote appears in Ibn Khallikan’s short biography of Yacub, and is meant to illustrate the ethic that this leader adopted for himself and his men. I will retell it here.
The ancient Persian king Kisra Inushirwan (son of Kobad) trusted his army to an administrator (katib) named Babek Ibn Nahrewan, a man renowned for his ability and military virtues. Babek said to the king, “Sire, you have entrusted this critical task to me, a task that will require me to use a firm hand. I will have to pass in review the soldiers every four months, to ensure that they are properly outfitted and conditioned. In this way I can see if they have earned their pay. I have to make sure that they are being trained properly in horsemanship and archery, and that their instructors are doing their jobs. Those who do their jobs well will be rewarded, and those who fail will be punished. Please accept my conditions, and allow me to do what I feel is necessary for the good discipline of the army, even if it may not at first please you.”
“He whose request is now granted, cannot be happier than he who grants it,” responded Kisra. “Undertake those actions as are needed to maintain good order and discipline in the army.”
A platform was then built as a reviewing stand, upon which lush carpets were spread. Babek had the men of a large army unit assembled; but he dismissed them when he did not see the king, Kisra, among the soldiers present. Babek did the same thing the day after this, and the king was still not present. On the third day, he issued the following directive: “For the next pass in review, all soldiers will be required to present themselves, even if they were the diadem and possess the throne. No one will be exempt.” By this directive, he meant to make it clear to the king that he must appear, just like all the other soldiers.
When Kisra heard this, he dutifully complied. He mounted his horse, put on his armor, and passed in review before his sharp-eyed inspector, Babek. Every horseman was required to show his horse-armor (tijfaf), a coat of mail, a breastplate, a helmet with a chain-mail neckpiece, two armlets, two cuisses (armor for the thighs), a spear, a buckler, a mace affixed to the belt, a battle-axe (tabarzin), two bows and strings, thirty arrows, and two additional bowstrings rolled up and affixed to the helmet. This was the equipment they were required to show for inspection.
Kisra then appeared before his inspector and presented himself, just as any other soldier. Babek noticed that the king did not have the two additional bowstrings attached to his helmet, as was required; he therefore failed the king in his inspection, and told him to correct the deficiency at once. No one had ever spoken this way to the king before, and those who were within earshot were shocked that such a scene had taken place. But Kisra got his bowstrings, and presented himself again before his inspector. This time he passed inspection. Babek said to the king, “The head of the army shall receive four thousand dirhams, plus one dirham!” The highest pay a regular soldier could receive was four thousand dirhams, and Babek awarded the king this, plus one extra dirham, since the king was the head of the army. In this way the inspector indicated his satisfaction, and at the same time gave the king his due as commander-in-chief.
Later, Babek said to Kisra, “Sire, blame me not for my severity! I only wanted to demonstrate that discipline and accountability should apply equally to all, regardless of rank or station.”
The king smiled and put his hand on Babek’s shoulder, and said, “Do not worry about this at all, Sir. He who acts vigorously with the intention of correcting our faults, and does so in good faith, is rendering a valuable service to the nation. Such action should never be resented. Every man, especially a king, must be held accountable to rules and discipline. Just as a sick man submits to the correctives of a physician, so must we all submit ourselves to the rules of discipline, restraint, justice, and good order.” This is how Kisra made the point that no one, not even a king, should be above the rules of proper conduct and discipline.
An interesting side observation here is that mounted bowmen in medieval Persia were expected to keep spare bowstrings affixed to their helmets, apparently for ease of access during the chaos of battle. This reminded me of how American soldiers in Vietnam would sometimes keep spare magazines in their helmet bands.
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