When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Mahra and the Ṭāhirids (1454 CE - 1495 CE)

The recrudescence of Mahri sovereignty over al-Shiḥr (60 km. east of al-Mukallā) reached its high-water mark under Muḥammad bin Saʿīd bin Fāris Bā Dujāna, whose control over the port was enabled by the decline of the Rasūlid state in the mid-fifteenth century and the absence of an immediate successor to it along the South Arabian littoral. Emboldened by circumstances, Muḥammad bin Saʿd bin Fāris Bā Dujāna mounted a naval campaign against Aden in 1456 CE, perhaps modelled after the raids against Dhofār in the preceding decades. The naval campaign against Aden was spectacularly unsuccessful and had critical consequences for the independent statelet presided over by the Bā Dujāna family based in al-Shiḥr, as shall be seen.
A note about the identity of the Bā Dujāna family is necessary here: as indicated for the Āl Fāris and for other historical players along South-Central Arabian coast, there is uncertainty whether the Bā Dujāna family or lineage was Mahri in the sense that their maternal language was the Mahri language. For instance, we may infer from the gentilic “al-Kindī” applied to Muḥammad bin Saʿd Bā Dujāna by a number of Ḥaḍramī historians that the Bā Dujāna lineage is derived from Central Arabia and was Arabic monolingual, not Mahri. However, his family’s territorial holdings within the majority Mahri-speaking region of Ḥayrīj (east of al-Shiḥr near modern-day Dharfāt), his primary associates and allies from the Mahri Zwēdī and Mhōmed tribes, and the interwoven Āl Fāris/Shamāsa/Bā Dujāna patronymics suggest that, like the other members of the Bā Dujāna family, Muḥammad bin Saʿd bin Fāris was Mahri-speaking or closely related to those who were. Moreover, the legacy of Muḥammad bin Saʿd bin Fāris Bā Dujāna is ardently claimed by the Mahri themselves, and, despite the gap of over five hundred years, the name Bā Dujāna evokes a sense of pride and regional chauvinism in al-Mahra, particularly its western territories. However, this sentiment is linked to modern manifestations of political sovereignty; it is doubtful that the Bā Dujānas (or the Āl Fāris or the Shamāsa group) viewed themselves as appertaining to an abstract community of Mahri speakers in contrast to the Arabic monolinguals who lived around and among them. Importantly, the Mahri language plays no role whatsoever in premodern histories of the region; the various tribes that nowadays speak the Mahri language are treated by Arabic-monolingual historians no differently than other Arabic-monolingual tribes from the region. Except for distinctly Mahri elements in personal and tribal names such as Zwēdī (rendered in written Arabic as “Zawīdī” or the “Bayt Ziyād”), Mhōmed (rendered in written Arabic as “Muhūmad” or “Bayt Muḥammad”), or Umbārek (Ar. Mubārak), a reader unacquainted with the linguistic singularity of al-Mahra would never guess so from the premodern historical chronicles. 

As suggested by the intrigue of the Zaydī Imāmate in Sana’a during the conflict between Rāshidi and Fārisi factions in al-Shiḥr, the history of al-Mahra is inevitably intertwined with events happening elsewhere in Yemen, in this case, the replacement of the Rasūlid dynasty by their native Yemeni vassals and former collaborators, the Banī Ṭāhir. As reported by Bā Makhrama’s chronicle, the transition from Rasūlid to Tāhirid authority proceeded with difficulty in Aden. One of the final claimants to the Rasūlid sultanate, al-Masʿūd Abū al-Qāsim, sought refuge in Aden as a redoubt against his Rasūlid rivals, yet his hold over Aden was precarious. In the absence of effective Rasūlid authority, Aden in 1454 CE had devolved into a state of intramural violence wrought by two rival factions: the Āl ʾAḥmad and the Āl Kilad, both of whom hailed from Yāfiʿ to the north and east of Aden. Whereas the Āl Kilad were the more numerous of the two factions, the Āl ʾAḥmad possessed the strategic advantage because they held the fortifications surrounding Aden. The situation was so fraught that commerce ground to a halt; homes were shuttered, and any who could afford to do so stationed hirelings on their roofs to hurl rocks onto the heads of potential troublemakers below. Fearing that the merchants of Aden would hand him over to the ascendant Banī Ṭāhir, the Rasūlid Sultan al-Masʿūd fled Aden and found refuge with the Mamlukes in Zabīd. After the abdication of al-Masʿūd, the final claimant to Rasūlid authority, al-Muʾayyad Ḥusayn bin al-Ẓāhir, entered Aden; however, the situation had already progressed beyond his control. Fearful of the Āl Kilad’s numerical superiority, the Āl ʾAḥmad sent a delegation to al-Miqrāna (near present-day Radāʿ) where the Banī Ṭāhir were based and offered them their vassalage in exchange for leadership positions in Aden. Āl ʾAḥmad’s support for the Banī Ṭāhir was likewise made contingent on the removal of their rivals, the Āl Kilad, from Aden (Bā Makhrama, cited in al-Ḥāmid, 1968: 570).
The leaders (mashāyikh) of the Banī Ṭāhir agreed to the proposal and deputized ʿAlī b. Ṭāhir (later titled al-Malik al-Mujāhid, “The Warrior King,” the second Ṭāhirid sultan) to take Aden, supported by a second force under his brother, ʿĀmir b. Ṭāhir (later titled al-Malik al-Ẓāfir, “The Victorious King,” the first Ṭāhirid sultan). Living up to his future title, ʿAlī b. Ṭāhir personally scaled the walls of the Taʿkar Citadel with the connivance of Āl ʾAḥmad guardsmen who lowered ropes to assist him. However, one of the Āl ʾAḥmad guardsmen, a certain al-Qaḥḥāṭ, had second thoughts about betraying the defenses of Aden and left ʿAlī b. Ṭāhir dangling in midair.  Al-Qaḥḥāṭ was prevailed upon by his fellow guardsmen, and ʿAlī b. Ṭāhir was pulled up to the ramparts. Once in control of the fort, ʿAlī b. Ṭāhir called to his brother ʿĀmir, whose troops entered Taʿkar Citadel and there dealt fairly with the Āl ʾAḥmad guardsmen except for al-Qaḥḥāṭ, whose fate is not recorded (Ba Makhrama, cited in al-Ḥāmid, 1968: 570).
Having taken control of Aden and treated the final Rasūlid sultan al-Muʾayyad with clemency, the Banī Ṭāhir followed through with the final condition of their agreement and expelled the notables of the Āl Kilad from Aden. The latter took refuge in a number of cities and towns along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, including al-Shiḥr, where they found a patron in the person of Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna, the sovereign Mahri shaykh of al-Shiḥr (Muqaddam, 2005: 280, citing Ibn Daybaʿ).  The Āl Kilad refugees in al-Shiḥr prevailed upon Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna and convinced him that Aden was ripe for plunder - its defenses weakened and its people leaderless in the absence of a sultan – and provided tactical details for infiltrating a fort known as al-Qufl (“The Lock”) (Muqaddam, 2005: 284, citing Bā Makhrama). With his appetite for plunder and political ambitions whetted, in 1456 CE Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna outfitted an armada of nine ships to transport a host of Zwēdī and Mhōmed tribesmen from al-Mahra and their allies, the Yāfiʿī Āl Kilad, to the outskirts of Aden. Meanwhile, Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna ordered that all traffic leaving the port of al-Shiḥr be halted lest news of the impending attack reach Aden. However, one small craft, a sunbuq, slipped the blockade and informed the Ṭāhirid governor of Aden, al-Sharīf ʿAlī b. Sufyān, of the impending attack and its first strategic goal at al-Qufl. What the crew of the sunbuq found in Aden would have heartened Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna: the Ṭāhirid army had already departed Aden, and its defenses were poorly manned. Upon receiving word of the coming invasion from al-Shiḥr, the Ṭāhirid governor of Aden, al-Sharīf ʿAlī b. Sufyān, sent word to the Ṭāhirid capital at al-Miqrāna for reinforcements and hastened to shore up what little defenses existed in al-Qufl with a levy of Somali and Ethiopian troops. The Āl Kilad had not exaggerated the weakness of Aden’s defenses: al-Sharīf ʿAlī b. Sufyān was only able to find four cannons (makāḥil; see Serjeant, 1974: 130-31) to defend his post.
In the meantime, Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna launched his armada; however, opposite the coast at Khawr Maksar on the approach to Aden, a vicious windstorm blew up that sank two ships in Bā Dujāna’s fleet. While Bā Dujāna remained stalled in his advance on Aden by high seas and difficult winds, the Ṭāhirid Sultan al-Malik al-Ẓāfir ʿĀmir b. Ṭāhir was given sufficient time to march an army to Aden and assume command of its defenses. Confronted with the loss of two of his ships and the arrival of a Ṭāhirid host, Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna decided to cut his losses and return to al-Shiḥr. However, while bringing his fleet around, Bā Dujāna’s ship was swamped by waves, and Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna and a number of his confederates were cast up on the beach at Khawr Maksar where they were captured by the Ṭāhirid troops who had watched the disaster unfold from their positions along the beach. Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna was taken alive; Mubārak al-Yāfiʿī, one of the Āl Kilad who instigated the campaign, was killed on the spot. In celebration of their unexpected deliverance, the Ṭāhirids paraded Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna on camelback through the streets of Aden and took him up to the balcony of the ʾamīr’s residence in Aden, the Dār al-Saʿāda, where he was instructed to watch the festivities below, having been overheard to promise that one day he would look out from the Dār al-Saʿāda as its sovereign (Muqaddam, 2005: 288). Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna would be held as a captive of the Ṭāhirids in Aden for a period of two years: 1456-58 CE.
Meanwhile, back in al-Shiḥr, the Bā Dujāna family faced new woes. Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna’s naval campaign was not launched with the unanimous consent of his family and clients. For one, his mother, a tribeswoman (bint al-maʿāshir) of firm and resolute character (dhāt ḥazm wa-ʿazm), had advised against the naval campaign in the first place (Muqaddam, 2005: 288, citing Bā Makhrama). Having dealt with Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna’s naval invasion, the Ṭāhirids determined to take the fight back to al-Shiḥr and sent an army to take it under the command of Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn Jayyāsh al-Sunbulī in 1457 CE (Porter, 2002: 173). Al-Sunbulī managed to occupy the eastern portion of al-Shiḥr; however, the western half of the city remained under the control of the Bā Dujāna family thanks to an energetic defense organized by Muḥammad Saʿd Bā Dujāna’s mother. The city was divided and both sides were locked in a stalemate until a delegation of al-Shiḥr’s citizens brought al-Sunbulī and the matriarch of the Bā Dujāna family together to negotiate a settlement: the Ṭāhirids agreed to release Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna from captivity on the condition that he and his mother would relinquish their claim to al-Shiḥr and retire permanently to Ḥayrīj (Dharfāt). The Bā Dujāna matriarch agreed and withdrew to Ḥayrīj where she was joined after by her son in 1458 CE (al-Jidḥī, 2013: 158-59) and where he died shortly thereafter.
Despite the retirement of their former chief and his mother to Ḥayrīj, the remaining members of the Bā Dujāna family in al-Shiḥr refused to submit to Ṭāhirid control under al-Sunbulī, placed one of their own in charge of al-Shiḥr, and forbade any maritime commerce from al-Shiḥr to Aden (Muqaddam, 2005: 295, citing Yaḥyā b. al-Ḥusayn). As a result, the Ṭāhirids resolved to march an army to al-Shiḥr in order to remove the Ba Dujāna once and for all and install a Ṭāhirid-loyal governor. Accordingly, in 1461 CE, al-Malik ʿĀmir b. Ṭāhir, the first Ṭāhirid sultan, set out along the southern coastal route to al-Shiḥr with a great host (the cost of baggage camels alone was 12,000 dinars), which was accompanied by a flotilla of resupply ships (Muqaddam, 2005: 297, citing al-ʿUqaylī; Porter, 2002: 173, citing Ibn al-Daybaʿ). Much like that of Muḥammad Saʿd Bā Dujāna before him, al-Malik ʿĀmir b. Ṭāhir’s campaign nearly ended in disaster: his army would have perished from thirst along the desolate stretch of coast from Aden to al-Shiḥr but for a providential flood.
When the Bā Dujāna in al-Shiḥr learned of the size of the Ṭāhirid army on its way, they decided not to contest the fight and withdrew from al-Shiḥr, leaving it open to the Ṭāhirid vanguard, who plundered it for a day until the Ṭāhirid Sultan al-Malik ʿĀmir b. Ṭāhir arrived from the rear, restored order, and appointed ʾAḥmad b. ʾIsmāʿīl b. Sunqur al-Yamanī as governor of al-Shiḥr (Muqaddam, 2005: 295, citing Bā Makhrama; Porter, 2003: 173, citing Ibn al-Daybaʿ). In removing the Bā Dujāna from authority in al-Shiḥr, the Ṭāhirids also secured the support of the Āl Kathīr, the ruling family of Ḥaḍramawt and Dhofār, who looked upon the Bā Dujāna (and subsequently, the Mahri Āl ʿAfrār) as an obstacle to their territorial ambitions. Indeed, total control of al-Shiḥr appears to have been quickly assumed by the Āl Kathīr; in his report for year 1462-63 CE, Shanbal writes that the Ṭāhirids appointed Badr b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh al-Kathīrī the governor of al-Shiḥr, apparently replacing ʾAḥmad b. ʾIsmāʿīl b. Sunqur al-Yamanī (Muqaddam, 2005: 296).  However, Ṭāhirid control over al-Shiḥr did not last long: al-Kinḍī writes that al-Shiḥr was claimed by an independent Kathīrī state under Sultan Badr b. Muḥammad al-Kathīrī in the same year.  In this way, al-Shiḥr passed from nominal Ṭāhirid control to Kathīrī vassalage in the space of a year (Muqaddam, 2005: 296).  The Kathīrīs moved quickly to consolidate their power: fearful of another Mahri recrudescence under the Bā Dujāna family, the Kathīrīs marched on Ḥayrīj in 1466 CE and wrested it from their control (Muqaddam, 2005: 297, citing al-ʿUqaylī). However, they were ultimately unsuccessful in their bid for regional hegemony: the Bā Dujāna clan reconstituted itself under the leadership of the young and ambitious Saʿd b. Mubārak b. Fāris, who managed to retake al-Shiḥr from Badr b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh al-Kathīrī in 1478 CE. Once again in the hands of the Bā Dujāna family, al-Shiḥr would remain under their control until 1495 CE (Muqaddam, 2005: 298, citing Shanbal and al-Kindī). 
There is one important coda to Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna’s attempted invasion of Aden, captivity, and release. The nineteenth-century Ḥaḍramī historian al-Kindī relates that when Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna’s mother departed al-Shiḥr to secure her son’s release, conflict broke out in al-Shiḥr between a number of its residents, on one hand, and the Bā Dujāna family and their maternal cousins, the Āl ʿAfrār, on the other (Muqaddam, 2005: 290, citing al-Kindī). The reason for this uprising is not mentioned in al-Kindī’s history, although one may speculate that it was linked to the catastrophic failure of Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna’s naval excursion. Ultimately, however, the Bā Dujāna and Āl ʿAfrār surrounded al-Shiḥr and quelled the uprising. Although this notice is historically insignificant, it constitutes the earliest mention of the Āl ʿAfrār family, the future sultans of al-Mahra (and Soqōṭrā) who would remain its paramount shaykhs until 1967, and whose star appears ascendant once again in al-Mahra as a consequence of the collapse of a centralized and united Yemeni republic in 2014. Further, the conjoining of the Bā Dujāna to the Āl ʿAfrār on his mother’s side is incontrovertible evidence of Muḥammad b. Saʿd Bā Dujāna’s Mahri bona fides; not only did he possess a verifiably Mahri lineage through the Āl ʿAfrār, but the maternal side of his family appears to be firmly tied to Bā Dujāna interests and was active in promoting them.
The final significance of this report relates to a thematic rendering of Mahri history: the passing of the torch of Mahri revanchism from the Bā Dujāna to the Āl Afrār family, a political inheritance that we have previously seen hinted at through historical association and shared patronymics between the Āl Fāris and the Shamāsa group, the Shamāsa group and the Bā Dujāna, and, finally, the Bā Dujāna and the Āl ʿAfrār. It is not necessary that these families be as closely related to one another as the historical sources indicate; rather, we may interpret the unbroken chain of the revanchist lineage in al-Mahra as genealogical engineering by historians and chroniclers to project a common lineage onto those Mahri families and clans who adopted a similar political posture, in this case, the rejection of non-local domination.

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