1795: Sayat-Nova

1 comment September 22nd, 2017 Headsman

The Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”) was martyred on this date in 1795 by the invading Qajar army.

Poet, singer, and legendary wielder of the kamancheh in the court of the Georgian king,* Sayat-Nova was also an ordained priest in the Armenian Church.

This last point would figure crucially upon the invasion of the Qajar Shah seized the Caucasus in a 1795 bloodbath:** trapped in a monastery, Sayat-Nova faced the ritual Islamic offer of conversion or death. He chose immortality.

His legendary name and likeness adorn many public places in Armenia (not to mention an Armenian cognac), as well as places touched by the Armenian diaspora like a Boston dance company.

YouTube searches on the man’s name yield a rich trove of songs and movies about the man, but the best commemoration for these pages is surely his own music.

* Until he got ejected for scandalously falling in love with the king’s sister and became a wandering bard. Poets!

** The Shah was assassinated two years later, and the Qajars lost their grip on the Caucasus as a result.

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1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party

Add comment February 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.

Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?

The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.

Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.

That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.

Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.

The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)

Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.

Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.

That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.

Formally banned in Iran, the Tudeh party does still exists to this day, an exile shadow of its former glory.

* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)

** Iran at this moment was two years deep into its war with Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, having in 1982 stalled out with a bloody and ineffectual offensive.

Other background of note: a different, Maoist party had in early 1982 launched a failed rising against the Islamic Republic.

† This doesn’t add up to 101. According to Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, “when a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he [Mohammed Reyshahri] hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation.”

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1680: The wife of Abdullah Celebi, and her Jewish lover

Add comment June 28th, 2016 Headsman

At noon on Friday, 28 June 1680, people crowded into Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the city’s main public space, to stone to death a Muslim woman identified as ‘the wife of Abdullah Celebi’ for adultery with an infidel, and to witness the beheading of the Jew who was alleged to be her lover, a neighbourhood shopkeeper. Neighbours who had raided her home when they knew that the Jew was inside claimed to have found the couple having intercourse, which was doubly illicit: not only was she married, but sexual relations between Christian or Jewish men and Muslim women were forbidden by law. The accused denied any wrongdoing, but a mob dragged the two before the chief justice of the empire’s European provinces (known as Rumelia), Beyazizade Ahmet (d. 1686), who had previously been the main judge at Istanbul’s Islamic law (shariah) court.

Beyazizade accepted the testimony of the witnesses. Denying the accused a trial, he condemned the pair to death. Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha (d. 1683) reported his decision to Sultan Mehmet IV (r. 1648–87, d. 1693), who confirmed the sentence. The sultan attended the double execution in person and offered the man conversion to Islam, permitting him to die swiftly and with dignity by decapitation. Mehmet IV was the only sultan to order an adulteress to be executed by stoning during 465 years of Ottoman rule in Istanbul.

Indeed, public stoning of adulterers was such a rare event in medieval and early modern Islamic history that it is difficult to find any other examples of Islamic rulers punishing transgressors of sexual norms in this way.

This remarkable double execution comes to us by way of three Muslim chroniclers via “Death in the Hippodrome: Sexual Politics and Legal Culture in the Reign of Mehmet IV” by Marc Baer* — whom we have excerpted above. Regrettably, it’s entombed behind a paywall.

Our Ottoman interlocutors universally hold the stoning and beheading as a gross moral failure on the part of both judge and sultan. To begin with, all three chroniclers consider the accusation against the couple legally groundless: evidently the two were not really caught in flagrante delicto and both denied the liaison; this led Sari Mehmet Pasha** to sharply criticize the judge for even admitting neighbors’ suspicions as evidence — rather than punishing the accusers themselves for slander.

According to shariah it is incumbent to accept such testimony only when this situation is witnessed with one’s own eyes, meaning that the witnesses actually see the man insert his penis in and out of the woman ‘like inserting the reed pen in and out of the kohl pot’. But this is one of those impossible conditions set forth to ensure that such charges and their punishment are not frivolously made. Moreover, what is also needed is the woman’s own confession, or admission of guilt. Yet in this case she insistently denied the charge. The Jew likewise continuously claimed he had no knowledge of the affair.

Indeed, another astonished chronicler, Mehmet Rashid, believed that the law required such exacting pornographic specificity of a witness that no adulterers had ever been executed in the history Islam without their own confession. All describe the eyewitness standard as a shield, not a cudgel.

Moreover, even a demonstrable crime of the flesh — and even one committed by a Jew or Christian with a married Muslim woman — ought not result in capital punishment according to religious scholars of the period marshaled by Baer. (At least, not of the man: theoretically the woman could be stoned to death although in practice this never occurred either.)

What was bizarre and blameworthy to contemporaries was that an esteemed judge issued a verdict of literally historic harshness on such dubious grounds — and that the sultan seemed eager not to restrain, but to enforce it. Their narratives† cast Mehmet in a very dark light. “Let me see [the executions] in person,” he says in Silahdar Findiklili Mehmet Agha’s account — then makes a point to cross the Hellespont that morning from the Asian to the European side of the city the better to establish himself in a mansion commanding a view of the ceremonies.

At that time they brought the woman and the Jew to the place of execution. Being told, “Become a Muslim, you will be redeemed, you will go to Paradise,” the Jew was honored by the glory of Islam and then decapitated at the base of a bronze dragon

Wailing and lamenting, [the woman] cried, “They have slandered me. I am innocent and have committed no sin. For the sake of the princes, do not kill me, release me!” But they did not let her go.

Since the incident is unique even in Mehmet’s own long reign one draws larger conclusions at one’s own risk: hard cases make bad law. But it might be possible to perceive here a misjudgment by a man who, having grown to manhood out of the shadow of the dangerous harem that had lately dominated Ottoman politics felt keen to assert himself as a champion of realm and faith alike. (And his sex into the bargain.)

Baer presents Mehmet as an unusually eager proselytizer, always ready with a conversion blandishment whether for infidels captured in the empire’s European wars or for chance encounters with Jewish and Christian commoners. (He also forced a noted rabbi, Shabbatai Tzevi, to convert after the latter started getting some traction as a possible Messiah, and eventually began pressuring Istanbul’s numerous court Jews — physicians, advisors, and miscellaneous elite intelligentsia — to become Muslims as well.) And a Muslim movement had in recent years clamped down on carnivalesque diversions like taverns and public singing thought to trend toward impiety.

Three years later, Mehmet would (over)extend the Porte’s sway to the gates of Vienna. But Mehmet’s defeat there helped to collapse his own power back home, and he was deposed in 1687.

Our correspondents, writing in the wake of that reversal, unmistakably view affairs like this date’s executions as evidence of moral depravity that was punished by its authors’ subsequent misfortunes. Writing of the once-powerful judge, who chanced to die around the same time Mehmet fell, Defterdar concludes that “Beyazizade fearlessly persevered in the matter without scruple” until “the hearts of young and old turned away from him in disgust” and he fell “from the summit of his dignity.”

* Past and Present, Feb. 2011

** The imperial treasurer, himself executed in 1717.

† It does bear remarking that all three chroniclers wrote after Mehmet IV’s own fall.

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845: The 42 Martyrs of Amorium

8 comments March 6th, 2016 Headsman

March 6 is the feast date of the 42 Martyrs of Amorium, the day in the year 845 when they submitted to the caliphate’s executioners in preference to conversion.

Though they were people of rank in their lifetimes, most of them are not known to posterity by name or even position. Devotionally, they govern no special sphere of intercession; iconographically, they have no special device. When depicted (itself unusual) it is simply as a gaggle of generic courtiers.*

It seems a fitting fate for mere individuals ground up between states and faiths; even so, their weedy tombs mark a fork on the path trod by Byzantium.

The 42 earned their martyrs’ crowns at the end of seven years’ imprisonment, so it is to the Byzantine war with the Abbasid Caliphate in 837-838 that we must return to unravel their story. This war was itself merely the resumption of a conflict that had been ongoing between the civilizations for two centuries since Arab conquerors emerged from the Arabian desert to found an empire.

With the connivance, encouragement, or cajoling of anti-caliphate rebel Babak Khorramdin, the young Byzantine emperor Theophilos broke four years of tense peace with destructive effect in 837, ravaging the Upper Euphrates.

“He captured and burned the fortress of Zapetra, putting to death the male population and carrying off the women and children,” John Bury wrote in A History of the Eastern Empire from the fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I. Upon his return to the mandatory official Triumph, “[t]roops of children with garlands of flowers went out to meet the Emperor as he entered the capital. In the Hippodrome he competed himself in the first race, driving a white chariot and in the costume of a Blue charioteer;** and when he was crowned as winner, the spectators greeted him with the allusive cry, ‘Welcome, incomparable champion!'” Because the one thing 200 years of engaging the Arabs in back-and-forth raids, counterattacks, and suits for peace had taught Byzantium was that victories would surely prove durable.

In truth this war was also politics by other means — domestic politics, that is.

Theophilos really did aspire to incomparable championhood of something far more important than the position of the frontier: in matters religious, he was a stringent iconoclast and he meant to win Christendom firmly over to this philosophy.

The century-old schism within the communion — pitting iconoclasts, like Theophilos, who condemned as idolatrous the veneration of religious imagery against iconophiles or iconodules who embraced it — itself likely owed much to the stunning march of Arab arms and the wound Caliphate success had inflicted on a state and faith that had formerly presumed itself hegemonic. It was certainly the case that Roman superstition† perceived in the battlefield results of imperial adherents to the rival icon’isms a going divine referendum. God says go with whichever icon policy starts beating Islam!

Well might the triumphant Theophilos preen, then — right before the fall, like the Good Book says. Gibbon charged that Theophilos “was rash and fruitless” and “from his military toils he derived only the surname of the Unfortunate.”

The caliph al-Mu’tasim counterattacked the Unfortunate ruthlessly in 838, invading Anatolia in two huge columns that converged on a major city, Amorium.‡ There, they penetrated the city’s walls and put her to the sack — slaughtering unnumbered thousands and carrying away most survivors as slaves, outrageously unmolested by the chastisement of any Byzantine army.


12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes, an edition of the chronicle written by 11th century Greek historian John Skylitzes. The volume was produced in Sicily; it’s got “Madrid” in the name because that’s where the sole surviving copy of it resides today.

Byzantium might have been fortunate on this occasion that, before he could extend his conquest, al-Mu’tasim’s domestic politics promptly recalled him to the caliphate to deal with plots against his own throne. But the raid devastated the martial credibility of Theophilos the incomparable champion, and with it the credibility of iconoclasm. Nor can there have been much fortune reckoned by the thousands of prisoners marched out of the smouldering ruins of Amorium to the new Arab capital Samarra — among whom we find this post’s titular 42 martyrs.

They were, or at least seemed, the crown jewels among the captives, meaning the ones with cash value. Constantinople and Samarra would engage in periodic negotiations over the next several years to exchange them; the Caliphate’s insistence on obtaining for their return a treasure equal to the cost it had incurred to attack Amorium in the first place put an unbridgeable gap between the sides.

The nameless and rankless commoners among them went to their nameless destinies; undoubtedly their experience was cruel and many died or were killed, but for those who endured the tribulations there was a return to hearth and home in a prisoner exchange in 841.

For the VIPs, deliverance sank into the Mesopotamian mud.

Both Theophilos and al-Mu’tasim died in 842 and sometime around there the respective empires seem to have given up trying to resolve the impasse about the Amorium ransom. A few more years on with no apparent relief forthcoming from the annoyance of maintaining these now-useless prisoners of war, someone in Samarra decided to dispose of them with the ultimatum.

Their martyrs’ glory assured their afterlife in Byzantine religious propaganda. Yes, these two Christian sects had made martyrs of one another within the empire. But iconoclasm really hinged on one crucial argument fatally undone by the 42 martyrs: victory. The pro-icon emperors from 797 to 813 had been associated with retreat and humiliation;§ one had even been killed on campaign in the Balkans leaving the Bulgar king Krum to fashion the imperial skull into a ceremonial goblet. That the iconoclast rulers of the succeeding generation had at least stabilized the situation was their ultimate scoreboard taunt. Amorium dispelled that glow of providential favor, especially when followed by the years-long abandonment of that razed city’s noble hostages to the heathen dungeon.

Little could the monk Euodios know that his iconoclasm-tweaking hagiography of these martyrs would prove a redundant step.

The late Theophilos had only an infant son, so governance after his death fell to a regency led by the empress Theodora. Despite her dead husband’s scruples, Theodora didn’t mind an icon one bit, and restored icon veneration to a favor it would never again lose for the six centuries remaining to Byzantium.

* See for example the leftmost group on the second row in this image. (Located here)

** One of the principal charioteering teams/factions that had, centuries before, nearly overthrown Justinian and Theodora.

† Among the Romans themselves for whom supernatural causation was an assumed fact on the ground, superstitio had a more attenuated meaning, contrasting with religio. That is far afield for this post; I use the term here advisedly from a post-Enlightenment cosmology.

‡ Amorium is no more today: just a ruin buried under a village. But not because of this siege.

§ Charlemagne being crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 was also a gesture of disregard for a weakened (and at that moment, female-ruled) Byzantium, which dignified itself the Roman Empire despite having long since abandoned Rome itself.

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1284: Tekuder, Mongol sultan

Add comment August 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1284, the deposed Mongol ruler Tekuder was put to death.

The Mongols had conquered half the world on the back of steppe horses and religious toleration. Mongols variously adopted Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as tribal shamanism; it even sponsored debates among the rival confessions. What counted in the end for the men who commanded its armies was wins and losses.

Our man Tekuder was the son of Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who exemplified pluralistic competence. The son of a Christian but an eventual convert to Buddhism, Hulagu Khan’s signal achievement in the religious arena was done by his sword-arm: he defeated and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate.

In time, three of the four large khanates comprising the Mongol ascendancy would declare themselves for Islam … but in the 13th century the doctrine most likely to get you in trouble was simply to be too doctrinaire.

Hulagu’s son and heir Tekuder, though once baptized into his parents’ Christian faith, turned to Mohammed’s faith with a convert’s zeal and demanded the compliance of his military brass. He declared the Ilkhanate of Persia and Mesopotamia a Muslim sultanate, and tilted Mongol diplomacy away from the Franks and towards Mamluk Egypt.


Tekuder receives an ambassador.

This split Tekuder’s coalition between Muslims on one side, and Christians and Buddhists on the other, and “the whole of the old Mongol party of malcontents, Buddhists and Nestorians alike, rallied to”* Tekuder’s own nephew Arghun.** One may infer from this entry which man prevailed.

Arghun enjoyed a successful seven-year reign with an incidental appearance in the Marco Polo saga: Arghun appealed to his great-uncle Kublai Khan to send him a wife, and Marco Polo was a part of the party that escorted that woman to Persia in 1291-1293.

Marco Polo would proceed back home to Venice after this voyage, laden with Spice Road riches after a quarter-century’s absence.

Arghun Khan of Persia, Kublai’s great-nephew, had in 1286 lost his favourite wife the Khatun Bulughan; and, mourning her sorely, took steps to fulfil her dying injunction that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own kin, the Mongol Tribe of Bayaut. Ambassadors were despatched to the Court of Kaan-baligh to seek such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Kokachin, a maiden of 17, “moult bele dame et avenant.” The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was not only of portentous length for such a tender charge, but was imperiled by war, so the envoys desired to return by sea. Tartars in general were strangers to all navigation; and the envoys, much taken with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially as Marco had just then returned from his Indian mission, begged the Kaan as a favour to send the three Firinghis in their company. He consented with reluctance, but, having done so, fitted the party out nobly for the voyage, charging the Polos with friendly messages for the potentates of Europe, including the King of England. They appear to have sailed from the port of Zayton (as the Westerns called T’swan-chau or Chin-cheu in Fo-kien) in the beginning of 1292. It was an ill-starred voyage, involving long detentions on the coast of Sumatra, and in the South of India, to which, however, we are indebted for some of the best chapters in the book; and two years or upwards passed before they arrived at their destination in Persia. The three hardy Venetians survived all perils, and so did the lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard; but two of the three envoys, and a vast proportion of the suite, had perished by the way. Arghun Khan too had been dead even before they quitted China; his brother Kaikhatu reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady’s hand. We are told by one who knew both the princes well that Arghun was one of the handsomest men of his time, whilst Ghazan was, among all his host, one of the most insignificant in appearance. But in other respects the lady’s change was for the better. Ghazan had some of the highest qualities of a soldier, a legislator and a king, adorned by many and varied accomplishments; though his reign was too short for the full development of his fame.

-The Travels of Marco Polo

* Quote from The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia.

** We have met Arghun Khan in passing in these pages, as the executioner of Georgian prince Demetre II, the Self-Sacrificer.

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1915: Kassim Ismail Mansoor, purveyor of coffee and treason

Add comment May 31st, 2015 Headsman

A century ago today, an Indian Muslim named Kassim Ismail Mansoor was hanged by the British in Singapore as a traitor.

The treason in question concerned the dramatic mutiny some months previous of Singapore’s 5th Light Infantry — Muslims who had feared that they would be dispatched to World War I’s European charnel house. (Ironically, the British brass had no such intent: they already considered these troops too unreliable, for some reason.)

Many of the mutineers were shot en masse by summary court-martial.

Our man Mansoor was not a fighter but a civilian coffee-shop proprietor. Having come into the confidence of some of his countrymen enough to know the mutinous thrust of their grievances, he made bold put in writing an appeal to the Rangoon consul of the Ottoman Empire — Britain’s wartime enemy — for the intervention of Turkish warships that could pick up their disaffected Muslim brethren and turn together against the British. Unfortunately for Mansor, that missive fell into British hands.

A 1937 retrospective series in the Straits Times on the distinguished career of Mansoor’s defense counsel, Sir Vincent Devereux Knowles, dives into the case here: 1, 2. Knowles, it says, knew his task was quite hopeless.

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1980: Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father-in-law

Add comment April 9th, 2015 Headsman

Iraqi cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was hanged on this date in 1980 in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

One of the greatest Shia scholars of the 20th century, Sadr laid the groundwork for modern Islamic banking. During the ascendancy of Arab nationalism, Sadr wrote sharp critiques of the rival Cold War systems and helped to found the Islamic Dawa Party.*

As a Shia religious party, Al-Dawa stood starkly at odds with the Sunni-based and secular Ba’ath dictatorship — and Sadr faced state harassment throughout the 1970s. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose leadership explicitly took inspiration from Sadr, Baghdad eliminated Sadr fearing he might lead a similar uprising in Iraq’s Shia south. (Sadr’s sister Amina al-Sadr — known as Bint al-Huda — was also arrested and executed around the same time.)

And Saddam Hussein may have been quite right to fear this. The name Sadr, of course, will be familiar to any observer of contemporary Iraq — for Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s son-in-law Muqtada al-Sadr today holds sway in the south and in Baghdad’s Shia stronghold, Sadr City.

* Iraq’s president from 2006 to 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, represented the Dawa Party. He was known to show off to guests the ring Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr wore when he attained his martyrdom.

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1674: Guru Tegh Bahadur

Add comment November 11th, 2014 Headsman

The early religion of Sikhism was led by a succession of 10 Gurus.*

The Mughals executed the ninth of those Gurus on this date in 1674.

Guru Tegh Bahadur (the name means “Hero of the Sword” and was earned in youthful battles against those same Mughals) was acclaimed above 20-odd other aspirants after the previous Guru died saying only that the next guy was in the village of Bakala.

Guru from 1664, he’s noted for founding the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. And it was his lot to lead a minority faith during the reign of the Aurangzeb, an emperor notorious to posterity for religious dogmatism.

He’s known best as a persecutor of Hindus: knocking over temples to throw up mosques, forcing conversions, and implementing sharia. But Aurangzeb knew how to get after all kinds.

Considering the going sectarian tension between Hindu and Muslim in the environs, there’s a good deal of touchy historical debate over just how to characterize Aurangzeb’s policies. This site is entirely unqualified to contribute to that conversation but suffice to say it was not an ideal moment to adhere to an alternate faith.

The circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s capture, and his subsequent execution in Delhi, are similarly obscured by hagiography. Aurangzeb, who spent his reign at virtually continual war, must surely have seen in the Guru’s capital city — which also welcomed Hindu refugees fleeing the Mughals’ abrogation of their rites — a nest of rebellion. Putting its leader to death when he too refused conversion would have been right in character; no less understandable is the Guru’s remembrance as a martyr to religious liberty, and not only the liberty of Sikhs but Hindus, Buddhists, and any other comers.

Tegh Bahadur’s nine-year-old son Gobind Singh succeeded as the tenth and last Guru. It was he who laid down the “Five Ks” — five articles that a faithful Sikh should wear at all times. Thanks to the parlous state of security vis-a-vis the Mughals, one of those items is the Kirpan, a dagger or small sword that continues to vex airline security agents down to the present day.

* Ten human Gurus: the tenth passed succession to the perpetual “Guru Panth” (the entire community of Sikhs) and “Guru Granth Sahib” (a sacred text).

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1556: Hemu

1 comment November 5th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1556 saw the Second Battle of Panipat in India … and the consequent beheading of the losing commander.

Hem Chandra Vikramaditya was the unfortunate object of this treatment, a remarkable Hindu who was born a commoner and died a king.

The early 16th century saw the birth of the Mughal Empire as Turkic Muslim tribes led by the conqueror Babur swept away the Pashtun sultanates in north India. The First Battle of Panipat back in 1526 cinched this conquest.

In this unsettled environment, an able man could rise. Few were abler than Hem Chandra, more familiarly known to posterity as Hemu.

Born to a family of Hindu priests in a time when Hindu kings had not ruled his homeland for centuries, Hemu first came to prominence as a merchant supplying provisions, and later armaments, for the imperial army. He proved so capable that Islam Shah took him on as an adviser.

Now, despite the Mughal conquest, Islam Shah was actually an Pashtun. A weak succession after Babur had thrown the Mughals into retreat, and most of their once and future territory was now under the temporary authority of the Sur Empire.

Following Islam Shah’s death in 1554, the political situation for the Sur Empire fell into confusion. A boy-emperor successor was murdered to give way to a drunk, and Hemu emerged as the de facto authority in the chaotic realm … which in practice meant racing around dealing with various military threats.

Hemu put down the many internal revolts that flowered after Islam Shah’s death, but his greater problem was the resurgent Mughals.

Babur’s heir Humayun had been driven into exile in Persia years ago. Now he returned at the head of an army to retake his patrimony. Even when Humayun himself died in the process (he fell down a flight of stairs*), he bequeathed Hemu a potent foe in the form of his teenage heir Akbar — the sovereign who would eventually be esteemed the Mughals’ greatest emperor.

Even so, Hemu was routing all who stood against him. The onetime merchant had proven himself “one of the greatest commanders of the age,” in the words of Victorian historian John Clark Marshman. “He never shrank away from the battlefield and when the fight was most fierce, he did not bother for his personal safety and always fought with his adversaries courageously along with his comrades.”

On October 7, 1556, Hemu whipped Akbar at the Battle of Delhi. Entering the ancient capital, Hemu proclaimed himself emperor under the regnal name Raja Vikramaditya. And why not, after all? The kingdom already only maintained itself by Hemu’s own brilliance; he’s reputed to have had an undefeated combat record at this point.

But sometimes a single loss is all that’s needed.

Hemu was the first Hindu emperor in 350 years, but he only held the position for a month.

The new emperor again met Akbar (and Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan) on the fifth of November at Panipat, and this time the Mughals won. Hemu’s valorous exposure to danger proved his undoing when he was struck in the face by an enemy arrow.

As his once-unconquerable army routed, the captured Hemu was taken as a prisoner to his rival ruler — unconscious, and already dying. Again, the accounts vary;** in the classical version, Akbar nobly refuses to put the captive to death. Elphinstone‘s History of India, glossing some earlier Muslim historians, writes that

Bairam was desirous that Akbar should give him the first wound, and thus, by inbruing his sword in the blood of so distinguished an infidel, should establish his right to the envied title of ‘Ghazi’ or ‘Champion of the Faith'; but the spirited boy refused to strike a wounded enemy, and Bairam, irritated by his scruples, himself cut off the captive’s head at a blow.

However, there are other versions of this story in which the 14-year-old Akbar is not so reticent.

Whoever chopped it, the severed head was sent to Kabul to cow Hemu’s Pashtun supporters, while the torso was publicly gibbeted outside Purana Quila. Hemu’s followers were massacred afterwards in numberless quantities sufficient, so it is said, to erect minarets of their skulls.

Akbar ruled the Mughal state until his death in 1605.

* Humayun’s monumental tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.

** See Vincent A. Smith, “The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the Battle of Panipat,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1916). Smith’s opinion is that Akbar probably did cut off Hemu’s head personally, but might later have spun the incident in a less distasteful direction.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Execution,Famous,Gibbeted,Heads of State,History,India,Mughal Empire,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1931: Omar Mukhtar, Libyan revolutionary

Add comment September 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Libyan independence martyr Omar [al-]Mukhtar was publicly hanged by the Italians at their concentration camp in Suluq.

Mukhtar (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was born an Ottoman subject back in 1858 and had lived long enough to see his native Libya seized in the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War.

Mukhtar, a religious teacher and follower of the Senussi movement, became the leader of the Libyan resistance that dogged the Italian occupation. Mukhtar proved an energetic and successful desert guerrilla fighter, and he had to be given the Italians’ mechanized military.

The Italians executed an estimated 4,000 Libyans in the 1920s, and drove hundreds of thousands into concentration camps, and gradually, only gradually, gained the upper hand on their adversaries.

Captured in battle after he abandoned a 1929 truce, Mukhtar was denied prisoner-of-war status and subjected to a snap military tribunal in one of the small coastal enclaves actually controlled by Italy — “a regular trial and consequent sentence, which will surely be death,” as the Italian general directed. It surely was.

He’s played by Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert — a better movie than you might think given that it was bankrolled by Muammar Gaddafi.

A national hero for contemporary Libyans across any social divide you’d care to name, Omar Mukhtar was valorized by the rebels who recently overthrew the aforementioned Gaddafi (here’s Mukhtar on a billboard in rebel-held Benghazi). “The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did,” Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son told media during the civil war. “That’s where they get their energy from. Ask the youth, they’ll tell you they are all the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar.”

His steely profile can be seen on Libya’s 10 10 dinar note.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Libya,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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