Babak Khorramdin is considered as one of the most heroic freedom fighters of Iran who initiated the Khurramites movement. It was a freedom fighting movement aimed to overthrow the Arab Caliph occupiers and at the time rulers of Iran.
Babak Khorramdin was born in the 8th century in Balal Abad region of Azerbaijan, close to the city of Ardebil. His father died from wounds suffered in a fight during a journey to the Sabalan district when Babak was in his teens and the responsibility of his two brothers and mother fell on his shoulders. By age 18, Babak had already established himself in the city of Tabriz, and was engaged in the arms trade and industry. His engagement in businesses gave him the opportunity to travel throughout Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
In the 8th century Iran was under the rule of Arab Caliphs and hence unrest and resistance was growing in all the Iranian provinces. Many Iranians started revolts in different regions of the country in order to regain their freedom. This in turn, forced the Arab Caliphs to use more violence against the Iranian population in order to keep the country under control. Moreover, Azerbaijan which was at the time the only region in the country that Iranians were resisting Arab occupation was constantly under the ravage of Bani Abbas to expand Islam further North. During this time, Azerbaijan defended itself through the leadership of Javidan, who was in control of Azerbaijan. Witnessing all this pressure being exerted on the people, Babak joined Khurramites movement in what later became known as “Babak Fortress”, located in the mountains of Qarabag.
The story of joining the Khurramites movement is told in Waqed's account, in summary, as follows: Two rich men named Javidan and Abu 'Emran were living in the highland around the mountain of Badd and contending for the leadership of the highland's Khurramites inhabitants. Javidan, when stuck in the snow on his way back from Zanjan to Badd, had to seek shelter at Balal Abad and happened to go into the house of Babak's mother. Being poor, she could only light a fire for him, while Babak looked after the guest's servants and horses and brought water for them. Javidan then sent Babak to buy food, wine, and fodder. When Babak came back and spoke to Javidan, he impressed Javidan with his shrewdness despite his lack of fluency of speech. Javidan therefore asked the woman for permission to take her son away to manage his farms and properties, and offered to send her fifty dirhams a month from Babak's salary. The woman accepted and let Babak go.
Babak's knowledge of history, geography, and the latest battle tactics strengthened his position as a favorite candidate for commander during the early wars against the Arab occupiers. One of the most dramatic periods in the history of Iran was set under Babak’s leadership between 816-837. During these most crucial years, they not only fought against the Caliphate, but also for the preservation of Persian language and culture. After a number of victories against the Arabs, Javidan became severely injured and passed away, hence Babak took over the movement's leadership. Babak's followers who were mostly from Azerbaijan area used to wear red uniforms.
After the death of Javidan, he married Javidan's wife, and became the Khurramites' leader, sometime in the year 816-17 during al-Ma'mun's reign. Babak incited his followers to rise in rebellion against the caliphal regime. Babak called Persians to arms, seized castles and strong points, thereby barring roads to his enemies. Gradually a large multitude joined him. For many years the persistence of Iranian residence under Babak's leadership yielded many victories for the Iranians and failure of the Arab generals and expeditionary forces to quell the movement.
In 835 Al-Mo'tasem, the Abbasid Caliph, placed Afshin, a senior Persian general and a son of the vassal prince of Osrusana, in command of an expedition to destroy his compatriot, Babak. Afshin faced Babak in battle and inflicted heavy losses, however, Babak escaped. The next year, Afshin avoided the traps Babak planned and instead surprised Babak, captured his camp and drove off his forces and finally stormed Babak Fortress in August 837. Eventually, Babak, his wife, and his warriors were forced to leave Babak Fortress after 23 years of constant campaigns. In 837-838 Al-Mo'tasem reinforced Afshin and provided him clear military instructions. Al-Mo'tasim sent a safety guarantee for Babak to Afshin. This was taken to Babak who was very displeased and said:
"Better to live for just a single day as a ruler than to live for forty years as an abject slave."
He made his way to the Armenian leader Sahl Sombat, Prince of Khachen. Sahl Sombat, however, handed Babak over to Afshin, punishing Babak for devastation that his troops inflicted upon Armenian lands of Syunik and Artsakh in addition to cashing in on the large reward for the capture of Babak promised by Afshin.
During Babak’s execution, the Caliph’s henchmen first cut off his legs and hands in order to convey the most devastating message to his followers. Legend has it that Babak bravely rinsed his face with the drained blood pouring out of his cuts, thus depriving the Caliph and the rest of the Abbasid army from seeing his pale face (a result of the heavy loss of blood) and attributing it to fear.
Babak was a highly spiritual person who respected his Zoroastrian heritage and made every possible effort to bring Iranians together. Babak’s sensational and legendary campaign to defend Iran’s national identity and interest is still pursued after nearly 1,200 years in Southern Azerbaijan every year on his birthday. Every year in July, Iranian pilgrims visit Babak Fortress to hail their Iranian hero, Babak, as the symbol of Iranian resistance against Arab occupiers. The pilgrims read poetry including Shahnameh and play traditional Persian music and also light up bonfires to follow traditional rituals of ancient Iran.