Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Mokanna, the Moon maker

'I, Mokanna, lord of might, brightness, truth - rally round me and learn, for mine is the dominion of the world, mine the glory and power. Besides me there is no god; he that goeth with me cometh into Paradise; he thatfleeth from mefalleth into Hell.'

Arminius Vambery, History of Bukhara (1873)

Thus was the battle cry of the Veiled Prophet of Khorasan, a one-eyed, bald heretic whose mystic mission threatened the end of Arab rule in Transoxiana in the late eighth century. Mokanna's story, long imbued with legend and the hostile hand of heresiographers, was invoked in Soviet times for its stirring anti- feudalism. Born Hashim ibn Hakim in a village near Merv (Mary, Turkmenistan), he immersed himself in enchantments and secret arts. His first proclamation of divinity landed him in a Baghdad prison, but after his escape and return he renewed his calling as the final incarnation of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Hashim preached the transmigration of souls in a heady brew of Persian Mazdaic, Indian and Islamic notions.

Central Asia under the Abbasid Caliphate was ripe for the unorthodox and Hashim soon attracted many apostles. He hid his disformities under a green veil, or a mask of gold according to some, hence the name Mokanna, the Veiled One. Forced over the Oxus to Transoxiana, he drew support from Sogdian peasants, whose garments labelled the rebels the 'white-clothed'. Miracles spurred the conversion rate; at Nakhshab (present-day Karshi), Mokanna drew the moon out of a well, earning the title moon-maker from Persian poets. His detractors claimed he cheated with bowls of mercury, sanctioned the murder of Muslims and even the sharing of wives in a kind of social communism.

In 776 the new sect, heavily strengthened by Turkic tribes, repulsed an attack by the Bukharan Emir. Mokanna himself withdrew to a remote citadel high in the mountains near Kesh (modern-day Shakhrisabz), while his followers fought the Arab armies sent to quell the revolt. By 786 the Arab war machine had the upper hand. Some 50,000 partisans gathered before Mokanna's castle entreating a last glimpse of their saviour. He declined, "to behold me is death to the earth-born", but finally conceded a sunset appearance. Having lined up his one hundred strong harem, each woman holding a mirror, he waited for the setting rays to fall into place before throwing the gates open, blinding and inspiring the congregation. At length their zeal dissolved into mass desertion. Preferring suicide to capture, Mokanna assembled his wives for a last carouse from goblets laced with poison. All drank his health save for one who tipped the drink away and feigned death to watch the Veiled One decapitate his faithful page and jump naked into a blazing furnace.