Very few people in Lahore know who Malik Ayaz, the legendary slave of the Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni, was. Why was he buried at such an insignificant place? Why this slave was made the Governor of Lahore evades inquiry or serious interest?
These and several other questions seem never to be answered. In this piece we will try to find answers to a lot of matters over which silence is the preferred way out. My own theory, and I can be wrong, is that almost all of us are motivated, at the deep sub-conscious level, by class and race considerations.
The classic example is that of Hazrat Bilal, the slave from ‘Habsh’ of the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him). We do not find enough research and literature on this great man of Abyssinia, whose massive sacrifices seem to be largely ignored.
He certainly was a much greater man than is made out by our religious scholars. In the same mindset we have the example of Ayaz the Slave. Specific mention of him in history is just cursory.
It is almost as if he was being ignored, even though his story is immensely interesting.
Malik Ayaz was a Georgian of Russian descent. He was captured by a Turkish warrior in the earlier period of the Ottomans expansion towards the Caucasus, Ukraine and Balkans.
Along with thousands of other Russian and Slavic prisoners he was taken to Istanbul. There at a slave market an Arab slave merchant’s agent was looking for “handsome and strong” young men when he happened to see Ayaz standing among a crowd of Russian, Tataric and Central Asian slaves.
The agent had a talk with him and found him to be of excellent manners. The slave merchant informed him that he was among the finest archer he had seen, plus he could recite Persian and Turkish poetry. What better slave, effeminate, strong, with flowing hair, could a buyer desire, he must have thought.
So it was that Ayaz, son of Aymaq a slave of Najm of Georgia, was moved to Basra, where the merchant’s slave trader master lived and operated his slave business.
This was the period when Basra was under the Abbasid Caliphate, and in those days the city was a central point with ships sailing in every direction.
The city itself catered to the salt trade mine owners, which mostly used African slaves. It seems from historical research that Ayaz was not used in any salt mine, but instead was employed as a security guard of the slave merchant.
It was at Basra that he was then purchased by an agent of Mahmud of Ghazni for his strong looks, archery skills, effeminate manners, serving skills.
So it was that Mahmud acquired his favourite slave, one that he was to fall in love with. With time the Ghazni ruler was to depend more and more on his Slavic slave, for one account tells us that every time he passed by Ayaz, he would touch his golden locks. In return the slave would comment: “Oh Master, even my hair is yours”.
The relationship between Mahmud and his slave Ayaz has been the topic of considerable ‘research’, if speculation is not a better word. One example given in a lot of books is worth repeating.
One day Mahmud asked Ayaz if he had heard of a greater king than him. Immediately came the reply: “Yes Master, I am the greatest king ever”. Mahmud went into a fit of rage and asked him to explain. “My Master, even though you are king, the fact is your heart rules you, and this slave is ruler of your heart”.
We know from books like those written by Al-Beruni, as well as Munshi Sujan Rai Bhandari’s ‘Khulasa-tul-Tawarikh’ (1596 AD) that as Mahmud battled his way towards the great Battle of Peshawar of 1002 AD against the great Hindu Shahi ruler Jayapala, it was Ayaz who was among his several military commanders.
One account even suggests that it was Ayaz who suggested that as a tactic to keep attacking the weakest point of the massive Lahore Army, so that it is split in two, and to further attack the two split armies’ weakest points. After this battle, a most important event in the sub-continental history, we know that Mahmud rewarded Ayaz with the title of a ‘Malik’, and from this time onwards the name Malik Ayaz appears.
The relationship between Mahmud and Ayaz soon acquired legendary status, and it is said that they were inseparable. When the invading Afghan army from Ghazni moved towards Lahore, they camped at a place near Gujjar Khan.
At this point Mahmud asked him to choose a place where the army could rest for about a month keeping in mind the safety of his men. That place is today’s Gujjar Khan, which Mahmud named as Ayazabad, but it was changed later to Hayatabad. Probably a slave’s name did not impress the rulers of later years.
The safe hilltop location reflects the concerns of an archer, as a military historian points out, for with arrows they could fend off a frontal attack.
In the Battle of Lahore in 1021 AD, we see a six-month long siege in which the Hindu Shahi rulers were completely destroyed.
It was here that the military prowess of Ayaz came to the front, and his respect among other military commanders increased. But once Lahore fell, an angry Mahmud ordered that the city be flattened and every citizen killed or taken slave to be sold in the markets of Ghazni and Central Asia. Over 100,000 slaves were taken to Ghazni.
Once his anger was quenched at a flattened Lahore, he made his favourite Malik Ayaz the governor with the command that he wanted to see a new Lahore rebuilt with a strong fort.
In the past we have seen it mentioned, and to be honest I have also quoted such sources, that the new Lahore Fort was made of mud walls.
It seems that Malik Ayaz rebuilt the Lahore Fort on the same site as the destroyed one, but with a base of burnt bricks. This was to make sure that during times of flooding of the River Ravi, the base was not eroded.
We also know from archaeological digging done inside the fort in 1952 that he had raised the inner flooring by approximately 25 feet, or the height of four horses as an old manuscript tells us.
The old walled city of Lahore was also rebuilt with mud walls, and soon the city regained its glory with new houses and huge gardens and wells.
The Lahore of Malik Ayaz rose to become a major city of learning, of poetry, of fine life and of fine food, a reputation it has maintained even in the worst of times since. But to Mahmud his slave was to prove wrong all speculations about his loyalty.
One favourite story is that people reported that he was storing wealth to one day return to Georgia a very wealthy man. Mahmud listened to such rumours and one day came to spy on his slave. He found him go every day to a place where a massive trunk existed. Mahmud spied on him and discovered that he went to see the old rags he wore as a slave and to praise Mahmud for his kindness.
On his death Malik Ayaz was buried outside the walls of the then Lahore, and the grave had a beautiful tomb on it, which remained so till in 1811 when the Sikhs knocked it down.
The simple one room grave that exists today was built by traders after 1947. Does Malik Ayaz, Georgian slave, Governor of Lahore and the man who rebuilt a ruined city deserve a better tomb? The answer lies entrenched in our prejudices.
Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2016