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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Hugh Kennedy
Da Capo Press, 326 pages, $17.95
The golden age of Baghdad

Reviewed by THOMAS NOBLE

Horrific scenes from today’s Baghdad provide little hint of the city’s wealth, luxury and power when it ruled the Muslim world from the 760s to the 830s. The distinguished historian Hugh Kennedy tells Baghdad’s tale with style and verve. The book’s profusion of unfamiliar names will be daunting to some readers, but the power of the narrative and the well-chosen extracts from primary sources will sweep the reader along.

Baghdad was built by Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph. An extended family, the Abbasids traced their descent from Abbas, the paternal uncle of the prophet Muhammad. By the early eighth century, two groups in particular had come to resent the rule of the Umayyads, the family of caliphs who took charge in 661 after the murder of Ali, the last direct descendant of the Prophet who lived from 570 to 632.

One group believed that only descendants of Muhammad, however remotely related, could be legitimate “commanders of the faithful,” for that is what caliph means. The other group comprised what might be called “frontiersmen,” people from the districts lying along the frontiers of the original Muslim conquests. The pious and the affronted, living in today’s southern Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan made common cause and ousted the Umayyads in a military revolution in 750. The leader of that revolution survived it by only four years. Rule passed to Mansur, who reigned until 775, stabilized Abbasid control and reformed the administration. He was pious, shrewd, eloquent, discerning and murderous. Dr. Kennedy calls him “the most remarkable individual in the whole history of the Abbasids.”

Mansur was succeeded by his son and grandson and then, in 786, by Haroun al Rashid, who lived until 809. He was Charlemagne’s contemporary. Haroun al Rashid is the caliph of Arabian Nights, more familiar than any other Abbasid. Kennedy felicitously characterizes his reign as the “Edwardian Summer” of the Abbasid period. He was a shy, secretive man, a good soldier, a competent administrator, a patron of poets but not a good candidate for literary immortality. Haroun al Rashid’s reign was the last peaceful, stable, prosperous moment of the Abbasid period.

On Haroun’s death, his sons waged a brutal civil war. Haroun had destroyed one powerful family from Khurasan, a catchall name for the lands lying between Iraq and Pakistan. Now another Khurasan family supported al-Ma’mun against Amin. There was never to be another smooth caliphal succession as long as the Abbasids mattered. Haroun’s successors were puppets. To escape control by the Tahar of Khurasan, the ruler Mutasin took two fateful steps in the 830s. He began recruiting Turkish military commanders and soldiers, and he moved the capital to Samarra.

By the early 10th century, the Abbasid caliphs had lost their military authority, many of their provinces, much of their revenue, most of their administration and all but some residual respect. What happened?

Several contrary dynamics beset the Abbasid caliphate almost from the beginning. Caliphs were members of a huge family and frequently fathered sons by more than one wife or concubine. That was a recipe for strife. Iraq and Khurasan were bitter rivals. From the 830s, Turkish, Arab and Persian elites hated each other passionately. Between the 830s and 890s, when Samarra was the capital, that city’s new elite and Baghdad’s old one were murderously jealous of each other. Amid civil wars, the splendid early Abbasid hydraulic system in Iraq was ruined, which impoverished both the regime and its people. The decline of effective caliphal authority, both moral and political, permitted religious differences that had been kept at the simmer to break into full boil.

Two anecdotes will help to show the capabilities of the Abbasid administration at its height. The barid, a combination post office and spy system, could transmit information over 1,200 miles in 10 days. A network of tax registers and bureaucrats extracted from Iraq alone 160 million silver dirhams per year, 500 metric tons of silver. It would be centuries before another state could even aspire to such standards.

Dr. Kennedy says somewhat defensively that he offers an old-fashioned narrative history. Actually, he interrupts his narrative with four chapters on poetry, palaces, the harem and court culture. Readers who find repeated intrigue, mayhem and decapitation not to their taste will like these chapters the best.

The author shows how poetry, especially love poetry, could be both entertainment and a potent form of political discourse, not to mention a path to wealth and stardom. The Abbasids were builders on an almost unimaginable scale. Saddam Hussein was a piker in comparison. The harem is carefully, not salaciously, described. The harem was less a sexual pleasure palace than the private quarters of an elite residence. The caliph’s singers and sexual partners were members of the harem. Do we believe that one caliph slept with all 4,000 members of his harem?

This was also the realm where powerful women, very often wives or queen mothers, exercised real influence. The court was a great center of artistic and scholarly patronage. Dr. Kennedy debunks the idea that Caliph al-Ma’mun’s “House of Wisdom” was a proto-university, but he does emphasize the role played by the caliphs in sponsoring the translation of Greek philosophical and scientific works, which, in turn, spurred original work in mathematics, medicine and science.

One puts down this book thinking that spectacular achievements were squandered and that a heritage was betrayed.

Thomas Noble is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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