Skip to Main Content

The Caliph's Splendor

Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad

About The Book

The story of Harun al-Rashid, the celebrated caliph from The Thousand and One Nights, who ruled the Islamic world when its power was at a peak in the late eighth and early ninth centuries and when the Arab world influenced Western Christian culture.

The Caliph’s Splendor is a revelation: a history of a civilization we barely know that had a profound effect on our own culture.

While the West declined following the collapse of the Roman Empire, a new Arab civilization arose to the east, reaching an early peak in Baghdad under the caliph Harun al-Rashid. Harun is the legendary caliph of The Thousand and One Nights, but his actual court was nearly as magnificent as the fictional one. In The Caliph’s Splendor, Benson Bobrick eloquently tells the little-known and remarkable story of Harun’s rise to power and his rivalries with the neighboring Byzantines and the new Frankish kingdom under the leadership of Charlemagne.

When Harun came to power, Islam stretched from the Atlantic to India. The Islamic empire was the mightiest on earth and the largest ever seen. Although Islam spread largely through war, its cultural achievements were immense. Harun’s court at Baghdad outshone the independent Islamic emirate in Spain and all the courts of Europe, for that matter. In Baghdad, great works from Greece and Rome were preserved and studied, and new learning enhanced civilization. Over the following centuries Arab and Persian civilizations made a lasting impact on the West in astronomy, geometry, algebra (an Arabic word), medicine, and chemistry, among other fields of science. The alchemy (another Arabic word) of the Middle Ages originated with the Arabs. From engineering to jewelry to fashion to weaponry, Arab influences would shape life in the West, as they did in the fields of law, music, and literature.

But for centuries Arabs and Byzantines contended fiercely on land and sea. Bobrick tells how Harun defeated attempts by the Byzantines to advance into Asia at his expense. He contemplated an alliance with the much weaker Charlemagne in order to contain the Byzantines, and in time Arabs and Byzantines reached an accommodation that permitted both to prosper. Harun’s caliphate would weaken from within as his two sons quarreled and formed factions; eventually Arabs would give way to Turks in the Islamic empire.

Empires rise, weaken, and fall, but during its golden age, the caliphate of Baghdad made a permanent contribution to civilization, as Benson Bobrick so splendidly reminds us.


chapter one


On the twenty-first of March 630, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius entered Jerusalem by its Golden Gate at the head of his legions to set up the True Cross of Christ, which he had just recaptured from the Persians in one of his great Persian wars. Dressed in humble garb, he dismounted not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and went the rest of the way on foot. Thousands of weeping Christians, overcome with elation, parted before him and carpets scented with aromatic herbs were strewn across his path. “An indescribable joy,” wrote one Byzantine court poet, “seized the entire Universe.”1 It was “a triumphant event for all Christendom,” and is still marked today in the Church calendar as the “Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.”2 Yet even as it was taking place, in one of the strangest coincidences of history, word came that an imperial outpost beyond the Jordan River had just been assailed by a small Arab band. The emperor paid little heed. Within a few years, however, Palestine and many other provinces would be torn forever from Roman rule, the Persian Empire shattered, and a new faith and people would arise to control the world’s stage. In 636, just six years after Heraclius shrugged off this first Arab attack, his own vast legions would be crushed by the forces of Omar, second caliph from the Prophet, on the banks of the Yarmuk River in Syria.

Ever since that day, the forces of the Near and Middle East have had “a deep, silent disdain” for the thunderings of Christian power.3

THE RISE OF ISLAM IS OFTEN DEPICTED AS HAVING TAKEN place in a primitive community of desert Arabs, who tended their flocks when not raiding caravans or engaged in tribal feuds. After their conversion to Islam, these tribes banded together and, upon the death of their Prophet (so the story goes), folded up their tents and swarmed out of the desert to spread his new doctrine to the world. Almost overnight they began to demonstrate a marked degree of culture and became an invincible military machine.

That strange picture, still popular in the West, is at once both too pathetic and high-flown. Islam had its cradle in an area where advanced civilizations—Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Byzantine—had thrived since ancient times. Arabia lay on their outskirts, but in succession or combination all had irrigated its psychic soil. Cuneiform tablets record large Arab armies complete with infantry, cavalry, and chariots as early as 853 B.C. And the oral tradition of Arabic poetry is resplendent with heroic lays that tell of mighty battles, the dreams of love, and the oases of paradise. Empires rose and fell, and by the seventh century A.D., those large Arab armies and the kingdoms they served had long since dispersed. But the region remained in dynamic transition, where the vibrant streams of faith and culture converged.

The Prophet Muhammad sprang from its soil.

Born ca. A.D. 570 at Mecca in Arabia on the shores of the Red Sea, Muhammad was the son of a merchant and belonged to the elite Arab tribe of the Koraish. Orphaned early, he was raised by in-laws, married a wealthy merchant’s widow (much older than himself), had four daughters and two sons, and embarked, in the footsteps of his father, on a business career.

Despite his worldly interests, he was a religious man, spent whole nights in contemplation on Mount Hira near Mecca, and there one day in 620, it is said, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and urged him to preach among the Arabs on behalf of the one true God. Like other Arab prophets, he spoke in rhythmic prose, but his revelation was distinctly monotheistic, which set him apart.

Most Arabs worshipped the forces of nature and at Mecca the central pagan cult revolved around a meteorite. This was the famed Black Stone, built into a cube-shaped sanctuary called the Kaaba. Muhammad fulminated against polytheistic idolatry (the Kaaba contained at least 150 idols) and such barbarous practices as burying female children alive. Though he had no direct knowledge of the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, which had not yet been translated into Arabic (the only language he knew), he had many probing encounters with Jews and Christians, both on his caravan journeys and in Mecca; and his religious understanding was deeply swayed by the ideas he had acquired of these faiths. His grasp of their doctrine and tradition, however unclear, was earnest and he cast himself as a religious reformer entrusted by God to restore the ancient cult of Abraham, which he believed the Jews and Christians had betrayed.

Muhammad, in fact, never claimed to be the founder of a new religion, but merely one whose unsought if sacred calling it was to warn his fellow man of the coming Judgment Day. He saw himself as the last of the prophets, the seal and keystone of those who had gone before. But the Meccan elite resented his attack on their beliefs and the implied threat it posed to the profits they derived from the annual pilgrimage (or Hajj) that Arabs made to the Kaaba. His teaching at first also aroused hostility and derision, from the community at large, which forced him to flee Mecca in 622 for the town of Medina to the north. This became known as the year of the Hegira, or Flight. In the Muslim calendar, it marks the year One. Everything in the Muslim calendar dates from that time just as Christians date their calendar (backward and forward) from the presumed birth of Christ. In Mecca, Muhammad had been the despised preacher of a small congregation; in Medina, he became the leader of a powerful party, which formed the basis of his rise. He began to act as lawgiver for his small community of refugees, won new converts, expelled or killed those who reviled him, and established a theocratic city-state. Between 622 and 628 various clashes occurred between his followers and Meccans, but by 630 he gained the upper hand. Mecca was taken, and Arabs from as far away as Bahrain, Oman, and southern Arabia joined his ranks. Though Arab tribes had long been a volatile force in the region, Muhammad managed to forge them into a single confederation and persuade them to put aside their jealousies and feuds.

Their bond of union was not only Muhammad’s charisma, but Islam, their newfound faith. “Islam” means “surrender” or “resignation to the will of God.” One who professes Islam is therefore a “Muslim,” meaning “one who surrenders oneself.” Islam’s simple creed is “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” The essence of its teaching is a belief in God (“Allah” in Arabic) and His Angels; in the Scripture or Koran (meaning “recitation”) as revealed through Muhammad to mankind; and in a final Resurrection and Judgment of man according to his works on earth. Equally plain and direct are the obligations placed upon believers. They consist of almsgiving; prayer five times a day—at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and dusk—facing Mecca; the observance of the fast during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year; and the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which Islam appropriated from the pagan past. Muslims abstain from eating pork and drinking wine; regard marriage as a civil ceremony; and bury their dead. Orthodox Muslims do not tolerate images of anything divine, and in the forms of their worship no priest or cleric stands between the soul and God. The mosque, where the faithful assemble for public devotions every Friday, is an open courtyard surrounded by colonnades and unadorned save for Koranic texts. It features a mihrab or niche showing the direction of Mecca, a pulpit, and a minaret where the muezzin (as he is called) utters the call to prayer.

Although Muhammad, like Christ, never wrote anything, over time scattered transcriptions of his teachings were posthumously collated and compared with oral recollections. By a lengthy editorial process (not unlike that which attended the making of the New Testament), a canonical version of the Koran emerged. In time the sacred text was supplemented by a voluminous compendium of Muhammad’s reported pronouncements and deeds, known as the Traditions or Hadith. Hadiths, real or spurious, served as the Muslim Talmud and “furnished the community with apostolic precepts and examples covering the minutest detail of man’s proper conduct in life.”4 They also provided an encyclopedic fund of anecdotes, parables, and sayings by which Muslims were edified.

Muhammad died in 632 while returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca and leadership at first passed by election to a series of caliphs, or “successors”—Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali—who inherited his temporal but not theocratic crown. These first four caliphs, who ruled without founding dynasties, are sometimes known as the Orthodox caliphs, and it was under their aegis—and that of their invincible general Khalid ibn al-Walid (“the sword of Islam”)—that the early conquests were made.

Yet Islam had been a “church militant” from the start. Even under Muhammad (if not at his direction), Muslim bands had carried out raids along the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Within two years of his death, victories brought the Muslims into Chaldea (southern Iraq), gave them the city of Hira, and with the Battle of Yarmuk in 634, opened Syria to their arms. Damascus fell in 635; Antioch and Jerusalem in 636; and Caesarea in 638. Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of Chaldea, was taken in 637; Mesopotamia subdued; the cities of Basra and Kufa founded; and part of Persia annexed in 638–40. Egypt, then mostly Christian, was conquered in 641. The decisive Battle of Nahavand in 642 put an end to the Sassanid dynasty of Persia and placed all of Persia in Muslim hands.

Circumstance favored their advance. The Byzantine and Persian empires were both exhausted by fighting (having fought each other to a standstill in their own “Thirty Years’ War”), while the Semitic inhabitants of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia were more nearly akin to the Arabs than to their Byzantine and Persian lords. The latter had also overtaxed their subjects, and among Egyptian Christians there was a religious schism between Eastern Orthodox believers and the Copts. Some resistance came from centers of Greek civilization—Alexandria in Egypt, for example, and Jerusalem in Palestine; but by 660, barely thirty years after Muhammad’s death, Islam had swept over an area the size of the former Roman Empire.

Still the conquest went on. Muslim troops swept through Persia to the river Oxus and began to annex Bukhara, Khujand, Farghana, Samarkand, and other lands beyond. As the eighth century dawned, they reached the borders of China, at Kashgar, where a treaty was concluded with the Chinese. All this took place in concert with Muslim gains in the West. The Barbary Coast and its wild Berber population was occupied (if not quite subdued) up to the gates of Carthage by 647; Kairawan founded in 670; and Carthage taken in 693, as Arabs reached the Atlantic coast. From Tangier they crossed into Spain in 710; took the whole Gothic kingdom, including Toledo, by 712; and in 725 advanced into southern France. At length, they were checked by Charles Martel, then king of the Franks, at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 in the foothills of the Pyrenees, but the Muslims held on to Narbonne; raided Provence; ravaged Corsica and Sardinia; invaded Armenia; annexed Cyprus (649); and from 670 onward kept Constantinople under intermittent siege. They also continued to press eastward to Afghanistan and the westernmost part of India known as Sind.

India was not unknown. Even before the Arab conquests, Arab coastal traders found that a coasting voyage eastward from the Persian Gulf would bring them to the mouth of the Indus, and that if they ventured farther out, or were carried out at certain seasons of the year, the monsoons would drive them across to India’s southwest coast. Seafaring traders on the coast were therefore familiar with India’s western ports, and a number of Arab merchants had sailed to there from Shiraz and Hormuz or crossed from harbors in Oman. Upon their return, they had described “a land of wealth and luxury, of gold and diamonds, jeweled idols, and gorgeous religious rites.”5

One expedition, during the Caliphate of Omar, had made a failed attempt to seize territory near Bombay. Another in 644 wandered off course into the Thar desert and came to naught. Sixty years later, however, eight boats carrying Muslim women from the King of Ceylon to Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the Arab governor of Iraq, were attacked and plundered off the western coast. The caliph demanded reparations, but the local ruler refused on the ground that the pirates were not under his control.

That led to the dispatch in 711 of a third expedition, this time under Muhammad ibn Kasim, a prince of royal blood. A handsome young man of nobility and dash, he started at the head of a cavalry force 12,000 strong (6,000 on camels, 6,000 on Syrian horse) and a large baggage train. He also had the best contemporary artillery, including one huge catapult or ballista—designed for hurling great stones over battlements—that was shipped to him by sea. Reinforcements also came to him in a steady stream, until at length he had an army of 50,000 men. As one Muslim chronicler put it, he had “all he could require, including needles and thread.”6

Kasim besieged the Hindu port of Debal and carried the town by assault. The main Hindu army retreated up the Indus River with Kasim in pursuit. On the west bank of the Indus Kasim beheld for the first time an imposing force of Hindu chiefs, mounted on armored war elephants, led by their king, Dahir. The battle at a place called Rawar was fierce. Dahir fought bravely but was killed. From Rawar, Kasim proceeded further up the Indus. In subsequent years, two separate Muslim kingdoms in India were established—one in Mansurah or Sind proper (up to Aror on the Indus), the other at Multan. But that was the end of it for three hundred years. The Muslims settled in, made no attempt to push farther east, and on the whole remained on friendly terms with their Hindu subjects and neighboring Hindu states. In the northern Punjab the limits of Arab rule were set by the powerful Hindu kingdom of Kashmir; in the east, by a military caste known afterward as the Rajputs, who were prepared to contest every inch of ground.

By then, Islam spanned three continents in a broad swathe of conquest that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus and from the Aral Sea to the cataracts of the Nile. Many of their great battles—Yarmuk, Yamanah, Alexandria, Nahavand, Makkah, Kadisiya, and so on—ring through Islamic history with the same power and aura as do Agincourt, Yorktown, Waterloo, and Gettysburg in the West. Wherever the Arabs went, “their intrepidity and vigor,” as one writer put it, “strengthened by their proud feeling of a common nationality and their zeal for the faith,” helped them to prevail.7 Under Islam, the Arabs had become a world-conquering nation, and within a century of Muhammad’s death, the banks of the Jaxartes and the shores of the Atlantic alike resounded with the call of “Allahu Akbar,” “God Is Great.”

The West at the time was sunk in the Dark Ages. Who could say for sure that the muezzin’s cry, as was suggested, might not one day sound over Paris, London, or Rome?

Although it is sometimes said that the Arabs lacked any military tradition beyond that pertaining to tribal raids (with no experience, for example, in besieging fortified towns), their formidable early tactics were based on “desert power”—in effect a kind of sea power, for Arabia was “a sea of sand.”8 Adopting the same principles of attack later used by modern maritime nations (and by tank divisions in North Africa during World War II), the Arabs seemed to strike out of nowhere—east into Persia, west into Egypt, north into Syria and Iraq—with sudden force, only to disappear into the sandy wastes from which they came.

As their conquests advanced, however, their soldiers adapted, and in outfit and armor most later Muslim armies were not unlike the Persian and Byzantine. They encased themselves in iron, insofar as that was practical (in helmets, breastplates, and coats of mail); used the same weapons (the bow and arrow, lance, javelin, sword and battle axe); formed, as needed, into mobile units or lines that entrenched; fielded light and heavy artillery (powered by swing beams or twisted ropes); and used ladders, battering rams, and catapults for besieging forts and towns. By the 800s, Muslim armies also began to add companies of flame-throwing archers or “naphtha-firemen” to their battle wings.9 These elite troops wore fireproof suits that enabled them to rush into buildings and forts they set ablaze.

Beyond their military ingenuity and skill, Muslims were transported by worldly desire joined to religious zeal. For those who survived the carnage, there was untold spoil, captive maidens, property, and public adoration; for those who fell, the bliss of martyrdom. Then as now Muslim warriors believed that black-eyed virgins (known as Houries) impatiently awaited their embrace in Paradise.

Any army excited by such an incendiary mix of flesh and spirit, faith and plunder, heavenly devotion and “passion for sex even in the throes of death” could not readily be vanquished.10 No matter how ardent their opponents were (or thought themselves to be), they were often halfhearted by comparison when the fighting grew fierce. At the Battle of Yarmuk, 40,000 Arabs had crushed 140,000 Byzantines; in the conquest of Spain, 25,000 Saracens, as Muslims were called in the West, annihilated 90,000 Goths.

IN THE IMPERIAL ADMINISTRATION OF THE VAST NEW ARAB empire, general authority was placed in the hands of Arab commanders, civil rule in local hands. Most subject communities were allowed to continue under the laws that had governed them, and since Muslims were exempt from the tax imposed on the conquered, the conversion of non-Muslims was actually discouraged, as it diminished revenue. In time, of course, the social and racial barriers between Arab and non-Arab populations began to break down. Arab military outposts grew into towns; Arabs far from home acquired local land; Muslims were permitted to take non-Muslim wives. This levelling process had a leavening effect. Islam became more attractive to outsiders, due to the social stature and economic freedom it conferred. Increased diversity in turn diversified Arab knowledge, as the conquered peoples schooled their overlords. This was so in every branch of the sciences and arts. In architecture, for example, country palaces were decorated in a mixture of Greco-Syrian and Persian styles, which also affected the development of the mosque. The Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, founded by Abd al-Malik in 691, was a shrine built for Muslim worship, but its geometric plan and elevation was based on the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives and other churches of similar construction in Syria and Palestine. It was Byzantine inside and out (until Byzantine mosaics were replaced by Persian tiles), as was the Great Mosque at Damascus, founded in 708. Even the sacred fields of Muslim theology and law were affected, as Muslims expanded their legal code. Although that code was fundamentally religious, statutes relating to taxation, commerce, finance, and other areas reflected existing Byzantine practice, and sometimes Talmudic or rabbinical thought.

By its very inclusiveness and adaptation, the Caliphate went from strength to strength.

Yet a riptide cut across the current of all these gains. Within the vast tent or canopy of Islam, even at times of its utmost triumph, there was intrigue, betrayal, depravity, and violence worthy of the Roman Empire’s darkest days.

Muhammad’s sudden death in 632 without a surviving son to inherit his mantle had left the Muslim community in disarray. A violent breach had been averted by the selection of the Prophet’s venerable father-in-law, Abu Bakr, as caliph. He died of natural causes (pneumonia, brought on by a chill). But the second caliph, Omar, after a celebrated reign of ten years, was butchered by an assassin as he led prayers at dawn in Medina. The third, Othman, was mutilated by an irate mob. An equally savage fate would befall the fourth, Ali.

Upon Othman’s death in 658, the succession had been disputed—by Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and by Muawiya Umayya, the governor of Syria and Othman’s kin. The Muslim elders turned first to Ali, whose wife, Fatima, was the Prophet’s only surviving child. To the outrage of many, in fact, Ali had been passed over in the previous three elections even though he was Muhammad’s male next of kin, which seemed to give him a “divine right.” Not all agreed, and the fateful contest that ensued marked the beginning of Islam’s continuing divide between the Sunni and Shiite sects. The Shiites were the partisans (“shia”) of Ali. They maintained that only a direct descendant of the Prophet could act as head of state. The Sunnis, beginning with Muawiya’s adherents, upheld the traditional practice or custom (“sunnah”) of the Muslim community in electing as caliph the man most qualified. Such a caliph, in Sunni eyes, inherited the Prophet’s political and administrative authority, but not his spiritual power. The Shiite “imam,” by contrast, was a divinely ordained caliph who inherited the whole of the Prophet’s authority.

After two notable battles between the two camps, Muawiya’s troops appealed for a truce by spiking the tips of their lances with pages of the Koran. The Caliphate was submitted to the arbitration of elders, but in the end the prize went to the Sunnis by default. On January 22, 661, as Ali entered a mosque at Kufa, a Sunni fanatic plunged a poisoned dagger into his brain. With key backing from the governor of Egypt, Muawiya appealed for peace, won pledges of allegiance from most of the Arab elders, and assumed the Caliphate. So began the Umayyad dynasty at Damascus, which after Muawiya’s own stern reign of twenty years, made the office of caliph hereditary in his House. Fourteen Umayyad caliphs were to rule in turn and dominate Islam for a hundred years. Syria became the empire’s center of gravity with Damascus as its capital and military hub.

Under the Umayyads, the march of conquest continued, naval supremacy was established in the eastern Mediterranean, and some administrative innovations—including an empire-wide postal system (run as a “pony express,” using horses and camels); the standardization of Arab coinage; and the establishment of Arabic as the official language of state—helped keep the empire intact. Even so, agitation by the Shiites, revolts in Mecca and Medina, unrest in Basra, festering hatred in Persia, and the recrudescence of old clan enmities bedeviled Umayyad rule.

In 681 Ali’s second son, Husain, the grandson of the Prophet, led a failed revolt. His death in battle and the subsequent desecration of his corpse made him a martyr. To this day, “vengeance for Husain” rings through the back streets of Baghdad, where Shiites observe the anniversary of his death as a day of mourning and rage.11 The city of Karbala, where he fell on October 12, 681, became a site “almost as holy as Mecca and Medina,” and his tomb, like that of Ali in Najaf, a sacred shrine.12

In the end, two things undermined Umayyad power: the decay of the Arab tribal system on which their military strength depended, and disaffection toward the government arising from its Persian misrule. The Shiites, who denounced the Damascus caliphs as “ungodly usurpers,” were supported by the Persians, whom the Umayyads had reduced to a near-servile state; both in turn were joined by the Abbasids, descended from Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, and who challenged the Umayyad regime.13

Four Umayyad caliphs came and went in a single year (743–44). Meanwhile, Shiites in Persia rallied to revolt “all those whose patriotism was outraged by Arab domination” and “seasoned their propaganda with tales of the turpitude of the reigning princes, to inflame the fanaticism of the Faithful with a description of their impiety and vice.”

In 747, after forging a broad coalition of insurgent groups, the Abbasids raised the standard of revolt. Under Abu Muslim, a manumitted Persian slave, their troops seized southern Persia and Iraq and under a black flag (their emblem) outfought the Umayyads from Kufa to Khurasan. At length, in a climactic battle of Mosul—not far from where Alexander the Great had trounced King Darius of Persia in 331 B.C.—they prevailed. The last of the Umayyads, Marwan II, fled to Egypt, where he was captured, killed, and his tongue fed to a cat.

The ethnic character of the Caliphate began to change. Under the Umayyads, it had been a purely Arab thing, and only those of full Arab parentage on both sides had been admitted to the highest offices of state. Under the new regime, not only half Arabs but Persians and others would rise at court.

As the first Abbasid caliph, Abu al-Abbas began his rule with a horrific massacre of the whole Umayyad house. He called himself “Saffah,” that is, “the Bloodshedder,” and in one gruesome account held his victory feast on a field full of corpses which he covered with a heavy carpet, like a tablecloth. The tombs of the Umayyad caliphs were also ransacked and their bones burnt and scattered to the winds. (The only Umayyad to escape was a nineteen-year-old prince by the name of Abd al-Rahman, who slipped through North Africa to Spain and founded the independent kingdom of the Moors.)

Despite this dread beginning—which later good governance helped to repair—Abbasid rule would be sustained through thirty-seven caliphs over the course of five hundred years. The stage for that stability was set in 754, when Abbas was succeeded by his brother, Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur (“the Victorious”), a tall, thin man with a narrow face, dark complexion, lank hair, and a thin beard.

At first it seemed there might be civil war. Mansur’s uncle, encamped with Syrian troops on the edge of Asia Minor, had contested his accession and it had taken five months of fighting for Mansur to gain his throne. Abu Muslim had led the defense of his rights, but after using him to defeat this Syrian revolt against his rule, Mansur endeared the Syrians to him by executing his redoubtable commander in February 755 for pretended misdeeds. He subsequently promoted Syrian nobles to high office and selected Syrian army units to man key posts. At the same time, he took immediate steps, by means of land grants, gifts, and generous tax incentives, to reconcile Abu Muslim’s leading supporters, based in Khurasan, to his reign.

Born and bred in the deserts of Edom, Mansur in time proved an exemplary ruler, thrifty, energetic, circumspect, and wise. Though he continued the baneful frontier war that had long been carried on between Islam and what remained of Byzantine rule, he improved his own outposts with new fortifications, repaired strongholds in Armenia and Cilicia, and erected defenseworks in maritime towns on the Syrian coast. After the wild Khazars from southern Russia invaded territory south of the Caucasus and took Tiflis (now Tbilisi), he vowed to prevent such marauding and seized territory as far as the sulfur springs of Baku.

Mansur’s intelligence service extended to distant regions, and made note of everything from civil unrest to the price of figs, giving him the appearance of omniscience in his conduct of affairs. He rose at dawn, worked until evening prayer, and granted himself only brief periods of rest. He impressed such vigilance upon his son and heir: “Put not off the work of today until the morrow and attend in person to the affairs of state.14 Sleep not, for thy father has not slept since he came to the caliphate. For when sleep fell upon his eyes, his spirit remained awake.” Notoriously frugal, he was surnamed Abu al-Duwaneek (“the Father of Small Change”), watched his tax collectors like a hawk, and made sure even large expenditures were carefully accounted for. “He who has no money has no men,” he once said, “and he who has no men watches as his enemies grow great.”15

The fruits of his exertions were reaped by his successors, and the great prosperity of the realm for a long time thereafter owed much to what he achieved.

But it is the founding of Baghdad for which Mansur is remembered most.

When the Abbasids first took charge, Damascus was naturally hostile to the new regime. It was also far from Persia, the base of Abbasid power. So almost immediately (under Abu al-Abbas) the search for a new capital had begun. During the early Muslim conquest, two garrison towns had been founded in Iraq—Basra on the Euphrates, and Kufa, where the desert caravan road to Persia entered the Mesopotamian plain. Not caring for either, and insecure even in the midst of loyal subjects, Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah had secluded himself in a palace complex north of Kufa, where he died. Upon his accession, Mansur thought of creating a new town in the same district. But the local population of fanatical Shiites gave him pause. On one occasion, a mob of zealots surged round his palace proclaiming him divine. When the caliph rejected their homage, they turned violent, attacked his guards, and in an instant he found himself in danger of being killed by those who had just revered him as a god. Mansur then went in search of a site on the lower Tigris, traveled slowly up the river to Mosul, and at length chose the Persian hamlet of Baghdad, on the west bank.

“Baghdad” in Persian meant “Founded by God,” and Babylonian brickwork, stamped with the name and titles of Nebuchadrezzar, showed that it had once been the site of an ancient city, built by a monarch of immortal fame.16 In Muhammad’s day, it had sunk to the level of a market town, and by the time Mansur came upon it, even the bazaars had vanished, with Christian monasteries appearing in their place. Mansur learned from the local monks that the area was unusually free of mosquitoes (an important consideration), the winters mild, and some of the summer nights cool and pleasant (or so he was told) even during hotter months. It was also in an area of seasonally rotating crops, shaded by palm trees, and a potential commercial hub—linked to Egypt and Syria by the caravan route, to river commerce through Mosul, with ready access to the Persian Gulf (as well as to Arabia, Syria, and Armenia) and to commodities from China and Byzantium by sea. The site appealed to him for other reasons besides. Both banks of the river were cultivable yet naturally fortified against attack: to the east, the stream was impossible to ford, and a network of canals to the south provided a moatlike means of defense.

From the beginning it also seemed a fateful place. The Muslim historian Tabari tells us that an ancient prophecy preserved by the Christian monks held that a great city would one day be built there by a lord named Miklas. When Mansur heard this he nearly jumped for joy, for, legend has it, he had been given that very nickname as a child.

After his Jewish astrologer Mashallah (the foremost expert of his time) elected a propitious time for the city’s founding, the plan of the city was traced in the soil with lines of cinders then literally burned into the ground. This was done by placing balls of cotton saturated with naphtha along the outline and setting them on fire. Construction was then pushed rapidly—with one hundred thousand workmen drawn from throughout the Near and Middle East—and carried out on a magnificent scale. Vast sums were expended on palatial buildings, mosques, barracks, bridges, aqueducts, and various fortifications; baked bricks used for domes and arches; and sun-dried bricks of extraordinary size—some weighing as much as two hundred pounds—for the massive walls. Completed in 766, the “Round City,” as it was called, was two miles in diameter with inner and outer battlements made up of three concentric walls and a deep, water-filled moat. The residential quarter was divided into four quadrants, which housed senior officials and the imperial guard. Flanking the inside of the city walls, arcades were built for merchants’ shops and stalls. In the center stood the Palace of the Caliph (called the Golden Gate), and beside it the Great Mosque. The Palace, named for its heavily gilded great door, was made of stone and marble and had a great green dome topped by the statue of a mounted horseman that turned like a weathervane. Above the inner wall, a gallery ran the length of the crenellated rampart wide enough for the caliph to ride along on horseback as he scanned the surrounding terrain. From the city’s four immense iron gates—so heavy it took a company of men to move it—four high roads, marking the four points of the compass, radiated out like the spokes of a wheel.

Each gate was named for the major city or region it faced: Damascus, Basra, Kufa, and Khurasan. In concept, the city’s four quadrants also reflected the four quarters of the world. At their symbolic, intersecting center, the caliph made his home.

As formidable a citadel as the Round City was, there were some practical flaws in its design. Though it might be difficult for enemies to reach the caliph, “it was equally difficult for him to reach safety should the need arise.”17 Because the principal mosque adjoined the palace, the heart of the caliph’s domain was also swamped by the masses during Friday prayers. One day a diplomat from Constantinople was talking to the caliph when his audience was disrupted by a loud tumult from the streets below. A cow, set to be butchered, had escaped in terror, overturned some stalls, and was running about the arcades. When told of this, the diplomat advised the caliph to place the public markets outside the walls to avoid the risk of harm from mobs.

Before long, the city ramified far beyond its original plan, to cover five square miles of suburbs that grew up along the high roads and on the opposite bank. It encompassed large parks and pleasure haunts; ethnic enclaves; a Christian quarter, adorned with churches, monasteries, convents, and shrines; and a highly developed waterfront for commercial use. Three large pontoon bridges (traversed by planked walks) spanned the river—above, below, and in the middle of the city—anchored to great piles on either bank by iron chains. Some thirty thousand skiffs also ferried people to and fro. Meanwhile, on the east bank of the Tigris, the al-Rusafah palace of Mansur’s son, the crown prince Muhammad al-Mahdi, arose. A suburb grew up around it opposite a second palace known as al-Khuld (“the Mansion of Paradise”), bordered by extensive gardens that lay along the west bank. In time, the city’s unusual and exotic attractions would also come to include large public squares for horse racing and polo (a Persian game); a palace constructed around a solid silver tree with mechanical, singing birds; and a Wild Beast Park, with fenced-in preserves for lions, elephants, peacocks, leopards, and giraffes.

Called into existence “as if by an enchanter’s wand,” Baghdad became the greatest city in the world.18 Mansur christened it “Madinat-as-Salam,” “the City of Peace,” which is the name it also bore on the coins of the Abbasids. Mansur had laid the first brick with his own hands, and in doing so intoned: “In the name of the Lord! praise belongeth unto Him and the earth is His: He causeth such of His servants as He pleaseth to inherit the same.19 Success attend the pious!” Wars, sieges, constantly recurring riots between the Sunnis and Shiites, rebellions in Medina, Basra, and Kufa, the removal of the government for a time to Samarra, higher up on the Tigris, even the devastation of the city by the Mongols in 1258—none would ever quite succeed in totally erasing its allure.

The empire had been built, its capital established, its ruling house secured. The stage was thereby set for Islam’s Golden Age.

About The Author

Photograph by Ezra Distler

Benson Bobrick earned his doctorate from Columbia University and is the author of several critically acclaimed works, including Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired and Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. In 2002 he received the Literature Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He and his wife, Hilary, live in Vermont.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 14, 2012)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416567622

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"Bobrick has read widely in 19th- through 21st-century sources to create a rich portrait of a key era."

– Library Journal

"A fresh overview of the turbulent state of the Middle East and Europe during the 8th century."

– Kirkus Reviews

“What a great read! Benson Bobrick does full justice to the cultural currents that make the Baghdad of The Arabian Nights so vital to world history. At the same time, he gives us healthy dollops of all the sex, intrigue, and other spicy shenanigans that most historians leave out. This scintillating book achieves a rare blend of storytelling gusto and intellectual depth, reminding us on every page that human history is just that—human."

– Colin Wells, author of Sailing from Byzantium

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Benson Bobrick