The founding of Baghdad. 760-820, generations 439-441

The caliph chose the location, thirty miles upstream from the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, on the banks of the Tigris at the narrowest point between it and the Euphrates. Three astrologers,  an ex-Jew from Basra, an ex-Zoroastrian and a muslim, selected the date to start construction: 30th July 762. Three years later it was deemed officially finished, and forty years later it was the most populous city on the planet.

The layout of the central citadel was a perfect circle, as Persian capitals had been (including Ctesiphon before the arab armies destroyed it a century previously). To the locals this must have been, to all intents and purposes, the next incarnation of the Persian Empire.

There were two crucial differences, however. The man living with his harem in the citadel was not a shah but a caliph. And he adhered to the new religion of the arabs rather than the one that had dominated Persia for the previous two thousand years: zoroastrianism. He was a muslim, and as caliph he was the official successor of the Prophet who had died six generations earlier, in the year 632.

This meant that the zoroastrian priests were without a job. They had two thousand years’ worth of learning to draw on, and almost nobody to pass it on to. It wasn’t obligatory to convert to islam, but your career prospects at court probably got a boost if you did.

The muslims continued the Persian dedication to learning, however, and even expanded it. Under the Sassanid Empire (which fell to the arabs in 638) the main seat of learning had been the academy of Gundeshapur, a few hundred miles to the east. The caliph in Baghdad indicated that he was interested in promoting scholarship. Scholars from Gundeshapur relocated to Baghdad.

middle east 765 ad

Not only zoroastrians came to Baghdad. The largest christian church in the world at the time (in terms of geographical extent) had centres in Nisibis, a few hundred miles to the north, Merv in Khorasan to the east, and Gundeshapur. A century or so earlier the church in Constantinople started enforcing its orthodoxy more rigorously, and many christians moved to join the church of the East, whose headquarters were then in the sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. When the arabs sacked Ctesiphon in 641 the catholicos (equivalent of the pope in the latin roman church) moved north, nearer to Nisibis. Once Baghdad was established, the Church of the East relocated its headquarters there. In 780 the catholicos Timothy I was invited to meet the caliph, maybe because he had translated Aristotle’s ‘Topics’ into arabic, and maybe because the caliph wanted to discuss religion with him. Thus began a sometimes mutually profitable and sometimes uneasy relationship between the Church of the East and the caliphate that continued for several hundred years. In the good times christians were viziers, doctors and translators. In the bad times they were persecuted.

But on the whole the Church of the East thrived in the new abbasid empire as it had done with the sassanids. It already had missions further east, beyond the muslim empire into India and China. These were consolidated and confirmed. Five hundred years later, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the christian residents were spared from the slaughter because the khan’s wife and mother were both christians, members of the Church of the East.

The jews were there too, as they had been since the Babylonian captivity a thousand years before. When they had the chance to return to their homeland, many opted to stay in Mesopotamia. In the towns of Sura and Pumbedita, both on the Euphrates River, the definitive version of the Talmud, the commentary on jewish law, had been compiled, completed a century earlier.

The arabs, adherents of the newest religion in the region, were based at Kufa and Basra. In this period the arabic equivalent of the Talmud, the Hadiths, were compiled in these towns.

History books often aim for a tidy storyline, one that is simple, accessible and reasonable. But as each of us knows from our own experience, real-life events are not so tidy. I wonder how much, at the time, people saw a clear distinction between adherents of these four and the other religions swirling around the area. Other religions included the Manicheans (whom the arab scholars decided were not ‘people of the book’ and so liable to persecution), the Sabians (mentioned in the Qur’an but even a century after it had been written, it was forgotten who exactly they were), as well as other gnostic sects and Buddhists and Hindus from further east. Another important centre of learning at this time was Harran, not far from Nisibis. In order to escape the fate of the Manicheans, the inhabitants of Harran declared themselves to be the descendants of the Sabians.

How much did these educated people interact and influence each other? How many under-employed zoroastrian priests, jewish rabbis or christians offered a hand to encode the sayings of the prophet? Sura is only a few miles downstream from Kufa, after all.

Here is an example of the confusion. The abbasids had defeated the ummayads, the previous dynasty, around 750 with the help of a remarkable man. The man’s real name is not known, but he called himself Muslim abu Muslim ibn Muslim: Muslim, son of muslim and father of muslim. A pretty clear statement of one’s credentials, one would have thought. He launched his campaign in the town of Merv in Khorasan, a campaign to overthrow the ummayads and set a member of the Prophet’s family as caliph. The best candidate they had was a descendant of the Prophet’s uncle Abbas. Hence the abbasids.

Once installed, the new abbasid caliph had his own agenda, which did not include Abu Muslim. He invited him to dinner, and had him killed. This was not well received back in Khorasan. Several further insurrections against the abbasids were brutally put down by the caliphs’ armies.

But here is the curious bit. The rebellions were led by self-declared zoroastrians, who claimed loyalty to or discipleship from Abu Muslim. Our tidy narrative of different religions starts to feel somewhat frayed. If you want to investigate this further, two of those rebels were Babak Khoramdin and al-Muqanna.

One fact is indisputable however: Baghdad prospered. The translation movement, with help from scholars from all of the cities named here, went into a higher gear. The golden age of islam took off.

It must have been an exciting place to be. A delegation from India (maybe via Gundeshapur) brought their latest cutting-edge mathematics, systematised a century previously by the great mathematician Brahmagupta. This included the concept of zero as well as the decimal system of nine numbers and the sine function. The numbering system currently in use in this world was the Babylonian one of base-60, which lives on in our measurement of seconds, minutes and the degrees of a circle.

The Indians also brought the game of chess, which was then adapted to local tastes. Chess pieces look as they do today because they were depersonalised to avoid muslim sensitivities about depictions of the human form. The word ‘checkmate’ comes from the Persian ‘shah-mat’, ‘the king is dead’.

The first home-grown scientist of the golden age was Jabir ibn Hayyan, remembered as Geber the Alchemist, the founder of the science of chemistry. He probably lived in Kufa and almost certainly spent time in the new Baghdad. He wrote prolifically. He developed theories of what matter is made of, partly based on received learning and part on his own researches. He advocated experimentation as a way to learning. However, much of his writing was so obscure that the word ‘gibberish’ was coined a few centuries later, meaning ‘as impenetrable as the works of Jabir’.


The blackbird comes to Cordoba. Generations 442-443, 820-860

He is remembered as the blackbird, el pajaro negro, in Spain to this day. He is credited with introducing the lute, toothpaste, deodorant, tablecloths, glass tableware and the three-course meal to the court at Cordoba, as well as asparagus, a new hairstyle and seasonal fashions. He was reportedly a composer who memorised 10,000 songs himself and was the founder of a music school.

The legends continue. He is said to have designed a new, lightweight style of lute with an extra, fifth string. The first four strings were said to symbolise the four humours. This new fifth string, he is reported to have said, represented the soul.

His name was Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi’. He was born around 789 somewhere in the middle east. Persia, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia have all been suggested. The accounts agree that he studied music in Baghdad as a young man. They also agree on his nickname, Zaryab or Ziryab, but not its meaning or origin. Does it come from the arabic word for blackbird, shahrur, or from the persian words for liquid gold, zar ab? This is a political minefield that I prefer not to enter. In Baghdad the religion came from the arabs but a large part of the civilisation came from the persians, so there was probably a degree of tension between the two cultures.

The accounts all agree that he was forced to leave Baghdad, but the reasons given vary. Was it political exile after the civil war between the caliph al-Amin and his brother al-Mansur? If he was a protege of al-Amin it would have been prudent to make himself scarce after al-Mansur took over. The story told by ibn Khaldun several centuries later was that he excelled his music master, who became jealous and paid him to leave. However, that story had been told before, about a musician at the Persian court a couple of centuries previously. Maybe it was too good a tale to waste.

It is agreed that he travelled across north Africa, and spent some time at the court of the emir Ziyadat Allah I in Ifriqiya, modern Tunisia. From there he was invited to Cordoba. The emir who had issued the invitation, al-Hakam, was dead by the time he and his family arrived in 822, but al-Hakam’s son and successor, Abd al Rahman, upheld it. He was given a villa in the city, land in the countryside and a stipend of 200 gold pieces per month, guaranteed for thirty years.

Ziryab repaid Abd al-Rahman’s investment. He systematised the study of music and founded a conservatoire. His teaching methods were replicated across north Africa. The styles of music he explored, combining middle eastern traditions with the indigenous music of al-Andalus, are the basis of a large part of the musical traditions in Spain and north Africa to this day.

He is also remembered for his contributions to civilised city living. He made it popular for men to be clean-shaven and for women to have short hair with a fringe on the forehead (US: bangs). He invented a soap with rosewater and salts. He introduced seasonal fashions: fresh colours in spring, white in the heat of the summer, fiery reds and yellow in autumn and dark, warm furs in winter.

At the table, he replaced the traditional metal drinking goblets with drinking vessels of crystal. He is credited with inventing the leather tablecloth and the three-course meal of soup or starter, followed by a main course and finishing with a dessert or nuts. This latter was a completely new invention. Not even Baghdadis had three-course meals. Many dishes are named after him. It is possible that the Indian sweet dish, the jalebi, derives its name from Ziryab.

He invited other learned men from his homeland. Indian visitors brought the game of chess. He invited doctors and astrologers from elsewhere in the arabic-speaking world to come to Cordoba to share their learning.

He died in 857. His children continued his work. One of his daughters married the court vizier. His legacy is fondly remembered in Spain.


A christian and a muslim playing lutes, cover of the cantigas de santa Maria by Alfonso el Sabio, king of Toledo, 13th century.

The heyday of the House of Wisdom, 820-860, generations 442-444

This was the time when Baghdad was the most exciting place to be, if you were a person who was interested in new ideas, in pushing back the envelope of human understanding. Philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, geography, engineering – all were explored and developed here.

Mathematics was further developed as a tool to make sense of the world. Algebra was invented (the system of balancing the sides of an equation to find the value of an unknown, usually described as ‘x’). This, we non-mathematicians may not realise, is a powerful tool indeed. As are five of the six trigonometric functions, the names of which I remember from school. The sine was brought from India. The others (cosine, tangent, secant, cosine, cosecant, cotangent) were developed in Baghdad in this period. The Indian numbering system that we still use, of nine digits and a zero, was promoted and explored.

The practice of philosophy, of studying how to think about the human situation, was brought into the modern monotheistic world from that of the Greeks.

Engineering techniques (the valve, the crankshaft, feedback controls) were rescued from the ancient world, understood, refined and applied in new ways.

banu musa lamp

This drawing for a self-trimming lamp is one of a hundred entries in the Book of Ingenious Devices by the Banu Musa brothers. The book also contains instructions and the design for a water-powered musical instrument, a concept not attempted again for a thousand years.

The Banu Musa brothers, as well as the multi-talented al-Kindi (known as the father of arabic philosophy) and the extraordinary mathematician al-Khwarizmi, were all employed in the House of Wisdom, the Bayt al-Hikma.

Their employer was the caliph al-Mamun.

How did this all come together? A combination of factors. Here are some of them, in no particular order.

The first paper mill opened in Baghdad in 795. The technology of paper-making was as profound in its significance as the development of the printing press in renaissance Europe or the internet in our own lifetimes. While northern Europeans used scraped animal skins to write on, educated Baghdadis had libraries with hundreds or thousands of books.

Baghdad itself was located at the meeting point of the Persian and Indian cultures to the east and that of the Mediterranean (particularly Greece) to the west. There is a long history of cultural exchange between India and Persia. Baghdad had been built 50km north of the ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Indian mathematicians and their ideas were welcome in Baghdad.

The religion of the rulers, islam, was tolerant of (most) other faiths. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians had to pay a poll tax but were otherwise largely left to pursue their own beliefs. In fact the administration sometimes preferred them not to convert to islam. Mass conversion meant a drop in tax revenues. As Constantinople was pursuing a less tolerant line to unorthodox christianity at the time, many non-mainstream christians found it healthier to live in the muslim world. They brought ancient Greek texts with them, and could read them.

The schools of Athens and Alexandria, with a continuous tradition of learning going back to ancient Greece, had been closed a century or so earlier.

Islam values literacy. The Quran is to be read and recited, in arabic.

Arabic was the common language from Cordoba in the west to Kabul in the east. Some said that they found it easier to express the new ideas in arabic than their native language. It was the language of learning, as latin was in the medieval world and English is now.

The translation movement had been in progress for some time. As well as Indian mathematical texts, Greek medical, scientific and medical texts were brought to Baghdad and translated into arabic. Translators were well paid for their work, sometimes the weight of the finished book in gold. Not only the caliph, but many of the elite joined in the search for ancient texts to translate. It is said that a condition of a peace treaty between Baghdad and Constantinople was that a copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest should be made available to Baghdad. To understand these texts well enough to be able to translate them, advanced knowledge of the subject is required. This then facilitated a comparison of the different traditions. Where do Greek geometry and Indian mathematics coincide, for example?

The culture of Baghdad was one of exchange, of ideas as well as goods. The Prophet himself had been a trader. There was a stable administration. Recently, a written cheque has been found which was issued in Baghdad and cashed in Cordoba. Baghdad became rich.

There were tensions, too. The differences of view about the human’s relation to God came into sharp focus. This is the time when the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, were collected and catalogued. The ulama, the imams, theological scholars, valued the Quran and the hadith above any discoveries by the philosophers and scientists. Some of the points of contention: Was the Quran created at a moment in time, or as it is directly revealed from God is it co-eternal with God? The caliph and the scholars of the House of Wisdom thought the former, the scholars of the ulama thought the latter. Does a person find the way to God via reason, working it out, or inspiration, faith, devotion?

Caliph al-Mamun was an advocate of reason over revelation. He loved the inquiry, the finding it out. (Among other projects, he despatched his scholars to measure the size of the Earth. Ptolemy had given an estimate in the Almagest, measured in stades, but nobody knew what a stade was.) Towards the end of his life al-Mamun issued a decree that the Quran was created. As he was caliph and therefore successor to the Prophet, he declared himself authorised to make such a pronouncement. Any imam who disagreed with him was to be punished. This was a dangerous precedent for the ulama, who saw themselves as the ones best qualified to interpret the wisdom of islam.

Inevitably this hardening of positions led to the creation of heroes and martyrs in those who resisted the caliph. Fifteen years after his death in 833 the decree was revoked and the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction. The scholars of the House of Wisdom went elsewhere.

Divisions in the Golden Age. Generations 445-447, 880-940

At the start of this period the largest, most influential and probably the richest city in the world was Baghdad. It was just over a century old, having been established in 762, but it was a magnet for scholars, attracted by its libraries of works translated from Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit, Persian and Chinese.

arabesque Samarra

The arts flourished too. This decorative panel is from Samarra, north of Baghdad and is one of the first appearances of the style now known as ‘arabesque’.

In this post I will focus on two men, both of whom lived in Baghdad. Both were highly accomplished and they came to very different world views.

The first was called Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi. He was born in Rayy (Razi) in Persia in around 860. Rayy is now a suburb of Tehran. He seems to have been a kind, clever and open-minded man, the sort of person you would feel richer for knowing.

As a young man al-Razi studied music, mathematics and philosophy, among other subjects. He was particularly renowned for his investigations into chemistry. However, his writings from his early life are now mainly known from quotes by later writers such as al-Biruni and Ibn Sina as the original documents have been lost.

Around the age of 30 he went to Baghdad, about 600 miles away. He studied medicine with Ali ibn Sahl, a famous physician of the city. (Ibn Sahl was a convert from Judaism. His father had translated Ptolemy’s Almagest into Arabic.) It is said that al-Razi soon surpassed his teachers. Around the year 900 the caliph al-Muktafi commissioned him to set up a hospital.

To select a site, he had pieces of fresh meat hung up outside at different places in the city. After a few days he checked each of them. The piece of meat that had shown the least putrefaction was deemed to be in the healthiest location, and that is where the hospital was built.

The hospital itself had a psychiatric ward as well as medical and surgical wards. There were baths for men and for women. It was organised as a series of circles. The most straightforward ailments were dealt with in the outer circle. Al-Razi himself looked after the inner circle of most difficult cases.

He kept copious records and wrote extensively. He even questioned the authority of Galen, the main reference for medicine in his world and in the west until the Renaissance. He questioned Galen’s theory of the four humours when he observed that the body of a patient who drinks a hot drink warms up by more than the temperature of the drink itself, suggesting that more is going on than the simple transfer of warmth.

He is the first person known to have used a control group in a medical trial. He divided  a group of people showing the symptoms of meningitis into two subgroups. To one group he applied bloodletting and he left the other alone. He reported that the group who received bloodletting fared better than the control group.

He wrote a book on medical ethics. He said, “The doctor’s aim is to do good, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends…”. He acknowledged that some diseases, such as advanced cancer or leprosy, are incurable. He also acknowledged that untrained healers, including wise women, were often more successful in treating certain diseases than trained physicians like himself. He wrote a medical self-help book.

Al-Razi’s open-mindedness extended to religion, too, and that got him into trouble. For him, God has given humans the ability to think for themselves. To unquestioningly accept the dicta of a revealed religion would be an affront to this God-given ability.

I really like this man.

The other influential man of this period took a different view. Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari was born in Basra, south of Baghdad in 874. Until he was forty he probably would not have disagreed too much with al-Razi. Then it is said that he had three life-changing dreams. In these dreams Mohammed commanded him to adhere to tradition, which he took to mean the Quran and the collected sayings, the Hadith.

As a young man he had studied philosophy and engaged in the debates of the time. As so much had been translated over the previous century, many of the discussions revolved around integrating the wisdom of the ancients with the revealed religion of Islam.

The first pillar of Islam requires the adherent to attest to the unity of God: ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger’.

To me, that sounds fairly straightforward, but the scholars went into contortions over it. Is the Quran separate from God or, as it is God’s words, is it therefore part of God? Does God know everything, down to every flap of a butterfly’s wing? Where is human free will? Has the universe existed forever or was it created at a certain moment?

Islam is a practical religion. It is based on action rather than beliefs as is the case with christianity. All of the five pillars are actions. The first pillar is known as the shahada, which is translated as the attestation, the bearing witness. In other words, an action. There were debates about how to behave, what to do, and people looked to the Quran and the Hadith for guidance. Al-Ashari had been trained in the mental gymnastics of the philosophers, so when he joined the traditionalist camp he was well-prepared to engage the philosophers with their own tools.

For al-Ashari the focus became to know God better. The Quran was the word of God and so part of God and so eternal and uncreated. It was to be taken literally rather than metaphorically. When it talked of God’s hands or eyes, it meant that God has hands and eyes. To al-Ashari’s credit, he didn’t think that everything was understood. He believed that there was always room for improvement, so he didn’t think that the scholars had the final word yet. Although he declared that God is omnipotent, he found a way to incorporate free will (which I confess is too subtle for me and so I won’t go into it). He is remembered as one of the foremost sunni theologians.

Al-Razi had probably gone back to Rayy to set up a hospital there when al-Ashari moved to Baghdad. I don’t think they would have had much in common if they did meet.

And on a completely separate issue, the first reported use of the decimal point dates from the end of this period.  The Book of Chapters of Hindu Arithmetic by al-Uqlidisi (literally, ‘the Euclidean’) was written in Damascus. He set a problem of calculation to which the answer was 179.685, which he wrote as 179’685. More to follow on the Indian contribution to mathematics as we go on …



Pearls in the desert. generations 446-450, 900-1000CE

Samarkand, Bukhara, Nishapur … to me, these names are exotic and evocative. They are cities in Khorasan that witnessed one of the flowerings of the golden age of islam.

Ark Fortress, Bukhara

Carvings and tilework at an entrance to the Ark Fortress in Bukhara

Where is Khorasan? It is a region of central Asia. The Caspian Sea is to the west. North are the steppes, south are the mountains of Afghanistan. Persia (now Iran) is to the south-west.

The region is dry. Each city is an oasis, fed by a delicate system of irrigation canals carrying the precious water from the rivers and wells to the fields. The Silk Road crosses through here. At Samarkand the caravans from China continue down into Persia or carry on further west to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and the Mediterranean.

The caravans brought silks and spices, and different foods from all over the known world. And technology. The Arabs conquered Khorasan in around 710, and discovered the art of papermaking from the Chinese. They turned it from an art into an industry. The  first water-driven paper mill was at Samarkand. In the markets of these cities one could buy carpets, soaps, cotton and silk cloth, foods from as far away as China, India and Africa – and have your purchase wrapped up in paper.

The Arabs brought a legal system, too. The second of the five pillars of islam instructs those with wealth to distribute some of it for the benefit of those in need. This was embodied in law as ‘waqf’, a tax break for charitable endowments. Hospitals and schools were built for the public good using waqf funding. A larger city such as Bukhara had several hospitals. It was said that admission was free of charge. All were treated, regardless of religious adherence. However, some of the physicians became very rich, so maybe they charged their wealthier patients.

There was a flourishing of learning. Its location on the Silk Road and its inclusion in the islamic world made Khorasan a meeting point of cultures. Indian mathematics, Chinese medicine, Persian sophistication, Arabic law based on the Quran – all mixed here. Added to that, there was now access to the body of knowledge translated from the ancient Greek into Arabic a century earlier, which could now be transcribed on to paper and made more widely accessible. Although nominally within the Abbasid caliphate, this region was self-governing and open to other influences than those emanating from Baghdad.

kalyan mosque and minaret, bukhara

Kalyan Mosque and minaret, Bukhara

Advances in medicine spread across the known world. In this period a surgeon in Cordoba in al-Andalus developed a range of surgical instruments, some of which, such as the forceps, are still in use today. He also wrote several books. I am sure that al-Zahrawi’s work was known to his counterparts 7000 km away in Khorasan.

Scholars from this region pushed back the boundaries of knowledge. We have already met Ibn Sina and al-Biruni, who lived here a century or so later. Of the many original thinkers who come from this region, another stands out in this period. Al-Farabi grew up here and then moved to Baghdad, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote on music, cosmology, philosophy and mathematics. His understanding of Aristotle was so clear that he was one of the few sources acknowledged by the otherwise self-taught Ibn Sina. Ibn Sina wrote that Aristotle was impenetrable to him until he read al-Farabi’s commentary. As Ibn Sina’s work became the primary reference for later thinkers including Thomas Aquinas (who went on to influence the direction of Catholic thought) this means that al-Farabi was influential indeed. He was known to his students as the ‘second master’ (the first being Aristotle).

The arts flourished, too. Nishapur, in the south of Khorasan, was already a centre for pottery making. With the influx of new techniques from China along the Silk Road, it went up a gear. There were two styles of decoration. For the muslims there were sayings, or quotes from the Quran.


The inscription on this bowl is in a style of arabic called kufic script. it reads: “Magnanimity has first a bitter taste, but at the end it tastes sweeter than honey. Good health.” Bowl in the Louvre Museum, Paris

But there was also a continuation of Persian art traditions, with depictions of humans, birds, animals and plants.

bowl, Nishapur

This polychrome slip-ware bowl is in the National Museum of Oriental Art, Rome.

Here is another world that I knew nothing of. It flourished for another three centuries until Genghis Khan and his army came from the steppes to the north, destroyed the irrigation channels and levelled the cities. Some of them never recovered and only now are being excavated from the sand. Others, like Bukhara and Samarkand, were rebuilt nearby. But for a while this was the place to be. These cities formed links in the chain of transmission of human learning from the ancient world until now.



Sunni, shia and caliphs: the world from 900-1000AD

By generation 450, 1000 AD, there were three caliphs: one each in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba. As the word ‘caliph’ implies one-and-only successor to the prophet, clearly something had gone off-script.

This post gives some broad brush-strokes to the map of the world we are exploring.

After Mohammed died in 632 AD, the official story tells us that the umma, the community, elected his uncle Abu Bakr as their leader. He gave himself the title ‘khalifa’, caliph, successor to the prophet. When he died another companion of the prophet, Omar, was elected. When Omar died, the umma elected another companion of the prophet. Othman was a devout man and also a very successful businessman. His skills were put to use to administer the rapidly-growing world that the muslims were moving into. He appointed other members of his wealthy family, the Umayyads, as governors in Egypt and Damascus.

But then it went wrong. Othman was assassinated when the people began to suspect that his family were getting rich at the expense of the rest of them. Othman’s family refused to accept the legitimacy of the next caliph elected by the umma: the prophet’s son-in-law Ali. The Ummayads defeated Ali in battle and set themselves up as caliphs in Damascus. The caliphate became hereditary.

But there were some in the umma who believed that Ali carried the authority, the spark that had been transmitted through Mohammed. Instead of caliph, they called him ‘imam’, the person who leads them to prayer. The Umayyads hunted down and killed Ali’s two sons, Hassan and Hussein, who in their turn had each been designated imam. When Hussein was killed his followers began to be known as shi’i, partisans. And so there was schism in the muslim world traceable back to thirty years after the death of the prophet.

Under the Umayyads, Damascus prospered. The muslim world continued to expand. Its policy of religious tolerance of other ‘people of the book’, christians and jews, meant that it was welcomed by christians in the Anatolian peninsula who adhered to a different version of their religion than their rulers in Constantinople. This was the start of the golden age. The official language of the empire was arabic. There was craft, trade and learning across the vast new realm.

Everyone flourished, but arabs were more equal than non-arabs, and Damascus and the Umayyads flourished most of all. This inevitably led to questioning of the authority of the Umayyads, whether they were really following the path as stipulated by the prophet. He had folded a blanket to sleep on and now these rulers wore fine silks. The discontent found strongest expression outside the arab world, in Persia, and among the shi’a. The rebels found a figurehead in one Abbas, who claimed descent from an uncle of Mohammed. To cut a very long story short (I’m not interested in politics and bloodshed, I confess) the rebel forces defeated the Umayyad army in 750 and Abbas was proclaimed caliph.

Enter the Abbasids. Once installed, Abbas forgot his interest in shi’ism and a lot of the promises he had made to his supporters. He rounded up the remaining Umayyads – and had them all killed. The caliphate became hereditary again. He built a new capital city at Baghdad. He invited scholars from all over the known world to work in its libraries, translating books from Greek, Persian and Hindu into arabic. The golden age went up a gear.

abbasid box

This inlaid ivory box comes from early in the Abbasid dynasty, around 800AD. Courtesy of Islamic Arts

But one of the Umayyad family, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape the Abbasid soldiers and made his way to the far west, to the new province of al-Andalus. There he was welcomed as a member of the imperial family. He mustered enough support to take over the peninsula and defeat the Abbasid army that came from Africa to overthrow him. He established his capital in Cordoba. A couple of hundred years later his successors felt confident enough to designate themselves caliphs once more.


The christian church in Cordoba was converted into a mosque and massively enlarged under Umayyad rule. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And so there were two caliphates: the Abbasids in Baghdad in the east and the Umayyads in Cordoba in the west.

The third caliphate was halfway between them, in north Africa. The shi’a Fatimids traced their descent through a line of imams from Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter who was married to Ali. In the early tenth century these shi’a teachers gathered enough support to overthrow the local rulers in north Africa. The Fatimid caliphate was established first in Tunisia. Then in 969 they created a new capital at Cairo in Egypt.

rock crystal ewer This drinking jug made from a single piece of rock crystal, hollowed out and carved, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It comes from Fatimid Egypt.

The Fatimids also participated in the exchange of learning and creativity, as the arabic language was shared across the three caliphates. They ruled Palestine (where christian pilgrims were welcomed as fellow people of the book), Sicily and southern Italy and across north Africa.

The stage is set for us to launch into the glory of the islamic golden age.

Generations 453-455, 1040-1100. Constantinople calls for help

(As I said in my last post, I feel that I am travelling without a map. This post is an outline map. If it was in a book it would be in a textbox, next to the main narrative. It gives the background for the story I am interested in, which is not about kings and battles but ideas and perceptions.)

During the eleventh century there was an unstoppable movement of people expanding out from central Asia, and another uncannily similar one in northern Europe. Constantinople was caught between them, and suffered the attentions of both.

Let’s look at the Asian one first. For a long time the caliphs in Baghdad had bought boys in the slave markets on the northern border of their empire, from what is now Turkmenistan. They were mistrustful of local arab or persian vested interests and so chose an imperial guard who would be loyal to them alone.The boys were kept separate and trained to be the caliph’s personal bodyguard. They were known as the mamluks, the slaves. For most people in Baghdad the mamluks were the nearest they got to the caliphate. Eventually the caliph moved them out of Baghdad to Samarra, and then moved there to be with them.

The qualities that made the mamluks so desirable as elite soldiers were there also in the people left behind. They were brave and strong. One clan, the Seljuks, expanded out of Turkmenistan in 1040 and became known as the Seljuk Turks. They soon adopted islam, in a rough-and-ready version that suited them. They had no written language and didn’t bother to learn Arabic, the language in which the Qu’ran was written. In their rapid wave of conquest they left the caliphate alone and adopted the title of sultans, the sword arm of the caliphate.

Khorasan province, over the border from Turkmenistan in northern Persia, was undergoing a cultural renaissance at this time. The Seljuk prince to whom it was assigned appointed a brilliant Persian administrator, Nizam al-Mulk. When the prince became sultan in 1053, he took his accomplished secretary with him. In so doing, he was playing to the strengths of each culture. The Seljuks were the fighters, the sultans, the Persians with their sophisticated culture were the viziers, the administrators. And the Arabs, with their legacy going back to Mohammed four hundred years previously, carried the law.

Nizam al-Mulk (meaning ‘Order of the Realm’) organised tax collection, set up communication systems and a police force. But he is most remembered for the establishment of institutes of higher education. They were named ‘nezamiyah’ after him. They were sponsored by the ruling families and the elites.The brilliant thinker Al-Ghazali, whom we have already met, was appointed to run the nizamiyah in Baghdad in 1091.The nezamiyah inspired the establishment of madrasas across the muslim world, and some say that European universities can also be traced back to them.

khorasan_map_smImage courtesy of the Textile Museum, Washington DCUSA

The new sultan was named Alp Arslan, ‘heroic lion’, by his troops. He was over six feet tall. It was said that he grew his moustache so long that when he rode his horse it flew behind him like twin braids. Alp Arslan and his army moved along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, along the edges of the Empire. By 1068 they had reached the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia.

Well, now we call it the Byzantine Empire. At the time it saw itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire, tracing its lineage back to Emperor Constantine and beyond. This was where the Roman Empire had adopted christianity. The current emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, decided to take the invaders on.

With a large but ill-equipped, undisciplined army he was able to keep them at bay for three years. Alp Arslan was wary of confronting Romanos head-on, but the two armies eventually met at Manzikert in what is now eastern Turkey in 1071. Romanos was unlucky, lost the battle, was captured and brought to Alp Arslan. Surprisingly, Alp Arslan did not kill him but released him with the promise of a large ransom.

Map_of_the_Anatolian_Seljuk_SultanateManzikert is just north of Lake Van, below the ‘E’ of Armenia. Image courtesy of Muslim Heritage

Romanos IV did not survive the humiliation on his return to Constantinople. He was deposed, blinded and exiled. He died of his wounds from the blinding, in 1072 at the age of 42. Alp Arslan himself died the same year and at same age, murdered while on campaign in his ancestral homelands of central Asia.

The victors named their new territory the Sultanate of Roum, after the Roman Empire that they had won it from. In time it became known as Turkey.

Now we need to skip across a continent, to north-west Europe. A few centuries earlier a similar group of brave and fierce-looking invaders had moved out from Scandinavia in their beautiful sleek boats. They colonised Greenland and Iceland to the north-west. They travelled Russia through the river systems, making settlements as far south as the Caspian Sea and near Constantinople itself. They also moved down the North Sea and repeatedly raided settlements in the British Isles. In the tenth century one group settled in northern France, where they became known as the men of the north, Norsemen, and eventually Normans. Their land became known as Normandy. They adopted the local language and religion, and then set off on another wave of conquest in the period under discussion. I suspect that 1066, the year of the Norman invasion of England, is engraved on the English national psyche just as strongly as 1789 is in the French or 1776 in the USA.

In the early eleventh century some Normans went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on the way back found some opportunities to do what they did best: fighting. Sicily was under muslim control and a large part of southern Italy was ruled from Constantinople. In 1047 Robert Guiscard, the sixth son of a minor noble and so with no prospects at home in Normandy, arrived with five horsemen and thirty foot-followers to take his chances. By 1070 he was the ruler of southern Italy and Sicily. A generation later his son was crowned king of Sicily.

The historian Anna Comnena, the daughter of Romanos’ successor Alexius Comnenus, was fascinated and appalled by the Normans. Here is what she had to say about Robert Guiscard:

“This Robert was Norman by birth, of obscure origins, with an overbearing character and a thoroughly villainous mind; he was a brave fighter, very cunning in his assaults on the wealth and power of great men; in achieving his aims absolutely inexorable, diverting criticism by incontrovertible argument. He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, broad shoulders, eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire. In a well-built man one looks for breadth here and slimness there; in him all was admirably well-proportioned and elegant… Homer remarked of Achilles that when he shouted his hearers had the impression of a multitude in uproar, but Robert’s bellow, so they say, put tens of thousands to flight.” (from the Alexiad of Anna Comnena)

The invasion of Sicily marked the beginning of the slow decline of muslim occupation of Europe. In 1085 the christian rulers of northern Spain captured Toledo from the muslim rulers. Al-Andalus was also in political disarray at this time after the disintegration of the central caliphate in Cordoba in 1031. It was known as the Taifa period, a taifa being a small emirate. From then on, the many states in al-Andalus never became strong enough to resist the christians from the north for long.

Muslim merchants were not permitted to settle in non-muslim countries, but christians and jews were. This period saw the beginning of the Italian trading city-states, first Amalfi, Pisa and Genoa, and later Venice. Another factor leading to the decline of muslim power and the beginning of the end of the muslim golden age?

There was one more destabilising factor in this period, a really strange one. South of the Caspian Sea not far from where Alp Arslan’s army would have marched, a teacher called Hassan-i-Sabbah captured the mountain fortress of El-Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, in 1090. He was a member of a shia sect (definitely not mainstream shia) and he was going to put a stop to those sunni Seljuks. He didn’t have a large army so he turned to the most effective way he could think of. He trained young men in the art of political murder. They became known as the assassins. They planned each assassination well in advance for maximum impact. Most of them were carried out in public, during Friday prayers. The assassins themselves expected to be killed straight after they had accomplished their mission, as indeed they invariably were. Nizam al-Mulk, Alp Arslan’s secretary, was one of their victims. The assassins continued their activities, adding another layer of fear in an already uncertain world, until the Mongol invaders captured El-Alamut over a century later.

This is the context of the Crusades, which began in 1095. The Seljuk Turks with their robust version of islam were less tolerant of pilgrims to Jerusalem than the shia Fatimid caliphs, based in Cairo, whom they replaced. The news of harsh treatment at the hands of unbelievers began to filter back to Europe. Secondly Romanos’ successor as Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius Comnenus, decided to overcome his dislike of the papacy and ask for help against the Turks. He was concerned that otherwise they might be wiped off the map. He sent a delegation in 1095, to meet the pope at Piacenza.

Alexios_I_KomnenosAlexius Comnenus

The request reached a pope who had difficulties of his own. Pope Urban continued the work of his predecessors, trying to carve out the authority of his church and impose it on rulers such as Robert Guiscard and the equally troublesome German Emperor. Giving them all an external enemy seemed a perfect opportunity. But not to save Constantinople: Jerusalem would be the target. Recover the holy places from the saracens! (even though they had been under saracen control for the last 400 years).

He launched the idea in a speech at Clermont in central France in 1095. As an incentive, he announced that those who agreed to do this from devotion rather than the prospect of honour or gain would be absolved of their sins when they died. In other words, it didn’t matter what dreadful things they did while on crusade because they would be going to heaven anyway. And some dreadful things were done.

The appeal was successful way beyond Urban’s expectations. The main crusader army set off two years later, in 1097. Ironically, the vanguard of the army were Normans, some of whom were related to Robert Guiscard. No wonder Alexius Comnenus didn’t let them in when they arrived at Constantinople.

Note: much of this post is based on chapter 8 of Destiny Disrupted, a history of the world through islamic eyes by Tamim Ansary. Highly recommended.