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.

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.

Going off the edge of the map. 1100 CE

So far in our story there has been a largely agreed-to narrative.

We began in the current generation, generation 500, with its unprecedented level of interconnectedness and availability of information. As we explored back through the twentieth century we saw how technological innovations, initially available only to the rich, eventually empowered so many more of us. Mobile phones, computers, washing machines, air travel, for example.

Then we moved back through the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. This saw technological breakthroughs and also a change in thinking. Areas previously deemed off-limits to the uninitiated were now open to question. Charles Darwin, a country vicar living in the south of England, wrote ‘The Origin of Species’ and sparked a furore which still continues in some places.

The eighteenth century saw the Enlightenment. Some people felt empowered to question established ways of organising society and describing reality. They wrote about it and talked about it in the coffee shops of Paris, London and elsewhere. The Enlightenment also saw the birth of a powerful idea, that no man has the right to own another. (Women were a grey area but the principle was established. It took another century for the same rights to be extended to them.) The same expansive sense sent men around the world. Australia and New Zealand were colonised by Europeans. Clipper ships brought cargoes of tea and spices from the East to London and Rotterdam.

And so we can continue back with a recognisable strand of events, each generation building on the achievements of the previous one. The story has been agreed. Most history books that we read will pick up on a part of this narrative.

But I have reached a break. In the year 1100 the largest city in Europe was Cordoba. I never knew that! This wasn’t covered in any history lesson I remember. In comparison to the Europe we have largely focused on so far, the muslim world of 1100 was vast. A scholar from northern Persia could travel to Baghdad or Damascus (both much bigger cities than Cordoba),  meet someone from Toledo there, and converse in their common language of Arabic to exchange ideas and experiences.

My problem is that I can’t find the map of the world I am about to enter. I have found a lot of sources, but they all tell slightly different stories. The maps don’t quite match each other, and there are a lot of blank spaces. But while the lack of a map makes this world more difficult to explore, it also is much more interesting for me.

I will have to abandon the approach of one generation at a time. Perhaps because the muslim world is so big, ideas and innovations no longer fit into tidy twenty-year slots. So the next entry in the blog will explore the world-changing events that occurred between 1050 and 1100 (or thereabouts).