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10. Abbasids |
The Abbasid take-over begins a disintegration of pan-Islamic unity

Abbasids is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 254, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The new capital Baghdad sees a cultural flowering until the caliphs lose control and renegade sects slay tens of thousands in the Muslim heartland

Abbasids - The Abbasid take-over begins a disintegration of pan-Islamic unity

Abbasids – The Abbasid take-over begins a disintegration of pan-Islamic unity
In this painting by Julius Köckert from the Maximilianeum Collection, Munich, the Abbasid caliph Haroun al-Rashid at the age of twenty receives envoys from Charlemagne, bearing the correspondence, tributes and gifts customarily exchanged by kings and emperors. Haroun was a patron of the arts, a highly capable administrator, and one of Islam’s greatest generals.

It was a party to remember, and six Muslim historians have recorded it for posterity. The host was Abdullah ibn Ali, military commander for (and uncle of) the first Abbasid caliph. Victorious at last over the rival Umayyad dynasty, which had ruled Islam from Damascus for ninety years, the Abbasids were now bent on exterminating every last Umayyad supporter. The Umayyads were hiding, so it was said, in the very “bowels of the earth.” But eighty of them had been caught, and on this night of June 25, 750, at the little town of Abu Futrus, near Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast, they were paraded into a grand Abbasid victory banquet. At a signal from Abdullah they were hacked to pieces, and then covered with carpets. The party proceeded amid the dying groans of any still alive.

Hatred can run deep in Islam, as it would among Christians in the years ahead, but this hatred had a history even older than Islam. It was rooted in the Arabian past: the northern herdsman hating the southern farmer, the roving Bedouin hating the townsman, family feuds enduring for generations. There were also other powerful causes for hatred between Abbasid and Umayyad. Religious authority was involved, each faction believing itself divinely commissioned to rule the Muslim world.

The Abbasids were led by descendants of Muhammad’s stalwart Uncle Abbas, and supporting them–for the moment–were the followers of Ali, foster son and unswerving supporter of the Prophet. They represented, in short, the Prophet’s actual kinsmen. The Umayyads’ claim, by contrast, was based solely on precedent. Their ancestors were the traditional leaders of Mecca, who had fiercely opposed the Prophet until his military success became irreversible, when they belatedly joined him.

Muhammad himself had not appointed his successors, but later a process to do so had been established. However, said the Abbasids, the Umayyads had used that process to cheat Abbas and Ali, and Ali’s son Hussein, of the rightful succession. According to their opponents, the Umayyads had established at Damascus a false, cynical, opportunistic and unholy distortion of the true faith. No wonder their government was riddled with corruption! Everyone knew, for example, that a provincial governor under Caliph Hisam (724—743) had appropriated some fifty-two million dirham, and given up only some of it under torture. Clearly there were many more like him. Just look at the staggering opulence of the caliphs’ court! Look at the thousands of slaves who supported their grandiloquent lifestyle, their gambling, their horseracing, their hunting! Consider the hounds of Caliph Yazid I (680—683), with their gold anklets and personal slaves! Consider also that Yazid himself actually composed and encouraged instrumental music, though the Prophet had condemned it as “the devil’s muezzin!”

Worse still was the drinking. The Prophet had banned alcohol, but one Umayyad caliph trained a monkey as his drinking companion, and another actually swam in a pool of wine, gulping it by the mouthful. Dissipation had spread even to holy Medina and Mecca, where palatial whorehouses were staffed by Persian and Byzantine slave girls who beguiled Muslims with incense, soft music and wine. Singers and dancers performed at the Sacred Pilgrimage itself. At Ta’if, near Mecca, the beauteous A’isha bint Talha, great-granddaughter of Muhammad’s closest friend Abu Bakr, and namesake of the Prophet’s beloved wife, had been married three times–and refused to veil her face. Allah had bestowed her beauty upon her, she said, so it was her clear duty to display it.

The Abbasids promised a very different Islamic government. Besides providing legitimate rule and moral reform, they vowed to restore true Muslim equality. When the Arabs conquered Persia in the name of Allah, many of its people embraced Islam, but the Umayyads consigned them to second-class status. Heartily resentful, these converts rallied to the black Abbasid banner, the Prophet’s own flag. And so in April 750, the rebel chieftain Abu al-Abbas, namesake and great-great-grandson of the Prophet’s uncle, was able to crush the Umayyads, banishing their white banner from Damascus.

The new regime, the third to rule the Muslim Empire, would prove to be its longest-lasting.1 The Abbasid dynasty would endure for five centuries, although its caliphs would actually rule for only one. Thereafter they would be merely the puppets of foreign intruders and invaders, while the vast empire that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to India fragmented into separate states. One surviving Umayyad would found his own durable dynasty in Spain. Egypt and North Africa would break away, and even parts of Arabia and Persia.

The Abbasids began piously enough. Caliph Abu al-Abbas wore the actual cloak of the Prophet when leading the Friday prayers, while ruthlessly securing his regime. The last Umayyad caliph was discovered hiding in an Egyptian church, and his head was dispatched to Damascus. Al-Abbas adopted the honorific al-Safah, “the Blood-shedder” and made good on the title. The executioner’s carpet beside the throne became a permanent fixture, as did the office of executioner, and torture chambers in the palace basements. Even dead Umayyad caliphs were not spared. Their bones were dug up and their graves desecrated.2

Like the Umayyads, al-Abbas had to rely on Persian bureaucrats, making his administration, also like theirs, more Persian than Arab. The caliph held absolute power, but customarily acted through his vizier (prime minister), emirs (generals) and qadis (judges). Most of these were Persian, and many were Christian. The chief judge, however, had to be a stalwart Muslim with theological training, since the Abbasids did try, as promised, to base their legal system on the Shari’a. That is, they tried to apply the Qur’anic legal system–derived from rules established by Muhammad for a tribal community in the desert–to the political, economic, social and judicial requirements of an intercontinental empire.

They did not succeed, but neither has any Muslim ruler since. Generations of Muslim jurists, observes Middle East expert Daniel Pipes (In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power), have failed to make the Shari’a practicable without changing its traditional formulas–and the slightest change is considered questionable if not unthinkable. As a simple example, the Prophet set taxes for his Muslim followers very low, since in his time plunder and non-Muslim taxpayers amply provided for state requirements. Such was no longer the case in Persia, and to move beyond the limitations of the Shari’a an entire parallel system of tariffs and tolls had to be set up.3

The same was true in almost every area. As one instance, the commander of the caliph’s bodyguard oversaw a police force and courts that handled trade regulations, debt repayment, and such moral transgressions as gambling and the sale of alcohol. He was even expected to prevent such infractions as elderly men dyeing their gray beards black to falsely beguile young women. Meanwhile, the Shari’a became restricted over time mostly to family and ecclesiastical law.

Some public institutions inherited from the Persians and Umayyads worked well, however. The Abbasids extended the Khorasan Road right to the border of China, and they expanded the vitally important postal service. Its hundreds of miles of horse, mule and camel relays connected the empire and delivered the imperial mail, but was at least equally valued as the caliph’s primary spy network. Each local agent passed on to the postmaster general all news of interest, including in particular bureaucratic misdeeds.4

When al-Abbas died of smallpox four years into his reign, his brother became caliph by eliminating two other contenders. Tall, slender, dark and stern, he assumed the title al-Mansur, “Victorious Through God,” and consolidated his position with even less scruple than his brother. Al-Mansur had Uncle Abdullah, his rival for the caliphate, imaginatively murdered by imprisoning him in a house with salt foundations. When flooded, reports the historian al-Tabari, it collapsed upon its inhabitant. The new caliph’s most powerful lieutenant (and therefore potential rival) was neatly eliminated by inviting him to a banquet where he was assassinated. Dissident Alyite factions, soon thoroughly disillusioned with their allies, had to be similarly dealt with.

Meanwhile, al-Mansur completed in a brisk four years the project for which he is best remembered: his new capital, constructed by one hundred thousand workmen on the west bank of the Tigris River. The city of Baghdad (Gift of God) was destined to rival even Constantinople and to be the scene of Islam’s first great cultural flowering. Not that this was the caliph’s particular intention, notes J. B. Bury in his History of the Later Roman Empire, for he reputedly was an abstemious man, almost niggardly. Absorbed by natural science, history, grammar and law, al-Mansur shunned splendid clothes, rich pageantry and the arts of all kinds, particularly music. One day, encountering a slave playing a tambourine, he had the instrument smashed over the man’s head.

But for Baghdad, no magnificence was spared. Designed as a circle four miles in circumference (and thus known as the Round City), it featured three massive concentric walls of sun-dried brick, with four great gateways on north, south, east and west. The one-hundred-and-thirty-foot dome of the caliph’s Palace of the Golden Gate soared high within the inner wall. Outside the walls, al-Mansur had a second residence, the Palace of Eternity, surrounded by wondrous gardens, and farther north another palace for the heir apparent. Also outside the walls was the commercial city, intersected by canals, with an assigned quarter for each business and trade.

Three bridges gave access to suburbs on the opposite bank of the Tigris. The Christian Quarter, known as Dar al-Rum (“Abode of the Romans”), with its churches and monasteries, was in one of these. Throughout the city were public baths–sumptuous, steam-heated marble bathhouses with mosaic floors and refreshment rooms. As the empire prospered, the produce of the fertile Tigris—Euphrates Valley flowed into the capital, while Arab merchants extended their trade routes to deal in Chinese silk and porcelain, Indian spices, Asian jewels and minerals, Scandinavian furs, African ivory, and slaves both black and white.

This was the city that would inspire stories of the fictional Aladdin, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, and Sinbad the sailor. Their adventures, based on Persian stories with many Arab additions, would entertain generations to come in the Arabian Nights. Baghdad would “witness the most momentous intellectual awakening in the history of Islam,” writes Philip K. Hitti in his monumental History of the Arabs. Amid its luxury and intrigue, the Christian physician-scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi translated the works of major Greek thinkers, and paid for each book with its equivalent weight in gold. But Hunayn was no toady. When the caliph ordered him to produce a poison for one of his enemies, Hunayn refused and was jailed for a year. Why such defiance, demanded the caliph, upon his physician’s release. Two reasons, replied Hunayn. His religion required him to love his enemies, not poison them, and his profession forbade him to do harm.

Almost all the caliphs employed Christian physicians, and the impressive medical lore amassed by the Muslim Empire came largely from Greek, Persian and sometimes Indian sources. It would in due course be transmitted into Europe by way of Muslim Spain and Sicily. Muslim physicians added to this store of medical knowledge, of course, the most illustrious being the ninth-century diagnostician, surgeon and chemist al-Razi (known in the West as Rhazes), a prolific writer who also built and administered Baghdad’s hospital. Equally famous is the physician, philosopher and poet Ibn Sina (Latinized as Avicenna), who codified Greco—Muslim medical knowledge in one comprehensive and remarkably accurate volume. Translated into Latin, it became one of Europe’s chief medical resources until the seventeenth century.

The Abbasids displayed an insatiable appetite for every sort of knowledge–astronomy, mathematics, astrology, alchemy, optics, geography, music theory, psychology, politics, philosophy and metaphysics–that they could import from India and Byzantium. The words for arithmetic, geometry, geography and music in both Latin and Arabic originate from Greek. There ensued a veritable orgy of translation, as Nestorian Christian scholars commissioned by the caliphs rendered into Syriac and Arabic all the great Hellenists: Galen, Hypocrites, Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, Aristotle.

Muslim scholars responded by building upon this “new” learning in practically every field, and soon Arabic became the recognized language of learning throughout the Islamic world. Among the scholars were historian—theologians like al-Tabari and the historian—geographer al-Masudi. And finally, there were purely literary works, including love stories from the lively courts of the caliphs, which became immensely popular in western lands, as did the haunting love poetry of the Rubaiyat of the Persian Umar al-Khayyam. Al-Khayyam, quite typically, was a scientist as well: an accomplished astronomer who reformed the Islamic calendar.5

These intellectual developments quickly took institutional form, beginning with the “House of Wisdom,” a combined translation center, academy, library and observatory. Observatories and hospitals served as teaching centers, as did mosques, and Baghdad’s first university-style institute, the Nizamiyah; would survive for centuries. Libraries both private and public opened in major cities, while literary, poetry and debating salons were favored entertainment in wealthy homes. The result, although something the Prophet had never predicted, was a brilliant society centered on the glittering city of Baghdad.

But the Muslim Empire was becoming ever less Arab. Although Baghdad remained firmly Muslim in faith, and Arabic the legal language, Persian influence prevailed in dress, food, songs, stories and popular culture generally, as well as government. Abroad, although the caliph was everywhere unfailingly mentioned in the formal Friday sermon, the empire was fracturing both theologically and politically.

Both presented intractable problems, and they worked in tandem. Theologically, the Abbasids held to the position espoused by their Umayyad predecessors, based on literal interpretation of the Qur’an and assiduous collection and assessment by their scholars of the Hadith (traditions). Adhering to this Sunna (“middle path” or “orthodox way”), they came to be called “Sunnis.” But their Alyite allies were developing increasingly contrary views. They revered Hussein as a veritable saint and Ali as the last legitimate caliph, with a seemingly boundless devotion. They even amended the Islamic declaration of faith to read: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet, and Ali is his vice-regent (wali).”

The Alyites preferred to call their leader imam, which simply means “leader,” rather than caliph. They believed, however, that as Ali’s direct descendant, their imam inherited all Muhammad’s power–spiritual as well as temporal–and was therefore incapable of error or sin. The Abbasids contemptuously dismissed them and their beliefs as a mere Shi’a, a sect, and the name stuck. The Alyites would henceforth be known as Shi’ite, i.e., “sectarians.”

The early Abbasid caliphs actively persecuted them, even desecrating and destroying the tombs of Ali and Hussein. The Shi’ites, who were strong in Persia, caused the Abbasids endless grief in return, but the toll on Shi’ite leadership was high. In little more than a century, eleven Shi’a imams died by poison, execution or in battle. Their historians hold that the twelfth, a descendant of Hussein, disappeared without trace in the cave below the Great Mosque at Samara. He thus became the “hidden” or “expected” imam, and his devotees await his return as the Mahdi, the “divinely appointed one,” who will finally restore true Islam and conquer the world in its name. All this was, and would remain, the belief of the main Shi’a body, still known as Twelvers.

However, the Shi’ite had a chronic tendency to split.6 For example, their sixth imam, before his death, named as his successor his elder son Isma’il. But then, supposedly discovering that Isma’il was intemperate as to wine, he appointed his younger son Musa instead. Though most of his followers accepted this decision, some argued that an imam, being infallible, was incapable of such an offense. For the Ismai’lis, therefore, Isma’il became the seventh imam, who would very soon return as the Mahdi. Meanwhile, they developed on the basis of the number seven a mathematical cosmogony, which purported to explain the universe and all history. They held that the Qur’an must be interpreted as allegory to reveal its inner meanings, and espoused such beliefs as transmigration of souls. Under the leadership of a Persian named Abdullah, Ismai’li missionaries spread across the Islamic world, secretly initiating converts both Persian and Arab into these esoteric doctrines.

The Ismai’lis in time continued to split into further sects. Among the most striking were the egalitarian Qarmatians (or Carmathians), founded late in the ninth century by a pupil of Abdullah, Hamdan Qarmat, who believed that all things must be held in common (including wives, some sources say). Their intensely communal beliefs, says Hitti, have caused some modern historians to call them “the Bolsheviks of Islam.” They also resembled the early Bolsheviks in their readiness to shed blood, including that of fellow Muslims. At the end of the ninth century, they founded a Qarmatian state on the Persian Gulf, from which they wreaked havoc into the eleventh.

Also of considerable duration–some two and a half centuries–were the Fatimids, another Ismai’li offshoot whose leader, Sa’id ibn Hussein, claimed descent from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali. After much clandestine advance work in North Africa to announce his advent as the Mahdi, Sa’id arrived there in the guise of a merchant. He was jailed nonetheless by the suspicious Abbasid-appointed governor, a Sunni already operating as a virtually independent ruler, but was rescued by supporters. Successfully eliminating the ruling regime, he was proclaimed Imam Ubaydullah al-Mahdi in 909.

Imam Ubaydullah ruled North Africa for twenty-five years, energetically expanding his territory from Morocco to Egypt, and his progeny proved equally industrious. His son raided the coasts of France and Italy, and his grandson the Spanish coast. In 958, the Fatimids advanced west to the Atlantic. In 969, they conquered Egypt, and by 991 controlled most of Syria as well, where they had to contend with the Qarmatians. They also provided Egypt, for a time, with wealth and good government. Under the fifth imam, Nizar al-Aziz (975—996), the Shi’ite Egyptian caliphate was more powerful by far than the Sunni Abbasids of Baghdad.

Al-Aziz built a new capital, Cairo, described by a visitor in the next century as a beautiful and singularly law-abiding city of brick houses five and six stories high, with many shops, lighted streets, eight great mosques, canals, magnificent bridges and gates, and of course, palaces. Al-Aziz’s own palace, with which he hoped one day to dazzle the defeated Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, was especially impressive. Under the tolerant rule of al-Aziz, other faiths, Christians included, fared well. He had a Christian vizier, and his Russian wife, mother of his heir, was also Christian. Indeed, she was the sister of two patriarchs. Tolerance would vanish from Cairo, however, in the reign of al-Hakim (996—1021), the strange, troubled, blue-eyed son of al-Aziz. (See sidebar, page 264.)

Al-Hakim was not typical of Muslim treatment of subject peoples in this era, however. It varied greatly throughout the Muslim world, but only sporadically were Christians and Jews faced with the stark choice of “Islam or the sword.” The Prophet had classified them as “people of the Book,” to be tolerated as an inferior class, so in Persia they were organized as separate groups (melets), under their own leaders. These dhimmis were not fully recognized in law, and had to pay heavy taxes. In addition, onerous and frequently humiliating restrictions were often prescribed, though not always applied. Laurence E. Browne, in The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia, quotes the eleventh-century Muslim lawyer Mawardi to explain that two categories of law applied to Christians. The first category was absolute and always obligatory, the second not necessarily so.

The first category included the following: Dhimmis must never denigrate the holy Qur’an, or the Prophet, or the Muslim faith; they must not attempt to amorously approach or marry a Muslim woman; they must not “turn a Muslim from the faith or harm him in person or possessions,” nor aid his enemies. First category rules were invariably and fiercely enforced. The restrictions of the second category, which were much more sporadic, required Christians to wear an identifying garment, and possess no building higher than Muslim ones. They must not offend Muslim ears by their summonses to prayer or by making claims about their Messiah. They must refrain from “drinking wine publicly and displaying their crosses and swine.” They were forbidden to ride any animal more grandiose than a mule, or to own slaves.

Similar restrictions applied to Jews, and the Umayyad caliphs extended melet status to a people Muhammad probably never imagined, the Zoroastrians. The Jews, relatively few in number, were not seen as a threat and were very useful, handling most of Baghdad’s financial and business affairs. They supported rabbinical schools and synagogues, and far from being suppressed, seem to have been highly esteemed. A twelfth-century account tells how their chief, called the exilarch or “prince of captivity,” arrived at an audience with the caliph, robed and turbaned in silk and preceded by a servant crying “Make way for our lord, the son of David.”

Christians specialized in government, education, finance and medicine, bringing influence and wealth to themselves and their churches. An example is the physician Jurgis (George) ibn Bakhtishu, called in to cure Caliph al-Mansur of persistent stomach trouble. Ibn Bakhtishu subsequently ran the court medical practice, and so did his descendants for six illustrious generations. As Arabic professor T. W. Arnold observes in The Cambridge Medieval History, Christian prosperity is amply indicated by the size of the bribes the Nestorian churches could produce when necessary. Another indication is the size and number of magnificent church buildings erected throughout the caliphate between 760 and 1180–although building new churches was theoretically not allowed.

Muslims naturally resented this preferment, especially since Christians seem not always to have been as deferential as they should. They further suspected that many Christian converts to Islam did so insincerely, for worldly advancement, and they frequently complained that the unconverted were not obeying the dhimmi rules. Christians were not wearing the distinctive garments as required, or were hiding them under other clothing, they said. Their noisy summonses to church services were attracting crowds who “ogled” them, and wealthy Christians were not all paying the proper tax. And some of these infidels, protested one irate Muslim, were actually presuming to use Muslim names like “Hassan and Hussein and Fadl and Ali … and there is nothing left but that they should be called Muhammad.…”

Such complaints sometimes got results. In 758, al-Mansur confiscated church treasures. A later caliph briefly enforced all the rules, and had new and borderland churches demolished. Another deposed and imprisoned the Nestorian patriarch, destroyed some churches, expropriated several monasteries, and required Christians to put devil images on their gates, sew yellow patches on their clothing, and reduce grave monuments to ground level. Anti-Christian mobs attacked churches on occasion, sometimes despite official protection. In one instance, the caliph ordered a damaged church rebuilt, but during the process, the mob burned it down again. Few attacks on life and limb are recorded, however, either from official policy or mob action, and these occurred mostly during frontier fighting between Muslims and their Byzantine adversaries.

Within the empire, much Muslim—Christian intercourse was amiable enough. On a formal level, both produced apologetics for their own beliefs, and held debates. The Muslims, Browne remarks, were little impressed by Christian arguments, but he detects “a wistful looking towards Jesus to supply something that was not to be found in Islam.” This may have resulted from daily contact of the common people of both faiths. Moreover, as more and more Christians became Muslims, there appears in Islam a noticeable infiltration of Christian ideas and outright borrowings. Miracles began to be attributed to the Prophet, for example, prophecies about him were discovered in the Old Testament, and Hadiths appeared that attributed to him sayings remarkably like those of Jesus. “If any man suffers, or a brother of his suffers,” says a prayer of that era, “let him say, ‘Our Lord God who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy power is in heaven and on earth; as thy mercy is in heaven, so practice thy mercy upon earth; forgive us our fault and our sins, thou art the Lord of the good men; send down mercy from thy mercy, and healing from thy healing, on this pain, that it may be healed again.’”

There is also evidence that adherents of both faiths sometimes honored the memory and tomb of the same saints, and by the eleventh century they habitually shared in each other’s festivals. On occasion, it is thought, Muslims even attended Christian liturgies. Finally, Islam produced the Sufis, Islamic holy men clearly influenced by the ubiquitous Christian monks of the East, with a possible touch of Buddhism as well. The Sufis firmly established themselves despite the deep repugnance of both Sunnis and Shi’ites for the basic monkish principles of asceticism and (even more) of celibacy.7

Yet very few Muslims became Christian, while increasing numbers of Christians went the other way. This was quite the opposite to the outcome in Europe, where Roman missionaries brought wave after wave of barbarian conquerors into the faith. Historians offer various explanations. Browne suggests that the churches of the East must have lost faith and zeal since the early days, when they so valiantly embraced martyrdom under the Persian shahs. British historian Aubrey R. Vine (The Nestorian Churches) agrees that an increasingly material outlook caused Persian Christians to lose their grip on “the essentials of their faith.” Henri Pirenne in Muhammad and Charlemagne writes that the fact a Christian’s faith was mostly ignored was “the most effective means of detaching him from it.” And as Pipes emphasizes, apostasy from Islam (where the Qur’anic penalty was, and is, death) has been a relative rarity at any time.

Meanwhile, whatever else might engage the attention of the Arab caliphs, they never long ignored one obligation: jihad (holy war) against Byzantium. In 718, the emperor Leo III had foiled an all-out Umayyad effort to conquer Constantinople. Their massive fleet had withdrawn in defeat and disgrace from the Sea of Marmara (see previous volume, The Sword of Islam, chapter 10). But since then Muslim armies had repeatedly crossed the Taurus Mountains and descended upon the Christian communities of Asia Minor, pillaging, marching the inhabitants away into slavery, and occupying the territory until Christian forces expelled them.

In 727, ten years after the great siege of Constantinople, they were back attacking Nicea, only sixty miles from the capital. In 730 they took the city of Caesarea in Cappadocia. In the last year of Leo’s life, 739, he confronted a Muslim army of ninety thousand at Acroïnum, on the western edge of the Anatolian plateau (now in Turkey) and routed them, having been warned of their approach by an ingenious defense system of mountain-to-mountain signal lights that the Byzantines had devised.8

The Abbasid takeover eleven years later caused a lull in border hostilities, but in 782 the third caliph, al-Mahdi, resolved to demonstrate the prowess of the new regime by driving right through to the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus opposite Constantinople. His second son, Haroun, eighteen years old and in command of the army, routed the Byzantines, then deeply divided by the iconoclast controversy (see chapter 5). He obliged the empress Irene, regent for her twelve-year-old son, Constantine VI, to plead for a humiliating and expensive peace. Haroun’s jubilant father bestowed upon him the title al-Rashid, the “Well-Guided,” and designated him second heir to the throne.

Four years later, in August 785, al-Mahdi died at age forty-three. By then he had decided to make Haroun his heir, and not his elder son, Musa al-Hadi. Nevertheless, Musa, with Haroun’s acquiescence, did reign for one year–a year of mutual suspicion and recrimination, before he too died on September 15, 786.9 Next day Haroun al-Rashid, at twenty-two, saw to the burial of his brother and accepted oaths of allegiance from Baghdad notables. Wearing Abbasid black, he rode upon a white horse to al-Mansur’s mosque in the Round City to lead midday prayers, while his subjects shouted their joy from rooftops and windows. Young, intelligent and energetic, Haroun took over when the empire was headed for its zenith of power, culture and wealth, and became in the popular mind its most admired and best-loved caliph. His political style, observes the British soldier—historian John Bagot Glubb in Haroon al Rasheed and the Great Abbasids, was relatively conciliatory–internally anyhow. The only blood shed at his accession was that of one especially defiant subject, and he released from prison numerous Alyites.

Abbasid qualms about luxury had by now been wholly suppressed, and the caliphs were rivalling in self-indulgence the once-despised Umayyads. Haroun’s father, al-Mahdi, had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, for instance, with camel-loads of mountain ice wrapped in sacking to cool his drinks. (His ancestors, snorts Glubb, “had crossed these deserts with a handful of dates.… and a goatskin of muddy water.”) In lavish spending and carousing, however, Haroun’s court would eclipse all others. Being particularly fond of music, he held one festival involving two thousand singers. His favorite “cup companion” was the celebrated libertine poet Abu Nuwas, who enlivened their revels with paeans to wine and women. Haroun’s brother, Ibrahim, was himself a celebrated singer and lute-player, and his heir, al-Amin, spent several fortunes building animal-shaped barges for all-night parties on the Tigris. Fashionable Muslims simply ignored the Prophet’s strictures against alcohol. Others contended that Muhammad knew only about fermented dates; the splendid wines now readily available from Christian monasteries and Jewish merchants were quite another matter.

Haroun built polo grounds and a boat harbor on the Tigris, and for his beloved empress, his cousin Zubaida, laid out another palace and more gardens. Tableware, Zubaida decreed, must always be of silver or gold, studded with jewels, and their food of the finest. Yet Haroun also had a social conscience. Discovering that one exotic dish consisted of one hundred and fifty fish tongues and cost a thousand dirhams, he immediately sent two servants to give the fish tongues to the first beggar he encountered, and also to distribute a thousand dirhams to the poor. Tall and well built, with thick, curly, black hair and a short beard, Haroun is said to have been emotional, impulsive, quick-tempered and compassionate–a volatile combination. At night, it was said, he often mixed incognito with his people in Baghdad’s streets. That may help account for his legendary popularity.

But he was a serious man, taking pains with the education of his two eldest sons: al-Ma’mun, child of a favorite concubine; and al-Amin, slightly younger, Zubaida’s only child.10 He was reputedly pious, and certainly a warrior, turning Tarsus in Cilicia into a fortress, and launching yearly assaults on the Byzantine frontier. Sometimes the Byzantines fought back; sometimes they bought him off. After the emperor Nicephorus I took over from Irene in 802, however, the mood in Constantinople changed. Nicephorus repudiated the tribute that Irene had paid (“female weakness” he called it), and demanded the money back. Haroun, in apoplectic rage, seized a pen and scrawled upon the back of the emperor’s defiant missive: “From Haroun, Prince of the Faithful, to Nicephorus, the Roman dog. I have read your letter, you son of a heathen mother. You will see my reply before you hear it.”

His army, 135,000 strong, set out almost immediately for the Byzantine frontier. Nicephorus, his bluff called, had to hastily agree to continue the tribute, and the Muslim army headed home. But then the emperor reneged on his agreement, reasoning that Haroun’s army could not return through the high Taurus passes in dead of winter. He was wrong again. Back they came, burning and looting and gathering captives. This time, Nicephorus even promised to pay in specially minted coins stamped with the likenesses of Haroun and his designated heirs–but again he did not deliver. So in 806 the caliph himself, wearing a peaked cap emblazoned “Raider and Pilgrim,” led a summer attack that captured Heraclea. Another force struck the island of Cyprus, reportedly taking seventeen thousand prisoners, including its Orthodox bishop. Only then did Nicephorus pay all the tribute arrears.

But ill fortune now switched to the Muslim side. Sensing that he would not live to see old age, Haroun conducted his two oldest sons to the sacred Ka’ba at Mecca, split the empire between them, and made each swear to and sign a concordat to respect this arrangement. The document was then pinned to the wall, but promptly fell off, a bad omen–and an accurate one. Haroun died seven years later in March 809, of an abdominal affliction, at forty-six. Within four years, the brothers were at war, with Zubaida’s son, al-Amin, besieged in the city of Baghdad by his half brother, al-Ma’mun. So fierce did the fighting become that the beautiful Round City was wrecked before al-Amin tried to escape by night across the Tigris, was caught, and was summarily beheaded.

Baghdad’s devout Muslims might well have concluded that the wrong man won, for al-Ma’mun was theologically very suspect. He backed the Mu’tazilites, a freethinking movement within Islam dating from Umayyad times and derived from Greek, Persian and Indian thought. The Mu’tazilites believed in free will. Worse still, they utterly rejected the orthodox Sunni belief that the Qur’an in its Arabic form is, as Hitti puts it, “the identical reproduction of a celestial original,” but rather that it was “created.” If the Qur’an was in effect “eternal,” they contended, it must be a rival to God himself. In 833, al-Ma’mun proclaimed that all his Muslim subjects must affirm this view, and set up an inquisition to enforce his edict, provoking sturdy opposition and periods of severe suffering for unwilling Muslims.

Although Bury notes that al-Ma’mun spent more money trying to rebuild Haroun’s court than he did on the defense of the Syrian frontier, his twenty-year reign was one of almost constant warfare against recusant movements in his empire. He died on such a campaign in 833. A third Haroun son, al-Mu’tasim, succeeded him, and it was he who had to contend with Byzantium. A new Byzantine emperor, Theophilus, attacked the Muslim fortress of Zapetra, al-Mu’tasim’s birthplace, on the Melitene Plain along the Euphrates. Al-Mu’tasim’s response was to wipe out the Christian city of Amorion, which fell after a two-week siege–betrayed, it was said, from within. The Muslims destroyed the walls, burned a church in which many citizens had taken refuge, and slaughtered, by one estimate, thirty thousand people. More than a thousand nuns were “delivered to the outrages of the Turkish and Moorish slaves,” writes Bury, quoting al-Tabari. Many prisoners perished on the arduous march back to Mesopotamia, or were killed on the way when supplies and water ran short.

There was one more consequence. Probably only the highest-ranking captives survived, writes Judith Herrin in Women in Purple, Rulers of Medieval Byzantium, and efforts to ransom them were only partially successful. Forty-two of these officers, after seven years in Muslim captivity, were confronted with the final choice: Islam or the sword. Refusing to abjure their faith, they were beheaded on the banks of the Tigris; their bodies, thrown in the river, miraculously did not sink.11 But al-Mu’tasim’s projected next blow against Byzantium proved a costly disaster. He built four hundred ships in Syria to attack Constantinople. The fleet sailed in 842, and all but seven vessels were wrecked in a storm off the southwest coast of Asia Minor. Al-Mu’tasim, who had died that year, was spared this news, as well as the much worse news that followed. With his reign, the glorious century of Baghdad’s Abbasid caliphate came to an end, and two centuries of hideous chaos ensued. Amorion would be their last external military victory, and internally they were about to lose control of their empire and even of their court.

The immediate cause was a serious error of judgment by al-Mu’tasim himself. Son of a Turkish slave girl, he apparently felt secure in creating a separate royal bodyguard of four thousand Turks to safeguard his interests against hostile elements in the regular army. However, these Turk mercenaries became so unruly as to make life in the capital intolerable. The wrathful citizenry threatened insurrection, and in 836 al-Mu’tasim had to move them and his government sixty miles north to Samara. Succeeding caliphs became the prisoners and puppets of these Turkish officers, who appointed and disposed of them at will.12

The return of the court to Baghdad fifty-six years later made no difference. The Turkish soldiers were still very much in evidence, conniving with influential slaves, eunuchs and the women of the teeming harems, and life was chancy. In the relatively long reign of the puppet caliph

al-Muqtadir (908—932) twenty-three viziers were either fired or murdered. The actual ruler by now was a eunuch who took the title “commander of commanders” and had his name added to the Friday state prayers. He was likely complicit in the assassination of Caliph al-Muqtadir by Berber soldiers, and in having two more caliphs deposed, blinded, and thrown out to beg on the streets.

Seeming rescuers appeared in 945. A people known as the Buwaihids, after their leader, Buwai, who claimed descent from Persia’s Sassanid kings, appeared with troops before Baghdad and ordered the Turks out. A Turkish people themselves, they had migrated into the empire by way of Shiraz in southwestern Iran, where they had embraced Shi’ite Islam. Baghdad’s resident Turkish soldiery fled, and the caliph, al-Mustakfi, formally greeted the Buwaihid leader, appointing him “commander of commanders.” He had no choice, of course, but he quickly found that his rescuers were worse than the Turkish guard. In 946, they blinded and deposed him, and sent him to join his two predecessors in poverty. For the next hundred and ten years, the Buwaihids ruled in the name of the powerless caliphs.

Meanwhile, the Abbasid Empire was disintegrating. In the tenth century, both North Africa and Spain officially broke away under rival caliphs, which produced the spectacle of three caliphs reigning at once. From the late ninth century, rebellions devastated Iraq, Syria and Asia Minor. One of the nastiest, led by a wily Arab who claimed to be the Alyite messiah, rallied to rebellion the desperate black slaves of the Euphrates saltpeter mines. Over fourteen bloody years, they slaughtered the populace of Basra and three other cities, fighting off all comers.13 The equally vicious Qarmatian Revolt, named for its Ismai’li leader, inflicted nearly a hundred years of murder and looting on Syria and Mesopotamia. In 930, Qarmatians pillaged Mecca, slaughtered thirty thousand fellow Muslims there, and carted off the Black Stone from the Ka’ba. For a decade, they ignored frantic pleas for its return and large ransom offers, writes the historian Juwayni, then threw it one Friday into the mosque at Kufa. Attached was a note: “By command we took it, and by command we have brought it back.”

As the tenth century conferred chaos and misery on the Muslim Empire, it conferred a military triumph on Byzantium, accomplished by a brilliant general named Nicephorus Phocas, (not to be confused with the emperor Nicephorus I, who had fared so badly at the hands of Haroun). This Nicephorus was a general who regained Crete from Muslim pirates, and also Calabria in southern Italy, as reported in the last chapter. He now turned his attention eastward, and in 962 took Aleppo in Syria, where he destroyed the palace and reportedly killed ten thousand defenders. At the death of Emperor Romanus II, Phocas was proclaimed Nicephorus II by his devoted troops. To strengthen his claim to the throne, he married Romanus’s widow, Theophano, and then went right on fighting in Cilicia and Syria for the next four years, taking and retaking Tarsus, and seizing numerous other towns. Meanwhile, a Byzantine admiral defeated an Egyptian fleet and recovered Cyprus, regaining control of the whole eastern Mediterranean. At last, in 969, Phocas’s army took possession of his main objective: Antioch, capital of Syria and illustrious city of Christian patriarchs and councils, which would remain in Christian hands for the next century.

But by then Nicephorus Phocas was dead, assassinated that same year by a fellow general, John Tzimisces, who was his wife’s lover. Tzimisces married Theophano, becoming her third imperial husband, and continued Phocas’s Syrian crusade. His troops first fought off an attack on Antioch by the Egyptian Fatimids, and then began an invasion of northern Mesopotamia. By 973, the frantic Baghdad populace was demanding jihad against Byzantium, writes A. A. Vaile in the Cambridge Medieval History, and threatening revolution.

This brought Tzimisces himself to the eastern front, where he produced a series of stunning victories. In 975, after concluding an alliance with Armenia, he led the imperial army out of Antioch on what became a triumphal march. Damascus voluntarily surrendered. Tiberias, Nazareth and Caesarea did likewise when he turned south into Palestine. Reaching Nazareth and Mount Tabor, writes historian Henri Daniel-Rops (The Church in the Dark Ages), his jubilant soldiers “mingled their prayers with shouts of victory.” Why Tzimisces did not go on to Jerusalem itself, which had actually sent a message pleading not to be sacked, is unclear. Turning to the coast instead, he captured Beirut, Sidon and Byblos–but was defeated at Tripolis and retired to Antioch. That winter he fell ill, probably of typhus, and died in 976.

Any dream Tzimisces may have had of freeing Jerusalem died with him. His successor, Basil II, who ruled Byzantium for the next half-century, concentrated on extending Christendom north by converting more of the Slav peoples. But one major reason he could do this was that Phocas and Tzimisces had moved the Muslim—Byzantine frontier nearly two hundred miles farther away from Constantinople. Another was that Islam lay enfeebled in spirit and rent by violent sectarianism.

Nevertheless, events in the great grasslands of central Asia would soon enormously strengthen the Islamic cause in general, and the Abbasid caliphate in particular. Late in the tenth century, a chieftain of the Turkish Oghuz tribe, Seljuk by name, led his clan into Muslim territory. In two generations, while at some stage becoming fervent Sunni Muslims, they carved themselves a domain in and around Khorasan. In December 1055, a grandson of Seljuk, Tughril Beg, descended with his wild horsemen upon Baghdad, and the Shi’ite Buwaihids fled.

The hapless caliph welcomed them as deliverers, and deliverers they proved to be, restoring the long mistreated Sunni caliphs to full dignity, while Tughril contented himself with running his government under the title sultan (“he with authority”). To Baghdad’s Muslims, gentrified by three centuries of leisurely living, the Seljuks appeared uncouth barbarians, foreign in tongue and personally unclean. On the plus side, however, they quickly regained much of the empire.14 After Tughril died childless in 1063, his nephew Alp Arslan proved equally effective, first reclaiming Mecca and Medina from the Fatimids, then confronting the Byzantines.

Constantinople had been anxiously monitoring the Seljuks. Emperor Basil II persuaded Christian Armenia and Georgia to place themselves under Byzantine protection–a decided error, writes historian Tamara Talbot Rice (The Seljuks in Asia Minor). More than eight decades of military neglect had elapsed since the days of Tzimisces, and the now-decrepit Byzantine army would prove incapable of defending even its own territory. The showdown occurred in 1071 at Manzikert, near the Armenian—Byzantine border (now Malazgirt in Turkey). Alp Arslan’s adversary was Romanus IV, emperor since 1067, and a man destined for a truly tragic end.

His predecessor, Constantine X, had on his deathbed required his wife, the empress Eudoxia, to swear she would not remarry, so that their seventeen-year-old son could accede unchallenged as Michael VII. Eudoxia decided, with reason, to repudiate this oath. Asia Minor, Byzantium’s breadbasket and source of its best soldiers, was again living in dread–now of recurring and ferocious Seljuk raids. In the Armenian capital, Ani, a city for which Arab historians claimed an improbable population of seven hundred thousand, the Seljuks blocked the streets with corpses. In Sebastea, the new invaders reportedly left no one alive, while stripping the place of every moveable asset. They annually hit Edessa and Antioch. At Ardzen, says one account, Christians were incinerated in their churches. “Lift your eyes,” it continues, “and look. Your sons are taken into slavery, your infants smashed without pity, your youths given to the flames, your venerable ancients thrown down in public places, your virgins–raised gently and in comfort–dishonored and marched off on foot into slavery.”

This was no time for a boy emperor, Eudoxia reasoned, so oath or no oath, she chose as her husband Romanus Diogenes, a stalwart officer with a fine battle record.15 But uncontrolled bureaucracy in Constantinople had reduced the army to penury. Soldiers often went unpaid, dependable local militia had been supplanted by undependable mercenaries, experienced generals were replaced by court sycophants. Meanwhile, Monophysite Armenia, prime source of fine soldiers, had been utterly alienated by recurring attempts to force the Armenians into Greek Christianity.

So it was a ragtag army that Romanus led out in 1069, to find and destroy Alp Arslan somewhere in Mesopotamia or Armenia, and all the omens were foreboding. A dove, for example, landed on the emperor’s hand. Did that mean he should seek peace, not war? A pole snapped in the imperial tent, and then fire destroyed it. What might this mean? For two seasons Romanus tracked Alp Arslan, while the Turks cannily avoided confronting the heavily armored Byzantine cavalry. At length, in the summer of 1071, with his army numbering sixty to one hundred thousand men, and with a thousand carts hauling siege machinery, Romanus headed directly into Armenia at Manzikert. This threatened the Persian heartland beyond it, and Alp Arslan was two hundred and fifty miles away, besieging the Fatimids at Edessa. The sultan swiftly recognized the danger, however, and moved more quickly on Manzikert than Romanus thought possible. One of the pivotal battles of history was now at hand.16

The emperor’s characteristic confidence seemed diminished, making him moody, irritable, and incautious. He sent his best troops to forage for supplies thirty miles away, and continued into Armenia. Then, curiously, his scouts encountered a small Seljuk force. Romanus sent a cavalry unit to investigate. It did not return, and at evening he discovered why. Alp Arslan’s entire army was directly in front of him. The Byzantine troops nonetheless bivouacked for the night. In the darkness, Seljuk warriors thundered through their encampment, loosing lethal volleys of arrows. With morning there came a further surprise: a truce offer, not from Alp Arslan but from the caliph himself in Baghdad. Romanus rejected it. To stop the raids, he knew, he must break the Seljuk army once and for all. But where were the troops he had sent to forage? He could not have guessed the grim truth. Encountering part of the Seljuk force, they had run for home–a mass desertion. Unable to delay longer, the emperor ordered attack formation.

In two columns, his men moved steadily against an enemy that seemed to evaporate before them. But then from the heights on either flank came the Seljuk horsemen–light, fast, and deadly–shooting into the packed Byzantine ranks, splitting one column from the other, spreading disarray. Halting his advance, Romanus about-faced, in order to retrace his steps and relieve the men behind. This move was misinterpreted as a sign that the emperor had surrendered, or possibly fallen. Panicking, the Byzantines fled the field. The emperor, fighting ferociously in the garb of a simple soldier, was recognized, overcome and captured.

The defeat was decisive. The sultan first forced his imperial prisoner to kiss the ground before him, after which he treated him with great dignity. Moreover, since he was then more concerned with the Fatimids in Egypt than the Christians in Constantinople, he offered terms. For a heavy and immediate cash payment, plus an annual levy, Alp Arslan promised he would restore all Byzantine lands and allies to their previous status. The two empires would live at peace. Romanus agreed and was released. But meanwhile, as he soon learned, his stepson Michael had been proclaimed in his stead and had repudiated the treaty. The wrathful Alp Arslan swore a mighty oath:

The Romans (i.e., Byzantines) are atheists. From today on, the peace with them is broken and the oath which linked them with the Persians no longer exists. From now on, the worshipers of the cross will be immolated by the sword and all Christian countries will be delivered into slavery.

Alp Arslan himself died less than a year later, stabbed to death by a prisoner he was personally executing. He had failed to dislodge the Fatimids from Syria and Palestine, but his son, Malik Shah, finished that job. After that, the fearsome Seljuk dynasty disintegrated into endless wrangling over the succession. Romanus’s fate was worse by far. History would hold him accountable for the military disaster that began Byzantium’s four-century-long downfall, and his efforts to regain the throne also ended in hideous personal disaster. Twice he formed armies and fought the supporters of Michael VII. Twice he was defeated, and when finally captured was severely beaten and blinded. The Byzantine historian John Scylitzes describes his terrible fate, and his noble acceptance of it:

Carried forth on a cheap beast of burden like a decaying corpse, his eyes gouged out and his face and head swollen and full of worms and stench, he lived on a few days in pain and smelling foully, and finally died, settling his ashes in the island of Prote [in the Sea of Marmara], where he had built a new monastery. He was richly buried by his wife, the queen Eudoxia, leaving behind himself the memory of trials and misfortunes which surpass hearing. But in such great misfortunes, he uttered no blasphemy or curse, but continued to give thanks to God, bearing cheerfully what befell him.

This ended Romanus’s misfortunes, but not Byzantium’s. Court feuds and internecine intrigues continued for a further nine years, with Christian contenders frequently hiring or allying with Muslim forces against Christian rivals, until Alexius I, first of the Comnenian dynasty and a diplomatic genius, brought the turmoil to an end. He also sent a desperate call to Rome for Western help against the continuing encroachment of Islam. The appeal was rejected, or so he probably thought. Then one day in the spring of 1097, a small army of knights from across Western Europe arrived in Constantinople. Their goal: the reconquest of Christian Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa. After nearly half a millennium, the great Christian counterattack against Islam, known to history as the Crusades, was about to begin.

This is the end of the Abbasids category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 254, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Abbasids from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at