History as anaesthesia: Baghdad and the glory of its past

THE nightly spectacle of witnessing the televised humiliation and terror, its geographical reach from Baghdad draws me irresistibly to the thousand year old tales of the fabulous Abbasid caliphs who founded the legendary 'City of Peace' on the banks of the Tigris.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Wed 25 May 2005, 10:42 AM

Last updated: Mon 12 Jun 2023, 3:56 PM

The five centuries of the Abbasid empire coincided with the Islamic world reaching its political and cultural zenith. Its brilliance lay in its sheer wealth, its geographical reach from Armenia to Yemen and magnificent role as the catalyst for rational Hellenic empiricism in Islamic philosophy. The court of the caliph was a life style model for every imperial Muslim dynasty from the Ottoman sultans at Topkapi, the Mughal emperors in Delhi and even the Berber and Umayyad emirs of Moorish Spain.

Baghdad and Samarra, the two capitals of the Abbasid caliphs, were the richest cities of the early Middle Ages, on the same ancient Mesopotamian mud-baked soil that spawned Babylon, Sumer and Assyria. With the translation of Arabian Nights into English, Baghdad captivated the Western imagination with tales of Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid's viziers, harems, gold hoards, palaces, armies, poets, singers, executioners, bridges of boats, slave girls, warrior monks and court intrigues.


Yet, as a student of Islamic history, I believe the meteoric rise and tragic decline of the Abbasid empire offers real word lessons for anyone seeking to understand the political sclerosis, sectarian schisms and ethnic rivalries of the Middle East.

It is a pity that the best and brightest of the Islamic world aspire to the trade schools of the Ivy League or Oxbridge yet are taught so little of actual Islamic history other than as folklore. Most Englishmen of a certain class are au courant with the classical histories of Rome and Greece but how many of us know even the names of the 37 princes of the House of Abbas who ruled in Baghdad and Samarra as caliphs of Islam, Commanders of the Faithful?


Abul Abbas Saffa, the founder of the dynasty, seized power from the last Ummayad caliph Marwan II in 759 AD after a successful rebellion spearheaded by the disaffected warrior tribes of Khorasan and Kufa. The Ummayad caliphate, riding on an assassination in a Kufa mosque and the carnage at Karbala, never achieved real legitimacy in the wider Islamic world. The heirs of Amir Muawia in Damascus were masters of realpolitik who expanded the Islamic empire to command vassalage from the Visigoth kings of Spain and the Hindu rajas of Sind, who grafted the imperial and bureaucratic traditions of Byzantium and Sassanid Persia onto the nomadic Arabian DNA of early Islamic civilisation. Yet after Karbala, the caliphate was no longer an elective spiritual concept but a hereditary title of the men who ruled the greatest empire on earth and lived lives of great magnificence in a line that continued until 1924, when Kemal Ataturk deposed the last Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V and abolished the caliphate to establish the Turkish Republic.

The Abbasids seized political power amid a bloodbath whose toxic legacy was to poison their own family tree. Caliph Marwan and every Ummayad prince save one were killed by the black robed horsemen of Abul Abbas. His brother Mansur was one of the great political geniuses of Islamic history who founded the Arab world's first intelligence agency. The Abbasid barid (post) was the prototype for the Mukhabarat state that proliferates in the Arab world in our time. The Bush White House and Paul Bremer should have studied the career of Caliph Mansur. When Mansur disbanded the Syrian combat troops of the last Ummayad ruler, he triggered off a series of violent insurgencies in the region that, thirteen centuries later, the Western media would call the Sunni Triangle.

Mansur, who achieved immortality as the founder of Baghdad, also created great financial and banking dynasties for aides who built his cities, managed his money or bankrolled his wars in an eerie echo of the petrodollar billions bequeathed by modern Saudi kings on the builder Bin Laden, the banker Bin Mahfouz and the trader Olayan.

Haroun Al Rashed was unquestionably the most famous of the Abbasid caliphs, thanks to the Arabian Nights and the fact that he lived in the age of Charlemagne. Haroun, his best friend Jaffer Barmakid and his court jester Abu Nuwas have fascinated Arabs for twelve hundred years with the legendary intrigues, high jinks and wealth of their court. The King of Jordan emulates Haroun's habit of roaming his realm incognito. Yet the sheer magnificence of Haroun's regime contained the seeds of the empire's fall, as his sons Amin and Mamun duked out the imperial succession in a protracted civil war.

After the assassination of the tenth Abbasid caliph Mutawwakil, the Prince of the Faithful, by his own Turkish slave palace guards, the balance of power in the Islamic world shifted. The Seljuk Turks now supplanted the Arabs and the Persians as the dominant martial race of Islam, kingmakers from Delhi to Fustat.

Muslim sultanates became garrison states and the cult of the warrior reached its climax in the Mamluk sultanate, models for the de facto Muslim military juntas and dictatorships. Caliphs were butchered by their own Turkmen troops if they failed to cough up enough gold dinars as ransom, the slave Ahmed bin Tulum seceded to become the first independent sultan of Egypt since Cleopatra, wars of succession became routine in the absence of any Islamic law on primogeniture.

Baghdad was besieged and sacked, rival kings declared themselves caliph in Andalus and Cairo, and recurrent financial crises debilitated the imperial treasury. The regional superpower of the Middle East degenerated into impotence centuries before the Mongols hordes of Halaku Khan overran Persia, burnt Baghdad and strangled the last Abbasid caliph in 1258. The greatest dynasty of medieval Islam vanished forever into time and myth, a distant memory in the tragic pantheon of Iraqi history.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker


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