When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty is a well-written history of the centuries when the Abbasids ruled much of the Islamic world. The Abbasids succeeded the Umayyad caliphs, or rulers of the Muslim community, in 750. Saffah, the first Abbasid caliph, died in 754, and was followed by his brother, Mansur, who ascended the caliphate through the murder of his uncle, and who firmly established the Abbasid caliphate. He chose the village of Baghdad on the Tigris River as his capitol, and it became one of the world's greatest cities. The Abbasid empire extended from Afghanistan and beyond in the east across North Africa in the west.
The most famous of the caliphs was Harun al-Rashid ( r. 786 to 809), the caliph of the Arabian Nights, and during his reign it was the Baghdad of poetry (of which author Hugh Kennedy quotes at length), and song, the women of the harem (one caliph reportedly had a harem of 4,000), vast luxury, and murderous intrigues. Harun's golden age did not long outlast him. Civil war followed, fought between Harun's two sons, as did economic crises. Poetry and music were central to the high culture of the court, with the visual arts other than architecture playing little role. Kennedy's description of the Abbasid palaces is particularly rewarding. Translations of Greek scientific and philosophic works into Arabic graced the dynasty's intellectual accomplishments.
By the 860's Turkish mercenaries began to hold the locus of power, and distant provinces drifted away from Abbasid control. But for three centuries, while the Christian West was mired in the Dark Ages, Baghdad's Abbasid caliphate dominated Islam, and its political and cultural accomplishments inspired later generations.